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2 The Lack in the Critical Other

2 The Lack in the Critical Other

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Out of the Past

The historical, political, economic, social, technological and industrial

determinants of American noir are well documented.42 I suggest that

they present themselves as an array of contingent (i.e., unpredictable)

events and developments across the spectrum of American life: from the

Depression and hard-boiled fiction to World War II’s innumerable effects

on the economy and social structure and the Cold War’s reframing of

American politics, all of which are considered to be crucial in the formation of the classic film noir of the 1940s and 1950s; new lenses and

coatings, faster film stock and smaller, more mobile cameras facilitated

the high-contrast and extreme angles of noir cinematography; changes

in the way studios sold and exhibited films led to an increase in lowbudget B-movies, to which the production of cheap urban crime films

lent itself.43 The relative importance of each factor has been and continues to be a subject of debate. For example, Richard Maltby is critical of

any “Zeitgeist theory of film as cultural history” that suggests a phenomenon such as noir is the direct reflection or creation of a general American

cultural condition: a theory proffered in its most explicit articulation by

Kracauer.44 Elsaesser notes that the broad range of determinants identified

in the historiography of noir is remarkable in that “never have so many

causes explained so few effects”.45 An interesting way in which I suggest

that these conditions could be negotiated is intimated by the Althusserian

orientation of Kerr’s discussion of the emergence of the B-film noir; he

approaches the development of noir with a nuanced understanding of the

“Hollywood superstructure model” and its “relative autonomy from the

economic base”.46 This, I would argue, points to a broader understanding

of the determination of noir in terms of Althusser’s model of overdetermination and the complex interdependence of multiple, often seemingly

opposing factors, determined “in the last instance” by the economic exigencies of the (film) industry.47

What, I would offer, is perhaps most pertinent to the discussion of

noir as a critical category is the treatment of “noir” films in the American

cinematic discourse of the time. Naremore has suggested that the classic

noir was “a type of film for which Hollywood itself had no name”.48 This

is both true and untrue: the American cinematic discourse had no name,

singular, for these films; rather, it had an overabundance of names. As I

observed in Chap. 2, Lloyd Shearer offered a multitude of signifiers to


Film Noir Doesn’t Exist


describe noir films.49 This was matched by New York Times reviewer Bosley

Crowther, who provided similarly myriad descriptors for films such as

Stranger on the Third Floor, a confused and pretentious “murder mystery”;

The Maltese Falcon, a “sophisticated crime film”; Gilda, a “moody love

story”; and The Postman Always Rings Twice, “a sternly moral picture” and

a “crime and punishment saga”.50 As I also noted there, the language of

horror was common in such reviews; however, one “name” does emerge

in this account above others: that of “melodrama”. Crowther calls This

Gun for Hire, “melodrama, straight and vicious”; Double Indemnity and

Murder, My Sweet, “tough melodrama”; and The Killers, “mere movie melodrama”.51 This is not novel vocabulary, of course; it situates such films

within an already-existing discourse.52

Kracauer appears as the exception that proves the rule; as I noted

in Chap. 2, in 1946 he did coin a new term—the “Hollywood terror

film”—but it did not enter the contemporaneous critical discourse.53

Dimendberg, however, does insist on the significance of Kracauer’s text,

asserting that “[a]s a contemporaneous commentary, ‘Hollywood’s Terror

Films’ is a powerful rebuttal of the argument that anxiety and spatial

menace in the film noir cycle are post facto projections of critics writing since the 1960s”. But, I would say, Dimendberg thereby makes—via

Kracauer—simultaneously a rather limited and a rather vague claim for

film noir: if these films all “represent architectural and urban spaces inextricably identified with violence”, then what of a supposedly quintessential noir such as Out of the Past, which is as much a Western as it an urban

crime drama, with violence coming to a rural small town and murder

taking place at the creek (or, indeed, of “noir Westerns” proper, such as

Pursued [1947] or The Naked Spur [1953])? Kracauer (and Dimendberg)

might have identified a partial tendency but not one that could speak for

the heterogeneity of the entire noir phenomenon.54 And while Naremore

suggests (pace Kracauer) that “[r]eviewers made vague connections but

no-one tried to invent a new term”, I should note, however, that recent

noir scholarship has further attempted to show that there was an original,

domestic, unifying term for the classic film noir.55 In Blackout, Biesen

makes the striking suggestion that the American discourse did have a

name for these films: the “red meat crime cycle”.56 Her argument is based


Out of the Past

on an article by Fred Stanley for The New York Times, entitled “Hollywood

Crime and Romance” and published on 19 November 1944. It begins:

