Film Noir - Caroline JS (Kay) Picart Homepage
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Article by John Belton
Presentation by Evan Mays
Outline • • • • • • • • •
beginning noir: genre, series, mode noir: red guts noir: stylistics the Code! lit. origins women in film noir a critique & revival
Film Noir (1941-1958): Black film. • Uniquely American term; coined by 2 French film critics. Noir’s roots are pulp fiction & the wartime & postwar despair ‘n’ alienation that arose as America adjusted to a new social & political reality.
Unsettled audiences by violation of traditional narrative & stylistic practices which orient & stabilize spectators. Dominated by crime, corruption, cruelty & a seemingly unhealthy interest in the erotic.
Film Noir as Genre • Genre: (from the French) kind, type or category of phenomenon or particular thing; in cinema used to designate various categories of motion picture production. • A # of recent scholars approach noir thus, discussing it in terms of iconography, fixed character types & predictable narrative patterns.
Film Noir as Series • Certain characters, narrative situations, & thematic concerns appear repeatedly in noir, but these elements play against audience expectations; also, noir crosses over traditional genre boundaries. Because of this some critics see film noir as a series or “cycle”, like an aesthetic movement.
Film Noir as Series • Producers, directors & screenwriters of ’40s & ’50s noirs, unlike genre filmmakers, do not deliberately set out to make noir as no body of set convention exists to follow. • The audiences who see films noirs do not view them as they do conventional genre pictures. That is, they do not look at them in relation to a fixed system of prior expectations.
Film Noir as Series • Noirs rely upon identifiable character types & conventionalized narrative patterns. But that which is generic in film noir is that which is not “noir”. • A schizophrenic nature: noir is not a genre, yet every film noir is also a genre film. What makes these films “noir” is the similar, transgeneric attitude they take towards any particular genre.
Film Noir as Mode • Noir as specific emotional reaction produced by certain films: noir as affective phenomena. “Noir” for a moment is film noir. • “Noir” as a description of tone, attitude, mood—not so much a genre as a mode—a particular way in which genre information is conveyed. • However, traditional modes do have temporal boundaries.
Film Noir as All? • Both a style & a bundle of thematic concerns, film noir initially seems to be a phenomenon that could appear at any moment in time. But, as an aesthetic movement, it is necessarily grounded in a particular historical period—that of wartime & postwar America. • Noir is part genre, part series, part mode. • P.S. It’s all about disturbance in the end…
Red Guts of Film Noir Aesthetically, noir relies on: • shadowy, low-key lighting • deep-focus cinematography • distorting, wide-angle lenses • sequence shots • disorienting mise-en-scene • tension-inducing, oblique & vertical compositional lines
• jarring juxtapositions between shots involving extreme changes in camera angle/screen size • claustrophobic framing • romantic, voice-over narration • a complex narrative structure, characterized by flashbacks and/or a convoluted temporal sequencing of events
Thematically, noir grapples w/existential issues of: • the futility of individual action • the alienation, loneliness & isolation of the individual w/in industrialized, mass society • the problematic choice between being & nothingness • the absurdity, meaninglessness purposelessness of life • the arbitrariness of social justice, which results in individual despair, & leads to chaos, violence & paranoia.
Red Guts of Film Noir • Noir heroes do not need to be detectives. Often, they are merely antisocial loners. But even the gainfully employed are subject to a certain deadpan, existential angst, especially given their relatively faceless anonymity w/in a larger, dehumanizing work environment. “Why do you think some scholars consider the most existential of all film noir heroes to be the amnesiac?”
Noir Stylistics: Shadow of the ‘30s • Narrative linearity of C. H. C. gives way to narrative disjunction, fragmentation, & disorientation. Soft, evenly distributed high-key lighting yields to harsh, low-key lighting; obscures the action, deglamorizes the star, & reduces actors to shadowy formal elements embedded within overall design of the noir’s composition.
Noir Stylistics: Shadow of the ‘30s • Carefully constructed sense of space disappears; replaced by wide-angle cinematography: distorts space, disorients viewer. Conventional eyelevel camera positions give way to extreme low-/high-level perspective: assaults the viewer’s complacency. • Every violation of “norm” marks an intrusive intervention between spectator, exposition: foregrounds narrative form making it visible.
Noir Stylistics: Shadow of the ‘30s When the staple of the industry & the film most frequently identified with everyday motion picture entertainment, the genre film, developed psychotic tendencies, audiences of the time new something was “wrong”; more so, they “felt” it.
Noir and the Production Code • American films of mid- to late ‘30s rarely dealt with taboo subjects. Noir frequently does, resulting in amazing displays of narrative contortions in order to allude to prohibited material w/out directly violating the Code!
• Violence takes place off screen; its intensity amplified by disjunctive edits &/or sound effects. • Homosexuality prominent plot motive for a # of novels turned noirs; onscreen, motive displaced, desexualized—lays bare deep cultural fears of it.
Noir and the Production Code Relaxation of Code in late 1950s & advent of ratings system in late 1960s paves way for a new era of explicitness in 1970s. Subject matter sensational, presentation neither disturbed nor disturbing; as classically “direct” as any of Hollywood’s 1930s films.
Ease w/which once taboo material dealt w/in “liberated” climate of ’70s distinguishes “authentic” film noirs of the ’40s & ’50s from pseudo-noirs of the 1970s & onwards.
Noir and the Production Code Remember !!! The Production Code played a crucial role in creating noir. Subsequent changes in this Code result in the production of films that are decidedly less noir.
