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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #24: The Square Circle (Opening Scene from 99 River Street)

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The boxing scene is shot at close-range.  Tight in on the action, limiting our view to only a small area of the ring.  The action takes place mostly in one small area of the ring.  This limited view is like what we see on television - small frame for a small picture.  We can only see part of the scene.  If it were shot as cinema, we might see the whole ring, the surrounding crowd - larger view for the large screen.


 


Ernie's driving a taxi, with the intention of saving up enough to move up the ladder to a better-paying job.  He sees the opportunity to be his own boss - no more taking orders from others.  But Pauline sees it differently; she sees that he would be taking orders from customers to wipe the windows, etc.  Her goal is not to work up the ladder, but to already be at the top, not just keep up with the Joneses, but to be the Joneses.  She's tired of selling corsages to society ladies.  She wants to have corsages pinned on herself and be the society lady.  Rhinestones aren't good enough - she wants the real thing, and she wants it now.


 


Pauline says she could have been a star.  Ernie stands over her and says, almost defiantly, "You were a showgirl," reminding her of where he found her.  She was just another girl in the chorus line, nothing special.  Then he sits down for his next line, "And I could've been the champion."  His physical position and the dejected tone of voice both show that he knows he's not the top of the heap.  He's disappointed her, and he realizes that.  He continues speaking from the chair, pleading with her, grabbing her hand out of desperation.  She stands over him, back to the camera - We are not to feel any sympathy with her, so we don't see her face.  We only hear her rudeness.


 


 


 


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Norma Desmond told us it was "the pictures that got small." In Ernie's case the small TV picture is like a magnifying glass dissecting how he missed his opportunity to be the champ. The transition from the actual fight to TV rerun is startling. The crowd noise, and the heavy grunts and pounding of the ring transitions to almost silence with a sterile narration as if we're watching an academic medical procedure. Ernie is standing outside of himself getting to replay his mistakes over again. All the while the twitching eye and gritting teeth tell us that he still feels every blow. And Pauline lives in the "woulda...coulda...shoulda" world of regrets. 

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The social aspect of the film harkened back to that perennial clash between couples over Money and status: he coulda been a champ, she coulda been an actress. Instead she's bitter that she's stuck in a crummy apartment with a washed-up "pug" whose sole ambition is to run a gas-station...for that she gave up a career? And he doesn't see that she might want a career instead of being a dutiful housewife. It's a Noir recipe that is destined to not go well from this point. 

 

I should probably add my original post that I'm not without sympathy for Ernie. Just like women are caught up in status, being a man whose wife doesn't have to work is a sign of status for a man. So, just as you point out, this is a recipe for disaster. His ambitions (to be a working man capable of supporting himself and his wife) meet his definition of success. But hers involves more money and prestige. And having a husband who is the sole breadwinner is a double-edged sword. I'm sure some women would enjoy it, but for others it could easily become a gilded cage--no sense of mission or purpose to make your life meaningful.

 

I think that having two people in a relationship who are hitting the wall of reality at the same time (he won't be a champ, she won't be wealthy) is a rough place to be. She's unsympathetic to his limited means (being a fighter doesn't exactly make you cut out for high-wage work), and he doesn't understand the degree to which she gave up her aspirations to put her eggs in his basket. She'll doubtlessly come off worse (because of the presumed infidelity and more naked greed), but I feel bad for both of them. People can act pretty ugly when they're boxed into a corner.

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There is a definite change in energy between the opening scene of the fight and the part we see on television.  The first part of the scene puts the viewer in the middle of the action.  At times the viewer feels like he or she is in the ring with the fighters, and other times, like he or she has a front row seat to the fight.  The camera work is dynamic and the cheering crowd almost drowns out the announcer.  Once we cut to the fight on the television, everything becomes very static; the camera doesn’t move as much.  Gone are the close-ups as well; we view the fighters in a long shot.  The action is even in slow motion with no sound other than the announcer’s voice.  Soon, the camera pans back so that our image of the fight gets smaller as well, as we see the television on which it is playing, and, eventually, even Ernie watching himself.  Everything in the second part of the scene distances the viewer from the visceral action of the fight.

