Fillip 8 — Fall 2008

Looking Glass Noir and the Ongoing Significance of Steel and Flesh
Jeremy Todd

In January of this year I invited Eric Metcalfe to perform in a digital film project. We ended up talking a lot about my interest in Steel and Flesh (1980), and he suggested I try writing about it.1 I’d watched the video for the first time only a year and a half earlier and was struck by its current relevance as a critically engaging and morally directed portrait of modern life. The video playfully distills and compacts traumatic recognitions of reality within historical film noir and its numerous derivations—addressing incomprehensible, perhaps occult-like relations of power, corruption, authority, and desire in contemporary society because of this. Individual struggles with fragmentary and mediated experiences of these relationships and the alienated senses of self and cynical reasoning often fostered by them, become, for me, the primary subjects of Steel and Flesh. A postwar continuum is revealed in which meaning is in crisis, ethical certitude is lost, and passive spectatorship seems inevitable. This is as much a provocation as it is a kind of bearing witness. About a third of the way into the piece, the character of the “knifer,” a wryly humourous Peter Lorre doppelganger played by Andrew Paterson, looks into the camera, a jet-black non-space behind him, and states with mock profundity: “As you can see, this place needs to be rejuvenated.” Soon afterwards he makes a silly exhaling sound involving an almost infantile puckering of his lips and mutters “pack of ignorant cattle” before making this same silly sound a couple more times while his eyelids wobble out of synch with each other. It makes little difference that this was recorded twenty-eight years ago. The joke is still on us if we continue to be unwitting victims or pretentious intellectual critics of a corrupt perpetual present we do nothing to alter.

Steel and Flesh is definitely not pastiche. The work’s appropriations of form and content from comics, pulp fiction, B movies, and western art history are immediately recognizable while functioning as a complex series of parodic episodes forming a purposeful whole. The mass-cultural or kitsch aspects within Steel and Flesh function as a vernacular language for utilizing common (and virtual) cultural memories. This language is rooted in a film noir vocabulary, encompassing the various components that make up structuralist studies of the genre such as harsh chiaroscuro lighting, femmes fatales, obsessed and/or morally compromised protagonists, urban settings, night scenes, shadow play, labyrinth-like plotting, criminality, voice-over narration, etc. Importantly, these elements produce a sense of overall narrative unravelling or incoherence as they compound over time. Linear, sequential logic is often overwhelmed by a proliferation of noir parts or tropes, their interrelationship and contradictions. Active agents become hapless subjects to events beyond their control and comprehension. Nothing is what it seems, or has seemed to be, and all conclusions and definitive origins are thwarted. Steel and Flesh exaggerates this entropic collapse of meaning and the spellbound paralysis of individuals—what Metcalfe has described as a kind of accelerating madness—through a spectacular compression of typical noir sequencing and edits within a twelve-minute timeline.

This final form resulted from an ambiguously complex deferral of authorship. The first edit of Steel and Flesh was put together by Hank Bull and lasted approximately 24 minutes. He did this over one weekend from a full week’s worth of shooting on three-quarter-inch videotape. Bull worked throughout the shoot as director with Dana Atchley as camera operator and Kate Craig as a constant on-set advisor. The shoot and edit were loosely based on an initial 80+ panel storyboard created by Metcalfe. The plotting in this storyboard had a more conventional narrative arc (sequential time-logic) than the first or final edit but still presented a very fragmented, incoherent storyline overall. Atchley took Bull’s first edit attempt and, through negotiations with both Metcalfe and Bull, reduced its length by half. This complex mediation of initial project plans mirrors typical movie development processes within the golden era of the Hollywood studio system in which genre pictures were routinely produced in groupings that utilized an interchangeable contract staff, both in front of and behind the camera, and intervention from studio management and hired “fixers” or consultants were commonplace. This golden era began to collapse in 1948, when the US Supreme Court that decided the integration of production, distribution, and screening house companies was illegal under monopoly law. Studios could no longer viably produce cheap genre films as filler pieces within their own theatres. _Steel and Flesh _was funded by a six-thousand-dollar Canada Council grant partially written by Margaret Dragu and Jane Ellison on Metcalfe’s behalf. The realization of the work also depended greatly on the existing community, equipment, and facilities of the Western Front Artist-Run Centre in Vancouver.

The first film adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946) ended up requiring three screenwriters to re-work Raymond Chandler’s novel into a movie script. Humphrey Bogart, the film’s male lead, is alleged to have asked for clarification on the identity of a killer within the plot. He was trying to make sense of the storyline for his acting preparations. After some fruitless debate between the writers and Bogart, Chandler was contacted but couldn’t come up with any answers either. As with many other examples from this retroactively theorized genre, The Big Sleep seems to exist, to come fully into being, as a realistic while nonsensical dream-fantasy, but it is not a stereotypically Freudian dream-fantasy. Below the surface of appearances, there is no correlation with a repressed content. Nothing is overtly symptomatic, latent, or allegorical. What we perhaps witness in the dream-fantasy of noir is the incoherence, horror, and inexplicable coming-into-being of reality itself.

The acknowledged fiction might reflect back what cannot or will not be acknowledged about reality. In his Lacanian analysis, Slavoj ŽiŽek has posited that the noir dream (as it presents itself literally during a sequence of Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life [1946] in which Jimmy Stewart’s character is shown what life for his hometown would’ve been like had he never existed) presents us with a situation in which “the relationship of dream and reality [are] reversed: what the hero, in the mental experiment he is subjected to, experiences as a nightmarish dream is actual life.” In this case it is a community overrun by Big Capital. “This is what Lacan means when he says that the traumatic real is encountered in dreams; this is the way ideology structures our experience of reality.”2 I am reminded of Guy Debord’s poetic summation of postwar entrapment within spectacle: “To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society, which ultimately expresses nothing more than to sleep.”3 Steel and Flesh operates by isolating and exploiting, exaggerating ad absurdum, such reversals of perception, understanding, and consciousness. The work presents a truth to power, or, put another way, the artwork reflects life back onto itself, and this truth or reflection is an absurdity, a debasement, a nightmare, madness.

There are arguably many surreal, perhaps stereotypically Freudian aspects to Steel and Flesh that might complicate this perspective, suggesting a primary focus on the inner life and psychological motivations of the artists involved in the project, particularly Metcalfe. Yet Steel and Flesh rejects an illustration of manifest dream content, focussing on the surface realism of the representations—their literalness. I discovered in discussions with Metcalfe that an infamous breast-cutting scene was inspired by the eye-slitting sequence in Luis Buñuel and Salvador DalÍ’s Un Chien Andalou (1929). Elsewhere, a close-up of Metcalfe’s laughing mouth, distorted by a kaleidoscopic reflection of light off his teeth, might suggest an engagement with Georges Bataille’s ideas concerning the allegorical significance of orifices—such as The Solar Anus (1927) and Mouth (1930). In other close-ups of Metcalfe’s face, one half of his beard/moustache is neatly shaved off—or else he is doing the shaving in a mirror. Again, this is not a restaging of manifest dream content, but rather a literal dramatization of someone who is of two minds. An intentionally kitsch signifier is utilized that must rely on pre-formulated meaning, reiterating an understanding of the term so thoroughly articulated by Clement Greenberg in the essay Avant Garde and Kitsch (1939). This literalness, intrinsic to the low or pulp, noir-derived sources of Steel and Flesh, is consistent with both Bataille and Buñuel’s avoidance of illustrating codified repression in their works, unlike many of their Surrealist contemporaries. Buñuel has said that Un Chien Andalou “is not a description of a dream. On the contrary, the environment and characters are of a realistic type.”4 What happens in the film is a literal depiction of impulse rooted in “primal sources.”5 Bataille repeatedly investigated a possible levelling of hierarchies within allegorical signification, one that might contest/reveal constructed symbolic orders of language and, in the process, permanently destabilize the power structures served by them; perhaps this is most famously apparent in the brief text Formless (1929). Both figures’ works continue to defy complete acculturation within market systems because they must inevitably present bourgeois normativity, and, therefore, the very idea of market systems, as corrupt—a lie. These addresses continue to recur in moments of recognition that cannot be displaced. The dream-fantasy becomes a kind of looking glass rather than a collection of coded symptoms standing in for something else. Direct confrontation cannot be deferred indefinitely, and it returns on a regular basis.

