Saturday, December 23, 2006

Noir Interview #2: Ian W. Hill

How did your interest in film noir originally get sparked?

IAN W. HILL: Probably around 1980, my father and stepmother gave me a copy of Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s Film Noir Encyclopedia for Christmas. I was primarily into horror and science fiction films at that time, but it did spark a little something in me. But just a little.

I began looking at noir a little more seriously around 1991, as I was just out of film school and working in a video store, but still, I stuck mainly to a handful of “classics” (The Big Sleep, Out of the Past, The Maltese Falcon, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Lady from Shanghai, and so forth).

In 1997, living in Maine for a while, I noticed two films at the local video store by Anthony Mann, Raw Deal and T-Men. I hadn’t seen any films by Mann, which seemed a big gap in my film knowledge, so I took these two out, and was completely overcome by them. I spent the next several weeks going through every noir that that store (Videoport, a great and VERY well-stocked place in Portland) had to offer. In about three weeks I had gone through about 50 noirs and was obsessed with the genre. My friend David LM Mcintyre gave me a birthday gift of Eddie Muller’s wonderful book Dark City as well, and then I had a more defined path to follow in my searches for more and more noir.

So, what is film noir? How do you define it?

IAN W. HILL: Hoo-boy. On a noir bulletin board I occasionally contribute to (and have written two articles for), this comes up at least once a year, is vigorously and often angrily discussed, and the best answer yet seems to be much like the Supreme Court Justice on pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it” (and there are many arguments, which can get nasty, over whether certain films are or are not film noir).

Well, to begin with, in the most simple terms, film noir is a genre of American crime pictures made from 1941 to 1958 – most seem to agree on the dates (The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil), and a look over the noirs of that time make it clear that there is always a crime of some kind (sometimes the crime has happened before the film begins, and the film is about the aftershocks, sometimes the crime is the final moment of the film, what it has been building towards, but ALWAYS a crime). But not all crime films made in the USA during that time are noirs (for example, White Heat, which is more in the Warner Bros. gangster tradition of the 1930s, though some will FORCEFULLY argue for its inclusion in the noir “canon”).

Noir is a mood that permeates the films. A mood of dread, uncertainty, and doom. A mood that comes from a number of external elements, social, literary, political, stylistic, technical.
Social: Cynicism, a lack of belief or trust in institutions, variously affected over the noir period by the Great Depression, WWII, and the Cold War. An unsettled feeling that there is a huge gulf between The Way Things Should Be and The Way Things Are.

Literary: Reflecting and amplifying the above, the crime literature of the 1930s had taken a turn for the morally ambiguous, or at least confused. Dashiell Hammett is the primary source of noir (there’s a reason the first true noir picture is the faithful 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, which had been filmed twice before in the 30s as a simple crime picture), with other writers like Chandler and Cain (and non-“crime” writers Nathaniel West and Horace McCoy) close behind. The darker turn crime prose had taken affected crime films. Cornell Woolrich’s work (much of which was adapted into noir films) was another direct influence throughout the 40s.

Political: The majority of noir creators were leftists, ranging from Roosevelt Democrats to fellow travelers to outright card-carrying Commies. They saw the USA as full of problems that needed to be changed, within the system or through the change of it. HUAC, McCarthy and the Blacklist took a higher toll on the creators of noir films than any other genre.

Stylistic: As a result of the political problems of the world a sizable number of German filmmakers had come to Hollywood in the 30s, bringing with them dark, expressionistic tendencies. While this is certainly a part of the noir style, I personally feel this aspect tends to be given too much weight by many writers (some of whom seem loath to credit any kind of original style to American filmmakers), as opposed to what I think is a far more important cause of noir:

Technical: Kodak introduced their Double-X 35mm film in, I believe, 1939. This film stock, combined with new lens coatings, which allowed shooting in lower light conditions than had been previously possible, freed cinematographers and directors to experiment more with shadow. And when a technical advance in craft is made, artists will jump in to use it. While Citizen Kane is not a noir, of course, Gregg Toland’s use of shadow in that film was hugely influential on his fellow DPs in Hollywood, who all wanted to try it themselves.

