During my scant lunch time I often read cultural critics (Clive James to Alex Ross to James Wolcott and so forth,) for my “popcorn reading”. Go through enough essays and you begin to get an idea of the types of things you might have missed in school or in the more conventional areas of discourse, be it in the classroom or coffeehouse or in front of the water-cooler. Why was this filmmaker or that musician or that ‘ism’ so damned important? Why did everyone lose their shit when Friends or The Office or The Sopranos ended? I ask because more often than not I simply wasn’t paying attention, part of my deep-seated animus towards ‘pop’ culture. Occasionally, in reading something I come across an insight that finds its way to my thought-clogged over-analyzing mind, something that illuminates a few (very rare) answers. Take noir, for instance; what was the big deal? What was the black-and-white world of palookas, gumshoes, hoodlums, and molls all about? Where did it come from?
I hadn’t found myself all that curious in my younger years, merely assuming that noir was just another step down the pop-culture path, the citified version of the beloved American western shoot-em-up-bang-bang, only with a Big Apple accent and tommy guns in place of ten-gallon hats and six-shooters. It took an observation from James Wolcott to nab my attention:
“Although it had its roots in German Expressionism and the private-eye novel, film noir fully emerged like a walking hangover after World War II, a haunted shadow rising from Europe’s bombed-out rubble and Japan’s radioactive ash—a slice of death drawn from a larger annihilation.”
Somewhere in my reading life I had come across a book called The Best Years, which described the interwar period between the end of the Second World War and the Korean War in the U.S., which (quite ironically) saw a retreat of the euphoria and optimism from the defeat of nazism and the establishment of the United Nations (a hope for the preceding conflict to have been the “war to end all wars”, similar to the hopes of those who survived the First) to an age of fear–fear of the age of atomic weapons as well as a burgeoning “cold war” between the west and the Soviet Union. Now noir–film noir, to be precise–meant something–it was a reflection of the larger fears around it as well as a look into the inner dystopias of the human condition, encounters between isolated individuals in barren settings.
From this thought, I went with another impish thought: that perhaps noir‘s time has come back–from the mania of acquisition and social mobility of the 50’s, from the hippie-dippy free-love überidealistic 60’s, from the ‘I’m-ok-you’re-ok mood-ring 70’s, from the get-rich-quick Reagan 80’s. The American dream is turning out to be quite a bad acid trip–a fall from grace for a superpower who threw its cultural and economic weight around with few restraints for the majority of the previous century.
So what might noir (film or otherwise) look like in this day and age? Would it be The Net sans Sandra Bullock and the thriller setup (this reference dates me, I know.) Would it be something like Sleepless in Seattle being more like Waiting for Godot? The cyberdystopia in which we find ourselves gives us a possible starting point, a morass of comment chains, internet trolls, clickbait, and doomscrolling–ridiculously isolated people with little resilience and sensory overload attempting to find some sense of vindication or balance in a world gone GameStop; a commentary on the limits of culture and communication in a world supposedly evolved to enhance both.
In the end, my fascination with noir (I suspect) speaks to a central problem in our society, and that is a relentless belief in positivity, profit, and progress at all costs. I might have added “perfection” but that’s another series of posts for another time. In an age in which we find ourselves and society ‘not as we once were’ (a historical ubiquity only made more pertinent by our trajectory as a so-called “superpower”) but having to confront the vast seething plethora of inequalities and discontents that were either hidden or ignored by the cant of power and preeminence, we find that “morning in America” or “halftime in America” or a host of strategies to help us lose weight, find our passion, make money and retire comfortably, or to find perfect love have become our hiding place of choice, kept away from the vast challenges and a very uncertain future by just believing. At some point, though, these prescriptions work until they don’t. And when we can’t hide behind relentless positivity or awareness, it might just have to fall to noir and the like to tell us who and where we are.