"Post-Modern" or "Bad Taste"? Was: Re: RARA-AVIS: Noir Films

From: Brian Thornton ( tieresias@worldnet.att.net)
Date: 22 Aug 2003

At 11:21 AM 8/22/03 -0400, you wrote:
>Jim wrote:
>"Sorry about all those blank messages. I didn't know I was sending them
>'til they started popping up in m inbox."
>Gee, and they were the first of your messages I agreed with all day.
>Very non-traditional, even postmodern.

Oh, yeah, because if it's 'post-modern' it has to be good.

Adding one more thought on 'redefining noir over and over again,' I have no beef with people telling and re-telling the same story over and over in new and different ways (look at how many different ways Shakespeare has been interpreted and reinterpreted, and he was a noted thief of other peoples' plots in his own day, as well).

However, if your retelling is not entertaining, I don't care how cutting edge, post-modern, off the tip, or anything else it is. I like to read things (view things) that interest me. Altman's "Long Goodbye" did not hold my interest, and I struggled through the whole thing, hoping it would get better.

That said, if it's your cup of tea, well and good. I don't see what good it does pooh-poohing the 'tastes' of others (to reference a previous quote of Jay MacInerny, a writer I find endlessly tiresome in how self-conscious his writing can be). Returning to Shakespeare, I taught Summer School and we read "Macbeth" (a noir tale if EVER there was one) this year. I'd like to think the students liked it because of the prodigious ability of their instructor, but to tell you the truth, I suspect it had more to do with the fact that this play (like all of Shakespeare's great works, note that I don't think ALL of his work is great) is a TERRIFIC story, combining murder, the supernatural, plots, betrayal, ghosts, witches, and a first-rate psychological study of how ambition can eat away at the noblest character, and how guilty hands can never truly be metaphorically cleansed. No wonder the high schoolers I taught liked it.

Interestingly enough, I showed them two different versions of the film, once we had assigned roles and read the play, stopping frequently to break down the language (they were far less intimidated once we got going), discuss the symbolism, etc., of the play. We did a comparison/contrast, act by act of Orson Welles' impressionistic 1948 version and the 1977 Royal Shakespeare Company/BBC co-production starring Ian McKellen and Judy Dench. Not surprisingly, the students vastly preferred McKellen/Dench to Welles' version. Why? After all, the McKellen/Dench was originally produced for television, and everyone knows what a genius Welles was. Besides, it's the same story, right?

The answer is simple. Welles gutted the script, cutting about 1/3 of the dialogue, consolidating too many characters, not allowing for much development of either plot or character, and in the title role, badly over-acted. One of my more perceptive students pointed out that if Welles were concerned with running time on the film, he might have cut out some of the long, brooding, slow shots of himself staring off at nothing, and kept the dialogue intact. McKellen was, well, McKellen, and Dench gave the best, most polished, most nuanced perfomance in either adaptation.

Being avant-garde is all well and good. It doesn't change one's obligation to tell a good story if one wishes to be successful. Welles did precisely that with both "Citizen Kane" and "Touch of Evil" (a superb film I should have put on my top ten list instead of, say, "Double Indemnity."). People who take big chances like Welles and Altman shouldn't (and as far as I know, don't) complain when those big gambles don't pay off. By the way, I *do* in fact think that Altman is frequently brilliant. I liked
"M*A*S*H*" and loved "The Player." Say what you want about "The Long Goodbye", it was a failure at the box office and it certainly failed to hold my attention. No correlation? Perhaps. But to quote an often abused maxim of the Joe Sixpack crowd: I may not know art, but I know what I like.

Speaking of what I like, I just finished "The Wycherly Woman" by Ross MacDonald, and LOVED it. I've heard it said (as was said about Robert B. Parker, as well, another gifted writer, and one I genuinely enjoy, but one whose work I have to read in intervals, otherwise I ), that MacDonald told one story over and over and just made it variations on a theme. True enough, I suppose, but the man did it so brilliantly, and his writing is so entertaining, so capable of drawing the reader in, who really cares?

Lastly, I also recently read Carl Hiassen's new work, "Basket Case." It gets a top recommendation from me. I think this really shows Hiassen's maturation as a writer of crime fiction. His account of how the mergers of various media conglomerates has abetted the good ole-boy corruption of places like Florida is a riveting sub-plot in this darkly funny tale of a washed-up journalist hacking for the obit page of a south Florida daily
(where he used to be a star investigative reporter) when the former singer of an 80s rock band dies under decidedly suspicious circumstances. It's a must-read, if only to see what sort of animal corpse Hiassen uses as a weapon in THIS book (for those who recall the Marlin in "Skin Tight."). Avant-garde? Nah? Cutting edge? Nope. Good storyt. A couple of the loose ends in the conclusion get tied up in a bit too pat of a manner, but with good wrting that makes me laugh, makes me tense, makes me think, and makes me root for either the good or the bad guy, I'm willing to overlook small complaints like these. Feel free to disagree, as emphatically as you please. That's part and parcel of why we're all here, right?

After all, I'm not paid to be a critic, so I may not know art, but I know what I like!

All the Best,


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