The Noir Instinct

Humphrey Bogart The Maltese Falcon[I recently completed an essay on film noir references/influences in the Ghost in the Shell franchise, for inclusion in a forthcoming book on noir in East Asian cinema. In the introduction, I wrote a lengthy section arguing that film noir is almost entirely a critical construct, brought to life by the convenient way in which it helps us to group together a disparate group of films and analyse them under a similar brand as if they represent some collective response to their social contexts. Much of this lengthy introduction was not really necessary, as the book’s authors had already built most of the terminological discussion into their introductory chapter. In the final version, then, most of what follows has been cut out so that my chapter cuts more quickly to the case, but I thought the longer version, despite being disjointed in places, might be of some interest as a standalone blogpost. I’ve added a few bits of new text to clarify some points, make it all less formal, and to round off the argument at the end.] 

For as long as I’ve been teaching and researching film, the term ‘film noir’ has been cropping up regularly, often applied loosely as an adjectival phrase in students’ essays (‘in a film noir style’, ‘noirish lighting’ etc.). One could easily get the impression that everyone knows what ‘noir’ is, and that everybody agrees on what it is, and that we’re all referring to the same thing when we say ‘noir’. To an extent, that’s true. It would be disingenuous to suggest that I didn’t know what you were referring to whenever you drop a couple of ‘noirs’ into the conversation. The difficulty of studying film noir is in the capaciousness of its definitions, the heterogeneity of an object of study that is supposed to describe a generic coherence. There are just so many films labeled as noir, and so many differences between them. Steve Neale has described the peculiar tenacity of ‘noir’ as a word rather than as a recognizable genre, calling it ‘a phenomenon whose unity and coherence are presumed in the single term used to label them rather than demonstrated through any systematic, empirical analysis’.[i] The invocation of the word therefore operates talismanically: once it is uttered in reference to a particular film, noir becomes a constructing force that grafts its interpretive codes onto the film text. Continue reading

Picture of the Week #3: Of Dolls and Murder

Of Dolls and Murder

Of Dolls and Murder is a documentary by Susan Marks and John Dehn, currently in production. It uses a series of dollhouse crime scenes, created by heiress Frances Glessner Lee in the 1930s and 40s to train detectives, as a starting point for a larger critique of myths about forensic investigation and the public fascination with mysterious deaths. It has narration by John Waters and apparently some beautiful photography of those fascinating dioramas. Apparently, they’re still used to train crime scene investigators (who, thanks largely to CSI, we tend to think of as preternaturally gifted but technologically-enhanced savants) in how to read and interpret a scene. It all sounds creepy, macabre, and an excellent idea, illuminating one of those strange little corners of the world and showing how it reflects into the wider cultural environment. I like it already, and if your interest is piqued, you can see more pictures at the filmmakers Flickr pages. Or, if you’re one of those people, you can follow the film’s progress on Twitter, or on the official blog. Looks like they’ve got all their web marketing covered. If that’s not enough, you can watch a clip below: