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About Film Blanc

Introduction- Film Noir & Film Blanc

We're all familiar with film noir—those dark, brooding, cynical tales of intrigue, passion, betrayal, and revenge—great films like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy, Nightmare Alley, and Touch of Evil . There are hundreds of them and they flourished from the post-World War II years through the 1950s. Do a web search for "film noir" and get scores of results; the field is well documented.

This site exists to recognize those films that represent the opposite in style and values of film noir, and some have described that category as film blanc, or "white film".

Film Noir
Film Blanc
  • Betrayal
  • Revenge
  • Cynicism
  • Sexual Motivations
  • Pessimism
  • Passion
  • Melancholy
  • Alienation
  • Bleakness
  • Disillusionment
  • Ambiguity
  • Moral Corruption
  • Desperation
  • Paranoia
  • Fantasy
  • Romantic Love
  • Life Affirming
  • Optimistic
  • Spiritual
  • Sentimental
  • Positive human potential
  • Tolerance
  • Forgiveness
  • Acceptance
  • “Feel-Good”
  • Often Comedic and/or Musical

 

Admittedly, this site works from a somewhat broader definition of the term "film blanc" than that described by Peter Valenti and others (below). In addition to films about the afterlife, it includes such related themes as time travel, reincarnation, dreams, ghosts, and alternate realities. Many of the films found here are often labeled as "romantic fantasies".

Peter Valenti

Film authority Glenn Erickson, on his DVD Savant site, reports that he first encountered the term in Film Comment magazine in about 1975. I have not yet been able to locate that source, however Peter Valenti, PhD, was certainly one of the first to coin the term in his 1978 article in the Journal of Popular Film, "The “Film Blanc”: Suggestions for a Variety of Fantasy, 1940-45", reprinted here by permission.

Emily Caston

In her book, Celluloid Saviors: Angels and Reform Politics in Hollywood Films (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), Dr. Emily Caston expands the definition of films blanc when she says they "...are films in which a saviour with extraordinary powers suspends the ordinary, known, laws of time and space in order to allow one or more ordinary human characters to reform themselves in life-changing ways. Almost always, these reforms result in a liberation to love and form true relationships within an authentic community. These films do not begin with the phrase 'once upon a time, ' but the question what if? Film blanc has as strong a presence in Hollywood cinema as its alter ego, film noir. ...Films blanc emphasize the endless positive potential of humans and resist the notion of evil as an immutable force. They celebrate tolerance, and reject tragedy or revenge, preferring to opt for forgiveness and acceptance as the resolution to human conflict."

Andrew Sarris

Valenti's term was acknowledged and reinforced by Andrew Sarris, in a 1979 American Film article, "The Afterlife, Hollywood-style", where he said, "For these sunnier excursions into the extraterrestrial, the term 'film blanc' was coined by Peter L. Valenti in a recent issue of the Journal of Popular Film. ... Valenti proposes a 'scenario' for the film blanc: '(1) a mortal's death or lapse into a dream; (2) subsequent acquaintance with a kindly representative of the world beyond; (3) a budding love affair; (4) ultimate transcendence of mortality to escape the spiritual world and return to the mortal world." Sarris referred to the success, that year, of Warren Beatty and Buck Henry's Heaven Can Wait, saying, "(It) is only the latest incarnation of what decades ago was a virtual genre; characters caught in a realm between life and death. The films were marked by wit and style—and a tendency to reveal more about the here and now than the there and after." He discussed the critical reaction to films blanc, "For the most part, however, critics and historians managed to sidestep the issue of death itself by focusing on the aesthetic quality of the fantasy. What was therefore at issue was not the widespread belief in some form of afterlife, but the appropriateness and accuracy of the 'Hollywood' version of this afterlife. ... It would seem that there is a great risk in any form of fantasy on the screen but that the emotional rewards are considerable when the fantasy is rendered with wit, grace and feeling. Even supposed critical failures like Peter Ibbetson and The Ghost Goes West linger in our minds longer than the more solemn realists and purists of the medium decree that they should." Sarris concluded his piece with the observation, "Currently the film blanc is in eclipse, Warren Beatty notwithstanding, as demographic emphasis is on ever scarier horror shows festooned with pseudoscientific claptrap and a corrosively apocalyptic cynicism. There is no place in the genre for the civilized charm of Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait, the romantic intensity of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, or—and we can be grateful for this—the false piety of the funeral parlor." (The "eclipse" of film blanc in 1979 was certainly true, however, as the chronology of films blanc on this site shows, they were soon to return to a level comparable to the 1940s - ed.)

Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli

On their Web site, deathathemovies.com, Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli discuss Peter Valenti's designation of film blanc, and introduce their term "transit films" as a genre identifier, "the better to acknowledge the wealth of Eastern spiritual wisdom, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, that added to our Western culture’s understanding and attitude toward death and the beyond." Their book, Death At The Movies: Hollywood's Guide to the Hereafter, tells the story of the resurrection of the film blanc genre. The attached article (pdf), Fantasies of Death & Beyond, offers an introduction to their ideas and writings.

Other Film Writers

In her book,Giving Up the Ghost: Spirits, Ghosts and Angels in Mainstream Comedy Films(1998, Wayne State University Press), Katherine A. Fowkes states, "Peter Valenti coined the term 'film blanc' to describe some of the ghost films of the 1930s and 1940s. Contrasting these films to film noir, Valenti argues that these sentimental ghost films became popular during World War II because they provided reassurance that deceased loved ones were going to a better place and that they were dying for a higher cause."

In In Glorious Technicolor (2011, Chatto & Windus, London), author Francine Stock noted, "The afterlife is a popular location for 1940s cinema, so well visited in fact , that in the 1970s critic Peter L. Valenti coined the term film blanc for what he identified as a sub-genre." Stock cites It's a Wonderful Life, Between Two Worlds and A Guy Named Joe as notable examples of film blanc titles, and offers that "The greatest film blanc, of all, however, has to be Powell and Pressburger's masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death (1946)... ."

AllMovie

The Film Glossary on AllMovie offers a definition:

Made in direct contrast to film noir, film blanc -- literally white film -- most often depicts some aspect of the afterlife and promulgates the idea that earth is not as bad as people make it out to be. These films were quite popular in the late 1940s, post World War II, and have occasional resurgencies during times of renewed hope. Most often these films are comedic in orientation. "Its a Wonderful Life" (1946) is perhaps one of the best known examples of film blanc and "Heaven Can Wait" (1979) and "Always" (1989) are recent entries into this film category.

Summary

In any event, the field is not highly documented and the term, while apt, is not widely used. That is the purpose of this site - to identify and describe those motion pictures that fall under this category.

Film blanc movies typically involve themes of the afterlife, Heaven and angels, Hell and the devil, reincarnation, time travel and magic, as well as romantic love—and the stories are often presented whimsically and lighthearted. And with a strong sense of life affirming optimism, unlike the cynical pessimism of film noir.

The subtitle on this site, "The Cinema of Feel-Good Fantasies" refers to two other qualities of film blanc—successful ones leave the viewer with an almost indefinable state of "good feeling"; virtually all have strong fantasy elements, again in contrast to the dreary realism of film noir.

Another term that is relevant to many of the themes of film blanc movies is "spirituality" in the broad, not necessarily religious, sense of the word. Stephen Simon who produced two of the films found on this site, Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come, and who founded the Spiritual Cinema Circle, wrote about the subject in his book, The Force Is With You: Mystical Movie Messages That Inspire Our Lives. One of his main criteria in defining spiritual cinema is helpful to describing film blanc, "...films that make you feel good about being human."

As in film noir, designating a film as a blanc is often subjective. While many of the titles here meet all or most of the criteria for such designation, some are only marginally blanc, but contain sufficient fantasy elements and "feel-good" qualities to warrant inclusion.

If you have a favorite film blanc movie that should be included here, drop me an email.

 

Bill Shepard