HOLLYWOOD, according to present indications, will depend on socalled “red meat” stories of illicit romance and crime for a major share of its

immediate non-war dramatic productions: The apparent trend toward

such material, previously shunned for fear of censorship, is traced by

observers to Paramount’s successful treatment of the James M. Cain novel,

“Double Indemnity”, which was described by some producers as “an emancipation for Hollywood writing”.57

This is a fascinating discovery on Biesen’s part; it could suggest the need

for a wholesale rethinking of the critical category of noir. It is potentially

more radical even than Vernet’s deconstruction of noir in that it seems

to undo the damage done by the constructionist critique and restores to

noir its status as the American art form described by Silver and Ward.

It would seem to be a triumph for the integrity of the classic American

film noir and signify the ultimate point of failure of the meta-critical

account I gave in Chap. 2. This is, however, not the case. I would argue

that the evidence produced by Biesen to substantiate the claims that “the

American film industry and domestic press recognised these noir pictures

as a growing movement before they were formally acclaimed in France in

1946” and that “[b]y 1944 Hollywood studio publicity and critics in the

United States had already identified these innovative films as a bold new

trend” is altogether unsatisfactory. Given the wealth of archive research

evidently carried out by Biesen, it is surprising to find only four examples

of this usage cited and to realise that, on closer inspection, only two of

these instances explicitly invoke the term, “red meat”. Beside Stanley’s

piece, there is a review of Conflict (1945), which notes “no scarcity of

red meat” but beyond this, Biesen can summon only a letter from Joseph

Breen that describes The Postman Always Rings Twice as “strong meat” and

a vague allusion to the Warner Bros. press book for Casablanca (1942).58

While the 1945 review from a Los Angeles newspaper does indicate usage

of the term outside of Stanley’s original article, this is not, I would say, the

widespread and deep-running American critical tradition Biesen evokes.59

Her argument is not simply based on the Stanley piece but appears almost


Film Noir Doesn’t Exist


limited to the Stanley piece. It is founded upon Stanley’s use of the term

“so-called” and his journalistic references to “observers”. This language

does indicate usage of the phrase “red meat” beyond the article in some

way but, I argue, no more can be said than this. These two words cannot

support such a grand claim about the American critical discourse. I suggest that Biesen’s study cannot be understood to constitute a fault in the

noir universe in the way that Vernet’s does; it is itself found to be lacking.

I should ask, then: Could Hollywood itself provide the sort of foundations—that would, paradoxically, unfound some major assumptions about noir—sought by Biesen? A series of interviews conducted

by prominent American noir critics (Silver, Robert Porfirio and James

Ursini) with significant filmmakers associated with the classic period in

fact reveals an almost uniform unease on the part of the latter when faced

with the signifier “noir”. Fritz Lang admitted his own lack of understanding of the term; he stated of his anti-Nazi thriller, Man Hunt (1941),

“I don’t know if this is what you would call film noir. There are some

scenes at night in the fog that are much like the way that Siodmak liked

to shoot. But for me that was just the setting”.60 Samuel Fuller professed

that “[w]hen I was making these damned pictures, I never knew about

film noir”.61 When the potential noir-ness of his films was put to Wilder,

he insisted that “I would hope that all my pictures are different. To repeat

oneself is boring … We didn’t set out to make a particular style of film”.

