Re: RARA-AVIS: Noirish

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 16 May 2005

At 12:26 PM 15/05/2005 -0400, you wrote:
>A press release from the Cannes Film Festival:
> Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer have turned gumshoe with ``Kiss
>Kiss, Bang Bang,'' a murder mystery that could have been called
>``Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink'' for its relentless yet loving tweaks at
>Hollywood film-noir conventions.
>The film, which debuted Saturday at the Cannes Film Festival, both
>mocks and embraces the cliches of the hard-boiled private eyes of
>years past - taking to nearly outlandish levels the genre's
>improbable coincidences, impossible action, and detectives who take
>endless lickings yet keep on ticking.

These themes seem to run in packs. I had the same sense from Sin City, though I didn't see much about this in press reviews or even on RARA AVIS. Maybe my memory is selective. Anyway, I thought the movie was a post-feminist lampoon of hardboil, even as it hammered all the notes. I'm referring specifically to the romantic notion of the tough-guy white knight who, by implication, must rescue the fair damsels. The women in Old Town seemed quite capable of looking after themselves. But the pic was noirish in that it was sometimes the efforts of the morally righteous tough guys who screwed up the women's working arrangements to begin with. I am curious, I've not read the comics on which the movie is based, but is this true to the theme of the books?

And miker said:

"Noir oftentimes is associated with a pessimistic determinism, a lack of power to exert any meaningful control over life."

I don't think this goes quite far enough. I think noir deals with the attempt to exercise power, and its ineffectiveness to produce substantive change. The powerful ARE effective, but corrupt because that is the nature of power. Those who would fight the corruptions of the powerful must gain or use some form of power themselves in order to do so, and so are either unsuccessful and/or become corrupt themselves. This is what dooms them. This is the human condition, and so noir is existential. I agree that hardboil does not worry so much about this, but noir doesn't stop at a lack of power to deal with corruption, it suggests that the use of power to deal with corruption only makes the situation worse.

Admittedly I'm thinking mostly of a movie rather than a book, though Chinatown is one of the best written Hollywood screenplays in my estimation. Not that I'm an expert. Okay, how's this: Spade used his experience and ability to act in the world to jail the woman who loved him, and whom he may have loved back, but the corruption that motivated Brigid carried on in the obsessions of the fat man and his entourage. Nothing really changed. But if Spade had acted out of love instead, might Brigid have given up her obsession with the black bird? That kind speculation is a mug's game, and Spade was no mug.

As an aside, I'm not suggesting noir asserts morality has no value, only that attempts to impose morality on others will probably result in failure and certainly compromise the original morality. I suppose that's like saying the meek shall inherit the earth, but nobody said it will be in good shape when they get it.

Best, Kerry

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