NOIR CITY is back to the Castro theatre this month with an incredible lineup of film noir from around the world. This is the third international program the Foundation has organized since its beginning in 2003 with each day focused on one country. 10 days, 10 countries. Onstage at the Castro last month for a preview screening, Eddie Muller says he felt the need for us to “escape from America” and experience something refreshingly new and different. I couldn’t agree with him more.
It’s also an opportunity for Muller to once again explain (and show) that noir is not strictly an American genre. One could argue that noir was defined by Hollywood in the early 1940s when studios finally got out from under the Production Code and were able to take the spicy crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and put them to screen. But the look, feel and subject matter of the noir genre was first inspired by the German Expressionist Movement brought to America by great directors fleeing early threats of Nazism.
Whatever the argument, noir certainly did not stay in America. Its influence spread far and wide; its gritty, crime based, sex-forward stories captivated audiences from France to Japan, as it still does today. Having attended NOIR CITY numerous times and watched Czar Eddie prophesize about the genre each week on TCM’s Noir Alley, I think that one of Muller’s goals is to move people beyond the narrow tropes that define noir. As opposed to many other art forms that seek to refine, perfect and limit, Muller is pushing and expanding. He wants us to know that these films contain universal themes that we love: obsession, rejection, classism – all themes that continue to be relevant because they indulge our innermost desires and fears.
I’m excited by many of the films on the list. Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish noir from 1943, the Antonioni from Italy on January 27th, and a whole Saturday devoted to four Mexican noirs. But I may be most intrigued by the films from South Korean and Japan. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one. The release dates of these films may prove that their industries took time to recover following the devastating effects of successive wars. But I suppose most of the films we will see originate from countries ravaged by war during the same time that the film industry in America was thriving and growing. On a similar note, I’ll be looking to see if the technology available to filmmakers in these countries changed the image itself dramatically; it may not be the glossy, high-contrast image that we’re used to from Hollywood noir (with Hollywood money).
One of the reasons to attend NOIR CITY is to take advantage of the opportunity to see these films and to see them as originally intended, on the big screen. Especially since access to them is becoming more and more uncertain. As corporate mergers and acquisitions continue to happen with an alarming level of fluidity, the fate of existing novelty films is on increasingly confusing and it subject to whim of massive media conglomerates. I don’t really understand the politics of studio licensing of archived films, but it seems that film archives are under constant threat of being put under lock and key, depending on whose jurisdiction it is. For example, Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2018 has caused serious roadblocks to groups and individuals looking to license a vintage film for a public screening. Either it’s not a priority for the studios or some financial disincentive exists to devalue these films as a commodity. Hopefully oversight from the Academy will prevent complete blackout.
In a recent quote from a SF Chronicle society column, Muller seemed concerned: “The work we do to save, preserve and archive these films is vitally important to exhibit this valuable cinema history to audiences”. He continued, “Movies are our shared dreams and collective nightmares. And it shouldn’t be up to some corporate entity to decide what survives and what you can see or can’t see.”
To support these efforts by the Film Noir Foundation, check back here for reviews and observations as I make my way through 10 days of murder and mayhem! You can see the full NOIR CITY program here: http://noircity.com/nc18p1.html