WEIRDLAND: Nightmarish Affairs: "Detour", "The Lost Weekend", Stiegler's diagnosis

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Nightmarish Affairs: "Detour", "The Lost Weekend", Stiegler's diagnosis

The Best of Film Noir: #1. "Detour" (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
A masterpiece of Poverty Row, Roger Ebert called this film "the guilty soul of film noir." Detour is that rare film whose brevity somehow communicates a tome's worth of ideas and themes. The staging is bare-bones —Ulmer used a total of four sets (three interior, one exterior) and used stock footage and rear projection for everything else— and the narrative is stripped to virtually nothing, so all that exists is a creeping, paranoid mood and deep sense of alienation. How Ulmer achieved so much with so little is something of a marvel, but credit the milieu's deliberate artificiality and the unconventional, oddly stilted performances. This is one of very few films rightly described as a "fever dream." Source:

Bernard Stiegler's argument for the cinematic character of consciousness: Cinema amounts to a process of the selection and assembling of retentions, a process engaging the secondary retentional sphere of imagination/desire. Stiegler discusses the standardisation of perception and protentions, and the impact of this standardisation on the realm of secondary retentions (memory). In 'Technics and Time 3' he draws on accounts of the significance of Hollywood to the formation of American cultural identity to argue that it was through the cinema that the adoption of American values was largely transacted. What Stiegler calls “hyper-synchronization” (an excessive, preemptive industrial production of the collective through, above all, industrial temporal objects) can trigger “hyper-diachronization:” a breakdown of the individual-collective dynamic, a loss of self and collective, leading to, in psychoanalytic terms, the liberation of the drives in lieu of the mediations of the symbolic and the imaginary. For Stiegler, Husserl’s (and Turing’s) dream of pure presence, and hence of realtime as its ultimate mastery, is illusory, albeit powerfully concretised in contemporary technoculture. “Retentional finitude” is a concept that Derrida elaborates in his critique of Husserl to name the limitation of individual human memory, the limitation necessitating reliance on the prosthetic supplementation of living memory by writing. The necessary distinction between primary retention (lived experience) and tertiary retention (essential factical prosthesis of experience) tends to become “formal and void” in this circumstance.

A dangerous uncoupling of the dynamic of individual and collective individuation results. The individual loses faith in the protentional horizon of collective becoming that is borne in the factical stock of tertiary retentions as heritage, cultural tradition, and orientation. Tertiary retention in turn loses its connection to the singularity of experience. The immediate passage of the event into a processed and re-presented “already-there” for the viewer and for viewers in general tends to prevent, or preempt, the individuation of experiences in the interchange with “our” others. In Stiegler’s diagnosis what is increasingly lacking today are ways of re-engaging with the profound complexity of temporal objects, ways of regaining the potential for individuation in eventfulness. -"Thinking Cinematically and the Industrial Temporal Object: Schemes and Technics of Experience in Bernard Stiegler's Technics" (2007) by Patrick Crogan

1940s Psychological Horror/Thriller: "Frighteningly Real". In the first half of the 1940s, commentators claimed that they were witnessing a major new cycle of horror films that were ‘fresh psychological efforts’ and included films that are not commonly identified as horror today but as examples of the paranoid woman’s film, film noir and the thriller. Consequently, during this period, the horror film and the psychological film were almost interchangeable. For example, in its review of "Phantom Lady" (1944), the New York Times stressed the significance of its director, Robert Siodmak, and his background, a background in which he was described as ‘a former director of German horror films’ or ‘the old German psychological films.’

However, in the mid-1940s, there was a shift in the evaluation of psychological films. During this period, these films gained greater legitimacy as they began to be distanced from an association with horror and Gothic fantasy and came to be increasingly associated with the values of cinematic realism. Today, the shift in critical values that led critics to champion cinematic realism is often associated with the release of Rossellini’s "Open City," but it was clearly evident at least a year earlier in responses to Billy Wilder’s "The Lost Weekend," a psychological study of alcoholism that was overtly identified as horror on its release in the United States. It was only after the release of "The Lost Weekend" that the horror film and the thriller began to become distanced from one another. As critical tastes shifted, critics began to dissociate the thriller from Gothic fantasy, and to identify it with contemporary settings and notions of realism.

Similarly, "Body and Soul" (1947) was praised as a film that ‘hits an all time high in throat-catching fight films’. While it is claimed to borrow heavily from a range of films, plays and literary fictions, it is also supposed to transcend them due to its realism. It has a ‘slashing fidelity to the cold and greedy nature of the fight game’, and has been directed with ‘an honest regard for human feelings’. However, once again, it is the atmosphere of terror and despair that is supposed to distinguish the story, in which a young fighter finds that ‘the fates close inexorably in, until the wraps are torn from his illusions and he finds himself owned, body and soul’.