Add ‘em all together you get noir.

You provide an exhaustive annotated list of film noirs on your blog. How did that list come into being?

IAN W. HILL: When I began the process of creating World Gone Wrong, which I knew would be primarily a collage of dialogue from noir films, I realized I would have to immerse myself in the genre as much as possible, both to find the quotes needed for the show and to understand it even more, all the way through. So I complied a list of about three hundred noirs – all that I had seen as well as all of those that seemed to be the ones I should see. Then I began watching. Many of the ones I wanted to see were out of print or otherwise unavailable/unfindable, but I wound up watching around 100 films in two months (thanks to the Brooklyn Public Library and Netflix), focusing mainly on the ones I hadn’t seen before, but also making sure to go back and rewatch even the most familiar ones. I made VHS copies of many of them and watched the most important ones over and over again (and wound up with a library of 95 noirs and neo-noirs that I also knew would be important to loan out to cast members to get them in the proper mood as well).

At a certain point, I had to stop just watching and start writing, and I started making up lists of what I’d seen and categories they could fall in. Putting them chronologically made it clear also that there were certain mini-periods within the larger noir “period,” which could be defined in certain ways (with, granted, a slight element of self-conscious facetiousness about these “definitions”). These lists were also helpful in explaining noir to the performers.
The first draft of the script quoted about 185 films. It was too long (I had to fit in a 2 hour slot for the festival the show was in) and after cutting wound up including quotes from about 160 noirs (plus other sources). I had watched 125 films for the project (the remaining 60 films originally quoted were sourced from books and IMDb).

Do you have a favorite film which for you most clearly defines the movement/style/sub-genre?

IAN W. HILL: If I had to pick one film to point at and say “That’s film noir,” it would probably be Double Indemnity, but it’s hard to limit such a wide-ranging genre to just one.
The other “defining” films for me would include Detour, Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Big Combo. And that’s just limiting it to the “classic” noir period of 1941-1958; adding in “neo-noirs” would double the list. Oh, and The Seventh Victim, to be sure, to make it VERY clear that noir is wider than the “private eye.”

Not necessarily my “favorites,” but defining ones.

What do you think, generally speaking, film noir has to offer the theatre artist?

IAN W. HILL: Hmmmn. Not sure, and in fact, I waver between support and wariness of noir being used as the basis for stage pieces. Support, because I love noir, and wariness because I’ve seen far too many “noir” pieces that take on the surface elements of the genre (or what are commonly seen as the iconic elements of the genre – private eye, femme fatale, shafts of light, hard-bitten dialogue, etc.) without dealing with the undercurrents that actually define the genre (of course, I used all of the above in World Gone Wrong, I hope with more understanding than is usual). There are anywhere from 400-800 noir films of the classic period 1941-1958 (depending on definition and whose count you believe), and less than 20 of them feature the private eye figure that IS noir in the popular eye, which limits the genre pretty much to Bogart as Sam Spade and the various films made from Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Noir is seen as “cool.”

Noir is not “cool.” Noir is hot. Noir is despair, anger, violent, passionate, filled with dread, regret, bad decisions. Noir as “cool,” just the surface, is sketch comedy. Noir with all its attendant dread can be great theatre. I’ve seen more of the former than the latter, but the times seem to be good for a resurgence of Noir proper, fully understood and used.

IAN W. HILL: Why do you think the past few years have been so noir-saturated in film, television, and theatre?

Noir, while never completely vanishing from the scene, seems to rise up more during times of massive jingoism in the USA. A kind of “ . . . uh, ye-e-e-e-e-s, but . . .” to the status quo. Noir is the dark underbelly of the USA. Noir is about trying to hold on to some sense of honor and moral values and order in a chaotic, random world where the only things that have any value are power, money, and sex, and the willingness to do ANYTHING to get them is the only thing respected. Seems like the USA today.

IAN W. HILL: Tell us a bit about World Gone Wrong. What were you trying to achieve/explore? Can we expect to see the production remounted at some point in the future?

