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Question: One of the people in the photos above is Jean-luc Godard. The other is Peter Sellers. Which one is which? To see what they have in common, read the essay below.

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Relevant book: In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre & Masculinity

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What is noir?

Noir is an approach to film. Certainly it can be an approach to life -- of course, people will think you're a bit off!

The films were created by applying the absurdly detached language of the American detective potboiler of the 30s to a cinematic perspective. Film noir is a detached look at America, in that regard. Certain French films comment on American films the French called noir. In these films, such as Godard's Breathless, there is a preoccupation of the noir character with American things: Gangsters, jazz or, preferably, blues musicians, cars.

Violence can be taken to extremes ... as in WEEKEND, a film which is noir and more. A brilliant example of the absurd language of the detective potboiler -- and how it may apply to weekend.

Noir characters can be callous. Absurdly callous. The films include suspense but do not depend on it so much. The language is important. S.J. Perelman had an ear for the language of the American detective potboiler. His achingly funny "Somewhere a Roscoe" is included in RUSSELL BAKER'S BOOK OF AMERICAN HUMOR (click title to get a copy).

Perelman writes of reading detective magazines of the mid-to-late 1930s. He ends a series of similar-sounding vignettes with a passage from "Spicy Detective," May, 1938: "And then, from an open window beyond the bed, a roscoe coughed 'Kachow!' ... I said, 'What the hell--!' and hit the floor with my smeller ... A brunette jane was just lying there, half out of the mussed covers ... She was dead as vaudeville."

One could hear, not so much in the words, but the rhythm of speech, the detective potboiler in a noir film.

Perelman comments, "The next phrase in each of these dramas follows with all the cold beauty and inevitability of a legal brief. The roscoe has hardly spoken, coughed, or belched before Dan (the detective) is off through the canebrake, his nostrils filled with the heavy scent of Nuit de Noel. Somewhere, in some dimly-lit boudoir, waits a voluptuous parcel of womanhood who knows all about the horrid deed. Even if she doesn't, Dan makes a routine check anyway."

Baker's grand collection also contains Woody Allen's outrageous "A Look at Organized Crime," and P.J. O'Rourke's "Fake French in Nine (Neuf) Easy Lessons," which we shall no doubt find indespensible (or was that, "indefensible?")

Noir contains frequent references to the United States. It's certainly in the music.

If we're going to be a French noir site, we had better keep this in mind. We have chosen our American musician. She is TRACY NELSON(Click for discography). We choose Tracy as our chanteuse because she is a very, very strong blues singer, who can sing all kinds of songs. Her songs can be wonderfully liberating. The fact that she is not a household word also makes her an excellent choice.

Through the 1960s, she fell out of the San Francisco music scene after some very gospel-tinged work with Mother Earth. She recorded some very fine music. She remains a powerful blues singer. Her voice is not raspy, like Joplin's was. It is big. Her songs can be awfully touching, as well. Songs like "When I Need You Most of All" are folky classics. It is her blues, and the fact that she is somewhat idiosyncratic, that makes her our choice. We need to keep in mind that we're noir. Therefore, we will continue to listen to Tracy Nelson, almost to the point of obsession.

The CD, SWEET SOUL MUSIC (click title to check it out) is a good start. There is also a 1996 album backed up by Bonnie Raitt, Maria Muldaur, Phoebe Snow and The Memphis Horns, in addition to Delbert McClinton, Mike Henderson and Al Kooper, who have been her studio mates in the 90s, MOVE ON. You can preview the songs by clicking on these titles.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Godard's WEEKEND -- NOIRcolepsy.

The celebrated "student riots" of Paris had yet to occur when Godard crafted this enigmatic work, which remains surprisingly current and still slightly ahead of its time. With its bizarre humor, Saturnalian subplots, it shares something with lighter films such as THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN or another Peter Sellers vehicle, THE PARTY. These works were among the most wickedly funny films ever made. They seem to explode with madness, turning the art of cinematic storytelling upside down with outrageous behavior, revolutionary attitudes and sheer irreverance, not to mention the epic scale of explosive sequences and slapstick.

WEEKEND is a work of the kind of "instant" maturity that seemed to come to a great many artists of all kinds very suddenly in the late 60s. Some might say LSD and "expanded consciousness" had something to do with it. Certainly, as the encounters of the somewhat callous main characters become stranger and stranger ... well, one is tempted to say that the wasteland they travel in is located in a dimension known best to those who have tasted from the bitterest cup.

One could think of the entire film as a journey into the darkest corridors of the mind ... which is certainly "noir." The Party and THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN could be seen as adventures into twisted corridors, as well, all though there seems to be nothing dark about them ... even though there "should" be.

