Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two Very Different Tourneurs

Out of the Past (1947)/ Jacques Tourneur

Tourneur’s depiction of the past as a dynamic entity whose shadow looms greedily over the present (and the future, for the present is the future’s past) is not as much an arty tic, or an auteurist obsession as it is a clever ploy. While Wilder’s film noir was a station for mourning the lost opportunities of the present, and Huston’s noir was typically cynical of the future, Tourneur understood noir for what it really is – a past that seeps into the present. A film noir essentially never takes place in the now or in the urgent – it has an overbearing sense of existing in or in other cases, through the past. A cursory glance at a noir frame will reveal areas steeped in shadows; it takes incisive scrutiny to discover what objects the shadows are of. They merely seem to be hanging from a hook that is above the frame, falling over it like specters whose precise source or owner is invisible. If a frame on the screen is the symbol of the present (it is being projected, thus it must exist now), then the shadows that cake it are a symbol of the past – residues of a time past, a second past, a frame past.

The people who populate the moribund alleys of a film noir always seem to refer to an existence from before the events of the film – their faces are battle-hardened, crease-laden, smirk-full and they sigh before they make a revelation. They sigh because the revelation is not novel (it might seem new to us as the viewer), it has all happened to them before. The lead is world-weary, but weariness is a quality that percolates from the past to the present – one who is weary in the present is that because of things he did in the past. 

All of the characters always seem to know each other from before, and their conversations are full of mentions of shared experiences - ones whose trifling mentions we hear, but whose event we never see. The characters inside a film noir seem to be the only residents in the universe; grudging co-habitants who, through their performance of similar mistakes over and over again seem doomed to be captives in their world of eternal recurrence.

Tourneur’s Out of the Past(1947) is considered by many as one of the prototypical noir films – but actually, it is less an example of film noir, and more an example of a film about film noir. He takes the assembly of eras that is a film noir and takes it apart piece by piece, era by era. He lets each of the three timelines (the present, its first past, and its second past) arrange themselves into nearly divided layers of time with clear, discernible boundaries. We see everything, and thus, the past is no longer a myth, a speculation or a notion, but an actual fact – the shared experiences of the characters aren’t just hearsay, but a visible reality. The origin of the creases on a character’s forehead do not exist in a hypothesis anymore, we see how he acquired them.  Tourneur’s film doesn’t just take for granted, unlike a lot of other film noirs, the fact that the past bears heavily on the present, but shows us how. All the male characters in the film are cursed with the oversight to trust a shifty woman, and doomed, thus, to a state of perpetual betrayal. Each time the woman betrays one of them, we jump a tense – the instances of her betrayal in the script are portals between different eras.  There is no other way for them to escape the state of eternal recurrence then but to obliterate her. One of them does.

Nightfall (1957) is the strangest of all film noirs, and it is only because while all noirs feature characters that are weary of the world, it is one with a director who is the most world-weary of all. It is rather similar to Out of the Past, but Tourneur the director seems to have grown, in the ten years between the releases of the two films, a certain kind of disillusionment with the iron-handed direction that is so typical of his earlier material. He is no longer interested in stimulating the kind of passion the characters in Out of the Past exhibit for escaping the past, and instead is more interested in expounding on philosophical tangents. In Out of the Past, the characters must escape their past because its darkness is self-wrought, since they commit the same errors again and again despite knowing better. Tourneur’s attitude towards them is in equal portions ridicule and human sympathy – but through all this, he seems to understand their situation. But the circumstances that form Nightfall are so absurd and irrational (and thus, so much like life) that Tourneur’s no longer interested in resolving them as much as he is in commenting on the irony inherent in the vast gap between what a man chooses for himself and what fate chooses for him. It has a narrative, but no one really takes it seriously – the characters in the film choose the most crucial events in the narrative to pick personal bones, be miserable and just generally act like people who can’t take a joke. They seem to be putting up a pretense of commitment to the narrative, but actually, they are more interested in following their private trajectories. Rarely is there a film where no one believes in what they are upto than Nightfall – as if they were busy doing something else and Tourneur forced them into the film. Nightfall has the quality of revisionism, because unlike in other noirs, the past still exerts its influence, but people learn to move on.

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