U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Does Noir Mean in America Today?

This is the final day of the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon, co-sponsored by Farran Nehme of Self-Styled Siren and Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films, and benefiting the Film Noir Foundation’s efforts to restore a print of The Sound of Fury (1950).  If you’ve enjoyed the blogathon posts here and on other blogs and have not yet donated to the Film Noir Foundation, please consider following this link and doing so now.

I’m going to conclude the blogathon here at USIH by taking up a question that I almost posed in my blogathon kick-off post a week ago: what is the status of film noir in U.S. thought and culture in the early twenty-first century?

I

In a typically witty 2007 essay in Esquire, the cultural critic Chuck Klosterman (and former colleague of mine at the University of Leipzig’s American Studies Institute) mused about his experiences touring Germany and the ways in which Germans misunderstand the United States:

During a weekend in Frankfurt, I went to an exhibit at the Schirn Kunsthalle art museum called “I Like America.” This title (as one might expect) was meant to be ironic; it’s taken from a 1974 conceptual art piece called I Like America and America Likes Me, in which German artist Joseph Beuys flew to New York and spent three days in a room with a live coyote and fifty copies of The Wall Street Journal. (This piece was a European response to the destruction of Native American culture, which made about as much sense to me as it did to the coyote.) The bulk of “I Like America” focused on German interest in nineteenth-century American culture, specifically the depictions of Buffalo Bill, cowboys, and the artistic portrayal of Indians as noble savages. It was (kind of ) brilliant. But it was curious to read the descriptions of what these paintings and photographs were supposed to signify; almost all of them were alleged to illustrate some tragic flaw with American ideology.

And it slowly dawned on me that the creators of “I Like America” had made one critical error: While they had not necessarily misunderstood the historical relationship between Americans and cowboy iconography, they totally misinterpreted its magnitude. With the possible exception of Jon Bon Jovi, I can’t think of any modern American who gives a shit about cowboys, even metaphorically. Dramatic op-ed writers are wont to criticize warhawk politicians by comparing them to John Wayne, but no one really believes that Hondo affects policy; it’s just a shorthand way to describe something we already understand. But European intellectuals use cowboy culture to understand American sociology, and that’s a specious relationship (even during moments when it almost makes sense). As it turns out, Germans care about cowboys way more than we do.

Although I think Chuck exaggerates the non-importance of the cowboy in the United States today–he really needs to visit Oklahoma City’s lavish National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum the next time he’s out here–I think, broadly speaking, he’s correct.  The iconography of the West, once central to American culture, is now of, at best, regional importance.  
The cultural significance of genres and their iconography come and go.  Once culturally central forms like blackface minstrelsy and the Western eventually lose their centrality… though they often leave traces that last long after their heyday. Everyone knows the Western. Occasionally a revisionist Western–like Unforgiven, HBO’s Deadwood, or, most recently, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit–becomes popular and salient. And the form is certainly familiar enough to produce genre-bending efforts like Joss Whedon’s scifi Western Firefly and its movie sequel Serenity.   But cowboys, even metaphorical ones, simply make less of a difference in American life today than they did in the mid-20th century.
The same, I think, is not true for film noir.  But proving that this is the case is, of course, kind of tricky.

II

In an effort to chart the place of noir today, I took my copy of A New Literary History of the America (Cambridge: Belknap, 2009) off the shelf.  This doorstopper of a book, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollars, attempts to present a new, roughly chronological look at the sweep of American culture through two-hundred original essays, often framed around cultural events. Film is well represented; David Thomson was on the editorial board of the book.  And it’s fascinating. I have a hard time imagining reading it from cover to cover, but it’s the kind of book that one very easily gets lost in.

As far as I can tell, film noir goes entirely unmentioned in its pages.

Noir lurks around the edges of William Beard’s essay on Hitchcock’s Psycho (pp. 885-889).  It almost comes up in Howard Hampton’s piece on the film critic Manny Farber’s 1962 essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” (908-913).  Film noir might have been mentioned in passing in William J. Mann’s piece on Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (880-885), as the director had previously made two or three great film noirs.  But it isn’t.  Joseph McBride’s essay on Citizen Kane (752-757) also might have provided an occasion to discuss noir, but it doesn’t. Instead we get a reexploration of the Sarris-Kael auteur theory debate over whether Kane was Orson Welles’s picture or Herman J. Mankiewicz’s.  Film noir doesn’t even make an appearance in Walter Mosely’s essay on “Hardboiled” (598-602).  Sunset Boulevard gets a parenthetical mention in Douglas McGrath’s celebration of Preston Sturges (742-747).  But that’s about it for film noir.

