The pastoral and the city in Carl Franklin's One False Move

Citation metadata

Author: Charles Scruggs
Date: Summer 2004
From: African American Review(Vol. 38, Issue 2)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,187 words
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American film noir depicts a city as dark and labyrinthine as the fate of its protagonists, but the promise of rus in urbe is often present, hinting of a possible way out. Bisbee, Arizona, in L.A. Confidential (1997), the miniature village and tabletop electric trains in Clockers (1997), the sunlit pier and ocean in Dark City (1998), the deus ex machina conclusion of Blade Runner (1982)--all suggest an escape from the urban maze. But as a general rule the pastoral within the urban context of film noir is almost always treated ironically, as the grim ending of Seven (1995) illustrates. This pattern is fairly consistent: Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) dies in a horse pasture when he tries to return to his boyhood farm in Kentucky; Jeff Markham in Out of the Past (1947) loses his idealized small town (and the golden girl within it) when the false pastoral in Mexico catches up with him; and in the first movie version of Hemingway's short story, The Killers (1946), the city invades the country, implying that in twentieth-century America there is no longer any place to hide.

In One False Move (1991), African American director Carl Franklin uses the pastoral motif within film noir in a unique way, one that has ties to African American cinematic and literary traditions. In Franklin's extraordinary film, the pastoral becomes the site of a primal crime, as it does in Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (1920) and John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood (1991). In Singleton's film about contemporary L.A., we remember the chilling moment when the eerie quiet of the black urban neighborhood is bathed in a menacing, pastoral sunlight. Although this scene is indebted to Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), its effect expresses a distinctly African American theme. Polanski's "sunshine noir" traces the primal crime back to American greed, specifically to the theft of the Owens Valley water. Singleton's pastoral moment suggests that the snake in the urban landscape is the legacy of slavery. His scene gives special poignancy to Julian Murphet's recent argument that film noir, especially the films of the 1940s, is often about noirs (Murphet 24-35). Franklin's technicolor thriller goes a step further than Singleton's work in that the urban crime occurs in the film's opening scenes, but its explicit origins lie in the American South and, by extension, in the history of the Republic itself. (1)

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) eloquently links our nation's origins with the pastoral impulse. Nick Carraway, we remember, imagines a time when Long Island first "flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world" (189). Yet in Fitzgerald's novel, the pastoral contains within it the seeds of its "uncanny" opposite, for the attempt to escape or transcend history inevitably triggers its return. Gatsby's "ghostly heart" (101) yearns to recapture a past unencumbered by mutability, but that imagined past is itself corrupted by history, indeed by those very Dutch whose desires for Paradise cannot escape the carnality...

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Source Citation

Source Citation
Scruggs, Charles. "The pastoral and the city in Carl Franklin's One False Move." African American Review, vol. 38, no. 2, 2004, p. 323+. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.

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