Monday, February 14, 2011

"Film Noir is not a genre..."

So says Paul Schrader in his famed 1972 essay, Notes on Film Noir. He follows that statement with this:

It is not defined, as are the western and gangster genres, by conventions of setting and conflict, but rather by the more subtle qualities of tone and mood. It is a film “noir”, as opposed to the possible variants of film grey or film off-white.

And that, I suppose, is a fair enough judgment call except that, as briefly covered here, genre isn't relegated to setting (a musical, science fiction or horror film can take place anywhere). The main problem is that he immediately follows that statement with this statement:

Film noir is also a specific period of film history, like German Expressionism or the French New Wave. In general, film noir refers to those Hollywood films of the Forties and early Fifties which portrayed the world of dark, slick city streets, crime and corruption.

The problem there, you may have noticed, is the word "also." He said it wasn't a genre and is now, for the first time in the essay, defining "film noir" in a concrete way with the word "also" as if, immediately preceding, he had defined it another way. One only uses "also" if, prior to the definition one is now giving, there was a previous definition. For instance, let's say I'm writing about Singin' in the Rain. If I start by writing, "Singin' in the Rain is a comedy," and immediately follow that with "it is also a musical" two statements have been made, one following the other, in perfectly logical fashion. If, however, I write, "Singin' in the Rain is not a drama," immediately followed by "it is also a musical" I have poorly communicated an idea that seems confusing, nonsensical and vaguely contradictory all at once. He said, "It's not a genre but it's also a period." That's a bit confusing.

So, why does Schrader write "also?" My guess is that he accepted that both statements were true (that "film noir" is both a genre and a period) but let this slide past his subconscious undetected. To state that film noir is not, at least in elemental form, a genre is a touch too ornery (although there's never been a clear answer on the noir genre question). Clearly, it is different from a crime film or mystery in the mold of Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes and also different from the gangster films of the thirties. It has definable archetypes, from the world weary detective (either professional - Sam Spade - or amateur - Jeff Bailey) to the femme fatale. There are visible, identifiable patterns of character development and methods of storytelling that clearly can define it as a separate genre, in a pinch.

Nevertheless, Schrader muddies the waters further:

Almost every critic has his own definition of film noir, and a personal list of film titles and dates to back it up. Personal and descriptive definitions, however, can get a bit sticky. A film of urban night life is not necessarily a
film noir, and a film noir need not necessarily concern crime and corruption. Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre, it is almost impossible to argue one critic’s descriptive definition against another’s. How many noir elements does it take to make a film noir noir?
To restate, Schrader writes, "Since film noir is defined by tone rather than genre..." But it's not a case of "rather than" because they're not mutually exclusive. Genre is generally how characters are developed and how their stories are told. In film noir, that method relies heavily on mood and tone. Musicals tell their story through song, but can take place anywhere and have any tone. Westerns use the loner/roamer against the established and settled, or the one man against the system and also relies on tone. It's why Outland, a loose remake of High Noon, can be classified as a western, even though it takes place in outer space, not the American West. Some would classify it as science fiction too, since it uses a technology versus man idea but only in the thinnest of ways (drugs of the future used to get men to work longer and harder). Still others would classify it as science fiction based on it being set in the future and in outer space and, again, referring back to this post, they would be on the thinnest of ice of all three of the definitions.

So, again, Schrader, seems to be short-selling what genre is, or at least, beyond a nominal identification with visual cues ("He's wearing a cowboy hat and they're in Montana. This must be a western.") what it can be. Genre, at its most narrow, can include setting, costumes and even types of musical cues but at its deepest, genre is about how a story is told and the atmosphere, or feeling, of that method. In other words, its tone. To write, "...film noir is defined by tone rather than genre," is a little like writing, "perfume is defined by aroma rather than scent." For film noir, tone is the genre.

However, the genius of Paul Schrader's piece comes in his discussion of "film noir" as a period because this it was as well and all noirs made later, from Chinatown to Blade Runner to Mulholland Drive, exist in their own separate noir periods, not the original period Schrader is discussing. It is the period itself that bestows something extra, something special and unique upon the noirs made at that time. There's a cynicism and weariness present in The Maltese Falcon of 1941, at the very beginning of the period, that simply isn't there in The Maltese Falcon of 1931 (shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies for the curious). By 1941 the world had been mired in a depression for years, Hitler seemed capable of complete European domination and competing political philosophies battled to win over the millions of desperate souls looking for answers.

All of that can be reasonably imitated in something like Chinatown, but there's a difference between imitating it and living it and if Chinatown was simply imitating it, it wouldn't have worked as well. Chinatown is, through and through, a film noir but not a noir of the original period. Its cynicism comes from the second cycle of noir in the seventies.

