Thursday, November 29, 2007

Elements of Film Noir in the 1941 Classic, " The Maltese Falcon "

As Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton point out in "Towards a Definition of Film Noir", prior to World War II convention dictated a beautiful heroine and an honest hero; we expected a clear line between good and bad, as well as clear motives, and the action should develop logically. But the 1941 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1930 detective novel "The Maltese Falcon" set these expectations on their ears, creating a first installment in the dark and unpredictable film genre called film noir. This is no Superman with a chaste fiancee, but a flawed hero with a depraved, murderous, doped-up, or drunk heroine.

The difference is clear in one of the final scenes in "The Maltese Falcon". The coveted black bird has been revealed a fake, and the crooks have fled. Sam Spade has called the police to tell them the entire story, and he’s left with Brigid O'Shaughnessy. There is no talk of running to some hideaway; he bluntly asks her why she killed his business partner, Miles Archer. At first she seems horrified by the question, but realizes she cannot pretend any longer.

As Borde and Chaumeton generalize of the entire genre, “a sense of dread persists until the final images”. There is no happy ending in sight. Brigid speaks low and flat, with her voice drained of emotion much like her soul seems to have been drained of life; the chaos has gone beyond all limits. She had wanted Thursby, her partner in crime, out of the picture so she could have the falcon to herself, as well as the subsequent reward. She had hired Archer to scare him off, but it didn’t work. She had killed Archer to frame it on Thursby. Then she needed a new protector, and came back to Sam.

But she loves Sam, and says she would have come back anyway. As an audience, we struggle between her ambivalence over her crimes and her love for Sam Spade. All the criminality, all the contradictions, have made us share in her experience, her sense of anguish. Sam loves her too, and we would like them to be together, despite their respective flaws, but our need for justice leaves us with a similar ambivalence; we could go either way, freedom or punishment.

We search her face for a hint of the dishonesty which has characterized her behavior up until now, but we cautiously surmise it seems to be gone. Spade’s voice is tense, he speaks quickly, suppressing all emotion, but we see it in his face; this is difficult for him, he loves her. This woman has murdered, lied, cheated, and played the whore. But a part of us wants her to go free, to live happily ever after with Spade.

We are disoriented and seem to have misplaced our moral compass, but that disorientation and alienation is the work, and the aim, of film noir.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Satire in " The Prioress ' Tale " by Geoffrey Chaucer

In a modern tent-revival meeting, someone might stand before the crowd and tell a story. She might be a slim, well-dressed woman whose words deeply stir the congregation’s emotions. The hero of her story might be pure as the driven snow, and elicit the smiles and applause of the audience; her villains might be the blackest of men, bringing cries of “shame” along with booing and hissing. Her story would serve its purpose and stir the crowd into a religious frenzy; everyone would agree those men were the tools of satan and the hero was a heavenly servant of the Lord.

But long before our modern tent revivals, we had a room full of religious pilgrims in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. We had the Prioress, a stately and slim woman, who was as skilled as a revivalist preacher in telling a tale designed to stir the crowd. Her holy young boy, Hugh, could bring smiles from the men and tears from the women. Her villains were vile, and anyone who didn’t agree must be part of Satan’s league. But Chaucer may not have intended her story to create a feeling of religious fervor.

Chaucer created The Prioress’ Tale to satire the blind religion and thoughtless bigotry of his day. He lived in a time when religious stories thrived among a largely illiterate population. These stories were Saint’s tales where the villains were impossibly bad and the heroes impossibly good. The line between “good” and “bad” people was drawn by their religious beliefs; anyone who believed in the Christian church was good, and everyone else in the world was bad.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines “satire”:

A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule, satirical writing or drama often scorns such folly by pretending to approve of values which are the diametric opposite of what the satirist actually wishes to promote.
Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular in Chaucer’s time although little has survived. Examples of such poetry may still be seen in the bawdy lyrics of Carmina Burnana, set to music by Carl Orf in the 20th Century.

The main character in The Prioress’ Tale is a pure little boy with a saintly devotion to the Virgin Mary. Not only that, but he is the child of a poor old widow. The villains who murder the boy are merely evil Jews, Satan’s nest of hornets to be exact. It isn’t a new story, the Prioress is recounting the story of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln who was murdered and thrown down a well. Later, under the threat of torture, a Jew named Copin confessed to the murder and said it was part of a Jewish custom to sacrifice a Christian child each year. But the Prioress raises this story to the level of legend when her slain Hugh parades through the streets singing praises to the Queen of Heaven.

