RARA-AVIS: Re: Types of noir (was Re: Pop. 1280)

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 02 Aug 2007


Re your comments below:

"I'm OK with you calling The Big Heat noir. I know the movie is, but the truth is that the plot is a tough guy avenging a wrong and coming out triumphant at the end. Personally, I'd rather not call it noir."

Of course you'd rather not call it noir. Beause if you called it noir, you'd have to conclude that something other than a "screwed" protagonist is the defining element of noir. Like maybe a dark and sinister atmosphere?

Your post reveals two major fallacies. First, you admit that the film version of THE BIG HEAT is noir, while resisting applying that label to the novel.

The film is a very faithful adaptation of the novel, in its plot, in its depiction of the characters, in its dialog (some of it lifted right from the book), and, most importantly, in its atmosphere and tone. So if the film is noir, the book must be noir, unless noir has two completely different definitions depending on the medium.

But the only reason the films we call noir are called noir is because they tell the same kind of stories in the same way that noir books do. In fact, they were often based (as THE BIG HEAT was) on books that had already been labeled noir. So the notion that noir has two separate meanings, one for film and another for prose, is fallacious. And not just fallacious, but clearly and self-evidently fallacious.

The second fallacy is implied by your statement "I'd rather not call it noir." This betrays the initial error you're making when you try to define noir. You decide what you want it to be first, then construct a definition based on that desire.

The reason I hold so steadfastly to my notion of "a dark and sinister atmosphere" is not because that's what I want noir to mean, but because that is what my objective observation of the many disparate novels, stories, films, etc., that have, by a fairly broad consensus, been labeled noir, suggests to me are the only common elements. It may, as Kerry suggested when he grudgingly admitted that public opinion seems to be on my side, not be particularly useful, at least for certain purposes, but that doesn't make it incorrect. It does, however, make narrower definitions, even if they seem more useful, incorrect.

The only thing that could make it incorrect is if someone more discerning than me made a similar objective observation of those stories, novels, films, etc, and found defining elements, common to them all, that I missed. I certainly admit that this is possible, but no one's done it yet. Instead, every argument against my suggested definition has had as its underpinning, either stated or implied, "I can't accept your suggestion because this is what noir means TO ME." In other words, precisely the faulty premise your statement "I'd rather not call it noir" reveals.

And the problem with the narrower definitions you prefer is that there is always the temptation to make them narrower still. Eventually, "screwed" isn't enough, and we end up having a long discussion over whether a story is truly noir if the hero is doomed because of circumstances beyond his control, or if some moral failing must be the cause that inevitable doom in order to be truly worthy of the label.

Actually, just as no filmmaker during the classic
"noir cycle" ever set out deliberately to make a film noir, it strikes me that Burnett, Goodis, Cain, Woolrich, etc, never set out to write noir prose fiction. They simply set out to tell a particular story in a particular way, and noir is what happened. There was no common philosophical foundation. There was no conscious literary "movement." There were just professional storytellers, telling their stories professionally, and, in retrospect, we can now see common elements.


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