He also sought to confound the category, suggesting, “Caligari was a film

noir, as you would call it. But certainly I would also think Oedipus is a

play noir, right?”62 The composer Miklós Rózsa was equally doubtful;

he replied, “I’ll take your word for that. But what exactly do you mean

by the term film noir?” to Porfirio’s suggestion that he had “written far

more film noir scores than any other composer”.63 Dmytryk was particularly hostile towards the critical categorisation of his work; he said, “[o]f

course, the French have a great penchant for this kind of categorising, for

putting names which are so ridiculous … I’ve had the damndest things

attributed to me”, and continued, “I really violently object to that … I

have a particular hatred for creating new vocabularies”.64 It thus becomes

clear that the key figures in the creation of noir had little or no understanding of the critical category until it was put to them some thirty

years later. The usual resistance of artists to the pigeonholing of their art


Out of the Past

notwithstanding, I would say that this is unsurprising given the genesis of

the category on a different continent and in a foreign language.

There was, however, one filmmaker who appeared comfortable with

this French appellation; as I noted in the second chapter, Robert Aldrich,

it seems, was in possession of the Panorama in the mid-1950s. Silver has

published a photograph of the director with the question, “[w]hy did

Robert Aldrich … pose with a copy of the first edition [of ] Borde and

Chaumeton’s book (in which he is not even mentioned) as he stood on

the set of Attack! in 1956?”65 Naremore wonders too what kind of signal

the director was trying to send: “Perhaps Aldrich was trying to tell us

something about his work—or perhaps he was merely acknowledging

the fact that Borde and Chaumeton greatly admired his previous picture,

Kiss Me Deadly”.66 However, I must emphasise—with Silver—that this

cannot be the case: Aldrich was holding a copy of the original French

edition of the Panorama, which, spanning the years 1941 to 1953, contains no reference to his 1955 film. It was only in the 1979 Postface

that Borde and Chaumeton retroactively designate Kiss Me Deadly as the

“fascinating and sombre conclusion” to the noir cycle.67 This is, then, I

could say, an instance of a Lacanian missed encounter: it is impossible

to be sure of Aldrich’s intentions in posing for the photo. What I suggest can be discerned is the effect of this photograph in the structure of

critical discourse; it provides another fault line, another point of failure

in the overarching noir critical narrative. Despite the manifest absence

of this signifier in the American discourse concerning these films of the

1940s and 1950s, there was awareness of the French tradition at least

somewhere in America; this, I suggest, raises a larger question of noir and

self-reflexivity in Hollywood.

One significant point of American noir self-reflexivity I will note is

imitation; as Borde and Chaumeton state, “film noir wouldn’t form a

series worthy of the name if it hadn’t given rise, in Hollywood itself,

to various parodies”.68 A particularly interesting example of this selfreflexivity is Bob Hope’s hard-boiled crime spoof, My Favorite Brunette

(1947). Modelled after his earlier Hitchcock parody, My Favorite Blonde

(1942), this film blends “noir” features with the studio-based comedy

and showed, as Crowther noted, “Paramount knows a good thing when it

sees one, especially when it earns a pile of bucks”.69 I would say, then, that


Film Noir Doesn’t Exist


by the summer of 1946—when Hope shot this film—the dark cinema of

Wilder, Dmytryk and company had reached a sufficient level of familiarity to suggest the viability of such an imitation. Silver and Ward observe,

“[t]here is very little to laugh at in noir films. As a result the cycle invites

parodies”, and, I would add, My Favorite Brunette takes up this invitation

enthusiastically.70 The film is narrated as a first-person flashback “confessional” from death row at San Quentin prison, and the story is initiated

by an exotic woman entering a private detective’s office. The script is filled

with mock hard-boiled dialogue and contains a throwaway reference to

The Lost Weekend. It features Peter Lorre as Kismet, a parody of his villainous screen persona, and mixes a few low-key lit scenes of intrigue and

suspense with the standard Hope comedy high-key visual style. A review

in Variety recognised these now apparently stock figures, noting “[o]ne

long flashback is the device employed” and identifying “that familiar lawbreaker, Peter Lorre”; the piece concludes, “it’s familiar stuff but still grist

for the yock mills”.71 The most strikingly self-referential instance I should

note is an early scene in which Hope’s character enters the private eye’s

office next door, musing that “All my life I wanted to be a hard-boiled

detective like Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell, or even Alan Ladd…”,

