Within the fog-filled alleyways and decrepit hotel rooms of a city at midnight exists the brooding world of the noir genre.
It is a land populated by blackmail, violence and lust. A world that ashes a cigarette while salivating over a blonde’s luscious, red lips.
Along with dialogue that can strike a blow as hard as dynamite, the characters, situations and plots can cast a hypnotic spell in which everything is like magic.
Nothing is what it seems. And behind every corner or frightened face can be a gun ready to spit out the final word.
At present though, the atmosphere appears to be more inviting. No fast-talking dames or mugs with .45’s in their pockets, only the sweet aroma of espresso and freshly baked pastries. Perhaps in some ways more deadly than their noir counterparts.
At a table in the heart of the café, I sit across from director Rian Johnson. His debut feature Brick is about to be screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, and for the most part he seems unconcerned as he leans back and sips on his hot beverage.
“And that was the whole thing about making the film. It reminded me of making films with my family when I was younger. Working with people is really the essence of filmmaking. Who cares if you make $1 or a million? If you’re able to bond and share a connection with people, well then that’s the most rewarding thing of all.”
With Brick, Mr. Johnson has successfully obtained the thrilling elements that define the film noir genre, and molded them into a hybrid of stylized acting and rich camera design.
The story begins in a small, California town where high school student Brendan Frye, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has discovered that his ex-girlfriend Emily has been murdered.
Still recovering from their recent break-up, Brendan sets forth to uncover the truth behind the killing, and in many ways avenge the woman he still possesses significant feelings for.
With the help of his friend Brain, a teenager whose knowledge and wit rival even the most respected quiz bowl champions, Brendan quickly unravels Emily’s unfortunate position in the dark underbelly of suburban crime.
Soon the summer heat and the grip of a drug lord named The Pin, played by Lukas Haas, sets Brendan’s world aflame with revelations of betrayal, unwanted pregnancy and a missing brick of cocaine.
With Emily’s ghostly presence lingering before his eyes, Brendan plunges into a thick, and suffocating fog. One that reeks of deceit, and shows little sign of evaporation.
Employing both vibrant degrees of characterization and frame structure, Mr. Johnson has transformed Brick in an exciting, and eye-opening journey into the harrowing realms of the noir landscape.
Though the film certainly embodies the classic elements of the genre, it still allows a distinct visual and narrative style to surface before the audience. Creating in turn a sort of offspring from both literary and cinematic predecessors.
“It really started with the novels of Dashiell Hammett. I mean Red Harvest and of course the Maltese Falcon. But actually, it started even before that with the film Miller’s Crossing, which is one of my favorite films. And when I was in college and really getting into the film, I read an interview with the Coen’s and they were talking about Dashiell Hammett as being the source material. And I went and read all of Hammett’s books and became sort of obsessed with him. And as much as I love film noir, there was just something about those books that hit me in an unexpected way.
“So I became really obsessed with his books, and I wanted to do an American detective story. And what’s weird though, is film noir as a genre, at that point when I made the decision to make the film, the noir genre becomes sort of an obstacle. Because there have been so many great noir films, it makes it difficult to make a detective story and set it in modern times without it feeling like some kind of homage, or worse a parody. And so that’s where the initial decision to put it in a high school came from. Was not to give it a twist, or freshen up the genre because I don’t think the genre needs to be freshened up at all. But more to give it a different set of visual cues so we could free ourselves up, and just take our own approach to the material. And I think that freed up the actors as well, to provide an emotionally honest story and location that would free up their performances. ”
Adding to the intensity and intrigue of the storyline, the Brendan character certainly embodies many aspects of past noir protagonists, but also possesses a certain emotional vulnerability which is almost unheard of in the genre.
In the film, Brendan is a high school student and a teenager. He has recently experienced the devastating effects of a breakup, and also has to contend with the triumphs and struggles that plague a young person’s life every minute of the day.
