It's a perennial fight: what is noir? We can start with where the term came from, and point to some of the arguments, but the most important thing for our conversations here, really, is what is it about noir narratives that make it worth thinking about?
First, the history*. During World War II, very few films from the US were seen in Europe. France in particular, under German occupation was cut off. After the war ended, French film-goers
caught up on a backlog, but something had changed. In 1946, what would come to be known as iconic noir films--The Maltese Falcon, Laura and Double Indemnity--hit French theaters, and a new sensibility arose. What were seen as B-movie pot boilers in the US gained recognition abroad. Later analysis would point to major industrial, political and socioeconomic changes in society as sources of the narrative depth of noir. Specifically: after-effects of the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and the onset of the cold war. Ancillary issues that bubble through as well are impacts of industrialization, suffrage, labor and civil rights movements.
In 1955, Raymonde Borde and Étienne Chaumeton began the process of defining film noir, setting off a series of arguments and wrangling which has never quite come to an end:
- What is the classic period of film noir? Concensus generally places it starting in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon to 1958 with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. But arguments can be made for including gangster films from the 30s like The Public Enemy, Scarface and Fury, or latter-day noirs such as Cape Fear and Chinatown.
- What the are defining characteristics of a noir? It does not fit neatly into a set of traditional genre conventions as did western and gangster films. Noir elements are everywhere in films, from crime drama, maternal melodrama to westerns and science fiction. Looking at noir aesthetics: cynical tone, high-contrast black and white visuals, expressionistic low-key lighting and (paradoxically) realism are the common threads.
- What constitutes a neo noir? What life and legacy, if any, does the movement have in later films? Color film lost the characteristic dramatic light and shadows of classic film noir. Crime and investigations precede and follow noir without necessarily being part of it. And the noir detective has become genre-ized, full of out-of-place fedoras, "broads" and hard-bitten voice-overs re-iterating the components of noir without necessarily embodying the soul of what made noir worthy of notice. For proof, simply watch Chinatown and then its sequel, The Two Jakes.
Film noir as a concept also birthed a retrospective view of the roman noir, noir fiction. Enter some of the hard questions and arguments about what noir means, and what exactly is a noir film, book or other narrative. Apply this to other, contemporary narrative forms and we ask, what does a noir role playing game look like? What would constitute an Alternate Reality Game noir? What aesthetics and sensibilities make a video game noir?
The Noir Matrix
For the purposes of this blog, I'm boiling down noir to a set of elements. Not definitive ingredients, which if you combine them all off you get the noirest of the noir–nstead, these are attributes that are crucial to what makes noir narratives meaningful for our purposes.
The matrix is an analytical tool to help us look at games, stories, films and other media. I'll use it to see what elements various noir texts embody. What they emphasize, how they highlight the elements. What they apply it to. How they differ from one another, and the kind of meaning their structures create.
They break down into three Issues (Identity, Society and Violence) and three Themes (Modernity, Disillusionment and Crime).
The issues are questions raised by the fiction. Themes are motifs and subjects that recur.
- Identity – who are the characters, how do they understand themselves, how are they defined by others.
- Society – what is the place of these characters in their community, what does the society inflict upon its members, how does it isolate them, who is empowered.
- Violence – who is vulnerable to violence, who is capable of it, what does it betray about the characters, their motivations and the truth about their relations in society.
- Modernity – the urban landscape, the alienation of labor, the impacts of technology and industrialization. Political realities, transformations to cultural identity, expressions of gender, structure of relationships and the family. Psychology, class analysis, capitalism, rural/urban divides.
- Disillusionment – a cynical tone, pessimism, undermining of innocence and naiveté. Corrupt officials, exploitative relationships and decaying social institutions. An underlying idealism, perhaps, about what the world could and should be, but with a loss of hope about attaining those ideals.
- Crime – blackmail, theft, murder. Syndicates, dirty cops, petty law breakers making a living. Protagonists who cross the line between law and disorder, battered by both sides. A look at the unregulated or unacknowledged parts of society which rebel against the nominally established order.
Issues of Identity are questions raised by the stories. Such as "what is it to be human?", explored by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (and by Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), through focusing the story on the so-human seeming replicant androids. In Walter Mosley's novel Devil in a Blue Dress, his detective Easy Rawlins' investigation threads between white and black communities and hinges on the ethnic identity of the woman he seeks. An Issue of Society in The Big Sleep, is "who gets away with murder?" with the wild-child Carmen Sternwood being protected from the consequences of her actions by her high-society family, while little guys like Harry Jones die for being a stand-up guy. Violence is a constant of noir. It is the primary currency in these tales. Who has the capacity for violence, who can take the most, who can conceal their ability to deal harm? Who is vulnerable to violence, and why. The issues arise in Bad Day at Black Rock, Spencer Tracy's character searches for a war hero and inadvertently uncovers the complicity of the whole town in a racially-motivated murder.
Looking at the Themes: crime, disillusionment and modernity riddle noir. They define its parameters even when the genre is transported to the distant future, or the past. These recurrent motifs underscore what created the noir viewpoint: massive changes to human lives, along with massive loss of life on scales not possible before, and also moments of major solidarity and successful fights for emancipation, suffrage and economic opportunity. Cynicism and corruption are the downsides to the hopeful ideal of modernization and technological leaps that remind us that no matter how far forward we progress, we remain human. Many of us with our heels on the neck of someone to move forward, others beneath the heel. With a bloody past behind us, and a bloody future ahead.
*Documented in Alain Silver and James Ursini's Film Noir Reader.