Friday, December 10, 2010

Why noir? Why now?

David Corbett offers trenchant insights on noir, what it means, and why it means what it does. (Hat tip to Brian Lindenmuth.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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24 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Way too long.
Well, tragedy it's not. Tragedy tends to make clear that there are alternatives to crime. It comes closer to being nihilism. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and maybe bad people cannot help themselves in an uncaring society. It's just one of those things we've got to accept.

I prefer a more balanced view myself.

But a definition of "noir", of course, doesn't answer the question what has made it so fashionable again. Books receive the "noir" tag for the sake of sales, just as others receive the "thriller" tag for the same reason. Most rarely fit a precise definition of the term.

Why do readers go for the horrors that happen in dark city streets, in run-down motels, in the ghetto, among the homeless and the prostitutes? Why do they want to read about anti-heroes who are drunks and drug addicts and who cannot be husbands to their wives or fathers to their children?
But who are nevertheless admirable, endearing, and worthy of our regard?
Do such characters and stories make us feel better about ourselves?

December 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Corbett would agree that tragedy, it's not. Whether or not one agrees with him, his contention that noir -- whatever it means -- is a kind of low-cal substitute for tragedy is certainly surprising.

I also like that Corbett tries to answer the question of why readers go for the horrors and so on.

(One also has to ask exactly what it means to suggest that readers "go for" noir. The megasellers in crime fiction -- Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, James Patterson when he wrote his own books -- are not noir. I don't know why "readers go for the horrors," but that tendency far predates what we call noir. Here's what one of my illustrious predecessors had to say:

"(I)t is an instinct of human beings, from childhood, to engage in mimesis (indeed, this distinguishes them from other animals: man is the most mimetic of all, and it is through mimesis that he develops his earliest understanding); and equally natural that everyone enjoys mimetic objects. A common occurence indicates this: we enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose actual sight is painful to us, such as the forms of the vilest animals and of corpses. The explanation of this too is that understanding gives great pleasure not only to philosphers, but likewise to others, too ..."

— Aristotle
, Poetics

December 10, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well yes, but in the play Aristotle admired above all others, Oedipus Rex, the blinding scene takes place off stage -- as do the murder of his father and the suicide of his wife/mother.

These days, crowds gather around bad accident sites or watch dog fights; the Romans went to see Christians being eaten by lions and gladiators slaughtering each other. Throughout subsequent centuries, capital punishment took place in public and before mixed crowds (men, women, and children), and in Paris and elsewhere the guillotine did its bloody work to the applause of the crowds. I don't think we learn or gain understanding from watching or contemplating violence. The pleasure issue is highly questionable, since taking pleasure in another's pain speaks of madness. The evidence is that we become inured to it and lose all empathy. This is what happened to the men who worked in concentrations camps and to soldiers in wartime.

The psychological aspect (how does the experience affect people differently and why?)is the interesting issue. The best authors deal with this, rather than with graphic horrors.

December 10, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

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

That's from the post by David Corbett you linked to, Peter. Great stuff. I only hope Hallmark doesn't sue for breach of copyright.

December 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I don't think Aristotle was defending torture porn, he was merely citing our fascination with it as evidence that we are something other than animals -- that humans alone possess the mimetic impulse to the extent that we will watch the reenactment of evil things because we know the reenactment is not real.

You're right that the psychological aspect is of the greater interest. Somehow, lazy thinkers got to conflating graphic violence with noir. Look for the graphic violence in David Goodis, and you won't find it. Same with Megan Abbott, Jean-Patrick Manchette or Dominique Manotti. You will find graphic violence in Ken Bruen and Allan Guthrie, but it's not the main focus in the former and is not at all voyeuristic in the latter.

December 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, one of your countrymen was pretty big in the keep-on-smiling department, too. That Beckett guy:

"I can't go on. I'll go on."

December 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The above is not my favorite alleged Beckett quotation, though. That honor goes to "Dublin University contains the cream of Ireland. Rich and thick."

December 10, 2010  
Anonymous Irate Dubliner said...

After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin in 1927, Beckett spent an unhappy nine months teaching at the exclusive Campbell College in Belfast. When his dissatisfaction showed, he was asked by the headmaster if he realised that he was teaching the cream of Ulster society. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘rich and thick.’

Peter, a trifle more care with the quotations wouldn't go amiss.


The alleged quotation 'I can't go on. I'll go on' are the last two sentences in the alleged novel The Unnameable from 1954

I could go on. I'll stop.

December 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Irate, unlike many Google and Wikiworshipers, I realize that the Internet is highly unreliable. That’s why, despite many references that attach the Beckett quotation to Dublin, I called it an alleged quotation. Of course, I might have been skeptical about the name Dublin University, but there you are.

December 10, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

Thanks for pointing this out, Peter. it was well worth a read.

I hadn't thought of it like this before, but Corbett may have a point, that many of the problems we see today have come from our loss of a sense of tragedy. As he said, in true noir, the downfall comes from internal failings. In today's world, no one failings are their own fault.

December 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana:

Another thing Corbett wrote about today's world made sense to me:

"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."

I thought about this when I read Red Harvest last week. The Op goes out on some real moral limbs in that book -- when he throws Chief Noonan to the wolves, for example. Somehow I can't quite imagine the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino pulling off that scene without making it into something vastly different.

