Re: RARA-AVIS: Back into the definitional whirlpool

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 14 May 2004


"Whoever coined the word gets to use it to describe what s/he wants described. Whoever uses it to describe something else is misusing the term. That, I think, is pretty much unassailable."

Only if you believe that words cannot evolve, as you clearly believe. I believe they can, and do.

Also, you said no film past 1964 can be noir because after that year, any filmmaker who attempted it was self-conscious in his or her attempt to make a noir film. So you are locking the word down to a very specific meaning, bound not just by style, but also by time and production values (AND adding self-consciouness to the definition). Well, let's go to the extreme and look at David Lynch's Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks, both of which are filled with self-conscious reference to classic noir films. Are you actually saying they are not dark and sinister, even though they were not filmed in B & W pre-1964? If "dark and sinister" are the only requirements, how can they not be?

And if self-consciousness is a deal-breaker, why does it not apply to modern writers, who are just as aware of their writing noir books as filmmakers became after the French retroactivity declared a cannon of films noir? Are you really saying that Pelecanos, Max Allan Collins, Lawrence Block, Jason Starr, Robert B Parker, etc., are not awarely writing noir? Parker wrote a dissertation on it and Pelecanos was inspired to try it after taking a college course on noir writing. So why isn't self-consciousness a deal-breaker for writers?

And if "noir" is just a brandname and marketing tool, as it was for Duhamel, then can't it evolve through marketing, and the buying public? The closest analogy I can think of is with punk rock and new wave. A bunch of bands in a handful of local scenes started crudely playing a particular type of back to basics music in the mid-'70s. At first, any band who played particular clubs -- 100 Club (London), 9:30 (DC), CBGB
(NYC), Rat (Boston), etc (fill in your city's club or clubs here) -- was labeled punk. This led to a very disparate collection of bands -- Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Dead Boys, "one chord wonders," to use the Adverts exaggerated label, but also Stranglers, Suicide, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, Cars and Police, some with very accomplished musicians who did not stick to 2 minute-two chord songs. At first, all of these bands were labeled punk (as were many pub rock, even metal bands like Motorhead), as much due to proximity as any musical commonality. However, the marketers at Sire were afraid that the term punk might be offputting to consumers, so they coined the term "new wave rock and roll" and, on a promo double single, applied it to several bands they had recently signed, whose first albms ey were marketing -- Dead Boys, Talking Heads, Saints (their first album in the US, at least) and Richard Hell. (I guess they were okay with the Ramones being called punk.) In 1977, these bands had more in common than they later would, but even then they were pretty different from each other, both in subject matter and in instrumentation, as well as locale, even nationality. So if we look at the commonalities of Seymour Stein's marketers' term, all we have is guitar based (although TH and the Saints both had prominent keyboards), male-fronted, relatively, for the time, low production value rock and roll. Not very helpful. But then critics came along and wrestled the terms from marketers and started drawing very fine distinctions between punk and new wave, in retrospect -- for instance, the Ramones were punk, but the Cars were new wave. I, for one, found those distinctions very useful, both for classification and consumption.

And that's how I think of hardboiled and noir. The latter, in particular, may have started as a marketing term, meant to be very inclusive, but through use by critics, writers and readers, the terms have taken on more distinctions and become more tightly defined (though obviously far from unanimously). And I, for one, find that very useful, both for discussion and for deciding what new books to buy from today's marketers.

By the way, although I'm not sure, I'd hazard a guess that all of Duhamel's original noir writers were male. So if we are using that original roster to define any and all common noir traits to be used for all time, why isn't that one of them?


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