Above: Allen Baron as Frank Bono. All pictures courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
By the time of Blast of Silence, Walter Benjamin, if not Edgar Allan Poe himself, had long ago laid the connection between detective fiction and flâneurs, and a new type of consciousness (emblematized specially by the modern phenomenon of movie-going), in which the crux of identity lies in nothing innate and little lasting, but in the act of perceiving, and, perceiving, in particular, the city: detective’s work. Yet neorealism would seem to be a necessary condition for flâneur movies, which, despite Night and the City’s influence, may be why relatively few major noirs followed in Benjamin’s tradition, devoted entirely to cutting through swaths of city spaces and social milieus, to exploring parties and restaurants and businesses around town in an ostensible search for clues, and to depicting a man as he finds or loses himself—perhaps the same thing—in urban phantasmagoria. (There are, of course, plenty of near-exceptions: Undercover Man, 99 River St., They Live By Night, On Dangerous Ground, While the City Sleeps, Pickup on South Street, and so on, as well as the complicated case of Hitchcock, in which every perception is loaded with intent). Voyage to Italy, in any case,still marks the break into movie modernism as the portrait of a relationship told almost entirely through their perceptions—though from that angle, Hitchcock’s Suspicion is nearly the same movie, just one with a reason for all the problems.*
Neorealism laid the groundwork, and since the 60s, in which Antonioni and Resnais ruled the arthouse—alongside Tati, who did not—with portraits of people who were little more than what they perceived or had perceived, flâneurism has, I guess, become a bit more fundamental to noirs in the age of “contemplative cinema”: Michael Mann’s in particular, most of Steven Spielberg’s recent output (if wanderers count as flâneurs), as well as the anti-neorealist quadruple run of fin-de-millenium masterpieces: Bringing Out the Dead, Mulholland Drive, Femme Fatale, and, best of all, Eyes Wide Shut, each positing Poe’s old notion that all a detective ever finds in the city is himself, or rather his base and basest desires.
But, if long post-Poe, Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence still did it all years ago. Opening symbolically (and quite appropriately) with a traveling/tracking shot from a train emerging from a tunnel, Silence works its way from birth to death, literally from the dark and back again, as hit man Frank Bono (Baron) walks around New York at Christmas time, trying to work up the hatred to kill a man. It’s more or less a silent movie shot on the streets—a loner passing through—with a swinging jazz score coming in and out (sometimes, in jazzy rhythm with the montage, culminating halfway through shots, and leaving the rest for near-silence), and the cackling Bookwyn-twinged voice-over of Lionel Stander, with an old scratchy, gravelly voice as low as Hell itself, delivered in second person like a devil on the left shoulder, with nobody to fill the right—even as he tells Bono that he’s on a mission from God, to die. Whether he is the thoughts Bono’s having, the thoughts we’re supposed to project, affirmations of the worst thoughts we’ve had about him—or are supposed to have had about ourselves—Stander, sounding not unlike the tempter insect voices in the best parts of Naked Lunch, is the ultimate in Mephistophelian mockers. He mocks a rare case of Bono socializing (“You know you’re making a mistake—you tell yourself they’ll get suspicious if you turn them down…you hate parties); he mocks the crowd Bono has to lose himself in (“Time to kill. 24 hours to stay lost in the crowd…with tha suckers”); he mocks Bono’s long-disbanded bourgeois ambitions (“You could have been an architect too”); and he even mocks Baron’s existential poise (“Why? You just don’t ask questions like that!”).
Would that most great artists lacked this much money! The long tracking shots alongside Bono walking on the sidewalk anticipate Chantal Akerman’s experimental documentaries, though Silence’s guerrilla means, prowling the streets, would endear it to the contemporaneous New York School, and perhaps indebt it to Irving Lerner’s own grunge home movie portrait of an obsessive serial killer, Murder by Contract (another inspiration for Taxi Driver, well warranting a Criterion release). But the films to which it truly merits comparison are Antonioni’s: La Notte, from the same year, and L’Eclisse, from the next. Silence plays like either, in dusky grays and inky blacks, with a man wandering through the inner circles of civilization and discovering that society is all spectacles, looking good and feeling terrible—though Silence, as opposed to Antonioni, is accompanied by the devil doing voice-over in place of a kindred female drifter.
Filming perceptions, Resnais and Antonioni pose the old phenomenological quandary of what’s subjective and what’s objective; so too Baron, if a bit more crudely. Stander, the soundtrack, is subjectivity, and the images, straight-up documentary footage straight from the streets, are objectivity. Yet Blast suggests the Dostoevskian possibility—or rather, preaches it—that all civilization’s pretty Christmas lights are glitzy decorations over the truth of one man’s private hell (all men, perhaps, but loneliness is essential to Baron’s neorealist conception of hell). For most of the film, the bright lights of consumer culture seem to be about all that emerge from the dark.
A city symphony in the same, constant minor key, Silence is nearly primitive in its technique—the camera shows what it can of people looking around New York, contextualizes them in their environment, and, in another Antonioni parallel, lets them fend for themselves within the frame (despite some tour de force passages, including a stunning ending, reminiscent of L’Eclisse’s, in which every quick cut seems to muster more turbulent weather)—and in its message. The one meaningful relationship in the film, if there is one, may be the love a fat acquaintance of Bono’s (Larry Tucker) has for his pet rabbits. The rabbits are in cages, and the acquaintance, well over 350 pounds and breathing heavily as if the room has closed in on him, acts like he is too. Love is a tantalizing impossibility—and even sex seems to be, as the only time Bono shows any personality is as a failed rapist. As in Antonioni, it’s impossible for people to relate; not a person within society is able or willing to distinguish him/herself except as a superficial type defined entirely by the environment he is passing through (as flâneurs Poe, and Tati, were likewise able to define anybody on the street by their appearance): a businessman, a partygoer, a contracted murderer. The only relationship Bono is allowed to have, Stander’s voiceover intimates, is with the man he kills.
This is more or less the sentimental romance of Raymond Chandler; it is Baron’s contribution to blame the doomed love not on a flea-bitten idealist run out of dreams, but (as Robert Altman would later do with his The Long Goodbye) on a swinging culture that will make you push peanuts on the floor with your chin for the entertainment of the crowd. There are loners and there are the masses, as there are in La Notte and L’Eclisse, and both are guarantees of anonymity; there are also, in Silence, the dead, the most anonymous of all. And for Bono, trying hard to keep quiet and repress his worst instincts and get a job done, anonymity is always the goal.
*And yet, in addition to all those noirs, a substantial number of silent films seems to consist of flâneur semi-fictions, perhaps because silent films are necessarily less devoted to extended character development, and to a character’s immediate impressions of an environment instead (especially as a self-reflection); perhaps because the silent era accommodated so much experimentation and improvisation that allowed stories to arise out of their surroundings. For example: city symphonies and Vertov’s above all, by a man who believed in films as grounding, revealing, and instituting a collective consciousness; Feuillade, whose phantasmagoria were inspired by newsreel events and given real, everyday spaces; silent comedians, and, in particular, Keaton, a man in constant reaction, who never offers an expected reaction shot; the middle section of Sunrise and much of The Last Laugh; The Crowd (famously, a Rossellini favorite); Fritz Lang, his films as much about will—about übermenschen—as about those at the mercy of the city they explore, unlike most of his later, stuck-in-place noirs; even parts of Underworld and Docks of the City; and so on, including, I hope, many I haven’t seen.