"Even the past isn't worth living in," the great singer-songwriter Graham Parker snarled back in 1980. He was attacking the delusion we all embrace to some degree that things were better then than they are now. It's called nostalgia, and it's fueled by our flawed, selective memories. But can we be nostalgic for a time when we weren't even alive? Hold on -- I've got Noir City on the horn, and the answer is an unambiguous yes.
Part of the appeal of Eddie Muller's marvelous annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival of "B"-movie crime stories and paranoia trips is the thrill of reverting to a time when men wore ties and hats and lit cigarettes for women. Tablecloths and steaks were de rigeur, traffic was manageable and there was no such thing as indiscriminate gunfire -- every bullet had a target, bud.
Style and mores are key elements, but I also think we go to these tough-talking black-and-white dramas of the '40s and '50s for a glimpse of what shared spaces and big-city interaction looked like. Our own sense of public spaces (homogenous malls and the homogenized crowds at ballparks, mostly) is predictable and dull by comparison. Muller always says that the essence of Noir City is the communal experience of seeing a movie in a theater with a house full of strangers. To me, that's what living in a city is all about. (Well, that and getting spilled on by the guy on the next stool.)
It may sound as if I'm saying that what's on the screen doesn't matter, and you'd be pretty close to right. Most noirs were stripped-down, low-budget dramas made to fit on the bottom half of a double bill. For every noir with top-drawer actors and a great director there are 10 with a second-rate script and a cast to match. Now, some of the lesser-known pictures that Muller unearths, like the Robert Taylor-Audrey Totter starrer High Wall that opens the fest or the Belita-Preston Foster vehicle The Hunted that closes it, may prove to be innovative examples of cinematic art chock-full of revelatory social commentary. But I wouldn't count on it, and I won't be disappointed if they're not.
My perennial approach in choosing which Noir City double bills to catch is to opt for films that aren't available on DVD. A corollary of that strategy is skipping familiar titles in favor of the unknown commodities. That's easily done this year, as Muller's showing only three classics: Gaslight, Sorry, Wrong Number and Angel Face.
Incidentally, the theme of this year's festival is "Who's Crazy Now?," an allusion to the number of obsessively suspicious, cracked, amnesiac and institutionalized (or should be) protagonists on display. Take that with a grain of salt (and a shot of cheap whiskey), for Muller admits he comes up with a unifying thread for the lazy wretches (my words, not his) of the Fourth Estate.
But it's got me thinking. Is there anything crazier than living in the past?
Noir City 9 plays January 21-30, 2011 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Get the diagnosis at noircity.com.