Some men there are love not a gaping pig;
Some, that are mad if they behold a cat;
And others, when the bagpipe sings i’ the nose,
Cannot contain their urine: for affection,
Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes.
– Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1
To continue along this line of reasoning, some men there are who love not a Western, some that are mad when they behold an Action Film, and others, when the Musical sings on the screen, cannot contain their urine. Well, I can contain my urine, but I can no longer abide Film Noir.
It’s been creeping up on me for the last few years, but now my feeling is definitive. This past year, I’ve read a few of the classic Noir novels (thank you Aaron) and I had already seen most of the major Noir classic films and therefore feel I have enough material to form an opinion.
So, what is my problem with Noir?
What bugs me are the following:
1- The posture of world-weariness and cynicism that is the lifeblood of these works seems artificial to me. One enters into these films knowing that the world will be depicted in dark and hopeless terms. By the end, everything will go to Hell, because people are horrible/selfish/amoral and all that remains is to see how the particular dystopia of this film will play out. It is a predetermined pessimism which passes for a gnostic understanding of the way the world really works. It seems to be saying “If you don’t agree with this worldview, well, you’re naïve”. I am not advocating Pollyannism by any means. It is just that this relentless pessimism is as false as unfounded optimism, but this pessimism has the cachet of sophistication and therefore is embraced by those wanting to be sophisticated.
2- Misogyny is rampant in the Noir universe. The world will go to Hell mostly due the duplicitous machinations of some dame who loves money even more than she loves herself and definitely more than she loves the poor naïve hero. The femme is always fatale and the poor naïve hero (who, by they way, fancies himself worldly-wise) will always be undone by said female. In a weird quasi-feminist twist, these women are always smarter than anyone else in the film. But if you are smarter at being evil, is that really admirable?
3- The clutter of most Film Noir plots is aggravating. The storylines are impossibly convoluted. While watching the films you never quite know what is happening. When it’s over your not sure what happened. Don’t believe me? Watch The Big Sleep. I suppose the case could be made that we are supposed to identify with the poor naïve hero who is trying to make sense of an incomprehensively malevolent world that is out to get him. Neither he nor we quite understand how or why the world is out to get him, hence the density, i.e., the clutter, of the plot. This works in Kafka, but Kafka’s malevolent world seems bigger than anything we can understand and therefore becomes mythic. Here, the malevolent world just seems cliched. It is a camp experience. We know how we are going to feel before the film even starts. I suppose one could say that going into a comedy or a musical or historical drama presupposes a certain experience to come. With Noir, though, we go into it expecting to be shown why the world stinks. I guess some people like that.
So do I completely write off Noir? No. There are films that are labelled Noir that I love. Case in point: The Maltese Falcon. Why do I love this film? Because in many ways, it is an Anti-Noir. First of all, the dialogue is often hilarious and many of the characters are so quirky (Joel Cairo, The Fat Man, The Gunsel) that the oppressiveness of the usual Noir world is dissipated. Most importantly, though, evil is clearly identified and even though up to the last minute we think it will win, it doesn’t. Sam Spade is heroic because he pushes back on the Noir conventions, and gives us a view of what the world should be.
Call me what you want……..