Insulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”)

toys'r'usI sometimes wonder if the popularity of noir isn’t largely due to the fact that no one seems entirely clear on what the hell it is.

Not that a busload of perfectly smart people haven’t ventured a definition or two. A great deal of thought is expended on virtually a daily basis trying to pin this sucker down, but it’s proved too supple a creature for that. One might even say noir’s ambiguity is its genius.

Is it?

Noir’s resurgence hasn’t taken place in a vacuum. Call it noiriness. So-called reality programming has become the middlebrow darling of TV executives and viewers alike. Not only has documentary filmmaking enjoyed a renaissance as well, its techniques have infiltrated TV comedy: consider The Office, Modern Family, Parks and Recreation.

There’s a trend here: a desire for the lowdown, the real deal, the inside dope. A craving for the authentic — or at least its veneer.

Noir responds to the same impulse, though the underlying need is edgier. Trace the trend back, and you’ll find Frank Miller reinventing the Daredevil and Batman franchises in the 1980s, and Alan Moore creating Warrior and V for Vendetta. And before that, in the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s — when Lennon was belting “Just gimme some truth” — the lunatics were running the Hollywood asylum, giving us such neo-noir masterpieces as Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, King of Marvin Gardens, Scarecrow, Klute, Mean Streets, Midnight Cowboy, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, The Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown.

I use the term neo-noir grudgingly. It’s become a truism that these films were in the noir tradition, but in fact many were simple, honest tragedies. Just as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman falls prey to the delusion of making it in America, Jake Gittes in Chinatown is betrayed by the mistaken belief that we can figure things out (in Polanski’s reworking of Towne’s script, anyway), and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy is misled by his conviction that a perfectly devised mask can shield him from the pain of being unloved.

Nearly all these films had tough, blatantly tragic endings, and even the ones that didn’t had a sense that if the hero survived, he did so through luck or guile, not virtue. These stories appeared in the context of the Vietnam War, when America was searching for a deeper understanding of itself, something that would remain once you tore away the paranoia and the swagger and the teary, knee-jerk flag-waving. Watching wood-hut villages napalmed before our eyes on nightly TV, we were obliged to confront a much different America than we’d grown up to believe in; it showed in our art.

Here, yes, neo-noir echoed classic noir, which was rooted in the Second World War and its aftermath, when soldiers stripped of their illusions returned home to a country desperate for normalcy. Inwardly, many of these vets recoiled from their portrayals as heroes, for they knew what it took to survive combat, and often it was luck, or something much darker, not fit for a chat with the wife and kids or Reverend Tim.

And the graphic-novel noir of Miller and Moore simply continued this thematic thread, yes?

Not exactly.

Something happened between the 1960s to 1970s lunatic heyday and the 1980s. Three movies appeared on America’s screens that changed everything: Jaws (1975), Rocky (1976), and Star Wars (1977). The last proved the first two weren’t flukes, and all three reminded Hollywood what a blockbuster looked like, and how much money could be made, especially in comparison to the critically acclaimed but dreary flops of so-called neo-noir.

Shortly, the major studios were enforcing a tacit rule: Screw bummer endings. Audiences don’t want them. It was exactly the kind of lie that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jimmy Carter’s malaise got the heave. Enter Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. Before long, focus groups were rubber-stamping this fecklessness, a whole generation grew up with chipper Gipper endings, and American storytelling found itself toeing the edge of a void.

What was missing was tragedy.

Tragedy embraces the notion that we are, by our very nature, inclined to screw up. We can’t help ourselves. It’s hardwired into the meat. The nature of our psychology and biology conspire to lead us astray: into confused indecision, misbegotten hope, blind self-congratulation.

Joseph Conrad, in Under Western Eyes, remarked on man’s “many passions and his miserable ingenuity in error, always dazzled by the base glitter of mixed motives, everlastingly betrayed by a short-sighted wisdom.”

