Spectacle and Visual Effects: Black Panther VS Infinity War

In ‘Space, Place, Spectacle’, Andrew Higson defines two interweaving concepts – narrative and spectacle – that, he argues, push and pull against each other; a conflict that is a prominent factor in the fundamental experience of cinema.

Narrative – in part, the sense of something lacking, installing a desire to explore, to find out what is missing, to move onto a new scene, and the possibility of achieving what is desired… And spectacle – the spectator confronted by an image which is so fascinating that it seems complete; no longer the desire to move on, no longer the sense of something lacking. (1984: 3)

The conflict of spectacle and narrative at times can be extremely effective in enveloping an audience into a film’s world and story, with the spectacular elements supplementing the narrative and ultimately providing a deeper experience. Other times, spectacular elements may be distracting or overbearing, ultimately compromising the importance of the narrative and taking the audience out of the film’s constructed world. Particularly in an age of visual effects and computer generated imagery, cinema has unlocked the potential to tell fantastic stories that were once thought to be impossible. The advent of these technologies have become a fundamental part in elevating cinematic spectacle to bold new extremes. This essay will explore the concept of spectacle in modern film; the ways in which visual effects have become a vehicle to generate the spectacular, as in the case of Back to the Future Part II (Zemeckis, 1989) and Transformers: Age of Extinction (Bay, 2014); and finally directly comparing the ways in which the Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) both use spectacle in an attempt to expand their cinematic worlds and weighing up how effective each film is in doing so.

Spectacle and Visual Effects

The importance of spectacle in cinema has been present since its advent – part of the pull of cinema is its potential to completely wow an audience. The writing of Tom Gunning surrounding the ‘cinema of attractions’ explores the fixation on spectacle in some of the earliest days of cinema – which he specifies as 1896-1907. He describes this age as ‘an exhibitionist cinema’, in that ‘it is a cinema that bases itself on… its ability to show something’ going on to explain it as ‘a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator’ (1984: 382). Gunning’s description of this era is particularly applicable to understanding the roots of spectacle within modern cinema. In the advent of cinema, grabbing the audience’ attention played a key role in lifting moving pictures into prominence and forming the foundations of the industry that exists today; in creating spectacular images that stunned spectators, early filmmakers formed markets of audiences hungry to see what more cinema could do – hungry for cinema that was bigger and better. In many ways, this idea is still at least partially prominent in modern cinema, though metamorphosed into something new. Modern blockbusters and studio films strive to hook audiences by promising the ‘biggest’ and ‘best’, just as in the cinema of attractions, though instead of the audience’s hunger to be wowed by the raw medium and apparatus itself (the ability to display moving images), modern cinema’s ubiquity and cultural prominence has evolved this desire into a desire to see unique methods of storytelling, but also to see entirely new, unique – and previously impossible – stories; audiences now understand the fundamentals of the medium and industry that has formed, and strive to see how the technology can be adapted and used in new ways, as opposed to in the cinema of attractions, where audiences (and filmmakers) were barely beginning to understand film. This metamorphosis of what is still essentially the cinema of attractions forms the foundation for spectacle in modern film.

Technology has been an important factor in generating spectacle since the cinema of attractions. As aforementioned, the initial invention of the apparatus of film and its capabilities were spectacular in and of themselves, but as audiences grew familiar to its principles, technological advances to further film’s abilities became spectacular. The films of Georges Méliès, for example, emphasised spectacle, generated by adapting and developing the technology available. Méliès saw film as a tool to further his illusions and in focusing on that, drove technological and logical advancements in the field through experimentation. In modern cinema, the very same drive exists, but for new reasons. Generally, modern cinema accepts narrative primacy in films as the default – already directly contrasting the attitude Méliès took. As Gunning translates in ‘Cinema of Attractions’, Méliès intended to present spectacle, with narrative as an afterthought to highlight the spectacle:

As for the scenario, the “fable,” or “tale,” I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the “stage effects,” the “tricks,” or for a nicely arranged tableau. (1984: 382)

Since 1907, it could be argued that generally, a shift has occurred, in which the dialectic of narrative and spectacle has inverted; that generally spectacle is now the addition to highlight the narrative, or at least to in some way expand the cinematic world the filmmaker is presenting. In Art, Image and Spectacle, Isaacs discusses the work of James Cameron in a similar way to Gunning of Méliès:

