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CAPTAIN FUCKING MAGIC
Written in April 2017, revised in September 2019. © Bea Redweik
Enter an exploration of the elaborate connective tissue between a “classic” film noir and a noir made after the 1950s. The specific pairing we are looking at is rather drastic or unusual, however, the combination is far from arbitrary. Billy Wilder’s beloved Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) share a multitude of facets in a most compelling fashion, despite their immense differences in style, tone and historical placement. To quote American science fiction author Bruce Sterling, ‘history is not a science; history is an effort in the humanities’ (Sterling, 2017). And keeping that in mind, the metaphorical line that we draw between these movies has to be deconstructed – as history is not linear, we must recognise pluralities in coexistence within each and every perspective that reveals itself, so upon closer examination the threads may come undone and the previously mentioned line turns into lines. Such an affinity for rhizomatic structures at the heart of criticism additionally pays tribute to the very nature of film studies itself: as a field of research it is dynamic, reflexive and often paradoxical, thus the lines between Sunset Boulevard and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang can be overlapping, entangled, enigmatic, or even magical, perhaps.
The focus rests on elements of noir – a sentiment, themes, narrative devices, motifs, etc. – that have a certain place within a chain of cause and effect: they critique something. In noir, it is never just darkness for darkness’s sake. There is more to it; there is contextual value. Critique or the suggestion of it only functions within a contextual framework; it needs to be directed at something. As an antidote to unity, its mechanisms are fascinating. Film noir, standing in opposition to the traditional American Dream, for example, plants seeds of doubt, destabilises – just like Sam Spade does so eloquently in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) when he refers to ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’.
To start with the most obvious connections as a baseline for further analysis, we can establish that both KKBB and Sunset Boulevard are screen adaptations. Moreover, nationality and location play significant roles. These are American noirs, so we move within the same nation frame, and more poignantly, both are situated in Los Angeles, city of angels, city of dreams – the powerful, critical implications that come with this will step into full spotlight later. For now, we will build up from traditional noir nuances that these films share, and examine their varying modes of execution. One crucial characteristic is the violence present in noir. Critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton illustrate that ‘an unprecedented panoply of cruelties and sufferings unfolds in film noir’ (Borde and Chaumenton, 2002). Violence can be displayed in a multitude of ways, be it loud or quiet. What is inherent though is the notion of violence in everyday life, a sense of escalation and devastation that comes from that. Violence, therefore, is offbeat and results in a more intricate effect. There are many examples we can draw from in both films, for they enforce this par excellence. For instance, in KKBB there are little details, such as the food cart owner turning into a killer unexpectedly, and the catastrophic accidental violence from Harry when he shoots the clinic worker during their interrogation, or the bigger looming affair: incest. This is played out less melodramatically compared to Polanski’s Chinatown for instance, partially due to an entirely different overall mood, however the film does not diminish the problem’s bleakness. It offers neither solution nor redemption; Harmony’s sister Jenna is dead. Nothing can change that. There is a sense of fatalism to it; when Perry visits the father responsible for the trauma and pain that eventually led to Jenna’s suicide, he shows no remorse and plays into the fact that he is bedridden and cannot defend himself, to which Perry responds: ‘yeah, big tough guy’. Perhaps it is resignation; the damage has been done. KKBB shows that these terrible things happen and, more importantly, they happen even in a world that exudes a lot of comedy and lightheartedness in opposition to the violence. This constellation of antitheses can be rendered something possibly darker than placing it in a world of darkness per se.
A preoccupation with sombre themes like death undoubtedly links KKBB to Sunset Boulevard, where death is explored in a different, maybe more metaphorically daedal manner. Norma and Joe represent death in their own ways: the changing face of the death of a dream. Norma’s character especially is full of complexities in the depiction of fatality. Christopher Ames observes that ‘the grotesque number of photographs establishes Norma’s mansion as a monument to her ego’ (Ames, 1997) but furthermore explains the importance of the noir-ish lighting of the set. ‘With all sunlight excluded [it is] a space that tries to stop time’ (Ames, 1997), for time signifies decay, and she desperately tries to hold on to her life-force, her stardom, unwilling to recognise that the world has passed her by. Again, we have a constellation of antitheses, artfully executed by noir. We encounter death and decay in a world that promises you the world. Hollywood is most commonly associated with glitz and glamour and success – life, if you will. However, we get to experience the American Dream’s alter ego, the darkness that is necessary to see the limelight. A bitter taste after having been seduced by the sweetness. Perhaps, noir presents a notion of brokenness to humanity, or at least the possibility of brokenness in Western society that produces a sunshine image of the good life, which is here to sell. Embracing the concept of universal balance these films have the capacity to question and doubt perfection. We can sense something sinister within the perfectly constructed image of glimmering success.
