Looking Glass Noir and the Ongoing Significance of Steel and Flesh
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.
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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.