 

When we get to the discussion between Ernie and Pauline, we see a wife similar to Jane in Too Late for Tears.  Pauline is obviously unhappy with their social status and blames her husband for not earning enough to put them at the top of the heap.  Unlike the American Dream of being able to work your way up in society, Pauline looks down on any kind of work.  Instead of marrying a champion boxer, she ended up with a has-been, someone who came close to making it, but failed.  The viewer gets the feeling that she probably only married him because she thought that he was going places.  Now that he is just a regular guy, struggling to make ends meet, she wishes she could have her choice over again.  The pressure that Pauline places on Ernie to make money fast or he will lose her is what really pushes this scene towards noir.  The only way to make that much money that quickly is generally by doing something illegal, so if Ernie wants to keep his wife, he will have to do something desperate. 

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Another aspect of social commentary of this time links to the media of film and television itself. The growing tabloid culture of movies and television created expectations (mostly false) of 'making it big' in entertainment or sports. These two characters have both bought into these dreams and are struggling with the reality of life as harder and unglamorous, and blaming each other for their perceived 'failure'. It's interesting that this tabloid culture has only grown, widening to include social media, and our society still reveres the stars of sport and entertainment over a regular, reasonable-to-expect life.

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Noir style:  dissecting, angular lines from the ring ropes in the very opening shot; low key lighting on the boxes in the ring for three-quarters or head and shoulders shots;

 

Noir substance:  By watching the fight in the middle of dinner, Ernie is breaking from the Pre-WWII and WWII family conventions.  He is going against the grain of what society expects, and he isn’t conforming.  Eddie is down on his luck, trying to save to make a better life and Pauline is the femme fatale that married him, unhappy with her lot in life as a wife – a working wife (gasp, the horror!).

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Cinema:  dynamic camera angels that match the beat of the boxing, switching of close-ups to full body shots.  It feels like you’re in the ring being punched in the face.

 

Teleivion:  Same distance from the boxers, average lighting, feels unexciting.

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Coulda, woulda, shoulda is the theme here. The ex- boxer reliving his glory days. First we see the fight as it is happening with the frantic camera angles and the goriness of a boxer's injuries. Then suddenly it's on the much smaller television which loses its excitement on a smaller screen. Ernie watches with a gleam in his eyes, perhaps wondering if he should have used a different move on his opponent, mentally coaching himself.

 

Pauline doesn't want to be reminded of his past. All she wants is a better life. Even I have felt like that at times, when I went to a cousin's wedding in upper Michigan. My cousin's husband works in a dynamite factory. Not the life I would like to live. My uncle worked in the iron ore mines until health problems forced him out. Same thing; shows I am a city girl.

 

Her tone shows she's mad as hell and can't take it anymore. And taxi driving and gas stations aren't good enough. Ernie coldly reminds her she was just a showgirl, putting her in her place. But she retaliates; I thought they were going to hit each other.

 

I thought she called him a "punk" at first, then realized it was "pug".

 

And one year later we heard Marlon Brando say "I coulda been a contendah..."

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An investigation into today’s Daily Dose clip suggests a political based critique of 1950’s America.  While this interpretation may exist in films like Too Late For Tears and Phil Karlson’s 88 River Street (United Artists, 1953), especially in the light of materialism, it’s hard to completely identify the extent that any critique is reflective of a real and substantive mood that the country was under or whether this criticism reflects the voice of a prescient outlier.

 

1950’s America was a time of post-war success.  Europe and Asia were economically devastated.  There was no real foreign competition for American products.  Union membership was at a high water mark of 35% of the workforce (compared to today’s 11% or so).  Higher union membership meant higher wages, paid vacations and the five-day workweek.  There was no global economy.  Marriages soared.  There was a “baby boom.”  People flocked from the cities to the newly developed suburbs and home ownership increased.  Suburban life increased the need for automobiles.  Consumerism and materialism increased, due in part to the purchase of television, which brought a new form of advertising into homes.

