Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Why so convoluted, film noirs?

Noir is not one of my favorite genres, and after Monday night's viewing of Inherent Vice, I'm starting to piece together why.

I just don't want to do the work.

It seems to be a hallmark of the genre that plot is completely incoherent, or in some cases, even an afterthought. Big noir fans will tell you that it's not supposed to be coherent, that that's not what you're supposed to take away from a successful noir. Well, I'm sorry if this makes me hopelessly conventional, but I like to know what's going on in a story, and have some hope of following its twists and turns to the conclusion.

Inherent Vice, I'm sorry to say, is a shining example of the narrative mess that is allowed to go unchecked in a movie with thugs, private dicks and femme fatales. It's also an example of something I discussed in yesterday's post -- how a much beloved director has started to lose me in his (or in that case, her) last two films. Lynn Shelton lost me with Touchy Feely and Laggies after Your Sister's Sister, and now Paul Thomas Anderson is doing the same by following up There Will Be Blood (my #1 movie of 2007) with The Master and Inherent Vice.

But it may not be Anderson's fault, as confusion seems to be the inherent vice of the noir genre.

I think most notably of the example of The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks' 1946 film of the Raymond Chandler novel, in which Humphrey Bogart stars as Phillip Marlowe. This film is consistently larded with praise, so when I finally saw it in 2013 it seemed long overdue. After I watched it, I wish I had snoozed on it longer. I had no idea what the hell was happening in that movie, and famously, neither did the people who made it. Whole narrative threads have no conclusion, satisfactory or otherwise, and it's a lot of who did what with whom, where. Names are strung together in a meaningless succession of actions and consequences, none of which can be sorted out. I suppose it might be okay if there were anything interesting dramatically or technically going on, but I felt The Big Sleep to be particularly challenged in those areas as well.

Rian Johnson's Brick is another noir I did not like, though I do appreciate it more after a second viewing. In that case, the technique is great, as Johnson's film at least looks good. But the obnoxious noir patter (seeming worse when coming out of the mouths of teens, and stylized to sound like the 1940s, even in the 21st century), with where this guy saw that guy and what connection that girl has to that other guy ... well, I just don't know that I have the energy to figure if it all works out, or even if I care whether it all works out.

As I think about this, I wonder if it's overly detailed plotting in general that I just don't care for.

This is going to be a pretty poor comparison, but I think it makes a certain amount of sense, so bear with me for a moment.

More than 15 years after it debuted, with a rate of two seasons per calendar year, I am still watching the reality show Survivor, and can count the number of episodes I've missed on one hand. (It helps that there's gambling involved, as I've been involved in a Survivor pool for about 30 of the 32 seasons.) One of the core parts of Survivor is its challenges, usually a reward challenge (which brings the contestants food or other luxuries) and always an immunity challenge (which helps determine which contestants are safe from the vote). Like noir movies, these challenges themselves can be pretty convoluted, and I often tune out during the 45 seconds or so when the object of the challenge is explained prior to actually competing in said challenge. I figure, I don't need to understand every rule of what they're trying to do -- I just need to see how it all plays out, as I will appreciate the drama of seeing contestants gain and lose leads, get angry at each other, and potentially hurt themselves.

Noir movies -- The Big Sleep in particular -- are like 90% challenge explanation and 10% the resulting drama. I simply don't care to devote such a high percentage of the time I'm watching a movie to learning about how this off-screen character might be connected to/have double crossed/have been killed by this off-screen character. Especially because then, when I do see those characters, I have to remember which names match up to which faces. If I'm wrong, I might make the situation all the worse for myself. I mean, cinema is a show-don't-tell medium. Noir spends way too much time telling me things -- The Big Sleep in particular.

Like any noir movie, Inherent Vice spends quite a lot of time on introducing new characters, introducing new subplots, introducing new wrinkles, and then failing to connect them all up. Or, it connects them up in a way that might hold water, or it might not, but by then I just don't care anymore. By then I just want the thing to be over ... especially when it meanders past the two-hour and twenty-minute mark, like Inherent Vice does.

There's a scene near the end of the movie when some important stuff starts to happen, some real action to set off all the talking. I did sit up in my seat at that point. However, it's worth noting that I failed to understand how the characters involved fit into the larger plot, especially since they were introduced so late in the narrative that I didn't even really know who they were. I understand you don't want everything to be a Scooby Doo plot, where the guy you met briefly at the start ends up being the one who did it, but there's a reason Scooby Doo was plotted that way. You want it to matter, to be meaningful, who did the thing and why.

Now, at least one thing I can say for Inherent Vice, which I can say for all Anderson movies, is that it looks good. There's this shot where Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston run off into the rain searching for an address that isn't there after a Ouija board told them to do so that I'm still thinking about today. Plus it is completely authentic in terms of its 1970s look. I'd almost say that Phoenix's appearance, with that mop of curly hair and those big mutton chops, is so distinctive that it would make him into kind of an iconic character -- if only the movie were better.

As I'm trying to explore my feelings about noir in general, what interests me now is the exceptions to the rule. If you combined The Big Sleep and Inherent Vice you might get Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, in which Phillip Marlowe is updated to the 1970s and played by Elliott Gould. Yet I love The Long Goodbye. I don't know that the plot of The Long Goodbye is heaps more coherent than these other two, but I did follow it better, perhaps because I liked what was going on around the margins more. (Interestingly, Altman is probably one of the biggest influences on Anderson, as felt most noticeably in Magnolia. I wonder if Inherent Vice was supposed to be Anderson's tribute to Altman?) I also really like some other famous noirs like Double Indemnity and Chinatown, though I think in both of those cases, the plot is done better justice.

But if I'm looking at another film that is at least superficially similar to Inherent Vice in terms of its stoner themes, my antipathy toward noir could also weigh into why I don't care for The Big Lebowski as much as your average person does. A couple years ago, when the Filmspotting podcast used to schedule annual or bi-annual double features at a Chicago-area drive-in, they ended up pairing Lebowski with either The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye -- one was ultimately unavailable, so they chose the other one. So it's seeming even more and more like The Long Goodbye is an exception to my rule. On the other hand, staying within the Coens' own oeuvre, I like Miller's Crossing and The Man Who Wasn't There, which can both be seen as noirs if you do a little squinting.

Maybe I just need to conclude that Inherent Vice didn't work for me and just leave it at that.


Don Handsome said...

Maybe it's not that noirs do too much telling, maybe it's that they are showing you things that you don't appreciate enough. It's not about the plot at's about the mirror they hold up to the world that made them

Derek Armstrong said...

While I agree with that, it only works for me sometimes, as in the examples I cited. I think it works bigtime in The Long Goodbye. I think it works only somewhat here, and the rest of what doesn't work for me detracts further from the finished product.