The American South is perhaps one of a few select places where a foreigner’s characterization of the locale can perfectly mirror that of the most loyal native. Take the words of Harlemite James Baldwin, who described the South as possessing an atmosphere so “liquid” that anything can happen, and the stories of lifelong Southerner Flannery O’Connor, where everything, and a little more, does happen. The South isn’t so much a place to be understood as it is a condition to be gauged, and what its various connotations reveal is an underlying affliction of need. Everyone in the South needs something: the oppressed are in need of a conscience for the oppressor, and the oppressor needs their ignorance to justify their oppressing, and every visitor need be careful lest they themselves be sucked into this system of need.
For this reason, the South seems an ideal setting for Angel Heart (1987), or any Noir which hinges on a need to assuage disorder. The P.I. on retainer, Harry Angel, is played by Mickey Rourke with a sort of narcotized stoicism. Cinched eyelids, tense lips, stiff cheeks – a rictus that upon leaving his urban environs for Louisiana, opens like the unfurling of things touched by revelation. One of these forms of revelation is Lisa Bonet as Epiphany doing the Creole-woman-in-the-weeds thing decades before Beyonce, while also taking part in a parody of Voodoo less emblematic of Southern White prejudice, as of Northern White anxiety of what exactly it is that Black people do in confidence. Though the film itself doesn’t know it, it’s really this quality that turns her into the necessary Femme Fatale, her blackness more devious than her sexual or moral abandon.
Another form of revelation is Robert DeNiro as Lou Cyphre, who, as in a lot of his roles, manages to refine decadence. In one scene he balances a hard-boiled egg in his talons before sensuously rolling it between his palms. A vulture circling like a harbinger of death comes to mind, as does a feeling of predestination, which if anything, is the real concern of the Film Noir. Where the corpse brings us, is solely a consequence of the systems that bring us the corpse, and where we bring ourselves, is the consequence of emotions we’re intimately aware of.
Whereas Jazz is known as the music of the Noir, Angel Heart,with its southern backdrop, goes to its roots by examining the Blues. What really gives the Blues its poignancy, beyond the pain, is its awareness of the euphoria which precedes the pain. A lost or unfaithful woman is not a tragedy in of itself but is one because of the memory of having had and having loved. Though these roots may have been distorted, you can still hear their intonations in Jazz and see these intonations in the Noirs they score, especially Angel Heart. Which like most notable Noirs, makes it a priority to confront the old Blues adage, asking the question: Why am I so Blue?
dir. Alan Parker
Screening Friday 5/19, 11:59 p.m. at Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Part of the month-long series: Pillow Stalk: Erotic Thrillers After Midnite