I locate Cameron’s aesthetic orientation at the intersection of the two competing interests of the High Concept film. The auteurist vision subsists in the attempt to “invent cinema”, to make cinema new through the exponentially advancing technologies of the spectacle… For Cameron vision is more than a medium for the conveyance of “reality.” The special effect is never purely mimetic, but transformative. (2011: 91)

The drive that Isaacs argues Cameron plays a part in pioneering is extremely comparable to Méliès’ drive to adapt technology to further his illusions, however Cameron intends to adapt technology to further his narratives and expand the boundaries of the cinematic world he creates; Isaacs goes on to mention Cameron’s use of vision in The Terminator, allowing the audience to peer through the eyes of the Terminator himself  – a tactic which not only creates great spectacle, but also arguably assists the audience in understanding the world and narrative at a deeper level. The scenes create a sense of tangibility – that this character is real, alive and ‘thinking’ – presenting a believability which supplements the film’s narrative and immerses spectators into the world of the film. Cameron’s principles are held by many modern filmmakers: that technology can create spectacle that can be used to enrich the narrative of the film – it is here that visual effects have become a vehicle for the spectacular.

A reliance on visual effects to generate spectacle in film emerges from the successes of in-camera special effects created through experimentation in the age of the cinema of attractions, such as the illusions of Méliès, and their refinement and adaptation through to the sixties and seventies onwards. Scenes like Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (DeMille, 1956) and almost countless scenes in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) proved that narratives could be heightened by intense, spectacular effects, whilst also connoting a potential for entirely believable new narrative universes, grounded in complete fantasy but at extreme new levels of realism or believability – a potential that was eventually exploited by the fantastic settings, creatures and vehicles, all made possible through visual effects in Star Wars (Lucas, 1977). Due to these massive advances in visual effects technologies, filmmakers like George Lucas had paved the way for the technology to be used by many to many different extremes in order to expand the narrative world of their films. Some films use extreme visual effects to generate gratuitous spectacle that still becomes the forefront over narrative and does not serve any other purpose than to wow, similarly to the ways the cinema of attractions used this spectacle. This is obvious in the case of an almost infamous example: Michael Bay’s Transformers series, which seems to pride itself on compromising narrative depth for the sake of spectacular action sequences with each release. In Transformers: Age of Extinction (2017), a pivotal fight between Optimus Prime and an ancient legendary warrior is continuously interrupted by spectacular slow motion punches, enormous explosions and a dragon-dinosaur transformer breathing fire at nothing. Angela Ndalianis eloquently describes this calibre of spectacle as ‘an invitation [that] is extended to us to marvel at the speed, special effects, camera work, and ability the cinema has to extract from us a sense of wonder when confronted with these effects’ (2000). While undoubtedly spectacular, and however impressive a feat of CGI, the scene’s spectacular interludes pause the narrative briefly, just to forefront the effects.

Conversely, an important example of how effective the inclusion of spectacular visual effects, even at relatively subtle levels can supplement a narrative is in the case of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future Trilogy – though perhaps most notably in Back to the Future Part II (1989). As with many contemporary blockbusters, spectacular visual and special effects are abundant in Back to the Future Part II, some are eye-catching moments of intensified spectacle (hoverboards, skyways and parodic CGI sharks), but some are relatively subtle illusions that intend to be unquestioned or unseen, whilst still maintaining spectacle – these effects are the quintessential example of how spectacle can supplement a narrative. Using miniatures and compositing tricks, the Delorean in this installment of the trilogy is given the ability to fly – an effect which, at the time of release, is not unfamiliar. This being said, in one sequence during the film, when Marty and Doc drop a fainted Jennifer home in 1985, virtuosic compositing and visual effects are used to seamlessly blend composite footage of a miniature and footage of the real, practical Delorean. The Delorean comes in to land in front of Jennifer’s house visualised by an animated miniature composited over an empty background plate, shot using motion control. The take then continues as the miniature Delorean is slightly obscured by a street lamp, hiding a split screen that unveils a second motion control take, featuring the practical, full size Delorean on set on the other side of the post; in one seamless take, the Delorean flies into shot, touches down and drives to the porch for the car door to open and Einstein to step out. This moment is extremely spectacular – it is a feat of visual effects, pushing the bar for motion control cinematography of the time and is an impressive moment – yet it entirely revolves around being ‘invisible’ to the audience. What this presents is an antithesis of Gunning’s ‘exhibitionist cinema’ – this moment is an example of where arguably extreme spectacle is used exclusively to supplement the narrative, in an attempt to avoid audiences questioning the technical apparatus of the film. The effect itself is unquestionably spectacular, yet the seamlessness of it immerses the audience into the world of the film, as opposed to taking them out of the world to ‘show something’, as Gunning states of the cinema of attractions. Bob Gale, producer of Back to the Future Part II explains that this was the intention behind the effects of the film:

