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June 17, 2003

Kem Nunn 1: Neo-Noir

Friedrich --

Iím out in California for some vacation weeks, and in recognition of this happy fact Iíve lined up a couple of beginning-surfing lessons for myself. You laugh, and rightly so -- but also: hey, if not now, when? I suspect that the outings my nursing home is likely to arrange wonít include visits to the surf shop. More a propos to a cultureblog, Iím also reading Kem Nunnís surf-noir novel Tapping the Source.

Have you ever looked at it? Considered by the three or four who might know to be the great surfing novel. (Myself, Iím not even sure what the competition is.) I have no interest in writing a review of the novel, which I havenít enjoyed terrifically but have found fascinating to think about. Instead, Iím interested in using the book as a pretext for wondering out loud about a few things.

But, to do the book the courtesy of politeness, Iím first going to ask myself: What would I say about this novel if a friend had written it? Here's what I come up with: Surf noir? Fab idea, and I hope to come with half as good a concept for a novel myself sometime before I die. The evocations of what it feels like to surf, not that I have any firsthand knowledge of this? Also fab. Plus, I like the fact that Nunn committed himself to working with the noir-crime tradition, and to crafting an actual plot. Not enough of that around in lit circles these days as far as I'm concerned.

But on to my own musings. Today: the topic of neo-noir. I feel cheerfully divided on the topic, surprise surprise. How about you? Iím thinking about pop music guys like Chris Isaak and Mark Knopfler; Iím thinking about movies and filmmakers like "L.A. Confidential," "Red Rock West," David Lynch; Iím thinking about writers like Kem Nunn and Barry Gifford.

Iím very sympathetic to and full of admiration for what they're doing, while (alas) not enjoying much of their work. On the good side: these are guys who recognize a central arts-in-America pickle -- which is that, while we have wonderful pop and commercial forms and traditions, we barely have a fine-arts tradition at all. What becomes of you if, like so many Americans, you come to the arts through loving the pop and commercial forms? Authors like Jim Thompson and John D. MacDonald really are first-rate, god knows. Yet, let's face it, pop and commercial forms are mainly suited for kids, for the unschooled, for people who are very unself-conscious, for easy pleasures, and for those tiny handful of people whose talents really do lie in the pop and commercial direction.

How to make use of them yourself? Letís say you get an education, or you acquire some sophistication and experience, or you have talents that lend themselves to more complex forms. What do you do in the American arts? And how do you grow in them? If you try to adapt your mind and gifts to Euro or Asian forms, you may well lose your roots and look like a pretentious fool. Yet if you try to work with American pop/commercial forms, your sophistication and self-consciousness may well kill whatís great about these forms, which is often their directness and energy.

Itís a toughie. Some people -- and good for them -- choose to go neo: consciously making use of a pop/commercial form while trying to bring something of themselves into it. Their sophistication, their vision, their musicanship, their writerliness. But itís a perilous choice. (As far as Iím concerned, anyway.) The finished product is likely to congeal or collapse. This may just be me -- always a possibility. But I wasnít the fan of "L.A. Confidential" many were, though I could certainly recognize that it was well-done. It struck me as a stiff that refused to come to life. "Red Rock West"? Enough amusing impishness to carry me through about, oh, 30 minutes. But then I lost interest. The Coen Brothers and Barry Gifford generally leave me wishing they weren't trying so hard. Too many of these neo works seem to me to fall prey to the watching-your-own-feet-as -you-try-to-walk disease. Or they dry up under their own cool-guy self-consciousness.

But, as I say, I'm sympathetic, and so I find myself wondering: Which ones have worked for me and why? Letís see. I like a few minutes of many of David Lynchís neo-noirs. He swings into surrealism and sex fantasy. I enjoyed "Joy Ride," the most recent John Dahl, quite a lot. What Dahl did to make it fresh and alive was to start with neo-noir but not end there; instead, about halfway through, he turned the story into straight-ahead horror. This Kem Nunn surf-noir? Well, like I say, some nice passages, a nice stab at a story. But too damn much writin'. About which topic more tomorrow. I haven't been crazy about too many others, although I'm sure a few more will come to me as I'm falling asleep tonight.

