From 'Chinatown' to 'Sin City,' Students Study Film Noir

Summer's here, and the time is right for … going to class.

At the University of Virginia, about 4,500 students are taking advantage of the summer sessions to fulfill major requirements and take interesting electives. Among this year's notable courses is an examination of amnesia in film, a look at deafness in literature, the sociology of eating, and exploring kinfolks, families and relating in the African diaspora. Look for profiles of Summer Session courses here each Wednesday for the next few weeks.

July 22, 2008 —  "You know what happens to nosy fellows?"

By the end of the summer, Walter F. Korte's students will know what Jack Nicholson's character in "Chinatown," Jake Gittes, learned about "nosy fellows."

Korte, an associate professor of film studies in the University of Virginia's Department of Drama, wants his students to be able to see movies, not just look at them. He has returned to summer session with his class "Film Noir from Chinatown to Sin City," dealing with "neo-noir" films, the next wave after the classic films noir of the 1940s and 1950s. Noir films are generally concerned with criminal behavior, an urban milieu and an estranged or marginalized protagonist who views him- or herself as a victim, explained Korte.

Neo-noirs are hybrids that cut across boundaries and are not confined to one mode or genre, he said. The newer directors are cognizant of the noir heritage and either pay homage by sustaining the style, or make radical revisions of the conventions.

"They are trickily plotted and have a playfulness about them," Korte said of the neo-noirs. "It is a cynicism that goes down easy and that appeals to audiences."

Korte wants to "move beyond content analysis" and instruct his students in "visual thinking" to see how the images are part of the storytelling. "Be aware of what the camera is doing," he said.

He also wants his students to understand how the films reflect the society in which they were made. He uses Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," released in 1974, as an example of cynicism and disillusionment stemming from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

The plots in many of the films, such as "The Usual Suspects," have many twists and turns. "The audience likes being played with," he said. "They are so caught up in the films that they do not see the clues. You are aware that something is happening, but without being conscious of it."

Only when the film is over do most viewers understand the clues scattered throughout the film. The viewer better appreciates these clues on subsequent viewings, Korte said, since he or she already knows the ending.

His class is full at 25 students, from a variety of majors, including English, history, government, economics and interdisciplinary students. Korte said his students should bring to class a knowledge of "ideas, concepts and social agendas as well as some awareness of movies and topical issues."

None of the films he selected for the course, which include "Body Heat," "Blade Runner" and "Blood Simple," were box office successes, though they are now regarded as "important if not widely seen films," he said.

Noir movies are important to study, Korte said, because they have seeped into the fabric of popular culture. Examining what noir filmmakers have to say in their work gives students and all viewers a wider perspective on a visual expression of alienation, obsession and criminality in the larger society.

— By Matt Kelly