Second question first, I’d LOVE to bring it back, but I don’t know how practical it would be. Maybe someday. I think the cast would be into it, mostly, though getting all 20 of them back together would be a good trick. I did very well, house-wise and review-wise, for an Indie theatre show, but I worry about getting enough people and enough press (to get the people in) to make another run worth it. Though it probably wouldn’t cost much, even with all the things I’d have to fix and re-do . . . I wonder if I’m past the date when you can bring back an Equity Showcase?

Now. Okay. The big answer. Why did I do this show?

The “where it came from” and “where it went” pretty much answer the “why I did it”: I wanted to do an original show in The Brick Theater’s Summer Festival, and the theme of the festival in 2005 was “Moral Values.” This seemed to suggest something to do with the political state of the USA today, given that “moral values” was supposedly such a big factor in the 2004 election.
I don’t generally do political art – ALL art is political, of course, but I mean direct commenting on politics in my work. Generally, I don’t like political art – I take my art and my politics seriously, and there isn’t much political art that doesn’t trivialize one or the other. Personally, I’ll take great art with shoddy or shallow politics any day over the opposite.

But . . . I was unhappy with the State of the Union, and wanted to say SOMETHING in my work about this. So I thought about political art that I did like. What came to mind was Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, which, many assumed immediately and which he has since confirmed, is his take on Thatcherite England. You don’t have to take it that way of course -- I remember a friend at the time of its release being very insistant that what was great about the film was that it was “just about a Cook, a Thief, a Wife, and her Lover, and THAT’S IT! No hidden meanings!” – but if you want to, you can see that Greenaway has clearly made the Cook=The Artist, the Thief=Thatcher’s Government, the Wife=the Bourgouisie, and the Lover=the Intellectual (it goes further, with other characters as The Military and The Royal Family and so on, but enough of that . . .). Then he creates a plot around them that is a metaphor for violent revolution, with the Bourgouisie aided by the Artist in shoving the Intellectual (whose specialty is The French Revolution) down the throat of The Government, then killing this Thief with the word “Cannibal.”

Greenaway is English, and is creating a work about the English Government. So, appropriately, he chooses an English dramatic style to create his work in: The Jacobean Revenge Drama.
Wanting to do something similar, but as an American, about the American Government, I looked at the world around me, the state of it, specifically of my country, which I love and am also horrified at the current status of, and looked to the American dramatic style that seemed to represent this world gone wrong, Film Noir.

I had been slowly creating a series of theatre pieces, the NECROPOLIS series, which I’ve called “stage elegies for 20th Century art forms” in collage form, with all sound, music, SFX, dialogue, pre-recorded and the actors performing as if “dubbed.” Previously, I’d presented NECROPOLIS 0: Kiss Me, Succubus (2000, Nada Classic, based on the films of Jess Franco, Radley Metzger, and Jean Rollin) and NECROPOLIS 3: At the Mountains of Slumberland (2001, Access Theatre, after Winsor McCay and H.P. Lovecraft), and “held” numbers #1 & 2 for a film noir collage.

So, since it was a collage, I started assembling text, and not only from noirs. I had noticed that much of the public language of the Administration (especially the amazing words of Donald Rumsfeld) were noirlike in their semantic twists and turns, so I grabbed lots of those as well and mixed them in with the noir language (as well as other sources . . . Lewis Mumford on Cities, the last words of Joan Crawford, etc.). As I assembled text, I imagined it spoken by the actors I work with frequently, using them like a studio’s “contract players” in my head. Three lines in my notes would sound like they should be spoken by, say, Josephine Cashman, and then I would think of what kind of noir “archtype” Josephine might have once been cast as that would speak these lines . . . ah, a tough-talking diner waitress who’s seen it all and knows the score! Then I would consider what segment of current USA society this character/archetype would represent in the overall metaphor of the show.

I also knew that the show was inside the head of a dying man – though I knew this wouldn’t necessarily be obvious – and was his dying dream/vision in two parts: World Gone Wrong, in which he translates the world around him, including the circumstances that are killing him, into a noir metaphor for the current USA, and Worth Gun Willed, a fantasy in which the dead man arises as a new character who goes on the same journey as the first, ultimately revenging the death of his original persona.