It’s always hard to draw conclusions from dogs that don’t bark, but the total absence of noir from Marcus and Sollars’s volume really surprised me.  Both because noir is still a vibrant part of U.S. culture…and, just as importantly for a new literary history, because it has been for decades. And because Greil Marcus has always seemed like a noir kind of guy to me, a critic whose books often describe dark cultural pasts that we cannot entirely escape.

III

I got a bit more satisfaction running “noir” through the Google Ngram Viewer for American books between 1945 and the present.  This was more what I’d have expected.  Not much action before the 1970s. Then a noticeable bump in the mid-1970s, followed by a decrease in the early 1980s, a plateau in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then a pretty steady increase in usage since then.

But it’s hard to draw conclusions from Google Ngrams, as fun as they are.

IV


I do think the significance of noir–and with it today’s neo-noirs–have changed since talk of film noir burst on the American scene in the 1970s.  You’ll recall Paul Schrader’s prescient declaration about film noir and the 1970s in his seminal “Notes on Film Noir” (1971) which I quoted a week ago:

American movies are again taking a look at the underside of the American character, but compared to such relentlessly cynical films noir as Kiss Me Deadly or Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the new self-hate cinema of Easy Rider and Medium Cool seems naive and romantic. As the current political mood hardens, filmgoers and filmmakers will find the film noir of the late Forties increasingly attractive. The Forties may be to the Seventies what the Thirties were to the Sixties.

Schrader proved to be right about both the decade that was just beginning and the films that Hollywood would make in the near future (at least until Jaws and Star Wars appeared). Noir, in Schrader’s sense, remains a fine narrative mode for discussing the Seventies.  Jefferson Cowie’s excellent history of the era, Stayin’ Alive: the 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class begins its first chapter with a horrific bit of real-life noir: the triple murder of dissident United Mine Workers union activist Jock Yablonski, his wife, and daughter in the morning of December 31, 1969. The murders had been ordered by UMWA President Tony Boyle, whom Yablonski had unsuccessfully tried to defeat.  As Schrader had predicted they would be, the Seventies as presented by Cowie were a decade of retrenchment and dashed hopes.

The great early neo-noirs of the 1970s engaged in the sort of social commentary that Schrader seemed to crave in his essay.  Films like The Long Goodbye (1973) and Chinatown (1974) take place in societies that have become utterly corrupt. Our guide in each case is a Chandleresque shamus. Chandler’s own creation, Phillip Marlowe (Elliott Gould), in the case of The Long Goodbye and the very Marlowe-like Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown.

But if Chandler’s Marlowe was able to stand apart from his corrupt society in a way that maintained his sense of honor and dignity, in the world of these neo-noirs this was less possible.  In The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman reimagined Marlowe as a kind of Rip van Winkle, waking up with his mid-century values in the very different world of 1970s Los Angeles.  Until the very end of the film, he seems more than a little lost.  And Chinatown‘s Jake Gittes is humiliated in ways Chandler’s Marlowe never is.  His nose is cut by a thug (tellingly played by the film’s director, Roman Polanski), a kind of upwardly displaced castration that makes Jake spend much of the film wearing a ridiculous bandage on his face.  And the film ends with Jake utterly flummoxed, having fundamentally misread his situation.  At film’s end he is not only unable to stop the evil of his society, but also unable to entirely comprehend it.

V


I largely agree with Andrew’s general conclusions about recent neo-noir in his post on Sin City (a film I haven’t seen, so I can’t comment on): if earlier noirs (and neo-noirs) were deeply dependent on a sense of alienation, American culture has now largely discarded the idea of alienation. Post-alienation America, as Andrew suggests, has post-alienation noirs.

Though the neo-noirs of the early ’70s were unlike their mid-century classic noir predecessors in a variety of ways, alienation continued to play a key role in them.  In both The Long Goodbye and Chinatown, evil (to use Andrew’s phrase) “bubbles out from under the surface.”  Gould’s Marlowe is a deeply and frankly alienated character.  Jake Gittes puts up a better front at times but is as well.

But if today’s neo-noirs don’t draw on the alienation that was much of the attraction of the genre to filmmakers and critics in the early 1970s, what is the continuing attraction of noir in post-alienation America (as Andrew puts it)?

Andrew provides one answer that apparently works for films like Sin City and 300:  the highly aestheticized violence of noir makes it an attractive mode for a particular kind of cinematic nihilism.