As Schrader goes on to discuss, films within a noir period (for his purposes, the forties to the early fifties), contain within them elements of darkness and cynicism regardless of whether or not their plot deals with crime in any way at all. And so The Best Years of Our Lives, Gentleman's Agreement, The Snake Pit and even All About Eve, contain the cynicism of film noir, the tone that defines the genre, without containing much of the plot points or story telling methods (although All About Eve does have one hell of a femme fatale in its title character). Since these films were made in the noir period, rather than the period of extended optimism that immediately followed it in the fifties and favored technicolor over shafts of light and shadow, they had a cynicism that would be absent from film until the late sixties and early seventies brought it back. Not surprisingly, the most famous neo-noir, Chinatown, was made in 1974.

And it is the period of the forties to the early fifties that is too often neglected by simply being shoved into the all-encompassing "Golden Age of Hollywood" period, which wasn't really a period anyway but an era of studio domination that ran from the late teens through the mid-sixties (hence the term "age"). Some definitions of the Golden Age start with the advent of sound and go through the fifties right before the French New Wave but, either way, "The Golden Age of Hollywood" is an essentially useless moniker applied to several decades of varying styles in the existence of Hollywood. Too many different ideas, styles and national/international moods came and went for anyone to assume such a large chunk of time could reasonably define the movies made under its umbrella.

In his piece, Schrader acknowledges a new period may be starting but pulls back at the end:

American movies are again taking a look at the underside of the American character, but compared to such relentlessly cynical film noir as Kiss Me Deadly or Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the new self-hate cinema of Easy Rider and Medium Cool seems naive and romantic.

Schrader even breaks down the cultural events that brought about noir in the first place, his "four catalytic elements" which are: WAR AND POST-WAR DISILLUSIONMENTS, POST-WAR REALISM, THE GERMAN INFLUENCE, THE HARD-BOILED TRADITION.

The first two go hand in hand in which America is disillusioned after millions die in a war fought for years all over the world. This combined with returning vets and millions of hardened civilians finding non-realism harder to take in adult dramas to produce a deeper sense of realism in the cinema. This, in turn took the hard-boiled detective fiction and combined it with the shadowy expressionistic style of German Cinema to create the tone of noir.

He then goes into STYLISTICS and THEMES in which he, unknowingly or not, lays out the basics for defining film noir as a genre separate from any one period. Statements like, "Picked at random, a film noir is likely to be a better made film than a randomly selected silent comedy, musical, western and so on," belies his premise that film noir is not a genre as he is, at face value no less, comparing it to other genres. Of course, what he's saying about the noir genre feels so right that the contradiction is welcome. I can't imagine any way to possibly prove his statement but, somehow, it seems correct. Or to put it another way, off the top of my head, I can think of more bad movies in any other genre than I can in film noir.

Fortunately, the neglect of film noir that Schrader bemoans in the piece seems to be a thing of the past. When he writes of the prejudice of film critics in accepting bigger budget A films over lower budget B films, he concludes

"This prejudice was reinforced by the fact that film noir was ideally suited to
the low budget “B” film, and many of the best noir films were “B” films. This
odd sort of economic snobbery still lingers on in some critical circles: high-
budget trash is considered more worthy of attention than low-budget trash, and to praise a “B” film is somehow to slight(often intentionally) an “A” film.

This seems to have been truer in the past than in the era of independently made and distributed films that often garner higher praise these days than anything churned out of the Hollywood movie mill.

A lot has changed since Schrader wrote this piece almost 40 years ago and, indeed, the seventies produced a new kind of cynicism that harked back to the days of the film noir period. There was no World War but there was a war in Vietnam that had dragged on for years. There was no depression but there was economic hard times brought on by clashing monetary policies in the early seventies, oil embargoes and government enforced price freezes. And a Vice President resigned facing bribery charges while a sitting President resigned facing corruption charges. Cynicism was in the air and a second noir period was born, and although it ran for only a few years, just like its predecessor, it produced many great works.

In 1974 there was Chinatown, the most famous of the seventies neo-noirs but there was also The Conversation, Night Moves and a reconstruction/deconstruction of the whole idea, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye all within a three year period. Into the early eighties came Blade Runner and Cutter's Way and gradually, just like before, the cynicism faded, the movies grew more optimistic and the second great noir period came to an end. Will there be a third? Will noir as a period happen again? Will it keep recurring, every thirty or forty years, as a reaction to hard times and economic downturns? Are we in the third noir period right now but just don't recognize it because we have no distance from it?

Noir films, in the genre sense, will continue to be made in every decade, but noir periods only occur under specific conditions, when mood and spirit and fatigue combine to create a feeling of unease, distrust and shaken confidence. It turns out it's not a period specific to any set of years but specific, instead, to a set of societal conditions, and thus, can recur regularly and infinitely.

One has to go through hell to get there, but once it arrives, it's the stuff dreams are made of.
_______________________________________________

This post is a part of the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon and Fundraiser for the Film Noir Foundation to help preserve our film heritage. The Blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. Please make your donation by clicking on the button below. Thank you.