Monthly Archives: October 2014

Wave v. Labyrinth (HUM303/ HUM425)

Should you look at the note on terminology in Bould’s study of film noir you’ll see that he distinguishes between determinism, fate, predictability, and causality. The image he uses to visualize determinism– the collapsing wave– departs somewhat from more familiar descriptions of the film noir universe. In Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night, for example, the labyrinth is deployed to great effect as a model of the genre:

It is night, always. The hero enters a labyrinth on a quest. He is alone and off-balance. He may be desperate, in flight, or coldly calculating, imagining he is the pursuer rather than the pursued.

A woman invariably joins him at a crucial juncture, when he is most vulnerable. In his eyes she may appear to be wreathed in light, beatific — a Beatrice — guiding and protecting him. Or duplicitous — a Circe — spinning webs of deceit and leading him directly to danger. Often she is a hybrid of the two, whose eventual betrayal of him (or herself) is as ambiguous as her feelings about him. Others seek overtly to thwart him, through brute force or subtler manipulation, or to deflect him into serving their ends. His antagonists are figures of authority, legal or criminal, that loom out of his reach, or else misfits and outcasts in thrall to the powerful. However random the obstacles in his path may seem, the forces behind them are always more powerful than he.

At the same time, the majority of people he encounters are powerless, and either indifferent to him, or terrified of being drawn into his orbit. When someone does extend him a helping hand, it is usually one of the most downtrodden — crippled, blind, destitute — who have little to lose, though for assisting him, they may pay with their lives. Crime as a constant, and vice and corruption, flourish in every stratum of society through which he passes. The farther he progresses, the more clearly his flaws come into focus. Whatever his surroundings, he remains isolated. The acts of nobility and high-mindedness we customarily associate with heroes in other forms are a luxury he can seldom afford.

He descends downward, into an underworld, on a sprial. The object of his quest is elusive, often an illusion. Usually he is destroyed in one of the labyrinth’s innermost cells, by agents of a larger design of which he is only dimly aware.

On rare occasion — and here the woman may play the role of Ariadne in the myth of Theseus, leading him out as well as in — he reemerges into the light with infernal (but often unusable) tools to apply in the life he left behind. But scarred as well, and embittered, with no desire to return to the labyrinth, even were he equipped to do so. More likely, if he survives at all, he is a burnt-out case. And the woman, also like Ariadne, is certain to be abandoned, or destroyed in his place, sometimes sacrificing herself for him, in the end as ignorant as he of that larger design in which they were pawns.

Note that in Christopher’s rendering the noir narrative does not always end in total destruction but can perhaps lead to a condition akin to apparent acquittal or protraction.