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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Stanislaw Lem and Science Fiction

My first year of university, I took a course on Russian and Eastern European sci-fi. This was, of course, to fill a gen-ed requirement, and the only time I actually use anything I learned in it is to explain why Animorphs is an excellent series that should go down in the ranks of classic sci-fi stories. I figured this is as good a time as any to try something else: let’s talk about Stanislaw Lem.

Lem was a pioneer of Eastern European science fiction despite not even liking the genre and considering most works in it terrible – the exception being Philip K Dick, who did not return his respect (though probably not due to any extreme feelings about Lem’s work, just his own paranoia and belief that Lem wasn’t a real person.)

His most famous work is Solaris,  which is okay. I don’t love it, but it was readable. For me, it, like most of Lem’s work, is more memorable for its impact on science fiction than its own merits. It has had two film adaptations that Lem disliked, including one that I find ridiculous because it somehow managed to fade into obscurity despite being directed by Steven Soderbergh, produced by James Cameron, and  starring George Clooney, Viola Davis, Natascha McElhone, and John Cho (though granted, before the last three of the aforementioned actors were well known). It’s had multiple theatre adaptations, and apparently even an opera.

Lem’s work, even beyond Solaris, has been highly acclaimed. I don’t get it. I’m all for themes and philosophical questions and moral quandaries in books, but in order to address those things, the book has got to be entertaining, first. Most of what I’ve read from Lem is just boring, and almost painfully pretentious, with the one exception being The Star Diaries.

It’s possible that part of the reason it stands out to me as so much better is that it had a better translation. Maybe if I knew Polish, I’d find that Solaris, too, was filled with a mildly snarky narration. But I don’t. So Solaris seems to me like two hundred odd pages of dry nothingness. The Star Diaries, on the other hand, is hilarious. It’s largely a parody of common science fiction tropes, and involves aliens horrified by humans as a species; the lead character being hit with a pan being wielded by his future self; and space travel so casual, that the aforementioned lead character turned his ship around and went some huge distance because he’d forgotten something at the spaceport. I’m told there was a German sitcom adaptation, and if anyone knows where I can find that, I will be eternally grateful.

It raises an interesting point about science fiction in general. Fans of the genre, as well as its writers (Lem himself being an obvious example), are often divided on almost every issue. Hard vs soft sci-fi? Do the space opera Star Wars-esque works count?  Hell, I’ve even seen people debate the term sci-fi. One thing that I frequently see is complaints about the lack of appreciation for the genre when it comes to literary communities and awards.

When it comes to film and television science fiction, I’ll admit that they have a point. There aren’t many sci-fi movies or shows that get critical acclaim. But when it comes to literature, I think we need to broaden the question, because there are plenty of authors and works that get heaped with critical praise. Before we talk about if/why science fiction gets looked down upon in the literary community, we need to address how said community judges books. There’s a valid discussion to be had about what we consider a “classic”, or a work of “literary merit”.

I find the whole concept of literary fiction to be a nonsense, made up category. The way I see it, there are four categories a work can fall into:

  1. Entertaining with no deeper themes.
  2. Boring with no deeper themes.
  3. Entertaining with deeper themes.
  4. Boring with deeper themes.

Obviously, the first and second shouldn’t be considered classics. But I’ve found that often, the third is overlooked in favour of the fourth, especially in regards to science fiction. Things that are entertaining and that don’t necessarily delve into the minutia of the science – which is probably a smart choice, given that technology marches on and doing so could leave a work extremely dated in a few decades – are sometimes dismissed as nothing of merit, just popcorn for the masses. Even setting aside for a moment the arrogant pretentiousness of claiming that popular works don’t have merit, that’s a shame.

You can see it in Lem’s work. Solaris as a book bored me, but it was short enough that I could get through it quickly. The movies were worse – we watched them in class, and I fell asleep. In both of them. I recognize that it raised interesting questions, but God, it would have been nice if it had done it in a more entertaining way. The Star Diaries, though? That also raised important philosophical questions, like the nature of humanity, and the consequences of scientific progress. But it did it in a humorous fashion. It never felt like a lecture, or like it was dragging on. But it’s Solaris that’s considered the classic, not The Star Diaries. Works like that being considered representative of the genre instead of the more entertaining and accessible pieces is alienating and contributes to the lack of widespread appreciation.

Stanislaw Lem was himself rather obnoxious and arrogant, dismissing other writers in his genre as ignoring the possibilities in favour of writing nonsense, so perhaps it’s fitting that some of his works are ignored in favour of focusing on others. His work and exploration of sci-fi tropes before their popularization was very valuable to the genre he disliked. But unfortunately, he exhibited the same kind of elitism that prevents excellent works from being acknowledged and alienates readers that could otherwise find a great deal of science fiction enjoyable.