Friday, May 8, 2009

Stepping out in the Face of Noirdar

The end of the Classical Noir period spelled trouble for filmmakers wanting to tell stories with similar themes or conventions. Noir films that were developed in the post-classical period were considered replicants of the bygone era. These neo-noirs were seen as referencing the old category because, chronologically, they were not a part of it. This mindset is not productive because it relegates neo-noir to lesser plain, where it can offer us little else but critiques of and nostalgia for its predecessor. If we accept this notion of the end of Classical Noir as the onset of neo-noir, we are stunting the potential of the category as a whole. What if we were to regard the genre as something that transcends periods and boundaries? What if what we define as noir is just one, vast reservoir of ideas available for invocation by the whole film world? Then we could start to think about the potential of films to utilize noir tropes towards their own purposes.
Noir isn’t an invention of the film medium, nor is it exclusive to it; James Naremore points this out to us in a work entitled “The Noir Mediascape”. He uses Arjun Appadurai’s term “mediascape”, in place of genre, to describe noir: “we might even say that noir is a mediascape-a loosely related collection of perversely mysterious motifs or scenarios that circulate through all the information technologies” (255). Noir began before film, “as far back as ur-modernist crime writers…or the Victorian ‘sensation novelists’ (Naremore 255), therefore Classic Noir films should hold no authority over it. To insist that neo-noir only exists in relation to noir films of the 40’s and 50’s is to neglect the influence of alternate media noir texts on the Classic period. The film The Maltese Falcon is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel. The Classic films are themselves trying to draw from the already extant mediascape. To give Classic Noir an authority over neo-noir is to mark it (wrongly) as the source of noir ideas. Trying to discover any true source of noir is a futile pursuit, as it likely matured alongside storytelling itself. Classic Noir and neo-noir function the same way and draw from the same sources; they could both simply be labeled “noir in film”.
Unfortunately, the creation of these false labels has resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy for neo-noir. Through the misconception of neo-noir as a postmodern genre, its films were content to comment on Classic Noir instead of break new ground. Kasdan’s Body Heat makes no apologies about its commentative purpose. Matty gives Ned the anachronistic fedora hat, which serves no function within the plot, just as a hint to the viewer about this film’s relation to fedora-filled Classic period. The film’s conclusion deviates from Classic Noir in that it allows for the success of its femme-fatale instead of punishing her. This is a difference, but it functions merely as a commentary on a convention of the old genre. Body Heat does not push the genre into new territory; it instead assumes critical and sentimental roles.
In the last decade, select films have started to step outside these roles. No longer does neo-noir need to be in service of a dead genre. Instead, these films strive to employ noir motifs, themes, and scenarios towards their own means. What threatens our realization of this is the noir radar (or noirdar) instilled in us through popular conceptions of the genre’s role. To even casual viewers, noir tropes are fairly obvious. When watching a film, our noirdar alerts us to the presence of elements associated with the Classic Noir period. Thus, we regard these elements as nostalgic markers instead of as functional tools. Noirdar points things out to us, like a scavenger hunt, without considering what importance they have within the context of the story. When we hear the dialogue of the teens in Brick, we think about how Bogart used to talk that way. When we see the venetian blinds in Sin City, we recall the look of all the old private investigators’ offices. We also recognize the amnesia angle in Memento as something that’s been done numerous times in noir’s past. Our noirdar is our own worst enemy when viewing these films because it is satisfied by recognition as opposed to interpretation.
When we recognize that a film is channeling Classic Noir, we need look no further because our expectations have been fulfilled. This is why it is important that we change our thinking on the genre to accurately reflect its history as a mediascape. If we trust that all noir media feeds from the same trough, then we can stop thinking about their relation to each other and start pondering the motivations behind their consumption. Why does Brick choose to utilize particular noir conventions? The film is a noir mystery told within a high school setting, but it does not aim to paste old conventions on top of a new format. Brick uses noir in service of ideas about teen isolation. The Hammett-style dialogue gives the high-schoolers a different language from the few adults in the film and thus their world becomes farther removed from them. Their school gives them a plane like the noir city, where one can be isolated, but still within the thick of things. The femme-fatale archetype is used multiple times to emphasize trust issues across gender lines. Even the mystery itself aids the isolation. Such a mystery cannot hope to be completely found out with intervention from adults, so isolation becomes a necessity. Nothing about this use of the noir reservoir is done in an attempt to conjure nostalgia for previous films. Every noir element is used to further the tale and the specific themes therein.
Sin City drenches itself in noir, but it also has specific purposes for this outside homage. Each of the three sections of the film has a first-person narrator, like the one that starts out Sunset Blvd., but they don’t function the same way. Instead of narrating the plot or examining its convolutions, the voice-overs in Sin City act as inner-monologues that emphasize their maleness or penchants for rescuing defenseless women. “The Hard Goodbye” section of the film is even interrupted when Dwight wants to get in a word about Marv’s maleness: “He’d be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face”. The visuals of the film are hyper-emphasized noir aesthetics that include high-contrast, heavy shadow and venetian blinds, but they aren’t used in allusion to Classic Noir films. Their purpose is to give the film the unreal aesthetic of a graphic novel. The film wants to effectively translate the graphic novel, which itself incorporated ideas from noir media (along with other genre media) to create an effective, comic book world.
Memento involves the oft used amnesia angle, but, like the above films, changes its trope to create something new, instead of copying the old. Lenny can’t remember his present, but still knows his past, unlike typical amnesia which works in the opposite way. Can he maintain his sense of self and reality in the face of such a handicap? The film’s conclusion suggests that he cannot. In “Problems of Memory and Identity”, Spicer writes that Memento tries to “reconstruct the elements of film noir in order to pose deeper questions about the nature of existence”. This demonstrates “the powerful undercurrent of existentialism that runs through the whole…of film noir” (61). Memento is attempting to capitalize on ideas present in all of noir, not just those of the Classic Noir period.
The ability of these three neo-noir films to break the chains of servitude to their predecessor begs for the genre to be re-examined as a whole. What does it benefit anyone to keep film noir segregated into neo and classical periods? Through Naremore’s revelation about noir as a mediascape older than film, we can come to appreciate the similar goals of both periods. In Naremore’s “The Noir Mediascape”, he quotes Steven Soderbergh from a 1994 interview in The New York Times. The director says that he likes “the ideas behind noir” and is not concerned with imitation or recreation for the purposes of homage (268). One can imagine that most noir filmmakers, past and present, feel this way. The trouble is in getting more filmmakers, theorists, and viewers out of the nostalgia mindset that has stifled the potential of the genre. We need more Bricks and less L.A. Confidentials. Theorists must turn down their noirdar, or put it to greater use. Instead of pointing out the noir elements they’ve seen before, they should look further and appreciate how they are being used to create unique films.

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