Contrappasso Archives: Noir Issue

cp noir front cover raw

From the archives: Here is the introduction to our special 2013 issue on Noir in film, fiction, and other arts. It has never previously appeared online.

The issue was edited by Noel King and Matthew Asprey Gear. Contributors include Luc Sante, Suzanne Lummis, Nicholas Christopher, Barry Gifford, Morris Lurie, Dahlia Schweitzer & Toby Miller, Andrew Nette, and Matthew Asprey Gear. We also feature interviews with Dennis McMillan and Adrian Wootton.

The Noir Issue remains available in print form at, for Kindle, and in other ebook formats at Smashwords.



When we decided to do this special Contrappasso noir issue—a grab bag of essays, interviews, and new and classic poetry—we were aware that some time ago two critics whose work we greatly admired, Luc Sante and James Naremore, had expressed fatigue with the term. In 2004 Sante told our colleague Peter Doyle, “noir is a category badly in need of a twenty- or thirty-year moratorium, at least in films.”

Naremore’s wonderful More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998/2008) ends by saying:

Given the current situation, debates over whether specific films are “truly” noir, or over the problem of what makes up a film genre, have become tiresome. There is, in fact, no transcendent reason why we should have a noir category at all. Whenever we list any movie under the noir rubric, we do little more than invoke a network of ideas as a makeshift organizing principle, in place of an author, a studio, a time period, or a national cinema. By such means, we can discuss an otherwise miscellaneous string of pictures, establishing similarities and differences among them. As I argue throughout this book, every category in criticism or in the film industry works in this fashion, usually in support of the critic’s or the culture’s particular obsessions. If we abandoned the word noir, we would need to find another, no less problematic, means of organizing what we see.

Naremore’s book is now widely accepted as a canonical text; Tom Gunning described it as “the first study of film noir that achieves the sort of intellectual seriousness, depth of research, degree of critical insight, and level of writing that this group of films deserves.” Gunning continues:

The basic paradox of film noir lies in the fact that no one who made the original series of films ever heard the term; it has always been applied ex post facto, in contrast to the way other genres (such as the musical or the western) were used by Hollywood to plan production schedules and distribution strategies. Instead film noir is, as Naremore puts it, a discourse, a way of processing and thinking about films as much as a pattern for their production.

While Gilles Deleuze referred to film noir unproblematically as a “great genre” in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and the late actor-director Dennis Hopper felt able to call it “everyone’s favourite genre” while he was directing The Hot Spot (1980), film critics have spent the last forty years debating whether film noir is a genre, a sub-genre, a film style, or a film movement.


Whatever the case, if film noir was not a genre at the time of its first appearance—if by genre we mean a film industry-recognised way of producing and marketing films—it has certainly become one, in the industry and the academy, in our time. International mainstream movie makers, makers of art cinema, and independent filmmakers alike have their work defined as “neo-noir” or “noir-influenced,” which no longer has to imply corny pastiche; convincing recent Hollywood examples include Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) and Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Noir, when it rises above a series of clichéd filmic gestures (trenchcoats, fedoras, cigarettes, lipstick), seems to be the language to express the darkness at the heart of our troubled times.

Meanwhile film courses around the world have devoted themselves to the film noir, accompanying the surge of scholarship since the late 1990s. On the film-critical front there has been since that period a deluge of books on classic film noir (roughly 1941-58) and on whatever we call the films noir that emerged from the sixties onwards.

In 2001 Foster Hirsch both published Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir and updated his 1981 account of classic noir Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. There are many other important new books: a few include those by Edward Dimendberg (Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, 2004), Wheeler Winston Dixon (Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia, 2009), Vincent Brook (Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré directors and the Rise of Film Noir, 2009), Alistair Rolls and Deborah Walker (French and American Noir: Dark Crossings), Dennis Broe (Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood, 2010), Gene D. Philips (Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir, 2011), and Mark Osteen (Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream, 2012).

Some excellent material was gathered in a special issue of Iris (no. 21, Spring 1996) devoted to “European Precursors of Film Noir”. Fine anthologies of essays include Alain Silver and James Ursini’s Film Noir Readers (1996-2004) and Eddie Muller and Donald Malcolm’s ongoing Noir City Annual (collecting the best of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine, formerly the Noir City Sentinel). And as the British Film Institute series of Film Classics and Modern Classics (now combined into one series) trundles along it delivers new forays into the world of noir and neo-noir.

Film noir is seemingly everywhere—on our screens, in the academy, and in the hearts of movie lovers. But we’re also interested in looking at how the notion of noir is travelling in other cultural contexts.

We looked, for example, at Lars Nittve and Helle Crenzien’s Sunshine & Noir: Art In LA 1960-1997 (1997), which contained Mike Davis’s essay ‘A Double Funeral’ on the race rivalries and gangs of Latinos, Koreans, and African Americans inside and outside LA jails. Catherine Corman’s photographic book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City (based on her photographic exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale) might have had trouble spelling Fredric Jameson’s name correctly but it came in a clear line of descent from Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s photographic rendering of the world of Philip Marlowe’s LA, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: A Photographic Odyssey Accompanied by Passages from Chandler’s Greatest Works (1989).


In her introduction to Manila Noir, Jessica Hagedorn said, “it made perfect sense to include a graphic noir since one of the many ways I learned to become a writer was through the Filipino horror komiks of my childhood.” In 2013 we are abundantly aware of Hollywood’s enthusiasm for graphic novels, especially those with a noir slant (Sin City, V For Vendetta). Darwyn Cooke’s recent graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels deserve a mention, too, because they’re more faithful to the mood of the classic noir novels of Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) than anything Hollywood has yet come up with. John Boorman’s classic film Point Blank (1967) creates a rather different noir mood—as Adrian Wootton informs us in this issue, Boorman never actually read its inspiration, Stark’s The Hunter (1962)—and Taylor Hackford’s Parker (2013) is perhaps best skipped over entirely.

Recent generations of Batman comics are practically synonymous with noir. Frank Miller steered the comic franchise in this dark direction in the 1980s; the latest collection illustrated by Eduardo Risso, Batman Noir (2013), is a another fine example. We also looked at anthologies such as Dark Horse Books’ Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics (2009). We could have easily devoted an issue to the subject of comic book noir, which attracts many of the best contemporary illustrators and has an enormous fan base.

The noir sensibility has found expression in video games. An Australian contribution was Team Bondi’s hugely successful L. A. Noire (2011), the first video game officially selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. The game inspired a spin-off ebook anthology of noir short stories edited by Jonathan Santlofer.

In noir matters literary and poetic we felt on secure ground.

Noir fiction is now a distinct category within the crime genre. It wasn’t always that way, at least in the United States. Paperback publisher Black Lizard, founded and edited by Barry Gifford in the 1980s, played a crucial role by reviving mostly forgotten mid-century American hardboiled crime novels (which were much more enduringly popular in France, published in translation through Marcel Duhamel’s Série noire from 1945). Moreover, Gifford focused on republishing crime writers with a distinct noir sensibility. Noir fiction turned out to be something slightly different from the masterful hardboiled detective tales of Chandler and Hammett. The prose of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and David Goodis was certainly hardboiled, but their narratives focused less on tarnished heroes and more relentlessly on the self-destructive, the hopeless, and the insane.

Luc Sante—who examines a series of haunting New York City police photographs in this issue, revisiting the terrain of his book Evidence, an inspiration for Australian writer-researchers Peter Doyle and Ross Gibson—once wrote in the New York Review of Books of how

[James M.] Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it.


In 1997 the Library of America, under the guidance of then-Executive Editor (now Editor-in-Chief) Geoffrey O’Brien, published a two-volume anthology of Crime Novels: American Noir, attempting to establish a canon of the subgenre. The first volume (The 1930s & 40s) collected authors James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, and Cornell Woolrich; the second volume (The 1950s) featured Goodis, Willeford, Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes.

To this tradition of American noir fiction should be added writers such as Paul Cain, W. R. Burnett, Richard Hallas, James Ross, Peter Rabe, John D. Macdonald, Gil Brewer, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Lawrence Block, Leonard Gardner, Floyd Salas, James Ellroy, Kent Anderson, Walter Mosley, Andrew Vachss, Ed Gorman, Denis Johnson, Christa Faust, James Sallis, Duane Swierczynski, and Megan Abbott.

Many new noir stories have found a home in independent ebook and print-on-demand journals such as Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Melbourne’s Crime Factory. Independent publishers New Pulp Press and Stark House Press are doing important work publishing new and vintage noir, respectively. And we decided the work of independent crime publishers Dennis McMillan and Matthew Moring deserves attention; interviews with each appear in this issue and point the way to unjustly-neglected writers in the noir tradition.

We were aware of early American poetic noir offerings, from Kenneth Fearing’s Dead Reckoning (1938) and Stranger at Coney Island and Other Poems (1948) to Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, both from 1928, which were jointly republished in 1968 in a revised form that removed “ethnic references” thought to give possible offence to a 1960s reader. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel rendering of The Wild Party (1994) restored those excised textual elements.

We had long admired Nicholas Christopher’s poetry. Two of his early poems, ‘Film Noir’ and ‘John Garfield’, appear herein with his kind permission. Noir has long been an animating influence on Christopher’s work. His verse novella, Desperate Characters (1989) was nicely blurbed as “The Lady from Shanghai as rewritten by Proust,” and his novel Veronica (1996) is in many ways neo-noir. Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997) is his account of noir and the fascination it holds for him, from the initial moment of encountering the great Out of the Past (1947) in a small Parisian cinema off the Rue de Rennes after he had taken some opium, through to his long New York years which saw him diligently work through all 317 films listed in the Film Noir Encyclopedia (1988). In fact, he added extra titles, based on his own viewing, which he felt deserved inclusion.

We had hoped to set alongside Christopher’s ‘Film Noir’ another poem of that title found in Lourd Ernest H. De Veyra’s collection, Insectissimo! (2011) but couldn’t run him to ground in time for this issue to obtain reprint rights (i.e., your editors failed as gumshoes). We also liked Michael Atkinson’s lovely poem about John Garfield in his collection One Hundred Children Waiting For A Train (2002) and enjoyed Kevin Young’s long poem Black Maria (2005). Young’s noir poem series tells us it is “produced and directed” by him and it contains all the right noir props—ashtrays, gunsels, femme fatale, the set-up, the sucker, the speak-easy, the grift, the frame, the dive, the payback, and so on.

LA-based Suzanne Lummis has been running a noir poetry workshop for years; we are delighted to reprint two of her noir-themed poems in Contrappasso.

In short, we have to agree with James Naremore when he says that we now inhabit a “noir mediascape” (he borrows the term ‘mediascape’ from Arjun Appadurai). This is apparent from a casual encounter with the world of book publicity. Recent crime writing is referred to variously as “casino noir” (James Swain’s series of books beginning with Grift Sense) or “surf noir” (Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source and later books). When he was reviewing a Joe Lansdale book, the great Daniel Woodrell described it as “backwoods noir”; both that descriptor and Woodrell’s self-applied “country noir” fit his own work (Tomato Red, Give us a Kiss, the excellent Winter’s Bone). We have feminist writers describing their works as “tart noir” and lesbian writers self-describing as “dyke noir.” And while we were completing this issue Jim Kitses urged us to read James Salter’s 1956 Korean War novel The Hunters as an instance of “military noir” (he urged us to read it in any case).

So settled is the term in publicity usage that we have noir by national location—”tartan noir” to describe some Scottish crime fiction, even “Australian noir” (see the essays in this issue by Andrew Nette and Mick Counihan). There is noir by US state, as in “Florida noir.” The vibrant series of city-focused noir anthologies from Akashic Books, an independent Brooklyn-based press founded by musician Johnny Temple, has now expanded beyond the US to focus on cities from New Delhi to Havana (Los Angeles Noir and Manila Noir are reviewed in this issue). In each anthology, noir stories and sometimes bits of graphic novels emerge from specific neighbourhoods. The noir sensibility is truly international.

As we finish up this introduction, news comes that Lou Reed has died. The venue seems appropriate for us to remember him for one of his many great songs, ‘Femme Fatale’.

We hope readers of this special issue of Contrappasso enjoy our explorations of noir in its many guises.


CP Goes to the Philippines: Manila Noir (a review)




Manila Noir ed. Jessica Hagedorn (New York: Akashic Books, 2013)

WHILE THINKING about what to mention in this review it occurred to me to contact Akashic Books much as, a few years ago, I had contacted a number of small-independent presses in Australia, the UK and the US (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Scribe, Serpent’s Tail, Bitter Lemon, Steerforth Press, Dennis McMillan Publications) to try to get a sense of how they managed to continue, even thrive, in a much-changed world of conglomerate publishing. In the case of Akashic, their sequence of City-Suburb Noir books was a sub-series among their various other publications. Already fifty-six Noir titles had been published, with a further fifteen announced on the inside cover of Manila Noir. So far, twenty-nine US cities or places within cities (e.g. New York has Wall Street Noir, Manhattan Noir, Brooklyn Noir) were represented. Some cities or suburbs had generated two volumes (Los Angeles, DC, San Francisco) while Brooklyn had generated three volumes, perhaps because of the number of writers who live there rather than the amount of noirish activity. And so far eighteen non-US countries had figured.

So I emailed Akashic Books’ Johanna Ingalls and asked if she could provide any information on how the series was going, more specifically, what size the print-runs were, and whether any particular titles were doing better than others. Her kind response outlined aspects of Akashic’s strategy with this series:

The better selling anthologies in the series have sold to date (and continue to sell) in the range of 20,000—35,000, including Boston Noir edited by Dennis Lehane, Los Angeles Noir edited by Denise Hamilton, Brooklyn Noir edited by Tim McLoughlin, DC Noir edited by George Pelecanos. To date not one volume has lost any money which is pretty remarkable from a series of short stories published by a small, independent company. Print runs vary greatly depending on size of market and also if there are some famous authors and/or editor. The low end would be about 3,500 for a first print run, though many start out several thousand higher and we often do multiple printings—Boston Noir is in its 6th printing. We sometimes solicit editors to work on an anthology with us (i.e. we approached Dennis Lehane and asked him to edit our Boston volume as we couldn’t think of a more perfect person for the job!), but at this point, many of the editors approach us as fans of the series and with ideas for their home city/state/region. We do hope to add additional Asian and African cities.

FOR MANILA NOIR, let’s start with malls or shopping-towns, those social spaces described so superbly by Don DeLillo in White Noise (1984), locales that seem distinctly American, especially when we remember how well Minnesota’s “biggest mall in America” worked to attract Japanese tourists to come to shop, play golf, and have an entire holiday in a quite circumscribed venue. Cultural analysts see such malls as continuing the tradition of the grand nineteenth century European arcades identified by Walter Benjamin as perfect locales for the flâneur to stroll around and practise his arts of observation. It is well known that the flâneur has a direct line to the role of the detective, so perhaps we should not be surprised to find malls, crime and noir fitting together.

Former Adelaide-based sociological researcher of youth, subcultures and crime, the late Mike Presdee, coined the phrase “proletarian shopping” to characterise the way young people accessed shopping towns in Elizabeth, Adelaide, a working class suburb to which a great many English migrants (“ten pound poms”) were sent upon arrival in South Australia. In his participant-observation-Birmingham-School-of-Contemporary-Cultural-Studies-style-work, Presdee observed how unemployed youths managed to spend lengthy periods of time in these vast social spaces, occasionally being moved on by shopping centre security officers when it became apparent that they were not a demographic with the kind of discretionary income hoped for by shops in such centres. It’s one thing to deliberately construct a system of moving people up levels in such a way that they must walk past endless arrays of shops in order to reach the next escalator to take them to the next floor, it’s quite another to know what to do with people who are being so moved with no money in their pockets, who are there to be in air conditioning on a blazing hot Adelaide day, or for warmth in winter.

Two stories in Manila Noir are set in malls, one—the terrific opening story, ‘Aviary,’ by Lysley Tenorio—is set in Greenbelt Mall in Makati, and the other—Gina Apostol’s ‘The Unintended’—is set in Ali Mall, Cubao, that mall’s name a legacy of the famous 1975 Ali-Frazier ‘Thrilla in Manila’ boxing match. In ‘Aviary’ a group of poor, disenfranchised youths go “proletarian shopping” as their way of protesting about a sign that allegedly says, “poor people and other realities” are not welcome at the mall. Dressed in their best possible clothing—black “Polo shirts and corduroys, our only good clothes, the outfits we wear to baptisms and funerals”—they roam the mall, amazed at the prices of even the least expensive items, and ask storekeepers where are the heads of headless mannequins, always being told to move on. Having “heard that an aviary once stood on the land Greenbelt now occupies,” they have brought with them dead birds found in the suburb where they live and, in one of the mall’s expensive bag shops, they “drop a dead bird into the smallest compartment of each travel bag, one by one.”

Their non-shopping continues. “We leave Louis Vuitton behind, continue through Greenbelt 4, passing stores with nonsensical names—BVLGARI, BOTTEGA, VENETTA—and others that sound like a sneeze—GUCCI, Jimmy Choo,” and having “breathed enough of the Greenbelt air,” they exit only to encounter “a domelike structure resembling the top half of a UFO.” The structure is the Greenbelt Chapel. “A place for worship between shopping.” Adventitiously encountered, it provides the perfect spot for them to leave their final mark. Under a church pew they carefully place “a segment of metal pipe wrapped with blue and red wire, with a cell-phone duct-taped to it.” The bomb is fake and will not detonate but upon discovery its effect will “have created unease here, severe emotional distress, a disturbance they will not soon forget.”

In ‘The Unintended,’ Gina Apostol runs together an exploration of “the first multilevel shopping mall in the Philippines,” a structure “that rises in tribute to Muhammad Ali’s victory” over Joe Frazier on October 1st, 1975. Two female characters engage warily with one another, Magsalin, our ostensible narrator, and Chiara, daughter of a filmmaker father who made, also in 1975, a cult film whose description runs together bits of Apocalypse Now and The Godfather films with aspects of Philippine history. The story entails parent-child relations, cinephilia, ideas of translation, but always the looming presence of the mall presides. Its first description is unflattering: “During the best of times Ali Mall is a decrepit, cramped cement block of shops hosting Rugby glue sniffers, high school truants, and depressed carnival men on break. It was built in 1976, a paean to the Thrilla in Manila, which took place directly across the street at the Araneta Coliseum in Cubao.” As a result we learn that Cubao now carries the trace of Frazier’s destroyed boxing career at the same time as it offers “the omen of Ali’s shambling shadow. Cubao heralds an incommunicable fall.” As Magsalin wanders the mall “in a daze” she notices that it is “now quite modern, practically Singaporean,” yet there is “a schizoid confabulation between the new upscale fixtures, such as the gleaming escalators and neon in the food court, which now looks like a strip club, and the ratty hair accessories wrapped in dusty plastic that seem to have been in the Cardam chain of shoe shops since they opened in 1976.” Since a central “motif of the renovated Ali Mall is a series of commissioned portraits of a boxer framed in glass at strategic points, like altars,” Magsalin seeks out all the Ali images in the mall and while recognising that “the corporate intention of co-opting the Greatest in order to shill shoes is obvious,” still, all these “reflexive signifiers, most of them tacky, are not tongue-in-cheek. They are serious gestures of veneration.”

In his most recent novel, Others of Our Kind (2013), Phoenix-based James Sallis (Drive) creates a central female character who was abducted as a child, kept in appalling circumstances by her abductor-abuser until one day she escapes into the secret spaces of a shopping mall where she lives many years as a kind of wild child. Eventually she is returned to what for her will never be “normal life,” studies successfully at university, and later proves to be a brilliant news editor at a small-town TV station. One day a cop comes calling, possessed of knowledge of her past, to ask if she will help with a case of a shockingly abused young woman they have just found. And so the story moves along and we get more information about this kind of child-kidnapping and abuse.

At the same time as he pursues this narrative line Sallis explains that the era of the “biggest mall in America” alluded to above is now past: “Malls, a long piece in today’s Washington Post makes official, are on their way out, have been so for some time, in fact… High vacancy rates, low consumer traffic, a shift toward renovation of the central city, big-box stores such as Fry’s Electronics and Walmart, all have taken their toll.”

Hundreds of malls lie “empty, gutted, abandoned.” Roofs are “ripped off, sidewalks, canals, and palm trees laid in, town houses or apartment blocks added, select malls are being reworked by developers into quirky small villages. Interestingly enough, the first American malls were intended to resemble just that.”

As depicted in Manila Noir, Manila’s malls have yet to reach this historical point; they still inhabit a time of refurbishment, expansion, of building newer, larger malls. To this extent they resemble the Bangkok malls described by Lawrence Osborne in Bangkok Days (2009), his wonderful account of many years spent in that city:

I often went wandering through the neon of Wireless Road or the electronics market at Pantip Plaza—a fine place to stroll around at night because it retains the energy of the daylight hours… the intensity of the neons stacked around several floors stung the eyes, and the words they projected meant nothing: Kensington, Epson, Zest Interactive, Hardware House. The plaza (actually a vertical mall in which the floors are stacked on top of one another) is a hip hangout for the young, who flock there at night to see and be seen…

In another mall where youth collect at night, the Siam Center—which is devoted to the cause of fashion—I noticed that the illuminated English ad panels were even more textual. It was as if the present age needed to bring certain thoughts and expressions to the surface, and that these needed to be as aphoristic as possible. Like the strange assertions that might adorn a temple or church, these were lit up like holy text, and were just as enigmatic.

In her excellent introduction to Manila Noir, editor-contributor Jessica Hagedorn describes Manila as “a woman of mystery, a femme fatale.” Lest we think this characterisation too cute or too pat, she expands on the analogy: “Sexy, complicated, and tainted by a dark and painful past, she’s not to be trusted. And why should she be? She’s been betrayed time and time again, invaded, plundered, raped, and pillaged, colonized for nearly four hundred years by Spain and fifty years by the United States, brutally occupied from 1942 to 1945 by the Japanese army, bombed and pretty much decimated by Japanese and US forces during an epic, month-long battle in 1945.” Shorter than a travel guide, and spot on.

