Monday, May 7, 2012

French for "black"

Noir has always been a tenacious trend in literature and film. It never really dies. When it goes out of fashion it just retreats to a back alley somewhere and skulks, patient as a mugger. Since I conceived Cruel Numbers I’ve become more and more interested in it. It’s as if the act of writing a noir novella was what finally cued me to how much I love the style.

Noir started in the 1940s as gritty, cynical, and more than a little angry. Classic noir is about jaded characters in trench coats and fedoras swapping bullets and fists with gangsters or corrupt cops. An attractive dame—the quintessential femme fatale—is a must. The hero can’t trust her. In fact, he can’t trust anyone, as evidenced in the convoluted, almost disorienting plots of most noir.

Over time the style has grown and matured. Authors realized that rainy skies, filthy streets, and fedoras weren’t essential. These helped, of course, but noir is about attitude, language, and plot. This is epitomized in the movie Brick. If you haven’t seen Brick, you need to. It’s quintessential noir…except that it’s in a high school, which proves that attitude is always more important than setting.

Personally, I feel first person narration is vital. The best film noir always has wry voiceovers. Payback and Sin City are great recent examples. Noir is black humor, gallows humor. It chuckles at how unfair life is without getting sanctimonious. The characters are survivors, not crusaders. They do the right thing sometimes—but it usually bites them in the ass.

When I was younger, I felt a little embarrassed by my affection for first person prose. Most stories nowadays are in the third person. When I encountered the brilliant science fiction writings of Roger Zelazny, however, I read an author who also loved the first person and in a way, this freed me. Zelazny’s narrators showed that to really understand a world, you need to view it through a native's eyes.

First person also lets a writer do all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally do. The only way to deliver the gritty observations about human nature essential to noir is to have the story told by a hard-boiled protagonist. By going into the protagonist’s head, we stumble across those weird connections that inevitably crop up in someone’s mind. That makes for wild similes and metaphors that would never—and I mean never—fly in other books or movies. At least one person who read my book said he “winced” when he read certain lines. My response? Good. Ever see Casablanca? Julius Epstein said that Casablanca had “more corn than the states of Iowa and Kansas combined. But when corn works, there’s nothing better.”

I love Casablanca. I especially love it because it’s noir without a detective or a mystery or almost any action. It demonstrates that in the end, the best stories are about characters. Aside from flashbacks, all of Casablanca takes place in a few nightclubs and briefly at an airstrip. The bulk of the movie centers around intense personal struggle. Which makes it about people. And their cheesy one-liners.

The newest wave of noir has done more than change the setting. It has shifted the very world it takes place in. Noir has mated with magic to create the wizard Harry Dresden (by Jim Butcher) and mashed every genre imaginable in the Nightside’s John Taylor (Simon Green).  The cross pollination of Steampunk and noir was inevitable. There’s a movie coming out with Mark Hamill along these lines. I would argue though that it’s not the first. Gerard Depardieu appeared in a film that blended the two styles well, though I suppose some might argue it wasn’t really Steampunk, since that element was pretty light.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was worried how well Steampunk Noir would go over. In some ways, Steampunk is optimistic, upper class oriented, and perhaps a bit logical. Noir is cynical, delightfully lowbrow and above all, about guts. Noir heroes prevail because they ignore all conventions and trust their instincts. They work outside or against the system, a sort of lingering admission that laws, governments—most other humans in fact—cannot be trusted. If you don’t look out for yourself, who will?

That’s why noir keeps coming back. Periodically we realize that the guys in charge really don’t know what they’re doing. No one does. We’re all groping along, children lost in the woods. Some of us have good ideas, but those ideas never seem to survive the cacophony of greed and stupidity that dominates wider society.

Which brings me to the final aspect of noir: rage. Noir protagonists always seem to have rage. Sometimes it’s a cool, controlled rage like Porter planning his intricate revenge in Payback. Other times, it’s a detective like Bud White in LA Confidential ripping chairs apart with his bare hands. Whatever the temperature, it’s always there.

I found a reason for this, oddly enough, in Eije Yoshikawa’s epic Musashi. A Zen priest named Takuan states that wise men don’t get angry over small things. They only rage about injustice. In that context, a noir protagonist can be seen as the only wise man in the story. His anger is inversely correlated to the drooling, sheep-eyed apathy of those around him.

In Donovan’s case, the anger comes from the rapid, seemingly soulless change of his world. Steampunk naturally becomes a conduit for noir when it acknowledges the horrific injustices of the 19th century. In the 1800s, a handful of men acquired grotesque levels of wealth while thousands starved or rotted away from disease. The ancient human safety net of the traditional village system—tens of thousands of years old—gave way to the Darwinian struggle of urban jungles. In a word, the problem was modernity. To paraphrase Steven King’s Gunslinger series: “the world moved on.” That isn’t a slam on progress, it’s a frank assessment that when society changes, people suffer. If you want to feel better about 19th century America or England, by the way, read up on the USSR’s forced transition into modernity. That was so brutal that our transition looked gentle by comparison.

In a way, my attempt to highlight changing society is an homage to original film noir, which started around World War II. Many people today see the 1950s as a ‘golden age,’ but for most folks, it was anything but. The economy stagnated in three separate recessions between 1945 and 1960 despite the postwar building boom and programs like the Marshal Plan. After “saving the world,” WWII veterans returned to humdrum, seemingly purposeless lives, surrounded by people who didn’t understand what they went through (think Frodo when he returns to the Shire after his jaunt to Mordor). Despite partly running the economy while many young men were away at war, despite the fact many of them received educations and wanted to develop careers, women were largely forced into the domestic sphere by returning GIs, though not without complaint. Farming became mechanized and family operations were devoured by corporate mega-agriculture.  The American city population finally outgrew the rural. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a nation of yeomen farmers was dead. We became a nation of cities, with all the good and bad that implied.

Although not all noir deals with change, I’ve come to associate the two. This is because as a historian, I’ve studied dramatic changes across time. Sweeping economic trends like the plantation or industrial systems shatter old methods and ruin lives. In the face of these monumental developments, the individual seems powerless, like an ant looking up at a steamroller. That powerlessness is perfect for noir. The protagonist doesn’t so much change history as mitigate the damage. In noir, simple survival is often victory enough.

Please note that not all the links above are noir. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Feminine Mystique are just there to illustrate a point about changing society. And Alan Greenspan is just Alan Greenspan.

Next week: To illustrate that I'm not always this dreary, I'll write something fun. Like about fairies or something.

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