Saturday, July 12, 2008

Australian cop movie (or art film): Matthew Saville's Noise

Is it easier (or more permissible) for a film to achieve the status of art than for a crime novel to reach for literary heights? I'm wondering because I've just seen Matthew Saville's film Noise, from Australia (which has been making the festival rounds and is now being shown by Sundance Channel in the U.S.)--and reader beware, I can't continue this discussion without revealing a key fact about the ending of Noise. The movie begins with a mass murder on a subway train, with a single survivor-witness, then continues with parallel plots concerning the investigation of that event and the experiences of Constable Graham McGahan, a uniformed cop who begins experiencing tinnitus and having blackouts and spells of deafness. That beginning and the related plot recall the very best of both books and films in the police and detective genres. The soundtrack (really sound design) is very effective in tightening tension while suggesting McGahan's auditory difficulties. The look of the movie (by cinematographer László Baranyai) is simultaneously gloomy concrete suburb and beautifully framed wide-screen (even in the substantial part of the story that takes place within a travel trailer that has been set up as a police post). McGahan, after trying to get soft duty because of his fainting spells, gets stuck in that trailer as the officer on duty on the night shift over Christmas. He has to deal with his hearing problem, boredom, a hostile drunk, a mischievous retarded boy, an even more hostile citizen who has gotten into a bar fight after an argument about the mass murder, and the arrival of the mass murderer on his doorstep, so to speak. In spite of the seeming complication of the plot, the film is subdued, even quiet (in spite of the sound as mentioned above). The understatedness of the story's surface and forward motion is part of the quality of "art" that I was referring to at the beginning of this post, along with the unresolved quality of the ending, which is a resolution only in the sense of the coming together of the elements of plot and metaphor that have gone before. The fear of the survivor of the mass murder (she discovers that the murderer knows who she is) leads her to McGahan along with all those other characters (and McGahan's girlfriend) in a sudden eruption of violence as senseless as the original murder (but perhaps not directly related to it). Not entirely satisfying as a crime fiction, the movie is a vivid and complete work of art. Is it easier to accept that a movie can be a good (if perhaps incomplete) crime story and also a work of art than for a crime novel to achieve literary ambitions without seeming pretentious? Has anyone seen Noise, and if so, do you have opinions about whether it succeeds as a noir story or as an art film? For me, it's the visual and aural dimension of the film that keeps the art and the crime story suspended together, without seeming to condescend to genre fiction (as so often happens when a "literary" author attempts crime fiction). It's perhaps the collective nature of the creation of a film that makes the composite of art and noir possible (paradoxically, since we think of a work of art as a solo production, generally). If a novel ended with metaphorical rather than literal clarity, we might not accept it as a satisfying crime novel, or might dismiss it as pretentiously literary. Is it the relatively compact experience of a 2-hour movie versus the commitment that a 200 or more page book presents to the reader? Would we expect a multi-part TV series to reach more completion than Noise does, after many hours and weeks of watching? With all these questions in mind, and the cautions about plot resolution, I highly recommend Noise to lovers of film and of crime fiction. The only crime film that I've seen recently that comes close to Saville's achievement is the film version of Indridason's Myrin (by Spanish-Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur).

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