I suspect Metcalfe decided to utilize this looking glass potential, as it might exist in noir, as a result of his own moments of recognition while immersed in derivations of the genre during his formative years. A screen of text appears at the beginning of Steel and Flesh in which Metcalfe states: “The dream fantasy you are about to see is based on images and characters remembered from comic strips I drew as a teenager in the mid-fifties.” We are directed to the artist’s remembrances of adolescent imaginings and the possible social and material circumstances surrounding them. In a recent autobiographical strip by the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman entitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#*! (2005), Spiegelman’s father offers to buy him comics from a “Diamond Dealers’ Club” for a third of the ten-cent cover price he’s already been paying on his own, using up all of his allowance each week to do so.6 The comics his father brings back for him are out of date—from before the Comics Code Authority in 1954—a “crusade” that “left only relatively insipid comics on the news stands.” Spiegelman proclaims that with the new-old comics his father gave him, he “fell head over heels into a dangerous adult world of violent, sexually charged images!” Spiegelman’s father is oblivious to the content and context surrounding these comics: “My father knew a lot about bargains...but nothing about the comic book burnings and the Senate hearings that put many comics publishers out of business.” These comics, predominantly published by the EC company through the 1940s and 50s, included titles such as Crime Does Not Pay, Strange Love, Vault of Horrors, Phantom Lady, and Crime SuspenStories, and presented an onslaught of moral ambiguity, racism, sexism, and graphic violence. In doing so, they voiced aspects of postwar America not up for discussion within Spiegelman’s childhood home or the mainstream media of the time. Each metonymically represented a sordid collapse of shared values, beliefs, and public accountability. Between them, a new world order is presented, fuelled by self-interest and maintained by strange collusions between previously legitimate sites of authoritative force and the underworld, supernatural and otherworldly.

Steel and Flesh presents an interdependent range of business loci for such an order: arms dealing, gambling, the sex trade, terrorism, narcotics, assassination, disinformation, etc. Everyone within the video seems complicit in this amoral and totalizing economy, and fascism can be seen as having an afterlife in maintaining it by any means necessary. Most certainly this was the case within the noir-derived imaginings of Metcalfe’s youth. The Nazis haunt these dream-fantasies as the xenophobic Will of the twentieth century, worshiping/eroticizing violence and death. Zombie Waffen SS legions and the like inhabit numerous B movies, pulp fiction stories, and EC-era comics, raping and murdering the innocent.7 The trope of the ex-Nazi gangster/spy/puppet master, perhaps most famously caricatured by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), appears intermittently (listed in the credits as the “German”) and, at one point, discusses with a bartender the finer points of trafficking young boys. Elsewhere, the degradation of human sexuality within this economy is dramatized as a kind of televisual pornography. This is most intensely realized by Margaret Dragu’s performances in which a gun doubles as a sort of sex-toy phallus. Camera framing regularly creates a centrality of the image. Dragu’s body is amputated through cropping to privilege and objectify parts and actions. The deadly bond/snare of sadomasochistic arousal, as it is infamously portrayed between an ex-SS officer and his ex-Joy Division prisoner in _The Night Porter _(1974), returns within Steel and Flesh through pursuits of pleasure and sexual gratification__that defy any sense of ethical reason or concern for human suffering. Life and death blur into a passive, and literally spent, non-state, a kind of Death’s Head consciousness that is poignantly reiterated by both a brief re-enactment during the last third of Steel and Flesh of the opening scene from Sunset Boulevard (1950), in which the dead body of the film’s narrator and male protagonist floats face down in a mansion swimming pool, and a bizarre restaging of Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat (1793) during the aftermath of a “hand-job.”

The soundtrack and voices recall the reverb and echo, flip delivery, and genericism of postwar B movies, porn films, hack jazz, garage psychedelia, and proto-punk. These audio motifs are montaged into near incoherence at points throughout the video. Metcalfe’s voice oscillates between painful delirium and orgiastic pleasure. He chants mantra-like phrases such as “yes, yes, no, no” and “I love the taste of the steel and the flesh.” The noir universe uncovered by the adolescent Metcalfe is reconfigured here to threaten an eternally manic meaninglessness. Steel and Flesh manages to reveal through parody—as opposed to didactic, defensive protest—a continuation of fascism as an emptying out or reduction of meaning in signification to control the multitudes within postwar consumer culture.8 The work operates as a kind of ironic Gesamtkunstwerk, hybridizing a vast array of kitsch—visual, literary, and auditory signification—within a single televisual entity. This new whole enacts a totalizing spectacularization of lived experience. The irony of it all lies in the ability of _Steel and Flesh _to operate as a kind of joke—one that does not insult, debase, or alienate you as you watch it. The joke of _Steel and Flesh _exists in recognitions of how disempowered you already are.

Pop culture historian and music critic Greil Marcus recently recounted a visit by author David Thomson to an undergraduate seminar in cultural criticism in which he claimed that film noir really began when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald: “and it was then that all the paranoia and fear that film noir had been prophesying for twenty years—the sense that our lives are not our own, that forces we cannot see or name are ruling our lives and our destinies—it was then that everything that film noir had prophesied in America exploded into real life.”9 The critical efficacy of what I have described as a noir looking glass might be historicized through mass identifications with particular events or sets of circumstances in reality. For Metcalfe and his collaborators such a collapse of barriers between actual events and critical modes of fantasy/representation demanded a reconsideration of how to proceed with manipulating the work’s appropriated materials.

