From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 21 Aug 2003

A few responses to Jim:

I recently said that PIs are losers by society's definition. I would include Marlowe, Chandler's Marlowe, within that definition. However, I am most certainly not contemptuous of my favorite genre, that of the hardboiled PI. Chandler is one of my favorite writers and Long Goodbye is my favorite of his books.

"Films like HARPER, MARLOWE, GUNN, SHAFT, et. al., released in the years immediately preceding TLG, and films like CHINATOWN, THE DROWNING POOL, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, et. al., released in the years immediately following TLG, are evidence that the private eye story still had an audience."

Deconstruction does not mean the genre no longer has an audience. It's just a stage of evolution. Genres evolve or they die.

And I'd claim at least two of the movies you name fall within the evolution of the genre -- Shaft and Chinatown. As a matter of fact, John Cawelti uses the latter to explore the notion in his article, Chinatown and Generic Transformation. Furthermore, while it may ave been the most extreme, Altman's Long Goodbye was not an anomaly in its approach. There were numerous other films that were questioning the genre, one of the best of which was Night Moves.

"And that's just in movies. Parker's Spenser started around this time in prose."

A good case could be made for Parker's engaging in generic transformation. Parker is well aware of the genre, but he is equally aware of the changes he has made to it, not the least of which are the split of the hero into Spenser and Hawk and the exploration of the hero in a monogamous relationship (yes, there were precedents, but he made it a new standard). Crime lit paralleled the film transformations. Hansen, Paretsky, Grafton, Lewin, Valin, Crumley, Pelecanos, Schutz, etc, were all questioning the nature and limits of the genre and in the process renewed it, making it vital to a whole new generation. None of these characters was Chandler's Marlowe; some were damn close to Gould's Marlowe.

"THE ROCKFORD FILES and HARRY O started around this time on TV."

I'd also place Harry O in the field of generic transformation. How is Harry O any less a loser than Altman's Marlowe?

"There was no "need" for a film that deconstructed the genre in order to revitalize it."

Maybe not for you. However, I think it's clear from the reaction you have prompted that many of us here are very interested in the evolution of the genre, even if we don't necessarily agree that Altman's Long Goodbye is a good example of it.

Also look at the recent praise for and interest in Jean-Patrick Manchette's deconstruction of noir. And his books are anything but masters' theses, to use your dismissal (and that is your usual argument style, to dismiss anyone who disagrees with you); they are very enjoyable, suspenseful thrillers that also manage to make you think about the genre's conventions.

But you'll have none of that. It's not enough that you don't like the film and are sorry you ever saw it. You think it never should have been made and that no one else should ever see it, either. Don't you even allow for the possibility that some others might legitimately value things you don't, that as Jay McInnerny wrote, Taste, after all, is a matter of taste? Of course, you have always tended to be dogmatic in terms of definition. Once a genre has gelled, that is what it must remain. You have always refused to recognize the possibility of generic transformation -- witness the film noir argument. What I call evolution, what Cawelti calls transformation, you pronounce "other," something completely different because it no longer falls within the tunnel vision of your definition of genre.

"Altman, instead of using the film medium to tell Chandler's story, used Chandler's story to criticize the genre. If he wanted to criticize the genre, he didn't have to use Chandler's novel as a vehicle."

So would Altman's film have been okay if he had changed the title and the characters' names? Are you offended by the messing with Chandler or the messing with the genre? Or both? Can you separate the two? I'd say not only can they be separate, but they must be. Chandler was great, still is, but he was of his time. If someone like Pierre Menard tried to rewrite Chandler today, it would not read the same. Just as the mean streets change, so must the man or woman who walks down them. I, for one, prefer a genre that evolves and interacts with its own time to one that becomes marginalized as nothing more than nostalgia.


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