Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from the book More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (University of California Press: 1998), with permission from its author and UC Press. (Book available at UC Press.)
The old black-and-white lighting style is therefore still with us, and not only in color movies. The classics of the 1940s are regularly shown alongside letterboxed spectaculars as objects of nostalgia on TV, and a variety of young filmmakers still enjoy using black-and-white stock. In our brave new world, black and white can suggest Hollywood or Europe, glamour or seediness, realism or aestheticism, poverty or affectation, archival evidence or clever stylization. It is often seen in commercials or MTV videos, where it functions merely as one form among others, jumbled up in a wild mixture of aspect ratios and computer technologies. In response, an increasing number of feature films in color have begun to use black and white for expressive or symbolic purposes (just as the silent directors once used elements of hand-tinted color in the midst of black and white). Kenneth Branagh’s dreadful Dead Again (1991) is one example, but consider also Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), which is probably the most systematically discontinuous movie ever produced in Hollywood, radically switching camera speeds, lenses, lighting styles and film stocks within individual sequences.
Despite its many connotations, black and white is most frequently used to signify the past—especially the past inhabited by our parents and grandparents, which we can see in old movies but never experience directly. A highly intelligent commentary on this phenomenon is independent filmmaker Mark Rappaport’s 36-minute Exterior Night (1994), made for high-definition color TV (HDTV), which combines original color imagery with archival footage of sets or backgrounds from The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Mildred Pierce, Possessed, Dark Passage, The Fountainhead, Young Man with a Horn, Strangers on a Train and a score of other black-and-white movies. Using a blue-screen technique, Rappaport and HDTV cameraman Serge Roman frequently pose contemporary actors against studio nightclubs and streets from the 1940s. Even when the action is staged on colored sets representing the present day, the black-and-white imagery is never far away: We glimpse it through windows or on TV screens, and the characters talk about it constantly.
‘I was caught up in the nostalgia for a memory I never had,’ Steve says, and the film as a whole illustrates this point. Like a sweetly romantic version of ‘Last Year at Marienbad,’ ‘Exterior Night’ creates a paradoxical Möbius-strip relationship between the past and present—an eternal round of ‘noirness’ that has no particular beginning or end.
Exterior Night is narrated by a young man named Steve (Johnny Mez), who wears black jeans, a black leather jacket, and bright red Converse sneakers. An “old-fashioned guy,” Steve is fond of composers like Rogers and Hart, and he feels an intense ambivalence toward classic movies like The Damned Don’t Dance, which is based on a novel by his grandfather, Biff Farley’s girlfriend, the legendary Mona, also knows as the “chanteuse in chartreuse” (all three women are played by Victoria Bastel). Sylvie works in a tiny bohemian dance club, and, like the more glamorous Mona, she sings a haunting tune called “Déjà vu” (“a song from the past that continues into the present”). Steve immediately falls in love with her, but when they spend the night together he is troubled by “every dream in the book.” For the remainder of the film, he finds himself walking through a black-and-white world—wandering along Times Square at night, riding in taxicabs against the background of process screens, standing on deserted streets lit by solitary lamps, and visiting a posh nightclub called “The Golden Orchid,” where Biff Farley met his mysterious death.
“I was caught up in the nostalgia for a memory I never had,” Steve says, and the film as a whole illustrates this point. Like a sweetly romantic version of Last Year at Marienbad, Exterior Night creates a paradoxical Möbius-strip relationship between the past and present—an eternal round of “noirness” that has no particular beginning or end. Hence the blue-screen process has an affinity with the back-projection techniques of classic Hollywood, heightening the oneiric quality of stock imagery. Meanwhile, the color has the same yearning, moody qualities as the black and white. Actors are lit with colored gels that split their faces into symbolic areas of red and blue; Steve’s present-day bedroom has venetian-blind shadows running along its walls; and the black-and-white dream imagery sometimes metamorphoses into the vivid covers of old paperback books, reminding us that the hard-boiled past was in some ways more colorful than the present. At the end of the film, Steve recovers a package containing what he believes to be the lost manuscript of Biff Farley’s last novel. When he unwraps his treasured discovery, it turns out to be nothing more than an album of black-and-white photographs. “A book of souvenirs,” Biff’s offscreen voice calls it. “Places where I lived my life, places which you’ve visited. It’s all we have in common. . . .Don’t say I never gave you anything.” Inside are photographs of a cityscape at night. As Steve gazes at the pictures, they become animated: cars move, mists circulate and something appears to have just exited the scene. The effect is surreal, as if Atget had wandered onto an empty back lot in the Hollywood of the 1940s. As Humphrey Bogart would say, images such as these are the “stuff that dreams are made of.” Exterior Night captures their special beauty, showing how they function in the collective unconscious of filmmakers born after 1940 and helping us to understand why certain directors and cinematographers—even when they work in color—repeatedly aspire to the condition of black and white.
Parody, Pastiche, Fashion
If anything characterizes postmodern art, it is what Peter Wollen describes as a relentless “historicism and eclecticism, which plunders the image-bank and the world-horde for the material of parody, pastiche, and, in extreme cases, plagiarism.” But postmodern movies have a very short historical memory, usually limiting their “image-bank” to the period since 1930. The so-called film noir occupies an especially important position among the available styles; hence at least three generations of young, artistically ambitious directors have made it a favored object of quotation and imitation.
A metafilm like Exterior Night is one example of this tendency. Working outside Hollywood, Rappaport uses elements of burlesque, parody and “plagiarism” to comment on a lingering fascination with a genre or style, creating his effects not only with cinematography but also with the entire “nexus of fasion” that constitutes the popular conception of film noir.