Curious about which recent neo-noir (or neo-noirish) works you've enjoyed. What are your theories about why some of these works catch fire and so many others don't? Also curious about whether this kind of dilemma is anything you enjoy thinking about in the first place? Me, I could go on for hours. And, as The Wife will testify, too often I do.



posted by Michael at June 17, 2003


American "noir" is like American blues music, a victim of its own popularity. It's become a routine, a riff everybody knows and many can imitate.

For me, the last (and probably greatest) "noirist" in print was Ross Macdonald. Not that there hasn't been good writing in the genre since, but Macdonald was the last that I know of who brought his own fresh vision to it: beneath the obligatory private-eye wisecracks, he caught the still sad music of humanity.

As for movies, even accomplished ones like Red Rock West and After Dark, My Sweet just seem like a fresh gloss applied on top of a worn structure. And self-conscious parodies of "noir" represent the downside of our popular culture, one in which the writer/director are playing one-upmanship, showing you how cleverly they can apply graffiti to a classic genre.

I think the only way "noir" can work anymore is to transport it to a different culture: no more Beverly Hills mansions hiding sordid secrets, forties detectives, blonde mantraps. Put "noir" into a completely different context, as the French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier did when he transposed a Jim Thompson book to a movie, Coup de Torchon, set in an African colony.

Ian Rankin and John Harvey have written a series of crime novels whose context is the seedy, decadent side of Edinburgh and Nottingham, respectively. Rankin's detective, John Rebus, in particular can exhibit the sour, tired soul in a smoke- and drink-ridden body that is the essence of the "noir" protagonist, and it's more than just the thousandth variation on Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Thus are the shadows made a deep black again.

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 17, 2003 06:36 PM

Actually, I feel like an idiot reading your post, because it makes me ask a terribly obvious question that never occurred to me before: what did people in the 1920s get out of the ancestral noir form, hardboiled writing? Obviously, the first thing they thought was not "Oh, another noir piece, what have they done to freshen it up?" Rather, they thought, "Oh, another variation on the dime novel or the Western, look what they've done to freshen it up. Hmmm, they've moved it from the frontier to the modern city, they've tossed in some social criticism, they've even added a rather modern sense of nihilism and a dose of that newfangled Freudian abnormal psychology." The whole issue of using "traditional" forms like noir reminds me of Stendahl's contribution to the intellectual battle between Romanticism and Neoclassicism: "A huge difference between the Greeks and us moderns is that the Greeks had no antiquity to refer to, they had to make it all up!" (or words to that effect.) I like noir forms as well as the next person (better, probably) but it would seem urgent to modernize the formula by incorporating contemporary thought, as--in their own way--Ross and John D. MacDonald did in the 1960s. Alternatively, the choice is to go the route of the Coens--deliberate, highly stylized, comic archaism. (I suspect I have a lot more tolerance for this option than you do--I saw "Raising Arizona" on the flight to Hawaii and enjoyed it for the sixth or seventh time.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 17, 2003 08:41 PM

What aspects of Mark Knopfler's work are you thinking of, Michael?

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on June 17, 2003 09:31 PM

Hey Rick: Amen, dude (I'm still in surfer drag), and well-said. Two more noir questions: why does it have such a drug-like hold on writers and filmmakers, who keep trying to do it? And why don't they keep it shorter? Some of my fave noirs (David Goodis, for instance) are only 100 or so pages long, and the best noir movies, if I remember right, tend to be 80ish minutes long. This Kem Nunn novel is 300 smallish-print pages long. There's just too much of it.

FvB: Excellent points. I've got an artist friend who claims that the best work in any given style is always done in the first few years of the style's existence, before things freeze up. I don't know if he's right, but it's a fun point to wrangle with. And, hey, "Raising Arizona" is the one Coen Bros. production I really enjoy.

