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01 January 2007

'Unknown Weegee, 'Photographer Who Made the New York Night Noir' - A Phoenix Rises after 70 Years

'Night Noir' - New York Times. Not a New Genre - But the Next Genre

'Four a.m., bars close. Guys asleep in Bowery doorways. But just before dawn is the worst: despair city. The jumpers start, out the windows, off the roof. I can't even look. So that's the night, New York. Ain't it grand? What a life.'

The imagined speaker is Arthur Fellig, better known, and very well known, as Weegee (1899-1968). From the 1930's into the 1950's, he was a photographer for New York tabloids, the kind of papers Ralph Kramden might have read.

Tireless, loquacious, invasive, he cruised the wee hours. For him the city was a 24-hour emergency room, an amphetamine drip.


Car Hits 3d Ave. L - One Dies, Two Hurt. Under double-bill movie marquee, body of Stanley Stanley, was covered with newspapers and coats by police. Technical charge of homicide was lodged against Frank Whalen, who was taken to Bellevue Hospital for observation. Another passenger, Joseph Mahoney, also was hurt. PM Photo by Weegee
Can You Read the Marquee?
'Joy of Living: Don't Turn Them Loose'

Have 'they' been turned loose in 2007? I'm only asking.
Blogaulaire's guru says not to make predictions about the Year 2007, or only 'devils" will laugh.

But there are a few things we can know about culture and media for certain: okay, a new Norman Mailer novel will come out (the first in a decade) within the first half of 2007; we know and can view the trailers for many Hollywood films not yet released but coming in 2007; someone, somewhere, can reliably predict something new in jazz music.

So, who needs to predict this stuff? Anybody who wants to ride the culture trends to their zeniths, that's who. People whose careers depend on it.

If noir fiction is 'in' on all script-based fronts for a few more years to come, I'll predict one thing: that reviewers and television spinsters will have a hard time giving this trend in 'noir' a humanitarian twist, as they tried to do with Weegee in the years following the Depression (which was the height of his career as a photo-journalist).

Maybe I'm in a 'noir' mood. Yet what I see happening to photo-journalists is that they are being killed . . killed in the Philippines, killed in Afghanistan, killed in Oaxaca, Mexico, killed in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) . . killed around the globe. (So, this IS a pitch for Reporters Without Borders. Do support them, please.) Noir like the sort Weegee did is a bit blacker in 2007.

Yet noir is noir. All communication is humanitarian, today is no exception. Yet there it is: noir is black. Communication of noir is black - AND (as communication) it is always humanitarian. What is humanitarian is not the content of what is being communicated: that is still noir. You go and figure out the rest. Bertolt Brecht told us over and over again that to say that noir is white is a form of fascism. BB was right. The question is simple: Who is doing anything to translate all this into humanitarian acts, humanitarian policy? We can no longer pat ourselves on the back and say 'Upton Sinclair cleaned up the packing house industry through his exposes.' So noir, in 2007, promises to be very noir.

You who are French from France who write 'noir': what the 'f' are you doing by trying to Americanize it? There is plenty (more than enough) noir being written in its American idiom, if you know what the label Americain really means. And this American lit is being written in the French language - always has been. It is being written in Quebec and has been written in Quebec for a long, long time.

There's Nothing Noir in Toronto (Big Laugh from the Audience)

Canadians will know what I mean. 'T.O.: City of the Good' But also 'Toronto: Hog Town'. This and similar contradictions, I predict, will start to fall in 2007 as Toronto tries to catch up with Noir in the Arts. The Arts, especially in Canada, are about to eat her young and her innocent. The poets did it, where else can it go? Somebody, everybody, will try to compete with Vancouver's success with noir and (I hope) Montreal's renewed recognition abroad in this genre in 2007.

Certainly, the mega media will try to make us laugh to keep from cryin. New Orleans, with traditions going back to black face vaudeville already tried to do that. What do you think New Orleans holds in store for the culture now, though, after the flood? Another MASH series, with anarchist volunteers at clinics and soup kitchens standing in for Allen Alda? No. It shall be noir. Maybe as early as 2007, who knows?