Is this sense of darkness exclusive to L.A. as a playground? Clearly not, however, these film noirs utilise the city’s strong connotations and then distort them movingly to increase the visibility of their critique. Another aspect that is very compelling about putting Sunset Boulevard and KKBB next to each other is the trajectory of this L.A. mysticism. Absurdly, on a superficial level everything has changed after half a century, yet, at the same time, we are still facing the failures of Hollywood dreams. The idea holds as much potential for corruption today as it did in the 1950s. Contemplating the most famous vision of Joe’s dead body adrift in Norma’s pool the following becomes apparent:
The image exploits the iconography of Hollywood dreams in which the swimming pool is the ultimate symbol of success, and the corrupted pool - empty, decaying, or tarnished with a corpse - is the ultimate symbol of the failed dream (Ames, 1997).
Even the idea of mobility and luxury is flawed. When Joe loses his car (a manifestation of his freedom) his new situation should technically signify an upgrade. Nonetheless, luxury, here in the form of Norma’s Isotta-Fraschini with leopard-skin upholstery, suggests imprisonment. Joe transitions from driving on his own terms to being driven – he is now a kept man. Additionally, the car seems out of place, firstly because it is a European model and secondly because it is terribly outdated. A different example with distressing impact would be the scene in which Norma returns to the Paramount Studios and an old familiar face shines the spotlight on her – a momentary return of her glory. But people scatter as fast as they gather when the spotlight is turned off. Everything is fleeting and that moment loses meaning instantly.
The contemporary noir KKBB accesses this notion of questioning the dream in a divergent fashion, which is necessary to keep its relevance intact. The situation is different now; culture can feel more cluttered in a contemporary context and the narrative of Hollywood has come apart significantly. The road to stardom has become Kafkaesque and somewhat ridiculous amongst the castings, agents, phone calls and parties; note how Harry stumbles into a casting more or less obliviously when he is running from the police after a failed burglary in New York City. He does not even want to become a movie star, but once he arrives in the Hills he happily surrenders to every illusion projected onto him. Moreover, Harry’s character triggers the feeling of being lost in the eye of a Technicolor storm: it is so colourful, multifaceted and fast paced that it can become nauseating. We experience a contemporary exhibition of the sinister beneath what shines misleadingly bright.
By deliberately keeping the plot labyrinthine and perplexing, KKBB pays its respects to aspects of convolution within the noir tradition. The babel of a self-aware narrative is less nightmarish than classical cases (admittedly outside of the American canon) such as Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950) or Le Jour Se Lève (Marcel Carné, 1939), nevertheless remains opaque, for corruption, confusion, violence and death still manage to find a home in comedy and an exceptionally witty script. One can (and should) argue that film noir is more than aesthetic pleasure and a somewhat Freudian fascination with fatality. Within that intricate framework of iconic imagery, characters, chiaroscuro and cigarette smoke noir does something. Employing varying degrees of subtlety and distortion, the underlying nuance remains critique. It is an antidote of sorts, which, by the way, also explains part of its charisma. To dwell on the idea of charisma for a short while, it is important to give credit to an immense facet of noir, which is cheek. If death were a person, they would have a certain groove to their step. And we would heartily enjoy watching them. In a way, we already do and both noirs play into that with knowing ease and expertise. Some examples from Sunset Boulevard are the pleasant juxtaposition of Joe having always wanted a swimming pool and finally ‘getting’ one, just not for a price he could have ever anticipated, or him referring to Norma’s obsessions in his voice-over as her ‘celluloid self’ – a dark yet charming expression, for celluloid burns vigorously. KKBB draws upon pleasure using an entirely different register, but still holds just as much charisma. Action is often overdrawn and unrealistic (utilising our familiarity with Hollywood blockbusters and their affinity for grand effects) and is therefore funny, or cheeky. When Perry walks into the argument that Harry and Harmony are having in a bizarre L.A. establishment of a nightclub he says: ‘See that? Obedient little bitches too’. And in one nonchalant movement he ducks, avoiding a glass that is immediately thrown at him from somewhere outside the frame, complimented by a ‘fuck you’. This moment is perfectly unrealistic – but that is not the point, it is a pleasure to watch.
The recognition of noir as layered is essential. Its beauty takes up residence in deceptive simplicity, just like magic. Like a seemingly endless matryoshka doll, highly self-referential elements are in full swing in both Sunset Boulevard and KKBB: there are connotations and commentary everywhere, well woven into the fabric of each story. This detail suggests a brotherly (or at least familiar) relationship of the two films, which renders the contemporary noir neither a copy nor a tribute, but an eloquent and bold continuation of a tradition. That continuation embraces metamorphoses and pluralities within, for it adapts to ever-changing contextual frameworks to ensure the poignancy of critique and effect.
