A Genre Adapted Through Time
Filmmakers are confronted with the perennial challenge of intriguing their audience with new cinematic experiences – the challenge of innovation.When a traditional genre transcends time, it is often altered to slake this thirst for the new.Consequently, such an evolution has altered one of America’s most stylish genres of the 1940s, film noir.The introduction of color itself took away from the film’s original mystique and artistry by denying it the starkness of its contrast.However, by stressing other important elements of the genre, such as character development, plot line and recurring themes, directors have continued the legacy in what we call neo-noir.Though eloquently depicted in Roman Polanski’s, Chinatown and Curtis Hanson’s, L.A. Confidential, directors have attempted to recreate the genre in its original time and setting only to find something lacking.Their delivery seemed foreign to a contemporary audience.The alternative in the form of the neo-noir had the production drawn upon classical elements but apply them to a contemporary setting and theme. This approach is exemplified in, Christopher Nolan’s, Memento, Woody Allen’s, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Oliver Stone’s, Natural Born Killers.
Specific character traits of the protagonist in the original film noir genre are well recognized and have been adapted for the contemporary version.The modern character may possess a requisite set of current attributes but who, nonetheless, fulfills basic noir formula.The coined term, noir loser is typically an innocent, middle-class male character.His ordinary life is particularly marked by the lack of expectation.Confronted with this reality and given the opportunity, he will engage in activities that will expose him to greater wealth and the promise of sexual reward but at the cost of his morals.As Foster Hirsch describes it, “The men’s passion destroys the ordered, mundane surface of their former lives, and hurls them into a maze of crime and punishment”.They are not criminals at heart, but rather they are exposed to a world that, at the moment, seems more inviting than the one in which they live.Hirsch’s description embodies several characteristics of the exampled neo-noir losers, however, with one small deviation. These neo-noir losers have the ability to escape punishment and continue their life with little or no consequences.
Mickey Knox in Natural Born Killers is first introduced delivering raw meat, a seemingly innocent job at first impression.His future actions are foreshadowed, however, by the bloody mess in his hands.At the door he is confronted by and begins flirting with Mallory, the daughter of the household.As their obsessions intensify Mickey feels obligated to extract her from her neurotic family.Mickey reminds us of Billy Wilder’s character, Walter Neff, whose morals become tainted in his attempt to rescue the seemingly innocent and insecure Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1942).The manner in which Knox carries out his mission is far more explicit than in Neff’s case.The portrayal of Mickey’s brutal murder of Mallory’s parents is a consequence of a changing culture and ready audience such and furthermore underlines the desensitization of our generation.Contrast this to Neff’s off-screen murder of Dietrichson’s husband.Moreover, the explicit sex and countless other murders that follow at the hands of Knox reinforce the notion that we, as an audience, desire greater acuity and greater visual experience with the accompanying thrill.
The neo-noir protagonist’s avoidance of the consequences of crimes is another significant diversion from the original noir outcome.An examination of Judah Rosenthal in Woody Allen’s, Crimes and Misdemeanors serves as a ready example.Foster Hirsch describes the character from original noirs as a “small-scale, unheroic, defeatist” who becomes “hopelessly entangled in the aftermath of his ill-considered actions”.In contrast to this heavily moralistic theme, the neo-noir puts forward the idea that “God is blind”.Judah Rosenthal, an optometrist, is confronted by his failure to save a Rabbi’s sight and is further threatened with the loss of his marriage by a girlfriend who wishes to assert herself.With his life seemingly losing its foundation, he is convinced by his brother to rid himself of this threat.The criminally minded brother portrays a life that runs counter to his own and serves as the contrasting role typical of noirs.In speaking of his brother’s inverse life, Rosenthal states, “Jack lives in the real world.I’ve managed to keep free of that real world, but suddenly it has found me”.After his crime, Rosenthal is left with the burden of guilt. The absence of law enforcement here deviates from the original genre but facilitates the current theme.
Memento’s Leonard shares certain characteristics of both Knox and Rosenthal that justify him as a noir loser who escapes retribution for his actions.However, interestingly, he differs even further from the classical noir character as he is portrayed as both noir loser and detective.A severe head injury resulting with psychological trauma of his wife’s murder leave him unable to form new memories, casting his weakness and vulnerability to be manipulated.Leonard’s surroundings are reminiscent of those from original noirs.He lives in a hotel room with pictures, maps, and notes scattered throughout.His prior occupation as an insurance claims investigator provided him the experience to undertake the study of the murder. He reminds us of the detective, Barton Keyes, in Double Indemnity, in his profession and obsession to render meaning for what has occurred.
The manner in which Leonard is presented, on the other hand, bares no resemblance to the classic noir delivery.We, as an audience, are brought into Leonard’s life and made to feel its disjointedness. The nonlinear narrative attributed to the film is Christopher Nolan’s attempt to make Leonard as subjective as possible.By confusing the audience and playing the film in reverse, the viewer is placed inside Leonard’s head.The events unfold in such a manner as to force the viewer to do the detective work.This style is relatively modern to Hollywood films and somewhat unexpected.Additionally, it gives Memento a uniqueness that is unprecedented but given its fundamental features the film remains distinctly neo-noir.
Lighting and shadow has been regarded as an elemental aspect of noir.Its retention and adaptation over time has been necessary to preserve the genre’s stylized nature.Film noir of the 1940s was partly derived from the colorful paintings of German Expressionism.The absence of a color medium in cinema at the time allowed its distinctive black-and-white style to be established.The introduction of color as an inexpensive medium for film has instituted a change that the audience now expects.Lighting, however, has continued to play a significant role in neo-noirs and the continued use of contrast for symbolism underlines its central role in the genre.
Suitably depicted in the films discussed, color has further stimulated the stylization of neo-noirs. For instance, Natural Born Killers opens with an explicit scene in which Mickey and Mallory Knox murder the attendants of a diner with the depiction of extreme violence.This is reinforced by fast-pace cutting from color to the harshness of black-and-white.The incorporation of black-and-white is also found in Memento, though for symbolically different purposes.The black-and-white scenes symbolize the abstraction of Leonard’s reality.His life of confusion and mistrust is supplemented by the qualities of black-and-white film and give it an aura of mystique.The integration of short high contrast scenes reminds of traditional film noir without overemphasizing the effect.
Though Crimes and Misdemeanors does not include any black-and-white scenes, it does make use of opaque and scant or sporadic lighting to symbolize entrapment and guilt.During the nights of debate to murder his girlfriend, Rosenthal is beset with insomnia because of a guilty conscience.He sits alone on the couch in his living room throughout the night, his face illuminated by a fire and sudden bolts of lighting.Darkness consumes all else.Contrast and lighting capture the meaning of his state of mind symbolizing its destitution in typical noir fashion.
Film noir adapted through time has been classified as neo-noir. The modernisms of subsequent generations have not only aided in the transformation of a genre but have launched a new wave of films with utilization of traditional techniques.Rather than mimicking an era, several current neo-noir films have introduced sufficient innovation to justify the creation of a new genre without detracting from its predecessor which also has earned its place in American film history.
– Daniel Elisevich