Day By Day

Thursday, September 28, 2006

DePalma's "Dahlia"

A couple of weeks ago “She Who Must Not Be Named” and I decided to get caught up on our movie-going. Yes, in this day of NetFlix and Blockbuster and HBO, we actually went out to a theater and immersed ourselves images projected on a huge screen. We are of an age where doing that seems appropriate, even pleasurable, even if it means fighting traffic for half an hour each way. Anyway, we had not been to the movies for a couple of months – I believe the last film we actually went out to see was “Army of Shadows” – so we crammed four into four days and emerged from the experience thoroughly sated. It will be a few more weeks before we venture out again.

Two of the films we saw were neo-noir efforts of uneven quality – “Hollywoodland” and “The Black Dahlia”. The latter is a remarkably true to the source retelling of James Ellroy’s manic novel by the same name. The initial book in Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” of novels (which also includes “L.A. Confidential”), it relates the experiences of two fictional cops who become obsessively involved in the investigation of the famous Black Dahlia murder back in 1947. It is the more flawed, but also the more interesting of the two films, so I will deal with it first.

“Dahlia” is a visual feast. The director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond, is one of the greats and here he does nothing to diminish his reputation. The camerawork is as good as it gets. And, the entire mise en scene is impeccable. Costuming, makeup, set design, lighting…, all are superbly evocative of another time and place. The same can be said of the soundtrack, featuring a score by Mark Isham. In short, the “Black Dahlia” looks and sounds great!

Many people, viewers and critics both, have complained that the narrative was too complex and hard to follow. That is true (although I didn’t have much trouble since I had recently read the novel on which the film was based). It is also true to the film’s sources. Ellroy’s novel is maddeningly overplotted (deliberately so) and this, too, reflects the genre’s conventions. Narrative drive and plausibility are not strong points in noir films, nor of the hard-bitten detective stories on which they are based. (If you want to see what I mean try diagramming the plot of any Dashiell Hammett novel or the “classic” noir film derived from it.)

And many have also complained that the plot of the film is absurd. Yes it is, but again that is not much of a problem for noir, where atmosphere is everything. Early in the film a character makes passing reference to “Ralph Meeker”. A noir buff will immediately recognize the name of the actor who played the lead in one of the most celebrated (for reasons that are not exactly clear to me) noir classics, “Kiss Me Deadly.” Here DePalma is telling the audience exactly what to expect – a nonsensical, over the top, loopily plotted mess that presents in exaggerated terms all the genre conventions (I suspect that “Deadly” shows up so often on film course syllabi simply because it so perfectly illustrates those conventions). And those conventions are all on the screen – the femmes fatale, the pervasive corruption and betrayal, the hero’s battle to maintain his tattered integrity, the dark conspiracies, paranoid dreams come true, etc. Like “Kiss Me Deadly” the “Dahlia” is a textbook tour through the fevered fantasies of noir.

The climax of the film, in which the murder mystery is "solved", has been singled out for particular derision. It has been called ridiculous, and indeed it is from a narrative standpoint. But it is thematically coherent. The moral core of both the novel and the film is the relationship between corruption and power. From the first scenes of the movie, it is made clear that in Ellroy’s fictional Los Angeles success or even survival depends on a willingness to corrupt oneself and others. And there is a direct relationship between success and power. Small scale corruption (like throwing a fight) can bring small payoffs (enough money to get your insane father admitted to a care facility), and large scale corruption brings immense wealth and power. And in this schematic, corruption is a source of madness. The wealthiest and most powerful are not only the most corrupt; they are also stark, raving mad. Even the heroes of “Dahlia” cannot escape the taint of corruption and the madness it brings; and some of them succumb to it. Given this equation, the solution is entirely logical and appropriate.

