Film noir at the Michigan
by Patrick Dunn
From the February, 2015 issue
In Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice, set in 1970, the bumbling private eye Doc Sportello laments the pop-cultural demise of his profession: "... [A]ll you see anymore is cops, the tube is saturated with fucking cop shows, just being regular guys, only tryin' to do their job, folks, no more threat to nobody's freedom than some dad in a sitcom ... Good-bye Johnny Staccato, welcome and while you're at it please kick my door down, Steve McGarrett."
Through Sportello, Pynchon articulates a cultural truth that holds true today and perhaps illustrates why cinephiles still foster a fondness for the kind of movies currently being spotlighted in the Michigan Theater's Noir Film Series. Film noir conjures a world where the visuals are (mostly) black-and-white, the characters' morals are (mostly) not, and the less-than-perfect archetype of the private eye is the closest you'll get to a hero. In The Big Sleep (screening February 16), Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) quips that she didn't know P.I.s actually existed, "except in books, or else they were greasy little men snooping around hotel corridors." Rutledge's unflattering description nonetheless fits Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, and many other noir private dicks, to a tee. They're imperfect and unglamorous men, more than susceptible to their vices, but still beholden to certain moral convictions that drive them to often self-destructive ends. And they operate almost entirely outside traditional authority structures; the police exist only to hinder an ongoing investigation or to take the cleanup call when it's over. Even when the investigating protagonist is not a private eye by trade, his sleuthing generally falls outside the established confines of the legal system. The Killers (screening February 23) features a dogged insurance investigator, and The Big Heat (screening April 6) follows a cop gone rogue.
One of the key reasons these stories still captivate us is that there's surprisingly little like them today. Modern movies have gotten gorier, more profane, more sexually explicit--more "mature," by
a certain definition of the word--but the majority are practically toothless when compared to noir's thematic implications. The do-gooding cops Pynchon bemoans deserve some role in media, of course, but they remain grossly overrepresented (and underdeveloped) on big and especially small screens to this day. The Motion Picture Production Code often nitpicked the sex and violence out of classic noirs, but ironically it usually left the truly subversive elements untouched. Many of the best noirs still stand as defiantly anti-authoritarian hymns to free agents struggling to do the right thing in a dark and messy world.
The handful of classic neo-noirs that have come since the genre's golden age have used the private eye archetype as a way to consider the contemporary value of free agency. Although 1982's Blade Runner (screening February 4 at the State Theater) sports a lot more spaceships than the average noir, the central question it poses fits the genre perfectly: does its potentially mechanical hero have free will, or is he just another cog in the machine surrounding him? The film never conclusively answers the question, and fans still debate the issue to this day. But more importantly, Blade Runner suggests that, regardless of the hero's origin, he can assert his free will if he's got the guts to do so. It's a conclusion that would satisfy Doc Sportello well enough, painted in the kind of deliciously gray tones that keep us coming back to these films.
The series runs through April 27.
[Originally published in February, 2015.]
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