Fakin’ It: Film Noir

Posted: February 4, 2010 in Fakin' It

People sometimes say to me “Weirdo, I’d like to be a movie snob like you, but I don’t have a lot of time to research or even actually watch the movies. Please tell me what movies would make me seem clever and witty. I don’t want a whole film class, I just want to seem more-artsy-than-thou at my friends.”

To which I say, “Did you just call me a snob?”

Then I do some navel gazing, find the label fits and come back to them saying, “Oh you charming scamp! Of course I’ll help you.” I then tell them that the Swedes make the best action films, as exemplified by the gun battle in Wild Strawberries, The Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong made the deepest and most moving dramas, and that despite what some American “critics” might say, Michael Bay is actually world renowned as the great cinematic genius of our age.

That teaches ‘em for calling me a snob.

When they come back, much chastened and begging forgiveness I then tell them what I’m about to tell you. I find that they also tend to read up on at least one or two of these movies to make sure I’m not yanking their chain again. Sometimes they get so enthusiastic, they even watch one. Just one, mind you. These tend to be the sort of people who want to appear informed but have a really hard time paying attention for more than 30 minutes if there isn’t any sexual exploitation, explosions, or montages to keep them occupied.

Since no one has called me a snob today (Yet! I’m guessing those claims will come rolling in about a minute after I hit the post button) I’ll give it to you on the straight. These lists are intended as a stepping off point, unless you just want to seem smart at dinner parties, then they’re all you’ll ever need. There will be a movie for each group I’m going to mention, an explanation as to why you should see it and as a bonus, just for you ‘cause I like ya a lot, I’m going to tell you an obvious choice that people always come up with that is actually a wrong answer and I’ll tell you why it’s wrong.

Unlike my music post from a while ago, all the movies in this list actually exist. The beauty of cinema is that you don’t have to make up things. You might want in invent a post-punk neo-skiffle band from the Shaanxi Province to pretend like you know more about music, but with movies all you have to do is mention what a good movie Kikujiro is. You get roughly the same effect though. No one I’ve ever talked to has ever heard of that movie except through me.

Let’s begin by deciding what kind of film snob you want to be. You can either be an up to the minute filmie or a classic film lover. I’ll tell you now, there’s no percentage in being a current filmie. To be really hot about that, you’ve got to go to film festivals, and watch some real shitty movies and no one will ever, ever care. You might as well just make up movies and actors because no one will ever see those movies and they’ll think you’re just hanging around those places in hopes of meeting stars and crew in hopes of working your way into Hollywood or sleeping with stars before they were stars. You can’t be cool and be an up to the minute filmie, you might as well hang out in the music scene where making up bands is easier and you’re chances of actually getting laid increase tenfold.

No, being a classic film lover is defiantly the way to go. You get to relax in a comfy chair, watch movies on video, and pick up enough social and historical information about other parts of the world to seem informed without actually having to work at it. You won’t be competing with actors, like you would at a film festival, so you have a better chance of someone finding you sexy and since you can swipe lines from movies no one will see you can appear funny and clever. You can also play the “Movies today are rubbish” game which people like to play for some reason. It could be that movies today are rubbish, but I suspect people are drowning in nostalgia.

Now the second choice you have is do you want to be a “Films Are Art” sort of snob or a “Pulpy Genre stuff and Hollywood still can’t get it right” sort of snob? Either is pretty easy, you just have to remember the mantra, “Hollywood can’t make a good movie.” The main difference between the two is with one you pretty much never watch anything from the American studio system and with the other you can see some, but rarely anything in color. There is another group, that being the “Everything was better before” crowd, but they’re rarely ever considered clever at dinner parties and since that is the goal we’ll forget about those people for now.

Anyway, that’s enough introduction, let’s get on with this and begin our first movie style.

Let’s begin with Film Noir…

What is it?
B Grade movies made in Post War America that were mainly made in black and white and are known for a relatively stark and minimal lighting style. Shadows and directed spots of lighting play a large part in the cinematography of a film noir. Most of them have dark stories, regularly about crime and the less respectable member so society.

Is it Art or Pulp?
It’s a floor wax! It’s a dessert topping! Hey you two, it’s both! Put simply the stories are pure pulp while the cinematography is pure art. There are some simplistic movies, and some straightforward movies, but a lot of Film Noir involves tales that came from the Hardboiled fiction of the 20s and 30s with some of the best black and white film photographers of the 40s and 50s. They tend to be shot dark, to reflect the stories, but in many cases they are just plain beautiful to look at.

Themes to look out for
Social alienation: particularly as regards to the status of the American Male. Remember when discussing the tough guys of these movies to mention that they were actually an anachronism and that if anything they were trying to hold strong against a world that didn’t need them anymore. Except maybe… really… it did.

Crime as leveler: Once you get down to it, we’re really all the same. Whether for love, money or power, we’re all willing to do horrible things to get what we want.

You’ll never win: The system is stacked against normal people. The rich and powerful do whatever they want and the rest of us just have to get along as best we can.

Actors to Watch For
Robert Mitchum, Sterling Hayden, and Robert Ryan are three of the main guys to look out for. There is a problem with actresses though. While there are great performances by women, not a lot of actresses made more than one or two Film Noir movies. Gene Tierney and Ida Lupino did more than a few though.

Movies to Watch
This is tricky because pretty much and crime movie in Black and White gets called a Film Noir these days by companies who want to sell DVDs and Wikipedia is unreliable because those sort of people can also get in and edit the pages. Get a book, preferably one written in the 70s or early 80s. Follow the lists written before everything was considered a Film Noir. You can watch The Asphalt Jungle or The Dark Corner though, those are good. Listen to the commentaries for clever things to say about them, that’s always helpful. Anytime you want to appear clever and informed, it’s best to actually have some scraps of information.

Movies Not to Watch
Don’t watch The Maltese Falcon. Or rather do, but don’t rhapsodize about it. Everyone has seen it, no one cares. If you want to be clever, you have to have watched things that other people haven’t seen. So also avoid the Big Sleep and Casablanca (which isn’t a Noir anyway) or anything else with Bogart for that matter. Don’t get me wrong, these are good movies, but they’re not likely to give you very good results for mentioning them.

Movies to Scorn
Double Indemnity is just too cliché, expected and to be honest, not all that great. You may openly scoff at people who mention it and say things like “Yeah, I guess if I had a film appreciation class in college I’d say that too” while rolling your eyes and claiming they should see a REAL movie like the ones listed above. Anything that can be labeled as Neo-Noir is just garbage, no arguments. If it wasn’t made in the post war period, then it simply doesn’t count. Granted, this means you have to sneer at L.A. Confidential, but if you really want to be an outsider, you’ve got to do it. That is unless you want to pull a fast one and claim that it’s the single bright point of light in the Neo-Noir. You can only claim one movie though, other wise you sound less like a film snob and more like a dork who likes detective movies.

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