Sunday, April 19, 2009

Point Blank: Films of Disenchantment

The Film Noir genre has functioned in the American cinema as a powerful fulcrum for the disturbances and discontent of modern society. The genre's tendencies toward glib cynicism and dark shadowy photography result in nightmarish reflections of a treacherous and claustrophobic world. Through this genre, numerous filmmakers have been able to express the negative underside to the optimism and complacency of mainstream culture. With its codes and generic conventions, Film Noir has created a large and substantial text of critical disenchantment.

The program "Point Blank: Films of Disenchantment" presents three significant examples of Film Noir from the late 1960s to late 1970s, when the genre reached its most extreme and experimental stage of development. Jack Shadoian, in his book Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film, writes that at this time the genre "is forced inward, toward its own procedures, which become increasingly sophisticated. It used to be that well established procedures could be used to move outward toward an audience they could securely engage. Now the audience must be seduced into accepting new aesthetic resources and complex (and at times schizophrenic) attitudes."

The program begins with a screening of Point Blank (USA 1967), the second theatrical film to be directed by the English filmmaker John Boorman in his first, and nearly last, American production. The audacious and highly experimental style of the film alienated the American distributors, who proceeded to dump Point Blank on the second-run market. In spite of this, the film has proven to be one of the more important and influential works of the 1960s. It is also one of the most difficult to interpret. Even the existence of the film's central character is left open; Boorman himself has stated that Point Blank must be viewed as either a dream or as a ghost story.

The rampant ambiguities of the narrative are magnified by a visual structure based upon fragmentation and non chronological association. When Walker, the main character, traverses the length of the Los Angeles International Airport, his footsteps are inter-cut with scenes from the past and present. The ending shot is a duplicate of the opening shot. In addition, mythic references are invoked; for example, at the beginning of the film, Walker ascends from the water and, ultimately, descends into darkness and nothingness -- both suggestive of Boorman's interest in Arthurian legend.

Remember My Name (USA 1978) was the first of three overt excursions into Film Noir genre by the maverick American filmmaker Alan Rudolph. It is also an important example of a relatively recent proto-feminist variation on what has been traditionally a male dominated genre. This conversion of Film Noir into Femme Noir initiates a series of major shifts in the sexual codes of the genre and changes the traditional image of the femme fatale into an avenging angel.

The illusion of feminine vulnerability is one of the central themes of Remember My Name. Throughout the film, Geraldine Chaplin's waif-like appearance is suggestive of physical and psychological fragility. She displays, however, an iron-will and a sense of determination which is symbolized by her peculiar habit of stamping out her cigarettes in the palm of her hand. Several of the men in Remember My Name act on the mistaken assumption that they are either protecting her or manipulating her. Behind her doe-like eyes, however, Chaplin has a strength and a sense of personal justice that gives her control over the men around her.

Rudolph's mentor is filmmaker Robert Altman. Though Altman is today a virtual nonperson in Hollywood, during the 1970s he directed some of the finest films of the period, including M*A*S*H (USA 1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (USA 1971), Thieves Like Us (USA 1973), and Nashville (USA 1975). Subsequently, many of Altman's films were revisionist critiques of Hollywood conventions and established genres. With his production of The Long Goodbye (USA 1973), Altman entered into a problematic debate with the noir genre and the near-mythic stature of one of the genre's most important fictional figures, Philip Marlowe.

In the novels by Raymond Chandler and the films adapted from them -- including The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and Lady in the Lake -- Philip Marlowe has come to represent the archetypal private eye, a tattered and worn gumshoe whose verbal flippancy masks a surprisingly chivalrous code of honor. In the film The Long Goodbye, however, Altman views Marlowe as an anachronism of the 1930s; an honorable man adrift within an uncaring and amoral culture. When Marlowe awakens at the beginning of the film, he is like a modern Rip Van Winkle who finds that the world as he knew it has irrevocably changed. Though Altman views both Marlowe and his moral code with nostalgic sympathy, he also realizes the degree to which modern society has turned cold and decadent. In making The Long Goodbye, Altman presents and shares in Marlowe's genuine sense of disenchantment.

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