just as the private eye turns in his chair, revealing Alan Ladd himself. It

is interesting to note that Hope makes use of the literary term—“hardboiled”—while making a specifically cinematic joke with Ladd making a

self-parodic cameo appearance. This, I argue, suggests that such a “cinematic joke” could be made in its own terms, based upon the Hollywood

star system—indeed, Bing Crosby also makes an ironic cameo—but it is

significant that, to make a joke based on the nature of film noir, Hope

(or his screenwriters Jack Rose and Edmund Beloin) had to reach for a

discourse beyond the cinematic context: the discourse we later recognised

as “noir” had not yet been formalised in a way that would permit such a

joke (i.e., Hope could not say, “a film noir detective like Alan Ladd”).

What then is the consequence of such a film, which appears to reflect

the “noir” tradition in Hollywood before it was formalised as such? To

shed some light upon this question, I suggest it will be necessary to turn

to Miller’s “Action de la structure”. Speaking of the relation between the

Subject and structure, Miller suggests that “the presence of an element

that turns back on reality and perceives it, reflects it and signifies it”


Out of the Past

leads to a general distortion of the whole structural economy. The result

of this distorting presence is—amongst other things—the production

of an absence: the “action of the structure comes to be supported by

a lack”.72 And, I would suggest, there is here a comparable effect. My

Favorite Brunette stands as a self-reflexive point in the cinematic structure of Hollywood; it turns back on the “hard-boiled crime film” and

perceives, reflects, signifies it. It could be considered a filmic attempt

to define noir—to engage with the wider cinematic discourse through

the process of filmmaking itself—if not avant la lettre, then concomitant with it; the film was shot during that summer of 1946 when “noir”

was being discovered in Paris. This attempt at definition, to articulate a

position in the symbolic structure of Hollywood from within, entails a

lack. I should note that the film is situated by a signifier from another

discourse—“hard-boiled”—but there is no meta-linguistic point outside

of discourse as such that could itself situate these structures: the locus of

the Other is thus found lacking.73 A “noir” parody is therefore an attempt

to symbolise “noir”; I could say that it is an act of cinematic criticism in

and of itself. Naremore concurs on this point; he suggests that “much like

analytic criticism, parody helps to define and even create certain styles,

giving them visibility and status”.74 Parody transforms “noir” into an idea

circulating in the cinematic discourse; thus, both parody and criticism

give shape to the popular conception of film noir.

I must insist, however, that this popular conception is so utterly fraught

with contradiction, pock-marked and fissured to the point of disintegration by critiques such as Vernet’s that it is tempting to despair, and conclude with Silver that Vernet “offers a void, a noir hole where there once

was a body of films”.75 It seems necessary for us to admit that the game is

up; sixty years of film criticism have been in vain because film noir doesn’t

exist. There are, however, possibilities, I suggest, offered by a Lacanian

understanding of the debate between Silver and Vernet that could point

to a way of moving forward with the understanding of noir: firstly, I

would say, in Silver’s reference to the void and a properly psychoanalytic

engagement with the statement, “film noir doesn’t exist”, and secondly

where I can take up Vernet’s reference to the “set” of noir and the possibility of adding one film more, which would seem to correspond to Miller’s

suggestion of “the possibility of one signifier more”.76



Film Noir Doesn’t Exist


Approaching the Real (Encore)

To continue with this investigation of noir, it will be necessary for us to

observe a crucial distinction in the Lacanian theory of the Real highlighted by Charles Shepherdson: it is possible to distinguish “two versions of the real”, a pre-symbolic Real and a post-symbolic Real.77 As

Shepherdson notes, the Real is a difficult concept that appears in several guises throughout the development of Lacan’s thought. Indeed, I

could say that this is—if such a statement is not too precarious—the

very essence of the Real; it is that which is impossible to symbolise, and

so, in order to approach it through language, I suggest many approaches

must be taken (trauma, failure, impossibility, matheme, lalangue) in an

attempt to sketch out the space where the Real would be found.

