The Noir Instinct


Humphrey Bogart The Maltese Falcon[I recently completed an essay on film noir references/influences in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, for inclusion in a forthcoming book on noir in East Asian cinema. In the introduction, I wrote a lengthy section arguing that film noir is almost entirely a critical construct, brought to life by the convenient way in which it helps us to group together a disparate group of films and analyse them under a similar brand as if they represent some collective response to their social contexts. Much of this lengthy introduction was not really necessary, as the book’s authors had already built most of the terminological discussion into their introductory chapter. In the final version, then, most of what follows has been cut out so that my chapter cuts more quickly to the case, but I thought the longer version, despite being disjointed in places, might be of some interest as a standalone blogpost. I’ve added a few bits of new text to clarify some points, make it all less formal, and to round off the argument at the end.] 

For as long as I’ve been teaching and researching film, the term ‘film noir’ has been cropping up regularly, often applied loosely as an adjectival phrase in students’ essays (‘in a film noir style’, ‘noirish lighting’ etc.). One could easily get the impression that everyone knows what ‘noir’ is, and that everybody agrees on what it is, and that we’re all referring to the same thing when we say ‘noir’. To an extent, that’s true. It would be disingenuous to suggest that I didn’t know what you were referring to whenever you drop a couple of ‘noirs’ into the conversation. The difficulty of studying film noir is in the capaciousness of its definitions, the heterogeneity of an object of study that is supposed to describe a generic coherence. There are just so many films labeled as noir, and so many differences between them. Steve Neale has described the peculiar tenacity of ‘noir’ as a word rather than as a recognizable genre, calling it ‘a phenomenon whose unity and coherence are presumed in the single term used to label them rather than demonstrated through any systematic, empirical analysis’.[i] The invocation of the word therefore operates talismanically: once it is uttered in reference to a particular film, noir becomes a constructing force that grafts its interpretive codes onto the film text. Continue reading

345-Word Reviews: Only God Forgives


Only God Forgives Ryan GoslingFollowing the popular and critical success of Drive, Ryan Gosling reteams with director Nicolas Winding Refn for a film that is both more and less of the same: more vengeance, torture, blows to the head, and less movement, less dialogue, less significance. From its stately depiction of a neon-and-bokeh Bangkok (shot by Eyes Wide Shut‘s Larry Smith), to its hyper-Freudian, return-to-the-womb conclusion (cribbed from George Bataille’s Ma mère), Only God Forgives is a great-looking but stilted drama, painfully obvious, studiously enigmatic, and boringly sadistic.  Continue reading

The Spielberg Hundred #005: The Magic of Special Effects


This is the complete screen recording of a paper I gave last month at a conference in Montreal, The Magic of Special Effects: Cinema, Technology, Reception, 10 November 2013. Aside from the final plenary talk by Tom Gunning, I was the last speaker at this intensive, 6-day conference, so I will plead a little bit of fatigue and befrazzlement; I mostly resisted the urge to rewrite my paper over the course of the week as I heard so many stimulating ideas from the other speakers, but I will no doubt feed some of that stimulation back into the next draft of my paper. What I presented was an early sketch of my chapter on Spielberg for a forthcoming book, and thanks to helpful comments and questions from other delegates, I have a better idea of what I need to do to develop it into a longer, stronger essay. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of a work-in-progress, but let me know in the comments section if you have suggestions for improvement. Although the finished chapter will explore in more historical depth the relationship between Spielberg and Industrial Light and Magic, what I presented here is an attempt to characterise what Spielberg does with visual effects set-pieces, and how the audience is embedded in a “spectacular venue” for the presentation of marvellous things. 

The Spielberg Hundred #001: Introduction


Spielberg directing a dinosaur on the set of Jurassic Park: The Lost World

I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming anthology of extended essays on the work of Steven Spielberg, to be published in 2015. I’m going to be focusing on his use of special and visual effects, with particular interest in his longstanding relationship with the effects house Industrial Light and Magic. Aside from a couple of pieces on Georges Méliès, I’ve never done a study based on a single director, so this will be a fun exercise for me. I might even manage to produce a couple of articles out of it if it proves fruitful. Aside from his recent work, and a couple of films I re-watched during research for Performing Illusions, I haven’t seen the old Spielbergs since I was firmly in their target demographic. His films defined my childhood cinematic experience. It’s a toss-up whether Close Encounters was the first film I saw, or if it was Pete’s Dragon, at age 3 (memory eludes me), and I followed avidly anything he made, or had a hand in. Continue reading

345-Word Reviews: World War Z


World War ZNeither the calamity that its troubled production might have led you to expect, nor the triumph that its $250 million price-tag should lead you to demand, World War Zed offers a number of delights. This is a globalised disaster movie, told not from the perspective of bedraggled survivors who end up turning on each other in a desperate fight over dwindling supplies (the genre template laid down by Romero, and canonised most recently in The Walking Dead comics and TV series), but through the lens of a UN-led operation to find a solution to the zombie pandemic sweeping the planet. This omniscient overview sometimes dilutes what should be a terrifying vision of a world falling apart, because it gives an unwarranted sense of control over events, and the film plays out in a doggedly linear hop from one country to the next along a thread of tangential clues.

