Posts Tagged ‘Film Noir’

Noir Needs Context

Posted: June 19, 2013 in Article, Movie
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There is a genre, called Film Noir. It’s awesome stuff. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a shooting style filled with shadows and somewhat stark camera work, or it’s a story style. As a story style, its hallmarks are usually agreed to be crime, moral ambiguity, social isolation, the attempt to be a good person and a search for some kind of justice. There is also something about women in the form of femme fatales, and the corruption of authority figures, but we’re going to get to that at a later date. Go watch The Dark Corner or The Big Sleep some time, you’ll see what I mean. Or maybe you won’t, because I’ve noticed that a lot of people who make another connected genre haven’t seen the awesome or are unable to replicate it. They clearly see the good man in a hard world and nothing else. See, there is a genre called Neo-Noir, and it kind of sucks. Technically, neo-noir is just later day stuff, made after a completely arbitrary cut off date.

There are problems with Neo-Noir though, and for me they’re pretty big. Problem number one is context. See, most of these movies were made in the post war era of the 40s and 50s. So, they exist in a world where Doris Day was tearing up the charts and blowing up the box office. America was kind of exuberant about having punched Hitler in the face and won World War II single handedly with just good old fashioned Know-How! We were busy having Technicolor romantic comedies, and an economic boom, and white picket fences, and everything was rosey and there would never be hippies, or punk rock, or even a president who wasn’t so white he was practically phosphorescent.

Now of course, a lot of that wasn’t true, and some people knew it. They rejected, or simply weren’t allowed to be part of this new world. That world existed, but they couldn’t have status in it. And you kind of have to understand that Doris Day was doing her thing while these movies were being made. When Humphrey Bogart was playing a detective who leaned alone and unloved in a doorway, he was existing in the same movie world as Doris Day was, he just didn’t get more than a moment in the light. Social Isolation is a big part of the classic film noir, but you need a connected world to be isolated from. There is also a world of art, of beauty, of light haired girls tripping lightly through fields of wildflowers and having nothing worse happen to her than a bit of a grass stain when she and her lover go for a tumble on the ground. These are all things that exist in that world, they just don’t exist for the hero of a film noir.

That’s one of the major problems I have with Neo-Noir, they often lack context. The make the detective the everyman, instead of the outsider. Watching Bladerunner, Momento, Year of The Dragon, Miller’s Crossing, Se7en, or Bound (that list can go on and on) you are never given to understand that this isn’t the entire world. There is no art, no music, no theater, that isn’t slave to the dark, gritty, greasy aesthetic that’s being manufactured. There is quite frankly, no outside for our hero to be looking in from. Everyone lives in Gotham City and it’s horrible all the time, filled with awful people who are mean spirited and/or weak. Even with long form TV shows like Deadwood and Game of Thrones, it’s just horrible people, living in a horrible world, where all sorts of horrible things happen to everyone, all the time because it’s all so horrible and if that pretty girl I mentioned earlier tried to trip through the daisies in one of these shows she’d have been raped and murdered by now.

It’s odd, because the makers of these movies seem to have grasped the emotions behind the isolation, but without the context of the brighter world it makes them just another cog in a terrible world. Failing to understand that Sin City is a funhouse mirror, they seem determined to come as close to reality as they can. The problem is that a seedy underbelly has to be the underbelly, it can’t be everything or your world makes no sense. Most of it comes off as posturing, the image of the tough guy shot through a child’s filter, through lack of understanding why people need to be tough. It’s as if they understand so little of how the world works, that they imagine it must all be corrupt and awful, which is why they’re childish fantasies about monye and power haven’t become true yet. Maybe that’s what they’re going for, to show that the whole world is awful and you have to be an awful person to contend and get along.

If I may posit an objection, that is utter, complete, and total bullshit.

It’s nothing more than a bullshit attempt at the same sort of mass-marketed ultra-conformist non-conformity garbage that they tried to feed us in the Post-Grunge era of the 90s and it was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now. Only now they’ve added a layer of sleaze to let the people who are taken in by this crap to believe they’re somehow clever and seeing past the glitz and understanding the world better because instead of fighting and trying to rise above the mud, they’re slamming themselves in face-first. There is art and light and joy in the world and if you raise your head up from your attempts to sink deeper into the mud than your neighbor (because the good mud is at the bottom), you will notice a whole world of light and beauty and joy.

