”Adaptability is the simple secret of survival.”
Ask people to name a musical instrument synonymous with film noir, and it’s a safe bet no one will say the flugelhorn, the ax of choice for my man, Dmitri Matheny. It’d be the saxophone, by a landslide. Which is strange, because sax barely figures in scores from the classic era of film noir, roughly 1944-54. Orchestral strings set the tone, in the work of such geniuses as Miklós Rózsa (Double Indemnity), Franz Waxman (Night and the City), and Roy Webb (Out of the Past).
People hearing that saxophone aren’t wrong, however. It’s an understandable misconception, based on how the elastic notion of noir was integrated and adapted into the cultural bloodstream by crime writers, film and television producers, and jazz musicians. It’s a dark and twisted road that’s led us from The Killers (Rózsa, 1946) to Odds Against Tomorrow (John Lewis, 1959) to Taxi Driver (Bernard Herrmann, 1976) to Mulholland Drive (Angelo Badalamenti, 2001). In the roadhouses along the way, combos and arrangements have constantly changed—but the song has remained the same: you suffer for your desire … so you may as well suffer with style.
Dmitri Matheny and I charted this route years ago when we collaborated on a “Jazz-Noir” film series for SFJAZZ, which drew on our respective knowledge of music and film. I came away from the experience with a keener insight and deeper appreciation of the scoring of many favorite films. If our conspiracy struck the spark for this album, I’m proud of the small role I played and thrilled that you get to reap the benefit. I’m just tickled to be name-checked (between Herb Caen and Tony Bennett!) in the album’s centerpiece, “Crime Scenes,” a 12-minute suite that delves into the sexy and sinister side of San Francisco, featuring some amusingly “hard-boiled” spoken-word poetry, including a dame who will “draw a chalk outline around your heart.” It pays loving, backhanded tribute to my hometown, and local sleuths ranging from Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) to Mike Stone (The Streets of San Francisco).
That’s what I love about Dmitri’s take on noir—it travels the whole route, reaching back to caress the sinuous notes of the venerable “Caravan,” a Juan Tizol composition from 1936 made famous by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, then tracing that sultry promise forward to find Audrey Horne slinking around in shrouded rooms to Badalamenti’s score for Twin Peaks. In these grooves (can’t help it, grew up in a vinyl world), Matheny leads his crack crew through a sonic history of noir, with nods to composers ranging from Harold Arlen to Lalo Schifrin.
The opening “Noir Medley” weaves together unforgettable swatches of scores by Henry Mancini (Touch of Evil), Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown), David Raksin (Laura), Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Taxi Driver) and Harold Arlen (Blues in the Night), and instantly proves that, yes, the flugelhorn can evoke— perfectly—the nocturnal longing of the best noir.
Matheny crafts an eight-minute Gold Medal paperback out of poet Dana Gioia’s “Film Noir,” a pungent roux of small-town trouble straight out of Black Wings Has My Angel, featuring a discontented dame who, “if she shot you dead would finish your drink.”
The extra kick in this road trip is the juxtaposition of venerable jazz standards (“Stormy Weather,” “Estate”) with unexpected, underappreciated gems such as John Williams’ gorgeous “The Long Goodbye,” composed for Robert Altman’s 1973 revisionist take on Philip Marlowe, and Stevie Wonder’s “Golden Lady,” from the same year. (If you don’t think “Golden Lady” is noir, revisit the lyrics: the poor sap is dying to sell his soul for his dream girl.)
Other surprises: a haunting version of Polish composer Bronislaw Kaper’s High Wall, the title theme for the 1947 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer noir of the same name, and the band’s jaunty exit with “What Now My Love?” French composer Gilbert Bécaud’s renowned 1961 hit, covered by everyone from Shirley Bassey to Sonny and Cher, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to Elvis Presley.
Especially poignant for me is Matheny’s cover of Charlie Haden and Quartet West’s 1995 “Here’s Looking at You,” itself a tribute to the classic noir films that inspired Quartet West’s rich, romantic sound. It’s a beautiful, elegiac nod to a recently fallen comrade.
