Corruption and darkness have spread through every institution built to safeguard our freedoms. A shadowy cabal of powerful oligarchs has seized power, every attempt to foil their nefarious machinations thwarted by an indomitable tide of money and influence. Disillusionment and cynicism are at an all-time high.
And those are just the movies.
"Noir speaks to our current political situation more than ever," says Elliot Lavine, the man behind Cinema 21's new film noir series I Wake Up Dreaming, devoted to the pessimistic midcentury crime thrillers defined by steel-hearted detectives, femmes fatales and distorted camera angles. "There's always the temptation to associate this style with whatever is going on in the world, but I don't think there's ever been a time in recent history when people have been living in an environment of such pervasive, fearful trepidation. These films are going to resonate with people in a way that they might not have even two or three years ago."
This Friday, Lavine kicks off a weeklong program of classic noir and deep cuts, most of which will be presented on studio-preserved 35 mm prints. Since 1990, Lavine has run I Wake Up Dreaming in various iterations at the Roxie and Castro theaters in San Francisco. Over 25 years, he built a name for himself as one of the city's eminent film programmers, becoming renowned for his creative pairings that breathed new life into films decades old. When Lavine announced last year that he would be moving to Portland in 2017, San Francisco's film community mourned.
"With Lavine, the films are always good, but his combinations of them are often revelatory, like penetrating a dreamscape or seeing some alternative history of the 20th century's second half," wrote Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle after the announcement.
Though 16 films are playing during the course of the week—at least two a day—Lavine says that if you can only make one screening, it should be Saturday's pairing of Robert Aldrich's 1955 classic private-eye thriller Kiss Me Deadly and John Frankenheimer's prescient 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, a pessimistic tale of a soldier brainwashed by a foreign power into a plot to overthrow the U.S. government.
"The Manchurian Candidate–Kiss Me Deadly pairing offers a really interesting cold war view of the world," says Lavine. "Kiss Me Deadly deals very specifically with cold war espionage as it relates to nuclear secrets being passed around to people not necessarily qualified to deal with them. It's a very frightening film, which ends in the most pessimistic imaginable way.
"People might not even think of The Manchurian Candidate as film noir, but it is a super-dark film that utilizes a lot of the tropes found in traditional noir films," Lavine continues. "Plus, there's the added interest of our current political climate, which will provide a fascinating backdrop to people watching this film. For those lucky enough to spend the whole day at Cinema 21, they're gonna have their worldview madly shuffled."
"Putting The Big Combo together with The Big Heat was an irresistible choice," says Lavine, "simply because they are both big-city noirs dealing with interior corruption. I think the audience will transpose the meaning; instead of a police department, they'll see a presidential administration."
Usually, one leaves a noir screening by stumbling out of the theater into the bright, comforting light of reality. This time, it's going to be hard to tell which side of the theater doors is darker.
SEE IT: I Wake Up Dreaming begins at Cinema 21 at 4 pm Friday, March 17. See cinema21.com for the full schedule.