Mark: I should probably shut up about Knopfler, whose work I don't know that well. His name surfaced in my brain, though, for the following reasons: musicianship above and beyond the call of what pop usually demands, attraction to traditional forms (he seems to conceive of many of his songs in genre terms), the way he seems to consciously pick and choose his effects ... A sophisticated musician who works very consciously yet occasionally manages to do convincing pop -- not easy, apparently. But eager to hear if you think I'm missing the point where his work is concerned.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 18, 2003 01:33 AM

Possibly not quite related to your point, but do most American popular forms really not have a fine-arts aspect? Science fiction has Delany and Wolfe--there's no one comparable for mysteries or romance. Delany's also written porn, so that's covered.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on June 18, 2003 09:49 AM

I didn't know it at the time when I read them, but Dean Koontz's, "Seize the Night" and "Fear Nothing" are "Surf noir". The hero Chris Snow loves to surf, but has an ailment where he can't go into the sun, thus has to live by night. He also solves crimes when not surfing. Maybe they are the also-rans your surf dudes are referring to.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 18, 2003 10:25 AM

I was a fan of John D. MacDonald during my high school years, specifically with his "Travis McGee" series, although I've sampled some of his other works. He was in "Body Heat" country long before that wonderful movie was thought of. Since then, I've taken a liking to Randy Wayne White, whose character, "Doc Ford", picks up where McGee left off. As for Mark Knopfler, who's solo and "Dire Straits" recordings are legion in my collection, he has also composed film scores. His best one, in my view, is "Local Hero", the 1981 Bill Forsyth film. After that, his "Dire Straits" work started sounding more cinematic. I highly recommend his solo works,"Golden Heart" and "Sailing To Philadelphia".

Posted by: Michael Serafin on June 18, 2003 01:33 PM

Rick Darby's suggestion of transporting noir to different locations dovetails with my recommendation of John Straley's novels about an Alaskan private eye. He does the world-weary acceptance of human fralties better than just about anyone I've read.

Posted by: Jim7 on June 18, 2003 02:45 PM

I try not to use the word "noir," though sometimes it's more trouble to avoid than it's worth. Inasmuch as viewers seem to know what they mean by the term, it's functional -- but I'm not sure it really existed until critics invented it. From a production point of view, most of the filmmakers of the '40s and '50s never thought what they were doing was as systematically definable as "noir." (Robert Aldrich is the lone exception.)

So I tend to think of "neo-noir" as pretty much the only noir we've really had. As is true of most forms derived from contemporary criticism, works designed as "neo-noirs" tend to come out stillborn.

The real inheritors of scruffy American B-movie traditions are television producers: _Law and Order_, _Homicide_, and _NYPD Blue_ have done more to rejuvenate and contemporize "noir" forms (without ever explicitly invoking them) than writers or filmmakers have managed to date.

Perhaps this is because, like the great B-movies that led French critics to coin the term "noir," these television programs have slipped under the collective radar of our critical establishment. Noir doesn't have as much impact when it's so ... well, official.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on June 18, 2003 09:10 PM

Laugh? I am so jealous of your surfing lessons. Did "Blue Crush" do this to you? Obviously, everything wrong with my life can be attributed to not having a surfing lesson scheduled at the crack of dawn.

Cohens are too silly for noir - not that there's anything wrong with being silly. Do people really think the brothers are working in that neighborhood? Otherwise reasonable people, I mean.

Agree on Joy Ride. A lot of contemporary horror and sci-fi seems to be fulfilling the noir function.

My first thought on reading this post was that alt-county is the new noir - but all I can come up with are a handful of songs. Robert Earl Keen's "Whenever Kindness Fails," "The Road Goes on Forever," "Blow You Away," "Corpus Christi Bay" (okay, perhaps not that one so much). And some songs by Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett which I can't remember because they have a horrible habit of giving their songs obscure names.

Do the Minutemen count as alt-country? Sublime? Can music be noir?

Oh, and Mark Knopfler is a poor man's Ry Cooder.