Six of Manila Noir’s fourteen contributors are women and they provide some of the strongest pieces in this impressive collection of stories. Most of the contributors have a publishing presence beyond this collection, many have published other books or graphic novels, in some cases very many. In addition, many contributors are multiply nominated for literary awards and several are multiply awarded, so it’s a strong team assembled here. Several contributors blend meta-fictional strategies (offering alternative endings to the “same” story, shifting across different point-of-view perspectives within the “one” story) with the inherited, enabling conventions of noir, but in this case noir realised in a city beautifully described by Hagedorn as “one of the wildest cities on the planet.” Her comment finds support in some words from Manila-based novel The Tesseract by Alex Garland (author of The Beach): “Manila changed most of the people it touched… Nothing to do with coming of age or prices paid. Just the dark city.”

Mention of Garland’s novel reminds me that many Anglo-Australian readers might be familiar with some other non-Filipino fiction set in Manila, such as William Marshall’s Manila Bay (1986) and Whisper (1988), and the eminent non-fiction writer James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel Ghosts of Manila (1994). One immediate function of Manila Noir is that readers like me, who have no expertise whatever in respect of Philippine fiction, will become acquainted with a batch of indigenous (even if sometimes diasporic) Filipino writers.

Hagedorn’s contribution touches many noir bases, exploiting tropes that come with the turf of ‘Old Money’ (the story’s title) such as fallen circumstances, a bed-ridden matriarch, and the next generation with their contemporary clubs and drugs. Characters are permitted nice lines of metaphor mixed with historical summary. We are offered two endings (consistent with the ambiguity, “openness” and multiplicity exhibited elsewhere in the collection) and the final line returns us to quintessential noir terrain as rain comes.

Another female contributor, F. H. (“Ichi”) Batacan, wrote a terrific short first novel called Smaller and Smaller Circles. Published by the University of Philippines Press, it won the 1999 Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for the English novel, the National Book Award in 2002 and the Madrigal-Gonzalez Award in 2003 and is regarded as “unique in the Philippine literary scene—a Pinoy detective novel.” Purely in terms of analogy and orientation towards a national writing unfamiliar to most Australians, not at all meaning to indicate imitation, think of the start of Gorky Park plus something from Brazilian Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza in one of his “Espinosa” books plus perhaps a touch of Henning Mankell, and you’ll have some sense of how the novel lures you in. The main investigative character is compelling, a fifty-something Jesuit priest who is also a forensic pathologist (Father Augusto Saenz) who has a younger, equally engaging Jesuit priest working alongside him (thirty-seven year old Father Jeremy Lucero), as they investigate a series of deaths of young boys, each death accompanied by facial disfiguration. Batacan’s story in Manila Noir, ‘Comforter of the Afflicted,’ finds Father Saenz investigating a different type of death, and it is a delight to encounter him again. Batacan has been contracted by New York’s Soho Press to deliver an expanded version of Smaller and Smaller Circles. The manuscript is completed (the original 155 pages or so now extended by more than half) and will be published in the US in 2014. It’s nice to know that soon a wider readership will encounter these beguiling Jesuit priest-investigators.

Two other contributors, Jose Dalisay and Rosario Cruz-Lucero, hold Professorial positions at the University of the Philippines, where they teach, respectively, English and Creative Writing, and Philippine Studies and Creative Writing. Dalisay’s personal-political history saw him caught up with the vicissitudes of politics in the Philippines. He was arrested and imprisoned for seven months in 1973 after participating in student politics in the early 1970s. Ferdinand Marcos imposed Martial Law from 1972 to 1981 as a tactic to protect his own rule rather than protecting the situation of his people. Many Filipinos were killed, imprisoned or sent into exile during this period.

Dalisay has published several other novels and has received many awards and nominations. For many years he wrote screenplays for various Philippine filmmakers, but especially for Lino Brocka. His second novel, Soledad’s Sister (2008), opens with a casket arriving at Manila airport, allegedly containing the body of a certain woman, one of more than six hundred overseas Filipino workers who come back to the Philippines as corpses each year. “On a cloud-curtained evening, one Saturday in August, a corpse arrived in a zinc casket in a wooden crate at Ninoy Aquino International Airport, 237 kilometres west of Paez.” Of course the woman in the casket is not the woman in question and so Walter, a suitably morose, put-upon police officer who goes methodically about his daily routines, sporadically recalling details of how his wife and child left him to go to England four or five years ago—his son was then only nine years old—is called upon to initiate routine administrative work that later will become investigative adventure. Dalisay has a sure grasp of the mechanics of noir-investigative fiction and uses it deftly to interlace aspects of Philippine reality, whether it concerns the down-side of the fact that overseas Filipino workers (overwhelmingly female) contribute tens of billions of dollars to the basket-case Philippine economy, or the crucial presence of music in Philippine culture, or the distinctiveness of regional places and spaces outside metropolitan Manila. Dalisay’s contribution to Manila Noir, ‘The Professor’s Wife,’ is a “campus story” and it too has a great opening: “Someone died in this car I’m driving. That’s why I got it so cheap.” A postgraduate I chatted with briefly at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines, where Dalisay’s story is set, told me that Dalisay, in his capacity as Professor of Creative Writing, once set that first sentence—”Someone died in this car”—as an exercise in one of his Creative Writing classes.

Cruz-Lucero’s work combines oral history, feminism and socialist perspectives. She has done a lot of research into the history of labour, struggle and storytelling in Negros. She is soon to embark on a history of Philippine Noir. Her story in this collection draws on the Imelda Marcos period of building various kinds of “cultural projects,” one of which is Casa Manila in Intramuros, a kind of Disney-post-modern structure that offers a “replica of a nineteenth century Hispanic House” built in 1979. Tourist-visitors can see the grandeur of this house and also see shantytowns, thereby experiencing “the cross-section of Manila without the muck and stench and danger.” Cruz-Lucero’s story figures the past of plantations and exploitation, and a contemporary moment of ruined buildings or buildings altered to become offices and schools to cater to a transient population. Isabella and Elias, childhood friends, encounter one another again in this Disney world, and revisit the moment from their childhood involving the Davao Death Squad assassination of Isabella’s father, for which act Elias was a suspect.

One contributor to this volume, Sabina Murray, has an Australian connection, having been raised here and in the Philippines, although she now seems very settled in the US, like several other contributors to Manila Noir, six of whom work or hold teaching positions in San Francisco, New York, or elsewhere on the US East Coast. Murray has published several acclaimed novels since her initial novel, Slow Burn (1990) which applied some lessons from Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz to a contemporary Philippine context of wealthy young things angsting, drinking and drugging and hanging out in night clubs. Her contribution here is stylish and elusive in all the right ways.

In short, this excellent collection has something for every reader’s interest. Kajo Baldisimo has a “day job drawing storyboards for Manila’s top TV commercial directors” and he combines with Budjette Tan (“creative director by day, copywriter by night, comic book writer after midnight”) to create Trese, a fetching and feisty graphic novel heroine. Trese won the Best Graphic Literature Award at the 2009 and 2012 Philippine National book Awards and there are now five books in the series. Other Manila Noir contributions involve tender tales of transvestites, manic-edgy stories involving car crashes, long-delayed familial revenge killings, murder by eye piercing after arguments about whether someone is scamming/skimming while dealing shabu (meth). So there is plenty of Philippine Noir to go around.

[This review originally appeared in Contrappasso: Noir Issue (2013)]




NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

Writers at the Movies: An Introduction

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[This is the introduction to our new special issue Writers at the Movies. It contains essays by Luc Sante, Sarah Berry, Richard Lowenstein, Richard Hugo, Clive Sinclair, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, and Anthony May; fiction by Barry Gifford; poetry by Michael Atkinson, R. Zamora Linmark, and James Franco; and interviews with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Emmanuel Mouret, Scott Simmon, and Richard Misek. The issue is for sale at]

I: Literary Cinéphilia

This special issue of Contrappasso on ‘Writers at the Movies’ follows our special ‘Noir’ issue of late 2013. Once again we’ve assembled a collection of poems, essays, fiction, and interviews—some republished, some appearing for the first time. In this instance, the common theme is ‘literary cinéphilia.’

Over the last couple of decades the notion of cinéphilia has taken flight, with many articles, academic books, and trade collections exploring this concept from the beginnings of cinema to the digital age[1].

But the version of cinéphilia on offer here in Contrappasso is a little different. Our take is probably closer to what was featured in Granta’s special film issue (#86, 2004). Highlights of that volume were Andrew O’Hagan’s memoir of his short stint as a film critic (“Two Years in the Dark”) and Ian Jack’s loving recollection of the cinemas of his youth (“The Best Picture He Ever Saw”). Jack’s essay tells of returning with his elder brother to Farnworth to seek out the sites of its vanished cinemas—the Ritz, the Savoy, the Empire, the Hippodrome, the Palace. For Jack and his young friends:

Cinema names seemed independent of any history. They may have been intended to suggest luxury, romance, good birth and breeding, foreign parts, ancient history and therefore to be fitting vehicles for the films showed inside them; escapist images inside escapist architecture. But how many among their audiences could have connected the Hippodrome to horse racing in Ancient Greece, or the Rialto to Venice, the Alhambra, Granada, and Toledo to Spain, the Lido to Mediterranean bathing, the Colosseum to Rome, the Savoy to the Strand, the Odeon to Paris, the Regal to majestic behaviour? Not me, certainly.

We also feel kinship with Parnassus’s special issue on ‘Poetry and Movies’ (#22, Nos. 1 & 2, 1997) with its poems inspired by Godard’s Le Mépris, and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and the collaboration between Positif and Projections that generated Projections 4½ (1995), from which we republish Richard Lowenstein’s essay, “Elvis and the Aboriginals.” As it turns out, Lowenstein, a well-known Australian filmmaker, is almost an exception in our line-up of literary cinéphiles; most of the selections in this Contrappasso are by people whose principal creative focus is not cinematic at all but in the areas of essays, poetry, and fiction. You will find writings on film by literary practitioners not usually identified as film critics, and also examples of more recognisably academic-scholarly film writing. We think it’s a happy mixture of some of the best movie writing around.

Some of the pieces collected here focus on a single film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), Orson Welles’s rediscovered Too Much Johnson (1938), Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1955), and Robert Siodmak’s Custer of the West (1968). The approaches vary. Other pieces zoom in on an individual: Eric Rohmer, Jean Negulesco, Claire Danes, the Black Dahlia, Sal Mineo, Montgomery Clift, Elmore Leonard, and Emmanuel Mouret. We also explore the kind of cinéphilia that escapes the page and becomes filmmaking itself—see our interview with Richard Misek on his film essay Rohmer in Paris.

Movie-going, our favourite ritual since childhood, is undoubtedly changing. We assembled this collection at a time when viewing a movie via a 35mm print became a sudden novelty. The Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, which has an impressive collection of vintage nickelodeons and magic lanterns, now also displays a 35mm projector as a historical artefact. In 2014 Quentin Tarantino called digital projection, now a fait accompli, the very “death of cinema as I know it.” And he’s not alone in the sentiment. The prevailing nostalgia among cinéphiles is not just for the end of 35mm as an exhibition technology, the disappearance of that comforting flicker of scratchy celluloid through a projector. It’s just another change that has followed the passing of the movie theatre from a space of spectacle, even wonder, into the mundane functionality of the multiplex.