 

We take [the effects] for granted. The story is the most important part of the film, and if the audience is involved with that story, the effects are there to enhance that enjoyment and make the story more believable, not to call attention to themselves… What we tried to do was make sure these effects are so tightly incorporated into the story, no one will question how they were done until they’re driving home from the movie. (1989)

Unlike other blockbusters of the time, spectacular elements are employed into the film specifically to serve the narrative and not just to exist as they are. The advancements made in technology to allow for these spectacular effects and elements were not driven by a necessity for eye-catching moments, but driven by the desire to supplement the narrative. These two different ways in which films use spectacular visual effects to prioritise and elevate either spectacle or narrative will serve as the foundation for comparison between spectacle’s usage in Marvel’s Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) and Avengers: Infinity War (A. and J. Russo, 2018) and its effect on their narratives.

 

Black Panther and Infinity War

Coogler’s Black Panther, like most entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, heavily relies on spectacle and visual effects as a vehicle to generate this spectacle. Throughout the film there are many strong examples of the use of spectacle to immerse the viewer and expand the film’s constructed world, supplementing the narrative. One of the film’s biggest strengths is rendering the city of Wakanda in spectacular detail in CGI and digital matte-paintings. In one example, as T’Challa first arrives in Wakanda in a flying vehicle, the audience is presented with a flyover of vast African plains occupied by wildlife and people alike, who wave at the passing vehicle – to enforce to the audience that these people are real and inhabiting the fictional world. Following this, the ship plunges into the trees and emerges ahead of Wakanda, in all its glory – great skyscrapers tower above the skyline, boats travel up and down the river, districts with individual streets form the city, all occupied by miniscule cars driving, with futuristic trams and hyperloop trains whizzing by alongside them. While this scene of course provides wonderful eye candy for an audience to acknowledge on the surface, the immense subtlety and detail serves a similar purpose to the aforementioned sequence in Back to the Future Part II; the decision to employ spectacle of this kind, in this way convinces the viewer that the world within the film is as real as the world outside the cinema. In an article for the website CityMetric analysing the fictional city, Stephen Jorgenson-Murray eloquently distinguishes Wakanda from other cities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

Fictional cities in previous Marvel films… don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces. Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city. (2018)


This inclusion is absolutely integral to the success of Black Panther and plays a huge part in supplementing the narrative. The audience are invited to follow a plot about a battle for the future of an entire nation implicating real world, contemporary racial politics, the consequences of which would not easily be felt without the sheer spectacle of the visualisation of Wakanda; without rendering the civilisation – arguably a character in its own right – in the extreme, spectacular detail the filmmakers chose to include, major character decisions that bear weight due to the grand repercussions against the nation, would lose the impact they require to keep the story believable. The cultural and narrative weight of the film would be undermined without the setting of the film being realistic, believable and applicable to the real world. The use of visual effects to render this detail and create such a cinematic spectacle directly supplements the narrative.

Contrary to this, at many times Black Panther employs spectacle in the same vein as the aforementioned example within Transformers: Age of Extinction. In the climactic battle towards the end of the film, the action is intensified by spectacular moments, aided by visual effects. What begins as armed combat between tribes is exacerbated when a character uses a horn to summon enormous rhinos to aid in their battle. Dan North explains of spectacular visual effects that ‘the first step in rendering an effects sequence consumable as spectacular fodder is to segregate it from the main body of the film’ (2005), an instruction that Black Panther follows: what is an otherwise intense character driven battle implicating all the leaders of the factions that the audience has been introduced to, is temporarily suspended and the audience is distanced from the narrative as the CGI war rhinos emerge from the ground. The rhinos’ gratuitous presence seems to make no difference to the narrative of the battle, providing no real obstacle for the characters aside from a relatively minor set-back to the protagonist, when he is flung through the air at a rock. The inclusion of the rhinos and complete pause of the narrative to showcase them, is left as nothing more than spectacle added for the sake of wowing an audience, at one point even including a slow-motion rhino beat-down, extremely reminiscent of the aforementioned Transformers scene. Sequences like this are incorporated into the film throughout and compromise the narrative just to forefront the spectacle of the visual effects.

The Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Infinity War, a seemingly generic entry into the MCU, takes a radically new approach to spectacle by introducing the primary antagonist of Thanos. Thanos as a character presents incredible production challenges, due in part to his alien species, but also due to the necessity to make him feel believable. Infinity War intends to partially subvert the conventions of the MCU, treating its villain as a character with depth and motivation and not as just a shallow, evil force lacking in motivation. It could be argued that the film’s narrative follows Thanos’ journey and the obstacles he faces in reaching his goal more than the journey of the Avengers, which is only bolstered by the film’s subversive ending, where Thanos is successful in reaching his goal. What was necessary, then, for the character of Thanos, and by proxy the entire film’s narrative to function, is on the one hand to present his spectacular appearance, with fantastic biology, but equally maintaining the capability to hold as much emotional depth as an ordinary character, so as to be a fully believable character and role in the unfolding story. Thanos in Infinity War attempts to become a balance of spectacle and narrative, providing spectacle whilst being fundamental to the narrative. In the film, Thanos is rendered in arguably unprecedented photoreal CGI with excruciating detail; elaborate muscle systems and physics simulations combined with ultra-high resolution modelling and texturing, and motion capture performance of Josh Brolin create the ultra-realistic antagonist. Absurd attention to detail furthers the illusion, with visual effects teams even including stubble that grows on Thanos’ head as the film progresses.  Hopkins argues that ‘For the viewer to successfully… leave the real world and enter, if only partially, the imaginary cinematic place, the spectacle on screen must resemble at least vaguely the spectacle of everyday life’ (1994). In creating a spectacular CGI character that this closely resembles reality, the filmmakers maintain the spectacular appearance of Thanos, comparable to the aforementioned spectacle in Transformers, whilst also persuading the audience to accept Thanos in the same way that the unquestioned moments of spectacle or ‘invisible’ visual effects function, serving the same purpose as the described moments in Back to the Future Part II; ultimately balancing the inclusion of spectacle whilst avoiding compromising the narrative of the film.

Even with Infinity War’s immense strive for spectacle to assist in immersing the audience in its narrative, the film still is arguably mostly constructed of spectacle. One could argue that despite the attempts of the filmmakers to make Thanos feel realistic enough to supplement their narrative, fundamentally the entire idea of including Thanos in the film was a decision fixated around spectacle over narrative; it is likely that Thanos was selected to be the film’s antagonist due to the spectacle his on screen presence would generate. Additionally, Infinity War is guilty of the same gratuitous inclusion of spectacular elements purely for the sake of showcasing these elements. In the many large scale battles of the film, in order to ‘raise the stakes’ of the battle, the filmmakers introduce spectacle to wow the audience, as opposed to narratively introducing new obstacles for the characters to overcome. In the case of the battle that takes place on the planet Titan, the stakes of the fight never develop or evolve, but to contrast this continuity the filmmakers employ spectacle to intensify the scene. In a moment of sheer, unadulterated spectacle, Thanos tears a moon from its orbit and sends its debris crashing down upon the Avengers. While the sequence serves as immensely visually stimulating material, the narrative repercussions of this action are near non-existent; the Avengers are almost entirely unphased, with the only reaction to the event being a quip from Iron Man. This entire moment serves as nothing more than spectacle, disrupting the narrative, compromising the immersion and jarring the audience out of the constructed world for a moment to gaze in awe at the event itself comparably to Black Panther’s rhinos and Transformers’ dragon.

Overall then, the conflict between spectacle and narrative continues to affect cinema greatly. Filmmakers are able to use spectacle to supplement their narratives as in the case of invisible effects, made up of spectacular detail. Equally, some filmmakers rely on spectacle to intensify elements of their narrative in place of a more narrative driven solution, ultimately compromising their narrative in favour of spectacle. An analysis and comparison of Black Panther and Infinity War reveals the methods contemporary blockbusters use to incorporate spectacle. Both films at times incorporate spectacular elements to immerse their audiences into the worlds they create, whilst at others halting the immersion and exhibiting pure spectacle as is. Despite emerging as a tactic to draw attention to the medium of film in the age of the cinema of attractions, the inclusion of spectacle is arguably still a necessity for modern cinema, as it forms foundations to create new stories; without elements of the spectacular, driven by technological advancements and visual effects, the ability to tell believable yet fantastic stories with believable yet fantastic settings, as in the case of Black Panther, or believable yet fantastic characters, as in the case of Infinity War, would not exist.

 

Thanks to Barry Langford for his incredible insight and thorough feedback.

 

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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.