Now, finally, it is time for advice for the Europeans. Why not start (restart) getting down and dirty about your own backyards? Is there not enough grit in Eastern Europe? Not jazzy enough? Are you tired of all the translations from 'l'Americain'? Then learn joual (street French in Quebec). That is Americain enough to do you for the next 200 years.

I know that what I am writing here is going past my US readers at 110 MPH. All you have to do is think 'Death and Dying in Las Vegas' by Hunter S. Thompson and think about some Frenchman writing it in French all the while attempting to make the novel more black, more desperate. Why bother? That is the question I am asking here. (Spare me though. Sales will be strictly European. And you thought there exists such a thing as 'World Lit'? What ever happened to Europeans like Orwell doing 'Down and Out in London and Paris'?

If North America has the rest of the world 'by the balls' as far as cultural hegemony and the media goes it is not merely a matter of owning a monopoly over satellite and cable communicatations. Both of those transmission lines can go down with one or two simple seismic disruptions. What will really count is the number of cultural workers producing in many languages who have moved to North America and who are being encouraged inside North America to write their narratives in both their own language and in English.

Am I wrong or is not Paris the capital of West African fusion music? The same could happen to world lit and world cinema and still be based in North America. Where this sort of phenomenon starts to explode on other fronts is your guess. Will the nationalist backlash in the home territory be reactionary or progressive? Is (for local readers) the Cirque du Soleil at 3 or 4 venues in Los Vegas progressive for Quebec? Without a nationalist backlash? No accusations about cultural appropriation by billionaire masters of deceit who run hotel-casinos?

Maybe all that matters is the cheap week-end air travel and accommodations sold to folks wanting to catch the shows? But remember, Cuba is cheaper still for all but the USians (who could lose their passports for going there).

So far, much North American writing dealing with an immigrant writer's childhood somewhere in rest of the world (are the plastic arts or cinema different) is pure nostalgia or (les)miserabl(es)iste (you could say naturalist, of the Zola sort); but writers are turning ever more toward the 'noir' with increasing boxoffice success. Noir is becoming Universalizing.

In the 1960s, Pierre Vallieres, from Quebec, during his political incarnation, was most successful with his autobiographical book about the Quebecois as "White Niggers of North America". The book wasn't jazzy, but the self-identification with '60s Revolt was more than evident - as evident as the nationalist sentiment. And Vallieres was 'touching' every side of the double-edged sword of noir, subculture, revolt and 'on the road' hipsterism with the title. Everything like that was Universal, though dyed in the wool nationalism never mixes well with the Universal Message. In 2007 Noir wins out over Nationalism, I predict, to the chagrin of the status quo if all this blackness retains its strongest elements of revolt - even against the nationalists or the Black mayors in power.

I'm way, way ahead of myself here. Noir lit is coming at us fast. The culture's gatekeepers will try to turn the genre away from revolt. It may turn out to be a losing battle on both sides. Maybe we will end up with just a bunch more of that self-loathing Rap and romanticized Reggae (or worse, bad art) that makes a smooth move to the airwaves like all crossover rhythms we hear transposed from their, say, Caribbean roots. I surely do not know.

All I CAN say is this: the really cool stuff in most languages other than English will either focus upon what is happening in or near the respective mother country or, if the cultural stuff tries to tackle and win over North America, it will come from immigrants and native speakers of Spanish and French (or whatever) living inside North America. A simple idea, yet so easily misunderstood by those who think it will all be absorbed into the middle class media mill. I think there will be too much of such cultural production in 2007 for the 'machine' to handle and I cannot wait to consume the good stuff that spills over and costs nothing. Like the poor kids did along the railroad lines tossing coal off the open cars for people to pick up as best they could. Maybe 2007 will be a cultural feast, a moveable feast in more ways than one.

Photographic images ©1994, International Center of
Photography, New York, Bequest of Wilma Wilcox.

Text ©1997 International Center of Photography, from
Weegee's World by Miles Barth, A Bulfinch Press Book,
Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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