Friday, January 11, 2013

Notes on Robert C. Pippin's Fatalism in American Film Noir

Concise- some 130 pages, including notes- and surprisingly   accessible, Fatalism in American Film Noir (University of Virginia Press) by the Hegelian University of Chicago professor Robert B. Pippin constitutes, perhaps for the first time, a philosopher's take on the genre. It centers in particular on agency, i.e., the extent to which film noir protagonists are agents of their own actions. It's true, noir protagonists exhibit a certain helplessness, as though their actions, or the motivation to act, derive from outside themselves, whether the  result of fate, obsession or socioeconomic factors. Pippin cites Burt Lancaster in Criss Cross and The Killers as demonstrating this passive tendency,  immobilized by his belief that he's been dealt a hand over which he has little, if any, control. Clearly, it's no coincidence that the question of agency, and film noir, came at particular moment in history. According to Pippin, these films show us "what it literally looks like, what it feels like, to live in a world where the experience of our own agency has begun to shift."

Fatalism... centers on three works: Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Out of the Past, Orson Welles' 1948 The Lady From Shanghai and Fritz Lang's 1945 Scarlet Street. Pippin points that in Out of the Past  we are both shown events and, through flashbacks and a voice-over, we are told about  those events. Consequently, there's a gap between what we see is happening and what the narrator, in explaining himself to Ann, maintains is happening. Yet the flashback is less a particular perspective on what is shown than another element of what is being shown, which, in itself, necessitates interpretation. It's as though Jeff, in his narration, is saying this is the way it happened, I can't change anything now, and I couldn't change anything then, making him both  a spectator as well as an active participant in the narrative, and his narrative the sole means by which his agency can be recovered.


The fact is, Jeff is unable to move out of the past, in this case his relationship with femme fatale Kathie, believing- here Pippin quotes Oedipus- "I suffered those deeds more than I acted them." Of course,  the likes of Jeff  aren't  thinkers, but improvisers who move from one event to another, trying to create a space for themselves in which to act, only to be stymied by their past. Like Chinatown, the narrative has to be renegotiated once the ending has been revealed and the protagonist's agency can come into focus. Trapped by what he does and who he is, Jeff seeks to become the agent of his actions, only to meet his death. It's as if, for Jeff, the beginning and end have already been written, and he's marking time, waiting for his time to run out. Any room for self-generated action is limited, though the heroic-existential position is to act despite everything. "He ends up an agent," says Pippin, "however restricted and compromised, in the only way one can be. He acts like one." And then he dies.

Like Jeff, Michael, the protagonist  in Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, is apparently robbed of his free will by another  femme fatale, in this case Rita Hayworth. Here Pippin is interested in how the femme fatale can affect a protagonist and his ability to act, to be rational, and to reflect on and understand his actions. Pippin points out that the femme fatale is often the mirror image of her relationship to the other man, not the one for whom they are fatal. In that other relationship, the woman is controlled, manipulated, threatened and financially dependent upon, to the point that, in that relationship, they too can do nothing on their own. Pippin goes on to say that Welles is here showing another type of femme fatale from the one Hayward portrayed in Gilda, cutting her hair, keeping her relatively static, and shooting her from close-range. In this film too the narrator is not exactly the same person in the film. Something has changed. For instance,  Michael claims to be  political, but, in the narration, he is anything but. So in the space between the showing and the telling something has happened, but the viewer doesn't know if that change has occurred in the film, a character development, or it has taken place in the novel Michael is purportedly writing. Pippin quotes the protagonist, saying, "I never make up my mind about anything until it's over and done with." Which becomes something of a slogan for the author, citing it again in the concluding chapter. In other words, it's important  that Michael lives in the moment, because it's the process that matters. According to Pippin: "It's not that he is mindless; there are just many provisional possibilities. To be 'sure of what one intended' is to be sure of what one is committed to doing, and avowals of such intentions are therefore not reports of the already resolved; they are the resolve and are often provisional."

In Scarlet Street, Pippin discusses how Chris seeks to break out of his own self-inscribed world, even relating it to the film's final music, which morphs from a Christmas tune to Melancholy Baby- heard earlier, the needle stuck, like Chris's life- to Jingle Bells. It's as though Lang is counterposing the socioeconomic facts of Chris's life with the Christian version of fate and redemption. Of course, he also makes the not-all-that-astonishing observation that everyone in the film is trapped by their class, their culture, and their understanding of themselves, which narrows their future course of action.  I had no choice is the usual excuse. But these  characters are neither free nor fated. They make choices, even if they are  trapped by them. Says Pippin, "The danger of exaggerating our capacity for self-initiated action and so exaggerating both a burden of responsibility and a way of avoiding a good deal of blame is...as great as the danger of throwing up our hands and in a self-undermining way becoming the all-pervasive power of fate." Film noir, then, is testimony to the limited space in which one can act freely, whatever the consequences. Pippin quotes McDowell from his book on Wittgenstein,  Mind, Value and Reality: "One does not need to wait and see what one does before one can know what one intends."

Fatalism...  ends with a brief look at  Double Indemnity, in which egoist/predator Phyllis conspires with easy-going nihilist Neff. But it's Keyes who, as arbiter, defines  the boundaries separating  accident, fate and intentionality. As a  Socratic figure, Keyes  doesn't condemn Neff, but recognizes that he's trapped, caught by fate. Since it's Keyes' job to realize such things, he, according to Pippin, must bear the burden of the narrative. Here, as in other films noirs, accident plays an important part, with the protagonist convinced he will be blamed by the police, so concludes that there's no reason why he shouldn't do what he is fated to be blamed for. In Double Indemnity. Phyllis suffers her fate because she finally acts as a free agent, not shooting Neff a second time, which leads to her death.     

Interestingly, Pippin has also written  a book on westerns, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth. In Fatalism... he discusses the various differences surrounding the two genres whose classic films emerged at approximately the same time. Of course, he points out that many westerns turn out to be simply film noir on horseback. But for the most part they stand in opposition to one another, particularly when it comes to the American dream, domestic life, the role of the protagonist,  agency (possible in westerns), world view (Manichaean vs a more nuanced perspective), etc.. Likewise, visual style. Westerns, according to Pippin, are horizontal- broad vistas, distant horizons, a stationary camera, daylight, etc.- while noir tends to be visually vertical- stairs, bars, shadows of blinds or bars, elevators, tight shots, unreliable narrator, night, disorientating camera, etc..

There's something heartening reading someone who believes shared knowledge might ultimately lead to self-knowledge, and that ethics matter whether we are free agents or not. Despite its size, Pippin's book gives the reader a lot to think about. Few are going to agree with everything he says. For instance, he talks about urbanization as a contributing factor to film noir. For me that's a slight over-simplification. It's not just urbanization, but the anxiety of urbanization, and the flight to the suburbs, illustrated by the likes of Lang's The Big Heat or De Toth's The Pitfall.  Nevertheless,  Pippin's book made me think about these films in a fresh way. For me, that's saying a lot.
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