Stephen Barber’s Abandoned Images: Film and Film’s End (2010) powerfully outlines the history of cinema as a social space, in particular the slow fade from the grandeur of the early movie palace to ruin and dilapidation. Barber cites twelve cinemas built in Los Angeles between 1910 and 1931, how their facades, “often constructed with premium-quality stone imported from Italian quarries, and intricately carved and decorated with figures drawn from European or Mayan mythologies, both exclaimed the titles of current films on colossal marquees and hoardings, and intimated that the film-going experience was to be a lavish, cultured one.”

Barber says that Broadway in downtown Los Angeles “holds the greatest concentration worldwide of abandoned, but intact, cinemas.” These “once-lavish and luxurious cinemas represented the zenith of technological innovation in their respective moments of construction.” These buildings present “an astonishing litany of names emblazoned on dilapidated but still prominent marquees and signs: the Million Dollar Theater, the Roxie, the Cameo, the Arcade, the Los Angeles Theater, the Palace, the State, the Globe, the Orpheum, and the United Artists Theater.”

As he charts the shift in the social function of the movie palace from its time screening mainstream films to showing “specialist, cult or martial arts films, and finally, pornography,” Barber argues that these changes place a double temporality on the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, such that “the moment at which it served as a riotous all-night site for cult-mania or pornography becomes inseparable from that of its prestigious moment of ascendancy as the venue for searchlight-illuminated star-premieres.” For Barber, “abandoned cinemas form landscapes of disintegration.”

That 35mm projector at the Frankfurt museum was appropriately surrounded by an exhibition of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s stunning large-scale photographs of the United States’ abandoned picture palaces. Annie Baker’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Flick (2014), is set in a “falling-apart movie theatre in Worcester County, MA.” Its four characters work, watch movies, scam, endlessly toss out film references and play (in this case) three degrees of separation games linking film actors across recondite films. This ‘smallest picture show on earth’ operates in the full recognition that the days of celluloid and analogue video have been replaced by a (fallen) digital world.

Iain Sinclair’s 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (2014), also bears personal witness to the vanished spaces of cinema. The book is a record of a unique film festival in which sometimes unlikely corners of contemporary London—a city suffering ongoing authoritarian usurpation of public space—become ad hoc exhibition spaces for seventy films that have mattered most to the seventy year old author. As ever, Sinclair’s psychogeographical prowl of London provokes memories, in this case of former exhibition sites where his younger self first encountered particular movies.

We hope some of the pieces we have gathered here resonate in a similar way.

Nevertheless, we also acknowledge there is much for the cinéphile to celebrate in the digital era. Access to obscure films is now easier than ever. One of the most ardent surveyors of international DVD and Bluray releases is the writer Jonathan Rosenbaum. We caught up with him to talk about his recent activities.

II: Novelists and Poets

We find no shortage of fiction writers obsessed by cinema. In his introduction to Writers at the Movies: Twenty-Six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-Six Memorable Movies (2000), Jim Shepard makes the case that writers “write about movies… not only because we love them but because their cultural power obligates our response.” In Shepard’s anthology we discover that the late, great Robert Stone liked The Krays (1990), Lorrie Moore likes Titanic (1997) and J. M. Coetzee likes The Misfits (1961).

We like Gore Vidal’s engaging book-length essay Screening History (1992), in which he recalls being spellbound as a boy by Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and await an English translation of Carlos Fuentes’s posthumously published Pantallas de plata (2014), a personal study of Buñuel and others. James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) offers a powerful commentary on the movies, on black spectatorship and the representation of race in cinema. It begins by recalling

Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.

Don DeLillo is a committed literary cinéphile. His fiction is crowded with movie and television references. In one interview he described his cinematic conception when he starts writing: “I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor…” In 1971, when Nelson Algren reviewed DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, for Rolling Stone, he connected it explicitly to the New Hollywood cinema: “Don DeLillo’s swift, ironic, and witty cross-country American nightmare, as seen through a Scoopic 16mm news camera, doesn’t have a dull or unoriginal line. If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces, or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”

DeLillo has said in several interviews that he was most excited by the movies of the late 1960s when he was first trying to make a living from writing. Some of his earliest stories are in fact literary responses to movies. “The Numbers” was provoked by Godard’s Weekend (1967). DeLillo explained, “I consider this piece of work a movie as much as anything else. Not my movie, however. No, the work is an attempt to hammer and nail my own frame around somebody else’s movie.” Another early short story, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” done in a kind of 1960s European art-cinema shorthand, is now available at The Kenyon Review website[2].

Fiction aside, by now DeLillo has published enough essays on film to constitute a short book. His essay “Woman in the Distance” is a brilliant poetic exploration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), a film also greatly admired by Marguerite Duras (see her 1980 interview collection Green Eyes). In the manner of DeLillo’s novels, the Wanda essay has a great opening:

Early in the film a woman in the shape of a white shadow moves in long shot across the bitter gray landscape of slag heaps and mining equipment. It is a scene of phantom beauty: a spacious moment seemingly displaced in a movie that levels every energy at small and local matters. But the scene is only the first component of an equation in the making. That chalky figure in the distance will appear in powerful close-up at the end of the film, face and heart revealed.

DeLillo wrote a short New Yorker piece on star spotting in Rome—its subtitle ‘Movies and Memory’ could be an alternate title for this issue of Contrappasso—and another long essay in Brick, ‘Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,’ which throws together The Fast Runner, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, Thomas Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, and a documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. He penned elegant capsule descriptions for the three films he selected and introduced as Guest Director of the 2005 Telluride Film Festival. He chose Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (“A beautiful and disturbing movie of remote landscapes, dreamy scenes of childhood and the advancing shadow of the state… Shot in deceptively serene tones, paced in the rhythms of rural isolation, Spirit of the Beehive exemplifies what Erice calls poetic cinema”), Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) (“With its dangling flashbacks, long takes, deep spaces, and hovering sense of violence, The Passenger is one of the strongest films in Antonioni’s enduring study of identity and apartness”), and Loden’s Wanda (“It might be regarded as the unsung herald of the American surge that sent many fine and famous movies coursing through [the 1970s]”). There was a “lost” aspect to all three films. It was the first time in twenty-five years Spirit of the Beehive had been screened in the US. The Passenger had not been screened for a similar time owing to a bizarre legal situation that required either Antonioni or actor Jack Nicholson to be present at any screening. Wanda, shot on 16mm for a mere $160,000, the only film directed by Loden, only found visibility in recent years when released on DVD.


OF COURSE, literary cinéphilia does not automatically denote the composition of fiction or an essay. Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” opens with the invitation: “Come, my love/let’s go to the movies/in the village/ … Old movies/are/secondhand dreams.” The American Frank O’Hara wrote poems about James Dean and penned the marvellous “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the speaker reveals that his main love is not for “lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals,” nor the Catholic Church, nor for “the American Legion” but rather for “you, Motion Picture Industry.” It is for “glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope, stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound.” The poem lists many Hollywood stars and describes scenes from unnamed films. The speaker refuses to “prefer Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker” in Tarzan movies, and ends by saying, “Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on.”

Readers of our Noir Issue will recall several distinguished poetic responses to the cinema: Nicholas Christopher on film noir and the HUAC-destroyed career of John Garfield; Barry Gifford’s short evocation of actress Terry Moore (a poem dedicated to, and admired by, Elmore Leonard); Suzanne Loomis’s noir poems; and Jonathan Aaron’s response to Out of the Past.

In this issue we reprint James Franco’s poem in honour of Sal Mineo, two poems by R. Zamora Linmark on Montgomery Clift and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, and two by Michael Atkinson.

III: The Movie Theatre as Social Space

The British Film Institute’s series of ‘Film Classics’ (soon followed by another on ‘Modern Classics’), began a trend in English language film writing: small books, normally between 65 and 150 pages, on individual films. The ‘short takes’ idea was the brainchild of Edward Buscombe, then head of BFI publishing. The concept now exists in many articulations: series of small books on films that fall into the categories of Classic Canadian Cinema (University of Toronto Press), Australian Film Classics (Currency Press), Queer Film Classics (Arsenal Pulp Press), Pop Classics (ECW Press), and Controversies (Palgrave Macmillan). There are also Bloomsbury Film Guides (now discontinued), Wallflower Press’s Cultographies, Soft Skull Press’s Deep Focus series, and the Cinetek line from Flicks Books. Certain films appear on more than one of these lists. We also find monographs on individual films outside any publishing series: two notable recent books are Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012) (on Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (2011) (on Ozu’s Late Spring).

With this type of book came a greater emphasis on where and when the authors first encountered the film in question. One example is Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on Antonioni’s L’avventura for BFI Film Classics. His first viewing took place in

Paris, in November 1960. I was a language assistant in a lycée in a small town in eastern France. One weekend I drove with friends to Paris—250 kilometres in a Citroen 2 c.v., maximum speed 90k.p.h.—intending to see Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist, Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes, and other new French films. First, however, I decided to take a look at the Italian film which had caused all that uproar at Cannes the previous spring: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura. For two and a half hours I sat spellbound in the cinema. I was captivated by the film’s lingering rhythms, its decentered images, its listless characters, and especially by Monica Vitti, the star of the film and incarnation of the director’s vision. No film before or since has made such an impression on me as L’avventura did on that occasion. I saw the film again the following day, and went back to Paris three weeks later to see it again—this time with the intention of writing about it.

Similarly, Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997/2006), a very different film book which surveys not one but hundreds of films, orientates the reader with a wonderful description of the author’s first encounter with film noir in a Paris cinema in 1973:

This was a tumultuous time, not just in the Unites States, but also in France, where massive student and labor unrest had emerged that spring. Barricades blocked the steep streets near the Sorbonne, tear gas bit the air, and at particularly explosive city arteries, rubber bullets were being fired into crowds of demonstrators. Still, people were going to work, eating, drinking, making love, and attending the cinema. The theater was located in a narrow side street off the Rue de Rennes in a working class district. Surrounded by tire shops, garages, and a sausage factory, it was improbably named The New Yorker, the letters glowing in indigo neon on the small crooked marquee. So I found myself alone on a hard seat in the rear of a packed smoky theater (with posters of the Manhattan skyline in the lobby) where one could hear a pin drop—so reverential, so congregational was this chain-smoking French audience—and watched Out of the Past.

Jessica Hagedorn’s novel, Dogeaters (1990), features her Filipino characters watching Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) in a Manila cinema. In an email Jessica Hagedorn told us, “The Avenue Theatre, which appears in Dogeaters, actually existed when I was growing up in Manila. My description of it in the novel is inspired by the ‘real’ Avenue and other old-school movie theatres in Manila, like the Odeon.” The narrator of Hagedorn’s novel tells us that her group of friends “affect the casual teenage glamour of Gloria Talbott” in All That Heaven Allows. These characters offer an intriguing take on one aspect of Sirk’s great melodrama: why would someone so evidently wealthy as Jane Wyman’s character bother to drive her own car when she could afford a chauffeur?