The pre-symbolic Real appears as a primordial reality: the realm of

existence preceding the intervention of the signifier. It is the Real “outthere” which is lost with the advent of the Symbolic order, thus recalling

Lacan’s Kojèvean-inspired declaration that “the symbol firsts manifests

itself as the killing of the thing”.78 The intervention of the Symbolic bars

access for the Subject to this unmediated Real, which exists as a brute

materiality prior to the signifier: recalling my description in Chap. 2 of

the “letter” as that which precedes the signifier as a substratum that is

“always and in every case in its place”.79 It is a sort of being-in-itself that

can reach consciousness only through the mediations of representation.

I could say that it is then absent because it is inaccessible. As this alwaysalready “missed encounter”, this pre-symbolic Real evokes also the traumatic intrusion of tuché that I described above, as something from the

outside: an unsymbolisable and disruptive element entering the Symbolic.

Such a formulation of a pre-symbolic Real invites a conceptualisation of

the relation between the Symbolic and Real in terms of Euclidean space, as

realms that could be mapped by notions of, for example, inside and outside. Indeed, Lacan’s designation of tuché—which I introduced above—

as a real “beyond automaton, the insistence of the signs” is, as Roberto

Harari notes, a “risky statement” because it invites a conception of the

Real in terms of Immanuel Kant’s Ding an sich: the noumenal, inapprehensible thing behind all phenomena.80 This would, I suggest, then fall


Out of the Past

back into traditional questions regarding the reality outside the Symbolic

and the possibility of achieving a “full” existence beyond the signifier’s

limitations. As Shepherdson acknowledges, there is some textual basis for

this characterisation of the Real in Lacan’s work, particularly in the earlier

stages; however, Shepherdson concludes that, conceptually, this first formulation must be rejected as inadequate to the task of approaching the

Real, and—more significantly, I would argue—he demonstrates how the

second formulation—the post-symbolic Real—presents a more nuanced

rendering of this problematic.81

To present an example from the realm of noir criticism, I will turn to

Dale E Ewing Jr’s article “Film Noir: Style and Content”, which gives

voice to this idea of a pre-symbolic Real in its approach to the ontology of noir. Ewing contends that “the term film noir has been applied

too loosely to give us an accurate definition of the subject”, which he

attempts to prove through a meta-critique of the literature on film noir.

So far so good, it may seem; Ewing appears as another brave soul who

deserves admission to Vernet’s pantheon of critics who dare to say “film

noir has no clothes”. However, Ewing continues, and it is here I suggest

that the situation changes. He states, “a particular film cannot be defined

as film noir because it reflects one aspect or several aspects of the film noir

spirit; it has to reflect every aspect of the film noir spirit or it is something other than noir”.82 In response, I would argue that to comply with

Ewing’s declaration would mean that there would be no films noirs whatsoever. Any given definition of film noir would exclude, in some respect,

those films most commonly heralded as the quintessence of the category:

Double Indemnity has no private detective; Gilda ends with the elimination of the villain and the union of the hero with the femme fatale; The

Big Sleep has a studio look; in The Maltese Falcon, Spade is as sentimental

as he is tough. Again, this might appear to chime with the deconstruction

of the category of noir and the limitations of definition explored below,

but it is Ewing’s assertion that “a film noir cannot be defined adequately

until the movie in question is evaluated as a complete work”, that this

“film noir spirit” can be captured, which I suggest indicates a reliance

on the pre-symbolic.83 It is as if Ewing believes that, with enough labour,

the Symbolic could adequately render the Real; if he can meta-critique

sufficient texts on noir and view sufficient noir films he can go beyond


Film Noir Doesn’t Exist


the limitations of the signifier and apprehend a sort of film-noir-in-itself.

