YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 27, 2011

Film Noir, decoded

Cover art for audio version of unabridged Mildred Pierce

This is the analysis of James M. Cain’s popular novel Mildred Pierce, especially as interpreted by HBO this Spring (2011). I started by finding the lyrics to the song derived from Chopin’s Grand Valse Brillante, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (1917). This song is the leitmotif for both the HBO series and Cain’s book.

At the end of the rainbow there’s happiness,
And to find it how often I’ve tried,
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,
And my dreams have all been denied.
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world’s to blame,
I wonder if it could be me.

Chorus:

I’m always chasing rainbows,
Watching clouds drifting by,
My dreams are just like all my schemes,
Ending in the sky.
Some fellows look and find the sunshine,
I always look and find the rain.
Some fellows make a winning sometime,
I never even make a gain, believe me,
I’m always chasing rainbows,
Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.

I have read the very wild and violent and strange James M. Cain original as adapted both in cinema and by HBO in a much touted and praised miniseries.  Briefly, Cain sees all women, especially those grown in Southern California, as monomaniacs, driven by unhealthy passions. The theme of mother-daughter incest runs throughout the novel, though Cain, born an Irish Catholic, is almost reserved on the subject. His last word on the Mildred-Veda dyad is the remark that she was a woman who loved her daughter too much, but there are insinuations and even graphic descriptions of a physical passion dotted throughout (and that HBO downplayed). I had suspected that the film noir or literary noir corpus was an assault on the idea of Progress (with its predecessor in the Terror Gothic genre that appeared in the eighteenth century and eventually became a staple of horror movies, for instance Frankenstein). But what I did not see was the full-blown assault on women as killers, serpents, and parasites on men and even on each other.

In Cain’s novel, Mildred is no laudable waitress-becoming-businesswoman, picking herself up as an entrepreneur and capitalizing on her capacity for hard work and talent in cooking artistic cakes and pies. She does cook brilliantly, apparently an inborn quality, just as Veda’s inborn musicality is prodigious, rare, and obsessive. Rather, after her husband’s fall in the early Depression, every move she makes is for the sake of Veda, her superior in every way, and whose love or classiness she can never gain. The HBO treatment of the novel does capture much of that, but not with the social history clarity of the novel, including the dialogue spoken in dialect that is un-PC, or the important original class difference between Mildred and her husband Bert Pierce, or their tenuous religious affiliations (Episcopalian vs. Methodist). The matter of class is crucial, for Veda resembles Bert, not Mildred, and seeks to restore or exceed his prior success.

Like other writers utilizing the realist tradition in literature, and infusing his tales with forbidden sex and violence to gain a popular audience, Cain has more than one agenda. In his case, his novel is not only about two crazed women, but about materialism, pride, and the failure of the American dream, a dream that is built on the theft of Indian and Mexican lands. The University of Maryland Special Collections (where his papers are stored) tells the researcher that Cain was interested in the lives and speech of the common man. They don’t say that he looked down on the lower-middle class; indeed his sociology in Mildred Pierce is very precisely delineated, down to the last detail of decor and clothing, but also the occupations of Mildred’s family and friends. The uppity Pierce home is decorated with paintings of cowboys and the West, with a hat tip toward the covered wagons and their pioneers. Later, the decayed patrician Monty Beragon makes light of his ancestors and their triumph over Mexicans in California. Mildred’s foolish overspending for the sake of Veda is described with the zeal of a bookkeeper, and of course this unrequited, very physical, passion brings her down and back to her first husband, who outclasses her throughout. Very little of this detail makes it into the HBO version, which condenses some of the most significant episodes in the novel, for instance the repeated image of the rainbow, first seen as a halo around the dead younger child in her coffin, Ray, who dies of a respiratory ailment early on in the tale, leaving Veda as the sole focus of Mildred’s life. The rainbow, traditionally a symbol of God’s benevolence after the Flood, refers to the American pursuit of happiness that eludes these characters who are stunningly devoid of self-knowledge, with the exception of Veda and Monty, matched, purposeful, and articulate cynics, unlike the comparatively wordless Mildred, whose untamed passions are mirrored in a winter storm that she fails to defeat, and whose temporary success is the result of the business-sense of others.

We should not underestimate the importance of the popular song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” as used in both the novel and the HBO series. Long ago, I interviewed Roger Angell on his fascination with baseball, and he said that the sport was really about the inevitable failure that we all experience. I called that radio program (a collage) “Play Ball, or The Aesthetics of Failure.” Chopin’s ravishing lyricism can be seen as romantic yearning. The noir genre, whether in literature or film, should be seen as a sign for the end of the line for humanity. This ideology is profoundly antidemocratic and anti-American. It does not deserve our sympathy, though James M. Cain’s novel is interesting as a reactionary artifact, and more skillfully written than I had anticipated.

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