 

What is difficult to ascertain is whether or not John Payne’s character Ernie Driscoll and Peggie Castle’s character Pauline Driscoll are reflective of a widespread societal malaise or are simply two individuals that a booming economy passed over.  Should we view them as representative of 1950’s America?  Truth be told, any number of films from the 1920’s to the present have plots and characters that struggle with economic difficulties.

 

The clip opens with the actual boxing match.  However, it’s not solely from Driscoll’s point of view, rather in some shots we’re in the ring, or sitting at ringside looking up at the fight, or we’re in Driscoll’s opponents’ shoes.  The actual fight sequence serves as a flashback.  This sequence is followed by a cut to the televised version of the fight and we’re back to the present.  I’m guessing that the actual fight is meant to be Driscoll’s visceral memories of the fight that are triggered by watching the television rebroadcast.  I don’t think Karlson is using the two sequences to comment on the artistic failings of television as much as he’s commenting on the difference between what it was like for Payne to be in the fight compared to watching the fight possibly weeks later.

 

The importance of the television set in the scene between John Payne and Peggie Castle is about its significance as a device that permits Payne to revisit his fight in, yes, slow motion.  This allows Payne to see his past, frame by frame so to speak, and evaluate whether or not he’s fooling himself into thinking he could have been the champ.  The television show lets him to see himself from a different point of view.  It’s a window to his past.  For Payne, the past and particularly this fight, are a clue as to why his life is like it is in the present.

 

I haven’t seen the film yet, so my comments are solely about the clip or are guesses as to what might occur.  Payne may be a delusional optimist but at least he’s an optimist.  His wife, on the other hand, is an insufferable pessimist.  Payne tries but can barely control himself because of the hurtful ad hominem attacks his wife hurls at him.  In this scene, Payne is symbolically in the ring with his wife.  While women in the 1950’s certainly had fewer economic choices than men, she never once takes responsibility for marrying the man she did.  She categorically rejects the vow of, “…for better or worse.”  Loathing her job and generally complaining about her life doesn’t create sympathy, it’s just a portrait of a whiner.

 

At this point, I’m perfectly happy disliking Castle as that would exemplify good writing, direction and acting.  Typically, the arc of writing suggests that Castle will either become a supportive and likable partner to Payne (meaningful change), or disappear from the film (film justice or plot point).  A good comparison might be with Audrey Totter in The Set-Up, or Eva Gardner’s terse assessment of boxers in The Killers.

 

Today’s clip quickly sets up the dysfunctional relationship between Payne and Castle.  It also gives us a look into Payne and Castle’s marriage backstory and the events that led them to where they are today.  When Payne walks into his own close-up there’s the suggestion that he’s had all he can take and his next response may be violent.  Lastly, the behavior of Castle raises a question about how long she can remain on her current, disagreeable path.

 

-Mark

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This scene was sad and brutal, from the beating and humiliation he takes at the opening to the verbal beating from his wife. I imagine this being the male American nightmare.

 

At the end it's unclear what way the story will take. I did find his reaction interesting -- the anti-hero of the 40's would have verbally sparred with her or smacked her around, but this man simply stands there and takes the abuse, a bit as he seemed to do in the fight scene. Not that I condone domestic violence, but the contrast seems to mark a change in attitude. He doesn't react at all, even verbally, as if he has been crushed in every aspect of his life.

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I thought that the use of TV was an effective means of presenting a flashback. It allowed John Payne to get beat down twice-first in the prizefight and then by his wife. She seems to be a frustrated social climber who is getting nowhere fast and blames her husband and isn't satisfied with his middle-class desire to own his own business (a gas station). The bickering between them shows that something bad will happen between them or too them. Flashback and foreshadowing in the same scene.

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I’m not familiar with this film, so I’ll have to put it on my watch list. I usually think of John Payne as a little bit of a lightweight nice guy. It’s great to see him in this role.

I suppose this scene would be a little curious for anyone who came of age after the feminist movement. This clip certainly embraces noir’s reliance on desperate character’s, but once again we see a young (possibly suburban) couple in a desperate situation. This is not unusual in post-war films. So often men, who took time out to serve their country returned jobless and skill-less and facing competition from younger men. On the other side of the equation, women who worked to make ends meet during the war, are now called unpatriotic if they continue to work. They are told that their employment was taking a job away from a man, who needed it, so that he could take care of his family.