Part One would be based primarily on the noir D.O.A. (and allowed me to incorporate ideas from an aborted adaptation of that film I was going to do for my friend Frank Cwiklik’s Dark Stages series of noirs for theatre), with the Fall Guy from that film rising from the grave in Part Two as Lee Marvin in the neo-noir Point Blank.

And this is what NECROPOLIS 1&2: World Gone Wrong/Worth Gun Willed wound up being. And, it seems, rather successfully so – it did well both critically and with audiences.
Some people “got” the political dimension, but as with the original noirs that inspired it, it wasn’t necessary to understand the message to enjoy the work. Almost no one “got” the idea of it as a dying person’s dream either (an element influenced in no small way by David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.), but that also wasn’t important – though it explains why the “plot” makes next to no sense, really, except the sense of a dream.

So it was a film noir pastiche, a political statement (the climax is the killing of the businessman/gangster/President figure with the only non-prerecorded sounds in the play: actual gunshots and the spoken word, “Traitor”), a piece of experimental theatre, and/or a fun stylistic parody.

Something for everyone, I guess.

Are there any other film styles you are eager to explore in your own work?

IAN W. HILL: Not right now. I’m sure there will be, but after WGW and the classroom/industrial/corporate film elements of this past Summer’s play, That’s What We’re Here For (an american pageant), I’ve kind of exhausted my film studies for the stage for the moment. My script for NECROPOLIS 4: Green River is a kind of “road picture for the stage,” but it’s not so film-based (it’s also huge, beyond any means I would ever have to produce it, and will need rewriting to make it producable).

There’s no way I’ll be able to leave certain things behind in anything I do, and noir is a huge part of me in any case – looking back at the reviews of all the shows I’d done before World Gone Wrong, the one word that keeps showing up is “noirish,” so I’d been heading that way for years. There are lots of elements of silent movie acting in what I try to get from my casts at times.
But really, noir for me wasn’t just a style to work in, but a form to work through. It was a way that I could make a very personal and meaningful statement from my heart in a theatrical form. I can’t think of any other genre, except maybe horror (which I’ve also dealt with in my zombie production of Ten Nights in a Bar-Room), where I could use the form in full to express myself, rather than just using it as a stylistic surface overlay.

I’m as much interested in using “non-art” forms of theatre to express myself (religious pageant, 19th-Century temperance play, corporate trade show, etc.), or even more so. There’s still a large part of me that’s a filmmaker at heart – it’s what I grew up wanting to be, it’s what my degree is in – and I have rules about being true to your forms: Do in film what can ONLY be done on film and do in theatre what can ONLY be done in theatre. World Gone Wrong was film-based, but it was still totally a theatre piece, and wouldn’t work in any other form.

Any other upcoming work to plug?

IAN W. HILL: I will almost certainly have a show in The Brick Theater’s Pretentious Fest, coming Summer, 2007.

My current plan is, with the festival theme finally giving me the nerve and “permission” to do this, to finally direct and play the title role in Hamlet.

I have nothing else scheduled, and probably shouldn’t; I’m sure Hamlet will be enough, though I am hoping to bring back That’s What We’re Here For for a full run, as well as some older productions I’d like to remount, including Richard Foreman’s Harry in Love and Mark Spitz’s The Hobo Got Too High. Among others.

Actually, now that I think of it, it would be VERY interesting to bring back World Gone Wrong and That’s What We’re Here For in rep with each other for a month . . .


Kathy said...

SCTC & Ian W. Hill, thank you for this interview! As someone who if pressed to define "noir" could probably only come up with the "surface elements of the genre," this interview was incredibly helpful in sharpening the lens through which I view noir. Reading the interview, there were numerous "ah-hah!" moments when Mr. Hill put into words that which I sensed about the genre but as yet been unable to put into words myself. More importantly, it reawakened my interest in seeing more well as SCTC's show next month!

Ian W. Hill said...


Thanks for the kind words -- I am SUCH a noir geek, it does me good to feel I've said something enlightening about it.