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Neo-Noir Revisions: A New Film for a New Time

November 24, 2011

As time marches on, moments, some more important than others, happen that change the course of history.  Technological advances, the civil right movement, and the women’s suffrage movement are just some of the changes that have passed by and affected the way people of today think and act.  Classical noir, and even most neo-noir films, held the ideals of the past.  Despite the changes and modernizations in the films, the characters, essentially white males, held similar standards and portrayed the usually archetype.  The directors wanted to play with the genre and experiment with modernizing it, but they were wary of any fundamental changes in the characters or notions of the film.  This newer age, though, are filled with people whose lives have been changed by the courses of history and who want to bring their own experiences and understanding to a genre they love but have, for many reasons, been unable to completely identify with.  Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel, and Bill Duke’s Deep Cover all represent this concept of a revised neo-noir film.


In “Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style,” Silver and Ward argue that Film Noir is a “mode or style of filmmaking which pervades all genres” and many revised neo-noir classified films explore this genre-hybrid idea (Ursini 223).  Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a perfect example of a film that, in most instances, seamlessly fuses genres to create a story that is unique to either.  The film combines elements and ideas, both visually and conceptually, from film noir and science fictions to create a story that questions the idea of true humanity, a concept that speaks to both genres.

In many ways, this question is very clearly a science fiction notion.  The introduction of androids, replicants in the film, is what initially introduces the question of humanity in a nonhuman, and is a question seen in many science fictions films, such as A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, I, Robot, or even, in an example not involving robotics, The Planet of the Apes.  These films, Blade Runner included, all use a science fiction setting and plot to speak metaphorically on the issue of humanity in a changing world and, often, how people view and treat each other.  Film Noir has classically, albeit in a less fantastic manner, explored very similar issues on the nature of humanity and what people do, based on their more immoral urges, to get by.  Blade Runner recognizes these similarities and how the genres can work together to create a fantastic hybrid that reinforces the issues in a way the appeals to a more general audience, and, as such, uses many commonly noir motifs and styles in this otherwise sci-fi picture.

The film, for instance, itself introduces a very noir protagonist in the form of Rick Deckard.  While Deckard is not attached to a cigarette at all times like many of his predecessors, he, in many ways, proves to be a futuristic portrayal of the common noir anti-hero.  He never has a true, restful sleep, drinks at all times for all situations, is basically a retired cop, and is morally ambiguous at best.  He is, technicalities aside, a killer for hire and, even when he perceives himself to be in the wrong, continues his actions due to fear rather than sticking to his weak morals.  In the beginning of the film, the head cop introduces the main conflict of the film to Deckard and gives him a choice that is more like a threat.  Though he initially wanted to remain retired, Deckard easily folds, narrating that he would rather be a killer than the prey.  Further on, the audience is shown his ambiguous moral standards in the way he deals with Rachael, the replicant who thinks she is human.  He forces the knowledge of her own inhuman nature on to her and then, in a later scene, has a sexual moment with her that could easily be interpreted as rape.  He is quick to shoot at his targets and is portrayed as reckless and ruthless, shooting the unarmed replicant Zhora in the back as she flees.  He is a man that plays by his own rules even when being crushed by the system, and his rules are not always the best.  Throughout the course of the film, though, he does gradually become more human in nature, but never loses the noir edge that leads to angry rebellion in the face of death, spitting at his would-be killer, that ultimately saves his life.

