Friday, February 18, 2011

Femmes Fatales, Film Noir, and Freshmen

The following post is adapted from a conference paper I presented at the Popular Culture Association in the South meeting in 2008. I'm posting it this week as part of the film noir blogathon, For the Love of Film (Noir), which is raising funds to help the Film Noir Foundation.


Dark City (1998)
With the release of blockbuster films like Sin City and the revival of cultural interest in characters like Batman, film noir has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last few years. College age film goers and cultural consumers love dark violence and tortured protagonists, but they rarely recognize those elements as the territory of noir. Generally speaking, they have no idea what noir even is, much less where modern cultural productions are coming from when they draw on its conventions and traditions. This interesting combination of cultural currency and generational ignorance makes noir an especially productive choice for teaching film in lower level courses. I began to recognize noir’s potential for the classroom when I started teaching Alex Proyas’ 1998 film, Dark City, in Introduction to Literature courses some years ago. I quickly realized that my students liked the film but had no contextual knowledge on which to build a more sophisticated understanding of what they saw. Eventually the unit on film evolved into a fully-fledged engagement of film noir and its themes, and student evaluations of the course have proven it to be the biggest hit of the semester, far outstripping the units on poetry, short fiction and drama, and even surpassing a popular novel unit on Treasure Island in terms of student enthusiasm and response.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
For those who might be less familiar with the term, “film noir” refers to a cinematic style first popular in American film in the 1940s and 50s, with the classic period of noir spanning from the 1941 release of The Maltese Falcon to the 1958 release of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The term “film noir,” which suggests the darkness and fatalism typical of these films, was first coined by French critics watching American films in the years following World War II. Early noir films were often produced as “B” movies that were quickly filmed for as little money as possible, and they flew somewhat under the radar of the censors, whose attention to such matters was not as keen during the all-consuming war years. Taking their cues from hard-boiled crime fiction of the period and German expressionist film of the 1930s, noir films presented World War II era audiences with a gritty alternative to the bourgeois optimism and increasing social homogeneity that transformed American culture in the years following the war. Noir touched on themes that spoke to the barely suppressed fears of its original audiences, from paranoia and disillusionment to betrayal and the grinding inescapability of personal fate. The hard-boiled private detective and the seductive femme fatale would emerge as the quintessential icons of noir, with actors like Bogart and Stanwyck personifying the grim cool of the true noir soul. Later generations have alternately rejected and embraced the dark charms of noir, with the early “neo-noir” movement epitomized by Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) later evolving into postmodern noir and the sci-fi hybrid of “tech-noir” characterized by films like Blade Runner (1982). More recently, films like Memento, Brick, Sin City, A History of Violence, and, arguably, Batman Begins, have brought noir style back into the cinemas and into DVD viewers’ homes, along with television series like Veronica Mars and The Dresden Files.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
In the classroom, of course, our discussion of noir has to begin with a similar definition, since most of my students are unfamiliar with the term and few have seen enough older films to grasp the idea very quickly. They have a vague idea about the identity of Humphrey Bogart, thanks primarily to the lionization and commercialization of Casablanca, but they have never heard of noir’s other stalwarts, including the likes of Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Barbara Stanwyck, and Dana Andrews. They are utterly unfamiliar with classic Hollywood’s plethora of important directors. We cover elements like cinematography, lighting, and editing in a very basic way, using props and examples from popular modern films to illustrate the ideas. We discuss the main character types of noir, including the detective, the damaged man, the good girl, and, of course, the femme fatale. At this point I ask the class how many of them have seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and a light bulb appears almost visibly over most of their heads. We watch the scene where Jessica Rabbit first enters the film and performs the number “Why Don’t You Do Right?” to a bewitched, bothered, and bewildered Bob Hoskins as detective Eddie Valiant. The basic information gives the students some tools to apply to the films they’ll be studying, and Roger Rabbit primes the enthusiasm pump. At this point, they’re ready for a movie.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
 I allow my students to vote on the noir film that we will actually watch in class, but I make them choose a classic film, an old school, black and white, traditional noir. Generally, I offer them The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Out of the Past (1947), and Sunset Boulevard (1950). I give a brief description of each film and show trailers if time allows. They have generally chosen either The Maltese Falcon or Sunset Boulevard, and Boulevard goes over particularly well. Certainly, it’s hard to beat a maniacal Gloria Swanson, a talking dead man, and a monkey funeral for sheer spectacle value to get the attention of a group of restless freshmen. I force the class to choose a classic film because the basic themes and images of noir are being worked out in those texts, and those films will be the foundations on which later noir depends. I also know that, given the choice, they will instinctively choose a newer, more familiar, more comfortable color film. The entire class will watch this one film together, but their assignment allows them to watch additional films on their own and write about those for the required essay. Once students see and like one classic noir film, they are much more likely to choose other classic films as well as newer ones for these additional encounters.
