Thursday, September 13, 2007

The true origins of noir?

There's been a lot of heated discussions on what's noir fiction on the Rara-Avis mailing list. I really don't know why the topic raises so much hot blood - you'd think everyone could live with each others' definitions, wrong though they might seem to be. (Well, it is true that the word is getting out of hand, given, for example, Akashic's city noir anthologies - the stories really don't seem to me to be noir which should at least imply some sort of grimness.)

Now, a guy called William Ahearn, has dipped into this and written a pretty fascinating account of how noir came to be. It's been said that French critic Nino Frank coined the term in the years after WWII when he saw some American films for the first time. Ahearn has found out that this wasn't so - he used the term "noir" in reference to some other films. Ahearn has also taken a look into A Panorama of American Film Noir, a French reference work that was first published in 1955 and that has been regarded a key work in the noir discussion. Ahearn says it's one of the worst books he's ever seen, with totally incoherent argumentation and illogical deductions on what's noir and what's not. (Someone might say: "It's French. What do you expect?")

I have some quibbles with Ahearn's essay. He quotes James M. Cain and Billy Wilder who have been reported saying sarcastic things about the origins and definition of noir. I wouldn't put much weight on those guys, since they were known bull-shitters, and Cain seems to have spoken whatever came to his mind. (And I don't really see the point in asking artists about genres and other classifications.)

Ahearn's point is however right: noir has been used to detect films (and books and comics and TV shows) that aren't really noir. Laura is not noir, The Big Sleep is not noir, etc. - at least that's what he says. Ahearn refutes the incoherent definition of noir that's offered in A Panorama of American Film Noir and seems to be saying that we should really look really hard when we use the term. But I don't see why he then chooses to imply that the original French definition of noir is the right one. The first one is always the right one, is that what he's saying? I don't see why that should be. Theories are always corrected and commented on and so forth. Should we only look at, say, Marx and not what's written about him?

And we might also say that there really are lots of different definitions of noir: there's the one emphasizing the nihilist side of noir, then there's the political definition of films noirs being a Leftist genre, rising from the thirties' political movements, then there's the aesthetic definition (which furthermore includes two subdefinitions: the one emphasizing the distorted view to look at the world and the one emphasizing fedoras and raincoats and rainy streets and saxophones), then there's the psychological definition (in which case Laura is noir: it's about a man who falls in love with a dead woman). Etc., etc.

Ahearn (and every other noir fan) should really look into James Naremore's More Than Night which is the best book on the subject, at least of those I've read. In his book - which is a pretty thorough collection of linked essays - Naremore takes a look at all the definitions of noir and concludes that they are all discursive, i.e. the term, whenever it's used, defines what critics and viewers want it to define. (One should always tackle Rick Altman's useful book on film genres.) Hence there's no point in trying to define the "real" noir, since there have been so many theories of what it is. The original French one is no more adequate than the ones that have followed.

5 comments:

Peter said...

This reader says the operative words are hopelessness and self-destruction -- Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Lawrence Block's Grifter's Game. Like you, though, I don't see why the argument is such a big deal.

I do think that noir novels tend to work better than noir movies, at least American ones. Seeing Sterling Hayden collapse in the grass or lose all his money loses a bit of its effect when one remembers he's a Hollywood star; he's going to get up again.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Juri said...

Yes, you're correct about that, but - I meant to say this, but forgot and also ran out of time - there are noirish elements in things that don't describe that hopelessness and self-destruction. Maybe we could avoid this pretty useless discussion by using the term "noirish", when we talk about, say, THE BIG SLEEP. There's noir in the photography and the iconography, even though the plot and characters may not be actual noir.

william said...

First off, thanks for taking the time to read and then write about my essay. Yes, a definition of noir -- at this point -- may be pointless. What's fun is finding out how many "authorities" are blowing smoke through their hats. Right now I'm working on the early French noir films and developing a simple definition that will undoubtably be ignored. But I'm having a blast and seeing some great flicks. Thanks again.

William

Peter said...

Any term can take on a life far beyond what readers intended. I called one story in the Dublin Noir collection "noirest of noir," and someone at least as knowledgeable as I am and quite possibly more referred to the work of that same author as "not noir at all."

I think I'll take a look at that essay. Yes, noir may have expanded beyond an outlook and turned into a style. Even the moody saxophone element on countless soundtracks has its charm.

===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Juri said...

Hence Annie Leibovitz's "Killer's Kill, Dead Men Die" photographs in Vanity Fair that many cursed are legible noir.