Thursday, July 12, 2012

Neo noir Thursdays: Black Eye

I picked this one by going through a list of supposed film noir on Wikipedia. It's a ridiculous list with far too many entries. But I started there and began clicking. What I'm looking for this the first neo noir. I have ventured in the past that Body Heat may be the first movie to make the cut but I don't know that for sure because there are so many movies out there that I have not seen.

Part of this project, sorry to be so serious on a hot July day, is to define what neo noir is. I'll divide my definition into two parts. The first part is the stuff that applies to all noir, classic as well as neo.

Classic noir
Is a movie about a crime or crimes.

  1. Is driven by a cynical view of society in which law enforcement agencies and politic institutions are corrupt and ineffectual and crime is organized and efficient.
  2.  Features a character who is motivated by a powerful sense of wanting to see justice done. This character does not have to be the hero.  The character has some sort of connection to the justice system either as a part of it, as a former police offier or as someone who has been acused or convicted of a crime. (Sometimes the connection to a "justice system" can be at some remove: Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity, for example, is an insurance investigator.)
  3.  What distinguishes the hero is that he (and "he" is usually a he) is driven by a need not just to make personal gain but to compensate for some injustice done to him or to someone he cares for, sometimes he has a depraved sense of what is justice and injustice but a sense of justice nevertheless. Whether he succeeds or fails, he always has this odd moral compass. In Double Indemnity (which is to noir what Oedipus Rex is to Greek tragedy), Walter Neff does what he does not just because he wants Phyllis Dietrichson and a whole lot of money but because he has always wondered if it was possible to fool the system. In Key Largo, Humphrey Bogart's character gets tired of the guys who always exploit the system always winning.
  4. Our hero will, because his sense of right and wrong is personal and not social or realist, try to work outside the justice system and perhaps even directly against it. The justice system, in turn, will work against him.
  5. Sex, usually implied rather than explicit, is very important to the hero and tends to explain or at least enhance his motives.

Neo Noir
Has all the above plus:
1. A strong sense of loss. The hero is aware of a past that is slipping away as society changes.
2. In addition to the above, the hero is driven by a sense of entitlement. He wants the things he feels that he should have had and that he has been cheated out of and that drives him to pursue:
  • sex and love with the beautiful woman he had and lost or that he almost had and lost, 
  • sex and love with a new beautiful woman who will replace the one he lost and finally give him "everything he deserves",
  • sex and love from a new beautiful woman whom he will not love back because he now plans to score in life and not get dragged down by any obligations in love,
  • sex and love with an old or new partner whom will use his powerful sense of entitlement recruit into her plan beat the system.
3. Explicit sex achieved through deception of other partners. This sex is important not only to the hero but to draw us in by using our voyeuristic impulses watching the movie to make us sympathize with the hero even though his moral compass is flawed.
4. Uses voyeuristic narrative and camera techniques to draw us into a  trance-like state and reduces our ability to distance ourselves from the moral choices of the hero until after they have led him into some sort of climax.
5. Is reverent towards the past and, therefore, is not a  send up and is not a recreation of the past.
6. It also takes the idea of justice seriously  and is not a postmodern game playing with conventions of noir.

Added 8, 2012: I think that neo-noir also tones down the issue of organized crime. We no longer believe in mysterious, dark organizations that secretly run everything. I don't think this is because organized crime has changed. I think it came about because movies in the 1960s so badly exaggerated the power and efficiency of secret organizations that they are no longer as credible as they were. 
The other thing that has changed is that we now attribute different sorts of motives to criminals leading these organizations. Again, the problem is too many Bond-type villains. That is someting to revisit.

Which brings me to Black Eye. It's a bad movie. I couldn't honestly recommend it to anyone. But it is an interesting movie. Interesting because it takes a standard hard-boiled detective story (the novel the movie is based on comes with it's own mystery BTW) and replaces the white private detective who was kicked off police force the for corruption with a black detective who was kicked off the police for because his sense of wanting to do justice led him to violence against a criminal.

The title is a reference to the hero's race. It's an awful title but they couldn't have called it Black Dick after all. The problem is not just the lameness of the title but that it sets you up to expect some twist on the other meaning of "black eye" with the hero being shamed as in "getting a black eye" and no such thing happens.

I am tempted to rename this series and call it "near neo" because I keep finding these movies that are so close to being neo noir. This one made me think of proto-Gothic churches. There are churches all over Europe that have all the elements of Gothic—pointed arches, flying buttresses, stained glass—but aren't Gothic. What is missing from these churches is that all these elements are not used to serve the central idea of bringing light into the church because light is God's leading creation (let there be ...). To go into a Gothic church is to see light as the way for human beings to grasp God's presence and glory in our earthly lives.

Black Eye has all the elements except that it doesn't use these elements to serve the central idea that what a man does about sex is the central way to grasp who and what he is. In this movie, our hero's lover cheats on him with another woman. And his response to this is to get all sentimental and true lovey about her. There is even a hideous montage wherein he and the heroine reunite by playing on the beach. (Heterosexual women and gay men may enjoy the montage though as it features Fred Williamson running around in a bathing suit that leaves little to the imagination. Suffice to say that there is more jiggle factor from him than the woman he is with.)

 But the sex aspects, while they are all over the film, are never used to draw us in. (That may be because it is directed by Jack Arnold who is a master of sublimating sexual desires into other things, most famously in The Creature from the Black Lagoon.)

A couple of visuals to wrap it up later this afternoon.

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