From Hell to Noir
Legendary NYC writer-musician Richard Hell presents two of his film noir faves
In the last four decades, Richard Hell has been a trailblazer in music, poetry, fiction, essays and — most recently — as a memoirist. Hell's recent book, "I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography," is a candid, engaging read that chronicles his journey from his '50s Kentucky childhood to a seemingly ordained arrival on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the late '60s. In this critically acclaimed account, Hell (born Richard Meyers in 1949) describes the formation of his now-legendary bands (Television, The Heartbreakers and Richard Hell & the Voidoids) that were the flashpoint of what soon became punk rock.
Much of the story deals with his various loves, including the romantic, poetic and narcotic, as well as the cinematic. In "Tramp," Hell vividly describes his early years spent in movie houses, being "contaminated" by what he calls the "Code of the West" through classic Westerns. In his early 20s, high school dropout Hell was soon making money writing papers for NYU film students. That same cinematic corruption has stuck with Hell well into his adult life.
Over the past 20 years, Hell eventually kicked his dope habit and retired from music, focusing his talents on what has become an estimable literary career. A bulk of that writing has been directed toward his lifelong love of the silver screen, including a series of savvy film columns for BlackBook magazine in which Hell riffed on genre flicks, classic cinema, Hollywood blockbusters and contemporary auteurs such as Wim Wenders, Harmony Korine and Hell's favorite filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard.
On Nov. 16, Hell appears at Sun-Ray Cinema to present a double-header of what he considers to be paragons of his genre-of-choice, film noir: Wong Kar-Wai's dreamlike tale "2046" (2004) and Orson Welles' dark crime classic "The Lady from Shanghai" (1947). Hell will introduce each film, then participate in a Q&A with the audience after the screenings.
Sun-Ray Cinema owner Tim Massett purchased a pair of Kinoton 35mm projectors to unveil at the upcoming showing. "We will be projecting repertory film-on-film well into the future," Massett told Folio Weekly, explaining that a reel change happens every 20 minutes, as the celluloid gods originally intended. "This is the way film is supposed to be projected. The Hell show was the impetus to get this done."
Hell spoke with Folio Weekly by phone from the Lower East Side apartment he's called home for 30-plus years.
Folio Weekly: Have you hosted the kind of screening you'll be presenting at Sun-Ray Cinema?
Richard Hell: Yeah, I have. I've done it four or five times. I did it in Austin, Texas, at The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which is a similar kind of concept as the event at Sun-Ray. If I understand correctly, Tim was there at the beginning when that place was starting up, with them taking a classic, vintage movie theater that was renovated, and they came up with this dinner-and-a movie concept. I was kind of skeptical of that when they originally invited me to Austin, but it turned out they had really mastered that idea. It didn't interfere with watching the movie at all and was fantastic. And I've done this in Philadelphia, three or four times in New York, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I actually ran a little series, called The Scowl Series, of maybe 10 or 12 movies that I chose to screen. So, I have done this in the past and I enjoy it.
F.W.: Why did you choose "2046" and "The Lady from Shanghai"?
R.H.: I'm real partial to noir, and at the same time, if it's an occasion like this, where there isn't some pre-established film programming or audience, but rather a commercial theater, I also know that noir films are really popular — and for good reason. They're my favorite genre. The opportunities they give for filmmaking just work better. Paul Schrader wrote an essay on noir, where he pointed out that of all genres of film, there were probably more good films that were noir than any other given genre, whether it's cowboy movies, science-fiction or horror. There are a lot of theories as to why. But to my mind, life is noir. It resonates. I'm a huge Orson Welles freak, as most any person who likes movies is, and you don't get to see his films projected on a big screen in celluloid very often. So the chance to see a movie as good-looking as "The Lady from Shanghai" on the big screen in celluloid, I'm looking forward to it myself. I wanted to pick another film that was a contrast to that, one that qualified as film noir but was very different, and I love "2046," not only because it's a recent movie, but it's in color, which is not something you associate with film noir, and this sort of method of the filmmaker is different from Welles'. In my mind, it's also really modern in that the story is almost an afterthought; it's really just a mood. The whole movie is a mood of this quintessence of this futility, hopelessness, loss and squalor of noir, but exquisitely and beautifully shot. So this event is really a way to look at the range of what can be done within the parameters of film noir, one from the classic era and one from the present.
F.W.: It seems like the protagonists in each film are, in their own way, these kinds of noble cads.
R.H.: Right. Even though there isn't really a femme fatale in "2046," the guy is kind of the troublemaker. But at the same time, he's nursing his wounds from his own hardness and coldness, even though he's a very appealing person. He's tough and cynical. But his heart has been broken and that's why he's that way. But yeah, you're right. Both films have these characters that are these offbeat adventurers.
F.W.: I say with all respect that you weren't exactly a choirboy yourself. Do you identify with these two characters in some way?
R.H.: As crass as it is, there seems to be a lot of aestheticians who object to this way of talking about art. But I think almost always what works on the viewer of a movie is their identification with the characters. I think it's just built in. I mean I can also identify with, you know, Jerry Lewis [laughs] as a total fucking spastic. But as I had said before, I have this weakness for noir movies, and it's partly because their view of what life is like feels realistic to me.