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Film noir or red meat?

And Ric Burns’s Warhol documentary
By GERALD PEARY  |  September 12, 2006

IS WARHOL THE GREATEST?: Ric Burns thinks so.

On this, all agree: nobody in 1940s Hollywood consciously made “film noirs,” though that’s what we now call The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, and other dark, cynical, crime melodramas. The term “film noir” was coined by French critic Jean-Pierre Chartier for his 1946 essay “Les Américains aussi font des film noirs” in the Paris-based journal Revue du cinéma. A question lingers. Did the studios in the 1940s have an in-house label for their “noir” movies, those mannered thrillers set on the mean streets of the subterranean city? The term “hard-boiled” was employed at times, taken from detective novels of the Black Mask school. But anything more overarching?

A new academic book, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir (Johns Hopkins University Press), offers a dizzying new term for “noir” scholars to ponder, one gleaned from author Sheri Chinen Biesen’s first-hand research. Biesen asserts, “By 1946 Hollywood publicity and critics had identified these innovative films as a bold new trend called the ‘red meat crime cycle.’ ” Red-meat movies! Biesen assures the reader that the term was “circulated widely.” What a pungent phrase! If she’s right, here are grounds for a significant revision of thinking about “noir.”

I pored over Blackout, eager for Biesen’s proof. She quotes one Fred Stanley in the New York Times in 1944 as saying, “Hollywood will depend on so-called ‘red meat’ stories of illicit romance and crime for a major share of its immediate non-war dramatic productions.”

Okay, that’s a start. And? And? Alas, that’s the only example in speech or writing from the 1940s she can muster. My harsh conclusion: Fred Stanley alone was the “red meat” man, in one article. Biesen’s claim that by 1946 the term “red meat” was “circulated widely” seems spurious.

Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film, an American Masters presentation in two-hour parts, September 21 and 22 on WGBH, is a somewhat pedestrian work, packed tight with bullshitting art-historians praising Andy as the greatest, most important American artist of the second half of the 20th century. He could be, though it’s an obvious point that the things Burns finds so praiseworthy about Warhol apply also to himself and brother Ken Burns, the pet-boy documentarians of PBS, who are always afloat in corporate money.

With Warhol, as with the Burns lads, there’s the blithe merger of art and commerce, the happy hobnobbing with the super-rich, but also a workaholic ethic. Would that Ric and Ken Burns, very conventional documentarians, had Warhol’s innovative talents!

It’s the September 22 program that shows off Warhol’s crazy moviemaking, post-1964, whereby trannies, drugstore cowboys, and fucked-up socialites lay around the Factory on East 47th Street while Warhol filmed them. Are Warhol’s movies great art or haphazard trash pimping the hipster audience? Or something sliding in between? There’s no debate with Ric Burns: every talking-head art critic he includes proclaims these works as consummate masterpieces of cinema. (Me? I’ll take Citizen Kane.)

High points of this program: colorful interviews with Ron Tavel, Warhol’s in-house screenwriter, and the filming of Warhol doing a three-minute screen test with Susan Sontag.

How do we know this is PBS? Because a 16mm shot of the face of a young man writhing in ecstasy dares not speak the name of the underground flick from which it is taken. Folks, you’re watching Andy Warhol’s 1963 Blow Job!

  Topics: Film Culture , Andy Warhol , Ken Burns , Film Noir ,  More more >
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