07 August 2011

Identity and Rhetorical Landscape in Annie Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole

Identity, both individual and collective, is a central component to Annie Proulx’s novel That Old Ace in the Hole, and one that authors and writers continually grapple with. The vast discourse of what may or may not constitute identity encompasses multiple disciplines and opinions spanning social, economic, historic and cultural issues. Attempting to grasp the sheer complexity and diversity of identity as a concept is no simple task. In his frontier thesis, Frederick Jackson Turner describes a national American identity as being directly informed and shaped by the American settlement and development of the western frontier. Turner’s suggestion that our national identity is literally defined by the western frontier has since been hotly debated and widely dismissed. Clearly the formation and establishment of both individual and collective identity extends beyond Turner’s singular vision, which describes a clearly defined and finite historical epoch. Benedict Anderson, for example, cites language and its dissemination by capitalist printing and publishing industries, as essential to the origins and development of national consciousness: “Why within that type, did the nation become so popular? The factors involved are obviously complex and various. But a strong case can be made for the primacy of capitalism” (37). Turner’s writings on the American west however, do reveal the undeniable significance of the mythologized landscape of the western frontier, and its rhetorical power in shaping and informing cultural identity. Annie Proulx utilizes the rhetorical power of the land to both shape and inform the individual and collective identities in That Old Ace in the Hole. These identities are defined, in their rural locality, by the antagonizing presence of urban global corporate interest, which continually threatens the literal, and historical, erasure of both individual and collective rural identities.

Before local and global conflicts of identity are examined, a closer look at Proulx’s rhetorical use of landscape is necessary. Ace certainly taps into the mythical and nostalgic rhetorical well of the old frontier landscape. However, use of rhetoric is not blatantly or overly romanticized. In fact, the landscape reflects a rural existence that is often unforgiving, harsh, and difficult. Repeated stories of past ancestors, ranchers, cowboys, and other rural western inhabitants are not tales of carefree romantic adventure; they include hard work, loss, and survival, all of which stem from or are linked to the landscape. A sign that Bob reads while driving through the Texas Panhandle perfectly captures the rugged identity and mentality of the land and its inhabitants: “TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT SURVIVORS WILL BE PERSECUTED” (44). The wind, a recurring component of the rural landscape, is another example of this harshness. It spreads the putrid stink of manure (Oklahoma Rain), and slams tumbleweeds into Bob’s car, cracking his windshield. Muted, unlovely grays and browns also bolster the unforgiving mood, which is engendered by vivid descriptions of landscape.

Landscape is the foundation on which conflicting issues of identity play out: “The sky was dead grey, a match for the withered grass around the railroad tracks where a chemical spill years before had killed off all the soil organisms” (43). In one sentence Proulx visualizes and symbolizes the juxtaposition of the local and natural with the global and corporate. Grass, a symbol of the natural freedom and openness of the old western frontier, withers under the effects of modern corporate technology. The relationship between grass and chemical is emblematic of the struggle between the citizens of Woolybucket and Global Pork Rind. It also reveals the change that Frederick Jackson Turner’s western frontier has already undergone and continues to undergo.

Throughout Proulx’s novel there is a simmering tension between the almost mythical rhetoric of the western landscape and the globalized postmodern world of corporate pervasion. The first page of the first chapter (Global Pork Rind) establishes this juxtaposition: “NPR faded from the radio in a string of announcements of corporate supporters, replaced by a Christian station that alternated pabulum preaching and punchy music. He switched to shit-kicker airwaves and listened to songs about staying home, going home, being home and the errors of leaving home” (1). Here the idea of home, an integral component to issues of personal and collective identity, is introduced in sharp contrast to pervasive corporate advertisements on the radio. Radio, a modern development integral to globalization and the dissemination of information, is not anchored in a specific locality. The corporate announcements on the radio are emblematic of the larger conflict between Global Pork Rind and the local inhabitants of Woolybucket.

Global Pork Rind exerts its power and influence on numerous local communities from a detached and foreign location. Ribeye Cluke, the corporate boss at Global Pork Rind disingenuously suggests that his companies dealings are beneficial to all: “And if it were put to a general vote, time and again it has been shown that the public supports such moves because they benefit the greater community” (303). Such proclamations are clearly motivated by a singularly selfish corporate interest and are not representative of any individual or collective identity in Proulx’s novel.

