Genre Mutation and The Film Noir

Collins English Dictionary defines genre as a ‘kind, category… of literary or artistic work’, but the modern day concept of genre is vaster than ever. A genre was defined by specific characteristics which set said genre apart from the rest – the lines were clear cut, black and white. As soon as the concept of genre began drawing its lines in the sand, filmmakers instinctively began to see the potential in crossing them. From this filmmakers could invent new genres and revise old genres in ways unseen by the public. Naturally, this begs the question of the value of genre in contemporary filmmaking – whether a genre actually holds any worth in defining a film by the standards of today. This essay will explore evolution and mutation of genre, specifically using the example of the Film Noir, over time. Using this exploration as a criticism of genre theory, debating the idea that the contextual understanding of a genre gives meaning to a genre film, like a gangster film, Noir or Western. On top of this, this essay will discuss the concept of genre’s value in the industry of Hollywood.

‘Genre’ as a word is widely considered to simply mean the conventions of portions of plot, the iconography within and such drawn out by the films that came before – the characteristics of a film, in order to categorise it with similar ‘types’ of film. As an example, in the case of the genre this essay will scrutinise, Film Noir, there are a prominent set of characteristics which define a film as a Noir. In terms of plot, a Noir will always focus on an investigative character who is usually separate from the law, in order to maintain honesty and hold a darker edge to the character. This character is traditionally a man, who is seduced and toyed with by a femme fatale – a deadly woman – who eventually causes the demise, or at least demise in part, of the detective or his values – corrupting the incorruptible. Most characteristics of Film Noir come from its radical visual style, causing much debate on whether Film Noir is actually a genre at all, or just an aesthetic. Visual conventions include low key lighting with an emphasis on the light and the dark, as opposed to the grey in-betweens, as explored by Renaissance artists, dubbed ‘chiaroscuro’. Unnatural compositions and mise en scène made to jar and confuse the viewer (Place and Peterson, 1974), and insequential, confusing plotlines also come hand in hand with Film Noir. The iconography of a Film Noir is one of the most recognisable – silhouettes, fedoras, glamorous seductresses, cigarettes, and the neon signs glaring through the darkness of the mean streets that lie ahead of the detective. Nowadays it doesn’t take a Noir detective to deduce a film’s genre – genre conventions are deeply rooted at the very least in the subconscious of any moviegoer, but are less so than semiotics. The reason an audience will feel, for example, that there is an underpinning darkness to the image is not necessarily due to the genre itself, but more the idea that, say, a silhouetted man against a window is threatening by nature due to the mystery of the identity of the man. This is where the simplified definition of ‘genre’ begins to blur, as many critics have begun to point out the formulaic nature of genre films. To some, genres are more than a method of an audience identifying the film, they are a formula for a storyteller to follow in writing, to design the film based on this conventional context. To deny the mutualistic bond between producer and customer would be completely false. Film, just as every other medium has, found the most effective method of delivering to its target market; categorisation of films allowed audience members who enjoy a specific ‘type’ of film to easily find and separate this type. The producer tailors the film to that specific audience, and that specific audience, in return, gain a quick and easy way to find where they will gain the most entertainment – they sort themselves into their target groups. Tom Ryall eloquently summarises this equation of audience and filmmaker together:

The ‘rules’ of a genre – the body of conventions – specify the ways in which the individual work is to be read and understood, forming the implicit context in which that work acquires significance and meaning. Genres were seen in social terms as institutions implying a bond, or contract, between producers… and audience relating to the significance and meaning of what was on the screen. (1998:328)

This summary of many critics’ opinions rather cynically points towards the idea that genre films, without the context of the genre, would somehow be less substantial or be harder to grasp for the audience, suggesting that the genre film potentially lacks a level of originality due to its reliance on previously laid out conventions. This interpretation while holding an extent of value when applied to semiotics certainly in more recent years begun to degrade due to the flowing, ever changing nature of the modern genre. The consideration of evolution and mutation of genres is key to the understanding of what genre actually is and how it actually affects the both the creation and reception of film separately from semiotics.

