Post-Noir: The New Hollow Men

May I suggest that neo-noir is over, and that we have entered the post-noir age.

Too many film pundits today are happy to spout the received wisdom that film noir was a response to some pervasive (but in reality non-existent) post-WW2 trauma-cum-malaise, and then uncritically enlist this (thoroughly) conventional wisdom as some contrived justification for the plunge of contemporary American cinema into an abyss of banal fascist violence: most recently American Gangster, Death Proof, Gone Baby Gone, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and No Country for Old Men. Each of these tales of psychopathology are seen as relevant and somehow redeemed by technique or more commonly by referring to a film as being noirish, a homage to film noir, or darkly violent, with technique elevated over content.

For example, this is Chris Garcia, the Austin American-Statesman’s film writer, in an article Wednesday (forgive the length of the excerpt – it is a long article):

Topics in the larger movie picture, compelling trends — the return of film noir, the evolution of artists such as Johnny Depp and Sidney Lumet — that tickled the mind in 2007, have me wondering how they will play out this year and after.

Will there be (more) blood?

In mid-2006, I wrote about a resurgence of film noir, arguing that noir was back, bleak and bloody as ever, faithfully pessimistic, glibly projecting harsh views of human nature, about which it doesn’t trust as far as it can spit a gnawed toothpick.

I’m an iffy prognosticator, but I know and love my noir, so this stubborn trend hijacked my senses and made me watch. Especially because it didn’t abate in 2007. Indeed, it thrived.

Between 2005-06, a rash of crime noirs honored the savage codes and shadowy flourishes of the form: “Sin City,” “Miami Vice,” “Derailed,” “Brick,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Ice Harvest” and “The Departed,” not to mention scads of Asian noirs, such as Hong Kong’s nifty “Election.”

Liking what it saw, 2007 bulged with the violently noirish — “American Gangster,” “Gone Baby Gone,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Eastern Promises,” “We Own the Night” and the reconstituted “Blade Runner: The Final Cut” — as well as the simply darkly violent, such as “3:10 to Yuma” and “Sweeney Todd.” (This is no country for gore-nography like “Hostel 2” and “Halloween” — mindless, amoral kid’s stuff.)

But why noir, why now?

Hollywood tied a tourniquet on bloody downer films following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, heralding a new sobriety at once respectful and, dare we say, craven. The national mood and all. But with these newer movies, Sept. 11 anxiety has demonstrably eased.

Eased, not vanished. And that’s the rub. We are still encumbered by moral confusion, convulsed by a faraway war gone sour, social and economic instability at home, fear-mongering about attacks on our soil, a pilloried presidential administration soon to be pushed into history by a giant, generational X factor.

We, as a nation, are nervous.

Such were the climes when film noir made its unofficial bow in ’40s and ’50s Hollywood, with a pained parade of often low-budget meditations on moral depredation, cruelty, lawlessness and social nihilism: “The Big Sleep,” “Out of the Past,” “Double Indemnity” “Kiss of Death,” “Detour,” “Kiss Me Deadly,” to name some of the best known.

These unusually grim pictures were a response to America’s post-World War II temperament. The Depression had lifted, yet a new malaise smudged the national view-finder. Dark films were born from dark times. Momentarily gone were the screwball romps and spangled musicals of the ’30s.

Parallels exist today. The events in New York and Washington, D.C., are enshrined in recent history, but we still feel queasy. And cinematic art reflects it, not here and there, but in the clot of films depicting murder, misanthropy and endings far from tidy, happy.

Bad brothers rob their parents’ jewelry store and their world collapses in a destructive heap in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” After a healthy body count, an undercover cop is seduced irrevocably into the gangster badlands he was assigned to dismantle in “Eastern Promises.” No one wins after the solving of a kidnapping reveals that few are good, not even the law, and the hero is left to agonize over a fatal decision in “Gone Baby Gone.” Fueled by a classic noir set-up and characters — a decent everyman pulled to ruin; a psychotic killer; a good but impotent cop — “No Country for Old Men” ends in a moral haze so thick it chokes.

As a moviegoer and crime genre fan, I’m perfectly at ease with these harrowing depictions of humankind and the climate in which it seeks, skulks and hides.

But will the trend continue this year and after? Check back after Jan. 18. That’s when the punishingly misanthropic “There Will be Blood” opens in Austin. The title says it all.

I have seen only two of these recent films: Gone Baby Gone, and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

Ben Affleck returns to his home-town Boston for this directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, a strange violent story of nostalgia and social mis-critique. Working-class Boston is portrayed in a pseudo-realist opening sequence of urban ennui and alienation as some “lost” place, where an urban flatfoot and his girl-friend get to play judge jury AND executioner, with a climax where the gumshoe executes an un-armed and deranged psychopath in a squalid tenement. Fascist violence as urban justice – rollover Tarantino.

From an arrogant novice to a disturbingly angry old man. Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an ugly urban fable, that by it’s end leaves you stunned as to why this film should have been made at all. A family of psychotics in a killing frenzy like the sharks in Orson Well’s The Lady From Shanghai: Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy… they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes. And you could smell the death reeking up out of the sea.

This is a post-noir cinematic wasteland where coherence and social awareness are sacrificed to the hollow men of contemporary Hollywood:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion…

(From “The Hollow Men” T.S. Eliot)

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