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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‘Quantico’ and the Disappointment of a Show Forgetting Its Roots

The first episode of season three of Quantico aired Thursday night, and you know what? Had that been the pilot of a new show, I’d have probably loved it. It would have given the impression of starting in the middle, with characters that have a history which each other and backstories that we’ll learn more about as the show progresses. Plus, there’s a WoC as the main character, a deaf woman as an experienced older agent, a black man as the team leader – it would have been so refreshing to see, had it been a new show. But it’s not. It’s the third season of an existing one, and put into context, it bothers me.

Romantic drama had always been a problem with Quantico. It’s always existed as an unnecessary drag on the story that did nothing to further the plot or develop. The plot itself managed to be pretty contrived. But despite that, I could enjoy it, because at its best, it also had well written and interesting characters. Sadly, though, a lot of them, despite starting off well, were increasingly mishandled as the show went on.

Quantico has been steadily leaking characters throughout the two seasons. Simon. Natalie. Drew. Nimah and Raina. Dayana. Leon. Sebastian. Miranda. Whether because they’re dead or put on a bus, none of them – all with either a lot of potential or interestingly developed – are appearing in season three. And aside from Simon and maybe – maybe – Drew, I think it’s a waste.

I still think Simon’s character arc was excellent. His death was gorgeously done, and I think he had both the best acting and the best writing behind him. His relationships with Alex, Raina, and Nimah were all different and interesting. And you know a death is handled well when even when you miss the character, you don’t want him back, because it would cheapen it. On the other hand, Dayana was just put on a bus with no satisfactory conclusion to her story. Miranda could have plenty more to offer. There’s been no explanation of where Nimah and Raina are, despite the fact they’ve been key characters from the get go. It bothers me that none of them are here when the writers are bending over backwards to make Shelby fit.

Unlike many, I don’t care about Caleb. I’m okay with him not being there. That feels like trimming the fat from the story. For me, he never added any actual value or substance. Maybe a few times, there was a hint of something more – the scenes of him with Raina or Claire or even Alex were all far more meaningful than those with Shelby or her parents – but nothing real, nothing that actually mattered, so I don’t mind that he’s not in season three. I don’t really mind the absence of characters like Lydia, Claire, or Clay either. The one I’ll really miss is Raina.

Raina is amazing. I found her season one arc fascinating. It was well acted. Her relationship with Simon was layered and well done, especially because the conflict there didn’t feel contrived. She was competent and also kind of absurdly impulsive in a way that provided an interesting contrast to Nimah. She was a genuinely great character. There were even traces of that in season two. But for the most part, she was sidelined for Nimah, especially after Simon’s death. When that happened, a lot of her interesting relationships – all platonic – were left unused. Now that she’s  not coming back, it’ll be the end of all of those.

Season two had certain aspects that were better than season one. Reduced focus on relationship drama. More diversity in the male cast and continued diversity in the female. It also had things that were worse, like more dumb subplots and less character development. Season three? It’s a weird, semi-reboot in that you can jump in anywhere, and there are good things about it, but it’s weird. Maybe it’s too early to really tell whether the differences are good or bad, but my instincts to say that I don’t like it.

It doesn’t have the two timelines that the previous two seasons did, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s missing great characters. It’s added even more relationship drama that’s just irritating. For whatever reason, Ryan and Shelby, characters with minimal interact at best before now, are married. It’s as if the writers got the memo that people didn’t like Ryan and Alex together, but instead of having that end in any kind of reasonable, adult, not weird way, they did this, which was basically, “two pretty white people who are mainly connected through Alex and are two of the characters with the least direct interaction? They should get together! Let’s assassinate everyone’s characters to make it happen.” I’d have bought it had they put Ryan and Nimah – or even Raina! – together. It would have served the same purpose in the plot, and they had way better build up.

I’d get Alex and Ryan breaking up. It’d be kind of annoying for it to happen again, sure, I’d prefer them to either stay together or permanently split up. But this? To have her just ghost him then him marry her best friend? To have Shelby marry her best friend’s ex-fiancé, then get weirdly prickly and defensive about it? It’s gross. It’s bad writing and characterization. The goal seems to be have Shelby sleep with every guy on the show. Caleb, Clayton, Leon, Ryan. I can’t remember if she did sleep with Clay but she had that whole thing going on with  him. In order to get her and Ryan to work, the writers had to turn their back on two seasons worth of characterization and growth for her, him, and Alex.

Season one was genuinely good. Yes, there was a lot of soap opera style drama, and some of the plots were pretty dumb and seemingly only there to give everyone something to do but aside from that, the character work was strong, the cast was diverse, and everyone had interesting dynamics. I can’t decide if season two was better or worse, it was just different. Maybe a decent plot and a couple new characters with substance, but several more without it, and flimsy motivations. I wasn’t much of a fan, but that’s okay. Season three, though? We’re talking less diverse, more soapy, and ignoring a well written friendship between two women in favour of adding contrived tension because of some guy.

As the writer of this post put it, Quantico was about women supporting each other and breaking through the glass ceiling, not tearing each other down.  And while season three hasn’t had Alex and Shelby at odds over Ryan yet, there is a newfound tension in their relationship because of him that I just don’t like. That’s not something I think I’ll ever be able to grow to appreciate. For all Quantico‘s flaws as a show, for all the inconsistency in quality, Alex and Shelby’s friendship was always a strong point because their disagreements were never about a man or romantic relationship. If that changes, I probably won’t be able to continue watching.

‘The Bold Type’, Also Known as the Better Version of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’

The Bold Type is a dramedy revolving around women working at a popular magazine. Not something that’s immediately intriguing to me. But it’s awesome.

The premise is pretty similar to the movie The Devil Wears Prada, but while that involves an entire workplace filled with people that don’t like each other, a terrible boss, and a whole host of sexist tropes, in The Bold Type, women actually support each other instead of competing. The characters don’t all have the same goals or interests, but they support each other and learn from each other.

Jane Sloan is kind of everything to me, because she neither belittles the so-called “feminine interests” like fashion and makeup nor considers caring about those things an inherently empowering, feminist choice. She doesn’t believe ignoring politics is an option. She’s far from perfect – she has internalized misogyny to work through. She can be judgmental and insensitive. There are times when she behaves in a manner that, if she had a less understanding boss, could get her fired. But she gets called out when she makes errors. She was pointed out as being in the wrong for her behaviour in the entire debacle with Morgan Stanley, the stripper that used to work in finance, and she recognized that. She tries to not be a White Feminist™. She tries to listen.

There’s no Hollywood Homely nonsense here. She’s acknowledged as pretty without any comments of her not dressing well or being boring/ugly because she’s smart. This is the quintessential “chick flick” except it’s not a romantic comedy, it’s a workplace comedy that’s primarily about friendship. Even when part of Jane’s storyline involves sex, it has much more to do with who she is and exploring her character than it does with any guy. Pinstripe could be literally anyone, and it wouldn’t matter. She loves where she works, and is hugely grateful for the job and what she learned, but has bigger goals than writing about butt facials. That’s okay – more than okay, that’s great.

Sutton and Kat are also individual characters beyond just there to support Jane, the lead. Sutton is terrified of failure and not having a safety net. She went to business school, even though she didn’t love it, because it’s practical and pays the bills. But she could only do that for so long before realizing, no, she doesn’t want to keep doing that for the rest of her life. Kat has massive amounts of confidence when it comes to work, but is very confused and uncertain about her sexuality, as well as unsure whether or not she’s ready to make any kind of big decision in regards to her personal life.

If the most important relationship in the show is between the Jane, Kat, and Sutton, and the second is the one between Jane and Jacqueline, the third – and first romantic – has to be Kat and Adena’s. Pinstripe guy isn’t really a character in his own right so much as a plot device to develop Jane’s. As refreshing as that is in a world where so many female characters are used like that, it doesn’t do much for building a relationship that’s actually a pillar of the show. The same holds true for Richard – he’s slightly more developed as a character than Jane’s love interest, who I’ve been referring to as Pinstripe guy not just because that’s his in-show nickname but because I honestly don’t remember his name, but not that much.

Adena is an actual character, with her own goals, flaws, and life, which results in the most important important romantic relationship being between two women of colour. As much as I enjoy depictions of fictional interracial relationships with no white people, I often worry that they exist for the sake of a token minority couple. Not the case here at all.

I’ve heard some complaints about the show not handling race well, because while characters of colour exist, there’s never any disconnect between said characters and their white friends/coworkers or exploration of the impact of race on job opportunities and pay. While that’s a fair criticism, I don’t personally agree, because I like escapist works. I don’t want everything involving people of colour to be grounded in reality. I want escapism and lighthearted fun to not be limited to white people.