Hagedorn’s characters watch a great many other films but avoid the cinemas infested by rats. One character, Romeo, a waiter at “the exclusive Monte Vista Country Club,” goes to the movies “as often as his modest salary” allows. Romeo “would see anything: comedies, Tagalog melodramas, westerns, musicals, and religious extravaganzas like The Ten Commandments, which played to packed houses in Manila for what seemed an eternity. Audiences never failed to clap and cheer each time the Red Sea parted on the giant screen.” Mabuhay Studios is cited along with Lolita Luna’s softcore ‘bomba’ movies (A Candle in Burma, The Agony of Love). Romeo also learns from the movies insofar as he models his hair on “Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. Or that decadent Nestor Noraliz in Tormented.” As the Hollywood titles suggest, American movies appropriately align with the modernity represented by US pop culture, and in 1960, when a character returns from the US with a batch of the latest rock ‘n’ roll records—”45s, 78s, 33LPs. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Richie Valens, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee and the Starliters”—the female narrator studiously learns how to do The Madison and The Twist.

Other writers remember other movies and other cinemas. Michael Barker remembers watching Executive Action (1973) “at the Texas Theater in Dallas, a savvy booking if ever there was one—this was the theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended. The marquee proclaimed NOW PLAYING EXECUTIVE ACTION and underneath in big, bold letters OSWALD CAUGHT HERE. I remember kids taking turns sitting in his seat.” Greil Marcus feels a movie theatre “creates an atmosphere of anticipation, it sparks the feeling that, whatever might be on the bill, something extraordinary is about to take place.” Marcus remembers first seeing The Manchurian Candidate “alone when it came out in 1962, at the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, California, a Moorish wonderland of a movie house.” He saw it again in 2001 “in the Castro Theatre, an ornately baroque movie palace with a steep balcony and an organ that emerges from a pit in front of the stage.” Leonard Michaels’s terrific essay on being overwhelmed by Gilda (1946) on first viewing, initially published in the Berkeley broadsheet The Threepenny Review[3], is very precise about where his life-changing act of film spectatorship occurred: “I saw this movie in the Loew’s Theater on Canal Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

DeLillo gives a lovely description of his 1960s and early 1970s moviegoing habits:

I went to the movies on weekday afternoons, a movie on a dead afternoon, the merest scatter of people in attendance, always someone reading the Voice in the half murk before the house lights died. In many cases I can recall today where I saw certain movies back then, drifting from The New Yorker Theater one day to the Bleecker Street the next, alert and ever expectant, ready to be taken out of the day, the week, the plodding writer’s one-room life, and into a fold of discontinuous space and time.

In conversation with Lorena Cancela for Otrocampo 7 in November 2002, Jonathan Rosenbaum said that “where and when one is viewing a movie has an inextricable relation to what that movie means, and consequently, no meanings should be regarded as universal or eternal… Movie-going—and therefore film criticism—is a social act.” This is precisely what art critic Lawrence Alloway says in his 1971 book, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964: “The routine of movie-going is the basis of any criticism of popular movies.”

We think what is happening in our different examples is a merging of two perspectives: the first linked to the long tradition of academic-scholarly and amateur accounts of the history of movie-going and of the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, and the second which exhibits a very localized, one-off-film-specific cinéphilia. To the extent that some contributors write about a time when going to the movies—the flicks, the pictures—was a weekly or twice-weekly routine, they often remember a specific cinema. In so doing they confirm the adage attributed to Marcus Loew (whose US theatre chain played MGM’s pictures), “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.” Of course Loew and his viewers knew, as we know, that it is always both.

In an 2003 online interview with Identity Theory, David Thomson spoke of the loss of the tradition of large cinema theaters as distinctive social spaces—or what once were called ‘picture palaces’ in an era when, as the publicity phrase had it, “the show starts on the sidewalk”—in contemporary San Francisco. Thomson doubted whether San Francisco now had more than four cinemas capable of seating 600 or 700 people, and felt that it was important to convey to young people “that feeling I grew up with… that you had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital.”

Patrick McGilligan uses the phrase “film craziness” to describe the cinéphilia that, he says, “was endemic around the country, indeed around the globe, in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” and adds that “the mutant strain found at the University of Wisconsin in Madison had something to do with the unique combination of the long, subarctic winters—from which escape was desirable—coupled with the inviting central location of the film archives in the State Historical Society building.” For McGilligan the film archives were “a treasure trove,” the result of the fact that some “unsung archivist had managed to obtain the United Artists collection, which included… 16mm prints of every Warner brothers, RKO, and Republic motion picture dating back from the early 1930s through to the early 1950s.” He describes this particular viewing venue:

Mornings at the archives, the film crazies would gather to watch whatever some graybeard (i.e. graduate student) had put on the schedule—say, three or four William Wellman films, the earliest, most obscure, most topical titles from his Warner Brothers period.

The room set aside on the top floor of the State Historical Society building was a long, narrow concrete bunker with utilitarian chairs scattered around… Once started, the only interruptions were for reel changes, and we often squeezed in several films, back to back, before lunch. Some of us slurped coffee or chewed gum. Some made loud comments about the film in progress, others watched silently, scribbling notes, gazing intently at the rectangle of light dancing on the wall.

Juan Goytisolo’s wonderful essay, “Cinema Eden,”[4] from a book of the same name (Peter Bush’s 2004 translation is subtitled Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean), begins by saying:

There exists an almost extinct species of cinema whose auditorium, dense atmosphere and original setting stand out more strongly, more glowingly in memory than the meandering plot of their films. My childhood experience was decisive in this respect and casts light on my future fondness for flea-pits that recall those first cinemas I patronized in the neighbourhood of the district of Barcelona where I was born.

Goytisolo remembers a cinema called “the Murillo—the Primavera from the pre-war years—a name it reclaimed in the fifties before being closed down for good and replaced by an apartment block at the point where Paseo Bonanova crosses Calle Angli—and the smaller, humbler Breton, right in the heart of the still rather prim and provincial suburb of Sarria.” He mentions many other cinemas, as his essay goes on to discuss the Eden cinema—”an old down-at-heel fleapit” in Marrakesh—and reveal his fondness for Hindu melodramas and karate films.

Italo Calvino’s superb long essay, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” written at the urging of Federico Fellini, was possibly Goytisolo’s model. In it Calvino recalls the films and stars he saw in his adolescence, a time “when the cinema engrossed me to an extent far beyond anything that came before or after.” The essay, part of The Road to San Giovanni (1990), begins:

There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe twice a day, and those were the years between ‘36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me…

Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week.

Calvino was watching dubbed US films and French poetic realist films in San Remo on the Ligurian coast in his favourite open-air theatre. On the other side of Italy, in Rimini, Fellini was watching films in “the little towns in winter,” where “the movie theatre was like a tiny galaxy, a planet under a spell, a grand passion that seems forgotten today.”

Years later, in Paris, Calvino would go to “tiny, smelly cinemas of the Latin Quarter to dig out films of the twenties and thirties” he “thought he had lost forever,” and also to encounter new films, screenings of contemporary cinema: “I go looking for old films that tell me about my own prehistory or those that are so new as perhaps to suggest what the world will be like after me.”

But of course memorable movie-going doesn’t have to occur indoors. Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Secret Language of Film (1994) opens with a description of a screening in French colonial Africa after the First World War. It deftly conveys elegant ironies of a colonialist moment: “A sheet was stretched between posts, the mysterious device was carefully set up, and suddenly, out in the dry night of the African bush, moving pictures appeared.” However, the “African notables and religious leaders,” although obliged to attend lest their absence indicate an unfriendly or rebellious attitude towards their colonisers, “were for the most part Muslims,” and obedient to the prohibitions of their religion against the depiction of the human face and form. They politely took their seats, and when “the lights went down and the first beams flickered from the curious apparatus, they shut their eyes and kept them shut” throughout the screening. Carrière “often wondered what invisible, soundless film was shown during those few short hours.”

The editors of this issue are both Australians who grew up with the presence of the drive-in. In Australia a drive-in could also be used as a ‘walk-in.’ On hot summer nights, if you didn’t yet have a driver’s license, you could sit near the refreshment building, and have a sound box at your table. You would watch children in pyjamas and dressing gowns play in the playground just under the giant screen in front of all the parked cars until the drive-in’s double-bill started. Before the fading of the drive-in as an exhibition site—when the land on which it stood became more valuable to sell off as housing—cinéphiles would often seek out a drive-in screening as the only venue at which a particular film would find release, much as some suburban/neighbourhood cinemas in Australia became the place for the first-release of Five Easy Pieces (1970), Cisco Pike (1972), and some other offerings from the New Hollywood cinema.

Memories of the drive-in also stir fond thoughts of the so-called “Drive-In Movie Critic” Joe Bob Briggs, whose flamboyant redneck critical posture celebrated movies exhibited at Texas drive-ins. We also recall J.D. Reed’s poem ‘Drive-In’, which vividly juxtaposes teenage sexual moves in a parked car while “giant caterpillars are fighting on the screen/waving monster feelers and spitting/plastic drool.” (It nicely echoes Luc Sante’s essay ‘Enormous Bodies in the Night’, which we reprint here.)

Several other pieces in this issue present readers with a similar evocation of exhibition sites, grounding their cinéphilic explorations in the experience of architectural space.

Readers of our Noir Issue will remember the late Morris Lurie’s essay on his unchaperoned visit to see The Maltese Falcon on its first release in Melbourne. He was five years old. Leaving the cinema by the wrong exit, he became confused, caught the wrong tram, and arrived home late only to be chastised his very worried parents. In this issue we republish Barry Gifford’s short story, “The Ciné,” which relates a narrative of a young boy whose father deposits him in a cinema while he does some work around town. Gifford’s poetry and fiction are filled with allusions to movies; his collection of short essays on film noir, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films (1998, later republished as Out of the Past) are not just about the movies but peppered with details of his original viewing context. Gifford unashamedly uses the films as launch pads for autobiographical reminiscence, as when his discussion of Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves (1956) prompts the recollection of his mother’s marriage. Gifford’s ‘Author’s Note’ confesses: “Insofar as accuracy is concerned in the following, I guarantee only the veracity of the impression. I wrote these essays as I imagined many of the Cahiers du Cinéma reviews of the 1950s were written, on the café or kitchen table at one in the morning.”

Among the other contributions here that foreground a specific screening venue is Richard Lowenstein’s account of watching an Elvis Presley movie in 1969 in an outback open-air cinema with an audience of Australian Aborigines. We are also delighted to republish American poet Richard Hugo’s ‘The White Line,’ both a beautiful essay on Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952) and an exercise in poetic reminiscence of a specific cinema: George Shrigley’s White Center Theatre in White Center, Washington.

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

IV: Learning from the Movies

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “I have often learned a lesson from a silly American film.” As he sat in his preferred place, the front row, watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films, other musicals, westerns, and detective films, it occurred to him that, “In one regard I must be a very modern person since the cinema has such an extraordinarily beneficial effect on me.” Victor Erice said that during his period of being a young boy watching Hollywood movies, it was always westerns he and his friends loved most. And in Neruda’s ‘Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,’ we learn, “Cowboys/make/Swiss cheese of/the dangerous Arizona/moon.”

In the special ‘Movies and Poetry’ issue of Parnassus, Susan Sontag wondered whether “cinéphilia—the name of a very specific kind of love that cinema inspired” had ended:

Until the advent of television emptied the movie theatres, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive, such as… it looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining… The strongest experience was simply to surrender to, to be transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.