Knowing nothing else of him, we can deduce from the rest of The Canterbury Tales that Chaucer is a talented writer, skilled in both subtlety of character and storytelling. So why would his Prioress tell a story so obviously shallow and improbable unless Chaucer labored behind some hidden agenda? Judging from his other stories, Chaucer doesn’t seem squeamish about poking fun at hypocracy in religion; he points to gullability in religious devotion through The Miller’s Tale as well as through those who purchase the Pardoner’s “relics”. Further, history tells us Chaucer was part of a group of intellectuals who opposed the prevalent anti-semitism of his time; in reality he would have been against characterizing Jews as “Satan’s Hornet Nest”.

So remove yourself from the Middle Ages and imagine a modern day comedy show. The scene is a large tent which has been set up in some humid, rural place. A popular comedienne stands before a crowd speaking the exact words of the Prioress’ tale. She is dressed as crisp as her voice and mannerisms; her hair is pulled back into a tight bun and we instantly recognize her as “pious”. The crowd responds to her story with cries of “amen” and “hallelujah” in the appropriate places. Such a sketch would be a satire on certain religions of today, much like Chaucer’s tale was six centuries ago.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

P.T. Barnum Had Nothing on Chaucer ' s " Wife of Bath " and " Pardoner "

P.T. Barnum may not really have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute” but nevertheless it seems to have become the creed of snake charmers and of snake oil salesmen through the ages. But prior to Barnum, Geoffrey Chaucer gave us both a snake oil salesman and a snake charmer in the Pardoner and in the Wife of Bath from his The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath may not be a snake charmer in the traditional sense, but she might try to charm a snake out of its skin, or at least his clothing. The Pardoner may not charm the snake at all, but he’ll sell you both its oil and its skin, and make you believe you’ll go to heaven in the bargain. But betwixt the two, we hear two exemplas, the moral tales which were popular in Medieval times.
Ladies first, if Alisoun may be called a lady. In this Wife of Bath’s quite lengthy prologue we learn of her five husbands as well as her Biblical justification for having had so many. We also hear of her poweress both in marriage and in the marriage bed. For this reason, the tale is usually grouped with the Clerk’s, Merchant’s, and Franklin’s tales in the Marriage Group. A division is sometimes preferred by scholars which separates the stories with moral issues from those that deal with magical issues, placing her tale in the later group.
But the Wife of Bath’s tale seems to live in both worlds, the moral and the magical. Enchantress that she is, the Wife of Bath may be using the subject of magic to empower her tale about making a moral choice; her superstitious audience might be charmed more easily if magic turns the tale’s pages. Although the tale’s moral isn’t of a religious nature the moral Alisoun implies is clear; the woman should reign supreme in marriage.
So they lived ever after to the end
In perfect bliss; and may Christ Jesus send
Us husbands meek and young and fresh in bed,
And grace to overbid them when we wed.
And – Jesu hear my prayer! – cut short the lives
Of those who won’t be governed by their wives;
And all old, angry niggards of their pence,
God send them soon a very pestilence!
(292, Penguin)

It’s true exemplas would have been used by Medieval preachers to enhance their sermons, driving home a moral conclusion or illustrating a point of doctrine. With this definition, The Wife of Bath’s Tale might not be considered an exempla at all. But it could be argued since Chaucer made Alisoun’s prologue twice as long as her tale, and since in it she frequently reinforced her idea of female dominance with the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, that she did use her story to enhance her own doctrine of life, love, and marriage.
The message behind the Pardoner’s tale is clearly moral, but less obvious is the irony created by the person of its teller; after the Pardoner’s self-revelation he seems an unlikely preacher against avarice. Using his position within the Roman Catholic Church, the Pardoner extorts the poor and helpless, pockets indulgences, and fails to abide by teachings about jealousy and avarice.
The Pardoner’s Prologue contains a confession similar to details the Wife of Bath gives away about herself in her own prologue. His mention of a “draught of corny strong ale” might suggest he is being so open because he is drunk, but it is not clear.
Unlike the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is sexually deficient. In the general prologue he is described as beardless with a small goat-like voice. The narrator concludes the Pardoner is either a gelding eunuch or a mare (effeminate), but more importantly these descriptions draw parallels between his sexual deficiency and his spiritual deficiency. The Pardoner is like a travelling salesman, seeking to set himself up as the ultimate source for religious relics. But just as his relics are spiritually impotent, so is this impotent man.
While Chaucer wrote powerful exemplas for his Pardoner and Wife of Bath, the irony between their content and their respective narrators castrates their intrinsic message and leaves both impotent. The Wife of Bath may seem an early champion of women's rights, but her excesses leave one to question her motives. The Pardoner may find a following to hear his spiritual message, but his material indulgences leave that message nearly as impotent as his physical self. Nevertheless, these tales and prologues are insightful enough to enhance discourses on religion as well as discourses on human nature, even if it is at the expense of those who tell them.

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