straight down the line

What is Noir?

Yale Noir, Flickr photo shared by Tony Fisher, licensed CC BY 2.0.

Yale Noir, Flickr photo shared by Tony Fisher, licensed CC BY 2.0. I kind of especially like this photo b/c it’s of the Yale Hotel in my hometown of Vancouver, BC.

I’m following along, as much as I have time to, the latest iteration of ds106, #noir106. I’m excited, not just because, well, it’s ds106, which I love, but also because when it comes right down to it, I’m not really sure what “noir” is. I have this image of black and white films, fedoras, lots of smoking, and private detectives. But what, could one say, makes a story or a film or a piece of audio (or anything else) “noir”?

Fortunately, this week there are some resources suggested to help answer this question (scroll down on this page). I’ll just comment on a couple of these here.

Paul Schrader, in “Notes on Film Noir” (1972) says that film noir is not a genre determined by “conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by tone and mood.” And the tone and mood seem to be, of course, dark. He speaks of stories about crime and corruption, about aspects of the psyche and character that one might wish to sweep under the rug, stories that express hopelessness rather than happy endings. There is “loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity” (11). Part of this is the “post-war disillusionment” that occurred in America after WWII, in which there was a desire for “realism” rather than empty optimism (expressed in part through scenes shot in real locations rather than in studios from which the subtle–or not so subtle–sense of simulation could blunt the “sting” of the noir tone (10). Schrader also points to the influence of the “hard boiled” novels of authors such as Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, who created cynical heroes with a “narcissistic, defeatist code” (10.

The filmic aspects of film noir, according to Schrader, include (unsurprisingly) that “most of the scenes are lit for night”–even during the day the scenes are dark, with shutters closed and low lights (11). Actors are often in shadow, as if they don’t stand out from the rest of the scene, the city, producing a sense of defeatism–no matter what they do, the city will win out. There is an emphasis on water, including city streets wet with rain and docks and piers as common meeting places.

This article helps me a great deal, pointing to how noir need not be just about crime fiction, but could include numerous types of stories of corruption, despair, hopelessness, etc.

What I found interesting, though, was that on the noir106 week one site there is also suggested a Bugs Bunny cartoon (among other cartoons, including Scooby Doo and Courageous Cat), called “Racketeer Rabbit.” This could be interpreted as a parody of noir, in that it contains the usual noir aspects (dark scenes, gangsters, guns, violence), but uses them in a humorous context. Yet at the same time, it’s kind of noir itself, what with Bugs being also cruel and violent, showing the “dark underbelly” of the (human?) character to the degree to which the gangster, at the end, would rather flee to the cops than stay with him.

The other noir example I explored was the podcast “Welcome to Night Vale.” That’s partly because I’ve listened to this podcast before, but hadn’t thought of it as “noir.” If I describe this podcast it doesn’t sound like much: a single narrator speaks in the character of a community radio host, talking about the goings-on in the town of Night Vale. Those goings-on, though, range from the bizarre to the absurd to, well, what one might encounter in a sci-fi horror story, all of which are treated as more or less normal by the narrator. After reading Schrader’s article, though, I can see how we might consider this podcast in the noir genre, focusing as it does on the dark, the negative, the horrific, the mysterious, and doing so as if these were simply a part of life. (Honestly, though, the podcast is also very funny, which to me is the main “tone” I get from it rather than darkness).

We were also asked to suggest other examples of noir. I am having a bit of trouble with this, but if I think of the most dark and depressing story I’ve read in awhile, the first thing that comes to mind is The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I think that one might work.


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