Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Everything's Noir?

Date: 21 May 2007


Crime, Western, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, etc, all refer to the stories, to the content and forms of the stories, but, as your own definition states, noir refers not to content, but presentation of a crime story. As such, can noir even be a genre of film? As you have argued numerous times, with very telling examples, the same exact story, the same content, can be depicted as noir or not-noir. So given that movies and books, by their very media, present stories in different ways, is it really so outlandish to think that a term referring to presentation might resonate differently in the two media?

Of course, there's also a sleight of hand going on by those of us who shift the definition during the transition between media, from referring to presentation in movies to content in books. So we move from talking about the atmosphere to talking about plot and/or character, how screwedness, or something like it, is realized through one, the other or both. And, you claim, in doing so, we go against Gallimard's original usage. I'm not so sure that's the case, given his statement on the subject (as reported by Al Guthrie not too long ago) and his use of an idiomatic phrase meaning a run of bad luck as the name of the line (why does this reference to bad luck not count in your discussion of original usage?), but even if it is, that's just the first usage of the term. Word usage evolves.

I know, you don't acknowledge this, claim that what I, and others, call evolution is actually incorrect usage. You quote Lewis Carroll (if you're really such a fan of original usage, why don't you call him Charles Dodgson?) and accuse each individual of making the word mean whatever he or she wants it to mean. But what happens when enough individuals adopt the same "wrong meaning"? If enough people start using a word "wrongly," doesn't a new consensus form around a word? Would a person using the word in its original usage even be understood? For instance, how many today would understand gunsel to mean a homosexual instead of a hood with a gun?

This installment in the perpetual debate started with a question about whether or not the term noir has been diluted through its current overuse by marketers. Perhaps there are two levels of meaning for this term, the common meaning and the specialist meaning. For instance, words like validity, reliability, random, etc, have very different meaning in general and scientific usage. Is it really so outlandish to think that literary terms might also have two levels? For the general public, noir on a book's cover refers to a general feeling of darkness. Apparently, the term sold some books, so everyone has jumped on the bandwagon and uses it to try to sell some more books. And those of us who were reading noir before noir became trendy recoil at this new inclusiveness (both of books and of johnny come lately fans who are not nearly so cool as we longtime fans are) and say, That ain't real noir! Look at the term pulp fiction from a few years ago. After the movie of that title, the term was everywhere, used to sell all sorts of movies and book. Purists complained that pulp fiction accurately referred only to stories printed on a certain type of paper and should never be mixed up with stories in the slicks, much less paperback originals, which were completely different animals. The general public didn't know or care about these distinctions, bought the move or books, or not, and the marketers soon moved on to other terms, like noir. At which point Cain and/or Thompson (mostly forgotten and out of print for years before Black Lizard revived him) got added to Hammett and Chandler on book jacket blurbs (which drives specialists up the wall, as many of us see these as two very separate lineages). And soon this term too will become oversaturated and useless in the market and the merchants will move on to another and leave noir to those of us who remain in the temple.

However, I doubt it's a coincidence that at the very same time the marketers are expanding the field, the specialists are seeking to narrow it, to try to home in on, and return to (since we all look to precedence to shore up our distinctions), the "true meaning of noir." So while Jim believes true noir is defined solely by atmosphere, and others (myself included) believe there are certain thematic and/or content requirements, we are all engaged in an effort to keep the barbarians from ruining what we like.

At the same time, though, we must remember that all of this labeling is from the outside, and largely after the fact. Jason told us he did not set out to write noir, though I think we'd all agree, regardless of our definitional skirmishes (and isn't it amazing that regardless of our requirements we have so much agreement on application), that that is exactly what he did. And Gallimard was REprinting books -- what was between the pages did not change the day he put the word noire on their covers. The literature predated the labels

And the labels should never become restrictive checklists against which is measured a book's worthiness -- if it has these elements, it's noir; if it doesn't, it's not and not worth reading. I think it's just that sort of inbreeding that Kevin was complaining about, where the story is so intent on supplying every noir element on the checklist that it never gets around to such basic elements as plot and character. We should never let the labels become more important than a good story well told.


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