I broke my NoirCon cherry last week. It didn’t leave a mark, but I am a little sore.
Things got off to a quick start, with a screening of 1951’s The Prowler, followed by an interview with “The Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller. He hooked me early on, with his definition of noir as a story where the protagonist willfully does a wrong thing and pays for it. (That’s as simple and elegant a take on this slippery subject as I have heard, the Occam’s Razor of noir definitions.) When asked to sum up noir in one word, he said, “empathy.” The trick is to make the protagonist the villain, and still make the audience feel for him.
That evening we adjourned to the Mausoleum of Contemporary Art for what I thought was the best paced panel of the conference: Megan Abbott moderating, with Christa Faust, Wallace Stroby, and Dennis Tafoya discussing the kinds of underclasses only noir fiction seems to want to deal with. (Masked wrestlers, rodeo bullfighters and barrel men (they’re not clowns anymore), circus workers, carnies, and other folk decent, upstanding Republican Americans don’t want to see their daughters bring home.) Tafoya believes modern fiction writers have a reporting function, taking readers to populations they would otherwise know nothing about. After some give-and-take about how The Godfather had elevated organized crime to operatic status, Stroby commented on attending a dinner for a colleague at the Newark Star-Ledger, thrown by the wise guys he’d covered over the past thirty years, because he had treated them fairly. I can’t do the story justice here, but if you ever have a chance to talk to him, ask about it.
A panel discussing the upcoming anthology, Trouble in the Heartland, a collection of stories based on songs by Bruce Springsteen, then a handful of short films written by Jonathan Woods (including the shamefully underappreciated The Curse of the Sponge Man) wrapped up the evening. (It’s yet another indictment of the studio system that this fine film has avoided wider recognition. You can decide for yourself over at Vimeo.)
I spent the first 45 minutes of Steve Hodel’s presentation Friday morning pondering the point of such a detailed biography of his father, the next 45 with kind of a creepy feeling as I saw where he was going, and the last 30 as convinced as Steve that his father, George, was the Black Dahlia killer. (And a lot of other people, too.) Steve is a retired LA detective who worked 300 homicides, and the effectiveness of his presentation was made even more eerie as one couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to peel back the onion to learn these things about his father, who was as sick a fuck as ever walked the earth. Kudos to Steve for his work and presentation.
The afternoon passed, frankly, pretty uneventfully. (I did miss the reading at 4:00, which is on me, but my ass was sore.) Friday evening was highlighted by a nice little soiree, hosted by Soho Books, capped off with a showing of the noir classic, Get Carter. Soho authors Stuart Neville and Fuminori Nakamura read.
“Stray Dogs: Tales From the Other America” discussed the anthology by the same name, somewhat related to Thursday night’s panel, except this time focusing more on the poor of the rural south. My favorite takeaway here (sorry, I forget who provided it), was a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez: If shit were as valuable as gold, poor people wouldn’t be allowed to have assholes.
Defining “politics” as “power,” moderator John Grant set the perfect tone for his panel, “Politics and Noir.” Jon McGoran noted that thriller writers tend to be conservative and noir writers are more likely to be liberal, as modern, 24-style thrillers focus on military or paramilitary organizations and techniques, and noir is about individuals. (McGoran phrased it better. Keeping up with him in my note taking was a challenge.) He also told a story of how his publicist had to walk away from one of his books because GMOs were not charitably treated, and another client was heavily into them, placing the publicist in a classic “fuck or walk” conundrum.
Richard Godwin sees two lines in each noir tale. The first is where the situation tempts the protagonist to cross the line of legality. The second is where he fails, often because the powers that be will not allow him to succeed. Godwin feels strongly about noir tales where the protagonist is forced into the situation, as opposed to being drawn in by his own lust or greed. A key element of all noir is moral compromise, regardless of the motivation.
This was a good panel, one of the two best of the weekend, and Stuart Neville still stole it. Speaking without notes (this was not a traditional panel of back and forth, but several brief speeches), Neville described the lessons of growing up in Northern Ireland. As he ages, he finds himself less willing to write about what is gained by violence—nothing, now that he thinks about it—and more about what is lost: everything. He is appalled that killers are now respected members of government. Speaking of those who would kill a man in front of his son and call it an act of politics, he is plainspoken: it’s not politics. It’s murder. They’re not politicians; they’re criminals. Period. These men were always criminals. The Troubles just gave them a “legitimate” outlet. (He also brought a bit of a chill to the room when he said there’s a danger of writers using the term “noir” as a way to try to set themselves a bit above those who write plain old crime fiction.)
My vantage point made it a little hard to tell who said what for the “Jewish Noir” panel. I did learn that the Jewish Bible is in a different order than the Christian New Testament, ending on a more upbeat note. Judaism is also the perfect noir religion, as one can follow the right path and still get screwed. Oy.
I skipped dinner on Saturday to take a nap and rest up for the last night at the bar, which was time well spent. One drawback to NoirCon is that the evening activities are somewhat dispersed and no transportation is provided. I didn’t feel like messing with another cab to go to dinner and I appear to have chosen wisely, as sorting out whose cab was whose after what was sometimes an extended wait apparently turned into a bit of a cluster fuck. Buses would have been nice.
That’s a quibble. On balance, I had a great time, and learned a lot. Aside from renewing acquaintances with the likes of Peter Rozovsky, Absolutely Kate Pilarcik, Jon McGoran, and Mike Dennis, I got to meet face-to-face for the first time such luminaries as Patti Abbott, Kate Laity, Jed Ayres, Erik Arneson, and Vicki Hendrix. (To those who qualified but were omitted here, my sincerest apologies, but there was drinking going on.) Well worth the trip.