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April 08, 2006

Second Thoughts On Brick

Since I so heavily praised the movie earlier, I thought I would note a few caveats.

A lot of critics call this a "film-student exercise," which it largely is (turns out it was filmed for $500,000, after the director spent seven years trying to get the money for it). Critical reaction is 75% favorable, 25% unfavorable, but those who don't like it seem to hate it. They are not impressed by the conceit at the heart of the movie -- Sam Spade in a Sam Clemente high school -- and find the whole thing an exercise in contrived, film-buff audaciousness.

So let me recommend this movie less broadly: If you love hard-boiled detective stories, and enjoy spotting references to archetypes and tropes of such in an off-kilter spoof/homage, you'll like this a lot. If you're not a big hard-boiled fan, or you think you just can't buy the conceit, maybe just wait for DVD. (Where subtitles will help you figure out a lot of the inpenetrable dialogue to boot.)

I was a big fan of The Zero Effect, the Sherlock Holmes story set in the modern day (with Bill Pullman hooked on amphetamines, rather than cocaine, and frustrated by electric rock guitar, rather than the violin). That was a terrific movie, but its main appeal, of course, was to Sherlock Holmes fans. Half the fun of the movie was getting the references/updates to the Sherlock Holmes tradition.

And so it is here. There is so much to appreciate if you're the type to appreciate this sort of thing. Instead of walking around with his hands in the pockets of his rumpled raincoat, the main character walks around with his hands in the pockets of his rumpled J. Crew barn coat. If you know and love the hard-boiled convention that there are only three types of women in a hard-boiled story -- Good, Bad, and Dead, and Good blew out of town a month ago and never looked back -- then you'll have fun putting the high-school chicks into their appropriate archetypal categories.

Reading reviewers, I seem to note a lot of reviewers don't know what the hell they're talking about. Kurt Loder of MTV -- an idiot, surely -- says that the movie is shot mostly at daytime, defeating the whole point of a noir film, and thus making the whole movie pointless.

Well, first of all, it's pretty jackass to confuse the superficial trappings of noir (nighttime, darkness, shadow) with its themes (obsession, greed, corruption, murder, etc.) You can do a noir in the sun-baked southwest, as Red Rock West did. (True, a lot of that was filmed at night, but a lot of it wasn't.)

But more importantly, a ot of critics are calling this a "noir" thriller, and, in doing so, seem to confuse the hard-boiled detective story with film noir proper. The HDB movie has superficial elements of noir -- there's a feeling of cynicism and futility, there's lots of darkness and shadow and aimless walking/driving at night, etc. -- but I'm pretty damn sure they're two separate genres. Film noirs tend to be crime movies, but nonheroic crime movies, in which the main characters are themselves participants in the crime, obsessed or half-crazed or lost souls of one kind or another. When I think of film noir, I think of Double Indemnity, Lost Weekend, that sort of thing. Body Heat is a more recent entry in the genre.

Hard-boiled stories have noirish touches, but they're essentially heroic stories. Or at least feature an antihero, one who may commit crimes along the way but whose goal is to uncover a crime and bring the criminals to justice, one way or another.

Maybe people just aren't as strict about categorizing as I am, but to me, film noir is just different from hard-boiled. They came to prominence during the same period, feature a lot of the same leading and supporting actors, but at their hearts, they're just different. Film noir is about the breakdown of moral order and its consequences; hard-boiled stories are about that too, but the hero is dedicated to restoring moral order. Not necessarily for altruistic reasons, of course, but a hard-boiled story ends, even if on a down note, with the iniquitous punished or, preferably, dead. The themes in both are similar, but in film noir the protagonists are consumed by their obsessions and greeds and passions, whereas in hard-boiled detective stories the murderer is punished for the same sins, whereas the detective just walks away from it all, perhaps psychologically troubled by what he's seen and experienced, but ready to work the next day for $25 plus expenses.

In film noir, the protagonists are trapped in the moral turmoil; in hard-boiled detective stories, the hero wades into the moral turmoil, but only to end it, and is never himself trapped by it. He's either incorruptible (Marlowe) or simply too detatched (Spade).

It's really the difference between a tragedy and a romance. Kind of hard to mix those up. But not for Kurt Loder.

And as for Loder's idiotic point about the impossibility of doing a hard-boiled story in sunlight, let me quote mystery author Ross MacDonald on Raymond Chandler:

He wrote like a slumming angel, infusing the sun-dazzled streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.

Sun-dazzled. Get that? Detectives operate during the daytime, too. Marlowe had a lot of atmospheric effects to contend with, not just darkness and shadow, but driving rain, blinding sunlight, and the a maddeningly hot and dry "red wind" that provoked the citizens of Los Angeles to murder like the full moon does. A lot of the Maltese Falcon takes place during the day.

Further, as most of the HBD classics were B-movies, they did a lot of day shooting, as it was (as it is now) much cheaper to do. Night shots were present, of course, but mostly for indoor scenes (actually filmed during the day, of course, with dark curtains outside the windows to make it look dark).

Film noir is a French invention, and American movies are infused with the French cinematic sensibility; the hard-boiled detective novel is a truly American invention. I think Gertrude Stein called the detective novel the one true modern purely American invention in the literary tradition.

I don't get critics who spout off so authoritatively about shit they obviously know so little about.

Anyway, that nit aside, I do have to stress that while this film is wittily written, well-directed, and very nicely acted, it has at its heart a Great Big Clever Slightly Show-Offy Conceit which you will either buy or you won't, and if you don't, you'll hate the film, or at least walk away from it cold.

Error: Looking it up on the web, I find that most critics find that the hard-boiled detective story is a subgenre of film noir (and the former also influenced the latter).

So, I guess I was wrong on that. But I still think of true film noir as Double Indemnity, a different genre from the detective movie.

Also, while influenced by French films, the stark light-and-dark cinematography of film noir derives from German, not French, expressionism, and a lot of directors (like Billy Wilder) who fled Nazi Germany.

America As A Hard-Boiled Detective In The War On Terror: Found this good quote in this essay about film-noir detective movies. It's from Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai. The point of the quote is that, in hard-boiled fiction, only partial victories over evil are possible, but it is still necessary, according to the "code" that makes men heroic, to fight evil anyway.

As Michael, the hero, consoles his love Elsa, as she dies:

Michael: "You said the world's bad β€” we can't run away from the badness β€” and you're right there. But you said we can't fight it. We must deal with the badness, make terms. And [let] the badness deal with you, and make its own terms in the end, surely."

Elsa: "You can fight, but what good is it?"

Michael: "You mean we can't win?"

Elsa: "No, we can't win."

Michael: "Well, we can't lose either. Only if we quit."

Elsa: "And you're not going to."

Michael: "Not again."

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posted by Ace at 08:14 PM

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