In a tone of mock resignation only loosely masking utter frustration, Paul Arthur begins his review of Paula Rabinowitz's book, Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism with the following quote:
It's official. Film noir is now more or less what anyone says it is, regardless of whether the thing in question falls within the compass of film or whether its esthetic attributes even loosely mirror those initially recognized as noir. (60)
I could not help thinking about this quote as I read Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo's intriguing new book, Noir Anxiety. Respected film noir critic James Naremore accepts that the meaning of film noir has changed over time, but still sees noir as "a discursive construct" (6) and argues that critical analysis must place such films "in a series of historical frames or contexts" (2). Noir Anxiety ignores this critical basis for noir study.
For the informed fan and critic of film noir, things do not begin promisingly in Noir Anxiety. Oliver and Trigo claim that noir has been previously defined by historicists and existentialists without persuasively delineating details about either position. Instead of summarizing such critical disputes, they aim to "complicate" these two already speciously-argued "positions" by "interpreting film noir as a type of Freudian dream-work" (xv) that ultimately reveals anxieties about male identity formation. Oliver and Trigo, philosophy and literature professors at Stony Brook University, have constructed a well-written and meticulously researched book that unfortunately loses some power because the authors play fast and loose with their vague definitions of film noir, thus alienating much of their potential audience.
If one can ignore the awkward beginning and title to instead see this book as a general book of film studies that builds a sophisticated argument, Noir Anxiety is a successful project. The authors employ a critical paradigm that relies upon the various psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva applied across a disparate set of film texts. In fact, this book works best as a cultural studies text that reveals how one can apply contemporary psychoanalytic theories to a hand-picked selection of thrillers, "women's film" melodramas, film noirs, and Alfred Hitchcock movies.
Because the authors are interested in locating a "tension between sexuality and maternity that dominates the unconscious of much of film noir" (xxvii), they consider films that forward such issues but which are not necessarily noir films. For example, in chapters 1 and 5, they analyze Pinky (1949) Vertigo (1958), and Imitation of Life (1959). Employing sophisticated writings by Freud, Lacan, and Kristeva to uncover in such films "that maternity is the most threatening and repressed site of ambiguity" (26) or that "the son who identifies with the abject mother becomes abject himself" (111), the authors reveal psychological precepts that lead readers to interesting thematic readings of films that are unfortunately never persuasively defined as noir films.
When the authors analyze classic film noirs, their basic argument fares better. For instance, their analysis of Murder, My Sweet (1944) in chapter 2 argues that the mere fatale introduces social issues such as the threat of female sexuality and the inability for men in the film to bury their homoerotic desires. Chapter 2, chapter 3 on The Lady from Shanghai (1948), chapter 4 on The Secret Beyond the Door (1948), and chapter 6 on Touch of Evil (1958) each reveal a general male anxiety over ideas of both racial boundaries and evil motherhood. To Oliver and Trigo, such issues reflect Lacan's theory of desire: "it [desire] always operates through the refraction of another's desire" (93) and that "unconscious desires must find expression and articulation in consciousness" (96). Thus, in the "real world" of each of these noir films, male justice, "depends on condemning the femme fatale" (120).
Chapters 7-9 analyze three neo-noirs, one from the 1970s and two from the 1990s--Chinatown (1974) Devil in a Blue Dress (1994) and Bound (1996), respectively. Once more the authors provide intriguing readings of each film while never fully illustrating how or why these films might represent the hundreds of neo-noir films that have been released since the 1960s. The reader begins to suspect that the authors can not actually discover a solid connection to the other films, so they instead limit the applicability of their theories to these three films. In the first of these three chapters, Oliver and Trigo employ Freud's 1914 essay, "Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through" in order to analyze Jake Gittes's "bad joke" about the Chinaman that he hears from his barber. This is the same joke that Evelyn Mulwray overhears while Jake tries to retell its story to his detective partners. The scene is offensive at many levels, but Oliver and Trigo claim that, within the film, "Gittes's sexism is combated with a racism that remains unquestioned" (148). This joke then prefigures the film's ultimate meaning. As Oliver and Trigo make clear, "Chinatown is both Evelyn Mulwray's destination and Jake Gittes's destiny, but these are not the same thing. Chinatown (the place) is the end of the line for her ... It is not the end of the ride for him" (159).