One of the most quintessential examples of the evolution of genre, or genre revisionism, is the direct comparison between the classic Marlowe Noir Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk, 1944) and the post-modern, reworking of the Film Noir genre featuring the same character: The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973). In the 1944 Marlowe adaptation, we see all the tell-tale Noir conventions being met. The film follows an insequencial narrative, just as other noirs do, as evidenced by the opening sequence triggering a flashback. The following scene, set in Marlowe’s office, is particularly useful for direct comparison to The Long Goodbye. Immediately we see the iconic chiaroscuro effect, with a harsh edge light on the side of Marlowe’s face as he sits smoking his cigarette, while the rest of the shot is plunged in near complete darkness. The iconic voice-over narration, combined with the cluttered composition of elements in the frame are also textbook. The plot begins to be introduced, with a dark storyline waiting to unfold, thanks to the semiotics of the scene previous. Nearly every aforementioned convention of the Film Noir genre is checked off the list just moments into the film. Supporting the interpretation set out by critics, an audience will, thanks to this conventions, now understand that this is of the same calibre as other Film Noirs and at the very least make this subconscious link.

Jumping ahead to The Long Goodbye, we see an opening scene that is directly comparable. Set in Marlowe’s apartment this time, he awakes in a scene filled with focused light and darkness, as per cinematographic convention. He then leaves his bedroom and enters the darkness of the hallway, plunged into the shadows. It is not until the following shot, of his cat running across the floor, that the audience are broken out of the traditions of Film Noir. While comedy is not necessarily a complete break from Noir, with Marlowe being somewhat of a wisecracking Private Eye from conception, to toy with the focus of the plot and sideswipe the audience into a somewhat ridiculous and seemingly irrelevant scene is newfound territory. The Long Goodbye certainly doesn’t break entirely from convention, it just radically churns the genre out into something new. The iconography fully present once again – with Marlowe striking another cigarette maybe every five minutes of screen time, the neon lights of the city surrounding his apartment, and alike. Meanwhile, composition and mise en scène are much tamer than in classic Noir. We can see fairly normal cinematography and production design for the time. Within the film, however, the ‘jarring’ composition remains, but has been changed into a new form. Instead of a convoluted image, the elements of sound within the film are now convoluted and jarring, with an unconventional method of recording sound – using lavalier mics, in order to have dream like, ethereal dialogue, which while coming out of the actors mouths in relative space, emitting to the audience at a consistent, spatially nonsensical volume – the sound stays the same volume, regardless of whether the character is two or ten feet away. This is a revision to the chaotic composition of images recycled into sound, keeping the necessity of in depth audience perception but in a new way. This recycling also allowed another revision to the typical Noir convention of voiceover narration. Instead of a direct narration, the audience is presented with an external monologue, with Marlowe’s ramblings about cat food feeling like a narration of events, poking fun at these Noir clichés. Another radical twist from tradition is in terms of plot, with Marlowe killing Lennox at the end of the film, which harms the honor of the detective that fans knew and loved. Robert Altman’s character description explains why this radical decision suits Marlowe, but breaks the boundaries of the Noir genre: ‘ I see Marlowe the way Chandler saw him, a loser. But a real loser, not the false winner that Chandler made out of him. A loser all the way.’ (Spicer, 2010). This is uncommon in the Noir genre, as the credibility and integrity of the detective character is usually a primary factor in the story – for example, with most protagonists being lawfully good, but separate from the Law Enforcement, to steer them away from corruption – The Long Goodbye’s ambiguous standpoint is a long step away from the norm.

