Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Film Noir's Dark Secret or What Does the Hysteric Want?

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

Film Noir's Dark Secret or What Does the Hysteric Want?

Article excerpt

Resumé: Pourquoi le film noir est-il considéré comme un genre masculin ? Cet article essaie de créer un pont entre le genre sexuel et le genre cinématographique en considérant ces derniers comme des systèmes symboliques interdépendants qui reproduisent et naturalisent les normes génériques de l'identité. En montrant que le film noir, prétendument masculin, entretient un lien historique, formel et stylistique avec le gothique (genre supposément féminin), cette recherche mène à la conclusion que ce que les deux genres ont en commun est typique du désordre « féminin » qu'est l'hystérie. En partant du discours sur l'hystérie pour ensuite déstabiliser le statut générique et sexuel du film noir, l'analyse en vient à exposer la complicité qu'entretiennent les économies des genres cinématographique et sexuel qui tous deux codifient la division et la distribution des rôles sexuels - et des plaisirs qui y sont associés. L'utilisation de l'hystérie dans cet argument ne fait pas que déplacer l'image masculine du film noir au profit d'une image féminine ; elle questionne aussi le système symbolique du genre sexuel qui semble faire de nous tous des hystériques et des pervers.

Ever since the explosion of feminist film criticism in the seventies, film noir has been an intense site of contestation through which the various vexations of gender have been fiercely interrogated. Rather than trying to stake a claim on film noir in the name of an idealized masculinity or femininity, I would like to disengage film noir from territorializing discourses of gender altogether. My aim is to use the unstable generic and gender status of noir to question the way genre is used to naturalize contingent gender differences, and the way gender is used to promote many of the psychic and social functions of genre.

While some of the more overt functions of genre include the streamlining of film production and consumption, the control of psychic mechanisms of excitation and discharge in the production of pleasure, and the grounding of critical discourse in the academy, genre also functions to define and stabilize gender differences in the service of the greater symbolic economy of gender. (Witness, for example, the opposition between chick flicks and action movies that determines such diverse phenomena as video store layouts and heterosexual date movies.) In light of this complicity between the economies of genre and gender, the specific aim of this essay is to disturb the persistent identification of film noir with masculinity, an identification so strong that even contemporary feminist approaches often initially assume the masculinity of noir, even if only to critically dismantle it. Going beyond a specific analysis of film noir, my greater aim is to shed light on how genre recruits gender and on how gender deploys genre to codify the division and distribution of pleasures and roles between genders in the symbolic order.

To initiate my deterritorialization of the discourses of gender around film noir, I shall first briefly show the kinship of noir with a conventionally feminine genre, namely Gothic, by showing that the features commonly used to distinguish these two genres are more interrelated than they may first appear. Then, drawing on the psychoanalytic concept of hysteria, I shall show how hysteria's implicit critique of the symbolic economy of gender can be redeployed to explicitly critique the gender economy of film noir in particular and, by extension, of other gendered genres.

GOTHIC: THE SECRET MOTHER OF FILM NOIR?

By juxtaposing features commonly ascribed to noir with features associated with Gothic, the following table suggests the possibility that these oppositionally gendered genres are more intertwined than their usual generic definitions would lead us to believe, which undermines the deployment of gender to polarize these genres.1

While the above table does not establish Gothic as a direct influence on noir, I argue that the generic affinities between noir and Gothic - both "oneiric, bizarre, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel"- at least suggest that if hard-boiled crime fiction is a literary "father" of noir, then Gothic may be an occluded literary "mother," which destabilizes the usual gender identifications of film noir. …

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