Steel and Flesh is of course durational, but it suggests no definitive beginning or end, and this contributes to a sense of hermetic insularity in relation to its noir-derived sources. Unlike the EC-type comics of Metcalfe’s childhood, so-called classic noirs, from Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) to Out of the Past (1947), a neo-noir film like Angel Heart (1987) or Fargo (1996), or a TV show and movie franchise like _The X-Files _(1993–2009), the noir elements in Steel and Flesh are not tied to storytelling in a conventional sense. The lack of a definitive ending or beginning and of guidance within the “middle” privileges the fixed tableau, the iconic, the surface of things. Editing is rapid and somewhat non-sequential, conflating the past, future, and present. While only twelve minutes long, the video creates illusions of perpetuity. Such a structure allows for Steel and Flesh to exist “in the eternal or in what imitates the eternal.”10 This has served to protect the looking-glass effect that Steel and Flesh retains today. The video__also engages with the kinds of planned and accidental narrative impasses, relating to this sense of perpetuity, that prevent a neo-noir film like Blade Runner (1982) from ever resolving itself while amplifying thematically rhetorical inquiries into the origins of existence and desire: I want more life, fucker/father. To engage with Steel and Flesh, to watch it attentively in its entirety, is to become self-consciously aware of one’s own passive spectatorship _out of time_—a position analogous to the characters trapped within the sustained lunacy of the work.

The image predominates, but not as something meant to be transgressive on a symbolic level—as might be the case in the work of Kenneth Anger or Matthew Barney, for instance. Representations remain consistently inaccessible beyond their literalness, functioning as “realistic” kitsch illustration. Most importantly, they are rendered equivalent as they accumulate. Their value is disturbingly relative and always contingent, paralyzing protagonists and viewers alike. Steel and Flesh anticipates the relentlessly hyperbolic noir looking glass dynamic within David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), or Inland Empire (2006), in which immediately recognizable protagonists, played by Bill Pullman, Naomi Watts, and Laura Dern respectively, are continually confronted with events beyond their comprehension as the integrity of their representations, the ways they look, talk, and behave, and their senses of self, disintegrate (in both Lost Highway and Inland Empire, the main__protagonists actually undergo literal transfers of bodies/actors/personas).

Similarly, viewers never definitively conclude what is rationally “going on” in these films while remaining entranced by a constant drift of signification—an experience not unlike TV channel and Web surfing. The perpetual equivalency of representations and constant relativity of meaning that can seem to result is both mesmerizing and impossible to negotiate. The ongoing significance of Steel and Flesh is that it can still provoke you to wonder what you’ll do about it.

  1. An extended version of this text__will be available in 2009 as part of The Brutal Years: The Early Video Works and Collaborations of Eric Metcalfe, Hank Bull and the Western Front Society, a screening series, anthology of essays, and DVD package being developed by Julie Gendron in conjunction with the VIVO Media Arts Centre of Vancouver_._
  2. Slavoj ŽiŽek, “Kantian Background of the Noir Subject,” Shades of Noir, ed. Joan Copjec (London: Verso, 1993), 199–223, 220–21.
  3. Guy Debord, _Society of the Spectacle _(Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel, 1967), 20.
  4. Luis Buñuel, as quoted in Francisco Aranda’s Luis Bunuel: A Critical Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1976), 58.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Best American Comics, ed. Chris Ware (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).
  7. In fact, they still do. In the middle of writing this text I was able to enjoy the straight-to-DVD release of the film The Outpost (2008), in which unspecified multinational powers hire a band of mercenaries in present-day Eastern Europe to secure the spoils of a secret Nazi science experiment that has resulted in an undead legion of SS soldiers.
  8. In doing so, the work returns to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s arguments to this effect at the close of World War II. See “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment As Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Seabury Press, 1972, originally published in 1944), 120–67, 166–67: “Every word shows how far it has been debased by the Fascist pseudo-folk community. By now, of course, this kind of language is already universal, totalitarian. . . . The most intimate reactions of human beings have been so thoroughly reified that the idea of anything specific to themselves now persists only as an utterly abstract notion: personality scarcely signifies anything more than shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions.”
  9. Greil Marcus, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (New York: Picador, 2007), 226.
  10. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: The Athlone Press, 1989), 130.

Image: Production image from Steel and Flesh, 1980. Andrew Patterson and Margaret Dragu. Photograph by Kate Craig. Courtesy of Eric Metcalfe and Hank Bull

About the Author

Jeremy Todd is an interdisciplinary artist who often considers the formation of cultural memory and its sociopolitical effects. Easter Everywhere (a new digital film project) screens in Vancouver this fall.

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