This week’s review is of a book called The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, a collection of essays by scholarly authors with credentials in a wide array of studies, from philosophy to artistry to women’s studies and more. For a true cinephile, the book makes fascinating reading, as long as you don’t mind plowing through a bit of professorial language.
The essays are broken down into three parts: Subjectivity, Knowledge, And Human Nature in Neo-Noir; Justice, Guilt and Redemption: Morality In Neo-Noir; and Elements Of Neo-Noir. Among the best of the bunch are the essays on Blade Runner, Memento, and the neo-noir antihero in Part One. They set the stage for what’s to come in the following parts.
Much of what’s written compares classic noir with modern day noir, in terms of how the paradigms and tropes of classic noir are updated, defied or self-consciously invoked. In Mark T. Conard’s study of Quentin Tarantino’s films and Reservoir Dogs in particular, Conard (citing Andrew Spicer) divides neo-noir into two camps: modernist and postmodern.
Where classic films were influenced by and were a reaction to World War II, the Cold War, and the atom bomb, modernist neo-noir was also a response to disruptive events, such as the Vietnam War, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the Watergate scandal. If classic film noir reflected the paranoia, alienation, and moral ambivalence of its time, modernist neo-noir did the same, but in a more self-conscious and deliberate way, and with an even greater skepticism about our ability to know and understand world events or reality itself.
Postmodern neo-noir is the logical extension of the modernist version. According to Richard Martin, “The postmodern neo-noirs of the nineties are more overtly allusive and more playful in their intertextual references then the films of the eighties.” In this form of neo-noir, the films have a noir sensibility mixed with other genres, peppered with current pop-culture references, or use classic noir tropes in a way that turns them on their head.
The book discusses a number of excellent movies, including the ones previously mentioned plus films from the Coen brothers, like Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Fargo, and even The Big Lebowski.
Along with Reservoir Dogs, the essay on Tarantino’s films includes Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill (both volumes). And of course, no book about neo-noir would be complete without a thorough examination of Chinatown.
For the true film lover, I give this book my highest recommendation.
PS: Don’t forget to check out Turner Classic Movies’ Noir Alley on Sunday mornings with the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller.