Art & The Hard-Boiled Universe


You ever get an unsettling feeling at the end of a picture? It could be a literary work or a canvas or a 45. Sure. Maybe because you were counting on the boy getting the girl and instead he craps out? Or maybe because everything resolves into the easiest of happy endings contrary to your every expectation?

Figure 1.

Let’s suppose, just suppose, you’re nearing the end of “The Big Sleep.” Chandler’s got you all on edge as P.I. Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones and Canino. You just know something’s going to pop–it could bust wide open or implode real quiet-like, but either way you’re counting on it. And suddenly, without warning, Marlowe finds himself distracted by a vase of flowers. He stops listening to the boys next door and gets to arranging the blooms while going into a two-page dissertation on how to get baby’s breath to fall just ever so. Nuts!

Figure 2.

Or picture this one. The scene is spare, bleak.  A section of a house slants before you, the paint peeling from its wooden slats. Dotted and slashed with smears of crimson. A handful of squashed fern struggle out from between crushed floorboards and the earth. And, of course, those immobile legs, covered in starkly striped hose and capped off in wedges of lurid red. This ain’t no setting in no Prairie School of architecture.

Dorothy, a 16-1/2 year-old Judy Garland trying to pass for 12 in pigtails and rouge, stands transfixed in horror by the sight as one of the Singer Midgets steals up behind her. The overboard make-up can’t conceal his oily tan. He’s wearing an oversized fedora. He grasps Dorothy’s hand between his minuscule mitts and attempts to comfort the disturbed dame:

“Forget it, Dorothy,” he intones smooth and hard at the same time. “It’s Munchkinland.”

You know what’s wrong with these reinvented pictures, I know what’s wrong. Even my Aunt Fanny knows what’s wrong, but she probably couldn’t spell it out in so many words. So allow me.

The Universe is Out of Sync

It just doesn’t play. It’s too graphic or too silly or too violent. It’s too real or not real enough.  Too hard-boiled or too sugar-coated. Doesn’t fit, doesn’t mesh, doesn’t jive. It’s just plain wrong. It’s out of sync with the little world we’re experiencing.

Every work of art captures a universe through creation, re-creation, invention or clever combination thereof. It’s like laying down a complete set of natural laws–maybe unnatural in the case of Quentin Tarantino. But every element needs to fit and every action needs to ring true within this universe.

F’rinstance, in the noir setting of the hard-boiled detective universe, light is dark–that is to say that there ain’t a whole lot of light in the first place. No one is pure, no one is all good, no one is flawless–some are just more flawed than others. Justice doesn’t always win which means that sometimes crime pays. Everyone and their sister is born with original sin and man, how they’ll pay for it.

The hard-boiled author’s got plenty of ammo when it comes to expressing this cosmos of hard-knocks. Urban settings. Night settings. A hero constantly behind the eight ball. Murders at the drop of a hat. More subtle elements can also support the laws of this hard-nosed nature: a gumshoe who never gets paid or keeps having his gun boosted, a villain who’s presence is made known only by anecdote and reputation. The variations are only limited by the imagination and a created set of laws. As long as it fits, as long as it plays.

Creating a whole universe. Inventing a true world. It’s easier said than done and can leave you with your jaw dropping when it’s pulled off. There’s one heck of a beautiful thing to discover in the symmetry or asymmetry of artwork, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.


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2 thoughts on “Art & The Hard-Boiled Universe

  1. I just HAD to follow you down the yellow brick road……….

    • Ben Solomon says:

      Here’s hoping we all find the real wizard and get our hearts’ desires. And thanks very much for commenting–you have the honor of being the second guest to leave a verbal trail.

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