Friday, April 8, 2011

Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and the Film Noir Femme Fatale

An essay in the French style.

A casual film buff would probably conclude that the femme fatale archetype – the alluring female version of what used to be known as a sociopath – is one of the two or three dominant tropes in the film noir genre. “Pretty to think so,” as Hemingway wrote in Paris, for the French terms sound and feel so much alike (apropos for the only film genre named by critics). Sadly, I am hard-pressed (or is it hard-boiled) to find more than a scattering of movies graced by this lady draped in black. Female characters become less prominent and certainly less virtuous in the film noir cycle, but the true black widow – as in real life – is hard to find. To what, one may ask, do we owe all this fuss?

As with most of the literary elements of film noir, discussion of the femme fatale starts with three pulp writers, Baltimoreans Dashiell Hammett and James Cain, and Los Angelino Raymond Chandler. Characteristic of the way they invert and re-imagine dimestore novel clichés, all three writers feature fleshed-out versions of the “lady of ill repute” character. Cain takes it the farthest, of course, essentially creating in novels like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice the gender-reversed idea of a woman solely motivated by greed and power, who ruthlessly uses sex instead of a gun to get her way (and to combat her perceived powerlessness). It’s the male characters, though, that are of the most interest. While the women are somewhat moribund, the men find, in the pulse of sexual attraction, the proclivity to become sociopaths themselves – their personalities become fractured, MK Ultra style, so they look on their deeds with both detachment and horror. The shock for 1940s movie audiences, however, was not so much the compromised man as the heartless woman. Films to that time invariably portrayed women as the moral center of the plot, the ones who subtly directed the characters to right action in the face of fear and temptations for wrong. Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity crushed that gender stereotype like a cigarette in her pointy stiletto heels, turning sex from a way to redemption to just another addiction that led, as all those movies do, to an appointment with a very hot chair.

You’re good,” the words of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) to Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), similarly shocked sensibilities, because the man became in that moment the arbiter of morality, the mother so to speak. What sparked his compliment though was his recognition of her as someone who does what he does. He is torn not so much by physical attraction as admiration for her ruthless tactics, for it’s his soul-searching of what it means to be heroic in a corrupt world that keeps him from the kind of effortless deviousness she demonstrates. That’s characteristic of Hammett’s controlled world, where rules can be sussed no matter how depraved the human condition (for this reason I have always found Clint Eastwood’s characters as direct antecedents of Hammett’s – the way one must constantly and cleverly negotiate between the rules of the criminal and the rules of the authority).

Chandler explodes that pretense of rules – and his treatment of women serves that end – portraying a world where the cops, instead of being obstacles that must be, as part of a code, fed no information, become worse than the criminals, additional adversaries that must be factored in, as NBA teams of today sometimes must battle both the opposing team and the corrupted referees. Unlike overpaid superstars, however, Marlowe refuses to give in, or rather he’s smart enough to simply watch the behavior, and find therein the keys to his own survival. In his discerning state, all around him become robots, programmed by some evil force that is always just a step beyond his ken. It’s only when you think you know what drives people, as poor Moose did in Farewell My Lovely, that you fall.

Hollywood had little patience for these kinds of subtleties. The typical Tinseltown dish, outside of no-budget outriders like Detour (which actually portrayed a three-dimensional demented woman, it wasn’t all about the guy), was sex-kitten romps like Gilda, where the guy is just deluded by jealousy and the girl can’t help it. Rita Hayworth there and in The Lady from Shanghai may have been outside the bounds of 1940’s decency conventions, but her behavior today would be considered laughably child-like (her actual life, which included her father sexually abusing her with her mother beside them in bed and dressing her up as his 12-year old wife in public among other things, was a completely different matter).

Most noirs were standard police-procedure yarns, precursors of Dragnet, about the seedy exteriors, the night-for-night lighting, the claustrophobic camera angles, the moral ambiguity. What’s shocking today about these movies is not the diminished role of females, but the openness of police corruption. Today, woman can be as degraded, duplicitous or manipulative as a filmmaker wants them to be, but there’s still the attitude of “one bad apple spoils the bunch” when it comes to the portrayal of law enforcement. Not so for the noirs of the 40’s and 50’s, where cops routinely give in to temptation, go sadistic on crooks and informants equally, avoid risks, miss obvious clues, and in general honor the blue code more in the breach than in the observance. Movies like Rogue Cop and Shield for Murder delve deeper into the sociology of this, presenting in typical message picture fashion how those who protect and serve are falling further and further behind the suburban norm of affluence. While post-noirs like Chinatown peel the cameras back to a wide-angle look at the corruption near the top, original noirs didn’t extend the critical gaze to judges, lawyers or politicians. The all-seeing camera eye stays at the individual level and the viewer is forced to see horrible crimes committed (often involving women as victims) because the cops are clueless.

I think the reason the femme fatale has taken hold in our rearview noir mirror is due to its later development in Hollywood, with movies like Body Heat and Black Widow and extending to today’s most interesting genre, the Reality or Paranoia genre. Similar to noir, Reality or Paranoia portrays a world unmoored from the safety of morality and convention, but it goes much deeper into the idea of being manipulated in our thoughts and actions by outside, unknowable forces. The common situation of all these films (a partial list can be found here) is where the hero/heroine never knows if the dream/nightmare world he/she is experiencing is real or a manipulation of reality/perception by unknown (usually malign) forces. The sheer number of pictures in this genre, its relevance to the contemporary mindset, and particularly its eerie “true-to-life” resemblance to the glut of Monarch / Bluebeam / MK Ultra programs among Hollywood stars (these are people mind controlled to unconsciously have sex, kill or say anything on command by “masters” who’d created in them multiple personalities through deliberate and prolonged childhood sexual, emotional and drug abuse) awaits further, systematic investigation.

For today’s purposes, I’m intrigued by the power of a woman (or man) who does not respond to suggestions of love in the sincere, giving and expected 1-to-1 way humans interact – in other words, how 2-D people so often “win” in a 3-D world. That’s the essential role of the femme fatale, to disrupt the normal relation. That’s also the role of the sociopath, who pretends to care for you as a person, but behind the eyes is always probing for weaknesses of compassion to exploit. Confronting such a stark reality is what is at the heart of Shelley’s great “Mont Blanc” poem. I know that fountains of ink have gone into glossing this formidable masterpiece that reads like an homage to film noir. But it’s hard to argue with the idea that the poem exists as a sort of end-stop to the Romantic movement (narrowly defined), in which the imagined Romantic dream of being at one with nature is finally acknowledged as a delusion. Similarly the dream of love between a man and a woman relies on a ratio of giving and receiving that is forever unmeasured, because all it takes is a wink to think that that person’s very being has just been given up to yours. Birds, even branches on trees, wink, and so one is quite permitted to construct elaborate monuments to one’s ego, where everything around one is a function of oneself.

Shelley starts the poem in this vein, with the grand poetic transference we love those beautiful Romantic Poet souls for: “giant brood of pines …children of elder time, in whose devotion the chainless winds still come and ever came to drink their odours,” “holding an unremitting interchange with the clear universe of things around.” But, as he goes deeper, beyond a Wordsworthian marking of territory between the self and other, “some veil robes some unsculptured image,” and he finally must reach “remote, serene, and inaccessible” Mont Blanc:

A city of death, distinct with many a tower
And wall impregnable of beaming ice.
Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing
Its destined path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shattered stand; the rocks' drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed. The dwelling place
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil
Their food and their retreat for ever gone,
So much of life and joy is lost. The race
Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest's stream,
And their place is not known.
Can you just see the lighting of John Alton or Harry Wild infuse this city?