As these vexing and chaotic experiences begin to mount, Brendan simply cannot take them anymore, and winds up sobbing almost uncontrollably in the arms of a female companion.
This instance definitely adds a satisfying component to an already complex narrative.
Brendan is an individual whose persona gives off a high degree of determination and aggression. This is a common element used to distinguish the noir hero, but he is also a high school student. Someone whose young mindset and growing emotional drive lead to a vulnerability which illuminates the weaknesses in and around him.
“You got this high school guy who ten years from now is going to harden into someone like Sam Spade, but he hasn’t gotten there yet. He hasn’t hardened over yet. That was something that began when I started working with the main actor Joe. He’s such a great actor, and he also worked his ass off for this movie. He just did so much preparation. From the beginning we talked about the cool exterior Brendan tries putting off as being blue, and the warm, sensitive interior as being red. This idea that there would be this layer of ice where you would only see cracks of red trying to seep through. And so we talked about this, and two days later Joe comes back to me with a script and he’s taken a blue and a red pen and visually outlined the script. It was this artistic rendering of what lines would be blue and which would be red. And that was where we were coming from.”
Along with the intricacies of the plot and character devices, the technical elements as well lend a hand in supplying the film with a considerable quantity of stylistic fervor.
In terms of the cinematography, Mr. Johnson has utilized his framing devices in order to provide instances of foreshadowing, thematic importance and character revelation.
Every element within Mr. Johnson’s composition serves a purpose. From a car trunk opening to a lamp flickering, every inanimate object is suddenly resurrected in order to direct the action into a more meaningful and revelatory manner.
“The main visual influence of the whole movie was probably Sergio Leone. And a lot of that had to do with the location we were in. We were in a town with these wide-open spaces. But also, it helped a lot that we shot it in my hometown, and even at the high school that I went to. So a lot of the situations in the script were based off of the locations that I already knew well. I knew what the spaces were going to be; I could plan it out visually. And also, it took us seven years to get the funding together, so we had all that time for preplanning. So when we sat down to shoot, we had the whole thing planned out to an absurd degree. We story boarded extensively. Every single detail was mapped out precisely. And also the cinematographer is one of my best friends, since we met in film school. You know, I can go back to storyboards I did seven years ago, and they line up exactly to the ones from recently. So it’s pretty wild.”
Adding to the richness of the photographic design, the score provides a driving force in which the narrative ventures into physically and emotionally significant areas.
Often times the instruments will take on another life such as the rattle of a snake or the scream of a lion. Being inhabited by these animalistic qualities enables the music to progress the story in the appropriate direction.
The music tears down the sets, and strips off the skin of the characters to reveal the inner most desires of the players and the plot.
In many ways the music itself becomes a character; interacting with the story, and constructing a window for the audience to look deep into the intentions and motivations of the characters before them.
“Actually, my cousin composed the music for the film. We’ve been making movies together since we were twelve. Which made it really cool to work with him now. We preplanned everything, discussed heavily about giving certain locations and characters their own musical theme. And it’s not going to be stuff you’re consciously following, but if you do pay attention to the music it will lead you to certain revelations about the characters. It will provide clues for the audience to say okay, connect this with this. Which I think is important. And we looked at a lot of Morricone and Anton Karas with the Third Man, which were composed with very intentional devices that would create sort of a character on its own.”
With Brick, Mr. Johnson has triumphantly cooked the characteristics of cinema into candy for the eyes and mind. By presenting the photographic and thematic elements in a stylized and worthwhile manner, the audience has graciously been given permission to indulge in this brooding and romantic feast of storytelling.
“You know, my dad was the first person on our block to get a video camera. It was a video camera that hooked up to a VCR and then you could record with it that way. So if you wanted to record anything you had to carry the VCR with you with a car battery attached to it. But even then, I was in fifth or sixth grade making movies.”
With a cinematic love affair, and a passionate debut feature, it seems as if the promise and excitement of Brick and Mr. Johnson is clearly undeniable.