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Monday profile: Eddie Muller

Submitted by on 1, June 29, 2009 – 10:00 amNo Comment


When Eddie Muller says he’s a contemporary renaissance man, he’s not kidding: The onetime newsman has not only earned the nickname “Czar of Noir” for his authoritative tomes on film noir and his annual film festival, he’s written films, amassed materials for a boxing museum and concocted his own cocktail. (And that’s not even the half of it.)

Muller, who’s also picked up the title “cultural archaeologist,” has finished a 20-minute film called “The Grand Inquisitor” starring noir star Marsha Hunt, and he’s hard at work with a new non-profit that restores old, independent films. And he still found the time to sit down with The Island to answer a few questions. (Thanks, Eddie!)

How did you earn the title “Czar of Noir”?
It’s a woman named Laura Sheppard at the Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco, which is the oldest private library in the western United States. She was introducing me one night – I was giving a talk there – and that just popped out of her mouth. Since my dad was a boxing writer, I know the value of a good nickname.

When did you see your first noir film?
On “Dialing for Dollars” on KTVU. I used to cut school and stay home to watch. I think I was probably 13, and it was a movie called “Thieves’ Highway,” and it was set in San Francisco. I was just always fascinated by – I don’t want to say I’m fascinated by the past as much as I’m fascinated with deciphering the clues as to how we got where we are now.

What is a cultural archaeologist?
I decipher the ephemera of the culture. So what is on TV and movies and books and things like that – I think that’s like the public consciousness. So by being able to actually figure out why things were done the way they are gives you clues as to who we are.

And who are we now?
Short attention span. And not much consideration for what has gone before. Not much consideration for tradition, which I think is very unfortunate. The best thing about America is that it’s a culture that constantly reinvents itself. The worst thing about American culture is that it constantly reinvents itself. But when you’re reinventing every month, what is there to hold on to and to cherish?

You said you’re a native San Franciscan. How did you end up in Alameda?
I’ve lived here for 20 years. I never set foot in Alameda until the day that I moved here. Both my wife and I had jobs in which we were self-employed. It was very difficult, in San Francisco, to find a place that was big enough to allow us to work at home. And also, we couldn’t park. She came here for an appointment and we were driving around, saw a “for rent” sign in the window of a really nice place, looked at it and rented it in the same afternoon.

What was Alameda like when you moved here?
Not as busy. And it was still a Navy town. And I have definitely seen the changes. And I think for the most part they are all for the better, really.

You jumped from reporting to writing books. How? And why?
Being a journalist taught me how to write efficiently. But I wanted to write books so I could efficiently write about things that mattered to me and that were of personal interest to me. It’s a wonderful thing to be a writer and to be in service to something beyond you. But at a certain point you realize, “I want to write stuff that is my leave-behind.” This was my passion.

You’re a busy guy. Do you have any hobbies?
All of my hobbies have become my profession. Which is good. I think that’s – no, I actually don’t have any hobbies. What’s interesting is that the creation of a non-profit to rescue the movies – that seemed like a hobby, and now it’s like a full-time – it’s a vocation now. It’s an obsession now.

Tell me about it.
I think everything comes back to digital information technology now. Not every film is going to get digitized. People don’t understand that film is perishable, and that they will disintegrate. I am endeavoring to rescue the films that are in danger of disintegrating. I can’t believe that people can make a great film and it can disappear. The average person has no concept of this because they just figure, “This is awesome, every movie ever made, I can download it eventually.” Not true.

What are some of the films you’ve saved?
We saved a film called “The Prowler,” which was made at the height of the Hollywood blacklist. Most of the people that were in the film were blacklisted. And it’s an excellent example of 20th century film noir. I raised the money to have it restored at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Now we screen it at festivals. I’m taking it to France in October – bringing noir to the French. And this year we’re doing one called “Cry Danger.” These are mostly independently produced films. Those are the ones at risk of being lost because they’re not part of the big studio inventory.

Your website said you’re also working on creating a boxing museum?
I created it in San Francisco years ago. Now, unfortunately, it’s in storage. I’m looking for some young, Internet-savvy kids to put the whole thing together as a website. I have so much stuff. I did it as a tribute to my dad. After he died, I became dedicated to that cause.

Tell me about your upcoming projects.
I’m defiant. I just want to go back to writing. I toyed with the idea of producing an Internet show, but I don’t know that I am going to do that. I’m going to continue to do all my noir stuff. I’m working on a novel and a screenplay right now. Those things are on the front burner. I’m very, very fortunate in that I don’t ever have to think about what I’m going to do when I get up. I’ve got enough projects to last me into my twilight years right now.

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