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Noir is one of the most compelling film forms in the cinematic repertoire. Part of its allure lies in the darkness of the image, both subject and lighting. Additionally, noir is rich in symbolism and meaning, one of the best styles for the application of psychoanalytic theories, noir reveals the mind of the time it is made in and the minds of those who made and still make these types of film, including the culture and people associated with the filmmakers. To put it simply, once the surface is scratched, noir offers a deep well of thought provoking possibilities.
Theorists who appreciate the importance of those films considered illustrative of Film noir find a vast and rich landscape to explore. However, there is a struggle that remains to this day in defining just what noir is. The lack of definition has become a hallmark of this film form. Many theorists agree with James Naremore who stated: “nobody is sure whether the films in question constitute a period, a genre, a cycle, a style, or simply a phenomenon” (Naremore, 12). Marc Vernet explains the difficulty in nailing down a set definition, “The closer the object is approached, the more diluted it becomes,” echoing the psychoanalytic concept of the beloved object (Copjec, 4).
For some noir is not a definable genre, but an anti-genre, mirroring the quintessential anti-hero that populates its shadowy scenes (Naremore, 20). Wrought with “doomed characters who become obsessed with bewitching women,” (Hirsch, 2) noir was born sometime during the early 1940s. The period before and during World War II is remembered as “a complex, ambiguous, even contradictory world, but most of all, as a troubled world,” (Kleinegger, 129). These turbulent times were ripe fruit for inspiration that allowed noir to come into existence. For example, Wheeler Winston Dixon describes noir as reflecting a new perspective or sentiment symptomatic of the period: “Defiant fatalism was something new…a sense that there was a point where even bothering to continue to exist was more of a problem than it was worth” (Dixon, 25). Dixon’s statement is depressing, but reveals a great deal of what the filmmakers and members of the American culture faced at the time. Art is often an exhibit of cultural mood, or attitude. The emotions and stories contained in Film Noir features are sophisticated compared to this simple summary, often jumbled and knotted up inside of the narrative (Hirsch, 17, 74-75). To say that the American public was depressed barely describes the tones of the age.
The 1940s were “a period when psychoanalysis was just coming into vogue” for Western culture (Dixon, 30). It was a period that produced a great many new ideas, all products of the decade’s turbulence, and former decade’s lessons. Film of the period can be seen as an evolution of styles, a response to cultural shifts and the expanding knowledge of the populace. For instance, “the public’s distrust of conventional authority figures…coupled with a fear of their own internal mental landscape” made noir a prominent cultural discourse (Dixon, 31). The decade of the 1940s was full of people who survived the Great Depression and the Great World War nearly two decades before. In the United States, cynicism toward authority and the American Dream was the result. Just as the emotional temperature of the nation was made by multiple facets of experience, Film noir crossed genres and styles. The ability of Noir styled films to cross genres was important to the business of Hollywood, and though they did not consider it a genre, they knew of the potential of such films to bring in the desired box office take (Copjec, 131). Banking on the historically burdened mindset of the American consumer paid off.
In the following pages, a closer definition of Film Noir will be attempted, and the struggle with this elusive form will be explored. An examination of those details particular to the Film noir will be undertaken in an effort to decide if noir is a style or genre from a long gone time period, or one that continues in current film. History (both political and cinematic) and psychology will play an integral part in making these determinations. History inevitably sets the cultural backdrop, often cluing the viewer of film into the attitudes and ideas flowing through the period in which a film is made. In addition, psychology provides the means to interpret the noir images on screen, and to seek out the similarities among them to determine that they do create a genre and also exist to this day. Read More
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