Sunset Boulevard is a captivating connoisseur of interlacing meaning. Its historical backdrop is crucial for understanding the vastness of undertones and references: the 1950s mark a very difficult period for the film industry – the times are changing with very direct consequences for Paramount Pictures specifically. In an effort to disrupt the major studios’ monopoly of production and exhibition a consent decree resulted in a drastic transformation of Paramount: they were forced to split into two different companies, Paramount Pictures and United Paramount Theatres. If we say ‘cinema is not what it used to be’ today, we need to be aware that the audience was experiencing the same nostalgic sentiment over fifty years ago. Billy Wilder and his collaborators prey on this longing for former times, or a wish to be ‘haunted by the past and the return of the repressed’ (Creekmur, 2013), as film critic Corey K. Creekmur puts it. The impulse is interesting and links nostalgia and cinephilia to ‘overtones of necrophilia’ (Creekmur, 2013) – another artful juxtaposition of light and dark.
The film draws attention to itself in countless ways. For instance, director Cecil B. DeMille plays himself and Ames points out that ‘they arrive at Stage Eighteen, a real soundstage where DeMille was actually shooting Samson and Delilah’ (Ames, 1997). The waxworks are faces that graced the screens in the twenties (Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner and most famously, Buster Keaton) and gossip columnist Hedda Hooper makes a cameo, telephoning in the final scandal. There are little details like the cigarette case engraved with ‘Mad About the Boy’ (a reference to a song from the musical revue Words and Music, 1932, which explores obsession and cinephilia: On the silver screen / He melts my foolish heart in every single scene) or grand details, such as Gloria Swanson portraying Norma Desmond. Her emblematic line ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small’ rings curiously true taking her own silent movie history into account. The audience already knows her, but now sees her in a different light, deteriorating and uncovering grotesque aspects of the past, which are often overlooked under the protection of nostalgia. Representations of glamour can be bizarre and overplaying them offers visibility. The most quintessential moments of this peculiar artificiality are a medium close-up of Norma slowly turning her face, accentuating her profile against the backlight of the film projector (very strong chiaroscuro) and her final scene of delusion. Ready for her close-up, her face (no longer beautiful, but odd) at a sharp angle, accompanied by hand gestures is drawing closer: the strangeness that we have grown accustomed to in full display. The lines between the real and the fake blur and move the social commentary uncomfortably close. Additionally, something that often goes unnoticed is hidden in Franz Waxman’s Oscar winning soundtrack. The music for the Joe’s and Betty’s studio stroll is in fact Paramount On Parade, brilliantly distorted and slowed down to almost a waltz!
KKBB’s critique naturally concerns itself with a different context. One of its targets is arguably consumption, more precisely, toying with cinephilia. Black uses the expertise of the cinephile, who is familiar with a large catalogue of movies (and noirs specifically) to his advantage – outsmarting the amateur critic and reflecting the critique back onto the audience. KKBB is obsessed with narrative. It joyfully makes a mess of that, constantly breaking down patterns of expectations (the wonderfully flawed but self-aware voice-over, for instance) and disrupting the fourth wall. It mimics common film techniques and picks them apart, for example when Perry takes back the gun in a hostage situation, explaining the enemy’s mistake through false movie depictions. Corrections like that function on a playful meta-level, feeding into the cinephile’s ego only to poke at it again a little later (like the reckless abandon of a sense of realism towards the end, seen in Harry hanging on Veronica’s lifeless arm, ‘magically’ shooting the villains, just fulfilling plot points, or the nonsensical hospital scene). At any rate, KKBB is unapologetic – be it ‘I Will Survive’ playing as a ringtone right after Perry gets shot, or Perry shouting ‘no, the definition of the word idiot, which you fucking are’ – which renders this film noir well-adjusted to the contemporary realm of sensory overload. Sunset Boulevard warns us about the dangers of yelling at sleepwalkers while paradoxically revelling in the pleasure of it. KKBB skips the warning and most openly yells at the top of its lungs. The critique they exude can be a devastating experience, and Creekmur explains it persuasively: ‘like the twisted desires featured within the films themselves, the love for film noir can be a masochistic and fetishistic affair’ (Creekmur, 2013). He goes on describing film noir as ‘an object molded to the contours of a cultural desire. Film noir was designed by its initial critics to be isolated from the body of American cinema (thus functioning precisely as a fetish) as a form of American cinema that could be loved passionately but also critically’ (Creekmur, 2013). With a nod to this paper’s title (a quote from KKBB), we may render the connection between our two noirs magical. The combination does not make perfect sense, since history does not either, and after all the very idea of perfection is under scrutiny. Magic’s appeal, as a larger concept, lies in its capacity to defamiliarise, do the unexpected within expected parameters. With a sinister smile it points us to the mirror: the screen.
Ames, C. (1997). Movies About the Movies. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, pp. 194-205.
Borde, R. and Chaumeton, E. (2002). Toward a definition of film noir. In: A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-1953. San Francisco: City Lights Books, p. 10.
Creekmur, C. (2013). Cinephelia and Film Noir. In: A. Spicer and H. Hanson, eds., A Companion to Film Noir. London and New York: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 67-72.
Sterling, B. (2019). Atemporality for the Creative Artist. [online] WIRED. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2010/02/atemporality-for-the-creative-artist/ [Accessed 9 Apr. 2019].
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Le Jour Se Lève (Marcel Carné, 1939)
Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950)
The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950)