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The Philosophy of Neo-Noir

The Philosophy of Neo-Noir

Edited by Mark T. Conard
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 222
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  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of Neo-Noir
    Book Description:

    Film noir is a classic genre characterized by visual elements such as tilted camera angles, skewed scene compositions, and an interplay between darkness and light. Common motifs include crime and punishment, the upheaval of traditional moral values, and a pessimistic stance on the meaning of life and on the place of humankind in the universe. Spanning the 1940s and 1950s, the classic film noir era saw the release of many of Hollywood's best-loved studies of shady characters and shadowy underworlds, including Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Touch of Evil, and The Maltese Falcon. Neo-noir is a somewhat loosely defined genre of films produced after the classic noir era that display the visual or thematic hallmarks of the noir sensibility. The essays collected in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir explore the philosophical implications of neo-noir touchstones such as Blade Runner, Chinatown, Reservoir Dogs, Memento, and the films of the Coen brothers. Through the lens of philosophy, Mark T. Conard and the contributors examine previously obscure layers of meaning in these challenging films. The contributors also consider these neo-noir films as a means of addressing philosophical questions about guilt, redemption, the essence of human nature, and problems of knowledge, memory and identity. In the neo-noir universe, the lines between right and wrong and good and evil are blurred, and the detective and the criminal frequently mirror each other's most debilitating personality traits. The neo-noir detective -- more antihero than hero -- is frequently a morally compromised and spiritually shaken individual whose pursuit of a criminal masks the search for lost or unattainable aspects of the self. Conard argues that the films discussed in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir convey ambiguity, disillusionment, and disorientation more effectively than even the most iconic films of the classic noir era. Able to self-consciously draw upon noir conventions and simultaneously subvert them, neo-noir directors push beyond the earlier genre's limitations and open new paths of cinematic and philosophical exploration.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7230-9
    Subjects: Film Studies, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    In David Lynch’sBlue Velvet(1986), Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) allows his curiosity to get the best of him, as he spies on Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), has sadomasochistic sex with her, and ends up shooting the vile Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)—all very noir. In Alan Parker’sAngel Heart(1987), Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is unwittingly sent on a search for himself by none other than Lucifer—alsotrésnoir. How about when, in Curtis Hanson’sL.A. Confidential(1997), police officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) shoots an unarmed suspected rapist or hero cop Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) shotguns Captain Dudley...

  5. Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema
    (pp. 7-20)
    Jerold J. Abrams

    Much of the time, classic film noir takes place in Los Angeles—but it’s always in the city, always a detective looking for clues to unravel the mystery of whodunit. One of the best is Bogart playing Philip Marlowe inThe Big Sleep(Howard Hawks, 1946), walking dark and lonely streets, interviewing suspects, never believing any of them. This was a grand time in American cinema—the early to late 1940s—but, of course, none of it would last, for classic noir peaked early and fast. And, by 1958, with Orson Welles’sTouch of Evilit was all too evident:...

  6. Blade Runner and Sartre: The Boundaries of Humanity
    (pp. 21-34)
    Judith Barad

    Blade Runner(Ridley Scott, 1982) combines film noir and science fiction to tell a story that questions what it means to be human, a question as old as Methuselah.¹ However, this ancient question still arises in 2019 A.D. within a setting that pits humans against androids. The humans consider the androids, which they callreplicants,to be nothing more than multifaceted machines. Created on an assembly line by the Tyrell Corporation’s genetic engineers, they are organisms manufactured to serve as slave labor for exploring and colonizing other planets. As manufactured artifacts, they are thought of as expendable substitutes for their...

  7. John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento
    (pp. 35-46)
    Basil Smith

    In hisEssay concerning Human Understanding,John Locke famously offers an explanation of personal identity. In particular, he holds that our conscious memories constitute our identities.¹ Christopher Nolan’sMemento(2000) tests this theory of personal identity. In the film, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), an insurance investigator from San Francisco, suffers shortterm memory loss as a result of an assault on his wife, Catherine (Jorja Fox), and himself. But now, without his memories, he can hardly function. He insists that his attackers have destroyed his ability to live. Leonard asks: “How can I heal if I cannot feel time?” The question...

  8. Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero
    (pp. 47-64)
    Andrew Spicer

    One of the most arresting traits of film noir is its depiction of male protagonists who lack the qualities (courage, incorruptibility, tenacity, and dynamism) that characterize the archetypal American hero and who therefore function as antiheroes. Typical noir male protagonists are weak, confused, unstable, and ineffectual, damaged men who suffer from a range of psychological neuroses and who are unable to resolve the problems they face. Noir’s depiction of its male protagonists—what Frank Krutnik calls its “pervasive problematising of masculine identity”—is expressive of a fundamentally existentialist view of life.¹ As Robert Porfirio argues, noir’s “nonheroic hero” is such...

  9. The Murder of Moral Idealism: Kant and the Death of Ian Campbell in The Onion Field
    (pp. 67-82)
    Douglas L. Berger

    Before Ian Campbell joined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and became a plainclothes street felony cop, this reflective, bagpipe-playing son of Scottish immigrants had taken college courses as a premed student at the University of California, Los Angeles, and nurtured an interest in the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Ian was apparently so fascinated by philosophy that his college friends often found the attachment inexplicable and teased him that it got in the way of both his other studies and his life in general.¹ It seems as though, after Ian joined the force, his mother and friends noticed that the work...

  10. Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan
    (pp. 83-90)
    Aeon J. Skoble

    At the start of the neo-noir filmA Simple Plan(Sam Raimi, 1998), Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) has a good life and is happy and well-adjusted. When he, his brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) find a large bag of cash from what they deduce was a criminal enterprise, they hatch a “simple plan” that will enable them to keep it and enrich themselves, which they think will increase their happiness. The devastation that ensues, not just in terms of body count, but also in terms of moral and psychological decay, follows Plato’s analysis of...

  11. “Saint” Sydney: Atonement and Moral Inversion in Hard Eight
    (pp. 91-100)
    Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch

    InHard Eight(1996), the first-time writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson offers a distinctly modern interpretation of a character type familiar from the original era of noir. In his contemporary rendering, which is neither reverential homage nor postmodern deconstruction, Anderson offers an elegant, rigorous character study as well as a provocative reexamination of some of noir’s central philosophical, thematic, and visual motifs. Confronting universal moral issues—guilt and innocence, crime and punishment—raised by earlier crime dramas, the film investigates the possibilities of salvation within a traditionally treacherous cinematic realm.

    Sydney, the film’s generous protagonist (played with magnificent gravity by Philip...

  12. Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World
    (pp. 101-116)
    Mark T. Conard

    Reservoir Dogs(1992),Pulp Fiction(1994), andKill Bill(both volumes: 2003, 2004) are arguably the most successful (and I would say important) of the four full-length feature films that Quentin Tarantino has directed. And each is more or less explicitly about redemption.¹ Further, Tarantino is widely recognized as a quintessentially postmodern neo-noir filmmaker.² His films are postmodern in the artistic sense, insofar as they are, for example, blends of genres and highly allusive. But they’re also postmodern in terms of the underlying epistemology and the position on morality and values that they take. That is, they reflect a postmodern...

  13. The Dark Sublimity of Chinatown
    (pp. 119-136)
    Richard Gilmore

    American film noir was always neo-noir. It was first seen as a genre, first recognized for its genuinely surprising darkness, in 1946 and in France.¹ That is five years after the generally accepted year of the first instances of pure film noir and in another country. That means that the first experiences of film noir as a genre, if it can be called a genre (as aphenomenon,ifgenreis too strong), already included a certain distance, a certain level of detachment, a certain re-visionary artfulness. I am not saying that the early noir films were made from this...

  14. The Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself: Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir
    (pp. 137-150)
    Thomas S. Hibbs

    From their inaugural film, the 1984Blood Simple,through the film blanc of the 1996Fargo,to the 2001The Man Who Wasn’t There,the Coen brothers have exhibited a preoccupation with the themes, characters, and stylistic techniques of film noir. By the time they madeBlood Simplein 1984, neo-noir was already established as a recognized category of film.¹ Prior to Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comedic unraveling of noir motifs inReservoir Dogs(1992) andPulp Fiction(1994), the Coens were already making consciously comic use of noir plots and stylistic techniques. Without Tarantino’s penchant for hyperactive and culturally claustrophobic...

  15. The New Sincerity of Neo-Noir: The Example of The Man Who Wasn’t There
    (pp. 151-166)
    R. Barton Palmer

    If one truth has emerged from the intense scholarly debate during the last two decades over the nature of Old Hollywood, it is that the writing of American film history must avoid the essentialist trap of considering the so-called classic text of that era as an undifferentiated flow of product whose watchwords were sameness and conformity. A correlative of this truth is that, even with its emphasis on package production (with each film in some sense a unique entity unto itself), New Hollywood filmmaking still offers regular forms of textuality that differ from those of the studio era only in...

  16. “Anything Is Possible Here”: Capitalism, Neo-Noir, and Chinatown
    (pp. 167-182)
    Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray

    Classic noir crests, according to Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, in the late 1940s, when the uplift expected from entertainment during the war effort ends. Noir, in Borde and Chaumeton’s view, is inextricable from the mood of disillusionment. As James Naremore describes their thinking about noir films: “Such pictures functioned as a critique of savage capitalism.”¹ This essay considers how the everyday, if unseen, compulsions of capitalism shape neo-noir and distinguish it from classic noir. Art may express the defining shape of its world, as Hegel teaches, but historical materialism reminds us that human life is conditioned by historically changing...

  17. Sunshine Noir: Postmodernism and Miami Vice
    (pp. 183-202)
    Steven M. Sanders

    Film noir by now has achieved not just familiar but totemic status. Brand noir is utilized in editorials, magazine articles, advertising campaigns, and music videos. Its suggestive power evokes a mood, style, or sensibility redolent of certain predominantly black-and-white films of the 1940s and 1950s such asDouble Indemnity(Billy Wilder, 1944),Out of the Past(Jacques Tourneur, 1947),Criss Cross(Robert Siodmak, 1949),D.O.A.(Rudolph Maté, 1950), andKiss Me Deadly(Robert Aldrich, 1955). As other commentators have noted, the suitability of film noir for variation and adaptation makes it both unproductive and unnecessary to try to provide a...

  18. Contributors
    (pp. 203-206)
  19. Index
    (pp. 207-213)