Global Pork Rind is a representation of the postmodern effacement of historical and cultural context and significance. Fredric Jameson elaborates on this issue: “or on the other hand, elegiacally laments the passing of the splendors of modern: the glories and possibilities of modernism in the arts, the disappearance of history as the fundamental element in which human beings exist” (55). Such historical erasure is in direct conflict with the historical and rhetorical local identity of Woolybucket and its inhabitants which thrive within a developing historical and cultural context.

Portrayed in pointed distinction from the postmodern corporate pervasion of Global Pork Rind is the local community of Woolybucket, in which the protagonist Bob Dollar maneuvers. Woolybucket and its inhabitants have not only an acute awareness of their community’s cultural history, but an intimate familiarity of its members and their individual histories as well. An entire chapter “Pioneer Fronk” is devoted to the telling of local Woolybucket history and ancestry. This shows the depth and significance to which frontier landscape rhetoric lends to the concept of identity. Much like Bob Dollar, Martin Fronk is an outsider who travels to Woolybucket and finds a sense of home and personal identity. Fronk’s tale is a reflection of Bob’s, revealing a somewhat foolish character who is kindly accepted by the Woolybucket community. Both stories end with the protagonist finding a sense of home, utility, purpose, and identity. Stories such as the Fronk Pioneer tale are a large part of Woolybucket’s collective identity. Such accounts are historical, but they also possess a rhetorical weight that informs the collective social and cultural identity of Woolybucket.

Storytelling, conversation, and local history are central to Woolybucket’s collective identity. It is useful therefore, to introduce an informative working understanding of identity. In her essay on identity and Islam Jillian Schwedler helps to flesh out this understanding:

In sum, identity is indeed how individuals and groups define themselves and their relations to others. But it is not a fixed set of characteristics; it is instead the product of historical processes and experiences through which individuals and groups come to see themselves, their place in the world, and their relationship with those around them (5).

As an outsider Bob Dollar establishes relationships with the local inhabitants through the telling of personal history and family stories which are steeped in western frontier rhetoric. The larger communal identity is built upon the shared experiences and histories of individuals, which are perpetually related, shared, remembered, and discussed throughout the community.

Once again this larger identity is defined in its contrasting antagonism to global corporate interest. As a postmodern corporate entity, Global Pork Rind seeks to literally erase these shared experiences, which are engendered in large part by the rhetorical power of the land. The vast introduction and permanent occupation of the panhandle by putrid hog farms literally destroys the land on which rhetorical significance is based.

Another way in which Woolybucket’s larger identity is revealed and informed by the rhetorical significance of the landscape, is Ace Crouch’s plan to return the panhandle to its previously natural state. This plan is a literal reversion to the modernist rhetorical past of the open frontier, which Frederick Jackson Turner refers to in his frontier thesis. Crouch, as well as most of the wider Woolybucket community want to actualize this rhetoric. This is the most direct way in which Proulx’s novel utilizes the “sheer physical fact” of the country to shape and inform both personal and collective identity.

Proulx paints a vivid picture of Bob and Ace sitting on top of a windmill taking in the land as far as the eye can see in every direction. This imagery resonates powerfully because it artfully depicts the central relationship between identity and the rhetorical value of the land. Contemplating the actual and rhetorical significance of the land Ace Crouch spells out its importance:

You think it’s just a place. It’s more than that. It’s people’s lives, it’s the history of the country. We lived through the droughts that come and we seen the Depression and the dust storms blowin’ up black as the smoke from a oil fire. We seen cowboy firin’ squads shootin’ half-starved thirsty cattle by the thousand. Yes, that’s who had a do it, the men who took care a cows all their lives was the ones had a shoot them too (333).

Ace’s speech is reminiscent of Turner’s opinions on the vitality of the western frontier. Land is suggested to be more than a merely physical boundary broken into properties. It is much more than a simple place to live. Instead, land connotes a litany of attributes and values, including a rich and complex history, all of which makes land home. In talking about living through shared experiences Ace’s dialogue also directly mirrors Jillian Scwedler’s comments on identity as a lengthy and gradual historical process in which identity, and a sense of home, evolves and develops through experiences of hardship, solidarity, and survival.

The juxtaposition of the local and global is not the only division found in Ace in the Hole, which directly concern issues of identity. Proulx also draws lines between sparse rural country and a more populated urban existence. Global Pork Rind is certainly established as an urban institution. There is a lack of intimate familiarity with urban environments and the majority of characters who inhabit them; this is indicative of their global nature. Global Pork Rind, for example, is a vaguely obscure presence in the novel with little in terms of identity beyond corporate self-interest. Bob’s childhood friend from Denver, also an urban character, possesses superficial traits and concerns, which include an obsession with sleazy B movies. This trait may constitute an element of personal identity, but a sense of larger community and identity is otherwise absent. Conversely, Proulx establishes an intimate familiarity with the Woolybucket characters, providing detailed accounts of their former experiences and relationships, in some cases going back as far as childhood.

Many of the individual identities in the local Woolybucket community not only derive from historical and rhetorical perspective, but are also carved out of utility. Each member of the local community is defined in part by the utilization of a certain set of skills. His diner and detailed descriptions of his cooking, for example, largely reveal Cy Frease, through Bob Dollar’s perspective. Bob also sees opportunity for utility in Woolybucket with the bookstore. These individual utilities and characteristics are shaped and informed by the land and its rhetorical resonance. They are also part of the gradual historical process of shared experiences that shape Woolybucket’s collective identity.

There is an interesting contradiction concerning the use of utility in Proulx’s novel between the way in which it functions in Woolybucket, and how it is used rhetorically by Ribeye Cluke and Global Pork Rind. Cluke espouses disingenuous rhetoric about the American way, free enterprise, and utility: “You will find, Bob, as you mature, that lip service to the rights of the property owner is just that, lip service. What rules the world is utility, general usefulness. What serves the greater good will prevail” (302). Whereas Ribeye Cluke uses utility as empty rhetoric to rationalize his corporate self-interest and the effacement of identity, in Woolybucket utility is an unspoken yet fully understood practical component to rural life; another part of the collective identity. Cluke’s use of utility is a rhetorical counterpoint to the rhetorical resonance derived from Turner’s suggestion of the importance of the open and free western frontier landscape.

Bob Dollar reveals much of what Ace in the Hole says about personal and collective identity. Until the end of the novel, Bob is lost, has no self-purpose, no conception of self, and no sense of belonging to a home. As an employee of Global Pork Rind sent to Woolybucket’s rural community, Bob is caught between global and local interests. Therefore, he is utilized in the novel as a blank slate of identity with which conflicting issues of global and local, rural and urban, personal and collective are contemplated, commented on, and finally filled in.

A singularly distinct and richly complex identity is what is at stake in That Old Ace in the Hole. This identity is gradually shaped and informed by a long historical context that is firmly based in rhetoric of land and landscape. As we have already established, this process is one of unforgiving difficulty, in which the rhetoric of the old western frontier is grounded in human struggle and sacrifice that is tied directly to the land. Such hardship (Ace mentions drought and depression) enrich the value of and reverence for the freedom of an open and free landscape. An identity formed and informed by arduous shared experience and solidarity is distinct because it derives specifically from qualities and experiences in one small rural locality. Such an identity, that gives weight and credence to the value of land, history and shared experience, is emblematic of a changing American landscape in which global corporate interests such as Global Pork Rind bolster the erasure of land, history, and experience. Such erasure is achieved by the simultaneous declaration of an illogical corporate ideology, and a purposeful disconnection from reality. Essentially a struggle between the modern and postmodern, That Old Ace in the Hole, a conflict fought directly and literally over the land and its rhetorical resonance, proclaims unwavering support for the former and unapologetic contempt for the latter.

Annotated Citations

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991. Anderson’s book is a historical analysis of

Nationalism and its social, economic, and cultural effects. In chapter three he writes

about issues of national consciousness in relationship to language and print capitalism,

which relate to issues of community and identity.

“Frederick Jackson Turner.” http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/turner.htm. PBS,

2001. Web. 26 March, 2010. This web page contains a concise summation of Frederick

Jackson Turner’s most notable works and achievements. A brief historical context for his

work, as well as a summation of its critical reaction and reception is also provided.

“Frederick Jackson Turner 1861-1932.” http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/acs/1891s/turner.html,

Bowling Green State University, 1997. Web.026 March 2010. This web page is another

brief account of Turner’s major writing’s, opinions, and historical critical perception.

Biographical information is also included.

Jameson, Fredric. “Notes on Globalization as a Philosophical Issue.” The Cultures of

Globalization. Duke University Press, 1998. In his essay, focused mainly on the discourse

of globalization, Jameson describes postmodernity as being almost entirely consumed by

capitalism. He also refers to the loss of historical significance, as well as the increase of

communication technology without new or enlightening information being created or


Schwedler, Jillian. “Islamic Identity: Myth Menace, or Mobilizer?” SAIS Review vol, no 2

(2001): 1-5. Web. Schwedler’s article is concerned mainly with political and historical

aspects of identity in regards to Islam. However, a considerable portion of her writing

devoted to looking at identity generally, and how it is informed by historical experience

and process.

25 July 2011

In Defense of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I have just started an essay on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. So far I have only written the introduction, which is not necessarily in its final form, and the rest of the essay is in progress. I am posting the intro to see what people think about the essay's central premise, and to welcome any feedback, thoughts, and criticism, but also just to have something to post at the moment. Anyway... here it is.

(I will continue to post pieces of the essay as it evolves. Please note that until the final version is posted my on going draft will be exactly that, a draft, and will undoubtedly have mistakes. Its form and content will almost certainly change repeatedly before the finished essay is completed.)

In Defense of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

This is not an ideological or blindly dogmatic defense of the most recent Indiana Jones movie. Such an enterprise would be disingenuous and a waste of time. It is instead an attempt at understanding some of the disappointment and criticism conveyed by its fans and critics. This criticism is widely held and consists of multifarious opinions. For the sake of the limited scope of this essay however, such criticism can be concisely described as the sentiment that Crystal Skull is not only less ‘good’ (whatever that means), or of less quality than the previous Indiana Jones films, but somehow unlike those films in a substantive and deviant way. I will argue that such a view is largely a matter of minor differences of form and execution between Skull and its companion films, which are exacerbated by context, perception, and expectation. I agree that Crystal Skull is the weakest of the four films, for reasons that I will later discuss. It cannot, however, be immured from the other three films, and is not only fundamentally similar, but also, aesthetically, often significantly identical.

Before diving into an analysis and comparison of the movies, a summation of the criticism heaped onto Crystal Skull by it’s numerous and vocal detractors are necessary; both fans and critics level such disapproval. In his review for The Village Voice Robert Wilonski criticism of the film is emblematic of the way in which Skull is widely complained about: “From humdrum start to shrugging finish, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull bears almost no resemblance to its three predecessors: It's absent the spark and spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grown-up menace and slapdash comedy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the loose-limbed effervescence and emotional jolts of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Here Wilonski plainly suggests that Skull is to altogether be set aside from the other Indiana Jones films as something other than an Indiana Jones movie. Wilonski then lists qualities inherent to Raiders, Temple, and Crusades which he says cannot be found in Crystal Skull: spark, spirit, menace, comedy, effervescence, and emotionality.

Other criticisms aimed at Crystal Skull include a litany of negativity by fans in Indiana Jones message boards. Here are select quotations from the most popular online message board “The Raven” which represents some of the more ubiquitous complaints. “My initial hatred has mellowed into resigned apathy. I care no more. Anybody else feel that it could be some time before you watch the originals again?” “My feelings went from excitement (before the release) to disbelief (while viewing) to disappointment (the week after) to "don’t care anymore" (now). Let’s pretend the 4th movie never happened.” It is worth mentioning that these comments are taken from a thread called “The Haters Thread.” It is not enough therefore, to label Crystal Skull as anti-Indy, but also necessary to engender apathy and doublethink; in other words to erase the film from existence, or “pretend the 4th movie never happened.”

