English 4650:  Metafiction, Abstract Expressionism & Film Noir—Brian Kiteley

Winter 2007






Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus; Counterpoint, 1887178554
Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories; Penguin Classics, 0142437395

Donald Barthelme, Forty Stories; Penguin Classics, 0142437816

William H. Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country; Godine, 0879233745

William H. Gass, On Being Blue; Godine, 0879232374

Grace Paley, Collected Stories; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 0374530289

Robert Coover, Pricksongs and Descants; Grove Press, 0802136672

Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: with pen and brush; Reaktion Books, 1861891415
Arthur Danto, Philosophizing Art: Selected Essays; University of California, 0520229061

The Introduction to the Film Noir Reader, by Alain Silver
The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler
An essay on pulp fiction


We will also look at these films: Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, and The Big Sleep









The title should say a great deal. The three parts of the course are not equal. The fiction will predominate, and Donald Barthelme’s short stories will dominate the fiction we’ll read. We will also look at film, slides, and some art and film criticism. This will be a course of associative collage.  We will make attempts to connect the dots between the three parts, but I don’t expect the connections will be all that binding. Guy Davenport’s essay “Civilization and Its Opposite in the 1940s” is the egg or packet of chromosomes of the course. Davenport often writes great narratives of ideas, and this is one of his best intellectual stories, full of names and transitions and descriptions of how artists hunkered down during the war to make great art in the face of great tragedy and anxiety. The painters who became known as the abstract expressionists, for example, vowed to eliminate all human subject matter from their work until and if the war ended. Abstract Expressionism revered paint, not the image, not the subject, not the narrative of a painting. Film Noir, often done on the cheap, explored style and visual storytelling because the directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers had more control over their B-movies than filmmakers had over their A-movies in the Thirties. The postmodern fiction of the Sixties worked with collage (echoing Cubism, but also having disparate scenes in rapid succession without transition) and an intense self-consciousness about language.


At the very end of the movie Double Indemnity, Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) says, “You know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes?  I’ll tell ya. ’Cause the guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you.” His friend and colleague in the insurance company Keyes (played by Edward G. Robinson) says: “Closer than that, Walter.” Neff replies, “I love you, too.” Neff tries to light a crumpled, bloody cigarette he has pulled from his jacket. Throughout the film, before this moment, Keyes has always been the one who did not have a match, and Neff would light one by flicking his thumbnail against the match head. At this moment, Keyes produces a match, and he lights it for his dying friend.


This was the third movie Billy Wilder directed, and it is often spoken of as the first Film Noir. It was co-written by Wilder and the great American noir writer, Raymond Chandler, from a novel by James M. Cain. This was Chandler’s only screenwriting experience, and he hated working with Wilder. Like another European expat in Hollywood, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder did a great deal to invent what is thought of as a purely “American” film genre, taking a good deal of the style from Expressionism in German films of the 1920s. As William Rothman said, film noir was as American as apple strudel. Both Wilder and Lang seem to observe American city life with alien eyes. Wilder’s cinematographer John F. Seitz should get some of the credit for the style of Film Noir—especially the use of dusty light coming through Venetian blinds. Credit should also go to war-time restrictions on the very use of lights.  Many scenes had to be shot with the bare minimum of electricity, hence a new “style” emerged. The Second World War influenced film noir in many other ways, not the least of which was the sense of authentic despair in the handful of originating movies of the genre.


Stanley Crouch, in Slate, talks about the influence of the Third Reich and Hitler on the form:


A number of its most influential directors were European Jews like Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and Billy Wilder, all of whom had escaped the Nazis. The enthusiastic support of the Third Reich by the German people had convinced such artists that conformity always had to be questioned, ridiculed, and perhaps resisted. Another assumption was that corruption hid behind images of a gilded civilization, high-class refinement, uplift, and thorough social improvement. So, in one sense, Adolf Hitler was a major player in forming the sensibility of film noir. That Austrian boy whom Chaplin accused of having made off with his mustache had done it again but, as usual, not in the way the paperhanger intended.


Like Film Noir, Abstract Expressionism is supposed to be the first great homegrown American art movement, although it too was heavily influenced by the arrival, during the Second World War, of dozens of great European painters, particularly the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian, who was not well-known in the US before he arrived in New York in 1940. Abstract Expressionism did signal that New York had become the capital of world art, superseding Paris.


Metafiction is the American approach to narrative that grew out of the same impulses that created Dadaism, surrealism, the theater of the absurd, and magic realism, and yet it feels peculiarly native to our soil, with fascinations for high and low culture that few European or Latin American practitioners of similar fiction had and very little interest in magic or fantasy.  This American postmodernism shares with Film Noir a cynicism, a hard-boiled prose style, and a very dark humor. Only Donald Barthelme of these writers had any sustained contact with the Abstract Expressionists (particularly when he was curator of a museum of contemporary art in Houston, during the year he edited the art and literary journal Location in New York with Clement Greenberg, and at the Cedar Tavern a few blocks from his apartment, where many of these artists held court). All of these movements are considered the first purely American approaches to their arts and yet each grew quite naturally out of European aesthetics and the close contact between exiled European and American artists during and after the Second World War. Two began in the 1940s. Metafiction reached its heights in the 1960s, and we might more comfortably pair it with Pop Art and the New Wave of French cinema. We’ll explore these tenuous relationships and see what we find on the dark alleys and rain-soaked streets of our sunny American cities.




