Daily Archives: October 9, 2009

News and Noir

Maybe you heard that Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. More than a few people are surprised, and responses range from gratification to scowling disbelief. Those who identify themselves in opposition to Obama’s policies, particularly the self-described Right and anti-war Left, are in the process of constructing narratives about the political meaning of this event. What I’d like to draw your attention to is that particular dynamic: speech, language, is a significant component of politics, and often takes the form of story-telling. One of the most fundamental means of interpreting conditions or events politically, and thus influencing the thinking of others, is to create a narrative. For Rush Limbaugh, the award is a way for “these elite Norwegians… Europeans” to influence US foreign policy. For Naomi Klein “they’re giving this prize in the hopes that it will change Obama’s mind or encourage him to do things he hasn’t done.” Elaborating on that notion she argues that “this is a candidate that ran a campaign that was much more based on hope and wishful thinking than it was on concrete policy. So we have hopes being piled on hope and wishful thinking.” In a brief speech given at the White House Obama himself said, “I do not view [the award] as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.”


On Wednesday we leapt ahead roughly a decade in time to the late 1940s and watched a short documentary on film noir. Film noir has been characterized as a purely historical genre of US film-making by some scholars (Paul Schrader, et al) though there are others such as Alain Silver who have argued that noir is a style not limited to the postwar era. I tend to agree with the former position, though it’s quite clear that US cinema has been profoundly affected formally and thematically by films such as Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Detour and many others. The Usual Suspects, The Good German, Brick, Blood Simple, Blue Velvet, LA Confidential, and The Limey, for instance, all resonate with noir fundamentals including the theme of entrapment, and the figures of the iconoclastic hero and the femme fatale. In addition they exhibit noir influences in terms of form: cinematography, lighting, editing, etc.

If you’ve never seen these neo-noir films, you’re serious about the movies, and you like crime stories or thrillers then I truly envy you– a wealth of cinematic pleasure awaits.

Along with Jazz, film noir is arguably one of a handful of truly American cultural innovations, a claim that is complicated by the fact that the arrival of a wave of European artists and thinkers shaped US film-making in the wartime and post-war era. That miniature diaspora enriched American cultural and intellectual life, and included a man named Theodor Adorno, about whom I’ll be lecturing in a few weeks.

By way of recapitulating Wednesday’s class, let me state that the reason we screened the documentary was to underscore not only the preeminence of crime and “lowlife” as a subject of American cultural production– remember Oscar Wilde had already observed in the late 19th century that Americans “always take their heroes from the criminal classes”– but European artistic influence such as Expressionism. We also discussed the Hays Production Code and parataxis. Any questions or comments? Please direct them to this post.