In a short piece at the New York Review of Books blog, poet Charles Simic (who has a poem entitled “Double Feature”) describes one of his earliest movie-going memories, seeing a Buster Keaton film “in World War II Belgrade where I grew up… Neither Nazis nor Russian tanks could stop my mother from going to the movies, and taking me along.” And we agree with Simic when he says, “It has always seemed strange to me that writers and poets of my generation and slightly older say little about the influence of movies on their work, and yet our first knowledge of the world came from them.” Barber says that cinema going populations worldwide “learned to remember filmically, within the narrative forms and visual cadences of film.”

The Australian writer David Malouf’s essay “Growing up with Stars” recalls many hours spent in the Lyceum and Odeon cinemas. Malouf’s essay is now available in his new collection, Being There (2015), but it was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999, as an ‘edited version’ of a talk he had given at the Seymour Centre near Sydney University. That talk was meant to inaugurate a series of talks by various people on ‘Transformations’ but, as it happened, his was the only one to take place. Malouf’s essay begins:

We grew up with the pictures, we little Australians of 50 years ago, and we grew up with the stars. When we were children Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were still youthful, like our fresh-faced uncles and aunts. Later we grew old with them and they were like ancient cousins. In no other art do we retain this lifelong relationship with its practitioners, this close, almost family, intimacy with figures who are bonded to us in a special closeness because they belong not to our public lives of industry and duty but to that other life we live in our senses, in our imagination, which is irresponsible and free. As the members of a new and popular audience, we were educated, like all popular audiences, by the medium itself. No-one was there to guide us or tell us how it was done. We picked that up on our own; the movies themselves taught us. And we did not have, afterwards, to describe or account for what we had discovered; it was just for us. There in the dark, with just ourselves to please, and with those evocative images to tempt us and so many “situations” to slip into and identify with, we were free, off the hook; no-one was watching. We were watching. This was another sort of education, and if we learned something, it was on our own terms.

Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006) is a wonderfully poetic short film about cinema and childhood, rich with detail about a distinctive historical-national instance of movie-going, the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Madrid, World War II, the utterly terrible real-life images encountered then by children outside their moviegoing world. Don DeLillo, presenting it at Telluride in 2013, said that it “addresses such major subjects as personal memory, the past and the present, history and fiction, and the way in which a movie can assert itself in a young mind as a scary extension of immediate household reality.”

Erice is five years old when he accompanies his twelve year old sister to see a Sherlock Holmes film, The Scarlett Claw (1944). The cinema is within a grand building that had briefly functioned as a casino until the prohibition of gambling obliged the building to find other ways of being in the world. Erice refers to his childhood self in the third person, as “the boy,” someone who is having his first ever experience of the social act of moviegoing, who immediately notices that the adults in the audience comport themselves differently from the way he comports himself. The film is affecting him much more strongly than it is these adults who surround him. He recognizes that “they knew something he didn’t.” The cinematic unknowingness of Erice’s five year old—”But what was an actor? The Boy didn’t know exactly.”—matches that of Lurie’s five year old persona wondering about his viewing of The Maltese Falcon: “Would it have been good if I had understood it?” In the extended interview included on the DVD, Erice says he didn’t see the film again for forty years. This first traumatic experience of cinema caused him to develop a dread of postmen and letters, a fear not in the least assuaged by his sister, whom we presume chose this film, taunting him at bedtime by whispering, “the postman is coming!”

Film posters figure strongly in Erice’s film, beginning with a large wall poster of The Mark of Zorro (1940). Later Erice presents posters of the other films he might have been able to see that particular first week of his filmgoing life. His research revealed what else was on release that week: Gene Tierney in Henry Hathaway’s Sundown (1941) and Hedy Lamarr in Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944). But it was The Scarlett Claw that changed his life. During an interview exchange (a DVD extra), Erice alludes to the criticism of Serge Daney and the way Jean-Louis Schefer’s L’homme ordinaire du cinéma reverses the phenomenological trope of a child watching a film; instead, these are “films that watched our childhood.” Erice also reveals that the first film that prompted him to write about it was Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—once again a film about childhood and a childhood obsessed with cinema.

In several of his other comments Erice is in synch with Malouf, Sontag, Calvino and Simic on the idea of the movie theatre as a para-educational institution, one which, in Erice’s case, helped a Spanish resident of a country whose borders were closed, whose citizens daily experienced attacks on their liberty, whose experiences of political and clerical censorship were ongoing and profound, discover that moviegoing, with a nod to Casablanca, made them “citizens of the world.” These probings of cinema as an education outside school and its pedagogy suggest a cinematic spin on Bruce Springsteen’s line from “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

The remarks from Calvino, Sontag, Goytisolo, Malouf, and Erice point towards nationally specific remembrances of the international act of movie-going. Similar offerings are to be found in Serpent’s Tail’s collection Seeing in the Dark.

V: Movies and their Critics

In Maria de Medeiros’s informative and amusing documentary Je t’aime… moi non Plus: Artistes et critiques (I Love You I Love You Not: Artists and Critics, 2004) a wide range of directors and critics are interviewed at the Cannes Film festival and asked what they think is the relation of the film critic to the filmmaker. We learn that in Spain film critics are paid much more than opera or art critics. At one point Gérard Lefort insists that “film criticism is a literary genre.” Inevitably many directors (from Almodovar to Cronenberg) express pugnacity and disdain for the critic, and some Spanish and Brazilian critics tell funny stories of being physically attacked (on the street, in restaurants) by directors unhappy with a review they have received. The late Alexander Walker, to whom the film is dedicated, tells of having his face slapped twice—on both sides—on UK national television by director Ken Russell. Russell used a convenient weapon for the slap, the newspaper that had carried Walker’s negative review of The Devils.

We hope that the pieces we have assembled here avoid those kinds of confrontational oppositions. To conclude by reiteration, what many of these essays seem to us to do is contribute in a positive way to two developed areas of film criticism and film history: on the one hand the concept of cinéphilia, and on the other the history of movie-going as a distinctive social practice with significant historical, regional and national variations. We like the description put forward by Lawrence Alloway in Violent America, and his take on how best to capture the compelling particularity of the act of movie-going or of a specifically memorable cinematic encounter. Alloway says that I Walk Alone and other ‘movies of the second half of the 40s’ were ‘the first movies that I saw that I still remember’. He says he hopes his film criticism will

hold onto its source in the original act of movie-going. The critical notions to be discussed are not those I had as a regular, not to say compulsive moviegoer, but I do not want to lose that early feeling, the capacity for identification, that made me see I Walk Alone several times when it was first released.


[1] See for example:

Antoine de Baecque and Christian-Marc Bosséno, “Constructing the Gaze: An Interview with Jean Douchet,” trans. Timothy Barnard Framework : The Journal of Cinema and Media 42 (2000)

Scott Balcerzak & Jason Sperb, Cinéphilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, vol. 1: 2009 & vol. 2: 2012)

Joe Bobb-Briggs, Joe Bobb-Briggs Goes to the Drive-in (New York: Delacorte Press, 1986)

Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond, ed., Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990)

Philip French, I Found it at the Movies: Reflections of a Cinéphile (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011)

Christian Keathley, Cinéphilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2005)

Martyn de Konig and Matte Hagener, Cinéphilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2014).

Jacques Rancière, “The Gaps of Cinema,” Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies (Spring 2012), available at:

Rasha Wadia Richards, Cinematic Flashes: Cinéphilia and Classical Hollywood (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2013)

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinéphilia (London: BFI, 2008)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinéphilia (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 2010)

[2] See

[3] It is now available at

[4] The essay is available at


Nelson Algren, “Review of Americana,” Rolling Stone (August 5, 1971)

Lawrence Alloway, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971)

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976) (New York: Vintage International, 2011)

Michael Barker (Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics), “Guilty Pleasures,” Film Comment (July-August 2003): 8

Italo Calvino, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” in his The Road to San Giovanni trans. Tim Parkes (New York: Vintage, 1994): 25-50

Lorena Cancela, “Jonathan Rosenbaum: A Life at the Movies: An interview,” Otrocampo 7 (November 2002)

Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film (New York: Pantheon, 1994)

Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: The Free Press, 1997) (Expanded edition from Counterpoint in 2006)

Don DeLillo, “That Day in Rome: Movies and Memory,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 76-78

Don DeLillo interviewed by Adam Begley: ‘The Art of Fiction No 135’, The Paris Review (1992), available at:

Don DeLillo, “Woman in the Distance,” Black Clock 4 (2005): 56-59

Don DeLillo, “Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,” Brick 74 (Winter 2004): 96-105

Don DeLillo, “The Uniforms,” Carolina Quarterly 22, (1970): 4-11

Don DeLillo, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” The Kenyon Review 28, 3 (1966)

Marguerite Duras, Green Eyes trans. Carol Barko (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1990)

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Vintage, 2012)

Barry Gifford, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other Unforgettable Films (New York: Grove Press, 1988)

Barry Gifford, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Jose Goytisolo, Cinema Eden: Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean trans. Peter Bush (London: Eland Books, 2003)

Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Penguin, 1990)

Morris Lurie, “Introduction to Adulthood,” Meanjin 59, 1 (2000): 51-53

David Malouf, “Growing up with the Stars,” The Sydney Morning Herald “Spectrum,” (March 13th, 1999) and in Being There (Sydney: Knopf Australia, 2015): 48-58

Adam Mars-Jones, Noriko Smiling (London: Nottingham Hill Editions, 2011)

Patrick McGilligan, Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000)

Leonard Michaels, “The Zipper,” in Susan Sontag, ed., Best American Essays 1992 (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992): 244-252

Granta 86: Film (Granta Books, 2004)

Greil Marcus, The Manchurian Candidate (London: British Film Institute, 2002): 48-49

Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997)

Projections 4 and ½ in Association with Positif ed. William Donohue and John Boorman (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)

Tony Maraini, “Fellini Interview,” trans. A. K. Bierman Bright Lights Film Journal 12 (1994): 33-37, and Bright Lights Film Journal 14, (nd): 33-37

Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Movie Lover,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 147, 155-157, 159

David Naylor, ed., Great American Movie Theatres (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1987): 18

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” trans. Margaret Sayers Peden

J. D. Reed, “Drive-In,” in his Expressways (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969): 12

Charles Simic, “When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night,” available at:

Charles Simic, “Poetry in Unlikely Places: Review of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda., ed. Ilan Stavans,” The New York Review of Books (September25, 2003), available at Javous Arcades Project (Monday, May 9th, 2011),

Iain Sinclair, 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (London: Volcano Publications, 2014)

Susan Sontag, “Century of Cinema,” in Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997): 23-29

32nd Telluride Film Festival Program (September 1-5, 2005)

40th Telluride Film Festival Program (August 29-September 2, 2013)

David Thomson, “Interview with Robert Birnbaum,” Identity Theory, available at:

from issue #6: An Interview with Jose Dalisay



An Interview with Jose Dalisay

Noel King

JOSE DALISAY is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.

Noel King caught up with Dalisay at the Pan Pacific Manila on 19 August 2013.

KING: Jose, you are a professor here at the University of the Philippines in Manila and a writer of more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction. How did you come to be involved in this Manila Noir anthology, how were you approached?