It is also worth noting that many of the snipes leveled at Crystal Skull are often highly emotional, cynical, and do not at all attempt a level headed close textual reading of the movie. Much of this cynical emotionalism is due in large part to nearly two decades of rabid expectation and anticipation, as well as the significantly changed context within which Crystal Skull was produced. The opening scene, in which a group of American teenagers in a roadster challenge Russian military infiltrators to race on a Nevada desert highway, provides an excellent example of the ways in which context and expectation effect and warp perceptions and expectations. The opening scene is all about context and exposition. Cars from the 1950’s, filled with teenagers and military men dressed in clothes from the 1950’s, race within the context of the immediately recognizable 1950’s popular culture milieu of George Lucas’ American Graffiti. In other words, as far as context is concerned, the youthful Nazi fighting Indiana Jones of the 1930’s is something of the past. Therefore, any expectations and anticipations of Crystal Skull are inherently informed by this altered context. Immediately following the opening “American Graffiti” scene, Crystal Skull delivers what is typically the opening sequence to an Indiana Jones movie. In such a sequence there is a checklist of actions and motifs; Indy is introduced in a dramatic way (usually from behind and in silhouette,) he is involved in at least several daring action shots that require some sort of narrow escape, and finally the McGuffin or object of desire that drives the plot is introduced and sought after. All Indiana Jones movies, including Crystal Skull, have these actions and motifs; therefore, their content is similar if not identical. The only difference between Skull and the other three films in this regard is one of form. Skull, largely due to its altered context, inserts the brief “Graffiti” scene before the typical Indy opening sequence.

Historical change not only operates within the world of Crystal Skull as a ‘text’ to be analyzed formally and aesthetically; it also operates within the altered context of production between the 1980’s and 2008. This exterior contextual difference, acting on the movie from the outside, significantly includes drastic changes in filmmaking technology, most notably computer generated special effects and cinematography.

15 September 2010

Notes on "Revanche"

After watching the 2008 Austrian film “Revanche” by writer/director Gotz Spielmann, I felt compelled to jot down by initial reactions to this excellent move.

(SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this until you have seen the movie)

“Revanche” has one of the best endings to a movie I have seen. It is neither terribly tragic nor mirthfully uplifting. It is almost perfectly poignant. As it approaches the ending, watching it for the first time, I was expecting a devastatingly tragic conclusion with death, vengeance, loss, and sadness. I have come to expect such endings in character driven “Art House” movies. Instead, “Revanche” somehow allows its main characters to live on in a meaningful way. The achievement of this meaningful life, however, certainly comes at significant cost (Alex is responsible for the killing of his girlfriend, and Susanne commits adultery). The cost that Alex and Susanne pay to escape the morose drudgery of their previous lives can be construed as worth the cost, equal to the cost, or not worth the cost. The brilliance of “Revanche” is that no matter how you feel about the character’s sacrifice, this movie is beautifully and delicately poignant.

The question “Revanche” raises (a question with which many people undoubtedly struggle) is this: Is it better to settle for a life of mundane, yet tolerable, unhappiness than to make a life for yourself that is fulfilling and rewarding? And, most importantly: are you willing to make a great sacrifice to achieve this meaningful and fulfilling life? This is both a profoundly difficult and emotional question, as well as an incredibly tasteful and well-elaborated cinematic theme.

The characterizations of Alex and Susanne are so deeply and thoroughly subtle that a lengthy essay could be written after only a single viewing. For now I will simply say that both parts were superbly cast (neither actor is a beautiful Hollywood type, nor do they look like homely character players) which lends about as much realism as can be squeezed into any cinematic drama.

16 August 2009

The Customer is Always Right

The customer is always right! These five words represent American tradition as much as playing baseball and eating apple pie. Degrading employees of the service industry has been one of America’s favorite pastimes for decades, and it doesn’t look like things are going to change any time soon.

Scores of books, websites and articles are devoted to the practice of unwavering customer service. The title of one such book, authored by Jeff and Val Gee, aptly describes our culture’s disturbing obsession with those five oh so sacred words; “Super Service: Seven Keys to Delivering Great Customer Service... Even When You Don’t Feel Like It!... Even When They Don’t Deserve It!” Only for the chance of greater a sales profit would Americans demand its workforce to smile while being slapped in the face.

No one leads the ridiculous crusade of groveling to customers more than the self-proclaimed “world leading educator and motivator for uplifting and superior service culture,” Ron Kaufman. Kaufman’s pestiferous face, complete with nauseating smile and disingenuous thumbs up, can be seen on any book, website, or article he churns out. All of which are aimed at furthering our business-oriented culture’s favorite adage, “the customer is always right.”

Having worked at a multiplex cinema for more than four years I can personally attest to the high level of antipathy directed towards employees of the entertainment and service industries. For one thing, customers expect you to be the Albert Einstein of all that is film. Possessing extensive cinematic knowledge is a requirement for multiplex employment as much as being an expert cappuccino maker is required to find work at Dunkin Donuts. If you haven’t seen every movie ever made, can’t name every famous actor or director in existence, or give a thorough yet concise film synopsis on the spot, than they assume there is something shamefully wrong with you. The best and most frequent customer quip is “You work here and you haven’t seen every single one of these movies!?” As if I not only want to spend my day off at work but while I’m at it watch computer generated hamsters fight bad guys in “G-Force.”

For some reason the moral codes and standards that apply in day-to-day human interaction become null and void the second a customer sets foot inside a business of the service industry. If I walked up to someone on the street and behaved in a pushy, greedy and arrogant manner, there are several things that could happen, none of which are pleasant, all of which I would deserve. Inject the same into a customer service environment, and morals and standards are thrown right out the window.

The “customer is always right” adage helps companies make more money while simultaneously providing an excuse for angry and bitter humans to abuse members of their fellow species. People basically pay for the right to abase others as a form of stress relief. If your life sucks why shell out major cash to see a therapist when you can yell at someone because a bag of small popcorn costs five dollars?

So what hope is there for the hard working, infinitely patient, and vastly under appreciated army of customer service employees? As long as “the customer is always right” sells popcorn things are unlikely to undertake drastic change. It’s just unfortunate that a large part of our economic culture is either uninterested or incapable of making money by treating its employees with dignity or respect. So, the next time you order popcorn at a movie theatre, go out to eat at a restaurant, or check your bags at a hotel, just keep in mind that the concessionist, waiter, or bell boy is not the cause of all your problems. We, employees of the customer service industry, are simply here to make your life a little easier.

01 October 2008

Film Noir 101: An Introduction to America’s Greatest Cinematic Phenomenon

Just like jazz, baseball and apple pie, film noir is a singularly American phenomenon. A French term literally meaning black film, film noir is a label that was applied to 1940’s American cinema after its inception by French film thinkers. Some consider noir to be a genre, while others see it as a style or atmosphere, and many deem it to be both.

Regardless of its lack of an official status or text book definition, film noir is an indelible force in American cinema. Here is a brief introduction to the nature of noir.


Stylistically noir developed out of the 1920’s German Expressionist movement of filmmaking. Expressionist films such as “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari” and “Nosferatu” evoke a dark and sinister world through the use of low key, high contrast lighting known as Chiaroscuro. This moody visual style heavily influences the dark and desolate city streets so prevalent in the noir environment.

Noir’s themes and narrative style also derive significantly from 1930’s hard boiled crime fiction, most notably the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet and James M. Cain. In fact, many of the greatest noir films are direct adaptations of their books.  Such stories feature complicated twists and turns, and often weave intricate tales of crime, murder, sex and corruption.

1930’s gangster films such as “Scarface” and “Little Caesar” also influenced film noir, featuring dark nights, tough streets, and even tougher criminals.


Noir films feature convoluted plots full of crime, murder, violence, backstabbing, treachery, deceit, loss and misfortune. Determinism and entrapment play a large factor in the world of noir. The protagonist, often a private detective, is typically doomed to ill fated misfortune, often caused by the most infamous of noir characters, the femme fatale. Beautiful, seductive yet seemingly innocent, the femme fatale often leads the protagonist down a dark and dangerous road.

Film noir is just as dark and mysterious stylistically as it is thematically; low key, high contrast lighting known as chiaroscuro, black and white photography, as well as dark and rainy city streets all contribute to its intriguing sense of style. Other familiar noir trademarks include recurring voice over, psychological dream sequences, and flashbacks.


Although there is much dispute as to which films should be categorized as noir, film noir’s classic genre period is generally considered to have taken place in the 1940’s. Here are several must see films from this period.

“Out of the Past” (1947)
Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and an excellent Kirk Douglas, “Out of the Past” is about a seemingly ordinary gas station owner with a secret, mysterious and potentially dangerous past.

“Murder My Sweet” (1944)
“Murder My Sweet” stars Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, and Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s famous detective protagonist, who is featured in numerous noir thrillers.

“Double Indemnity” (1944)
This classic film noir is based on a novella written by James M. Cain, and stars Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and the always impressive Edward G. Robinson, whose career success began with early gangster films such as “Little Caesar.”

“The Stranger” (1946)
Orson Welles directs and stars in this 1946 noir classic about a Nazi hiding out in the United States after WWII.