Beyond the noir protagonist, though, Blade Runner continues many of the classical stylistic and narrative motifs that helps define noir.  Deckard may be an anti-hero and a rogue cop, for instance, but the rest of the force is shown to the worst sort of corrupt cops.  The superior cop Bryant threatens Deckard back into the position, orders the entire operation to remain secret to protect his reputations, and calls replicants skin-jobs, which Deckard likens to calling African-Americans by a racial slur.  The film also makes it a point to show the problems with society, creating a dystopia where only the “unwanteds,” the cripples, the sick, and the minorities, are forced to remain on the overpopulated and scummy earth.  The one with the most power and the most money, Tyrell, is shown to be the most corrupt at all as he creates an entire race of creatures set for death and toys with them just for his own personal wealth.  The film follows classic noir aesthetics as well, with a dirty, perpetually rainy city for Deckard to explore and, through constant smoke, cleverly used lighting, and even venetian blinds, evokes the typical noir setting.  The film has all the measures, through style and narrative, of the classical noir, but manages to smoothly integrate it with science fiction staples in a way that, although not a box office success, creates a film that is looked to as an example to live up to.

Blue Steel, from Kathryn Bigelow, followed the idea of looking at noir from a new direction, only this time it was from the often ignored female perspective.  As feminist ideals grew in America, the female characters in film and television also grew to become the protagonists and central characters.  Up to this point, females generally had two rules in noirs.  They were either the strong-willed femme fatale character who pulled the male protagonist into danger and deceit or the bland, moral character who was often ignored and undermined for the film’s eventual resolution.  Blue Steel takes the common gender rules in noir films and inverts them, presenting a female protagonist for one of the first times.  The film is still presented with all the common characteristics of a traditional noir film, and, despite common thought about gender, those characteristics work just as well with the female protagonist.

Like her male counterparts, Megan Turner is a character that is shown to be intrinsically different and separated from the characters around her.   Her parents, although it is notable that she is shown to have them, are distant and troublesome in nature, with a mother is the victim in her own relationship and a father who despises her for what she chooses to be.  Her best friend, Tracy, is someone she is close to, but Tracy’s relationship and then death separates her from Megan.  Her peers and fellow officers, though, are the largest impact on her, as she remains ostracized from them largely because of her gender.  Her fellow cops laugh at the notion of a female officer, question her motives, and hold her to a higher standard and disbelieving her quality of work in a way they might not have for a male officer.  She drinks and smokes and is not nearly as smart as she thinks she is, not learning from her exam to keep her eyes open at all times.  Though a lot of this can be excuses as she is a rookie cop, just graduated from the academy, she continues to disobey orders and work outside of the system, even when it is damaging to her and those around her.  She is not a perfect heroine, breaking rules and making mistakes, but she works well as a noir anti-hero, especially near the end when she has lost complete faith in the system and goes out on her own to find her doppelganger of sorts, the sociopathic Eugene.

Eugene is a vital piece to the film, sociopathic or otherwise, because he represents a traditional role that could have very easily been lost in a female-centered revision.  He is a homme fatale, the male version of the femme fatale, and another example of standard gender norms inverted.  Like the femme fatale, he is character that is, for many reasons, attractive at first to the protagonist and lures her into much of the plot.  Eugene is handsome and sophisticated.  He makes plenty of money, brings her to a fancy restaurant where they drink champagne, brings her on a helicopter ride over the city, and even has the decency to decline to “come upstairs” after the first date.  While a femme fatale represents the male fantasy, sexual and dangerous, the homme fatale displays the charm and chivalry more commonly thought to be the female fantasy.  Eugene, though, also provides the basis for the mystery of the plot, though the film reveals this to the audience early on.  Eugene steals the gun at the initial crime scene, putting Megan’s competency into question and making her a suspended cop, and then perpetrates the murders that bring her back into the game.  He then goes after the people she cares about in an attempt to get to her, who he views as similar to him, pushing her into self-doubt.  It should be noted that, at least in this film, while the homme fatale figure exists and is an initial love interest, Megan also has a love interest in Detective Nick Mann, who she initially bumps heads with.  While most noir protagonists end up alone, Blue Steel is rather ambiguous with the ending and how it pertains to her future.