DALISAY: I was asked to do a story for this book by its editor Jessica Hagedorn, with whom I’ve had an email conversation of sorts over the past ten years or so, but we have never actually met. I’ve read some of her work and she’s read some of mine, and so when this project came up, I suppose I was one of the first authors she approached to write a noir story. This must have been more than a year ago. And the idea appealed strongly to me because much of my own fictional work has dealt with low life, shall we say, and I’m fascinated by the idea of Manila as a noir or noir-ish city, it’s always had that appeal for me. And so I thought, this isn’t going to be too difficult a concept to execute, and I thought Jessica would have a number of possibilities to work with depending on the authors she approached. She asked each contributor to choose a district of the city that we were familiar and comfortable with and my natural choice was my residence, my corner of Quezon City called Diliman, which is where the University of the Philippines is located. I live on campus, in campus faculty housing. And so I thought, all right, I’ll do a noir story based on campus and involving a professor. So that’s how it began.


KING: That trope of suburb-city-story applies across all of the books in the series so far. When you say you are familiar with noir, do you have any particular noir writers you admire?

DALISAY: Not prose writers in particular, it’s really noir film that’s interested me all these years, because as a graduate student in the United States many years ago I was a Teaching Assistant for a professor who taught film, and many of the movies that he chose were the noir genre, like Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai. And so that stuck in my mind.

KING: Where was this?

DALISAY: This was at the University of Michigan, in the mid to late 1980s, and since we were doing Orson Welles that film came up. I liked that whole idea of something being black and sinister, but also with profoundly human motives behind its workings, not something supernatural. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of the darkness within people, and how people might seem utterly normal but when pushed to a certain limit that black side of them will emerge. And there’s something very stylish about noir. It’s really an angle or a way of looking at things, and I thought that for me this would be a fun exercise, and that’s the spirit in which I took this invitation from Jessica.

KING: And how was the commissioning process? You were the first writer approached, and the book happened within a year, which is quite fast.

DALISAY: Yes. Actually, we had much less than a year to write our pieces. If I recall correctly, I had about three months or so within which to come up with a story, and I delivered on time. I like deadlines. If I had been given a year I might have done it in the eleventh month! So I recall that I liked it so much that I drafted a story pretty quickly, and there was a back and forth between me and Jessica about some things that had to be edited here and there. That was perfectly fine by me, she is a very capable, sensitive editor. I stood my ground on a couple of points which had to do with how a man looked at a woman. I remember, and I told her, trust me on this, this is how we males see, this is how I would see this woman. And to her credit she accepted my explanation for that.

And we didn’t even talk about whether or how much I was going to get paid. We all did get paid, $200 for each contributor. To me that was really just a bonus, and I suppose I can speak for the others when I say that this was really more of an honour for us, especially having learned that so many world cities already had their own noir books. And we all thought, hey, Manila should have been right up there on that list much, much earlier, like Mumbai and Mexico. I can’t think of a city that reeks of noir more than this place.

KING: So you were familiar with some of the other titles in Akashic’s series?

DALISAY: Just the titles. I’d never actually seen the books. As it happened, last year on a visit to New York, I did stumble on some of those books at the Strand Bookstore, and it was amazing just how many there were, which amplified again the pleasure for me of being part of Manila Noir.

KING: And were you familiar with Johnny Temple, the founder of this independent press?

DALISAY: Not at all, I knew nothing about the publishers. I liked the name, Akashic Press. And the name, Johnny Temple, I mean how much more Hollywood-ish does it get? Johnny wrote to us and he was very nice about everything. The whole project was done very professionally, and with Jessica being on top of it, she made sure that everyone delivered. Some authors, at least one I knew of, were late for delivery and so didn’t make the cut. Jessica was very strict, didn’t care who you were, if you didn’t come up with your story on time, you were out of the project.

KING: I have the US edition of Manila Noir but since arriving here I notice that there is a Philippine edition of the book.

DALISAY: The Philippine edition was produced by Anvil Books, the country’s leading literary publisher. They are a subsidiary of the National Bookstore, which is the country’s largest bookstore chain, so the book was in good hands here. They made sure that we had a kind of splashy rollout for the book, they invited as many authors as they could round up, and we had the launch a couple of months ago at the newest National Bookstore branch in Makati, at a mall called the Glorietta. There was a pretty big crowd. I have been to a lot of book launchings here, and this was pretty sizeable. That particular day, we signed about 250 books, like an assembly line. The launch was advertised to take place from 4 pm to 6 pm and we were there until 8 pm signing books. Many of the people who attended were in their twenties and, as you might already have gathered, the main crowd-draw was the graphic novel aspect of the anthology.

KING: Yes. Well, I imagined that would be the case: Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo.

DALISAY: I’d never met them, I’d heard about their work, so it was a great pleasure to meet them. They are very pleasant, unassuming people.

KING: And that’s not their day job, it’s their night job.

DALISAY: Yes. Actually, there are very few people in this country whom you might call ‘professional writers.’ I might be considered one of those although officially my full-time job is that of a professor at a university. But in terms of my income, most of it really comes from independent or commissioned work, work done outside of the university. I write biographies and histories and that sort of thing. So, like the other contributors, this project was a pleasant diversion for me. There were maybe six of us at that launch, and we all read very short excerpts from our pieces and there were a lot of questions asking how we’d conceived of our particular stories, what were our inspirations?

KING: In your case, you as a young man.

DALISAY: Yes, along those lines. I’m not sure that even half the audience really knew what noir was about, as a concept, but they were willing to discover and learn. The choice of bringing different authors together to bear down on the same general subject probably made the book quite marketable. And also, I think everybody wanted to read what their favourite authors had written for this particular anthology.

KING: I’m guessing it might also have been a little bit to do with specific urban locales. For example, if some young hipsters are hanging out in particular areas of Manila, they might want to find out how that locale is depicted.

DALISAY: Yes. And like I said, a couple of those authors, the graphic guys, and Lourd de Veyra in particular, have strong followings. Lourd has become something of a media celebrity here, partly because he’s on TV, he’s on radio, and he also has a rock band. So aside from being a serious novelist, he’s a huge draw for any kind of cultural event like this.

KING: Which could explain the demographic at the book launching?

DALISAY: Yes. I think this project was very well conceived and of the people they put together, I wasn’t exactly the oldest guy there. But I think it shows in the work too. I haven’t read the whole book, I’ve read about three-fourths of it, and from what I gather, my piece is rather different from many of the others in its sensibility.

KING: It’s also interesting that they chose to use the classical term of noir, rather than get caught up in neo-noir, post-modern noir, and so on.

DALISAY: That’s true. I think if you talked about noir in a Manila context, the first thing that will occur to people is just crime. And it’ll be crime in a very gritty, realist sense. Of course some of the other guys did their own takes on that, the graphic novel piece was notable in that respect. But that’s still, in a sense, hard-core crime.

KING: The description in a couple of stories in the collection of what we in Australia call ‘shopping centres’, and you guys and the US call ‘malls’, intrigued me. The Greenbelt Mall in Makati depicted in Lysley Tenorio’s opening story reminded me of an old friend who died recently, Mike Presdee. Many years ago in Australia, he coined the term ‘proletarian shopping’ to describe the way young people in a suburb called Elizabeth in Adelaide, South Australia, would move around the shopping town there, to be in air conditioning in a very hot summer, or warm in winter, and when it became clear to the security guards that they were not going to purchase anything, they would be moved on. So there was a resonance for me in that respect. And as a boxing fan from way back I loved reading, in Gina Apostol’s story, about the currently run-down state of Ali Mall, Cubao, whose origin dates from the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” bout in the 1970s.

ali mall

Ali Mall, Manila. Photo: When Owel Plays

DALISAY: Yes, Ali is part owner of that mall. He invested in it, and recently it’s been refurbished. It had gone down the tubes over the many years since its beginnings, but now it’s like a brand new mall. This is a city of malls. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Mall of Asia yet, which is a five-minute taxi ride from here.

KING: No. Yesterday I walked through Robinson’s Mall, on my way to Solidaridad Bookshop but the bookshop was closed, so I’ll go there tomorrow.

DALISAY: Yeah, well, that would be a teeny weeny mall compared to the Mall of Asia, which is one of the world’s biggest. And Filipinos love malls, because of the air conditioning, it’s literally just a matter of going in there to cool off, you don’t have to buy anything, but of course inevitably you do buy something.

KING: I’ve been to Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur recently for the first time, and it’s the same thing, a story of malls, the presence of famous European brands and local Asian high-end brands and people drifting around. And of course there is the famous US example of the “biggest mall in America” being in the Midwest where at one point Japanese tourists would come to play golf and shop and use it as a sort of one-stop tourist destination. Don DeLillo writes wonderfully about malls in his book White Noise.

DALISAY: But particularly in the Philippines, what sustains our malls is the fact that this is a consumption-driven economy. We don’t actually produce anything much, we just get all this money from our overseas workers, and that’s all to be spent at the malls.

KING: The Lonely Planet guide mentioned that, all those (mainly) female Filipinos working overseas and sending billions back to your economy. To shift to a genuinely productive domain, what do you teach at UP?

DALISAY: Creative writing, Philippine literature in English, and the short story. And when they are short-handed I teach American literature, again particularly the short story, but it’s really mainly creative writing, fiction and non-fiction.

KING: Can you give me a sense of your student cohort, who comes to your university, and whether they do a three year undergraduate degree and then a discrete fourth honors year à la England and Australia, or is it more like the States?

DALISAY: It’s the US system, four years. The University of the Philippines is the largest government university in the country. It’s a university system much like, say, the University of California system, with many campuses, and the English Department is one of the university’s largest departments. I think we have about sixty people full-time on staff, and we also have a large number of creative writing majors. We offer creative writing from the bachelor’s to the PhD level.

KING: How does it work at the PhD level? Do you have an exegesis to go alongside a creative work?

DALISAY: Yes, they are required to produce a substantially comprehensive critical introduction to their own work, locating themselves within a certain tradition and so on. So the doctoral creative writing thesis or dissertation would be a book-length work accompanied by that exegesis, and a slightly smaller version of that for a master’s thesis. Since UP is a rather difficult school to get into, I tend to get pretty good students. Of course, when it comes to creative writing, the whole ball game changes. You might all be good at some basic level, but some of you will be much better than others. That said, at the graduate level, typically I will teach a class of eight to ten people, and about half of them will produce work that is worth publishing.

KING: How many have gone on to publish works as a result of having done the master’s or doctoral degree, turning their dissertations into published books?

DALISAY: Well, I would say that out of about ten thesis projects, eventually three to five are published as books, so it’s not bad at all. This is a country with some talent, and at the moment it’s not all that difficult to get a book published, although ironically nobody really earns much from book sales here except for textbook writers. And the scale of publishing is still horribly low as a ratio to the general population. Let’s say we have a population now of 95 million, close to 100 million, and for most authors, a typical initial print run will still be 1000 copies.

KING: And what number of sales would constitute a best-seller or fast-seller?

DALISAY: Maybe 10,000 books. That would probably be some so-called inspirational book, or a cookbook, not a novel.