The strength of Noir Anxiety and the lynchpin that connects chapters 7-9 is implied in this chapter on Chinatown and then elaborated upon at the beginning of chapter 8. Oliver and Trigo introduce the central thematic of their book by stating:
Noir is a visual form of a model for subject formation driven by a logic of identity that has matricide and the exclusionary deployment of an intersection of race and sex as its principal mechanisms. (163)
Much of the strength of the author's readings of these three neo-noir films comes in their inventive abilities to posit race and gender issues as key to understanding contemporary film noir.
In chapter 8, by analyzing voice-over techniques, lighting tricks, and by scrutinizing the source novel's plot, the authors reveal the emotional and thematic punch of Devil in a Blue Dress. They employ a combination of reader-response and psychoanalytic theories when they conjecture about the two main characters in the film. "We identify with Easy in our sympathy for Daphne's losses. Her loss of a home, a lover, and a name seem to stem from an initial loss of a black identity erased, vilified and nullified by the racism of her society" (181). The authors insightfully reveal a powerful critical perspective and a clear understanding of the general meaning of this movie.
In the strongest chapter in the book, the authors next analyze Bound. Oliver and Trigo build their case by illustrating how "women are seen as property" (201) within the male gangster world of the film and "patriarchal economy is one of violent competition, revenge, and suspicion between men" (202). Chapter 9 illustrates that main characters Violet and Corky steal, not to enter the world of male competition or money lust, but out of their trust in each other. They commit their crime to be free of the male gangster world, and "their pleasure in each other exceeds the patriarchal economy of exchange" (203). Thus, Bound reveals how these ideal neo-noir femmes, "use patriarchal fantasies to manipulate these men because deep down they [the men] want to believe in their own fantasies rather than see reality" (193). This chapter carefully and persuasively illustrates a rebellious attitude by both the filmmakers and the critics toward gender roles and ultimately adds up to a feminist critique of traditional noir values.
Chapter 10 concludes the book with an analysis of physical spaces that illustrate "symbolic architectural features" (212) in selected movies. The authors briefly investigate the semiotic importance of mirrors, bedrooms, and the meaning of being lost outdoors in such films as Killer's Kiss (1955), The Killers (1946), and Out of the Past (1947) respectively. To Oliver and Trigo, the physical aspects of these meaningful expanses equate directly with the mind and identity of the male heroes of each film. Thus, such territories help the audience to see the various threats and anxieties awaiting the hero within each ambiguous space. While chapter 10 is too general, Oliver and Trigo recognize this ambiguity and also embrace it. They end their book by claiming:
Occupying analogous in-between spaces can be a means to escape the logic of identity that blinds and kills the subjects of noir. Analysis, interpretation, and creative thinking offer the promise of opening such spaces, of keeping open the door to noir's room. (236)
In an exciting but confusing proposal, this "illogic of identity" offers the ability to keep the subjects of film noir alive. Yet, open spaces and utopian hopefulness might add up to intellectual spaces and filmic themes that lie outside the bleak realm of film noir.
If one is looking for a book that defines and analyzes film noir, Noir Anxiety is not that text. The book too often ignores key noir and neo-noir films in favor of a particular (or peculiar) film that fits the authors' own psychoanalytic critical paradigm. In particular, with the general critical acknowledgment of the hundreds of neo-noir films that have been released from the 1960s to the present, a book that analyzes merely three neo-noir films (Chinatown, Devil in a Blue Dress) and Bound cannot even begin to carefully define the paramters of the genre. In fact, the list of neo-noir films in the book's filmography includes just fifteen films: two from the 1970s, three from the 1980s, and ten from the 1990s. And while Oliver and Trigo list a more respectable 171 classic noirs that were released in the 1940s and 50s, their book still restricts its analysis to a handful of classic film noirs which loosely fit the psychoanalytic model they propose.
Therefore, while Noir Anxiety is not necessarily a book for film noir devotees, the book is a worthwhile read. This work is a provocative collection of modern and inventive psychoanalytic readings of various film texts. With thirty-three pages of footnotes and a thorough ten page Works Cited listing, I recommend this book to any reader who enjoys cultural criticism, psychoanalytic film analysis, and film studies that posit the importance of gender and race issues to film analysis.
Arthur, Paul. Rev. of Black & White & Noir: America's Pulp Modernism, by Paula Rabinowitz. Cineaste 28.2 (Spring 2003): 60-61.
Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998.
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|Author:||Covey, William B.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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