A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #48: None More Noir

It all began when she walked into our coffee bar… It’s September, but really, we’re starting Noirvember early: join Alan, Julie and Matt as they discuss what some have called that most cynical of genres, the film noir. Obviously, there’s no way around the big granddaddy of them all, Billy Wilder’s blackest, bleakest of jokes, Double Indemnity (1944), or indeed Roman Polanski’s magisterial, tragic Chinatown (1974), each of these iconic examples of the genre – which, arguably, didn’t even exist yet when Wilder made his film. From classic noir to neo-noir, we finally take a trip to a Californian high school to check out Rian Johnson’s Brick (2004) as an example of postmodern noir, before we finish on a discussion of the future of the genre. Do we need any more compromised private eyes and femmes fatales – and, if so, what would they look like for the 21st century?

Continue reading

Swan on Swan

So, tonight’s the night. Stars all gussied up, waiting to hear those coveted words: “And the winner is…” A show that is best enjoyed with vast amounts of alcohol and decadent nibbles. (A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I pulled out the sofa in front of the TV and made it into a bed, slept until early in the morning and then had toast and salmon while watching the Oscars. Good times. Much better than the one where we tried to do a Vacherin fondue and the cheese both smelled and tasted putrescent.)

I haven’t seen all of the nominees, far from it. Colin Firth hasn’t stuttered his way into my heart yet (aww…), an ageing Dude hasn’t yet shown us what True Grit is, and I have no idea whether The Kids Are All Right or not. In the last two weeks I’ve watched two of the multiple nominees, though: 127 Hours and Black Swan. I enjoyed both films, but I wouldn’t necessarily call both of them ‘good’ films. They both are showcases for their directors, full of stylistic flourishes – but I found 127 Hours exhilarating, thrilling and moving, and I was able to take the film seriously throughout. Black Swan, for all its technical accomplishment, struck me as silly to the point of becoming laughable.

It’s an eminently well made, well acted, well shot, well edited film – but it’s a B movie dressed up to be Oscar bait. It’s a Brian De Palma thriller pretending to be a relevant statement about the artist’s responsibility to destroy herself in order to produce true art. And it’s cheesy as hell – but like a good cheeseburger, it is a yummy treat and should be acknowledged as such.

My main problem is this: if you’re going to make a film about someone going mad, with scenes that signal at every edit, “Is this real or is this only happening in her poor, psychotic imagination?”, you need to have a certain base reality. Natalie Portman’s Nina, though, is a few feathers short of a cygnet from the beginning, and even the scenes that are supposedly real are turned up to 11, producing a hyper-reality that is only halfway removed from the all out insanity that eventually grips Nina’s mind. And the turny-twisty revelation at the end might be believable (I’m not talking about realism but about what is credible in the world established by the film) in opera, but decidedly less so in this movie.

What doesn’t do the film any favours is the spectre of better films that haunts it: All About Eve and obviously Powell’s The Red Shoes. And no hot (though imaginary – oops, did I give it away? The film already does a good job of doing so…) bedroom scene straight out of Lesbian Spank Inferno III: The Birds can banish these ghosts completely. There’s even a hint of Buffy‘s Faith, although that is one ghost that makes Black Swan look good by comparison – Mila Kunis is both hotter and a more convincing actress than poor Eliza Dushku.

So what about that much praised performance by Natalie Portman? She definitely does a very good job, but she’s not always helped by the script, which keeps the character samey for the first half, varying between forte and fortissimo, and then escalates it for too short a time. Portman finally makes for a magnificent black swan, but it’s difficult to say how much the performance is bolstered by make-up, costume and CGI effects.

So, who will win? Hmm… From the films I’ve seen, I can’t really say much about the nominated actors, having seen too few of them in these specific performances. I also don’t think all that much of a “Best Picture” category, since the best films in different genres can hardly be compared. (Is Chinatown a better film than Raiders of the Lost Ark? Does it matter?)

I am rooting for L’Illusioniste, though, because its doomed, beautiful magic has given me one of the most enchanting cinematic experiences, not only this year, but ever. Pixar’s got enough of those little golden men on their mantlepiece, after all.