The “ingenuity in error” echoes Aristotle, who in his Poetics maintained that the best protagonist was someone “whose misfortune is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment.”

The Greeks believed there was nobility in suffering, and it was precisely this nobility that distinguished us. Our pain and mortality ironically elevated us above the gods, who behaved like petulant rich kids.

This concept of nobility through suffering took a serious hit in the trenches of the First World War, and in the carpet-bombed cities of the Second. Slaughter and butchery are not ennobling. A sense of the random, the meaningless, crept into the Western psyche. The abyss wasn’t just waiting. The abyss was us.

And yet, if the illusion of nobility was stripped away, something endured. In the glimmers of decency and strength and loyalty that not even death camps and Dresden could erase, there remained a fiercely humbled, inglorious, but not insignificant sense of who we could be. But for a tenuous insight, we could blunder into the bloodbath all over again. Yet that insight was real, we were capable of it, and it might just save us, if we allowed it to.

I’d argue that a tragic view of our nature is necessary for a functional republic. Only such a vision recognizes the need to rein in our innate craving for power, our lust for glamour and glory, our belief in the salvation of secrecy, our vain delusion that we’re the historical exception. It’ll all work out okay because, you know, it’s us. The fix is in. Jesus told me so.

Strip away tragedy, and you’re left with bread and circuses. Sappy clowns and blowhard heroes. Sooner rather than later, they begin to grate. The prattle rings hollow. One does get sick of being lied to.

And so a noir aesthetic, which strips away pretense, reemerges. The kids find their way to the comic shop and flip through to the truly wicked parts.

Which is the good news and the bad news.

The good? It’s almost impossible to kill the desire for the truth, in whatever form it takes.

The bad? Noir isn’t meant to replace tragedy as an aesthetic. Noir is precisely about men and women whose misfortune is brought about through “vice or depravity.” It’s a subgenre of tragedy, in which the error of judgment is the belief, often born of desperation, that a criminal act can redeem one’s pitiless luck.

But as presently incarnated, it’s also an acceptable form of tragedy. Whether in the Coen brothers’ pastiches, Christopher Nolan’s puzzles, David Lynch’s surreal extravagances, or Quentin Tarrantino’s bloodbaths, latter-day noir’s darkness is so extreme, so potentially cartoonish, one needn’t take it seriously. As much as I love many of these films, I can’t help feeling I’m being winked at.

There are exceptions of course — Mystic River, Clockers, 25th Hour, In the Bedroom, House of Sand and Fog, not to mention the work of George Pelecanos and Ken Bruen and Charlie Huston and many others — but these works represent such a variety of approaches that bundling them under the single term noir obscures more than it illuminates.

Which brings us back to the sprawling amorphousness of present-day noir. It’s the box into which all things dark get dumped, which is fair to neither it nor the stories that don’t belong.

Just because it’s dark don’t make it noir. But noir becomes the label of choice precisely because, as a culture, we seem to recoil from the unforgiving mirror tragedy holds up to us. Noir in this context seems to say, “Yeah, I know, the story’s dark, but, hey, it’s cool. It’s fun dark.”

Noir, with its roots in the crime genre, is too easily dismissed as an exception. Viewers and readers can shrug off the broader subtext: “Yeah, that’s deep, but it ain’t about me.” It is, after all, just entertainment, no matter how much its creators (and its audience) embrace it precisely because it feels more genuine than so much of what’s out there. Noir responds to a desire for the truth that the prevailing culture is desperately trying to drown out with consumerist pep talks, invincible heroes, feel-good schmaltz, and bad slapstick.

Which segues into something a friend once said — maybe he stole it from someone else, I don’t know, but it stuck with me: “There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, just entertainment that insults your intelligence.”

Noir has traditionally been exactly such a compromise, an attempt to entertain without underestimating the viewer’s or reader’s IQ. But with the stifling of American tragedy — a tradition that Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams honed to near perfection (before they got voted off the island) — there was nowhere else for a tragic vision to go but noir. As a result, noir has had to shoulder an artistic burden it was never meant to carry. And the strain shows.

