Monday, August 25, 2008

Sort Of Related: Noir Is The New Black

A $500 million domestic gross propels a movie beyond blockbuster into cultural phenomenon. The Dark Knight should reach that rarified box office air by Labor Day. Weeks into its release it’s still stirring intense conversations; I witnessed one the other day in Quizno’s that jeopardized the pepper bar. Op-ed takes on the movie’s politics abound, ranging from cautiously vague to, forgive me, batshit crazy.

What amazes me is all this passion, all this furor, over a film that is so bleak. So grim. So ... noir.

I’m not the only who thinks so. The Dark Knight receives a lengthy, glowing review in the latest issue of the Noir City Sentinel, house rag of the Film Noir Foundation, in which it’s compared favorably to genre classics like Touch of Evil. Several years ago I heard FNF founder Eddie Muller speak, and he said the films of Dark Knight co-writer/director Christopher Nolan, citing Following and Memento, came right out of the noir tradition.

This summer also saw AMC’s 1960s advertising series Mad Men return for its sophomore season, to continued critical acclaim and higher ratings. Novelist and Sentinel columnist Megan Abbott, in this appreciation of the show, noted that it was “easy to see Mad Men’s noir underpinnings.”

Are you detecting a pattern here?

Maybe this vogue for noir is a fluke. Shadows are cool, literally and figuratively. And The Dark Knight, after all, is still a big-budget superhero movie, one featuring the last complete performance by an extraordinary actor.

Or maybe it’s something more. Again quoting Megan Abbott:

Many point to the impact of World War II as central to the rise of film noir, the sense that the world is a much darker place than we had ever thought before – hence, the feeling of cynicism, anxiety, paranoia and desperation that drives KISS ME DEADLY, DEAD RECKONING, ACT OF VIOLENCE and IN A LONELY PLACE.

I recently read Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement, a flawed book built around the brilliant premise that in the wake of 9/11 Americans have become “a people (who) can no longer agree even on the basic objective facts of their political existence.” He writes that “we had become a nation of reality shoppers, mixing and matching news items to fit our own self-created identities.”

Mad Men’s audience is vocal, devoted, and, in the grand scheme of things, small. (I count myself among its number.) But half a billion dollars? That’s another matter entirely. That indicates a worldview that resonates across the political spectrum and a range of “self-created identities.” Getting that many people to agree on anything in this culture, even a vision that could be described as pessimistic, is a step forward and out of the darkness.

2008 was the summer noir came back. And I welcome its return, for more reasons than one.