Last month, we began a conversation with Brandon Ryan, the curator behind Central Cinema’s Night and Day: Classic and Modern Film Noir series, wherein we talked about and around film noir, in general and other sundry topics. The conversation continued last week, covering Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (other films that have been the main focus of these conversations include Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, and Rian Johnson’s Brick). The ongoing conversation will be a regular feature while the film series is ongoing.
This week, Ryan and the Star’ José Amador talk a bit about Christopher Nolan’s Memento, play a game of Noir/Not Noir, and discuss some of Ryan’s considerations regarding what films to select for the series.
Seattle Star: Let’s dive right into Memento, Christopher Nolan’s breakout film. Beyond his playing around with the chronological structure, what about Memento stands out for you?
Brandon Ryan: The idea of an unreliable protagonist is a fascinating factor for me. With film noir, the audience is trained to latch on to a figure to help us through the narrative. This dependency is highlighted in Memento, in which our hero, because of the unique medical condition he suffers, can’t even help himself without the aid of little tiny clues that he discovers along the way. Clues that he then tattoos on his body to help keep track of what he understands is some form of truth.
[Spoiler warning.] What’s even more fascinating is the fact that after we witness all of his struggles with his affliction–as the film makes us go along with his unreliable memory–he, in fact, turns out to be kind of the villain in the story. A double dose of unreliableness. It lends itself to that Hitchcock-ian factor we talked about last week, that of a charming but lethal protagonist/antagonist lead. We feel even stronger for Guy Pearce’s character, because we find out what he’s lost; but in the end, he has lost much more than his wife, or his short term memory. He has basically lost his moral compass and his soul. He just doesn’t have the short term memory to feel regret about that. [End spoiler.]
SStar: Have you seen either of Nolan’s movies immediately before, Following–which I haven’t seen–or after, Insomnia, a remake of the original Swedish film? Has Nolan ever worked outside of the neo-noir genre, or is that where he resides, artistically?
BR: I have yet to see Following, but I’ve seen every single other Nolan film, and yes he very much keeps to the neo-noir genre. With great effect and variety, though. Hitchcock thrived in his own particular thriller niche for his entire career; he would tinker with the elements and expand upon what the rules of the genre would be. Hitchcock created fascinating worlds of intrigue and mystery, but he played with different structures and techniques to enrich his films.
For Rope, he played with the idea of doing the entire film within a single take, seemingly. With Lifeboat and Dial M for Murder, he restricted the entire action of those films to just a lifeboat and an apartment, respectively. Rear Window gave us a voyeuristic perspective, exclusively from Jimmy Stewart’s apartment. The Coen Brothers have repeatedly used the same formula in many of their films: the pursuit for forbidden money, the acquiring of that money, which is then followed by massive repercussions. And yet, they’ve been incredibly successful and creative within those storytelling and film making formulas.
Nolan is no exception, he’s shown us numerous shades of the human condition set against the back drop of time-bending dream thieves, a rouge millionaire vigilante, a guilt-ridden cop slipping into his own hell, two obsessed magicians who lose their souls trying to outwit one another, and a vengeful husband searching for his wife’s killer. All brillantly constructed films that deal with the same theme of obsession. Over and over again, his protagonists are consumed with a single goal, an attempt to right a wrong that has haunted their existence. But, look at all the flavor and variety that he uses in what has recently been coined “Nolan’s Verse.” Just like ol’ Hitch-y.
It’s no surprise that all of these directors–Nolan, Hitchock, and the Coen Brothers–are complete auteurs in their films. All of them write, produce and direct almost all of their material. While Hitchcock was a studio director, he still had almost full autonomy when making his films. He would often do uncredited script work on his films. These auteurs use many of the same themes, elements, styles or genres to help tell their stories and give them all their own unique stamp on their bodies of work.
SStar: Is there a thematic reason behind your twinning Memento with Touch of Evil?
BR: [Mild spolier.] Welles’ Hank Quinlan and Guy Pearce’s Lenny both have a similar trajectory related to a flexible morality. Both of their descents stem from the death of their wives, and their lives are severely altered afterwards. Welles’ character is just more blatant about it, and Guy Pearce’s doesn’t have the luxury of guilt or remorse behind his actions. If he did, in 25 years he would become somebody like Quinlan, beaten down and desensitized by everything he’s seen and done.[End spoiler.]
SStar: Have you ever seen the ‘chronologically correct’ version of Memento someone posted online? While I haven’t seen it, I feel it would defeat the purpose. Nolan’s choice to have the film structured backwards is more than just a gimmick. It accentuates the stubborn hubris associated with desiring to seek revenge.
