San Francisco prepares for Noir City's ninth installment.

Patrick Marks Takes a Green Eye to Noir

Adam Hartzell January 17, 2011

No film festival better demonstrates the long love relationship between literature and film than San Francisco’s Noir City, now in its ninth year and taking place at the Castro Theatre beginning Jan. 21. Among the festival's biggest fans is Patrick Marks, owner of the Green Arcade bookstore on Market Street. We took the opportunity to ask Marks, who curates his bookstore about the built environment as creatively as Anita Monga and Eddie Muller curate their festival of city-built films, his thoughts on the genre, the festival and how we can complement screenings at Noir City with the best and latest in noir literature.

SF360: Where does noir fit into the Green Arcade?

Patrick Marks: People ask why I have noir literature in the store, since most of my books are nonfiction. They all fit into what the theme of the store is, this idea of place and the urban built environment. Noir is a great adjunct to books about cities. But not all noir happens in cities.

For example, I published a reprint of Sin Soracco’s book Low Bite. She lives up in the Russian River area and her book takes place on a bus ride to Guerneville. So you have this slippery landscape and it’s populated by these characters, a lot of whom are somewhat urbanite. Her book was originally published by Barry Gifford. Gifford also published Jim Thompson, who did The Killer Inside Me, about this totally amoral, ruthless character, no redemption.

SF360: Which sounds like it would fit perfectly into this year’s Noir City theme of the deranged, the disturbed, the crazy in films noir.

Marks: Absolutely. If you look up Barry’s list from the ’80s, it’s a lot of these hard-boiled pulp writers who had been forgotten about. He rekindled them and found others.

SF360: How did you yourself come across/reprinting Low Bite? This isn’t a perfect parallel, but one of the great things about Noir City is how a portion of the proceeds from the festival go into getting restored prints of forgotten Films Noir.

Marks: I don’t think what I’ve done is on the same level. I think the work that Eddie Muller does working with the studios and getting prints from the vault and showing them and generating interest in preservation of films, that’s his great gift to the world. For Low Bite, actually, I knew Sin personally. I thought the book was totally worth retrieving. It’s interesting to note that when publishers were courting her in the ’80s, they would say to her, ‘Oh, you’re a woman and you’re writing noir! We need more women!’ And she was like, ‘I know I’m a woman, but what the hell is noir?’

SF360: She didn’t realize that she was writing noir?

Marks: Not really. She simply wrote about the people that she knew. She was an ex-con. So she knew a lot of criminals. They were her friends, people she cared about. So she wrote about them. The characters are very strong because she cared about them. I don’t want to say they are ‘good people’, but they are all respected in her novel and worthy of being depicted in the novel.

SF360: It’s interesting you mentioned how she was sought after because she was a woman writing noir, because Marjorie Bowen had to go by a male pseudonym of Joseph Shearing to get published.

Marks: The Feminist Press, now being led by this really cool woman named Amy Scholder, they have been re-printing a lot of woman pulp writers, Dorothy B. Hughes and other people. They have this series called Femmes Fatales and some of those books were made into very successful noir films, such as Hughes‘ In a Lonely Place. So there have been certain publishers going back to mine these works out of the past. I’m always looking for those things. It would be helpful for my search if I knew all the male pseudonyms for these women of early noir literature.

SF360: Could you tell me a little bit about the Akashic Books Noir Series, each city specific? There are two on San Francisco. You have Mexico City Noir here as well.

Marks: The series editor and publisher Johnny Temple finds editors for each volume who are natives from the cities where the books will be based. Those editors vet writers they know from the city featured in the book. When they asked Peter Maravelis, he was immediately ready to run with it. He knew who knew San Francisco. A lot of anthologies are just reprints. What’s really nice about this series is that these are stories initiated by the book, which makes it even more special. They have to do with the place. You can’t just be from there.

There’s an Orange County one which Gary Phillips did. Gary Phillips is an interesting writer. He’s a community organizer from Los Angeles. A lot of the noir writers that I know are sort of leftie. There’s a tradition of that. There’s also probably a tradition of some who aren’t, and they tend to be boring, as far as I’m concerned.

SF360: But there’s irony there with the film noir because the Hays Code required a certain conservative narrative to encase the films.

Marks: Right, exactly. But even though they were constrained by it, the brilliance of the great ones is demonstrated in how they could work around those constraints. So that’s what’s always kind of fun about Eddie’s selections at the festival. They enable an opportunity to figure out how the writers and directors work creatively within a narrative frame that might stifle the lesser practitioners.

What I also love about the festival are the internal joys of watching films like, from a past Noir City, Women’s Prison. Ida Lupino plays this prison warden who gets it in the end really bad. And she’s pitted against the staff psychiatrist played by her third husband, Howard Duff. In real life, they were known for having a tumultuous marriage, and their characters were at each others' throats in the movie.

SF360: What films are you looking forward to?

Marks: I have certain stars that I really like, mostly women. So Beware My Lovely will be on my list this year since Lupino‘s in it. Then anything set in San Francisco, I always like to see those. And if it says ‘not on DVD,' it’s a must-see for me, because it means that they likely can’t be seen at revival theatres and Muller’s gotten the print for a rare showing. I think you fool yourself when you watch films on other media. I think films are meant to be seen in the theater. And I think they are totally a different film when they are up on the big screen.

SF360: Because there’s a tactility to film. I think the word is ‘haptic.’ You feel the film on your body, on your eyes.

Marks: It totally is. It’s a liquid medium. And then also adding to the experience is how Eddie always makes these great comments, he’s just a treasure trove of information. And occasionally they have the old stars out, which is really, really great.

SF360: Noir City is focused on the time film noir was most vibrant. But as for recent noir literature, anything you would like to take the moment to highlight?

Marks: PM Press, which is in Oakland, have a Noir series and they have found some fascinating writers, such as Benjamin Whitmer’s book Pike. It’s partly a rural noir, taking place in Appalachia and urban Cincinnati.

Then there’s Jim Nisbet’s new novella, the second book I published with PM Press, A Moment of Doubt. Jim had already written a really great Noir called Lethal Injection. But A Moment of Doubt is really an anti-noir. The doubt in the title has to do with dealing with the doubt of being a writer, and more so being a genre writer, and coming up against the limits of having a damned detective and the other elements of the genre and playing them out while being surrounded by mediocrity.

Otherwise, Gary Phillips wrote a book called The Jook, which takes place in Los Angeles and is excellent. [A football noir!] Phillips is also in a book called Black Noir, which is all about African American noir writers.

There are new people coming into noir and I sort of purvey that even though my curation of noir literature is very particular. I don’t have as much as, say, the great M Is For Mystery bookstore in San Mateo. I’m not interested in a large noir collection, but more interested in how those books come out of this store and this place. I mean, I know many of the writers personally. But still, I never knew Dashiell Hammett. And I love Raymond Chandler and how he writes about Los Angeles. I don’t think they’ve made a true Raymond Chandler film, in a way, even though so many films have been made.

SF360: And why do you say that?

Marks: They’re just never sleazy enough. [Laughter.]

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