Noir is ultimately defined by the atmosphere it creates, and the skill of the actors is an important element in that composition. Much has been said about the inappropriateness of the casting, particularly Josh Hartnett in the lead role of Bucky Bleichert. There is something to be said for this critique. None of the talent on display is particularly impressive. Hartnett doesn’t seem to have the chops for a major dramatic lead; Scarlett Johannson, who has displayed impressive chops in the past, is forgettable as the semi-good semi-girlfriend; Aaron Eckhart reprises his mad, and maddening, tics from “Suspect Zero”; and Hilary Swank, who possesses major chops, seems to be channeling Katherine Hepburn as a femme fatale. Fiona Shaw’s performance has to be seen to be believed. Only Mia Kirshner’s portrayal of the pathetically vulnerable victim draws praise. But I would argue that the actors, in their ridiculously mannered performances, are being true to the genre that inspired “Black Dahlia.”

We see noir classics through a haze of nostalgia that turns mediocre performances into cinematic magic. Robert Duvall once supposedly said that he doesn’t understand why anyone watches old films because the acting is so bad. Much of it isn’t really bad, but it is mannered; quite different from the naturalistic conventions to which we have become accustomed over the past few decades. Remember, noir films were “B” movies, and most of the actors who starred in them were “B” list actors. Major stars who made appearances were slumming or working out contract obligations. The raw material to which the neo-noir directors are referring is therefore not so hot when you look at it objectively. The performances on display in “Dahlia” are unnatural, stilted, and hyperbolic – just like those of the noir genre that inspired them.

This explains the unfavorable comparison drawn by many commentators between “Dahlia” and such neo-noir classics as “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential.” Those films are, in essence, commentaries on rather than reproductions of the noir source material. In “Chinatown” Polanski and Nicholson maintain a very postmodern ironic distance from their material, commenting wittily on the conventions of the genre. And “Confidential” benefits from some marvelous naturalistic performances by Jamie Cromwell, Kevin Spacey [whose witty performance comments ironically on Jack Webb] and most of all by Russell Crowe – who is a cinematic force of nature. That is why post-modernist critics love them so much. They are not noir films; they are post-modern commentaries on the genre. The only naturalistic performance in “Dahlia” is that of Mia Kirshner, whose brief casting films are themselves a commentary on the artificiality of classic movie acting and the heartless brutality of the business. And those brief episodes are the only performances singled out by critics for praise.

And ironic distancing ultimately explains the overwhelmingly negative reaction so many critics had toward the “Black Dahlia.” Both James Ellroy, who wrote the novel, and Brian DePalma, who brought it to the screen, are men of passion. In Ellroy’s case the novel “Black Dahlia” is a meditation on madness and obsession, written by a man who knows both intimately. It is an impassioned cri de coeur, a personal testimony, not an intellectual or critical exercise. Similarly, DePalma is a man possessed. He loves film in all its aspects. He loves noir; he loves the old actors and actresses; he loves the look, the sound, the manners of the source material, and it shows. His films are, more than anything, excursions through movie history. “Dahlia” like his other works functions as a time machine, transporting us back, not to a past reality, but to a long-past sensibility – in this case the paranoid world of noir.

Today’s audiences, and especially the critical establishment, are uncomfortable with any passion other than affected political rage [leavened by humor] and shrink from it. Faced with the idiosyncratic loopiness of Ellroy’s and DePalma’s obsessions they can only smirk and snark and snipe. But, and this is the essential point, the “Dahlia’s” excesses and quirks are no more blatant than those of the original noir classics we, and the critics, affect to treasure. The difference is that in today’s dessicated cultural environment blatant expressions of passion are out of place and can only be viewed comfortably through insulating layers of time or irony.

Howard Hawks supposedly once remarked that in his opinion a good film was one with three good scenes and no bad ones. By that standard “Dahlia” is not good. It has at least a couple of bad scenes (I leave it to the reader to choose his/her favorites) and only two memorable ones. One is the viciously brutal staircase scene (you will know it when you see it, and remember it long after you leave the theatre) and the other is the brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed discovery of the Dahlia’s body. That brief scene in itself is a reason to see the movie.

So is the film worth a couple of hours of your precious time? Here’s a suggestion – if you thought “Touch of Evil” was worth seeing, then so is “Dahlia.” One suggestion, try to see it in a theatre rather than on a TV screen. It's visual sumptiousness deserves a big screen treatment.

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