Technic is the result of a need—
new needs demand new technics
total control—denial of the accident—
States of order—
organic intensity—
energy and motion made visible—
memories arrested in space,
human needs and motives—


—Jackson Pollock, Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works


In Watt (1953) the protagonist totally replaces the world with his verbal constructs when he realizes the impossibility of transcribing it. In attempting to grasp the meaning of phenomena, he enumerates every possible combination and permutation he can think of for each set of circumstances, in an attempt to construct a system which will offer him a stable identity. However, as Mr Nixon tells Mr Hackett, “I tell you nothing is known. Nothing” (p. 20). The human mind is a fallible instrument of measurement and the external world a chaos. Knowledge derived from human calculation or generalization can only demonstrate the epistemological distance between consciousness and objective reality, however exhaustive the account.


—Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory & Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction


David Amfam, in a review of Michael Leja’s Reframing Abstract Expressionism in Art in America in 1994 (here is a link to the whole review), notes the relationship between Abstract Expressionism and Film Noir:


Leja discusses Rothko’s Slow Swirl by the Edge of the Sea and its noir-like combination of the tragic and the comic but does not note its similarity to the cinematic representation of dreams through slow motion and out-of-focus effects. The connections between Willem de Kooning’s work and film noir go beyond noir-ish gender stereotypes of that artist’s imagery, which Leja mentions, to the more subtle manner in which film noir made ways of seeing its actual subject. De Kooning’s repertoire of dislocated presences and slipping glimpses, beginning in his work of the 1940s, corresponds with themes in film and roman noir where an “I” is also an “eye” that either sees, fails to see, or is itself being seen. Leja asserts that the excess of subjectivity in Abstract Expressionism is an attempt to support the category of “self.” But he does not consider the possibility that it may instead be a critique of the limits of the self.


This is link to a wonderful essay, “Exorcising Beckett,” by Lawrence Shainberg.


A Timeline of Abstract Expressionism, by Stella Paul at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The new abstract painting, an Art News piece.


Here is Jessamyn West’s wonderful page on Donald Barthelme—a quick reference. And here is a link to Helen Moore Barthelme’s memoir of her marriage to Donald Barthelme (this is available only to DU students and faculty). And here are David Gates’ explanatory notes for Sixty Stories.


Here is the complete screenplay of “Double Indemnity.”


Take a look at these self-portraits William Utermohlen painted as he descended into Alzheimer’s (from The New York Times Oct 24, 2006): Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, Image 4. I don’t mean to imply that Abstract Impressionism and brain dysfunction are comparable, but it’s interesting to see the movement from orderly self-portraits to these darker, more stripped down images of the face, even as the self begins to dwindle and disintegrate. William Utermohlen said he painted the way he painted, as the disease progressed, because he could see no other way of representing himself.


Here’s a link to a Norman Rockwell painting of a man looking at a Jackson Pollock painting.


David Usborne, in The Independent:


One day in 1950 [Hans Namuth] arrived at Springs after arranging with the painter to take pictures of [Jackson Pollock] in the barn. On his arrival, he was put out to find Pollock standing over a canvas in the barn that apparently was already done.


"A dripping wet canvas covered the entire floor," he later recalled. "There was complete silence ... Pollock looked at the painting. Then, unexpectedly, he picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas. It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished. His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance-like as he flung black, white, and rust-colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there; he did not seem to hear the click of the camera shutter ...  My photography session lasted as long as he kept painting, perhaps half an hour. In all that time, Pollock did not stop. How could one keep up this level of activity? Finally, he said 'This is it'."


From The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 205:


True to an alternate name for Abstract Expressionism, action painting,” Franz Klines pictures often suggest broad, confident, quickly executed gestures reflecting the artists spontaneous impulses. Yet Kline seldom worked that way. In the late 1940s, chancing to project some of his many drawings on the wall, he found that their lines, when magnified, gained abstraction and sweeping force. This discovery inspired all of his subsequent painting; in fact many canvases reproduce a drawing on a much larger scale, fusing the improvised and the deliberate, the miniature and the monumental.


Chief was the name of a locomotive Kline remembered from his childhood, when he had loved the railway. Many viewers see machinery in Klines images, and there are lines in Chief that imply speed and power as they rush off the edge of the canvas, swelling tautly as they go. But Kline claimed to paint not what I see but the feelings aroused in me by that looking, and Chief is abstract, an uneven framework of horizontals and verticals broken by loops and curves. The cipherlike quality of Klines con-figurations, and his use of black and white, have provoked comparisons with Japanese calligraphy, but Kline did not see himself as painting black signs on a white ground; I paint the white as well as the black, he said, and the white is just as important.


And here’s a link to this painting, at MoMA.




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