Tension (1949)
One very important element of this assignment is the library of noir DVDs that I maintain for students to borrow as we make our way through the unit. I keep a collection of films, especially the older and harder to find ones, for student use. The lending library encourages the students to watch more films and to engage the idea of noir in more interesting and personal ways, and it leads to a more diverse set of essays. I also provide students with a long list of other noir films, including neo-noir and tech-noir pictures that they can watch as part of the unit and write about for their essays. Popular choices include Sin City, of course, as well as Blade Runner, Memento and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The sleeper hit of the lending library is the 1949 Richard Basehart/Audrey Totter film Tension, which has only recently become available on DVD thanks to the noir resurgence and a Warner Brothers box set. While not a well-known example of noir, it might just be the perfect film for freshmen, with a nasty femme fatale, a sympathetic hero, and a tight 95 minutes of gripping entertainment. Students typically laugh at the introductory scene with the police detective, but a character like Audrey Totter’s Claire Quimby magnetically draws their attention and presents the femme fatale as a strikingly physical, even vulgar female monster.
Talking about what movies students can watch while studying noir brings up one of the chief difficulties and chief delights of using it as the basis for a film unit. Nobody can quite agree about what noir IS. Some critics, like Foster Hirsch, argue that noir is a fully-fledged genre, while others refer to it as a “cycle,” a “movement,” or a “style.” Noir is certainly more difficult to identify than, say, a Western or a gangster film, and some Westerns and some gangster films might even simultaneously be noir films, as well. Explaining the contested identity of noir to freshmen can be challenging, but it also invites them to have an opinion about the debate, and it gives them a clear argument that they can take a stake in, especially as that argument relates to specific films. Is Dark City, for example, really a noir film? What about other modern films? Do they have that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a film noir or not? Sometimes students suffer a kind of “medical students’ syndrome” where they begin to think that every movie they see must be noir, and we have to address their perception of the film and talk about what kind of classification is really defensible. However, as problems with students go, over-engagement is certainly one of the nicest problems one could have.
One way to head off some of this confusion is to lay good groundwork for the noir unit earlier in the term. In order to help students have a better sense of the elements of noir, I make a conscious effort to connect our film unit with the other material that we cover over the course of the semester. In our poetry unit, for example, we read texts like Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and introduce the idea of the femme fatale and the traditional virgin/whore dichotomy. Then, when students see Norma Desmond or Brigid O’Shaughnessy or Tension’s Claire Quimby for the first time, they know exactly what they are looking at. We study short stories and poems that deal with the themes of murder and death, and we talk about how the texts shape our perceptions of criminals or of fate. For an introduction to literature course, this multi-genre connection of themes and ideas helps to justify devoting a whole segment of the class to film studies because it presents film to students as a place to analyze and engage literary concepts. Students end up with a broader and more sophisticated picture of the literary themes that dominate the course, and they discover that the literary concepts we have studied apply to many different kinds of texts.
As I mentioned earlier, the noir unit consistently ranks as students’ favorite part of the entire course. Why do students respond to noir so enthusiastically? Partly they just like to watch movies more than they like to read, but that’s a generational trend that reflects an increasingly visual culture, and I incorporate visual and multi-media elements into every unit in the course. It isn’t that watching is “easier” than reading, though, because noir is a tough cinematic nut to crack, with a problematic identity and a lot of sophisticated themes. What students tell me about studying noir is that it teaches them to watch differently from the way they watched movies before and makes them think more about what they watch. It opens up classic films for them as interesting and even provocative. It casts new light and new shadows on the culture that they are already familiar with in films, television, video games, music and comic books. They appreciate Veronica Mars more, think a little harder about the themes of Sin City, play Max Payne with a greater understanding of its context, and read or watch Batman with a fuller sense of the Dark Knight’s darkness.  Students have even asked to borrow more films to watch after the course ended, and one student went on to develop an entire independent project for his art major around the creation of photographic images inspired by the look and style of noir. These are freshmen at a public university, majoring mostly in engineering, nursing and business. They are not the already intellectually engaged, privileged denizens of a liberal arts college. In spite of that, noir gets them, and most of them, ultimately, seem to “get” noir. They leave the classroom as better and more sophisticated readers of the culture in which they live. In short, noir inspires them to think and to learn more than anything else we study. For this teacher, at least, to paraphrase Sam Spade, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
If freshmen can learn to love it, then film noir must be worth saving! You can help the Film Noir Foundation preserve and restore classic noir films by donating during the Film Noir Blogathon, February 14-21, 2011.