Detective stories are often about a personal code; even when the character explicitly tells us he does not have “a code,” the role of the operator is to attempt to tilt the scales toward a form of justice he can live with, whether it is selfish, altruistic, cruel, or magnanimous. Marlowe’s last act in this version can be seen as justice or as selfish. (Pluck, 2013)

The question then arises – with such radical changes to genre, is The Long Goodbye even a Noir? The trick in this question  provides suitable evidence of an ambiguity in genre; this is one of the main hurdles one must overcome in order to understand modern genre and one of main considerations that punctures the previously mentioned theory. Genre is not as clear cut as the theory makes it out to be – as in that one must understand the context of the genre in order to understand the film. One may argue that to fully appreciate all the rules the film toys with and revises, an audience must know these rules. At the same time, however, if the rules are being broken in the first place, then the rules needn’t be understood by the audience, as they are witnessing something new, no matter how derivative it is. This creation of something new is precisely what is meant by ‘genre mutation’; definable exactly as mutation in biology is: ‘a sudden departure from the parent type in one or more heritable characteristics’ (Dictionary.com). In terms of genre, this cannot only be explained in the context of The Long Goodbye’s revision of its genre, but also in the context of multi-genre pieces. An archetypal example to draw upon is Blade Runner (Scott, 1982). Blade Runner welds together the (neo-)Noir with cyberpunk science fiction into something entirely new – dubbed ‘technoir’. While the whole film fits snugly in both the conventions of science fiction and neo-noir, an exemplary moment is the scene in which Deckard interrogates Rachael, using the Voight Kampff machine. The scene’s lighting reminisces on the chiaroscuro effect of the traditional Film Noir, with harsh edge lights and dark shadows causing strong contrast in the scene. The inclusion of colour is emphasised in a science fiction way, with strong saturation – vibrant skin tones, deep oranges and sharp, punchy blues. On the one hand, the inclusion of colour in such an expressive obviously breaks from the classic Noir aesthetic – due to the iconic black and white look being caused by the film stock used – one could argue that it stays within the realm of the noir and adapts it to more modern technologies; the constant inclusion of neon lights and sharp contrast in noirs, one could argue, would have been met with intense saturation of colour, could the technologies of colour film have been viable in the age of the genre. This is a key point when thinking on the idea of mutations in genre – adaptations like these, while drawing upon audience expectations are still so radical and new that without the context of the genre (or in this case genres), the film, arguably, would still work.

To summarise, genre is an incredible flowing entity that cannot be defined – or to an extent – confined to a black and white summary. The lines of genre blur more and more as time goes on. To understate the value of the genre system within the industry would simply be a falsity, but to say that the original theory of genre and lines in the sand hold as prominently in modern film as it did in the era of the Noir and the Western. These ambiguities in genre are fatal flaws in the argument presented by such critics as Lawrence Alloway, summarised by Tom Ryall. At its base level, even if genre films and genre itself were as cynical as this, genre should not be a factor of criticism of a film – the film in isolation, due to simply what we perceive as the language of film and the conveyance of the art, should – with the better films managing to – establish everything contained within its opening and closing titles, without the necessity of the stabiliser wheels of genre conventions to help it out. On the other hand, ingrained human semiotic response being relied upon by an artist is one that is fundamental in any art piece. To set aside film – specifically Hollywood genre films – as something of less value due to its reliance on this, clumsily labelling it as reliance on genre is failing to distinguish that semiotics and genre are separate entities.

 

Bibliography

Alloway, L. (1971). Violent America: The Movies, 1946-1964. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Metz, C. and Taylor, M. (1974). Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. New York: University of Chicago Press.

Place, J. and Peterson, L. (1974). Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir. Film Comment, pp.30-35.

Pluck, T. (2013). Reconsidering Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). [Blog] Criminal Element. Available at: https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2013/11/reconsidering-robert-altman-the-long-goodbye-1973-neo-noir-elliott-gould-philip-marlowe-thomas-pluck [Accessed 21 Mar. 2018].

Ryall, T. (1998). Genre and Hollywood. In: J. Hill and P. Gibson, ed., The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Oxford University Press, pp.327-337.

Spicer, A. (2010). Historical Dictionary of Film Noir. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, p.108.

 

Filmography

Blade Runner. (1982). Directed by R. Scott. United States: Warner Bros.

Murder, My Sweet. (1944). Directed by E. Dmytryk. United States: RKO Pictures.

The Long Goodbye. (1973). Directed by R. Altman. United States: United Artists.