Tag Archives: [Femme Fatale]

Film in Focus: Suburban Noir & Pulp Fiction

11 Oct

pulpfiction

The term ‘film noir’ (literally ‘black film’ in French) describes an enduring filmic genre that emerged in the early 1940s, drawing inspiration from both the visual aesthetic and dominant themes of German Expressionism and the stories found in American hard-boiled detective novels. The classical film noir period encompassed “several hundred motion pictures produced… between roughly 1940 and [early] 1960” (1).

 The striking stylistic conventions of classical film noir have made it one of the most easily recognisable filmic genres to date. Directors such as John Huston, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock worked with varying degrees of darkness (2), chiaroscuro lighting, rain-slicked city streets, world-weary protagonists and scheming dames that effortlessly exuded sexuality to tell twisted tales of criminal deeds.

As a genre or stylistic tradition, ‘film noir’ has undergone many reinventions and intensifications since this classical noir period. The ‘suburban noir’ (sometimes referred to somewhat paradoxically as ‘sunshine noir’) emerged during the early to mid 1990s. This sub-genre marked a clear shift from a dark, gangster-obsessed and city-based classical conception of film noir into a noir based in the suburban space.

Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is a prime example of the suburban noir, violently clashing a sun-drenched suburban setting (specifically, that of Los Angeles) with a dark criminal underworld. Within Pulp Fiction and the suburban noir, the safety and security of the everyday, domesticated suburban lifestyle is infected by the dangerous kind of criminal activity of classic noir. Staple suburban locales such as the family home, local restaurants or even a high school (see Brick) become potential drug dens, murder sites or gang controlled areas. Although there is very little actual violence shown during Pulp Fiction – approximately 2 ½ minutes from a 153 minute running time (3) – the violent acts that occur burst into typically non-violent spaces; for example, Honey Bunny and Pumpkin hold up a diner, an area that is generally frequented by families rather than armed criminals.

As well as meshing criminal and domestic spaces, suburban noir also displaces classical noir figures into the suburban setting. Mobsters such as Marsellus Wallace, hit-man Vincent Vega and his partner Jules Winnfield co-exist with home-based drug dealer Lance, polo-shirted informant Marvin and Vincent’s indignant wife-fearing friend Jimmy.

The displacement of classical noir characters into the suburban realms can often yield arresting results. Although Mia, with her slick red lips, vampy features and seemingly powerful sexuality (4) , appears as a femme fatale character, her largely unspectacular demise suggests that there is no space for fatales in the suburbs. Her failure as an actress and her later overdose leaves her weak, powerless and deathly pale, a far cry from the sexually potent and glamorous fatales of the classical noir period.

Other themes commonly found within the suburban noir also include the demise of the family unit (5) (note the absence of stable, functional familial relations within Pulp Fiction), the destruction of the ‘American dream’ (Mia’s failure as an actress) and the idea that the ‘safe’ suburbs mask hidden danger and perversity (consider what lurks in the basement of Maynard’s store).

Under Tarantino’s gaze, suburban Los Angeles is a potentially dangerous land of failed dreams and alienation. Within Pulp Fiction, as with many suburban noirs, the suburb is constructed as a site of unexpected danger, and criminality.

Taking noir out of the shadows, despite the supposed safety of good clean family living, suburban noir shows that it takes more than mere daylight to expose the hidden dangers of the contemporary world. This perhaps marks the most striking commonality between classical noir and suburban noir; things are not always as they seem.

 References

(1) Silver, Alan, 1996, ‘Son of Noir: Neo-Film Noir and the Neo-B Picture’, Film Noir Reader, Limelight, New York, p 331

(2) Place, Janey, 1998, ‘Women in Film Noir’ in Women in Film Noir, ed E. Ann Kaplan, London, BFI Publishing, p 51

(3) Yaquinto, Marilyn, 1998, ‘The Prince of Pulp and Royal Hoods’, Pump ‘em Full of Lead: A Look at Gangsters on Film, Twayne, New York, p 228

(4) Hayward, Susan, 1996, Key Concepts in Cinema, Routledge, London, New York, p 118

(5) Klein, Norman M., 1997, “Suburban Noir and Cyberspace”, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the erasure of memory, Verso, London, p 296

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YOUR GUIDE TO: Bound (1996, dir. Wachowski Brothers)

15 Sep

Bound movie poster

“I had this image of you inside me.”

For those that loved:

Gilda, The Last Seduction, Prey for Rock and Roll, Sin City,

For those that are writing on:

Representation of femininity/sexuality, positions of spectatorship, film noir, neo-noir, femme fatale, images of women in the cinema, masculinity in crisis, crime cinema, violence in the cinema, symbols of femininity, lesbian identity, queer cinema

In a nutshell
Before they brought The Matrix to the masses (and then undid their good work with ‘those’ sequels), the Wachowski’s produced this slick neo-noir crime caper. Corky and Violet show Thelma and Louise how rebelling against the constraints of an oppressive patriarchal rule really works. Knowingly vampy Tilly and charismatic Gershon  also have twice as much fun and provide twice as much entertainment while they do it.

Plot

Sick of being trapped in an oppressive relationship with made man Ceaser (Joe Pantaliano), deceptively plucky mob moll Violet (Jennifer Tilly) hatches an escape plan with ex-con Corky (Gina Gershon). A daring scheme, involving the theft of 2 million dollars of mob money, inevitably things don’t quite go to plan.