From the dark science fiction future noir of “Blade Runner”, to 2005’s graphic novel adaptation “Sin City,” to Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning crime thriller “The Departed,” no other cinematic style or genre has had such a long lasting and deeply impacted effect on cinema. Some of America’s greatest contemporary filmmakers owe much of their vision and success to the influence of film noir. Many of the Coen brother’s films are influenced heavily by film noir, and their 2001 film “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a direct homage to the classic noir period. Among many others, directors such as Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann have all been struck by film noir’s dark influence.

There is something carnal to the dark and gritty toughness exuded by the noir world that captivates and fascinates audiences. Whether you consider it to be a genre, style, environment or something else entirely, film noir’s themes, visual style, and technical trademarks have influenced countless genres and filmmakers since the 1940’s, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

01 September 2008

5 Movies Every Science Fiction Fan Should See

Exploring a variety of sub-genres, including noir, horror, adventure, and romance, each of these films are firmly rooted in science fiction. But what they have in common, and what makes each one worth seeing is their ability to transcend genre. These films have timeless themes, beautiful visuals, and they all evoke powerful emotion.


Intriguing, terrifying, mysterious, bizarre, innovative and beautiful are only a handful of words that could be used to describe Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece. Based on Aurthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” chronicles the entire span of human evolution.

The film was not only technically innovative, it also pushed the boundaries of narrative structure and thematic content. Inspiring countless films and filmmakers, “2001” is considered a cinematic classic.


Ridley Scott’s sci-fi/horror classic follows the mission of a mining ship’s crew that investigates an unusual transmission coming from a dark, barren planet. They encounter an alien species on the surface which violently attaches itself to the face of a crew member. What ensues is a desperate struggle for survival, and one of the most infamous scenes in contemporary film history.

“Alien” is a classic because it delivers thrilling suspense and terror in a thoughtful and well executed way. As Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it.” This film uses both the bang and its anticipation to engender a terrifying cinematic experience.


One could spend hours looking at “Blade Runner” without any sound or dialogue. The art direction, set design, costumes, and lighting are visionary, meticulously detailed and absolutely stunning. That’s not to say the visuals are the film’s only strength. On the contrary, “Blade Runner” tells a stylish and intriguing future-noir adventure rife with subtle depth; something lacking in most action based science fiction.


Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” is a beautiful and thoughtful romantic vision from director Steven Soderbergh.

Psychologist Christ Kelvin is sent to a space station orbiting a mysterious planet called Solaris. Upon arrival, he learns that a crew member has died and that others are experiencing some kind of unknown psychological trauma. As he begins to have anomalous experiences of his own, the unique and mysterious power of “Solaris” is revealed, and Kelvin’s life will never be the same.

“Solaris” has many qualities inherent to great science fiction; intriguing mystery, beautiful visuals, and a uniquely singular power. Even if stripped of its sci-fi elements, this film would remain a stunning achievement. At its core “Solaris” is an endearing and heartfelt romance that transcends genre.


It is fifty years into the future and the crew of the Icarus II is carrying a huge nuclear payload towards the Sun in a desperate attempt to re-ignite the dying star. Now the survival of humanity hinges on their success.

In making his science fiction debut, Director Danny Boyle wisely borrows from several classics of the genre. “Sunshine” pays homage to “2001” and “Alien.” by contemplating the significance of absolute power and mystery, as well as utilizing a serenely slow, yet tantalizingly suspenseful pace.

Beautiful to look at and intriguing to think about “Sunshine” should be considered a classic of its genre.

20 August 2008

Movie Review: "The Ninth Gate"

Rating: 3.5/5
Director:Roman Polanski, (1999)
Actors: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin
Run Time: 133 Minutes

Roman Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate” provides a glimpse into an ostensibly small niche in modern filmmaking. Resembling classic Noir films of the 1940’s and films by Alfred Hitchcock much more than today’s average thriller, “The Ninth Gate” is somewhat of a unique film going experience for the contemporary viewer. Released in 1999, “The Ninth Gate” received mixed reviews, and while not a failure at the box office, performed somewhat poorly. Since its release the film has been mostly forgotten, lost between discharge of action packed thriller after action packed thriller. However, what this film lacks in action and special effects, it more than makes up for in tantalizing Noir like suspense, great characters, and the overall atmosphere of classic 1940’s cinema.