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Holy Motors Randomised


Holy-Motors title

Holy Motors is a cinephile odyssey, taking its viewers on a linear, perhaps cyclical journey through a series of variations on film history, performance, and identity. Or, with its continually shifting interplays between character and situation, we might think of it as a live-action replay of the ultimate meta-cartoon, Duck Amuck. The set-up is deceptively simple: we first meet Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) as a businessman leaving his lavish home for work, waving goodbye to his loving family, and being collected by the driver of his white stretch limo, Céline (Édith Scob). On the seat next to him are the details of nine assignments he must complete today. Each one requires a different disguise and costume, and sends M. Oscar out of the car, onto the streets of Paris and into a different performance, for no visible audience (except us), and to no obvious purpose. We watch as he goes about his daily business of acting the roles that may keep families, business, art running from day to day. But we’re never sure of his motives or his masters, nor whether there is a real M. Oscar underneath all of the layers of performance. Continue reading

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #004: Speaking for Ventriloquism


Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen, Candice Bergen

Last week, I traveled to Bournemouth to give a talk at the Arts University. I think I got lucky with the weather, and it was a pleasure to enjoy the mild temperatures, intermittent sunshine and bouts of dryness. The other pleasure was addressing Bournemouth’s staff and students. They managed to sit still for a full hour while I pontificated about ventriloquism and cinema. This was the first outing for some new research I’m working on, drawn from a bigger (and long-gestating, oft-delayed) project on Cinema and Puppetry. It’s coming along slowly, but it’s getting there and gathering some speed now that I have more time to devote to it. AUB’s Animation Research Pipeline talks (of which this was one) provides a space for people like me to share work in progress.

I made a complete screen recording of my talk, and while my voice is quite clearly recorded, some of the sound on the clips might need you to raise the volume once or twice. I hope you enjoy it, but I’d love to hear any comments you have, good or bad; it’s not a short lecture, and the first half is quite theoretical, but I promise you it contains good stuff on Charlie McCarthy, The Great Gabbo, Lon Chaney in drag, Mel Gibson having a fight with a glove-puppet beaver, and tastefully coloured Keynote slides.

Here’s the video. It’s available in HD, which should help you if you want to read the text on the slides:

Things You Need to Know About Le Mépris


Le Mepris Poster Brigitte Bardot Jean-Luc Godard[BLOG IN PROGRESS. I started this post hoping it might be of benefit to my students. As much as I love the film, I know it can be off-putting to non-film specialists, and to plenty of other people unfamiliar with Jean-Luc Godard‘s style of filmmaking. I intend it to be an ongoing post, and will add to it periodically, so if you have any thoughts about the film, or anything you think that viewers need to know about Le Mépris in order to get maximum interest from it, leave a comment below with your ideas and suggestions.]

In summary, it’s part domestic drama, in which a man tries to find out why his wife no longer loves him, and part meta-cinematic backstage dramatisation of the adaptation process, in which that man struggles with his job as a screenwriter on an American film of Homer‘s Odyssey. Filmed as the Hollywood studio system collapsed, Le Mépris is a meditation on the relationship between art and life, film and reality.
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Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #003






Here, in four chapters, is a lecture I gave to undergraduate students in the Department of English at The University of Exeter in 2010. The students had already watched the film, so if you haven’t seen it, you should probably avoid this talk until you have, as it discusses important plot developments. The title I was given was “The Politics of Privacy”, but my talk doesn’t address that idea directly: Michael Haneke’s Cache was one of several texts for that week on a module dealing with personal expression in writing and film, often focusing on postcolonial subjects. My lecture introduces students to the film and suggests some ways to interpret it and start to unravel its mysteries.

For reasons of upload limits, I have had to divide this lecture into four segments,. These were obviously not planned breaks, so each chapter will start and stop a little abruptly, I’m afraid. If anyone’s interested, I’ll also post the complete audio file for the lecture, but the video version includes slides, text, and video clips that should help to illustrate it, especially when I’m reading out long quotations.

At present, I’m only able to post all four chapters to my YouTube channel, though these are at least available in HD – Vimeo has tighter upload restrictions, so I can’t post all of them yet, but you can find updates, and earlier video podcasts, at my Vimeo page.

Digesting Hugo


These are some preliminary thoughts from a first viewing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. I’m in the process of writing a chapter on representations of Georges Méliès for a forthcoming book, so this will be one of my primary texts, and I’ll need to watch it again. I thought I would assemble some notes as I go along. As a result, this might read like a string of disjointed observations at times, but hopefully there will be some points of interest for you along the way. I’m happy to discuss the film, too, and I’m aware that it has divided moviegoers in a way that it didn’t necessarily divide the critics. A quick perusal (which is all anyone should usually have to endure) of the IMDB comments page will give evidence of popular objections to the film. It was looking like a weighty flop on its domestic release, but Hugo will probably just about claw back its $170million budget  (the best evidence that this greenlit at a time when it looked like 3D was an infallible cash-cow) when the totals are added up from international markets. So, please leave me a comment if you have an opinion about this film.  Continue reading