Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Kontroll and film noir

It seems as if the most genuine film noir these days is comedy, as with the current "Ice Harvest," or recent examples from Pulp Fiction to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Playing noir straight verges into self-parody, because of the strictures of the genre, so going straight for the comedy instead is somehow more genuine in the present situation. A recent example of very noir, very dark comedy is Kontroll, directed by Nimrod Antal, a transplanted American who makes films in Hungary. Kontroll takes place entirely in the Budapest Metro, the city's subway system. The characters are mostly ticket inspectors (the subway runs on the honor system, like European trains and buses commonly do--no ticket gates, but don't get caught by an inspector without a ticket (the fines can be very large). In Antal's Budapest, however, the citizens give the ticket inspectors no respect at all (so much so that the actual Metro system's director has a cameo before the film's titles, explaining his logic in giving permission for the filming of this anti-establishment epic). The ragtag band of inspectors includes one picaresque hero, Bulcsu, on whom the movie hangs--he never leaves the subway (the movie's ending hinges on the possibility that he may now leave, in the company of the female romantic lead--who is at that point dressed as a fairy. This is as much a fairy tale as film noir, just as was Modern Romance, another comic-noir film of a few years ago). Kontroll includes a serial murderer who appears suspiciously like Bulcsu (and may simply be his "other," his dark self. Biographical details are vaguely outlined, leaving much mysteriousness about the characters as well as the story, but giving a sense of a dark event that propelled the hero from an above-ground world (a succesful career as, possibly, an architect) into the lower depths. There are several other threads to the narrative dealing with crimes from the petty to the violent as well as rivalries among the inspectors, and most of these plot elements leave marks on Bulcsu, who is a bloody mess by the film's end. His violently comic descent leads, though, to that fairy-tale ending at the first step of the escalator up (Modern Romance ended on the beach, against all logic). Perhaps we believe in neither an orderly universe that the noir hero can ultimately uphold nor a cynical, disorderly universe against which the hero can vainly struggle--our world is so ambiguous that it is neither the one nor the other, and noir comedy has absorbed the exhausted insight of Beckett's characters in its darkness as well as its comedy.

Monday, November 21, 2005

noir/not noir? plus John Williams and UK

I haven't posted in a while--I've been absorbed in John Williams's Cardiff trilogy (Five Pubs, Two Bars And a Nightclub; Cardiff Dead; and The Prince of Wales), which raises several questions for this blog. The first is that I have not yet dealt directly with contemporary noir in the U.K., since I've been concentrating on noir-in-translation from non-English-speaking countries. There is of course a wealth of crime writing in English (and numerous excellent publishing houses supporting that writing), and I intend to address that gap in my journal soon. Williams's books also raise the question of what kind of plot qualifies as noir. His trilogy deals with a criminal subculture in Wales (prostitution, gangland-style machinations, suspicious death, etc.), but there is no murder plot per se, and only a detective in a marginal way (Mazz, in Cardiff Dead, halfheartedly pursues a missing rock star on commission from a sort of gangster, but it's not essential to the main narrative). The atmosphere of the novels, though, is pure noir, and has a lot in common with the milieu of George Pelecanos's undoubtedly noir Washington novels. The Cardiff of Williams's books is in transition from a lower-class soup of races, underworld clubs and professions, and people living at the margins of society. What it's moving toward is the artificial "downtown" of so many U.S. cities--theme pubs, new developments, and the closing of institutions like the Custom House, a late-night bar favored by streetwalkers. The novels are actually about the city, and Williams employs a kaleidoscope of characters throughout the stories in the first volume and the 2 novel-sequels, each a particular angle on what's happening to the city in its transition. The result is a gritty realism that a focus on a single character could not provide, and Williams's writing is unfailingly interesting, lively, and engaging. So it's noir in a literary vein rather than a murder-genre vein, I guess. It would be interesting to have a discussion of the noir-or-not question with regard to Williams--perhaps there's a panel waiting to be convened on the topic?