“The Ninth Gate” begins in suspenseful fashion with an old man (Mr. Telfer) hanging himself in his library. This sets the thick suspenseful atmosphere in which the film unfolds. We are then introduced to the unscrupulous protagonist Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), rare book dealer and sometimes swindler, whose sleazy charm defines the anti-hero. Corso is hired by a multimillionaire business tycoon named Boris Balkin (Frank Langella) with more than a slight obsession with the devil. Balkan hires Corso to travel to Europe to verify the authenticity of his most sacred book (purchased conveniently from Mr. Telfer the day before he kills himself) called “The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows.” According to Balkan “The Nine Gates” is adopted from a book written by Satan himself, and when the proper rituals are performed the devil can be conjured up in person. There are two other existing copies, the Kessler and the Fargus, and Balkan believes that only his copy is authentic.

As Corso accepts Balkans task and begins on his quest, the strange, unusual, and dangerous emerge; people are killed, Corso’s apartment is sacked, and the difference between friend and foe is blurred. Throughout Corso’s mysterious adventure he is relentlessly followed by a blonde woman with the uncanny ability of being at the right place at the right time, guiding him on his path. Ultimately, the final struggle comes as Corso attempts to unwind the mystery of “The Nine Gates,” outsmart his enemies and possibly confront the Devil himself.

One of the strongest features of Polanski’s film, and one closely related to its Film Noir heritage is the way in which suspense is implicated through the utilization of camera and sound. Similar to Hitchcock’s use of camera, this film builds great suspense by relying on slow, deliberate, and fluid movements of longer takes and minimal cutting. A great example of this is found in the very first scene in which Telfer hangs himself in his library. In this scene, terribly chilling suspense is generated by the camera as it moves deliberately from object to object throughout the room; from the stool, then to the noose and finally to the missing book on the shelf. Polanski lets the camera do all of the talking.

Another way in which the camera creates suspense is through the use of a subjective point of view, and the utilization of point of view shots. Polanski uses this technique for a significantly singular purpose; to embody the presence or influence of the devil in the film. Almost all of the point of view shots occur through mysterious or unknown characters who either have evil intent, or perform a violent or malicious act. An apt example occurs as Corso is studying Kessler’s copy of The Nine Gates in her library. The camera creeps up slowly behind an unaware Corso, suspensefully building tension, as if we, the audience, are the ones creeping up on him. A dull thump is heard and the camera switches to Corso’s point of view as his face slumps into the table in front of him, unconscious. Polanski is implicating the viewer in the devil’s shadowy influence, bringing the devil into the action without ever letting us see him in person, which creates an atmosphere that is extremely unsettling.

To further the suspense, Polanski employs the use of a musical score to near perfection. With the almost singular purpose of heightening suspense, the soundtrack sadistically dances along, combining joyous glee with wicked mischief to create a greater sense of tedious unease.

There are many great characters in Polanski’s film. Yet another quality abundantly prevalent in the classic noir thriller that is used to great success in “The Ninth Gate.” Perhaps the most recognizable of such characters is Liana Telfer, the femme fatale, embodied finely by Lena Olin. Olin’s character successfully exudes the attractive yet deceptive nature of the femme fatale as she sinks her claws into Corso. Polanski even makes a direct reference to this noir archetype as Liana seductively speaks with Corso: “This has happened before someplace.’ ‘I know, in the movies.’ ‘She had an automatic in her stocking.” This scene typifies the classic Noir relationship between protagonist and fatale.

Finally, there is the protagonist himself, Dean Corso, played to great effect by the talented Johnny Depp. The success of Depp’s character comes from a slippery undefinability. Corso is callous, manipulative and selfish, but in a slick and charming way. Called many things by many different characters throughout the film, including unscrupulous, a vulture, and most appropriately, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Corso is by no means a hero, nor is he a good guy. This makes for a dynamic and interesting protagonist who is at the center of a mystery full of trickery and deception, very much a modern day Philip Marlowe.

“The Ninth Gate” won’t give you amazing special effects, nor will it impress you with ostentatious action sequences. But, it’s a great throw back to 1940’s noir thrillers, where the credits roll before the film, everyone smokes, no one enters a room without being offered a drink, and the cab rides use rear projection for the New York city landscape. For Polanski it’s all about atmosphere, intrigue and suspense, and thats what you get with this film. “The Ninth Gate” is a refreshing return to the classic thriller genre, and remains intriguing each time you see it.