November 7, 2013

STALEY | In Praise of Unhappy Endings

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In a lecture last night, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott summarized a public feud he had with movie star Samuel L. Jackson. Scott wrote a condemnatory review of a film Jackson starred in, The Avengers, accusing it of unoriginality (in his words, the film was an “ATM for Marvel”) and of pandering to the common opposition of good and bad, as expressed in the stock superhero movie climax — a standoff between villain and protagonist. Jackson retaliated first via Twitter, encouraging Avenger fans to call for Scott’s dismissal from the Times, then via talk show, telling an interviewer that Scott intellectualizes films where he should be enjoying them.

Jackson’s idea that movies are not supposed to be intellectualized, in other words: ‘thought about’, is a problem. This notion of movies as free from interpretation, uncritical and brainless is not unique to Jackson and likely a product of the movies themselves. Oftentimes, producers can underestimate an audience’s critical capacity, fearing that more complicated films discourage movie-goers. However, it is easy to find a genre that was motivated by a critical understanding of the world and put money in producer’s pockets.

This genre was Film Noir, a sub-category of crime movies that I’ll use to show an opposition in the genre between critical and unquestioning films. Noir movies are nighttime movies, concerned with issues and matters that surface in later hours when families and ‘moral’ professionals surround a dinner table or television set. Although the genre is typically defined by its aesthetic tropes — streetlamp silhouettes, dripping alleyways, smoky interiors, experimental camera angles and deadbeats in top hats and overcoats — true Noir is defined by its inherently subversive content. These films cast light on both the overlooked, seedier characters of society — gangsters, prostitutes, detectives, perverts, drug-addicts — and the consequences of capitalist society — avarice, heartless materialism, crime, corruption and violence. Oftentimes, Noir’s cinematic and social rebellions go hand in hand: It is not unusual to watch a noir film with an unhappy ending where a moral character loses to the ugly, oppressive forces of society. Looking at Noir, we see a successful intellectual genre. It seduces audiences with snappy dialogue, melodrama and action while providing questions for thinkers and critics.

Wednesday night, Cornell Cinema screened a great example of this genre, 1957’s The Sweet Smell of Success. Scott introduced the film as a document of a bygone New York; one of cigarette girls and squalor in Times Square, when newspapers were popular and journalists were successful. The story, written by subversive leftist Clifford Odets, explores the underside of journalism through ambitious Press Agent Sydney Falco (Tony Curtis). The story forces the audience to identify with a morally disinterested man, Falco, and questions the integrity of both bosses and workers: is it okay to be complicit with your boss’ unscrupulous demands? How much can you bypass ethics in the pursuit of success? How much should you trust what’s behind the print, the badge and the podium? The film has an especially noirish ending: Falco is condemned for his ambition and beaten by the corrupt journalist-law authorities, leaving the audience to question the legitimacy of American institutions.

Whereas Nighttime movies undermine American political life, Daytime crime films reaffirm the righteousness of the system and espouse establishment ethics. The professional is the moral. A good example of a daytime crime film that pretends to be a nighttime movie is Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Even though Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello makes a convincing argument that the difference between a cop and criminal is minimal and the film portrays a corrupt institution (Boston Police Department) and shows good characters doing bad things (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan beats up a pair of Providence Italians), the ending silences the film’s critical potential. In the final scene, a good character, Sergeant Dignam (Mark Wahlberg), kills a bad one, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). The establishment triumphs over its criminal opposition and the audience leaves the theater undisturbed, complacent with a system that always triumphs in the end (albeit in an unorthodox way-murder). Endings like this bookend problems. The audience leaves the theater unworried, confident that everything is in its right place and that nothing has to be questioned.

So, there have, in fact, been cinematic genres with the enjoyment-factor Jackson touts and an analytical, subversive function. Noir was certainly guilty of the ‘sameness’ that pertains to actions movies and, arguably most movies do havesome sort of intellectual undercurrent. But, whereas most movies affirm the status quo, Noir was unique in that its motivation was a sense of disillusionment with society and money. It is no accident that the decline of Film Noir in the fifties corresponds with the Red Scare; cynicism and dissent were suspicious. Noir encouraged thought instead of complacency. It seized a political tool filmmakers take for granted: the opportunity to establish an antagonist that outlives the closing credits.