Noir is like porno: You know it when you see it. You can see it everywhere. Films — its most referenced birthplace– and literature (yes, literature, pulp included) and, don’t forget, comics. Its most recognized characteristic defines it as urban set piece dating from the 1940s; though, in its way, timeless.
Attempts to define the black genre narrowly — as to media, tone and content — always run into road blocks, the latest being the video game L.A. Noire (the “e” apparently added to avoid skirmishes with James Ellroy’s attorneys even if his collection L.A. Noir takes place in much later times). The Xbox and PlayStation3 notion of noir contains every cliche and convention of pulp, hard-boiled and doomed-to-fail action (with a not so heroic hero). Revivals of noir come about every few years –think L.A. Confidential or the recent publication of Black Lizard‘s big, burly collections — and noir rebirths and revivals are perennial.
Ellroy himself takes a stab (huh) defining the genre in his introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century which he edited with crime-fiction scholar and bookstore owner Otto Penzler. Ellroy’s interest here is literature, not film (despite his connections). He separates it from the hardboiled detective school calling it an “offshoot.” Then he gets to the meat: “the wrong man and the wrong woman in perfect misalliance…flawed souls with big dreams… the precise how and why of the all-time sure thing that goes bad.”
It’s the “big dream” that makes noir, a film movement mistakenly thought French, all American. The American dream’s delusion is one of possibility, climbing above one’s class, coming by the money, hook or crook, to reach a lifestyle that we (and them) will never attend. It’s not winning the lottery. It’s getting away with someone else’s prize.
Noir “canonizes the inherent human urges toward self-destruction,” says Ellroy. We see the American dream in the slow dissolution of the middle class, princely financiers exploiting tragedy of their own making, the imperative and unwinding of American Imperialism. The only difference between the individual and national delusion is that the country, even as it squanders lives and treasure in foreign wars and investments, never sees its unwinding. The squandering comes to noir’s protagonists so predictably, so quickly and, occasionally, furiously that everyone can see it coming. Except them.
Penzler underscores these characteristics in his introduction to the noir collection. “Noir works…are existential, pessimistic tales about people…who are seriously flawed and morally questionable…greed, lust, jealousy and alienation lead them into downward spirals as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry.”
While arguments for an inclusive theory of noir — including the video game which is, after all, more of a hard-boiled detective scenario –are commercially prevalent (everything from colognes to iPad apps), Penzler seeks the specific. He says detective fiction and noir are “diametrically opposed with mutually exclusive philosophical premises.” The hard boiled school, of course, is equally existential, pessimistic and stocked with characters with moral flaws. But its central character, so often compared to knights of old or troubled western gunslingers just looking for a little peace (the pulp connection) is there to solve , resolve and rescue, even if he — and its always a he — doesn’t succeed (think Chinatown).
Surprisingly, it’s the women, even as they play to type, who often control destiny in noir fiction. In the movies, there’s Barbara Stanwyck manipulating the hapless Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity. In her introduction to the section entitiled “Dames” in Penzler’s collection The Black Lizard Big Book Of Pulps, Laura Lippman suggests that the scheming woman of noir, who take charge of their circumstances if not their fate (and are often beyond rescue) were better feminist role models than the ’60s figures she grew up with: Julie Andrews, the June Taylor Dancer and Betty and Veronica. “Even if women take the lead in these stories,” she writes, “there is just enough kink in these archetypes of girlfriend/hussy/sociopath to hint at broader possibilities for the female of the species.”
The main point in the Ellroy/Penzler noir collection seems to be that the genre isn’t period specific. Good noir is still being written, and by the usual suspects. The book ranges over the classic noir years of the 1940s and ’50s. But most of the selections were written past those days. Nor are they specific to urban environments. Tom Franklin’s wonderful 1998 piece “Poachers” is Faulkner-like in its regional , rural setting and dialogue. It’s lower-class, backwoods characters possess the same clueless, psychological flaws and the classic noir sense of inevitability as any urban back-alley, flophouse hotel confession. Ellroy’s own 1988 piece “Since I Don’t Have You” is one of the collection’s best, involving Howard Hughes, the gangster Mickey Cohen and a voluptuous beauty named Gretchen. Confusing genres, it also involves a detective, Turner “Blood” Meeks, a reoccuring Ellroy character who has a dead-end role in the film L.A. Confidential.
Noir is particularly timely today. Anything that takes place in America and focuses on misguided greed deserves our attention. The consequences of Narcissism, image delusion and out-and-out lack of brains assures bad outcomes. Or sometimes they’re too clever . Sometimes they get away. Often there’s animal-like behavior as if humans can’t resist the demands of our own evolution. What except the exteriors is different today than it was in the late ’40s?
Film noir’s harsh lighting and harsher story lines born of German expressionism are perfect for self (and national) reflection. Noir has always had a rural component. So much of America was still rural in noir’s heyday. It was easy to jump into your car and escape L.A. for the God-forsaken desert or mountains. One of noir’s best, Out of the Past , is a 1947 thriller staring Robert Mitchum that takes place entirely in and around the high Sierra near Bridgeport, CA.
Noir can’t be defined by place, time or urban-rural contrasts. But I think Penzler and Ellroy have it right with their “downward spiral” of “seriously flawed and morally questionable” characters who are led by “greed, lust, jealousy and alienation.” That’s the timeless scenario. It’s the psychology of it, our own proximity, the view of the not-so-faraway edge these unfortunates fall over. A flirtation with our dark side, the reality; better than reality TV. And no detectives allowed.-Cabbage Rabbit