Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Holiday Gift Guide: Daylight Noir
by Catherine Corman

Raymond Chandler at least lived in Los Angeles during the time he wrote his seven Philip Marlowe detective novels (beginning with 1939’s The Big Sleep), and knew well the landmarks that fueled the fiction he wrote. But for most of us, either the setting or the time period, or both, is foreign. We can do no better than to imagine the surf-slapped piers and lushly landscaped estates and fleabag hotels in which he set his action.

While there’s certainly delight to be found in making up images of those locations for ourselves, it’s also interesting to see some of the actual places Chandler had in mind as he sent Marlowe out to question suspects, bitch-slap cops with sarcasm, and fend off bruisers intent on making his body a masterpiece in black and blue. Elizabeth Ward and Alain Silver took on this very task when they published Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (1987), a photographic tour of Southern California’s largest burg, with excerpts from Chandler’s novels. And now Catherine Corman, the daughter of filmmaker Roger Corman and the editor of Joseph Cornell’s Dreams (2007), offers her own take on that subject in Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City, published by Charta.

Photographer Corman has assembled here more than 50 black-and-white studies of everything from Lido Pier to the iconic Hollywood sign, from MGM Studios to Musso and Frank’s Grill, from Union Station to the old Bullocks Wilshire department store (those last two being credited to architects John and Donald Parkinson). Some of the sites in Corman’s collection were identified in Chandler’s work; others were lightly fictionalized. Many of these shots are fascinating, even without considering their association with one of America’s foremost detective novelists. But the Chandler excerpts Corman employs bring another creative dimension to her Daylight Noir spreads. I only wish she’d identified which books they come from. My other quibble: There’s at least one instance here (see pages 56-57 and 88-89) where parts of the same building -- Santa Monica City Hall (another Parkinson creation) -- are used twice. Surely, Corman could have substituted a different landmark and quotation in one of those cases.

Writer Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City, Motherless Brooklyn) supplies a short but pithy preface to Daylight Noir that sets the haunting scene for these images. However, it’s a quote from English novelist J.B. Priestley, contained in Corman’s own introduction, that reveals the most about Chandler’s P.I. and his world:
Despite the pervasive solitude and moral wasteland at the heart of Los Angeles, Chandler does find meaning in it. As James said, he loved the city for its pathos. There is a kind of desolate candor, a tragic sense of honor, in the insistence on perpetuating a façade long after everyone knows it lacks substance. This is what Marlowe’s enemies, the ruthless city fathers and low-life gangsters, are ultimately doing. Eventually, like Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness, Marlowe discovers the truth but loses the impulse to expose it. He falls in line with illusion.
This may be a volume of real-life photography, but it’s illusion -- the unpredictable artistry of imagination -- as much as substance that is at the heart of it all.

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