Like Haden, Dmitri Matheny is an artist who manages to find beauty blooming in the darkest corners. He’s a good man to have along if you’re planning a long drive through an uncertain night.
Known internationally as the “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller is a writer, producer and impresario. He is the founder of the Film Noir Foundation, which rescues and restores at-risk noir films from around the globe, and producer and host of San Francisco’s NOIR CITY, the largest festival of film noir in the world (now with seven satellite festivals around the U.S.). He frequently appears on Turner Classic Movies, and has lectured on film noir at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
As you know, Christmas Day is also my birthday.
This year, I've been a very good boy and a hard working dog.
Please bring me anything from this list:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
— J.R.R. Tolkien
"What else is the whole life of mortals but a sort of comedy, in which the various actors, disguised by various costumes and masks, walk on and plays each one his part, until the manager waves them off the stage?"
When I was young and asking the big questions, I learned most of what I still believe about loyalty, bravery and morality from the Silver Age superheroes in my comic book collection.
In later years I would travel internationally, study world religions, read classic works of philosophy and ethics, and even pay attention to my father's many lectures. I went to private school, public school, boarding school and the school of hard knocks. I'm an educated cat.
But to this day, when the world tests my mettle or challenges my sense of right and wrong, it's not Spinoza but my inner Green Lantern who shows up for the fight.
I've always been impressionable in this way.
For example, I'm pretty sure I have a goatee because of the way Spock looked in "Mirror, Mirror." I know I started wearing dashikis in high school because of a picture I saw of Elvin Jones in Downbeat. I sport a beret on stage because Dizzy did.
Today, while watching Highlander for the godzillionth time, I noticed something about Christopher Lambert's home. Like so many characters in films of the 1980s and '90s, The Highlander lived in a loft.
It now occurs to me that my interior design preferences and bone-deep love of warehouse loft spaces and mid-century modern furniture are not based on anywhere I've lived or anything I've seen or studied. They don't reflect some sophisticated notion about the aesthetic requirements of an artist's life. They aren't because I need space to rehearse and create.
Nope. I learned about loft living from the movies. Dig:
William Sanderson in Blade Runner (1982). Jennifer Beals in Flashdance (83). Lambert in Highlander (86). Barbara Hershey in Hannah and Her Sisters (86). Mickey Rourke in 9-1/2 Weeks (86). Tom Hanks in Big (88). Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally (89). Rosanna Arquette in New York Stories (89). Nancy Travis in So I Married An Axe Murderer (93). James Caan in Bottle Rocket (96). Ethan Hawke in Great Expectations (98). Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski (98). Adam Sandler in Big Daddy (99). Christian Bale in American Psycho (00). Owen Wilson in Zoolander (01). Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful (02).
I want their cribs!
(Sure hope this flugelhorn thing works out.)
"I have such tremendous affection for the West that I would want anyone I love to experience it and to see it and to spend as much time there as possible. I would definitely want that experience for my family, but it's also not entirely a romantic thing. I mean, I don't want to romanticize the experiences of people who are living in rural, poor communities...or the desert. Our dominant cultural narrative totally devalues all three of those things: rural, poor and desert. So there was a sense when I was there that you're often told that where you are is not valuable or important. Just think about the way we talk about the desert as a wasteland or the middle of nowhere or it's barren. That's a really bizarre phenomenon, when you've spent your whole life in a place and then the culture tells you it actually doesn't even exist, and if it does exist, it's worthless. That's a bit of a heady place to be, I think, and that's partly what I was looking for with this book, was getting a portrait of the place that had never before been presented to me."
~Battleborn author Claire Vaye Watkins on NPR Fresh Air
"If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to them: hold on..."
"Your will turns thought into reality.
You must learn to focus your will and
create what you see in your mind.
The limits are only what you can imagine."
"The man who is to be great is the one who can be
the most solitary, the most hidden, the most deviant,
the man beyond good and evil, lord of his virtues,
a man lavishly endowed with will."