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February 17, 2011

Noirstalgia

This post was written in support of the 2011 For the Love of Film (Noir) Film Preservation Blogathon. The Blogathon is a yearly event that helps raise money to preserve a film and also raise awareness of film preservation in general. This year’s film is the 1950 noir The Sound of Fury, directed by Cy Endfield and starring Lloyd Bridges. Donations that go directly to preserving this piece of cinematic history can be made at this secure Paypal site: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=LAWFPAB4XLHAW. And great thanks to Blogathon hosts Ferdy on Film and The Self-Styled Siren. You can find more information about the blogathon on their sites as well as links to the blog posts from all of the participants.

That said, I have to admit I had a bit of trouble deriving a topic for this post. It isn’t that the theme is of disinterest to me — rather it is of too much interest. Noir is one of those areas of obsessive deep-diving I’ve covered in my free time. As a result I’ve seen several great films, a load of mediocre films, and more than my fair share of bad and/or disappointing films. So my problem is not apathy, but more a dilemma of the omnivore, of too many treats and too much desire. (Feels like I’m sounding like a noirish protagonist here…)

Where, then, does one start in such a scenario? Well, logically and filmicly I should start with a flashback to where it all started. If I think back on it, the first noir I saw was actually Chinatown. Depending on your level of zealotry, this could be considered more a neo-noir, or perhaps a derivative heap of tripe, but whatever the case, it wouldn’t be termed a “true noir”.

Or, in a sense, it actually could be. A common noir theme is the burden of the past — characters desperately trying to escape their past in conflict with other characters desperately trying to bring it back. The ex-con that can’t go straight; the one last heist and then we’re out for good; the amour fou that cannot be the same again; the life of coulda beens that just has to be this time…

In this sense, neo-noirs like Chinatown peddle in similar obsessions, albeit in a more meta manner. The burden of the past is not isolated to the story, but also extends to the filmmaking itself in the desire to slavishly recreate angles, lighting, story arcs, mis-en-scene, and other stylistic matters, as well as the obsession with clinging to the false memory of a when men were men and dames were dames society. Neo or non-traditional noir tries to escape this burden at times as well through creative re-imaginings, recasting of roles, or the use of unexpected settings. As we know from noir, however, the harder you work to unburden the past the more you cling to it — or it clings to you.

I was going to try and be (overly) clever here and dub this concept Noirstalgia, the obsession with a past, real or imagined, that eventually destroys you and your efforts. However, upon further consideration, I’m not so sure that plain old nostalgia itself couldn’t be defined in this same way by someone like Ambrose Bierce, and I moved on from this unnecessary neologism.

What these mental doodlings did make me think, though, was, man, I really wish preservation were this simple, that all we had to do was actively work at forgetting a film and it would therefore naturally persist in order to haunt us. This got me thinking about the climax of Fahrenheit 451 where the bombs are going off and the characters are recalling — verbatim — books they had read. This scene has stuck with me perhaps more out of wonderment than anything else. I have a terrible memory for books, dialogue, lyrics, etc. I can listen to a song 157 times (Thanks for keeping track of how lamely I waste my time, iTunes!) and still not be able to recite lyrics except for a nanosecond behind real time while listening to it. The end of Fahrenheit 451 may be a powerful image, but it’s incomprehensible to me as a denouement, and I still obsess about how it could be possible.

In truth, noir is a highly stylized genre (okay, okay, if it really can be considered a genre), and cultural memory tends to work more like my own — without an immediate presence or other triggers, the materials we value so dearly are quickly forgotten or replaced by newer distractions. We have to struggle to preserve that past not so that it consumes us, but so that it is not consumed and destroyed by physical and memorial degradation. So support the efforts of For the Love of Film and of all the audiovisual preservation efforts across the globe that are required to maintain our cultural heritage so that we’re not tempted to stray back off into our dark past.

Joshua Ranger

Comments

  1. Joe Thompson says:

    I don’t think “noirstalgia” is being overly clever. It’s a good concept. The burden of the past has long been a popular theme in literature. F Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t get away from it.

    • Josh says:

      I agree the concept is good, and something you could track back through naturalism and at least to Hawthorne (and with some more contortions perhaps even back to Cotton Mather and beyond). I think I was more wary about too clever as in too cute — just trying to dress up an old idea with a new name. I suppose that’s my own burden of being too aware of the past…

  2. Dan North says:

    I just thought of the term “noirstalgia”, and Googled it to see if anyone had come up with it first. I’m also wary of neologisms that seem like a convenient branding rather than an apt description. I suppose I’m a “noir skeptic”, i.e. I’m not convinced there ever really was a significant trend for films that we now think of as the dominant mode for American cinema of the 40s and 50s. But I do believe that noir was a critical construct that stuck, and has become a real concept for many viewers. It is that “ghost” of noir that we look back to and which accretes meanings and associations which we then attach to our partial remembrances of film history. That’s what I was looking for in the term, anyway, and it sounds like you were ahead of me on parallel, if not quite similar, lines?

    • Josh says:

      It would seem that I merely had the luck of a deadline and predefined topic area on my side, so, honestly, I gladly cede any Google-algorithm-determined primacy. It does appear we’re on parallel tracks in thinking about the convergence of film history/historiography and collective memory. As with certain aspects of language/grammar and cultural ethos, the academic argument over noir as a true genre vs. an unrelated amalgamation of stylistic choices does become moot because, as you suggest, the generic concept becomes real to the majority of viewers. Personally I’m divided about whether I should stubbornly cling to a sense of how things used to be (like the criminal’s code) or give up the “ghost” and engage culture where it currently embodies itself. Or maybe this is just the luxury of blogging on these topics for pleasure, that I can cast my indecision more lyrically as a noirish conflict between predetermination and free will. Whatever the case, as an archivist my primary interest is how what happens to persist influences what we perceive of the past and, then, what we extrapolate from the present onto that past. Do you think in film history this is a greater issue with noir than with other modes, or do we see this broad assignation in other areas (ex. 1980s=raunchy, dumb comedies)?

  3. Indy says:
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Nontihg I could say would give you undue credit for this story.

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