Aside from the inverted gender on the major characters, the film still displays many of the common aesthetics and narrative motifs of noir films.  The audience once again sees cops who, while not totally corrupt, are not wholesome heroes.  The first introduction to Nick Mann, for instance, is a vulgar joke involving a hooker and an ill-timed pothole.  In that same scene, that light from the windows into the dark room paints familiar shadows on the characters.  The film continues to make excellent use of shadows throughout and, once it gets going, is consistent with its night scenes.  A notable moment is when Megan meets Eugene for the first time, in the dark night with a blanket of rain as the shuffle into a cab.  They sit in the dark cab, the back window displaying some light but the rain blurs any feature beyond that, and the camera looks at them through the windshield with the wipers obstructing the view at a fixed pace.  It is an obvious noir shot and helps to prove that the gender inversions in the film, portraying a strong female role for the female audience, does not in any way detract from the noir nature of the film.

Another film that takes noir ideas in a new direction is Bill Duke’s Deep Cover, a film that embodies many of the messages of classic noir films with an African-American protagonist.  This film helps to show, among other things, how well the very nature of noir films work with African-American culture and the many racial issues faced.  Beyond that, this film, and others of its type, helped represent the culture on screen and “illustrated alternative realities for young men of the day” by showing them that they did not have to be the villain or the sidekick in their own story (Covey 60).

Like the other films mentioned, Deep Cover showed that revised genres could still accurately portray a proper noir protagonist.  Going by John Hull, the protagonist of the story is a cop working on the right side of the law but thrust into the dirty underbelly.  He flirts with the darker side of morality throughout much of the film, going from a character who never did drugs or drank alcohol to one who kills and realizes that he “could have killed others and gotten away with it.”  He, in classic noir fashion, presents the audience with his own thoughts and opinions throughout the film via narration, but adds a cultural twist as the narration is spoken with rhythm and rhyme.  John Hull systematically falls deeper in the role he is meant to play for the cops and deeper into his role as the noir protagonists.  He is even given an antagonist that lures him deeper into the plot and further away from his convictions and morals, although, with a twist, it is in the form of homme fatale David Jason rather than a female character.  This could also be seen as cultural in nature, arising from the fact that, like John Hull’s character and the young James, many urban children grow up without a male figure and sometimes turn to darker activities in the search for guidance.

The film also displays many narrative and stylistic features of noir films, though it does continue to provide a few cultural twists.  When John first accepts the assignment, he is shown black and white pictures of his adversaries in a dark room with little light.  The film goes on to show the drinking and smoking noir has come to expect, although the film also showcases a modern and urban touch with the emphasis on the newer drugs.  John’s first kill, and his first real step into his decent against his morals, plays out in a room where he is surrounded by mirrors, a constant in noirs, where he is confronted with himself as he acts.  Immediately afterwards, he rushes out into a downpour of rain, a fixture that appears multiple times in the film.  And, once again, the film shows a corrupt system.  There is, of course, the actual dirty cop working against the system and with the dealers, but the film also shows a system that criticizes as diplomat one minute and prevents his arrest the next.  One of the central issues in the film comes from a government that sends John undercover after the lead drug dealer, but then pulls him out when they decide that they like him now.  Even John’s superior officer, who opens the film by asking the difference “between a black man and a nigger,” is a man who pushes and manipulates, portrays himself as god-like, blackmails John for his testimony, and, when the going gets tough, turns tail and runs.

In a genre that has experimented and reconstructed itself many times over, noir is the perfect setting for revisions.  Noir has a certain flexibility that has permitted more modern approaches with typical ideas in the past, and now allows new ideas that contort and twist the genre but never breaks it.  To some, noir was a strictly classical, down to earth genre, finely tuned for the white, male protagonists that stared in them.  Yet, these films have proven that no matter the race or gender of the protagonist, or when and where these films take place, the themes, narratives, and aesthetic style of noir film are always relevant and workable.  These films may push the boundaries of what it means to be noir film, but they also help the genre grow and develop.  As time marches on, the role of technology, of gender, of race has shifted and changed with the many momentous occurrences that have shaped the nation, and it is only natural that the film industry reflects these changes.


From → Essays, Non-Fiction

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