So, I’ve been wondering why I like the so-called ‘Noir’ style.  Sure, it is usually highly stylized with lots of beautiful shots, but so are many Chinese films, and their genre doesn’t seem to stick with me in the same manner.  It is a cliché that Noir films are ‘dark,’ and focus on the undesirable aspects of characters.  Often, they were used as an easy way to place a moral tale on ‘scandalous’ and ‘titillating’ material in an age of stricter media censorship.  But, maybe, somehow the compelling nature still wormed a hole into the formula.

As I’ve (again) been writing a noir-film script, this line of thinking has more immediate relevance to me.  What do I think the style says or means?  As I’ve thought about it, there are three levels I like; one, theological: nothing says ‘original sin’ more than the cacophony of failure and corruption in a noir film.  The few characters who begin with good motives inevitably find themselves implicated or involved in the moral chaos around them.  The second is dramatic, and, well, theological.  In noir, no one is wholly innocent, or wholly evil, either.  They are flawed.  That is the perfect opportunity for creating complex interpersonal conflicts, and hence drama.  And, it fits in with the realities of our moral dilemmas: we are not wholly innocent, nor do we deal with people who are wholly innocent or evil in our lives.  It speaks to the way we live out our morals in a real plain.  While grand dualism can make for great epic movies, it breaks down and turns into some form of legalism on the ground.  The third, is, well, aesthetic.  I like the dark and moody settings of the noir genre; night, rain, fog, intense lighting and shadows.  That is probably just personal preference.

Again, this brings me around to aesthetic theory.  Earlier, I briefly mused on a possible connection between art and suffering.  Rachel left an interesting comment to that, saying the point of good art was to ‘seek truth,’ and that sometimes truth involves suffering, but that it isn’t necessarily intrinsic to it.  That comment has had me thinking about it ever since.  At the risk of sounding over philosophical or too much like Pilate, it does beg the question (to me), ‘what is truth?’; or maybe more specifically, ‘what is truth in art?’.

The last time I was provoked by Orson Welles’s observation (as Harry Lime, in, well, a noir film) ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…’   While the comment is a bit facetious, it seems to have some truth to it.  Artists often speak of their greatest at coming out of personal travail of sort.  (And, on a tangential note, may speak for the exorbitantly large numbers of homosexuals in the arts, but that is another issue…)  But is this aspect essential or merely contingent?  ‘Truth,’ however seems to be a way out of that impasse.  It also seems to bring back to my mind the idea of evil/suffering as teleological, but that’ll have to be thought through further…

Jason M. Silverman

3 March 2007