Saturday, February 19, 2011

Noir Preaching

When I took my first film class I was surprised to hear the teacher pronounce the word “genre” with one syllable rather two. At he used the same definition I knew, a style or category of art. For instance, in film some genres would be romantic comedy, biography or horror.
The popularity of genres rise and fall. Musicals became big in the 1930s but began to lose their audience in the 60’s and have never come back strong. Super hero films were never really trend until the last decade. There was nothing more popular than the Western through the early days of film, until the 1960’s when they faded. But every once in while they pop back. “True Grit” by Ethan and Joel Coen which came out last year is a Western that has already made over $160 million.
There are sermon genres as well. The Hell Fire and Brimstone genre of sermon used to be very popular. But now, not so much. Now sermons about God’s love are more in vogue, and that’s all well and good. Sermons about sin aren’t very popular anymore either (though I kind of doubt they ever were.)
So it’s good there still is a genre of film that quite ably preaches about sin. That genre is Noir. The name comes from the French word for dark and it is used to describe films that focus on dark aspects of life; ruthless criminals and hapless murderers, shady detectives and beautiful, treacherous women. The first film by the Brothers Coen was a Noir. I just watched “Blood Simple” (1984) again and it reminded me that the truth about sin can never be silenced.
The film opens with a man and woman in a car on a dark night in Texas. They seem nice enough. The woman (Abby played by Frances McDormand) is married to a cruel man and the man (Ray played by John Getz) just seems to want to help. But they soon make a very bad mistake. Their affair leads to one death, then another and then another.
The Coens were working on a very small budget but with creative writing, camerawork and a dark wit. But perhaps the strongest piece of the film is the performance by M. Emmet Walsh as a greedy, vulgar detective whom assumes he can drag everyone down to him to his own detestable level. He’s right, of course.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” That’s not something we like to think about it. But the world of Film Noir reminds us that circumstances and the dark desires of the heart can lead even those that seem upright and respectable to consider and even commit the darkest acts.
“Blood Simple” is rightly rated R for language, sexual situations and extreme violence. There are some great Noir films from the days when film censorship kept such things off the screen.
Fred McMurray was a movie star that in Disney films like “The Shaggy Dog” and the TV show “My Three Sons” seemed like the nicest guy in the world. But in Billy Wilder’s great “Double Indemnity” (1944) the nice guy makes some very bad choices of the heart.
Noir films don’t even have to be about murder. “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1958) with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis is about the world of New York newspapers and shows that gossip can also be deadly.
As I said, Noir films preach Jeremiah 17:9 very well. They don’t do as well with verse 14, “Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.” But I guess that’s what Sunday sermons are for.

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