The Philosophy of Neo-Noir

The Philosophy of Neo-Noir

The Philosophy of Neo-Noir

The Philosophy of Neo-Noir

Synopsis

Film noir is a classic genre characterized by visual elements such as tilted camera angles, skewed scene compositions, and an interplay between darkness and light. Common motifs include crime and punishment, the upheaval of traditional moral values, and a pessimistic stance on the meaning of life and on the place of humankind in the universe. Spanning the 1940s and 1950s, the classic film noir era saw the release of many of Hollywood's best-loved studies of shady characters and shadowy underworlds, including Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Touch of Evil, and The Maltese Falcon. Neo-noir is a somewhat loosely defined genre of films produced after the classic noir era that display the visual or thematic hallmarks of the noir sensibility. The essays collected in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir explore the philosophical implications of neo-noir touchstones such as Blade Runner, Chinatown, Reservoir Dogs, Memento, and the films of the Coen brothers. Through the lens of philosophy, Mark T. Conard and the contributors examine previously obscure layers of meaning in these challenging films. The contributors also consider these neo-noir films as a means of addressing philosophical questions about guilt, redemption, the essence of human nature, and problems of knowledge, memory and identity. In the neo-noir universe, the lines between right and wrong and good and evil are blurred, and the detective and the criminal frequently mirror each other's most debilitating personality traits. The neo-noir detective -- more antihero than hero -- is frequently a morally compromised and spiritually shaken individual whose pursuit of a criminal masks the search for lost or unattainable aspects of the self. Conard argues that the films discussed in The Philosophy of Neo-Noir convey ambiguity, disillusionment, and disorientation more effectively than even the most iconic films of the classic noir era. Able to self-consciously draw upon noir conventions and simultaneously subvert them, neo-noir directors push beyond the earlier genre's limitations and open new paths of cinematic and philosophical exploration.

Excerpt

In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) allows his curiosity to get the best of him, as he spies on Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), has sadomasochistic sex with her, and ends up shooting the vile Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)—all very noir. In Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987), Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is unwittingly sent on a search for himself by none other than Lucifer—also trés noir. How about when, in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), police officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) shoots an unarmed suspected rapist or hero cop Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) shotguns Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) in the back? Yep, clearly noir. And you know it’s noir when, in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) discovers that Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who may or may not be Keyser Soze, has been spinning a tale about an assassination dressed up to look like a drug heist, to the point where at the end of the movie we in the audience don’t know if anything we’ve just been watching is supposed to have happened or not. Indeed, it’s all so very noir.

But what does that mean, exactly? What is film noir? And what is neo-noir?

My earlier volume, The Philosophy of Film Noir (University Press of Kentucky, 2006), dealt mostly with movies from the classic noir period, which falls between 1941 and 1958, beginning with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and ending with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. You know a classic noir film when you see it, with its unusual lighting (the constant opposition of light and shadow), its tilted camera angles, and its off-center scene compositions. But, besides these technical cinematic features, there are a number of themes that characterize film noir, such as the inversion of traditional values (bad guys as heroes, traditional good guys like cops doing bad things) and a kind of moral ambivalence (it’s hard to tell right from wrong any more); there’s also the feeling of alienation, paranoia, and pessimism; themes of crime and violence abound; and the movies attempt to disorient the spectator, mostly through the filming techniques mentioned above. Some classic examples of films noirs are Double Indemnity (Billy . . .

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