Monday, July 18, 2016

Film Noir Makes Me Happy:
Chinatown and LA Confidential

I watched Chinatown and LA Confidential again under ideal circumstances, i.e., in my friend Susan's darkened den on a summer night, cold martini in hand.  It's strange, though: both films concern sad people who dislike themselves for the disgusting or violent things they do.  So when we see a still photo from the films, or hear a lonely trumpet over brooding orchestra that reminds us of Jerry Goldsmith's music (he scored both titles), why do we go "ahhh," as if it were a snapshot of last summer at the beach?  Why do we look forward to revisiting their retro-noir landscapes?

First, there's the story for both movies, simple and uplifting. Sure, the plots concern misdeeds and betrayals so twisted that I still can't tell you for sure which woman had coffee at the fatal diner in LA Confidential, nor why that matters; nor can I say of Chinatown whether the victim's wife witnessed his murder.  But the story, as opposed to plot, is simple: when a cynical man arrives at a place where the truth is worse than he thought, he finds there a wise woman who needs his help.  For her sake, he takes action with newfound passion for justice.  What could be more uplifting?  LA Confidential gives us three such men, though only two live to the finale.

It occurs to me just now that the story of descent through stages of darkness to bring a woman up to the light shares a lot with Ovid and Dante.  So this basic story may also stir us from deep down in our collective unconscious. 

Reasons two and three for taking pleasure from such on-screen misery comprise a matched set.  We're caught up in artifice as dazzling as a Busby Berkeley musical number, while being flattered that we're in the know, seeing the world as it really is. 

The artifice begins with the baroque intertwining of plot lines, but also involves a lusciousness of style that we respond to on several different levels.  A thoughtful essay by Jake Hinkson at considering "retro-" v. "neo-" noir, places both films in a broader context:

Retro-noirs can certainly be done well—Chinatown and LA Confidential are about as good as movies have a right to be—but they come with certain pitfalls. Like all period pieces, they erect an additional layer of unreality between their story and the audience, a fabricated distance of time. There’s something distracting when a modern star slips on a fedora and fires up a Lucky Strike. This ties into another problem with Retro-noirs: they have to negotiate the pull between being a reenactment of another time period and a reenactment of the movies of another time period.  (Hinkson)

Hinkson feels uneasy about the unreality, but not I:  The unreality of it is part of the fun, no less than seeing chorines tapping on the tiers of a wedding cake.

The style of noir dialogue is easy to parody because it encompasses both Shakespearean eloquence and Pinter's theatre of menace.  In LA Confidential, when "Exley" asks "Lynne" what she sees in detective "Bud White," she answers in six or seven lines in a row that begin the same way and build to a devastating punchline: it's a soliloquy in verse.  Police Captain Dudley Smith delivers a memorable address on police ethics, comprised all of rhetorical questions. Then, because the world of film noir is so layered with lies and menace, even mundane lines have ironic implications, such as the simple statement, "He used to be a cop. Ha!"

While all this style washes over us, we're buying the noir line that this is Truth, the way our world really works.  In both Chinatown and LA Confidential, the trail of the killers leads upward to the highest echelon of LA society and government.  That gives us a feeling that this game matters.

The noir view is oddly comforting, too, in the way that conspiracy theories help some people to cope with randomness in the world.  So Secretary of State Clinton said she didn't exchange any classified emails on her private server, but investigators found the notation "C" for "confidential" beside portions of emails: Do we want to know that a figure on the world stage skims her emails the way regular people do?  Yet, having studied histories of Presidents Johnson and Nixon a few years ago, I found,  "Sensitive to criticism, paralyzed by the fear of failure, prone to miscommunication, careless of facts that don't go with our preconceptions: that's all of us, even Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Cabinet officials" (from my blog post Half Way with LBJ).

The world is messy.  But film noir is neat and stylish.  At the end of a week of news that's hard to take, the world of Chinatown and LA Confidential is dark but beautiful.

Of related interest:
See Black, White, and Noir, my reflection on crime novels by Walter Mosley and Ross McDonald, and a reflection on the complete Philip Marlowe series by Raymond Chandler, It's About the Driver, not the Drive.

For more on international leaders who were just as lost as anybody else, see How Little We Knew How Little They Knew: Nixon and Kissinger, and Partners Across Party Lines: The Presidents' Club.

1 comment:

George said...

Hi, Scott,
Nice post, as usual. I admire your versatility when surveying the arts field!

(Incidentally, I'm having difficulty sending my blog post to your e-mail address. I keep getting responses that things have been "delayed." Don't know what's going on, but thought you should know.)