Literary origins of Film Noir In postwar era mistaken belief arises that simple world of prewar America could be recreated. Realization that this was a delusion influences worldweary cynicism of film noir, & the sense of frustration & experience of disempowerment at its center. America’s innocence was lost. Noir suggests it was lost long before war, that it was more than $, jobs that were lost during Great Depression.
Noir’s Literary Origins • Unlike English detective fiction, features proletarian tough guy living on fringe of criminal world. Relies only upon animal cunning, dogged perseverance, physical stamina & brute force to solve his cases. • Noir heroes, detective or not, are weak intellects. They attempt to make up for this failing with verbal wit. The writer of detective fiction & the detective hero both control their worlds by controlling language.
Literary origins of Film Noir • Content & style of American hard-boiled novels introduced new tradition of realism to genre of detective novel. Characterized by shift in: detective’s class & technique, milieu, language. • Contemporary America an urban, industrialized landscape of those bound to naturalistic drives. • “Boys in the back room,” as Edmund Wilson called “Black Mask” school of writers of pulp detective fiction, inspired by Émile Zola, & other 19th Century naturalists’ matter-of-fact depiction of decadence & corruption.
Women in Film Noir
All weakness is associated with the feminine.
Women in Film Noir • Women & the feminine: a threat on two fronts—socioeconomic & psychoanalytic. • Socioeconomic (1): changing status of American women during war/postwar period challenges patriarchy; entry into workforce & takeover of trad. male roles further violates fundamental order of sexual relations.
Women in Film Noir • Changes threaten traditional values centered in the institution of family. • Noir registers this anti-feminist backlash by providing pictures of a postwar America where there is no family or where family exists chiefly as a (-) phenomenon characterized as a claustrophobic, emasculating trap or a bankrupt system of perfunctory relationships, featuring murderous wives & corrupt children.
Women in Film Noir • Leaving the private sphere (home & family) to enter the public sphere of work, women, it is assumed, have abandoned the domestic needs of sweethearts, husbands, & children. • Noir dramatizes the consequences of this neglect, transforming women into willful creatures intent on destroying both their mates & the sacred institutions of the family.
Women in Film Noir • C. H. C. was at great pains to shield the “family” from the world of crime. Traditional genre films routinely oppose the sacred space of the “family” to that of the world outside. • In noir, the world of crime & that of the family overlap. Crime’s moved from outside the family to within, & the impetus for crime comes as often from women as men.
• Psychoanalytic (2): the image of women on-screen functions to recall, for the male spectator, the castration anxiety he experiences on first perceiving sexual difference as a child (Mulvey).
Women in Film Noir • C. H. C. supports male dominance & its attempts to alleviate castration anxiety by disavowal: the female’s “castrated” status is denied. • This disavowal achieved by fetishization and/or devaluation of female; a way to erase her threat.
Women in Film Noir • Fetishization: image of women is overvalued thru use of techniques that transform her into spectacle; lack which she signifies is in this way “filled in,” replaced by her objectification. • Devaluation: women seen as guilty object—her “castration” is a symbol of her punishment.
A Critique of Populism • Destabilization of sex. relationships in noir symptom of larger social disorder. • Prior to WW II, American society held together by various myths that structured a national identity & rested upon principles of Jeffersonian democracy. • “Democratic” promise of cheap or free land motivation for western settlement, which became a realization of America’s ‘manifest destiny’.
A Critique of Populism • Closing frontier, exhaustion of free land, & rapid industrialization of America in latter 19th Century begins slow process of social change. • By 1920, for first time in American history, more people in urban than rural areas. Millions of laborers & white-collar workers live new reality but subscribe to old, preindustrial-era myths. • Only after Depression do myths begin to waiver.
A Critique of Populism • Film noir reflects transitional stage in American ideology as American identity shifts from 19th Century, preindustrial, agrarian prototypes to 20th Century models, which acknowledge the nation’s transformation to a mass, consumer society: the industrialized corporate state. • As a movement, noir reflects a chaotic period where old myths begin to crumble & no new myths exist to take their place—the period in which national identity is in a crisis.
A Critique of Capra—
A Critique of Populism • Example of old myths in Capra; films epitomize classicism, order of pre-noir ‘wood cinema, & celebrate 19th Century agrarianism. Stalwart protagonists fight the 20th Century evils that threaten populist spirit of small-town America. • Nightmare inversion of Capra’s ideal American community in It’s a Wonderful Life illustrates noir’s subversive relationship to C. H. C. which attempts to repress the very forces to which noir gives voice. However, turns out “It was just a dream. . .”
Film Noir: the Undercurrent ends • Noir does not dismantle American myth or identity in the ‘40s; proves only one current in flood of films reaffirming traditional values. By the late ‘50s, advent of TV virtually destroys low-budget, B-film industry (provided bulk of noirs). New mood reflects postwar prosperity at decade’s end & Americans turn from depressed thoughts of technological blight to utopian visions of machineage paradises, filled w/labor-saving devices. • Film noirs cease to speak to the needs some feel for films that address their existential malaise.
Vietnam, etc.: Noirs Revisited • Trauma of Depression & shell-shock of war years has been treated, cured. Supposedly. • However, in the ‘70s Americans rediscover noir of the ‘40s & ‘50s; becomes the source material that prompts new understanding of postwar American reality. • In rediscovering it Americans locate a more modern body of myths thru which they might come to terms with contemporary American experience.
• Film noir emerges as a cycle or series of films. It consists of a finite group of motion pictures made during a specific historical period which share certain aesthetic traits & thematic concerns.
• By Evan Mays