It might shock the younger generation, but if you look at the classified ads from a 1950’s newspaper, you will see the headings, “Jobs Men,” “Jobs Women,” and “Jobs Colored.” Frequently the under “Jobs Women” it would say something like, “Attractive young woman need for secretarial duties.”

In the 50’s the crisis in this scene would have been more obvious. Not only is Ernie a washed-up boxer, but he is a failure as a man because he cannot provide for his wife. Pauline undoubtedly hears the whispers about what a loser her husband is, but she can’t divorce him. There are few jobs for divorced women; there are only jobs for “Attractive young women” and she has no secretarial skills, she was a showgirl.

So, they seem like a nice young couple who could surely find a way to make ends meet, but in reality, they are desperate. And in the world of noir, desperation leads to trouble.

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I thought that the use of TV was an effective means of presenting a flashback. It allowed John Payne to get beat down twice-first in the prizefight and then by his wife. She seems to be a frustrated social climber who is getting nowhere fast and blames her husband and isn't satisfied with his middle-class desire to own his own business (a gas station). The bickering between them shows that something bad will happen between them or too them. Flashback and foreshadowing in the same scene.

 

I agree - very practical consideration. The "cinematic" part of the fight put us right there in it with Ernie, letting us imagine his hurt and defeat. We experience it with him. Then the camera pullback shows us that he's watching it on TV, not remembering it in his head like a conventional flashback. The transition brings us back to the movie's "real" (diegetic) world. It takes us from Ernie's subjective to an oberver's objective POV, to witness the painful and soul-grinding interaction between him and Pauline in their small, oppresive attic apartment which hems them in like another boxing ring.

 

Pauline at first expresses real concern that Ernie is tormenting himself unnecessarily by reliving his defeat. "Finish your dinner", then "are you having a good time?".  I get the impression it's not the first time he's wallowed in regret and pulled her in too. The conversation inevitably escalates to bitterness and resentment over lost opportunities for success. Ernie still holds a shred of belief in doing it the hard, honest way while Pauline is all out of patience after 4 years. I don't get the sense that she's a cold-hearted opportunist. Rather, she's given it her best shot with Ernie and just gotten worn down by his stubborn and slightly masochistic streak, his refusal to do anything to help success along.

 

If a bag of money landed in her car she would keep driving too. Maybe she already has some quick-and-slick scheme up her sleeve or is looking around for one, be it on her own or in alliance with some shady character who's not such an upstanding citizen or sucker like Ernie. Haven't seen this movie, looking forward to how it'll play out. Enjoying reading all the incisive observations that've been posted.

 

 

.

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Pauline is unnecessarily nasty to Driscoll as she blames him for her unhappiness. Rather than being sympathetic with his inability to continue his chosen career, she throws it in his face. The scene suggests that a way out may already have occurred to her and she's looking for an excuse to take it. Another lover, perhaps? The relationship is showing as many raveled ends as Driscoll's fighting career and it can't end well.

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Here are a few discussion starters (though feel free to come up with your own):

 

-- Compare and contrast how director Karlson shoots and stages the boxing scene as a contrast of styles between cinema and television.

 

Television is shot tight to show the seriousness of the boxing action. The movie shows space and a sense of largeness. I believe this is purposely done to show how much more powerful and large movies are compared to television.

 

-- Discuss the scene's social commentary in the interactions between Ernie (John Payne) and Pauline (Peggie Castle).

 

This is no longer pre WWII where all was seemingly well in homes. This scene show the disappoint, alienation by the wife, longing for what was, and the hopelessness.

 

-- What are some of the noir elements in this scene, either in terms of style or substance?

 

Close ups, angles of the shots, Black and white filming, pessimism due to situations that characters are in.

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What caught my attention the most from the scene was the marriage dynamics. No more happy homes, the wife is defiant and disrespectful, the husband is weak, disappointed, and emasculated. There is alienation and insecurity (in themselves as persons, and about their environment: employment, their future together, etc.)