Why should I watch?

Although much is made of the lesbian relationship between Corky and Violet, there is far more to Bound than two pretty neo-fatales kissing. While Bound achieves a genuine eroticism (no doubt aided by the enlisting of a ‘sex therapist’ to choreograph sex scenes between the leading ladies, and the sexually-charged chemistry between Gershon and Tilly), it is also a visually enticing and well crafted entry into the world of neo-noir.

While the male supports deliver capable caricatures of mob masculinity, it is Gershon and Tilly who shine here, both existing in the kind of grey space that makes characters worth watching. Both are somehow resourceful and resilient, yet fractured and vulnerable. The journey each characters undertakes throughout Bound serves to make the film’s conclusion both satisfying and believable.

Consider/Further study etc

  • Within film noir, the femme fatale is often shown to rely on her sexual prowess and manipulation of the men around her to achieve her goals. Do Corky and Violet reinforce or challenge this claim?
  • Do Corky and Violet reinforce or challenge the classical femme fatale archetype? Do they reinforce or challenge traditional understanding’s of femininity?
  • Considering the patriarchal structure of the Mafia, Corky and Violet’s transgression against Ceaser and his associates could be seen as a challenge to an oppressive patriarchal social order. In what other ways do Corky and Violet challenge traditional patriarchal expectations?
  • Does Bound reflect a continuation of or break from traditional film noir?
  • How does Ceaser (and the other Mafia men) initially view Violet? How does this differ to the way Corky sees Violet, or the way that Violet sees herself? Consider in particular the difference between Violet at the beginning of the film, to the way she appears at end.
  • Within Bound the hand is eroticised as a sexual organ. In a sense, sexual potency is reassigned from (implicitly masculine) phallic symbols to the hand. How does this affect the representation of both feminine and masculine sexuality within Bound?

Further Reading

  • Oliver, Kelly and Trigo, Benigo, 2003, Noir Anxiety, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press
  • Place, Janey, 1998, Women in Film Noir, ed E Ann Kaplan, London, BFI Publishing

YOUR GUIDE TO: Brick (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)

8 Aug

brick

“Ain’t bodies got a right to be curious?”

For those that loved:

Pulp Fiction, Magnolia, Layer Cake, Donnie Darko

For those that are writing on:

Adolescent cinema, representations of masculinity (and femininity) in contemporary film, noir, neo-noir or suburban noir, construction of the self (many philosophical possibilities arise from the relationship between Brain and Brendon)

In a nutshell

Drugs, thugs, scheming dames and noir intrigue set amongst a Sunny suburban landscape. Expect heavy lashings of teenage angst; this is Sam Spade, the junior years.

Plot

After receiving a frantic call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), teenage loner Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) must unravel the mystery that surrounds her disappearance. Inserting himself into an underground drug ring lead by the scheming Pin (Lukas Haas), with the help of his seemingly only friend Brain (Matt O’Leary) Brendan is determined to “make Em’s troubles mine” until he can uncover the truth.

Why should I watch?

In the strangely parent-less world of Brick, kids converse in hipster noir lingo that seems to be at odds with the sun-streaked suburban locale. The usually banal high school setting is inflected with an eerie seriousness, as are the characters that inhabit this bleak landscape.

An intricate murder mystery is slowly unravelled by the unflappable man-with-a-plan Brendan and while the story is perhaps familiar ground for anyone even vaguely familiar with the noir tradition, it is a story worth telling.

Solid performances are delivered by a relatively unknown cast; Gordon-Levitt in particular shines as Brendan. Having escaped the hell of child stardom (he played Tommy in 90s sitcom ‘Third rock from the Sun’), Gordon-Levitt seems only a few more wise character choices away from indie-to-mainstream, Gyllenhaal-styled stardom (hello, (500) days of summer?).

The almost Western styled guitar strains that echo throughout Brick add to the intence, haunted feel of the film and further emphasise the care put into this production. A promising first feature from director-to-watch Rian Johnson, Brick is the kind of intricate film that benefits from repeat viewings.

Consider/Further Study etc

  • In what ways does Brick resemble classic noir? In what ways does it subvert noir conventions to present a contemporary suburban image of film noir?
  • Film noir is often suggested to be a ‘cinema of paranoia’. In what ways is this reflected within Brick?
  • Consider the last scene that takes place between Brendan and Brain. Without wanting to give too much away, notice Brain’s last path of movement. What might this suggest about his relationship with Brendan?
  • Emily, Kara and Laura all embody vastly different representations of femininity. In what ways are these characters similar to the classic femme fatale archetype? In what ways do they differ?
  • Throughout Brick, Kara is shown in many different costumes, each creating a distinctive representation of femininity. What might this suggest about contemporary understandings and constructions of femininity, and the normative understandings of femininity?
  • In the final exchange between Brendan and Laura, she whispers a “dirty word”. What might this suggest about the representation of masculinity within Brick?

Further Reading

  • Oliver, Kelly and Trigo, Benigo, 2003, Noir Anxiety, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press
  • Tasker, Yvonne, 1998, ‘New Hollywood, New Film Noir and the Femme Fatale’, in Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema, London, New York, Routledge
  • Telotte, J.P., 1989, Voices in the Dark: the Narrative Patterns of Film Noir, Urbana, University of Illinois Press