That’s not to say that there isn’t good Neo-Noir out there. Brick is a masterful example of showing the real world. A segment with one of the few adults in the movie trying to find something for the hero to drink while he eats some cereal is both funny and contextual. Veronica Mars is another good example. The context of the real world is often see on the edges of the show, even though the show itself focuses on the dark side of the world they’ve built for obvious reasons. Both those products contain the social isolation, they contain the mistrust of authority figures, the world having a seedy underbelly, the moral ambiguity, and the good person looking for justice. They also have an understanding that there is more to the world than this little patch of dark and shadow, which is important because otherwise you can’t go on.

Context is always important to me, I will always look for the context of the world a story exists in. If the world contains no good, it is has no possibility for the good guy to win, then it’s no more interesting than a world where you know the good guy will win no matter what. Neither situation works for me. The world where we will always fail is as bad as the one where we always win.

Maybe one or the other story works for you, maybe you get into the constant loss or the constant win. Maybe you like the predictability of it all. I don’t, it doesn’t work for me. When I can predict things before they happen on the screen/page, I tend to get angry. I’m usually already bored, which is why I’m thinking and predicting what’ll happen next. We’ll talk more about that next time.

Okay, so when I first heard the concept of Brick, I was not a fan. Oh goodie, I thought, a Film Noir set in a high school. There will be teens in fedoras and talking fast like their trying to be Jimmy Cagney, despite the fact that Cagney never made a film noir because he was too big a star to be in those b movies. To be perfectly frank, I was expecting a high school version of Bugsy Malone, complete withy pie shooting machine guns. However, I heard some things and someone sent me the movie as a gift and I had to watch it then. So I watched it and was pleased to discover that my fears were misplaced. This wasn’t a bunch of teenagers playing at film noir, it was film noir playing with a bunch of teenagers. That probably sounds like I said the same thing, but it’s the difference of “I mean what I say is the same thing as I say what I mean.” If you get my drift. To put it in a short, declarative sentence: These guys got what film noir means rather than just trying to ape what it looks like.



Blade Runner (1982/ The Ladd Company/ Dir. Ridley Scott)

There isn’t much to say about the movie Blade Runner really. Well, there isn’t much new to say at any rate. It’s not a movie that has been ignored as a discussion point over the years, so why review it? Well, I’m going to go from the angle I went with for the recent review of Jurassic Park and compare it to the source material, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. I’ll be honest now and say that I enjoy both the movie and the book, so I won’t attack one using the other as a bludgeon. I will say I enjoy them both in different ways, and I hope to explore that in this review. So let’s have a look at the two and hopefully get you to either read one or watch the other. As another note, there are several versions of this movie running around. Instead of picking this version or that version, I decided to review the two major versions. As well as the book, I’ve decided to review The International Cut and The Final Cut for this review. I could have done some of the others, but the review is already late as it is so let’s just go with that.


Holy crap! Someone stole the intro for this piece. Darn them thieves.


The opening title card!

The Two Jakes (1990 Paramount Dir. Jack Nicholson)

I seem to be doing this a bit lately. Sitting down at my desk with a movie I’ve never seen ready to pound out a review. Strange to relate, I seem to have bought a copy of the movie that originated in Canada. Everything on the packaging is in both English and French. That’s Amazon’s marketplace for you I guess. I’m not complaining or anything, I just find it a little odd. I figure it has to be okay with a movie that has the reputation of this thing. So should we start with a recap of Chinatown? Probably not. As I understand it, this is one of those sequels that’s barely connected to the original. Since this takes place in 1948 and Chinatown took place in 1937, there wouldn’t be a lot of reason for them to be connected to each other. Actually, while eleven years of movie time had passed, sixteen years of real time had passed. I’d like to take this time to point out that The Godfather III also came out in 1990 and it had also been sixteen years since the last installment. I only point this out so that I can tell the Die Hard, Rambo, Rocky, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Roger Rabbit* people that we knew a long time ago that waiting more than 15 years for a sequel was a bad idea. Although Stallone seems to have done quite well with his.
*Don’t laugh, they’re planning it right now.


Murder, My Sweet (1944 RKO Radio Pictures, Dir. Edward Dmytryk)

The title was changed because people thought with Dick Powell in the lead it might be a musical. No, that’s a fact actually.