Should is a peculiar word. What does it mean, after all? In this case, we're talking about another peculiar word that is sometimes uttered by the most anal retentive among us: "Appropriate."

In the case of The Magic Christian, (click title to get a copy) it means a look at serious mental illness -- without spelling it out -- in a most refreshing way. Which is what all that LSD use was about -- which is sort of how a film like this could happen. The film's plot centers on a driven British business magnate whose ambition and relentless pursuit of wealth has taken him to the top in a variety of enterprises. This archetypal character suffers a severe manic-depressive breakdown. What's wonderful about the screenplay is that the film doesn't announce this ... you just sort of figure out the premise based on what happens through the course of the film, which also gives Sellers a chance to act.

Sellers' character -- whose name is Guy Grand -- and isn't that a clue? -- proceeds to use his money to turn the world upside. Finding a partner in a homeless young man who, no doubt, suffers from the same affliction (which something like .05 of the population does), Guy Grand proceeds to use somewhat maniacal pranks to attack various facets of the British establishment. From art auctions to dog shows, from the street vendor to the parking constable to high society, nothing sacred and no one goes unscathed. Vanity, greed, snobbery and sheer wrongheadedness are all turned against themselves with the help of this fool and his money, as the Paul McCartney penned theme goes. The film is literally Peter Sellers meets Monty Python -- though young John Cleese and the late Graham Chapman are hardly a match in their bit roles. All three had a hand in writing the screenplay from the Terry Southern novel. Sellers' gifted ear for mimicry, his ability to project utter nonchalance and the stonefaced manner in which he can pull off a gag, or look at ordinary things as if they are matched with the ideal role.

It's surprising to think that a great many Monty Python fans have never seen The Magic Christian, and how many young people who've looked to the 60s for direction without it. For everything Guy Grand does is a turn-on, tune-in and dropout attack on the establishment -- the spirit of Dickens is here -- and thrived in the decade. One thinks of the Mary Poppins charge who doesn't want to deposit his money in the bank? Guy Grand became that little fellow as an adult.

Inappropriate? I suppose so. The 60s, however, were about resurrecting the human spirit. It usually can be found in kids, or adults who learn to become them once again. How much funnier is this film than the Robin Williams flick, Toys, though, which is similar and theme, but bravely out of context in the 60s-turned-upside-down 90s.

THE PARTY may be even funnier. Decidedly slapstick, it's still Peter Sellers using irony to poke fun at human folly. Again, it is a film which explodes in catastrophe.

Sellers portrays Hrundi V. Bakshi, a very bad actor who stumbles onto good things as he stumbles through chaos. He is inadvertently invited to an important occasion -- the party. The results are hilarious. They are sight gags brought into epic proportion -- as in The Magic Christian.

Sellers, by the way, did perform with stars of Godard's "Breathless" Jean-Paul Belmondo (in Casino Royale, 1967) and Jean Seberg (in The Mouse That Roared, 1959).

Weekend has that same explosiveness in its humor as do these comedies, though it is not a comedy. What it takes from film noir -- which Godard often comments on in his films, such as Breathless -- is a curious detachment and callousness.

The film violence is absurd. The long sequence -- a pan shot -- of a highway leading out of the city -- could be the cars streaming out of Detroit for getaways in the north this summer, as well as in the 1960s: The traffic is slowed around crashes, the bodies strewn insensibly around the wreckage. All manner of activity is taking place around the stalled traffic, which goes on forever. Godard, with his panning shot, seems to make no comment.

As the actions of the characters becomes increasingly disturbed, we are drawn into a game of death: What will happen next? Will these characters survive? Will they stay together, in spite of their loathing for each other? We try to second guess the auteur, but no victory is possible.

The film seems to anticipate the sweeping change -- revolution, rebellion, dropping out, turning on -- that would explode in 1968. A whole generation would react against war, against restraints on personal liberty, against the so-called fabric of society. Weekend D is thus "epiphanic," like The Party, The Magic Christian and a handful of other films -- The Happening, etc. -- and dark. This film was very timely and it remains so.

Be sure to stop by the cast party. There are some great Peter Sellers sites out there. Here are some links:

Darla's Peter Sellers Tribute Page

Have a Pepsi?

Peter's Grave

Britcoms (TV)

Being There

More Britcoms

For Monty Python fans:

Monty's Python

PythOnline

Order The Party

Order Being There

Order The Magic Christian

French film and American film noir links:

Film noir articles

Video clip from Breathless

Godard

Weekend

Order Weekend

More Godard

Other sites:

DB Fox's Soul Page

EPC Small Press Alcove