I’d argue that the rejection of a tragic ethos is one of the major reasons we find our country careening toward Third World status. The economy stagnates as we indulge in an orgy of venom. We’re fighting two wars with nary a word about common sacrifice, unless it helps in the finger-pointing. As the middle class vanishes, the chasm between rich and poor begins to resemble Yeats’s widening gyre. It’s hard to hear the national anthem and not think of whistling past the graveyard.

It’s not just the Tea Party and Codepink crowds who are scared, and royally pissed off. This fear, this rage, this desperation — it ripples through everything like a kind of static in the blood. And everybody’s convinced they’re being lied to.

But there’s a curious irony in this: Just because a rejection of tragedy got us here doesn’t mean embracing it now can guide us out. Tragedy normally flourishes during a time of reflection, after the worst horrors have passed, when safety affords the luxury of bloodless dissection. That ain’t now, I’m afraid. The horrors, sadly, seem very much upon us. Even the military waits until the action is over before conducting its hot wash.

The sobering honesty of tragedy could serve us well. But the cathartic embrace of our inevitable self-deluded destruction that tragedy obliges might just be more cure than the patient can handle right now.

I know this sounds like I’m backing away from my own argument, turning chickenshit at the crucial moment. But do people who are genuinely fearful for themselves and for their families, who wonder not just where the money went but why the future vanished with it — do they really need a tragedian belaboring how totally screwed they are by their very nature? Isn’t that also, in a way, insulting their intelligence?

What I’m proposing requires walking a fine line. Stories that don’t for a moment shrink from portraying our God-given knack for screwing the pooch, but that also recognize, in our capacity for insight, humility, courage, and compassion, a possible way out. The trick is not pimping a guarantee. That’s not storytelling. That’s politics.

This was why James Joyce, despite his love of classic tragedy, considered comedy — the drama of joy’s possibility (think The Tempest, not Confessions of a Shopaholic) — the superior form: because comedy in this sense is so necessary, and so much harder to pull off.

It may well be that the deeper truth to get at now, the harder one to convey, is precisely the one we need so badly, because we fear it too is a lie: that somehow, some way, we’ll come out all right.

And I doubt it will be Batman or Luke Skywalker or even Rocky Balboa who points the way (though God knows we could use a blue-collar believer like Rocky right now). But it just might be heroes whose gravitas has come at a terrible price, a price that isn’t merely cosmetic, hinted at in Act One then tossed aside as the action ratchets up and the guns start blazing.

I’m thinking of characters like Dave Robicheaux, whose heartbreak sculpts his decency; or the nameless father in The Road, who refuses to let even apocalyptic devastation claim his son; or (if I may) a Salvadoran American kid named Roque Montalvo who, in Do They Know I’m Running?, shows his mettle in the simple act of never giving up on his brutal trek home.

Once the crisis is past, tragedians (or the practitioners of noir, if it comes to that) can dissect how delusional we were in the bullshit convictions that got us through. For now, maybe artist and audience, both starving for something true, both desperate for something that doesn’t insult their intelligence, but also craving some sliver of honest hope, need what’s always hardest to show: that despite our miserable ingenuity in error, despite our mixed motives and shortsighted wisdom, on occasion — as Faulkner, another great American tragedian, ironically believed — we not merely endure, but prevail.

David Corbett, in addition to being a contributor to the two serial novels The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet, is the author of four critically acclaimed novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise and Do They Know I’m Running?.

David’s essays and short fiction have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his story “Pretty Little Parasite” (Las Vegas Noir) was selected for inclusion in Best American Mystery Stories 2009. In another collaboration project, he teamed with Luis Alberto Urrea for a story titled “Who Stole My Monkey?” that will appear in the upcoming (October 2010) Lone Star Noir. He has taught at UCLA Extension, Book Passage, Wordstock, and the East of Eden Writers Conference.