February 3, 2007

Noir et blanc.

Tracing the Decay of Fiction I've been exchanging email with DK Holm about J Hoberman's evocative essay in Artforum on "Sunshine Noir"; after all, one of Doug's books is Film Soleil, which he calls "an aspect of film noir, but one in which the traditional tropes of noir from the period 1939 to 1958 are reversed or revised. Dark nights become sunlit days and urban sprawl becomes under-populated desert." And he argues, primarily by listing and discussing dozens of examples, that it's "a genre unto itself."

With his lovely riffs on apparitions of Los Angeles, Hoberman is less concerned in this new essay with the formal than with the thematic attributes of what might indeed be a subgenre at least.

Back to Doug: "I saw After Dark My Sweet and wrote a review for a newspaper in which I introduced the phrase 'film soleil.' After it came out, one of my local colleagues (I think it was Shawn Levy, which would be characteristic of him) mentioned that Hoberman had used the phrase 'film blanc' a few years earlier, and I vaguely remembered that. I mention Hoberman in the book on page 12. When I started to write the book, I wrote to Hoberman because I wanted to quote the review directly and he wrote back to say he couldn't remember and wasn't sure if he knew which review I was talking about. I never did find the review."

"Film blanc"? Nice. So I went looking for it myself. It wasn't long before I found Glenn Erickson recalling, "I first heard of Films Blanc (White Film) about 1975, in Film Comment magazine. I don't know who coined the term, but it is a pretty apt description of the complete inverse of Film Noir. Films Blanc are fantasies, whimsical visions of life that deal with the great beyond, the afterlife, heaven and hell. They are usually romances or light morality plays, sometimes satirical, often sentimental."

Quite a different definition from that applied by XPT to introduce a series of "movies such as the Coen Brothers' Fargo and Kubrick's The Shining set in dark 'snowy' worlds." Similarly, sneersnipe.

A third and again quite different definition comes from Andrew Sarris, as quoted by Vidiots Video: "We don't need any more film noir these days. We need people who will dare 'film blanc.'" Vidiots interpret this as a call for "films that brave coming out on the hopeful side of things, and leave you a little more inspired than cynical (not that there's anything wrong with that)."

Fine, but Erickson really does seem to have hit on the going definition. For example, in an index to the first 20 volumes of the Journal of Popular Film and Television, we find:

23. BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: SOME THOUGHTS BEYOND THE "FILM BLANC." Genelli, Tom, and Lyn Davis Genelli. 12(3), 1984, 100-111. The central concern of the 1940s "film blanc" - exploration of the relationship between the mortal world and the afterlife - is evident in several films of the late 1970s and 1980s after an absence of this theme from films of the 1950s and 1960s. Sources for the renewed interest in life after death are examined, and Resurrecion [I'm assuming this is the film they're referring to; they may have simply dropped the "t"] and Poltergeist are analyzed in conjunction with the 1940s films It's a Wonderful Life and Dead of Night. Seven photos.

And Hoberman himself: "It was during [James] Agee's watch that Hollywood peaked and began its precipitous post-World War II slide. Without undue anxiety, Agee noted key trends - the development the French would dub 'film noir,' the icky 'film blanc' of wartime supernaturalism, the reaction against Roosevelt liberalism, the impending eclipse of the movies."

Again: "Closer to Defending Your Life, [Albert] Brooks's earlier parody of the supernaturalist film blanc, The Muse's deceptive slightness masks a darker purpose."

William Johnson evidently had a piece on "Film Blanc" in the Nov/Dec 1997 issue of Film Comment, by the way, if you happen to be near a library at the moment.

At any rate, most of you reading probably already knew all about "film blanc"; I didn't, so I've enjoyed the diversion. To sum up: "Sunshine Noir" and "Film Soleil" are related but not quite the same, while "film blanc" is an altogether different idea.

On a newsier note, Anne M Hockens carries on dispatching to the Siffblog from Noir City, and again, Michael Guillén is still taking extensive notes on Eddie Muller's talks at what sounds like one of America's most enjoyable annual film series.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 3, 2007 6:35 AM


What a lovely post, Dave, especially since I am--at this juncture--shivering in the dark corners of noir and will be for a couple of more nights. The fellow introducing Eddie each night is clever. He says things like: "It was a sunny day here in San Francisco and for that we deeply apologize."

Your post was like opening the venetian blinds just a bit and letting some light slant in.

Posted by: Michael Guillen at February 3, 2007 9:25 AM

Thanks, Michael - and sorry, but I hope you'll keep shivering just a bit longer; enjoying those entries of yours!

Posted by: David Hudson at February 3, 2007 10:40 AM