MasterBlog: Film Noir and Modern Ennui

Is film noir just an artifact, a cinema movement with a beginning and an end? Many modern filmmakers (and showrunners) play with the stylistic conventions of noir as a kind of postmodern exercise – sometimes for the pleasure of pastiche (looking at you, Woody Allen), or maybe to fetishize history (Mad Men occasionally flirts with noir-ness). Personally, I feel a kind of detachment from noir; I read noir works like dated fables about American society. Noir is weird because it’s deeply entwined with a certain era of American filmmaking only a couple of decades long, and there’s a temptation to compartmentalize it. Though noir films work through the issues of a broken society and American (masculine) identity – issues that surely exist in infinite complexity in 2015 – could we still work within it as a relevant genre?

I found some much-needed nuance to noir through Charles Maland’s analysis of “Film Gris” and James Naremore’s proposed two branches of the noir movemet – “cynicism and misanthropy” and “humanism and social engagement.” It seems to me that both of our viewings this week fit kind of neatly into Naremore’s categories: The Breaking Point oozes something beyond cynicism, maybe even nihilism. It’s kind of a joyless way to adapt To Have and Have Not; it’s a treatise on classic American male stoicism and loneliness, and the lose-lose situation of the women who love them. The sensually strong femme fatale and the emotionally dependent wife both suffer from bone-deep character flaws. Our hero survives in the end, but everyone remains trapped in their individual, cold character prisons. And, the film ends on the image of the lone black character’s needlessly orphaned son (which I felt was strange and sort of gratuitous racialized tragedy porn, considering how little onscreen narrative either of those black characters received).

Meanwhile, the episode “Where’s Harry?” from East-Side West-Side engages the sub-genre of “film gris” and Naremore’s “social engagement” branch of noir. The image of the lone American heroic screw-up is complicated by reveals about his Jewish past and the complex contemporary context of the Jackons’ black neighborhood and family life. It seemed to be a modern attempt at noir in 1963, with many calling cards to signify the “updating” of the genre – vivid white-black lighting and shadow, an occasional narration, etc. The most notable aspect of the episode, for me, was the dialogue delivered by Cicely Tyson’s Mrs. Jackson, problematizing the juxtaposition of a broken white upper-class couple with a content lower-class black family. Though the budding trust between Harry and Mr. Jackson seems to blur the noir lines of white/black, light/dark, Mrs. Jackson rebels with a Diawaran sentiment: “Why is it when trouble comes, its color is always white?” There are many layers of social commentary to “Where’s Harry” as opposed to a journey of anti-heroicism and erotic violent punishment; in many ways, “film gris” is the least noir that noir can get.

If we look at noir as “the history of an idea,” can that idea truly be extended and reinterpreted as history moves forward? I was struck by Manthia Diawara’s outline of the ways in which the black filmmaker can appropriate film noir in order to “redeem blackness from its genre definition” and “recast the relation between light and dark on the screen as a metaphor for making black people and their cultures visible.” It is certainly poignant to consider the following as the country currently struggles with police violence and its legacy of cultural scarring: “To fight the law is to fight one’s capitivity, and to claim the right to invent one’s self.” What can black filmmakers (and Asian, native, etc filmmakers, even certain socially conscious/progressive white filmmakers) still get out of noir today, if they can get anything? One film I really enjoyed, but am not sure was a successful piece of social commentary, was Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) by Carl Franklin. This is a relatively modern black noir starring Denzel Washington as the hard-boiled gumshoe, with all the stylistic hallmarks of the “cynicism” branch but the narrative content of the “social” branch. It’s the last attempt I know of to truly recreate film noir to talk explicitly about modern issues. What other attempts have there been to update noir, and have they been successful? Is this a genre tied (and doomed) to the place of its historical birth?

Media discussed:
The Breaking Point (1950)
East-Side, West-Side – “Where’s Harry?” (1963)

“Crime, Critique and Cold War Culture” – Charles Maland
Film Genre and the Genre Film – Tom Schatz
“Film Noir: The History of an Idea” – James Naremore
Noir by Noirs – Manthia Diawara

Leah Steuer
COURSE: Text & Context
QUARTER: Fall 2015

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