The Bold Type is fun. It’s a comforting, low-stress, low-stakes show that you can enjoy with no worries. I don’t like the phrase “chick flick”. It’s largely synonymous with “romantic comedy”, or “about women” and while I don’t really have anything against romcoms, and I love shows about women, I think it’s gross to try to define one genre as the interests of an entire gender. It’s nondescriptive nonsense, but The Bold Type would certainly be considered one, and that does a disservice to the show.

The label “chick flick” often turns people away from a work, even if it’s something they would enjoy, and that’s because of the generic romcom in the US: white, straight, predictable, and, to varying degrees, sexist. But there are other chick flicks that are pretty great – Legally Blonde, Miss Congeniality, Bend It Like Beckham, Thelma and Louise, this. Movies and shows about women that, regardless of whether or not they also include a romantic subplot, focus heavily on the lead character’s friendships with other women.

The main characters on The Bold Type are almost exclusively women. They’re different people without being stereotypes or caricatures, and have complex relationships with each other. It was clearly written for women in mind – and largely by women – and it’s fantastic. Go watch it.

5 Shows That Need More Love

1. Better Off Ted

This is just hilarious – a man with a conscience works for a cartoonishly evil corporation. It’s a typical sitcom with a quirky cast, but what’s great is that it recognizes the comedic sociopathy that’s often relied upon in the genre and instead of glossing over how creepy it is, leans into it for comedy.

All the hard work, late nights, and no rest have paid off. We’ve cured sleepessness! And demonstrated irony.

better off ted

 

2. Orphan Black

orphan black poster

So it had a devoted fanbase that was sufficiently large that it got to complete the narrative arc without getting cancelled. Still doesn’t mean it gets as much love as it should.

Admittedly, part of the reason I love this show is Canadian pride, because it’s my little Canadian sci-fi drama that could. It made no attempts to disguise the fact that it’s Canadian. It’s more than just filmed in Canada – it’s set there. For once, Toronto isn’t the stand in city. Canadian shows usually don’t get much traction in the U.S. This one isn’t really that much of an exception, because viewership was pretty low throughout all five seasons, but it is a head and shoulders above the rest in quality.

It’s one of my favourite shows, but even I won’t argue that its plot or writing alone is worth it. No, what pushes it over the edge to must see territory is the combined work of its absolutely brilliant lead actress, Tatiana Maslany; the excellent costume and makeup departments; and a genius visual effects team that do such a great job, you forget it’s just one actress playing half the lead roles.

3. The Gifted

the gifted poster

Look, I know I talk about how much The Gifted a ridiculous amount – both in regards to what I like about it and what I don’t – and it naturally gets some amount of attention just by virtue of being a superhero property, but its ratings aren’t great, and as such, I think I can stick it on this list.

It’s a lot like Gotham – just as Gotham started off as a Batman show without Batman, The Gifted is an X-Men show without the X-Men. Sure, it’s more grounded than Gotham, and closer to a regular drama than a black comedy, but the principle is the same. People didn’t think Gotham would work, but it did, carving its own place by completely throwing away whichever parts of canon it didn’t feel like using. The Gifted is doing just that, and it’s beautiful to watch.

4. White Teeth

You know those books you read in high school that are good but you somehow don’t much like, probably because you’re reading them in high school? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was one of those for me. I don’t even remember which year I read it – junior, maybe? The whole book was a blur. I didn’t remember any of it, only being kind of bored while reading, and a little confused because there were a whole lot of characters and it was hard to keep them straight. But I recently found my copy while doing some cleaning, and whoa. A whole lot happened, and it was a way better read than I remembered.

The adaptation was a miniseries, not a full length one, but it was surprisingly excellent. It’s funny and moving in turn, with lots of great performances – and even if it’s not for you, it’s only a four hour commitment.

5. The Good Place

This is my favourite sitcom, bar none. Mike Schur co-created Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and while I like those well enough, The Good Place is in its own league.

the good place

Ethical dilemmas? All kinds of comedy? Characters with a wide range of strengths and flaws? The Good Place has it all! It’s gentle to its characters with next to no mean-spirited  jokes at any single character’s expense; there are times when it’s so well plotted, it feels like a good drama, and not a sitcom; the characters’ struggles, flaws, and insecurities are all taken seriously and it doesn’t make the show any less funny. What’s not to love?