Ewing strives for an essentialist definition of noir relying on what I could

call, in Lacanian terms, a psychotic totality.84 This is not, I should add, to

diagnose Ewing himself; rather, it points to the structure at work in his

article and the approach to noir that it suggests. If the clinical structure

of neurosis is characterised by gaps, faults, the very lack in the Other

(e.g., the topology of the cross-cap), then psychosis—in particular, paranoia—involves a full and complete Other in which nothing is lacking

and everything is explained (the topology of a sphere). There is what

Miller calls a “lack of a lack”: the pure plenitude of the Real.85 Ewing’s

article seems to express the structure of a delusion of absolute mastery; it

aims to constitute film noir as a totality in which every aspect of the noir

spirit is reflected.

Furthermore, there is I would say, in Ewing’s insistence that the

Symbolic could capture the Real, what Žižek describes as a confusion

of the “order of ‘words’ and the order of ‘things’, which, precisely, is the

most elementary and succinct definition of psychosis”.86 I suggest that,

like Lacan’s madman—the king who believes that he truly is a king, that

his symbolic mandate is indexed to his being—Ewing’s text expresses a

belief that the “adequate definition” of noir would capture noir itself; it

would correlate to noir’s very being. Ewing’s simple assertion that “film

noir means ‘black film’” suggests that the act of rendering the term into

English is sufficient to explain the phenomenon; this, I suggest, forecloses

what Žižek calls “the radical contingency of naming”.87 He insists that

such instances of naming take the form of a tautology: “a name refers to

an object because this object is called that—this impersonal form (‘it is

called’) announces the dimension of the ‘big Other’”.88 The signifier must

therefore sustain itself. As Lacan notes, in the locus of the Other “[n]o

authoritative statement has any other guarantee here than its very enunciation, since it would be pointless for the statement to seek it in another

signifier, which could in no way appear outside that locus”.89 In other

words, there is no meta-language, no Other of the Other; the signifier

must act as its own guarantee. It is the naming itself that constitutes its

reference retroactively. My argument therefore is that it is only the signifier “film noir” that supports the identity of the object “film noir”. Any

French-to-English dictionary will show that “film noir means black film”


Out of the Past

but will explain nothing of the films themselves. Tracing the signifier

back to its origin will reveal only the contingent emergence of the name

“film noir” itself: the retroactive naming, the constitutive gesture made in

1946. To emphasise the utter contingency of the signifier involved, I want

to raise the case of “Italian film noir”: as Mary P Wood explains, the films

of the Italian cinema that would correspond to those designated as “noir”

in Hollywood are referred to as “giallo” or “yellow” films because the

Italian publisher Mondadori printed its detective fiction in books with

yellow covers.90 These films are no less dark but they are “giallo” rather

than “noir”: a different historical constellation contingently resulted in a

different signifier.

I would say that Ewing’s insistence on definition pushes it to its

breaking point and perhaps suggests an inherent limit or fault in the

Symbolic pointing towards the second conception of Lacan’s Real: the

post-symbolic. At first, Lacan’s discussion of das Ding in Seminar VII

would appear to be the most explicit formulation of this pre-symbolic,

pre-discursive noumenal beyond; it is the prehistoric and unknowable

absolute Other which is there from the beginning. However, I should

note that Lacan suggests that this primordial field of das Ding is a “void

at the centre of the real”, an “excluded interior”.91 It is not simply “out

there”; it is somehow “in here”, present as a gap. As I suggested above,

the relation between the Real and Symbolic cannot then be conceptualised in terms of a straightforward inside/outside; instead, a topological relation is required. What Lacan describes as “the central place, as

the intimate exteriority or ‘extimacy,’ that is the Thing” can be expressed

by the topology of the torus: a form constructed around a central void,

whose “inside is outside” because its centre of gravity falls outside its mass

yet is within this structuring interior absence.92 This “extimate” relation

between the Symbolic and Real expresses a void within the structure;

my point therefore is that the Real should not be considered an external

entity but rather excluded from within. It appears as an internal point

of failure or an inherent limit. This recalls the crucial qualification of

trauma as Nachträglichkeit I discussed above; it is not simply the sudden

intrusion that disrupts the Symbolic but the retroactive movement of

the signifier that determines this intrusion as such as traumatic. The Real

thus appears as an effect of the Symbolic. This presents a paradox whereby,

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2 The Lack in the Critical Other

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