I 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.
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?
Continue reading “Insulting Your Intelligence (“Just gimme some noiriness”)”