Peter Rozovsky recently resurrected a discussion last year on his award-winning blog, Detectives Beyond Borders. Titled, “What Does Noir Mean to You?” it sparked an even better discussion than it had the first time he ran it. It also got me to thinking about noir, neo-noir, and my perceived differences between them.
This topic has been on my “to-do list” for some time. I’d always managed to find a way to avoid writing about it until Peter got me thinking about it again. I think the secret behind my procrastination is a unwillingness to admit to the conclusion I have drawn, for a couple of reasons. So it goes.
I like classic noir. Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body Heat (not such an old movie, but in the mold), even Sunset Boulevard. (Peter and I disagree whether this is noir or melodrama. I suspect we’re splitting hairs—I think we both believe it’s a masterpiece—and it might be fun to go back and forth about it for a while.) There’s something about the doomed man, often hoist with his own petard, who struggles unsuccessfully against the inevitable. Sometimes he knows he’s doomed from the start; sometimes not. These kinds of stories, done well, can probe human frailty in ways more “respectable” stories cannot.
We’re currently in a period where a genre called “neo-noir” is in vogue. I’ve read a lot of it. Even been considered a part of it for a fleeting moment, when my story “Green Gables” was included in Thuglit’s third (and, alas, final) anthology, Blood, Guts, and Whiskey. I know several of its leading adherents, at least online, and both enjoy their company and marvel at their chops.
It’s the stories that get me. I just don’t like the stories.
Not all of them, obviously. No genre is so devoid of merit I could not bear to read any of it. I’m sure there’s a chick lit cat cozy out there I’d enjoy, though I’m damned if I can think of what it might be. It’s the general mass of story content I’m talking about.
Traditional noir deals with depravity. Lust, greed, deceit, pick your favorite vice, they’re all in there somewhere. What gives the stories power is not the vice; it’s the effect that vice has on what is usually a relatively unextraordinary protagonist. Walter Neff (Double Indemnity) is not an evil person. A little too slick for his own good, and not as smart as he thinks he is, mainly because he too often thinks with his balls. Ned Racine (Body Heat) is basically a slacker who’s too lazy and apathetic to get into trouble until Matty Walker puts his glands in an uproar. (Testosterone improperly directed is a key element of much noir.) Joe Gillis of Sunset Boulevard isn’t even such a bad guy; he’s just in over his head. All of them could walk away at any time, and they seem to know it. They just can’t. Their helplessness in the face of the events they have set in motion is both fascinating and cautionary, like seeing a train run off a downed bridge in slow motion after watching it approach for several miles, knowing what would happen.
Neo-noir revels in its depravity; it’s the entire reason for the story, to see how bad things—and people—can get. The protagonist does not fall; he was at the bottom when he started. Too often the stories are to see how much other misery he can summon up on his way to the end. Alternatively, he may triumph over adversaries even more loathsome than me.
I’ve read a lot of this over the past couple of years, and I’m tired of it. Much of the writing is good, and the scenarios may be realistic, but only so many stories can send me to the shower after reading before the water bill becomes prohibitive. Maybe the standards/censorship of noir’s original period kept its writers from going here; or maybe they did go here, but those are the stories that did not survive.
I don’t have to root for someone in every story; I do need to care about someone.