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 #72: Scopitone

This is actually several pictures. In January I spent a few days in Berlin, and was lucky enough to have access to the archive of the Filmmuseum. The main museum is in the Sony Centre on Potsdamer Platz, but I also visited the archive where the bulk of the items are stored. I was not allowed to photograph the miniatures, puppets and other objects I was examining in the collection (except to say that, at one point, I held in my hands the golden idol from the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark – it’s much heavier than a small bag of sand; several were produced for use in various shots), but I did get a tour of one of the back rooms where hundreds of cameras, projectors, lights, speakers, microphones and other cinematic apparatus are kept. It’s an incredible collection, and a shame there is no museum big enough to put it all on display. One of my discoveries, and by “discovery” I mean something that plenty of people have always known about but I’ve only just noticed, was the Scopitone, invented in France in the early 60s, originally assembled from surplus WWII aeroplane parts.

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