Black Box: The Art of Restraint

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

There’s a concept in illustration called artistic restraint– at least, that’s what I call it. It’s knowing when to stop adding texture and detail before you over-complicate the image and make it harder for the eye to engage with it. The idea is that the viewer will fill in the missing pieces subconsciously. The full image is implied by the artist’s “incomplete” rendering.

This applies to fiction and I’m not talking about brevity, either. I’m talking about the pacing of information, because in a lot of ways, the best examples are those that are technically “overly-complete,” in its exposition, while burying the lead– the grander narrative, so to speak– under layers of storytelling .

The classic example of this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” wherein a couple has an intense conversation without ever directly acknowledging the subject of debate. One of my professors once told me that this story was a failure, in that no one understood what the story was actually about until Hemingway gave it away in an interview. I kind of agree to an extent (anyone who tells you what that story is about was 99% likely to have been told themselves. It’s not exactly evident in the writing.) but I also appreciate that all readers understand that something bigger is going on in this little exchange.

Easier discussed examples are found in the horror genre. I’ve mentioned before that H.P. Lovecraft loves to obfuscate the true horrors of his stories with psychosis, doubt, and scientific reasoning, while only allowing a mere, vague glimpse of the monster before the story ends. His contemporaries, such as John Carpenter, do likewise– you never see what the Thing actually looks like, just the perversion of its replicated host. The doubt and conflict is born out of the fact that anybody could be the Thing.

A modern novel that understands informational control well is Bird Box by Josh Malerman. The premise is this: there are “somethings” floating around outside and if you see one of them, you go insane and kill yourself and those around you. The entire book is therefor written, essentially, blind whenever the characters are not inside of a boarded up house– which also creates a sense of blindness to the outside world, despite the sensory details of a home. The amount of information as to what the hell is happening is minimal, and experienced minimally. As such, there’s a pervading sense of paranoia and claustrophobia throughout the entire book, expressed through these sensory limitations. Also, the climax contains one of the most appalling things that has ever entered my brain.

It Follows takes this concept and makes it one of its primary themes. The horror is only experienced by the protagonist as they’re the only person who can see the monster in pursuit. Furthermore, it’s relevant only to their life, taking on the image of someone they know personally. Essentially, the cursed person’s experience of the horror is filled in by their own subconscious– generally with the broad strokes of Freudian of sexual formation (Jay first sees an elderly naked woman, possibly her grandmother; Greg sees his own mom in a night gown; Hugh claims to see a girl in a yellow dress). The horror experienced is a black box that no other character can access. What’s excellent about It Follows is that it spends just as much time with its secondary characters, usually slasher-fodder, and actually develops them into a unit of friends concerned about the protagonist undergoing a difficult time that they don’t understand– because they don’t have the information that the protagonist has. As much as you sympathize with the main character’s isolation, because you’ve been there, you also empathize with the others’, because you’ve been there today.

Information becomes currency in stories. Look at Silence of the Lambs and pay attention to what information does. The main storyline unfolds like a procedural tracking down Buffalo Bill until Hannibal Lector comes onto the scene. He understands that information is powerful. He delivers information about Jame Gumb to thread the narrative along for what? Information about Clarice Starling. Specifically, personal, traumatizing information about Clarice Starling’s childhood. Quid quo pro. It does something to a reader, having to face a character’s darkest memories. The reader, along with Clarice, has to access their own personal account of darkness and attach the weight of their own traumas to hers. But the character of Hannibal Lector does something even more insidious– he gets the reader to goddamn like him. You do what Crawford always warned Clarice about: you forget what he is. So when he finally bursts out of his cell via the grisliest means necessary, you’re suddenly stuck between cheering him on and personal betrayal accompanied with self-disgust.

It’s called a psychological thriller for a reason.

The thing that you carry away isn’t necessarily the way that the story ends, but how it affected you. Silence of the Lambs is effective because it’s main plot line is almost a red herring for the more subtle horror of Lector accessing Starling’s/your mind. Buffalo Bill is disturbing. Hannibal Lector is seductive. Silence does this by foiling Lector with Crawford, both manipulative men. The story controls its flow of information so carefully, that while you, along with Starling, are wary of Crawford who remains stoic, vague and unyielding of his intentions, you buy into Lector, who’s smart, polite and generous with his knowledge. It makes Starling, and you by extension, despite everything in her power to remain at the head of the curve, naive. 

The Black Mirror episodes, “Shut Up and Dance” and “White Bear” execute this perfectly by stringing along an increasingly cruel set of circumstances for the main character, encouraging our sympathy the entire time, before dropping the curtain and revealing who the main characters really are–a simple revelation that makes us question whether or not our sympathy was deserved. It puts the entire narrative we were just told into another light with a single line of information. That’s the power of limited perspective.

In the batshit crazy House of Leaves the information we are given is… a lot to take in. The worst but only way I can describe it: this is a book about a guy who’s writing about a book he found written by a different guy about a film a third guy made about his house that doesn’t make sense. And that’s just scratching the surface.  I think I’ve mentioned before that reading this book in public makes you look crazy– you have to turn it around to read all of the annotations, flipping through several pages, back and forth, as there are annotations to annotations, forcing you to reference the index in the back and you journey through the narrative only to find that it folds into itself endlessly. And then, if you’ve done the homework, solved the puzzles, educated yourself about architecture, documentary film-making, and cryptology… the real story emerges like a 3D painting.

And it happens weeks later after finishing the fucking thing. It’s a study in forming broad strokes via intricate design.

I know what you’re thinking: how does this relate to True Detective? Funny you should ask because I was just about to go there, you pidgeon-toed, gawking ratfink. Hardboiled noir fiction runs on the engine of gathering information about a crime or infidelity. Usually this is done with a progression of interviews, voyeurism, and clever deceits. Like all stories, it becomes complex and then it simplifies. Which you have in True Detective, expressed as a buddy cop procedural. Within that basic structure, you have the narrative device of flashbacks, contextual to the interviews of Cohle and Hart. It’s a simple thing to point out, but the fact that you see these guys as ruined, possibly insane old men makes you wonder what exactly the hell happened 18 years ago to warrant these changes.

 

True Detective also plays out as a horror story. There’s an encompassing feeling of dread threaded throughout the miniseries. But it’s only glanced at as reverberations in the “psychosphere,” mentioned by junkies, felt but never seen– the closest we come to seeing it is Cohle’s hallucination of the black star while he’s being choked out by Errol. Usually we see it in brief glimpses through Marty’s eyes– his daughter’s recreating a ritualistic murder scene with dolls, or the entropy of of a tasseled tiara stuck in a tree. Likewise, the protagonists never face the shadow society responsible for the historical murders in the area. They get Errol– which disappointed a lot of viewers but is thematically on point. Sticking with concrete leads brings them to a concrete, yet impotent conclusion and Cohle understands that the bigger, elusive (and allusive) culprits are still at large. Hart acknowledges their own limit of understanding by the consolation “We got our guy.” The story becomes complex in its information and then it simplifies, but the difference here is that there is still incomplete, complex, deliberately placed information that hasn’t been digested by the narrative, speaking of a much larger conspiracy that appears unconquerable.

All of this is to say that the most effective story you can tell is one that subtly asks the reader to tell themselves a story along with you. They’ll meet you halfway.

 

True Crime: An American Love Story with Real Life Noir

True Crime: An American Love Story with Real Life Noir

We live in an age of an unprecedented fascination with true crime. While I’m not obsessed, per se, I myself hold an interest in the macabre, listen to The Last Podcast on the Left religiously and regularly weird people out with my burgeoning encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers. It’s healthy. And hey, My Favorite Murder found a surprisingly large audience and ranks #22 in top podcasts as of this article’s posting. Serial still dominates the top 10 in most charts, and its good season came out over two years ago. So why the sudden wave of True Crime Entertainment? Is it that the proliferation of podcasts in the last 10 years have offered a medium to accommodate previously verboten, niche subjects? Is it because the subject has been embraced specifically by alternative comedians, making the content more easily digestible? (Comedy is 75% horror, remember?)

Yeah, probably. But that doesn’t account for the years of CSI episodes based on real crimes, or Forensic Files, or etcetera.

So maybe I misspoke earlier. I think there is a precedent.

Millenials are a generation who grew up with the OJ Simpson trial and Columbine on TV. That was the media circus that crept into our minds at an early age, when we were just trying to scam candy dollars off our parents and play Super Smash Brothers. (You could also make the case that the OJ fracas revitalized and cemented interest in The Legal Thriller, but never mind that now). How could we not be curious about this stuff when we grew up, when we were raised in an exploitive media environment that leads with whatever’s bleeding?

That’s a piece of the puzzle, but news media has been exploitative since the invention of ink. Sensationalism surrounding serial killers was already a thing, so what happened in the late 80s that reinvigorated the interest?  Other than a slew of scary murders? I guess I should say, what came out in the 80s that made murder marketable? I look at the fact that James Ellroy released the novel The Black Dahlia in 1987, a fictionalized account of the unsolved, brutal murder of Elizabeth Short in LA, 1947.

I’ve got a lot to say abut Ellroy’s LA Quartet (it’s great), but for now I just want to mention that this was the book that elevated Ellroy from mere genre writer to literary status, and along with his ascent, he brought neo-noir back from the dead. You thank James Ellroy for The Coen Brother’s 90’s films right the hell now. He also put Elizabeth Short in the back of everyone’s brains again, with all of the gory details, priming us for a decade of sticky trials and investigations.

So let’s go back to the actual murder of Elizabeth Short AKA The Black Dahlia. The papers sensationalized the living hell out of the bizarre murder and while it’s somewhat understandable as to why anyone would latch onto this (A bisected body? A victim with a sketchy, mysterious past? Infinite room for speculation? The story writes itself!), the papers are at least partially to blame for the unresolved status of the murder. They went so far as to basically torment Short’s mother for information (having placed a phone call saying that Short had won a beauty contest. Can you imagine?), flying Short’s mother out on the ruse to cooperate with the LAPD and then keeping her away from authorities.

But the real mind job is why the papers called her The Black Dahlia. Okay, so they called it The Werewolf Murder first. But then they got their shit together and called her The Black Dahlia, because Werewolves are gooooofy. One explanation is that she was wearing a fairly skanky black dress at the time of her death. (A sheer blouse? Heavens.) So she was wearing black when she was killed and was known to generally wear black, lacy clothing and some drug store clerks with whom she was friendly claimed to have coined the handle. I find that a little suspect, but no matter how the name came about, it is absolutely a reference noir flick that came out the year before Short’s murder in 1946. A little number called The Blue Dahlia.

It’s an interesting movie. It’s got a tone of misogyny to it and a character keeps on referring to Jazz as “monkey music,” but those things aside, it’s fairly enjoyable. It’s about a Navy Officer fresh from the South Pacific who returns home to his unfaithful lush of a wife. He jets when he finds out she got into a drunk driving accident, killing their son. She winds up dead (duh-doyee) and our guy lams it, trying to find the real killer. There’s some sharp dialogue, some good shots and some clever twists on archetypal characters including a “Lenny”-esque character with a plate in his head (the sound design of his auditory hallucinations might’ve been groundbreaking at the time. I was impressed), a schmoozy club owner with (pathetic) ties to the mob, and a slimy blackmailing detective. The narrative keeps coming back to a nightclub, The Blue Dahlia.

As far as the similarities to Liz Short, there are only a few. The silver screen murder is bloodless (I laughed when the maid finds the body and says, “Oh, brother.”) compared to the ghoulish Black Dahlia case. I think what people attached with was the wife’s loose sexuality and Short, a Hollywood actress hopeful, was known to run around LA with various men in nightclubs. At least, as far as I can figure out. The kind of sites that offer information about her case aren’t–ahem– the most reliable.

Anyway, guess who wrote the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia? That’s right, it’s Pierre’s old favorite crime fiction author, Raymond Chandler. His bastardly behavior production of this film is legendary and it’s the only produced script that he handled solo (finishing the novel completely waaaaasted for days, maybe weeks). It came out the same year as the film The Big Sleep, based off of Chandler’s novel, published seven years earlier (He didn’t work on that screen play. Faulkner did. Probably wasted.).

1944 – 1954: Hardboiled fiction is hot and Hollywood cashes in, ushering in a brief period of Film Noir, influencing media in the most profound visual and tonal movement of the 20th Century.

So there’s this strange interplay of life imitating art with The Black Dahlia. Reality had, through tragic circumstances, provided a story just as lurid as a crime novel, more graphic than a film (thanks, Hays Code) and cheaper to produce than either. So we treated The Black Dahlia murder as entertainment.

And you know what? People bought it. Of course they did.

The fascination with didn’t start with Betty Short (The Lipstick Murderer, anyone? H.H. Holmes–soon to be the subject of a movie starring Leo Dio?), but this was the possibly the widest spread reaction to a singular crime to date (barring Presidential assassinations). It could have been the severity of the violence, or the focus on the victim herself instead of the murderer (which might not’ve panned out historically if this was a solved case), or the myth like quality surrounding it, but any way you cut it, I tend to think that America read the tragedy almost allegorically to the films they were watching and the books they were reading, and not the other way around.

