How did your interest in film noir originally get sparked?
TRAV SD: In high school, my best friend and my girlfriend were both far in advance of me in the noir department – their enthusiasm got me interested. They introduced me to dozens of films. That was my initial impetus. As a theater artist, I am extremely interested in the possibility of using American popular culture as raw material. I love to take on different voices and styles and parody them as a touchstone leading to deeper satire. Noir is just one of countless reference points I work with.
So, what is film noir? How do you define it?
TRAV SD: The phrase is widely mis-used. A lot of people think it refers to any sort of 1940s picture with fast-talking detectives and gangsters. That’s not it at all. “Mysteries” and “crime dramas” are entirely different genres from noir, although there’s often an overlap. Film noir is about corruption. A person with whom we strongly identify is subjected to trickery or temptation, or both, succumbs, and is sucked into a vortex of degradation, danger, and retribution. The phrase was coined by the French auteurists.
No one really knows why this type of film thrived in the years after World War II but there are a couple of theories. 1) Having just uncovered the extent to which millions of ordinary people were transformed into moral monsters under Nazism and Fascism, many people found themselves giving in to cynicism. After all, if a housewife can give herself over to a program of genocide, is there any hope for any of us? So the film noir is populated by the bete noir—which lives in all of us. 2) Another theory has to do with the death of utopia. The Soviet Union, if anything, exceeded the Fascist and Nazi governments in atrocity, at least in scale. This brings us to the same conclusion as point one. There is no hope for mankind. Everyone has his own slippery slope, and some day, if you’re unlucky, you’ll step on yours.
Do you have a favorite film which for you most clearly defines the movement/style/sub-genre?
TRAV SD: Couldn’t name just one. My short list would include The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Laura and The Maltese Falcon. Classic modern examples would be films like Chinatown, Body Heat and Blood Simple.
What do you think, generally speaking, film noir has to offer the theatre artist?
TRAV SD: If done properly, a chance to bring great emotional drama, combined with some metaphysical soul searching, to the stage wrapped up in a package unsullied by what Charles Ludlam called “the stink of ‘art’”.
Why do you think the past few years have been so noir-saturated in film, television, and theatre?
TRAV SD: Two reasons. One is, that we find ourselves in a similar place to where we were at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union is under wraps, and the U.S. is the lone Super Power. We find ourselves without a compass. We’re struggling to define ourselves, and at the moment we seem to be failing that moral test. The rest of the world hates us. Ironically, the actions they hate us for are purportedly for moral motives. We begin to wonder, are we as a society weak? Corrupt? Stupid? All of the above? Noir addresses those questions.
Secondly, we have unprecedented access electronically to the entire canon of noir. Cable tv, dvds, on and on. Not just the most famous ones, but entirely obscure ones are now available. Any of us can become a complete expert on the genre. I can go down to my local discount store and get a noir classic for a buck.
Tell us a bit about COLD FIRE. What were you trying to achieve/explore? Can we expect to see the production remounted at some point in the future?
TRAV SD: It’s based on a student film which I wrote and was directed by the very same high school friend who turned me on to noir in the first place. His name is actually Matt Mania. Later we tried to develop a full-length screenplay out of it, but we wanted to go in two different directions. I turned my direction into a radio play, because the form suits the story. It’s about a paranormal private eye who’s investigating a rash of spontaneous combustions. For me the process has been almost entirely formal, but that’s the way I work. Invariably, the process of writing leads me to deeper concerns: my own psychology, my own “issues”, philosophical and moral speculation, political screeds. Cold Fire is only “noir” in the sense that it’s dark. The hero is definitely battling evil forces, but he’s never corrupted himself (except by a female who temporarily throws him off the scent).
As for plans, we presented it recently at Joe’s Pub. As a radio play, I can’t really see taking it farther than that as a live event, although we are planning to do a recording of it soon.
Are there any other film styles you are eager to explore in your own work?
TRAV SD: I’ve been sitting on a beach party musical for years that I’ll probably produce soon, and I’ve also written a play about the Manson family that is very much along the lines of Roger Corman. Probably my next effort along those lines will be a 30s style “wit” based comedy. I hesitate to say “screwball comedy”, because like noir, that’s a very distinct genre. I am also interested in westerns, though my literary efforts along those lines are screenplays.
Any other upcoming work to plug?
A reading of my play The Strange Case of Grippo the Ape Man at LaMama on March 12.
If you want to read more of Trav SD's writing, you can also check out NO APPLAUSE JUST THROW MONEY, his exhaustive and entertaining history of American Vaudeville.