But there are other attractions of noir, as well. One of the most vital remains its sense of cool.  In classic noirs this could be an important response to the alienated world in which the noir protagonist found himself.  Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity and Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Boulevard are doomed from the moment we see them on the screen. But their witty voiceovers give them a sense of power, even in the face of (or in the case of Gillis after) death.

As I’ve suggested above, some ’70s neo-noir protagonist suffer the indignity of having their cool shattered.

Some recent neo-noirs, I think, are often played so as to emphasize a sense of cool, in a way that more thoroughly displaces any sense of alienation in the characters’ worlds.

To take two very different examples:

In the Coen Brothers’s comedy noir The Big Lebowski (1998), the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is thrust into a Chandler-like plot involving kidnapping and deception among L.A.’s rich and powerful and L.A.’s demimonde.  But through it all, he really only cares about bowling, his white russians, his friends, and his rug (since it really tied the room together).  The Dude is something that earlier noir protagonists almost never were: truly indifferent about the corruptions of his world, though in a way that establishes a kind of integrity about the few things that matter to him.

Rian Johnson’s Brick (2005) is a film with a much more serious tone. It imagines a Hammett-like world inside a contemporary southern Californian high school.  The conceit works in part because, like many a hardboiled novel, high school is dominated by tightly nit cliques, arcane argot, and a desire to be cool.  Although the film has some black humor in it, Johnson is playing for keeps. It begins with a murder, which we and Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the high school student turned PI, take deadly seriously.  But there’s still a sense that, since this is high school, it’s only a stage (in both senses of that word).

VI

Let me conclude this post by thanking my fellow USIH bloggers for their excellent contributions to this blogathon.  Here are the earlier posts:

My post on Moonrise

Andrew Hartman’s post on Sin City

Tim Lacy’s post on Touch of Evil

Ray Haberski’s post on The Third Man

David Sehat’s post on The Maltese Falcon


and my post on film noir and U.S. intellectual history.

And don’t forget to donate to the Film Noir Foundation.  If you’ve read this far, you really should!

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben – This is a really interesting article and really made me think about our relationship to alienation today. Replaced as is was by irony, newer generations don’t find anything attractive – dames or money – and stand completely outside the system, gazing at it in icy denial. As you say, in general, that attitude is like The Dude’s, only caring about the things that matter to them personally.

    I also liked the quote about cowboys and minstrel shows. It put me in mind of a Czech comedy I reviewed some time ago, Lemonade Joe, Or a Horse Opera, which includes a musical number in blackface. I was rather nonplussed by the film – as you say, I couldn’t really relate to it culturally anymore – but a Czech commenter mentioned that the film was a critique of Western decadence under the communist system, as well as being a slapstick masterpiece.

    Thanks for the wonderful posts all week to all of the USIH contributors.

  2. Ben,

    I love the way you historicize neo-noir and tie together all of our essays. And way to go on working “The Dude” into USIH.

    You chided Chuck Klosterman a bit by saying “Although I think [he] exaggerates the non-importance of the cowboy in the United States today–he really needs to visit Oklahoma City’s lavish National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum the next time he’s out here.”

    What interests me today, somewhat, is how the cowboy has gone from being a positive to something of a negative in American culture. I wonder if Bush 43 killed the cowboy as a viable image for good among middle-of-the-road Americans? I concede that’s a bit flippant, but I would like to see some Gallup-type numbers on this, comparing the symbolism of the cowboy in, say, 1965 to 2010. The problem, of course, is that the positive of the cowboy image was probably never much of a sociological question (assumed positive, even if cowboy/C&W films suffered in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s), so the earlier numbers probably don’t exist.

    – TL

  3. I think noir is alive and well in American film today. But many of the newer iterations with which I am familiar seem to challenge the meaning of noir by asking how many of the characteristics of the genre (in particular the dark, urban setting) are essential rather than accidental qualities. You mentioned “Brick” as a “high school” noir: one could similarly bring up “Insomnia” as a “daytime” noir or “Winter’s Bone” as a “rural” noir. In television, I think that “Justified” does similar things as “Winter’s Bone,” and the second season of “Battlestar Galactica” featured a killer “space noir” episode (“Black Market”) in which Apollo has to penetrate the fleet’s dark, criminal underworld in order to solve a murder.

    I’m sure that there are more, and perhaps better, examples of the trend. But the use of the conventions of noir outside their familiar context suggests that the genre is–like the western–durable and resonant enough that filmmakers feel that they can “monkey about” with the trappings and still expect the audience to recognize what they are doing. On the other hand, the changes themselves might suggest that there’s not a lot left to do within the conventional framework.

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