December 10, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

I agree with Corby on most of this except for Christopher Nolan. When I watch a Christopher Nolan movie I feel that the director is saying "you really are suckers for buying into this drek".

He's the classic case of someone appearing smarter than he actually is because he's English.

December 10, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd seen two and a third movies of Christopher Nolan's befoe I knew he was English, so I wouldn't fall into that category. I thought that Memento kept things going nicely, that one of the Batman movies was watchable, and that Batman Begins was shite, which is why I watched just a third of it.

You'll know that detractors of the Coen brothers call them overly clever film-school boys. Whether one agrees or disagrees with any of Corbett's assessments, it must mean something that the accusations of winking, of hyper-cleverness, of the illusion of being smart come up over and over again. None of this has much to do with noir as I understand it.

Do the exercise I suggested to Dana. Try to imagine Clooney or Johnny Depp or someone like that as the Op in a movie of "Red Harvest."

December 11, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well I can imagine Gabriel Byrne, Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood, in fact I think Millers Crossing, Last Man Standing and A Fistful of Dollars all wear their debts to Red Harvest on their sleeves dont they? I havent seen the Bruce Willis one but the other two are pretty good.

Corby's noir tendencies only go so far of course. I'll never forget the night I suggested we go deep into Chinatown in San Francisco and get into trouble but he didn't want to stay up too late and went off home to bed.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Is "Miller's Crossing" the movie that opens, closes, or both with that pointless shot of a hat blowing along the ground?

And Takeshi Shimura, who played the lead guy in "Seven Samurai," might have made a good Op, too. It's not so much that I don't think these actors are capable of playing the part. It's more that the directors seem to want that winking and smirking that David Corbett refers to, so I wind up thinking that that's all the actors are capable of.

Guys who go looking for trouble usually get it and wind up losing their women, who wind up getting into worse trouble. I've read "$106,000 Blood Money." I know.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yeah but how much trouble could a couple of fake effete writer types really get into?

I did quite badly lost later.

I'm a big fan of Millers Crossing, however I do think the jokey greeting "What's the rumpus?" used throughout is a bit of a misreading of the occasion when the line appears in Red Harvest, when, in fact, there was an actual rumpus.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I ate dim sum in Chinatown with a bunch of writer types in San Francisco. The food was all right, but I did not see a single opium den, secret passage, tiny, doll-like woman with porcelain-white complexion, or man of immense girth whose enigmatic smile concealed God-only-knows what evil thoughts.

I suppose you eventually found your way back once you realized that in San Francisco's Chinatown, there are only two directions: up and down -- unless you were in an opium fog, of course, your brains scrambled by the click of mah-jong tiles.

I didn't remember the jokey greeting in "Miller's Crossing," but that's just the sort of thing that would drive me nuts. "What's the rumpus?", in what I recall was its single use in "Red Harvest," simply meant, "What's the fuss?" Sure it stuck out to me, but Hammett gives no indication that it's anything but common speech in the story. If the Coens had wanted to pay tribute to the story and to impress readers at the same time, they'd have slipped in unobtrusively so viewers could have been impressed with themselves for noticing it.

December 11, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Oh, now, the Japanese version of SEVEN SAMURAI is a really great movie. But note that we have heroes there, true heroes by any definition. There is nothing noir about that. It's an affirmation of humanity.

I'm perfectly capable of taking a negative view of the world around me, but I tend to do so more like Stewie than all those conflicted and desperate characters.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

I'm a Coen Brothers fan, and liked MILLER'S CROSSING quite a lot, even before I'd read RED HARVEST to see the similarities. The Coen brothers have their way about movies. It doesn't always work, but when it does (FARGO, THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, BLOOD SIMPLE, and, of course, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) no one makes moves that pull you into their world like they do.

To Peter's comment about how noir is handled today, exactly. Violence has become hip (I blame Tarantino), and noir has to be anything but. Noir violence is DEADWOOD violence, WILD BUNCH violence, not PULP FICTION. (Which I enjoyed, by the way, but more for its alternative reality feel than its noirishness.)

I didn't thin I'd like MEMENTO, but saw it a few months ago and liked it a lot. Knew squat about Nolan, just thought the idea was a hard conceit to pull off and he did it well.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It also helps that Takashi Shimura may have been the best movie actor who ever lived. But you'll get no disagreement from me that "Seven Samurai" is not noir. Nor is Hammett's "Red Harvest," which also involved ridding a town of its bad guys. Sure, Hammett's Continental Op peers into a moral abyss in ways the lead samurai does not, but in the end, he's just a man doing his job, and the novel even ends with a jocular reference to his getting hell from his boss for the way he carried out the job.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I like Fargo, and perhaps the collective pressure of Big Lebowski love from readers of this blog whose judgments I trust will eventually get me to watch that movie as well.

But yes, even if I couldn't tell you what noir is, I can tell you that it does not by definition involve violence.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Dana

The Big Lebowski also owes a debt to the Continental Op, there's a line about two thirds of the way when the Dude confronts the PI who has been following him and the PI responds: "It was only a wandering daughter job."

I liked that very much.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe I should watch some of the Coen Bros, oeuve in light of my recent Hammett reading.


Wow! An impressive sonic barrage just now from what I presume is the Army-Navy football game, taking place just a mile or so south of my house.

December 11, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, do the Coens' debts and tributes to Hammett go beyond clever quotations? Do they explore similar issues in similar ways, for instance?

December 12, 2010  

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