Monday, May 27, 2019

What's Film Noir?

I don't expect profundity from comments sections of online articles but I like to read them sometimes as a gauge of how people are thinking, or how compulsive internet denizens are thinking, at any rate. One thing I'd started seeing crop up repeatedly on articles about film noir in general or specific films noir is the unsolicited proclamation that noir is a genre that's all about misogyny. Usually beginning with something like "It's important to remember" these altruistic informers' comments maybe aren't so extraordinary in a time when the internet is densely populated with wouldbe citizen hero lecturers. But something about the recurrence of this particular comment made me wonder about its genesis. Partly it's because I'm a fan of film noir and hate to see an attempt to reduce it to one dismally simplistic and negative perspective, partly it's because I'm curious about how certain opinions regarded as information spread on the internet.

I've frequently observed the panic of a young person when discussing art, literature, or film when they realise I've gotten them into the kind of conversation they usually have on the internet where they can substitute hastily googled definitions and perspectives as their own knowledge or opinion. So I wondered what was the source of this particular little grassroots crusade. Was this a case where I could actually ferret out the first link in the chain of bullshit?

It's not the Wikipedia entry which seems fine, for the most part, offering a decent discussion of the term's first appearance and propagation, the films widely considered best representative of film noir, and a discussion of the debate over the term's definition and whether it can even be classified as a genre. The Wikipedia entry for Nino Frank, the French critic generally credited with introducing the term in a 1946 article, is a little fishier. Mention is made of Frank's discussion of "the American proclivity for 'criminal psychology and misogyny'" but the cited source for this is not Frank's actual article but a poorly written student paper only in part about Frank's article and the reference to Frank's discussion of misogyny is paraphrased. But Frank's original 1946 article, which you can read here, does discuss misogyny in the genre. But despite introducing the term, Frank's article doesn't do much to comment on the essential nature of film noir aside from praising an apparent emerging trend in American film away from plot driven narratives and towards a focus on character psychology. Frank's insight is certainly imperfect as, in the same article, he foresees the end of John Ford's career--years before Ford directed the films widely considered his greatest.

But I think I finally found the source I was looking for when I did a video search for "film noir". The first video to come up on google is this one by Jack's Movie Reviews:

Published in 2016 it has just over 100,000 views. Despite the commentator, presumably Jack, stating that the video is not his attempt to join the debate over what constitutes film noir but only to get "his thoughts out there", the video is presented in an authoritative tone and seems professionally edited. In an effort to make my own tiny contribution in the fight against misinformation, I'll go over the points Jack gets wrong about film noir in order.

1: "This is the most important part of film noir; the protagonist losing control of the situation, being forced down a road of moral ambiguity, before his eventual downfall . . . in the end, due to circumstances out of the protagonist's hand, they're in a worse place than when the film began."

This isn't the most important part of film noir, it's evidence that Jack fundamentally fails to grasp an element essential to noir that links it to the historical period in which it emerged--namely, existentialism. The horrific acts committed in World War II like Nazis massacring Jews or the use of atomic bombs by the U.S. were defended with arguments indicating an absence of choice--just "following orders" or deploying a display of terrible force to prevent future resistance and thus future conflict. Underlying these justifications is the idea that there is no choice. But according to existentialist thought, human beings always have free will, always have choices, and this is a terrible burden; life would seem to be easier if we bore no responsibility for the things we do or the things that happen to us. But knowing what choices to make, knowing what aspects of our own personalities lead us to fault, are not always clear. The torment lies in the ambiguity, of not knowing for sure how much control we had over any given situation, how much of our decisions were based on the motives we've sold to ourselves. Film noir plays this out. So, to take Jack's example of Sunset Boulevard, it's not a story about how William Holden's character has no choice. As far as his character is concerned, the movie's about his attempt to define his life in retrospect as a series of bad situations he was forced into, to absolve himself of responsibility. And at each point, he's right, from a certain perspective. He's a screenwriter whose career isn't going well and he blames his agent, whom Holden angrily confronts on a golf course. But how much of this is due to Holden's genuine cause for anger or due to his resenting his agent's apparently comfortable lifestyle isn't clear. Similarly, the rejection of one of his scripts is by no means the clear indicator that his career is going nowhere that he seems to think it is. As the film progresses and he accepts a commission, along with living quarters, from Gloria Swanson's character, the amount of responsibility he bears for staying with her in order to advance his own ambitions as opposed to her intentional manipulation of his psychological weaknesses is unclear. Film noir isn't about the difference between freedom and confinement, it's about a certain painful ambiguity between the two.

2: "Above all what causes the fall of the protagonist is generally a woman."

It's easy to demonstrate this is not true. There are plenty of films noir where women are benign influences, victims, or are themselves the protagonist whose downfall is caused by a man. Jack chooses a particularly absurd example to illustrate his point, Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, identifying Alex Sebastian's mother as an example. Jack himself admits there are several wrinkles in this example in that the femme fatale is manipulating both Ingrid Bergman's character and her own son, a Nazi, played by Claude Rains. Certainly it couldn't be argued that Mrs. Sebastian ever seduces Alicia, as Jack claims is an essential aspect of the femme fatale. His point might have been better illustrated with Jane Greer's character in Out of the Past but even then there are the fundamental ambiguities that make noir interesting. In any case, the idea that mostly the protagonist is led to downfall by a woman is unambiguously false in many classic films noir like The Live by Night, The Big Sleep, Laura (unless you regard the film's villain as a protagonist), Touch of Evil, Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, or Black Angel.

3: "Another defining feature of film noir is reflecting the time and place where the film was created."

This is just silly. In any genre or artform you'll find artists influenced by the time and their place of residence.

Anyway, I hope this entry is helpful. At the very least, maybe next time someone googles to find someone else's opinion to present as their own they'll appropriate mine instead of Jack's. Just send me 90% of any proceeds.

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