BR: That, along with the off balance structure, helps accentuate his unreliable memory. I never did see the chronological version, it never really interested me. The same for the supposed Pulp Fiction cut, it’s not the way either film maker intended his film to be seen. I’m not playing the ‘pure cinema elitist’ card, I just never had any intrest in seeing those versions.
SStar: I’m just curious enough to be interested in them, but not enough to seek either of them out. Much like ‘Dark Side of the Rainbow’ or other such experiments.
Back to Memento, Guy Pearce is pretty great in this; Joey Pants uses his screen presence to historically predictable ends, and does it really well. This just leaves us to talk about the female lead, Carrie Anne Moss.
Nolan’s calibrations with the structure give Moss the ‘girl with a heart of gold’ arc, as opposed to the femme fatale role one would expect. Although, he keeps throwing little question marks about her character throughout the movie in order to keep the audience on their toes. Moss does really well at toe-ing that line for Nolan.
BR: She is creepy as fuck. What’s aweome about her character in this flick is that she doesn’t have to hide what she is or what she wants. [Mild spoiler.] Everyone else in the film does so anyway, but she can actually show us what her motivations are, since she knows that seconds later Lenny will just forget anyways.[End spoiler.] This is another tweak to the story telling that separates this film from other neo-noir flicks. In the end she is actually in the same situation as Lenny: She just wants some kind of revenge. That’s what makes their tender moments all the richer. She gets caught up along the way, but, in the end, she’s just after one thing.
SStar: Just a strong genre film all around, a great representation of Nolan’s early promise. Okay, ever since we talked about your definition of what constitutes a Noir movie last week, I’ve been wanting to play a game of ‘Noir/Not Noir’ with you.
BR: All right.
SStar: Especially because, as you’ve stated, your parameters for neo-noir are much broader…I think our definitions are a little bit different. Anyway, I’m just going to name some movies at you–I’m not saying they necessarily belong in the Noir category–I just want to see whether they fit for you or not. Ready?
BR: Do it already.
SStar: Brazil, Three Kings, Vanishing Point.
BR: I haven’t seen Brazil, or Vanishing Point. I would say no to Three Kings. It’s very stylized, but the mood and the atmosphere just doesn’t add up to Noir for me.
SStar: The Limey, Match Point.
BR: Frick yes to The Limey. Any sort of revenge thriller or crime film already has one step in the Noir direction. Ditto Match Point, Scarlett Johanssen has a nice reverse-femme-fatale thing going on for her in that. The entire corrupt morality that Johnathan Rhys Meyers has is accentuated by the mood and slow burn of the movie. It’s also a slight remake to a Montgomery Clift film, A Place in the Sun. That film is not a hard core noir, but it definitely has some Noir elements, themes and motifs running through it. The camera work by George Stevens gives it a classic touch.
SStar: Talented Mr. Ripley, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, Michael Mann’s The Insider. If Soderberg’s The Limey counts, does Out of Sight or Haywire?
BR: I frikkin’ love Mr. Ripley, I completely say yes to that one. Any film that actually takes place in the 50’s as its setting also tends to have a foot in the door for me, but that film offers much more than that. That’s a wonderful psychological thriller.
Soderberg and Mann both have the auteur angle I was talking about earlier. So many of their works would fall into the canon, even the Ocean trilogy. Many throw back touches to Kubrick’s The Killing. Mann’s Collateral is completely in the neo-noir canon, as is his Heat.
In my mind, there are a few indicators for modern films, and then you have to work backwards to see if it corresponds to any of the major themes or elements. Any modern heist film will usually have numerous qualities that would establish its neo-noir status, thrillers as well. To me, it just comes down to preference. The majority of M Night Shyamalan’s body of work could certainly make an argument for neo-noir status, and yet I don’t consider them to be part of the canon. All of his work has amazing cinematogrophy, a mystery to be solved, revenge to exacted, very particualr color palates, and yet i just don’t consider them to fall in that category. Totally just my opinion.
I haven’t seen the other films you mentioned.
SStar: Let me put in some good words for Exotica and The Insider. Of the two, I think Exotica might fit your definitions of neo-noir, but again, I think we differ slightly in our personal definitions. One last one: Orson Welles’ The Trial.
BR: Again, his body of work, personal style and touches give his films easy entry to the Noir canon. The Trial is, in actuality, a waking nightmare, dealing with paranoia and the deconstruction of the human psyche.
