For the Love of Noir
Ask a roomful of writers or filmmakers to define what constitutes "noir" and you’ll get a roomful of answers. At one time or another, I’ve heard or read: it’s about the discontent of humanity, it’s about losers, it glorifies losers, everyone gets screwed, the subversion of justice, villains as heroes, even that old chestnut, “the dark night of the soul.” In other words, noir life ain’t pretty.
So if noir life ain’t pretty, what’s its lure? Why do people write it? Read it? Flock to its movies? Why are people willing to read hundreds of pages or sit through two hours of a movie about doomed souls in a world where everything is stacked against them and there’s probably no good way out?
Catharsis? There but for the grace of…? The satisfaction of “Aha! I knew the world is rotten?”
Could be. In part, anyway. But my gut tells me that’s not enough. There has to be something even deeper than mere catharsis, something seductive.
I suppose there could be many answers to my question about the lure and popularity of noir, but I think at its core it’s because noir is…beautiful.
There. I’ve said it. Noir is beautiful. It’s a seedy beauty bred in shadows, to be sure, but as any artist —painters, photographers and filmmakers in particular, even sculptors — will tell you, shadows can often be more interesting than light. Shadows carve, shadows clarify. And noir, if nothing else, is a narrative of shadows; real ones in its style, metaphysical ones in its morality. Noir, then, in its indelible and iconic visual style, even in literature, and its fearless embrace of a blurred philosophy of right and wrong, is art.
Noir, whether in dark alleys or on sun drenched streets, cracks open the surface of life where the bright smile and the positive attitude will, it is falsely promised, be rewarded, and instead reveals the shadowed life underneath. Emotions held in check on life's surface, noir releases in all their rawness: sadness, disappointment, desperation, rage, heartbreak, love curdling into hate. The men and women who live in the noir world, either by choice (criminals, sleazy business types, opportunists, corrupt officials, dirty cops, etc.) or circumstance (the victimized, the unfortunate, the helpless, the trapped), are either willing or forced to express emotions and engage in actions we might normally hold in check. Their lives may be going nowhere but to doom, but the trip there sure isn’t dull. It’s full of feeling, full of danger.
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Lambda and Goldie winner Ann Aptaker isn’t shy about telling you how much she loves her hometown, New York City. She swears she even feels its history; all those triumphs and tragedies of the famous and the forgotten. She’s now old enough to be part of that history, which she likes, except for the “old” part, which she’s iffy about. Ann is happy to bring you into that history in her Cantor Gold crime series.