Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dieselpunk Cinema

In my previous post I wrote about dieselpunk as a musical genre. Along with having a distinctive musical style dieselpunk is fortunate to also have a growing collection of motion pictures that one may call ‘dieselpunk.’ But before I can review one of the important dieselpunk films we need to try to establish the criteria necessary for a film to be labeled as such. One will find that many of the same criteria that I used previously to identify dieselpunk music are the same as those that will be used to identify dieselpunk cinema.

Before I go much further I need to provide a disclaimer. What criteria should be used to determine if a motion picture is ‘dieselpunk’ is highly controversial and there’s been much discussion in the online dieselpunk community whether this film or that film is ‘dieselpunk.’ So, like everything else in this blog, what follows is solely my opinion and I do not claim speak for anyone else.

In my opinion, one required component found in dieselpunk cinema, as in dieselpunk music, is that it must be contemporary in its origin. While the classic movies of the 20’s through 40’s were some of the greatest ever made, dieselpunk is a reimagining or retelling of that era and therefore originates after the golden age of motion pictures.

A dieselpunk movie may be set during the 20’s through 40’s but it’s not a necessity. It may be set during today or even if the future. But, in my opinion, in whatever time the motion picture is set another required element for it to be considered dieselpunk is that it must remind us of that bygone era. An excellent term for this, which was coined at the web site The Gatehouse, is ‘decodence.’ According to web site decodence, “embraces the styles and technologies of the era; it rejoices in a prolonged Jazz Age ambience.” Therefore, while a dieselpunk film doesn’t have to be set during that era it might have a noir style of storytelling, it might be reminiscent of the Saturday morning serials or it might simply incorporate the fashion or cinematographic style of that time. Whatever the setting or storyline a dieselpunk movie should always point us back.

Finally, though not mandatory, along with the prior mentioned essential components, it helps if a dieselpunk film incorporates a touch of irreverence. The presence of anti-heroes or wry humor, while not required elements, certainly adds to the ‘punk’ that the name of the genre implies.

So with the above criteria in mind I want to review a film that is universally recognized as being dieselpunk: “Dark City.”

Dark City is a combination thriller, science fiction, and murder mystery. It opens with the protagonist, played by Rufus Sewell, waking up with amnesia in a bathtub in a rundown hotel. He quickly finds in the blood stained room a horribly murdered woman. As he tries to recover his memory, he quickly learns that his last name is Murdoch, he finds himself pursued by strange men who all dress in dark suits, have shaved heads, and wear either black fedoras or bowlers. Repeatedly through the film Murdoch’s contacted by a person who claims to be a doctor (Kiefer Sutherland) and who claims to have all of the answers to Murdoch’s questions. Along with the talent of Sewell and Sutherland, we also are treated to a fantastic performance by William Hurt who plays police inspector Frank Bumstead and who inherits the assignment of solving the ritualistic murders after the previous detective goes insane.

Dark City was a sleeper film when released in 1998. With the exception of Roger Ebert, who declared it the best film of 1998 and praises it extensively in the extras found on the Director’s Cut DVD version, most critics gave it a lukewarm review. Over time its popularity has grown and Dark City has developed a sizable cult following far beyond the dieselpunk community. This popularity is well deserved and I highly recommend Dark City.

To read more about the concept of ‘decodence’ there is an excellent online article at The Gatehouse.

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