Watch: The Essence of Film Noir, in Six Minutes
How a college student taught herself to make the ultimate classic movie tribute.
It’s been online for over two years, but the video “The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir” is still drawing in viewers, racking up nearly 100,000 views on YouTube to date. The video flashes clips from 35 classic black and white films over Massive Attack‘s menacing ’90s track “Angel.” The anachronistic mash-up of images and music produces a powerful audiovisual experience with a significant subtext: how the film noir essence carries on and what it means to younger generations discovering classic films today. And this video really does convey an essence. It doesn’t just rely on icons and scenes familiar to cinephiles to score points (i.e. the kind of montages you’ll find in Oscar broadcasts or Hollywood tribute shows), but lets faces, objects and moments speak for themselves, with lightning impact. (See if you can spot moments from Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, available on Fandor.)
This is the work of a gifted video editor, someone who loves these movies and knows how to work with them to create something entirely new. So I was pretty much stunned to learn that the video was the work of a then-19 year-old psychology major who taught herself how to edit video on iMovie. Serena Bramble lives in Santa Rosa and goes to school very close to where Alfred Hitchcock shot Shadow of a Doubt (one of the films featured in her video). According to Michael Guillen, when San Francisco’s Noir City Film Festival Director Eddie Muller invited Bramble to show her work at last year’s Noir City Opening Night and celebrate with a drink, Bramble replied that she was still only 20 and had to take her driving test.
I caught up with Bramble to find out more about her love of film noir, how she learned video editing so quickly, and her future plans. Having started watching classic films at 17, Bramble has a particular fondness for noir: “I’ve always been more inclined towards the dark side of human nature, so I understood the genre instantly and since I relate to films because of the characters, I love noir because it’s entirely the character’s usually very bad choices which drive the plot forward and the dire consequences they pay for it, usually with their life or their soul. Reading Eddie Muller’s Dark City greatly aided me as a guide book through this dark genre.”
She says of her choice of Massive Attack’s “Angel” for the video’s soundtrack: “Hearing the tempo, the lyrics and the fact that I was listening to it at night started to put images into my head (as music can so easily do), and those flasbacks to noir movies told me that I had the perfect song.” (Watching the video, note how the opening lyric “You are my angel” arrives in sync with a shot of Jean Simmons in Otto Preminger’s Angel Face – don’t think it’s an accident!)
Bramble worked on and off for six months putting the video together. How did she pick up those skills? “Nobody taught me to edit, it’s just a cumulation of watching many movies/other media and learning from what I see,” she says. “I initially edited on iMovie HD because it came free with my laptop (and for a free editing program, it’s quite good); occasionally I would ask other vidders on the internet questions about importing and exporting, but I figured out everything in between such as cross-dissolves and titles by trial and error.”
Bramble’s newest video, “White Melodrama: An Appreciation of Douglas Sirk:”
How did Bramble decide what moments to include from the hundreds of film noir titles in existence? ”Some of them were pretty obvious, like the reveal of Orson Welles in The Third Man,” she says. “But I also wanted to include ones which simply captured the essence of noir, like a shot of Stanley Cortez’s cinemtography from Night of the Hunter. The one shot I get the most questions about is the gas-mask heist from Robert Siodmak’s Criss-Cross, and the one complaint I most receive is not including enough Claire Trevor.”
Watching the video gives the impression that film noir is a highly visceral, pulpy experience, where a facial expression or a searing images can transcend a storyline. I asked Bramble what importance narrative has for her in watching film noir, and her response made a striking observation on the genre’s relevance to today’s times:
“I watch them for the characters and the stories, absolutely, and I think the main reason why noir feels like such a modern genre (even though by most standards the “real” noir genre ended by the 1960s) is because in the last 10 years, ever since that fateful Tuesday morning on September 11th, 2001, America has had to confront the fact that there is darkness in the world and that from individuals to a government body, very deep decisions with moral ambiguity had to be made. Movies like Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia seem more like models in a magazine photo shoot doing Katharine Hepburn accents–basically, the movies which intetionally set out to make a film noir but only seem to capture the visual of it. The films which I feel best tell stories of this dark moral ambiguity would include A History of Violence, Mulholland Dr. and Munich. They might not be considered true “neo-noirs” but they come closest to capturing what I love most about the genre: that they faithfully follow people making very bad existential choices and the price they pay for it.”
You can read more of Serena Bramble’s writing on film on her blog, Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.
Watch Scarlet Street, one of the films featured in “The Endless Night,” on Fandor: