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Overview: Comments on readings and emphases


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I started the course a bit late, or I would have posted some thoughts on this topic earlier.  To make my position clear--my comments come from a background as a long-time student of film, a noir enthusiast, and several advanced degrees in English literature, with an emphasis on historically-based readings of literature.

 

Much of the material here has been first-rate, particularly the material of realist versus formalist style and the literary, artistic, and studio system milieu within which film noir takes shape.  The readings on the studio system and A and B films were completely to the point.  I wouldn’t have minded a reading on the distinction between formalism and realism.  However, I do have to point out some limitations in the approach and readings in the fourth and fifth lectures.  I would in particularly take exception to the heavy emphasis on using French existentialists as a gloss on film texts--in particular, the assumption that existentialism, as a philosophy, is an influence on these films.    There is no question that, particularly beginning in the post-war period, that ideas of alienation, dread, paranoia, and despair become more prominent in American society—although I would certainly question the degree to which they were pervasive, particularly in the 1950s, for the vast majority of Americans.  These were natural responses to the changing world after World War II and Korea.  They were, however, not new.  Stoicism, as a philosophy, deals with many of the same issues, and it goes back to classical times.  I have no doubt that one could interpret many of these films in terms of classical stoicism with perfect clarity.  Alienation, dread, paranoia, and despair are by no means unique to the mid 20th century.  Similarly, I have no doubt that one could interpret some of the novels of Charles Dickens—particularly Great Expectations—as existentialist, although the ideas that Sartre or Camus advance would be completely alien to Dickens.  (It would be interesting to look at Dickens as a precursor to the noir literary style, and, in particular, David Lean’s superb film version of Great Expectations could be called a noir film, almost as much as The Third Man, in stylistic terms.)  The question that would need to be answered for any film that one would describe as existential would be, was the director or screenwriter familiar with existentialist writers, and did he intend to use those ideas?  I don’t doubt that there would be some films that fit those criteria—but they would have to be in the later period.  It is reasonable to say that film noir exhibits themes similar to those treated by existentialist writers—but to say that the interpretation of those ideas is similar is questionable, in my mind, since nearly every noir film ends with some kind of reassertion of cosmic justice—even the darkest, like D.O.A. or Kiss Me Deadly, a narrative reality that directly contradicts the existentialist notion of a purposeless universe.  I am aware that many discount the narrative logic of these films in favor of interpretation through mood or character—but, in a narrative form, you cannot ignore the logic of the narrative itself.  It is reasonable, I think, to point out parallels between existentialist texts and noir themes—but one cannot reasonably argue influence, and arguing existentialist interpretation is at the very least questionable.  (Porfirio’s article is highly selective, and I find it unconvincing.)

 

A second point—Freudianism, clearly, is a significant influence, and it would be useful to add a reading on the basis of Freudian thought, particularly dream interpretation, which is far more relevant to these films that merely mentioning the tripartite division of the psyche into id, ego, and superego.  I would also say that Jungian psychology would be a very useful analytical framework for these films, and some mention of that framework could be useful.  (Porfirio makes one, incorrect, allusion to Jung in his article.  These is more than one manifestation of the female archetype, and, further, every archetype manifests itself in a positive, as well as negative, sense—if he means The Great Mother, there is both the devouring aspect, to which he alludes, and the nurturing, positive aspect.  The same goes for archetypes of female libido.)

A third point—Casper’s summary of the postwar world was riddled with errors (concerning, among other things, taxation, the TV dinner, and divorce—citing the raw numbers, instead of the rate, is misleading, inasmuch as the divorce rate begins to rise steeply well after the date he assigns) and betrays a good deal of political bias, as in his remarks on the Truman doctrine.  It also overemphasizes the negative aspects of 1950s America. 

 

I raise these points as a corrective, and as a suggestion for modifications in future versions of the course.

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