Of course, there were disagreements over such distinctions and, while the New York Times dismissed "Nightmare Alley," which was said to ‘traverses distasteful dramatic ground’, both Time and the Nation praised its daring: James Agee even gained the ‘added pleasure of thinking, “Oh, no; they won’t have the guts to do that.” But they do’ (Agee, 1947). However, even here, it was claimed that this ‘hair-raising carnival sideshow’ was only justified due to its ‘malign social observation’.

In contrast, there was general critical consensus in the condemnation of "Black Angel" (1946). Certainly, it was explicitly compared to "The Lost Weekend" due to a character that ‘goes through a couple of drunken bouts of “Lost Weekend” variety’. But in this film the drunkenness was supposed to lack purpose and to only enhance an ‘atmosphere’ that is ‘redolent of the lower depths’. Even "The Big Sleep" was described by the New York Times as a ‘poisonous picture’ (Crowther, 1946) and, for all its tough urban action, it was hardly seen as a realistic film. For some critics, this was not necessarily a problem and Manny Farber clearly relished the film for its ‘surrealist excitement’ and for its ‘fantastic quality’. Not only did he claim that the film had ‘the feeling of an opium smoker’s fantasy’, but he also continued the identification with horror present in the reviews of the earlier films associated with Raymond Chandler, referring to it as a ‘nightmarish affair.’ -"European Journal of American Culture vol. 31" (2012) by Marc Jancovich

Charles Jackson (author of "The Lost Weekend") was especially smitten with Charles Brackett (“the nicest man I have met here”), who in turn was even more fascinated by "The Lost Weekend" than Billy Wilder was: “It had,” he said, “more sense of horror than any horror story I have ever read—lingering like a theme in music.” A few days later, Wilder “dragged [Jackson] away” from a party to attend a screening of his latest movie, "Double Indemnity", after which he stood up—before a group including Groucho Marx, Dick Powell, and Buddy DeSylva—and announced, “Next picture coming up, The Lost Weekend!”

Hollywood columns had buzzed with rumors about who would play Don Birnam, the genteel alcoholic who ends up howling with delirium tremens. The role had been turned down by everyone from Cary Grant to Gary Cooper before the Welshman Ray Milland took it, refusing to heed an all but universal warning that he was committing “career suicide.” Milland, a near teetotaler, was coached in the ways of drunkenness by Jackson himself, first in Hollywood and then on set in New York.

Production began in October, and the first sequence to be shot was Don Birnam’s slog along the pawnshops of Third Avenue, which Wilder had decided to shoot on location in New York rather than try to re-create that particular jumble of scenery—including the El and its jagged shadows—on a Paramount soundstage. Lest a crowd of pedestrians interfere, cameras were concealed inside delivery trucks and empty storefronts, and for three weeks a disheveled, unshaven Milland waited in a cab for his cue to shamble along for another block or two while the cameras furtively rolled. (Once, he was recognized by a motorist who happened to know someone at Paramount. “I just want to tell you,” the man reported, “that I saw your friend Ray Milland dead drunk on Third Avenue. If I were you I’d try to get hold of him and straighten him out.”) Source:

According to his autobiography "Wide-Eyed in Babylon" (1974), Ray Milland was allowed to spend a night in a psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital where the patients were suffering from alcoholism and delirium tremens. He found the experience extremely disturbing and left at three in the morning. Between the strain of acting and the morbidity of the subject Milland's home life deteriorated and he left for a period of two weeks. When the shoot was over, he left for a vacation in Canada with his wife Muriel.

He takes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and shakes one out, lights it. As he puts the match in the ashtray, his eyes fall on that jigger of whiskey. It's hard to resist it any longer. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket, wipes his forehead, then his parched mouth. The time has come now. He puts the handkerchief back in his pocket, lifts the glass and drains it in one gulp. Actually, Don doesn't like the taste of liquor, actively hates it indeed, as a one-legged man might hate the sight of his crutches but need them in order to walk.

Gloria is back from the powder room. On her way to her gentleman friend at the table, she runs her finger through the neckline of Don's hair. She is almost past him when he catches her hand and pulls her towards him. DON: Shall we dance? GLORIA: You're awfully pretty, Mr. Birnam. DON: You say that to all the boys. GLORIA: Why, natch. Only with you it's on the level.

DON: That's my novel, Nat. I wanted to start writing it out in the country. Morbid stuff. Nothing for the Book-of-the Month Club. A horror story. The confessions of a booze addict, the log book of an alcoholic. (Holding out the jigger) Love's the hardest thing in the world to write about. So simple. You've got to catch it through details, like the early morning sunlight hitting the gray tin of the ashcans in front of her house. A ringing telephone that sounds like Beethoven's Pastoral. A letter scribbled on her office stationery that you carry in your pocket because it smells of all the lilacs in Ohio.
-extracts from "The Lost Weekend" (1945) script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, based on the novel "The Lost Weekend" (1944) by Charles R. Jackson.

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