Now we’ve seen the back of that unexpectedly decent summer, it’s time for the nights to start drawing in and the heating to go back on. Autumn, as Keats once pointed out, is a season of mists. And on the plus side, it’s a highly appropriate time to consider one of the darkest, moodiest genres in cinema history: film noir.
For the next three months, Cornerhouse will be examining all aspects of noir, right throughout the building. In the cinemas, there’s a wide-ranging programme of film noir screenings, from the classic variety to more modern entries. The cafe’s pitching in with a special noir-themed menu, which includes Black Dahlia cocktails, Kiss Me Deadly pizzas and spiced black popcorn. Meanwhile, up in the galleries, there’s an exhibition entitled Double Indemnity, bringing together existing work and special new commissions which reflect, refract and respond to the concerns of the noir genre.
The season’s been curated by Michael Connor, along with Cornerhouse’s own artistic director for visual arts and film, Sarah Perks. Coming up with a clear definition of noir is a tricky one, of course. By its very nature, it’s murky and intangible. Perks explains: “In terms of how the exhibition relates to the films, in a sense, we don’t so much deal with what noir means. We take it as a kind of style or an evocation, in a way, of desire and power relationships and sexuality. We are thinking about it in terms of the films but also in terms of the art world. Many of the pieces in the exhibition, particularly the work by Sophie Calle and Andrea Fraser, absolutely flag up sexual politics and relationships in the art world.”
The exhibition posits as its ideal audience one Walter Neff, the duplicitous main character of Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity, as played by Fred MacMurray: scattered quotes from Neff line the walls. Among the new commissions is Anicka Yi’s Mutual Glaze, an installation within which visitors will be able to smell a custom-made fragrance, supposedly that worn by Barbara Stanwyck’s man-eating femme fatale in the same film.
In the cinemas, the My Noir season offers a raft of rare treats, from Otto Preminger’s Laura to Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor. This question of defining noir is reflected in the sheer variety of films on offer, and also by the fact that esteemed guests, including Manchester-based band Everything Everything and director Terence Davies, have pitched in with personal suggestions for screenings.
Really hardy film-goers might attempt Saturday’s 24-Hour Noirathon, which runs right though until Sunday afternoon, clocking up a total of 11 noir movies along the way. Perks says: “It starts out with some stone-cold classics, then goes a bit mad in the middle of the night with Wild Things and Night Moves. We’ve had a bit of fun with it, putting Insomnia in there at five in the morning, and ending up with The Big Sleep.” Tickets are available for individual films, too, but there’s already a hard-core booked in for the long haul.
This isn’t the first time that Cornerhouse has tried to bring its film and exhibition programmes together like this, but there’s something about noir that lends itself very naturally to such an undertaking. “Sometimes when we look at doing things like this, we try and make a list of films on that particular subject, genre or theme that we could show,” Perks reflects. “And usually we run short of ideas pretty quickly, but with noir there are just so many great films there, and it’s a genre that people seem to feel very passionate about.”
The story goes that the idea for this whole strand was first conceived by the curators a couple of years ago in a New York bar. Surely that’s too perfect to be true, though?
“I know! But I can remember it so specifically. Me and Michael and Henriette [Huldisch, fellow curator] were there having a drink. First of all we discussed the premise of doing contemporary exhibitions inspired by film. Not by using artefacts from the films or homages; just taking the themes and the ideas from the narrative and re-presenting them as a contemporary art exhibition. So we did actually start with titles of films that were really good and evocative. Double Indemnity was just one of the first. I can’t remember which one of us shouted it out, but straight away we all went ‘Yeah!’”
And presumably, true to form, Perks’ memory of this is in lovingly-lit monochrome? “Yes! It was this hazy bar in New York. We were all in very glamorous clothing. And smoking…”
Interview by Andy Murray
What: Double Indemnity exhibition and My Noir film season
Where: Cornerhouse, Oxford Street, Manchester
When: September 14, 2013 – January 5, 2014
More info: www.cornerhouse.org