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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Gabriel Kahane on Sunshine Noir

“Los Angeles understands its past... through a robust fiction called noir.”
—Mike Davis, City of Quartz

Chinatown (Paramount Pictures/Photofest)

by Gabriel Kahane

A great deal of ink has been spilled about film noir since its inception some three-quarters of a century ago, much of it flowing from the pens and toner cartridges of critics with credentials far beyond mine. It is, however, a great honor and privilege to have worked closely with Nellie Killian to co-curate this Sunshine Noir festival for BAMcinématek in conjunction with BAM Next Wave’s presentation of my LA-centric piece, The Ambassador, and so I would offer just a few words about noir as I see it: that is to say, as a native Angeleno who’s lived in New York for a bit more than a decade.

As Mike Davis and others have written, noir is often misunderstood as merely a marriage of hard-boiled fiction on the one hand and a certain breed of left-leaning director on the other. But for noir to come to life, the juxtaposition of light and shadow—a binary endemic to Los Angeles—is necessary. Put another way: Southern California’s sunny climate belies its seedy underbelly; put on the screen, that contradiction gives birth to noir.

While all this may be cursory, it’s a useful bit of context for New Yorkers. When the bad guys rear their heads in Brooklyn, it’s not such a shocking contrast to the often rough-hewn texture of urban life here, dominated as it is by concrete, long stretches of bad weather, vermin, etc. In Los Angeles, where unbroken blue skies, palm trees, and the silver screen overwhelm our collective sense of the place, tales of crime and depravity are often made more vivid.

In a Lonely Place (Columbia Pictures/Photofest)

This geographic specificity is significant as it permits the ideologically subversive aspect of noir to speak more clearly. Against Los Angeles’ sunny exterior, its darker criminal life is the contrast dye tracing the circuitous path of capital as it moves from the millionaire to the man in the mug shot, and back again. Philip Marlowe and his ilk, then, are not just riffs on the urban flâneur, but serve frequently as undercover agents of ideology, offering visceral critiques of capitalism in which we can nearly taste the blood and the booze.

In next month’s festival, 20 films spanning more than four decades offer a varied survey of the genre, ranging from the classic Bogart vehicle In a Lonely Place (1950) and the totemic Chinatown (1974), to Michael Mann’s neo-noir masterpiece Heat (1995). In between, viewers will have a rare opportunity to see on the big screen Robert Altman’s brilliant take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973), starring a typically acerbic Elliott Gould; the Cold War-noir of Kiss Me Deadly (1955); as well as Robert Zemeckis’ irresistible Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), which for millennials probably warrants a sober viewing as an adult for its biting and unexpected evisceration of the LA transit establishment.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest)

Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh are represented with stunning essays in neo-noir, Jackie Brown and The Limey, respectively, the latter a winning showcase for Terence Stamp. Alex Cox makes a psychedelic cocktail of postmodernism and magical realism in Repo Man (1984), and William Friedkin’s cult classic To Live and Die in LA (1985) shows Los Angeles at its sun-bleached worst.

What I love about all of these films, aside from their merits as art objects, is that almost all of them serve to counteract prevailing stereotypes about Los Angeles, a city so often dismissed as vapid and materialistic. What will emerge throughout Sunshine Noir may not be a uniformly sympathetic portrait of LA, but it ought to deepen the sense of texture and pathos we assign to Southern California, entertaining and enriching us along the way.

Sunshine Noir runs at BAMcinématek from Nov 26—Dec 9, and The Ambassador is at the Harvey from Dec 10—13.

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