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Nothing like blood spatter in Black and White!   Watching the film fight – I thought how easier it is to watch the violence of boxing if shot in black and white.   Then, Noir delivered me a punch, in the form of Ernie’s face down at the mat – blood spatter dripping from his eye.   One could feel the wetness of the blood and see every splat and spot and dot of blood …. WOW!  I never realized the impact of blood shaded in Noir. 

 

Six Successive Screen Shots – a great set-up!    Karlson shoots six close-ups in succession:

  1. TV
  2. Ernie
  3. Ernie and TV
  4. Pauline and Ernie
  5. Pauline
  6. Ernie and TV

They appear to stage the relationships amongst these three characters.   Meet TV.  Meet Ernie.  Ernie and TV is the primary relationship.   TV is Ernie’s inner self and it is full of substance - boxing, the masculine identity and sensitivities, ambition, power, notions of win or lose.     
Meet Pauline and Ernie.   In this relationship, “something’s wrong with his eye.”  His focus is not on Pauline.   See Pauline alone.  See Ernie and TV (the end).   

 

I have not seen 99 River Street.   This series of shots conveys to me:   Ernie will have a struggle with himself, his inner self – for he looks at the TV with a scarred, twitching eye.   And, he will end up at best alone (without Pauline) or something worse (because of Pauline).    Pauline may be a femme fatale -   She equates her position to Ernie as “rhinestones around a ten dollar movement’!     
 

 

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Phil Karlson stages a great fight scene here.  Low angles, close-ups and use of the ropes and fighters as they slug it out gives the viewer an intimate view of the violence of the fight.  The cut to John Payne's face a close-up matching the fight scene and showing us the scarred cut to his eye lets us know, along with the dialogue, the noir narrative here is failed dreams. 

 

The humorous contrast the curator refers to is also demonstrated by how close John Payne is scene sitting to the TV as we watch him watch himself over his shoulder.  That's followed by another dig at TV when he flips the camera to show the view of this wide room with the little screen TV in the foreground.  It kind of looks like he's showing a theater from the POV of the screen.

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All Ernie is left with is a ghost of his former self caught on film and viewed on television. His wife is almost a ghost of her former self, putting together floral bouquets in a floral shop when she could have

been an actress. They both could have been something else, he the world boxing champion; she the glamorous movie star. Instead they are two has been's, washed up "could have been's". (Note how quick he is to

remind her that she was only a show girl when he met her.) They live in a crummy apartment. Both are so unhappy, a good mixture for a film noir story. He can only go but up. Notice I don't include her, for she is a femme fatal in the strictest sense; she will lead him into danger because she is so unhappy with her life with him. She already is accepting jewelry from a rich admirer.

 

Just an aside, what is it with these noir men either owning or working in a service station? Ernie wants to save up enough money to buy and run one. Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past works in a service station; Ole Olson works in one in The Killers. I think that would be an interesting study.

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   Karlson does a great job in showing that the fight scene that is cinema is powerful and realistic. You can almost feel the boxer's torment. The camera shots are dramatically close and the audience is in there with him. In contrast, the T.V. rendition of the fight is too distant to be as effective. It's in slow motion and serves as a painful reminder of an event that's significant in Ernie's boxing career.

    The conversation between Ernie and Pauline demonstrates a change in society in the 50's.(aspirations of attaining wealth). This young couple is struggling to make ends meet. She probably agreed to marry him when he was at the top of his game, winning a large amount of temporary money. She wanted to be a star and he reminds her that she is a showgirl. She coldly retorts that she resents marrying a "pug". Ernie has lost his dream of becoming a champion and is depressed. He has not lost hope though.He seems optimistic about perhaps opening a gas station and living the American dream. Pauline is not satisfied with his meager ambition. Her greed is deeper. She wants diamonds instead of rhinestones. She wants to live like the rich and famous. Fat chance

     The noir elements in this scene include great camera angles especially the focus on Pauline while Ernie is watching the fight. Her body language is very telling. It spells dissatisfaction in the marriage and possible motives for adultery.The theme of disillusionment is the emotional heft of this story. Ernie has not only failed in his chosen profession but he feels cheated."I could of been a champion" Pauline has given up on the marriage but he has false hopes, "let's give it another four months". There is trouble brewing.

