There are those who maintain that America lost its innocence when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Others point to Watergate, and the shocking disclosure that the President of the United States endorsed domestic spying on his opponents. Our now-chronic mistrust and malaise might well be traced, however, to the revelation that Milli Vanilli lip-synched. (A younger generation is welcome to choose Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" on that holiest of occasions, Super Bowl Sunday, as its instant of recognition that the world is comprised of fake surfaces.)
Whatever public or personal moment resonates with you, the experience of swapping childish idealism for adult realities is pretty painful and pretty universal. It occurs to me that our enduring love of film noir, that swath of black-and-white crime-and-corruption movies made between 1941 and 1958 and first codified as a genre by French critics (and would-be filmmakers) like Francois Truffaut, has to do with the vicarious and vaguely masochistic pleasure of watching some naive or ill-equipped guy discover just how cold and unforgiving the world is. As dark as these movies are, they nonetheless provide an escape, paradoxically, from the betrayals and cowardice we encounter on a daily basis.
Did I just put a damper on your day? Well, I've got good news: Longtime Bay Area programmer Elliot Lavine returns to the scene of his many wonderful series at the Roxie with Not Necessarily Noir, a kinky collection of noirs and post-noirs beginning today. To my mind, World War II was America's crash course in harsh reality, hence the cynicism and world-weariness that pervaded so many movies in the late '40s and '50s. Sure, there are those who imagine the postwar boom period as one long Leave It to Beaver episode, but America was not quite as happy a place as they'd like to pretend. (Does Jim Crow ring a bell?)
Let me tout a few titles from the 24 grimy gems on view over the next two weeks. I've been tipped that The Strange One and Something Wild (screening on one bill Sunday and Monday, Aug. 22-23), the only two movies directed by Jack Garfein, are rare, thrilling oddities. A teenage survivor of Auschwitz, Garfein teaches acting in New York to this day and just published a book on the subject. Reaching back to the war years for a creepy double feature with facial disfigurement as its narrative, psychological and symbolic motor, Lavine has uncovered The Face Behind the Mask (starring the immortal Peter Lorre) and House of Horrors (Thursday, Aug. 26).
Equally compelling are the contemporary (read color) films that invoke the paranoia and depravity of vintage noir in an America you may more easily recognize. Acute job dissatisfaction fuels both Harvey Keitel's downward spiral in Bad Lieutenant and the desperate, doomed heist concocted by three Motor City assembly-line workers in Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (Sunday and Monday, Aug. 29-30). It's more than fitting that another blistering Schrader parable of rude awakening, Hardcore (starring George C. Scott as a father looking for his runaway daughter in L.A.'s porn industry), closes Not Necessarily Noir on Thursday, Sept.2.
But it's the other film on that bill, the dimly remembered Rolling Thunder, that brings it all back home. Just-released Vietnam POW William Devane is primed for a fresh beginning until his wife and son are murdered, initiating an even darker nightmare. John Flynn's stomach-churning revenge drama evokes echoes of any number of post-World War II movies about returning vets greeted by wealthy war profiteers, double-crossing partners and materialistic (and, inevitably, unfaithful) wives. Corruption is everywhere, and human nature doesn't change. These are the timeless lessons of noir that still and will always reverberate with filmgoers. And filmmakers, too, including those young 'uns whose shattered-world moment is still to come.
Not Necessarily Noir runs August 20 - September 2, 2010, at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco. For more information visit roxie.com.