Tim - I don't watch those shows except under duress so perhaps there are elements I haven't seen - however, how can an ensemble cast can do noir? Even if each actor does a good moody loner in a good solo quest for justice script, the viewer is still going to be following all the actors and all the stories and the sense of isolation is going to suffer.

Posted by: j.c. on June 19, 2003 01:52 AM

"The Salton Sea" and Memento" - thought these two cut it. In fact, during the first, very brightly lit, half of Memento, I thought the filmmakers were playing with the genre. Salton Sea has some heavy-handed tropes - he plays a freakin' horn - yet in the end it hits all the right notes.

Thank goodness the "The Doors" is on TV. Val Kilmer to Salton Sea to too damn darn and obviously homage to noir to brightly lit Memento. A perfectly sane train of thought...

Posted by: j.c. on June 19, 2003 02:12 AM

Thanks to all for many inspired recommendations and free-associations here. My fave, I think, is alt-country as the new noir -- there's really something to that, I think.

Tim, I couldn't agree more about the stillborn quality of most neo-noir, but I'm not sure I follow some of your other points. I wonder if that may be because my definition of noir might be stricter than yours -- I'm thinking flawed hero, expressionist lighting, a certain America-via-weary-Euro-eyes iconography, an atmosphere of melancholy and doom ... Unless you're thinking mainly of mood, I'm not sure how "Law and Order" or "Homicide" qualify. But maybe you are thinking mainly of mood, in which case point taken. Incidentally, have the shows really flown under the critical radar? My critic friends have been babbling nonstop about them for years, although not in the terms you're raising.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 19, 2003 03:03 AM

What about Warren Zevon? Early Steely Dan? And in fiction, although it's considered science fiction, I've always thought of William Gibson as a noir writer.

Posted by: Stephen Bodio on June 19, 2003 02:15 PM

Well, Michael, I'm not sure I have a good definition of "noir." Then again, neither does anybody else. Most critics are quick to claim that noir is not a film genre, but then they assign it the formalist characteristics of a genre. Noir, if it exists as such, is more like a mode -- but even there, we're getting into trouble, because that seems like too rigid a definition for the term as it's used.

The term "noir" is usually applied to describe low-budget B-pictures, both from major studios and independents, made from roughly the beginning of WWII to the 1950s. These films were generally ignored by American critics; even their directors don't seem to have fretted much over them. French critics, on the other hand, adored them (tres existentialiste!), and they gave us that inescapable term "film noir."

My point is not to identify a "noir" tradition as such, since I'm not sure we really have one. (However, if we do have one, it's a tradition with progeny but no progenitors -- a simulacrum of tradition, if you will.) But I do claim that TV policiers and crime dramas like Law and Order, Homicide and NYPD Blue (I should also add CSI and The Shield to the list) are the cultural heirs of B-movies like Mann's T-Men, Karlson's The Phenix City Story, and Dassin's Naked City.

Do the above films qualify as films noirs? Critical consensus seems to answer yes, but that said, these films don't seem to possess all or even most of the elements you've described elsewhere. Their respective heroes may be flawed, but they're not doomed, and the action doesn't seem European in that world-weary, existential style you're talking about. The films don't even have expressionist lighting in common; T-Men has it, as does Phenix City to a lesser degree, but Naked City is shot for the most part in the style of a documentary. Tourneur's Cat People, on the other hand, has all the characteristics you described, yet is not generally considered a noir picture.

This is why I avoid the term "noir" whenever I can. Now, did that muddy the waters further?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on June 19, 2003 07:59 PM

Stephen -- Great noir candidates, thanks.

Tim -- Nothing I like better than some good water-muddying. But I guess I'm perplexed by the way you seem to be equating noir with the entire "B movie" category. My impression (and that of the authors of the books on noir that I've read) is that noir does indeed have a pretty specific pedigree and definition - that it's the downbeat and moody subsubsubcategory that resulted when various emigre Euro directors applied their fatalistic Euro styles and tones to a handful of American genres. The edges of the category can get a little fuzzy, as edges will. But I've never known a film buff who dissented from this characterization of noir. Is there a reason you do?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 20, 2003 03:35 AM

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