    

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After reading the responses and re-thinking the opening scene, I think Ernie is the emasculated anti-hero of noir. The loss of the fight emotionally emasculated him, and his wife, who will not support him emotionally and criticizes him and has lost patience with him, is an emasculating influence. (Ooh, is he also a cuckold? Some man gave her that "diamond" bracelet.) There are no children present in this four-year marriage. His demeanor is one of loss of his own self respect. She reminds him that he's "only a cab driver". Does her point of view also reflect that of society's? I feel there can be respect for the work they both do, but who is looking at this point of view? Are they through society's eyes?

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Did anyone get anything this week on OTTO3 from Dr. Edwards?  We should have gotten it on July 15?

 

Sorry I haven't been able to get a notice out on this - hard to communicate with everyone when my Announcements tool is broken. But OTTO is coming! We are getting everything finalized and will launch the project on Monday, July 20 and the film we will collaboratively watch and discuss is in next week's Summer of Darkness lineup: Kansas City Confidential.

 

All the details on OTTO and how to participate will be in the next Module opening this Sunday! Stay Tuned! #NoirSummer still has a few surprises left with only two weeks to go! 

 

Yours in noir,

Prof. Edwards

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In today's clip from "99 River Street" we see Ernie Driscoll reliving his glory days watching one of his old fights on television. The Curator's Note in The Daily Dose has already commented on the inherent critique in the visual presentation of film versus video, and little more need be added. What I find interesting is how this makes clear what Ernie has lost, as the visceral excitement of his days as a fighter have been marginalized into this small confining screen. Once again in noir the past is a powerful influence, this time not because of something done wrong, but because of what has been lost, as big dreams settle into middle class mediocrity.

 

Also interesting is the presentation of Pauline. At first she seems concerned about Ernie, trying to get him away from the the television and over to dinner, seemingly worried that he's too absorbed in his past and it's hurting him. With him (and the T.V.) close in the foreground and her the back, we can feel the separation. It's soon clear that she is more concerned with the present than the past because the latter represents missed opportunities (he could have been champion, she could have been a star). Like Jane in "Too Late for Tears," Pauline wants material success. But where Jane seems to feel the pressure of society, Pauline isn't concerned with what anyone else thinks she should have, but what she thought she was entitled to by marrying an up-and-coming boxer, who turned out to be a pug.

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Sorry I haven't been able to get a notice out on this - hard to communicate with everyone when my Announcements tool is broken. But OTTO is coming! We are getting everything finalized and will launch the project on Monday, July 20 and the film we will collaboratively watch and discuss is in next week's Summer of Darkness lineup: Kansas City Confidential.

 

All the details on OTTO and how to participate will be in the next Module opening this Sunday! Stay Tuned! #NoirSummer still has a few surprises left with only two weeks to go! 

 

Yours in noir,

Prof. Edwards

Looking forward to it!

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I just have to ask: all of the people remarking on the fact that Ernie is "emasculated"--what is the equivalent of that for his wife? If Pauline is robbing Ernie of his masculinity, are there ways in which he is robbing her of her femininity?

 

In other words, if Ernie is being denied the American male dream of a respectable job and a dutiful wife, what is the female American dream? What is Pauline's ideal? What should she be aspiring to? Where does she draw her self-worth (aside from having a husband with high status)? Is her desire for money at odds with the American dream, or is it a grotesque extension of it?

 

I'm genuinely curious about what you guys think about this. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what life would look like for a happy guy, but I'm not so sure when I think about the "perfect" life for a woman.

 

I had a great-aunt who was in her "prime" during the 50s. She was an (awesome) teacher, and she took her job very seriously. In a conversation with my father, he expressed the opinion that, had she lived in this day and age, she would have probably preferred to stay single--working her job and traveling (she's been to more countries than anyone I've ever met). I sometimes wonder how economic realities and social niceties impacted the direction of her life, and what her version of a "perfect" living situation would have been.

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