Which is possibly more disturbing than anything else, really.

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Spoiler alert up top: I’m going to delve into Chinatown, LA Confidential and True Detective. If you have any interest in being surprised by those works, you might want to stop reading now.

I’ve heard it around the way that a successful Sci Fi or Fantasy book reveals its built up world gradually through the fresh eyes of the main protagonist. I got to thinking that maybe noir does the same thing, except in reverse– we’re introduced to a fantasy and then what follows is the revelation of our very own dark and gritty universe (usually) through the eyes of the protagonist who can see the true, underlying reality.

In my post on character sketching, I quoted Raymond Chandler’s bit on Phillip Marlowe. The relevant piece is this:

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth

That’s not breaking any minds to tell you that The Detective archetype is searching for some veritas in noir detective fiction. But I want to pause first on why these guys feel the need to pursue that hidden truth, or rather, what makes them the type of character that knows something is there.

Sherlock Holmes is a good place to start. He solves crimes by deductive/inductive reasoning. He looks at something from above and in the solving of the case, elevates the crime to his own level. He’s simply smarter than the crime.

But noir heroes slum along the bottom. The Noir Detective yanks down the case to his level. Because his world is the truthful one and the illusion spun by the conspiracy of his social betters doesn’t sit well with the reasoning of the cynical world.

In the first season of True Detective, Rust Cohle has been through the hell of losing a child and living deep undercover for years, well acquainting him with the pain of living and how the criminal world operates. When he transitions into a homicide detective, he’s aware that the structures in place are illusory– he can sniff corruption on his fellow police and the investigation is being misdirected by an invisible hand. Cohle also extends this to the broader subject of the world:

“It’s all one ghetto, man, giant gutter in outer space.”

Rust works outside of the agreed upon societal norms, because he outright rejects them as an illusion. He rejects authority, he rejects human relationships, he rejects society. Which is what makes his and Marty Hart’s relationship so powerful– Marty is discovering that his suburban American dream is ultimately immaterial, realized in the bitter disintegration of his marriage and the troubling sexual pressures his daughters encounter. And he’s ultimately powerless to stop it (owing to his own sexual infidelities, alcoholism, and heavy handed parenting methods). It’s only when Marty is dragged to the bottom, to the world of harsh truths where Cohle is waiting for him, that they are able to finally solve the murders.

The mechanism of noir is the progression of interviews and interrogations. In there lies the fabric of the illusion– everyone provides deceitful information to obfuscate the truth. Let’s take a look at Chinatown in which Jake Gittes (a veteran of the harsh realities in Chinatown) is approached by Evelyn Mulwray who turns out to a be an actor. The water department covers its tracks of diverting irrigation to the orange groves. Hollis Mulwray is found drowned in freshwater, but had salt water in his lungs. Katherine Mulwray is supposedly Hollis’s mistress, before it’s revealed that she is Evelyn’s sister before [redacted]. Everything seems to be positioned in such a way that it seems normal at first glance. By the end of the film, every threaded lie is unspun and what remains is a sinister and grim reality dressed up as a caper. In other words, it’s still Chinatown where base crimes are the norm and it turns out that the rest of LA is no different. Again, normalcy is the fantasy.

Also, how good is it that Gittes gets his nose sliced up, metaphorically making him an impotent detective coinciding with him unable to decipher the pageantry in front of him? Pretty sweet.

There’s a lot to play with here and a good example of flipping this script is James Elroy’s LA Quartet. If you think about the main characters driving the novels, they are actually somewhat naive and too obsessed with outperforming their peers to realize the fallacy the of the criminal justice system they participate in. Perhaps because of this, they are often casualties of their own investigations, one way or another. Meanwhile, the common thread through all of these stories is the ever terrifying Dudley Smith, a man who understands the dark reality of crime and departmental (even federal) corruption. Instead of being a The Noir Hero, he chooses to perpetuate (and occasionally even create) the illusion to benefit himself financially and further his career. I can’t think of a better noir villain than Dudley.

At the end of the day what you have is a character interacting with the setting. Interacting is the operating word. I feel as if many books in various genres offer a passive protagonist who allows the world to happen at them. What I appreciate about noir is that the protagonist digs his hands into the guts of the setting and shows the reader its entrails and shouts, “THIS! THIS IS WHAT WE’RE MADE OF.”

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us.