SStar: What’s on October’s slate?
BR: Double Indemnity and The Grifters.
SStar: Nice! It’s been ages since I’ve seen The Grifters. John Cusack is great in that. What was the recent Cusack movie, it was a heist film set during Christmas time in podunk America?
BR: It was The Ice Harvest. I just watched that a few weeks back to see if I should add it to the Night and Day roster, but I really did not dig it. Even though Johnny boy was awesome. I’d throw his Identity in the mix, though. I don’t think peeps would come to see that though.
SStar: Was Harvest too slapstick?
BR: I’m not sure, really. I just didn’t dig it. All the elements were there, but I didn’t care for it. The same thing happened with the show Bored to Death on HBO. Have you seen that?
SStar: Haven’t seen it, but I am intrigued by it.
BR: It’s got an awesome cast, a wonderful premise, and it looks gorgeous, but I just don’t like it. It’s a complete mystery, it seems like it would be my most favorite show ever. A noir structure where Jason Schwartzman write novels by day, and is a private detective at night. Zach Galifinakis and Ted Danson are in it too. And yet, I don’t love. Saddest, most cruel thing ever.
SStar: Have you seen The Singing Detective?
BR: I have seen The Singing Detective, but the film with Robert Downey, Jr. not the TV show. Ahhh man, I dug the shit out of that.
SStar: I haven’t seen the Downey Jr. film, though it’s good to hear that it’s worth the check out…the TV series it’s based on is majestic. Written by the same guy who wrote Pennies From Heaven, which was also a BBC series that was later turned into a movie with Steve Martin.
Let’s close this out with a procedural question: You just mentioned that you watched The Ice Harvest to see if it would be right for Night and Day; are there any movies that are currently scheduled that you weren’t familiar with until you screened it for inclusion?
BR: I’ve been watching a few things recently, just to re-check and see if it’s something that I wanted to show.
First and foremost, I want to show films that I’m absolutely in love with; flicks that I think should be seen at a theatre as a shared experience with an audience. So, by and large, I already know what films what I want to put up and show. There are a few classic and modern variables that I’ve had to revisit to see if they’d make the criteria, like Harvest.
I watched A Simple Plan last week. That has some really cool things going for it, but it’s nothing I wanted to show an audience. This may seem crazy, but I’ve never liked Blade Runner, just never have. So I’m gonna re-watch that this week, to see if I can find some personal joy in showing that. That should be a no-brainer, and would definitely draw a crowd. But my decisions aren’t based on financial considerations alone, I have the liberty and freedom to choose what I want, and then worry later about how to get an audience to come.
Then there are some films that I frikkin’ love that I know I couldn’t sell. For example, Snake Eyes with Ncolas Cage, directed by Brian De Palma, is not even a guilty pleasure for me. It’s actually just an awesome movie, but Nic Cage has too much of a bad stigma attached to him that I don’t think I could overcome.
SStar: Snake Eyes is awesome, Femme Fatale is another De Palma worth seeing,
BR: Also The Salton Sea with Val Kilmer. An absolute gem of a film, but I doubt anyone besides myself and Val Kilmer have ever heard of it.
I’m gonna re-watch some particular Hitchcocks. Mainly Strangers On A Train, I feel like a case could be made for that, but I’m not sure yet.
SStar: The 39 Steps is another great one.
BR: Also, I’d love to show Drive, with Ryan Gosling. Not sure if I could get the rights to that though, or if I could get a crowd to see it, since it came out last year. I bet I could though. For those people who intended to see it but maybe didn’t, they could be coerced. Just like with producing Theatre there are a lot of factors to take into play. Even people who absoultely love a film are not inclined to pay money to see something they can watch on Netflix streaming or pull from their own collection. It’s a difficult game to maneuver.
I am personally becoming so spoiled by watching all of my favorite flicks at Central Cinema. I haven’t watched a film at my house in weeks. There is something incredibly magical about sitting in a crowded theatre and watching one of your favorite films with an audience. A sense of pride and ownership as you can hear them respond to the things you love. Watch them get caught up in a story that speaks to you personally. It’s very cool.
SStar: I bet that sense of pride was huge last week with Evil. Okay, one more: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, yea or nay?
BR: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is in my November time slot with The Maltese Falcon!
SStar: I’ll take that as a yea.
BR: That’s a triple yea with extra yea sauce on the side for dippin!
Memento, Wednesday September 19, at 9:30p.m. // Central Cinema, 1411 21st Avenue // $6 in advance, $8 at the door