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Moats: Seeing In The Dark

04/02/10 5:55PM By David Moats
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(HOST) Commentator David Moats has been thinking about life, art - and trying to see in the dark.

(MOATS) In his memoir, novelist Vladimir Nabokov writes of the desire to pierce the darkness that exists before and after one's life, to somehow get a glimpse of what's beyond.

In particular, he describes an acquaintance who was thrown into a panic when he saw a home movie of his parents just before he was born. It was a world where he didn't quite yet exist.

Maybe that's why I have a thing for film noir - those hard-boiled black and white movies made in the late '40s and early '50s - around the time I was born.  It's the world I came into, but never saw, a kind of world beyond.

It's like those old photos of my family during World War II.  There's my older brother and my parents in Florida where they had gone for my father's naval training.  And I was nowhere to be seen.

Film noir shows a world of tough-talking dames and drifters and cops, living in cheap hotels, working in diners.  I never knew anyone like that.  I had a comfortable suburban childhood - but still, I had a sense of the dangerous world beyond. Film noir appeals to my curiosity about that world.

There are many good and many bad movies in the film noir category. One of my favorites is called "Fallen Angel." It has everything - the dame, the diner, the drifter, the implausible plot, the dramatic lighting, the carefully staged camera shots.  It takes place in a little town on the California coast - and that's important, too - it's the dark underside of the place where I grew up.

A common element in these movies is the shadow of World War II.  The heroes are often lone men who have returned from the war.  They don't say much about it.  There's an unspoken assumption of hidden damage.

Another movie in this category is "Key Largo" with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. He's a drifter back from the war who comes to Key Largo to tell Lauren Bacall's father-in-law about the death of his son in Italy.

What makes "Key Largo" not quite as noir as it might be are the themes of patriotism and good triumphing over evil that bring it to a conclusion. It's not quite as cynical as most noir movies.

I didn't grow up with that kind of cynicism.  But it was important to learn about the cataclysms, genocide and madness that stripped the gears of so many people - and of civilization itself - all of it reflected, not just in film noir, but in theater of the absurd and other art forms.

"What's funny? Tell me, I'd like to laugh, too."

That's a line from "Fallen Angel."

Nobody's laughing much.

In the end, one woman is dead, a bad cop is arrested, and the hero has the girl.

"Where to?" she says.

"Home," he says.

That's what we want to hear. After we get a look at that dangerous world, we want to go home, and we're lucky if we get there.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by David Moats on-line at VPR-dot-net.
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