The Evolution of Film Noir

For most people that know me, noir probably wouldn’t seem like my type of genre. I’m a sucker for a happy ending. Not all happy, mind – for me, bittersweet is always the safest bet. Not the same kind of cop out as a pure happy ending, but more hopeful than the downer. You wouldn’t think I’d get much of that in noir. But I don’t see noir as a genre so much as an idea. It’s difficult to define as anything, because works as different as The Killing and Blade Runner (though the latter is also the codifier for tech noir) both fit just as well into the category, while being vastly different movies. A noir film can have a happy ending or a sad one. It can be anything. Classical noir, neo-noir, pulp fiction – they blur together. Relatively inexpensive to make. Entertaining. “Low brow”. The tropes have influenced other genres and have had a lasting impact on storytelling.

Take Perry Mason. The books were written by a pulp author, even though they were never published in a pulp magazine and the influence shows. They take many of the same traits as film noir. Mason isn’t an antihero by any definition. He’s a lawyer, a crusading defence attorney, that is determined to do the right thing. This separates him from the modern definition of an antihero. He’s also confident and successful, preventing him from entering the classical antihero category. They’re set in California without particularly corrupt police or prosecutors. But the stories are filled with people lying, murderers with sympathetic motives, schemers and manipulators. It’s hard to define a written work as an example of noir, but I’d argue that the Perry Mason books are the closest written example just on the basis of how they feel. Several episodes of the television adaptation embraced that vibe and translated it into true noir through the use of the signature visual style.

The iconic visual style – with the bold contrasts, the heavy shadows, the interesting use of lighting, the chiaroscuro – is a great aesthetic. We can debate what makes something film noir, but as far as I’m concerned, the difference between something with noir elements and a genuine noir is that visual. The tropes matter, but it’s the aesthetic that makes a noir. That aesthetic along with the common musical themes that go along with it make a good film noir uniquely satisfying.

Today, we see a lot of parodies and homages – how many shows have done a noir episode? – as well as noir vibes in a variety of genres noir elements mixed in with another genre, but not as much straight noir stories. To an extent, it’s understandable – the idea of film noir is so iconic, to try to play it straight could easily veer into cliché, and beyond that, pretty much everything has been done already. It’s also a shame. Noir films (films noirs? We’ll work on that.) are great. They’re a reminder that movies are an art form, that the point of visual storytelling is to show rather than tell.

Film noir is one of the many things that helped blur the lines between “true art” and the type of things the average person genuinely likes to see and watch, beyond just appreciating the technical skill involved in  making it. The works that stand the test of time are those that are enjoyable. Meaning is great, but that alone will only get you so far. The classic noir films from the forties and fifties are interesting and suspenseful and make you want to know what happens next while also being visually appealing and exploring a variety of themes involving the psychology of man. They embrace film as a visual medium and use style to convey issues of substance.

I’d love to see more films embrace the noir tradition in a creative sense. Film noir is a style more than anything else. So why does that have to only apply to the same kind of city and people? Film noir was built off the idea of post-World War II cynicism, that much is true. Much of what we associate with noir is tied to the era that birthed the “genre”. But the state of the world is often pretty dire. There’s plenty to be cynical about that isn’t tied to a world war. Modernizing it further while never shying away from the fact that it’s noir may well annoy purists, but it’ll also bring in plenty of new fans by giving them something more relatable.

A noir film doesn’t have to be filled with jazz clubs, smoking, unique matchbooks from hotels, and old fashioned revolvers. I love films with those things, but they’ve been done, and I’d really like to see something else. Like, classic film noir is pretty sexist. Updating it to today – or further, even, placing it in the future – could be an opportunity to change that. The brooding anti-hero can be a woman. The femme fatale can be an homme fatal. Hell, those two roles could be merged into one character.

The idea of the femme fatale may have been progressive, once upon a time. After all, film noir pushed the boundaries of the Hayes Code, and femmes fatales (Okay, we really have to come to a consensus. How do you pluralize a loan word? Do you do it the way it would be in the language it comes from, i.e. films noirs and femmes fatales, or do you anglify (anglicize?) it, i.e. noir films and femme fatales? If anyone has an opinion on grammar, come talk to me.) gave actresses deeper and more interesting roles than they’d otherwise  get. A femme fatale has traditionally had more agency than many other female archetypes. She has her own agenda. She’s sexually independent and morally ambiguous. She’s fun to watch. But the context isn’t the same today, so while the femme fatale archetype will never be outdated, modern incarnations are inevitably going to be seen as sexist if they don’t get well thought out characterization.

Women today have a wider range of interesting roles, and while many are still presented in a sexual light that often verges on exploitative, that sexuality isn’t usually presented as a trademark of an evil character anymore. The traditional femme fatale that uses sexuality as her weapon of choice instills a fear of feminism and of strong women, pushing forward the idea of women that will lead to the downfall of man. She propagates the idea that sex is bad and wrong and that women like her are automatically morally ambiguous, if not outright villainous.

I like morally ambiguous characters and find them entertaining to watch. I’ve seen a lot of debate on the specific kind of moral ambiguity associated with the femme fatale. Is it sexist? Or is it empowering? I guess like with everything, that depends. There aren’t really all that many fundamentally sexist tropes. A good writer can make the most seemingly misogynistic ideas interesting and not gross. A wrong camera angle can turn something innocuous into something exploitative. I adore a well written femme fatale. I would never want to see that archetype die. But I would like to see examples that are better developed than just a hot chick in a tight dress that uses sex to get what shes wants.

Veronica Mars. American Hustle. Ex Machina. Jessica Jones. Even some parts of Orphan Black. Those can all be taken as examples of contemporary noir, and the list of neo-noir titles on Wikipedia has many more. All of these utilize film noir tropes, with the visuals perhaps downplayed, but still recognizable at least some of the time. Most of them have interesting takes on the anti-hero and/or femme fatale, takes that are real characters rather than stereotypes or caricatures. I live for this sort of thing. What I’d like even more is for the aesthetic to be embraced again more fully.

Cyberpunk and film noir have a lot in common, what with being heavily stylized stories about a grim world filled with poverty and exploitation under a glitzy surface. I consider cyberpunk one of the descendants of classic film noir, and I think it’s that genre more than the more traditional neo-noir (is that an oxymoron? It feels like an oxymoron) pieces – the crime dramas, the murder mysteries – that more directly uses the visual style I associate with noir. I adore the noir-esque crime dramas and murder mysteries. A lot of my favourite movies fall into those categories. But I get giddy and delighted when watching something cyberpunk, just for the sake of those familiar tropes and excellent visuals. To me, that’s the real modern noir, and I love it.

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One thought on “The Evolution of Film Noir

  1. Pingback: ‘X-Men: Red’, Jean Grey, and Autonomy – Nerd With Words

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