KING: In Australia it might be sports anecdotes, or gardening books. An Australian novel is seen as a best seller if it achieves sales of 30,000. And our population is only 25 million. Is there an issue here, a real question, involved in universities continuing to think of creative writing as the novel, novella or short story, when you might now be encountering a generation that wants to do graphic novels, film and TV scripts, music or some hybrid-combination of things? Some years ago I read about the first novel that was composed to be read on an iPhone, a mobile or cell phone, and it did very well, it attracted a readership of 300,000 or so; I think it was Japanese. If those sorts of forces are in the contemporary world, and therefore informing the kinds of subjectivities that you get as aspiring writers, how do you deal with all that?

DALISAY: Well, all I can say is that it hasn’t worked its way backwards far enough to affect the way I write, or my purpose for writing. But I know for some people it does. You might write shorter pieces for the Net and so on. We’re definitely aware that that’s the way the market is going, and many of us have embraced that. I’m kind of protecting myself from it.

KING: Yet your cell phone says you’re available 24/7!

DALISAY: I was the former chairman of something called the Philippine Macintosh Users Group, so I like these new technological things. More and more of our work is being made available in the e-book format and this can only be good for us, if that provides more numerous and more convenient distribution channels. Of course the romantic in me says I’d still like a book that smells, has pages, a cover and that sort of thing. But the kids these days all come to class with iPads, and that’s how I distribute my own reading material. I just have them go to DropBox and use PDFs.

KING: I like the fact that in the wake of Baz Luhrman’s film of The Great Gatsby, not only were there huge flow-on sales of Scott Fitzgerald’s book, but also enormous numbers of e-book sales.

DALISAY: Yes, I think that’s fantastic, that Hollywood was creating this kind of backlash that brings people back to the original material!

KING: I actually liked the film. Once you got past the shift of making Nick Carraway Scott Fitzgerald—which gave an acting gig to iconic Australian actor Jack Thompson—things went along very well.

DALISAY: I liked it too, I enjoyed the film.

KING: Though I did wonder why so many hundreds of thousands of people in the US needed to be reminded of The Great Gatsby by way of Baz’s film!

DALISAY: Luhrman did a great job with that film.

KING: To return to the Manila Noir collection I see there’s another writer in there whose name is F. H. Batacan.

DALISAY: She was my student, at university.

KING: Her story in here involves the two characters that she earlier set loose in a short novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles. I really liked that book.

DALISAY: That book was begun as a project in one of my writing classes years ago.

KING: Well, it was in manuscript in 1999, received awards, was published in 2002, so it must have been a project with you even earlier than 1999.

DALISAY: Possibly. I hadn’t seen Ichi, as we call her, that’s her nickname, for some years, because she was based in Singapore and only recently came home. She was there at the launch, so I was glad to see her there. There were a few people I had known from way back, she was one of them, I had also known Lourd de Vera for some time, and R. Zamora (‘Zack’) Linmark is a frequent visitor to the Philippines, and several others.

KING: It’s really nice to see that people are, variously, graphic novelists plus poets plus playwrights, novelists, non-fiction writers. Another question I wanted to ask concerns publishing in the Philippines; do you have subsidies, is there a sort of nationalist interest in subsidising work by Filipino writers?

DALISAY: Well, there are grants, yes. We have the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and they release grants on a competitive basis to applicants, authors, who apply to them directly. But mostly the support comes in the form of grants for workshops, for gatherings, for the teaching of writing and of literature.

KING: Does any funding go to publishers?

DALISAY: Not that I know of.

KING: I only ask that because back in the 1980s Ken Worpole in London, long before New Labour, in the time of ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, wanted the freedom to start funding publishers directly rather than writers. He felt that would be a better way of getting books moving about the culture. I have no idea what happened to that initiative, whether it was adopted and, if so, whether it was successful.

DALISAY: I’m not aware of that being done here. Nothing substantial for sure. The National Book Development Board has recently been very active in pushing, in supporting both publishers and authors. Andrea Pasion-Flores—herself an excellent writer of fiction and also a lawyer—just left the job of Executive Director for that body. It used to be pretty much dormant, and she made a very dynamic intervention. So I think things are looking up, from the Filipino perspective.

KING: Could you briefly say something about how you came to be imprisoned during the Marcos years? Decades later it generated your first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, which I see recently has been republished in an edition with your second novel, Soledad’s Sister, becoming In Flight: Two Novels of the Philippines. I should add here for readers unaware of this time in Philippine history that Martial Law was introduced not to protect the people, as one might usually think of its use, but rather to protect the Marcos dictatorship.

DALISAY: Well, I entered university in 1970, and very quickly got involved in the student activist movement, which was both anti-Marcos, anti-dictatorship, and also to some extent Marxist. For all these reasons I got imprisoned in 1973 for a little over seven months, and yes, that experience formed the basis for my first novel that was published in 1992, almost twenty years later. My experience is shared by many others of my generation, coming out of that Martial Law period. I didn’t get back to university until ten years later, so I graduated with my bachelor’s degree pretty late, but as soon as I did, I decided that the university would be the best place for me, to write, study and teach. It’s a great place for writers I think. I’ve done work in both fiction and non-fiction, I actually started out as playwright and as a screenwriter.


KING: You wrote screenplays for Lino Brocka. The Internet Movie Database lists twenty or so stories and screenplays for which you have been responsible.

DALISAY: I did maybe about twenty-five movies from the 1970s until the early 2000s, quite a few of them with Lino Brocka, about fourteen I think, but mostly they were forgettable movies. We had to churn these out. I used to write a script in three weeks, the shortest was three days.

KING: That great old classical Hollywood B movie thing! And in this region you would also have the example of Hong Kong cinema’s mode of production, the Shaw Studios.

DALISAY: Oh, yes, Run Run Shaw, that whole scene.

KING: No union, no overtime paid as shooting days extend.

DALISAY: Exactly, sometimes I’d get paid and sometimes I wouldn’t.

KING: Well, you are in distinguished company. Bernardo Bertolucci tells of how in his early filmmaking days he didn’t get paid properly for his scriptwriting on some spaghetti westerns, one of which involved Sergio Leone!

DALISAY: Basically, I’ve always been writing for a living, and the academic side of me is really just the icing on the cake. I had to do an MFA and a PhD to validate my university credentials.

KING: Were they both done at Michigan?

DALISAY: No, I did my PhD in Wisconsin, at the Milwaukee campus, because they didn’t have creative writing in Madison at that time.

KING: Did Milwaukee have their Centre for Twentieth-Century Studies running then?

DALISAY: I think that was just getting started when I was there, although we didn’t have too much to do with it. When I did my MFA at Michigan, I had a great time, working with people like Charles Baxter. I had very good mentoring there, and I’m grateful for that. I would have been writing anyway, but going to university gave me deadlines to meet, and that was good. I was like a house on fire in my twenties and thirties, that’s when I produced much of my best fiction. Then in my forties and fifties I kind of tapered off into doing basically commercial work, although I’m always at work on one novel or other. And at the moment I’m working on my third one, which again is about low life. It features a call centre agent, call centres being the thing of the day here in Manila.

KING: Can you elaborate a bit more on that, because I see stories in newspapers saying that X spent some time working in a call centre, graduated from somewhere, and went on to become a successful writer; I think in that particular case, the writer was Indian.

DALISAY: Well, we’re right next to India, if we have not actually overtaken them, in the call centre business. Filipinos are fairly proficient at English, so it’s a huge plus for us. Over the past ten years or so the call centre industry has been one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Call centres here service western clients on the other side of the world. Most call centre people work at night, and that in itself is very noir-ish, because it’s created what I call a ‘vampiric culture.’ These kids are up and about, wired at 3 in the morning. They get off work and look towards the nearest open bars, and a whole economy has grown up around these call centres: bars and shops, and little strip malls that cater to nothing but these night-time work agents coming out after their work finishes. And for many young Filipinos, it’s a logical next step after graduation. You make good money quickly until you settle on what you really want to do. My sole remaining vice is poker and I play in all-night binges a couple of times a week, and it’s always 3 or 4 in the morning when a crowd from the call centres comes into the poker room, so that’s the milieu I’m working with in this novel-in-progress.

KING: And how close are you to finishing your version of The Cincinnati Kid?

DALISAY: I’m about a third of the way through, it’ll take me another couple of years to get this done.

KING: It sounds like a great example of what Godard was up to when he was trying to persuade Diane Keaton and Robert de Niro to do a movie with him, a movie about Las Vegas, casinos, the Mob, Bugsy Siegel. Colin MacCabe’s book, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (London: BFI/Macmillan, 1980), has a couple of pages where Godard has collaged some images of the two stars, and there is a great sentence where Godard says, in effect, “People have been working all day long for the industry of day, in factories and offices. Now they’re going to work for the industry of night: the money earned during the day will be spent on the night of sex, of gambling, and of dreams.” So why not call your book The Industry of Night and toss in Scott Fitzgerald’s much-quoted remark that “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” That could be your epigraph.

DALISAY: There you go, there you go. I am fascinated by that 3am crowd at the poker room. Because you’ve got these call centre agents, you’ve got off-duty cops, you’ve got female impersonators, I mean transvestites, also coming from their shows, and all kinds of, you know, the strangest birds, and you see them gathered in that place at that time.

KING: On this matter of poker and gambling, is Filipino culture as fanatical about gambling as Chinese or, at least, Hong Kong culture?

DALISAY: Not that fanatical. It’s hard to match the Hong Kong people. Here I probably should add that there are many new young Filipino writers coming up, and what we have begun to discover is the international market. I keep telling my younger writer-friends that they really should start looking at finding agents, and going through that whole process, because we’ve been writing in English for over a hundred years now, and surprisingly, in terms of making our presence felt in the international literary market, we have been left behind by the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Indians of course. And I suspect that in some strange way the fact of our writing in English is actually pushing us back rather than forward, because it’s a suspect English. I think people would rather find something in Chinese and then translate that, and that would be more saleable than something written by a Filipino in an English that sounds neither American nor British. So that Filipino proficiency in English could actually be a liability. In any case, I think we have very interesting material here.

KING: Were the Marcos years leading up to Martial Law the defining experience of your generation?

DALISAY: For my generation, born in the early ‘50s, yes, but the defining experience for the Filipino of today is the diaspora of our workers, about a million of whom now work overseas. That’s why I wrote my second novel, Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil, 2008) about that experience. And I think that is also changing Philippine society and Philippine politics in a very strategic way. Some of that experience will be negative in the sense of the social price to be paid for all of these absentees, fathers and mothers, but of course economically it’s a boon. I think in the long run politically that will be a positive thing in the sense that all these people will come home with raised expectations. They’ll say, you know, that if trains run on time in Germany or wherever, then we expect things to happen here like that.

KING: As a Filipino male who is hard working, clearly very industrious, could you, as a closing comment, give me some indication of why the Filipino male enjoys the status of being pretty much a wastrel, dilettantish, in respect of a whole range of Filipino women who do all the work?

DALISAY: The Filipino male is a pampered creature. We all like to think of ourselves as macho men, but actually we are all babies here. And it’s fun if you are a male. I think we are all somewhat ashamed of the fact that we rely so much on our women to do the heavy lifting for us. That’s also a message I try to put through in my own writing, that when push comes to shove, the women take care of the important things in this country, and we Filipino males should be thankful for it.