For years Black is the new Black was a term that I threw around in online circles, being the proprietor of both blackisthenewblack.com and .net over the years, as well as my seldom used YouTube channel BlackIsTheNewBlackTV – all of which have been defined by the unique dancing moustache GIF I dreamt up in MS Paint late one night. Somewhere along the way (deep into my first year of study) I was able to find a new meaning for the term; using it as a title for a film genre analysis. So without further ado I present – Black is the new Black: An Exploration of the neo-noir genre.
The aim of this piece is to analyse and discuss the progression of the neo-noir genre as it has evolved over the years. This will be achieved by; analysing the conventions of the neo-noir genre, identifying key periods in the genres history, discussing the recognition the genre receives within the inter textual relay and exploring how the genre has evolved since its beginnings. This analysis will be supported by various readings, both academic and non-academic, and will seek to provide insight of the genre as a whole.
When the neo-noir genre emerged it was still very heavily rooted in the classic Hollywood film noir period of the 1940’s and 50’s. Originally defined by stories about cynical detectives and crooked private investigators with questionable motives, the genre was typified by its dense urban settings and use of low-key chiaroscuro lighting (Schwartz 2005). The typical mise-en-scene of a noir film featured abandoned warehouses; back alleyways shrouded in smoke or fog, and shady office buildings. Another commonly seen convention was the use of unbalanced shots, more commonly referred to as ‘Dutch Angles’, which were designed to give the audience a better understanding of what the character was experiencing or thinking (Schwartz 2005).
One of the most iconic characteristics from noir films, which has carried on into the neo-noir genre and beyond, is the use of overlays and frames within frames to create shadows and obscure the subject of the film. This technique is used to maximize the effect of the chiaroscuro lighting and to subconsciously create doubt in the mind of the audience as to the true motives of the character or characters depicted (Miller 2014). An example of this can be seen in the venetian blind effect (Figure I), a commonly used effect of the noir and neo-noir genres, taken from Chinatown (Polanski 1974) one of the most influential films of the neo-noir genre (Schwartz 2005).
Figure I: Venetian blind lighting effect from Polanski’s Chinatown (1974)
As the genre developed its own identity, and the narratives moved beyond the classic detective stories of the great depression, the preconceived notion of what made a noir film changed. Martin (1999) explains that the genre aimed to capture the notion of the American dream gone wrong, depicting characters that felt that they were losing control of what is happening around them, and falling into a society which was unravelling. This can be seen in Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976); the story of a discharged US Marine turned taxi driver with questionable beliefs and extremely violent tendencies. This film is a perfect example of how neo-noir films can be not only stylistically fragmented, but also thematically (Martin 1999), with complex stories, characters and film techniques used to convey an often deep seated emotional and political awareness. While the setting of Taxi Driver still conformed to the traditional urban noir of its predecessors the narrative was much more politically aware than most. While this had been seen in earlier neo-noir titles, such as The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer 1962), through films like Scorsese’s it would go on to become one of the defining themes of the neo-noir genre throughout the cold war period (1962 – 1979) and beyond.
As the cold war ended, and the 1980’s gave the world the personal computer and the synthesiser, the technological revolution was gathering speed. With it the popularity of the science fiction genre was at its peak – aided largely by the releases of Star Wars (Lucas 1977) and Alien (Scott 1979). This popularity would see one of the first, and arguably the most significant, crossovers of the neo-noir genre Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Set in a dystopian future the narrative itself was far from the back alley detective stories of classic noir however the film techniques used were still very much apparent. This can be seen in the low-key long shot of the shadowy urban setting (Figure II) and another take on the venetian blind effect (Figure III).
Figure II: Shadowy street scape, Blade Runner (1982)
Figure III: Venetian blind effect, Blade Runner (1982)
Receiving almost entirely positive reviews and often cited as the best science fiction film of all time (Jha 2004) the success of Blade Runner, coupled with its new take on the neo-noir genre, opened the door for the genre to a whole new audience. While this had a positive flow on effect for future releases it can also be attributed as one of the main reasons that there is now such an ambiguous definition of the genre.
By the beginning of the 90’s the term neo-noir had almost become a tag for films that could not be pigeonholed into any other genre. The rise of the Coen Brothers and their neo-noir inspired dark comedy films – Millers Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991) – saw the common themes of isolation and cynicism moved out of the darkness of the back alley detectives office and into more contemporary settings. The Coen Brothers replaced the isolation of the dead of night with the isolation of winter snow and deep woods. (Miller 2014) This new take on the genre featured heavily in Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) and subsequent follow up Pulp Fiction (1994). In the spirit of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver the characters in both these films were overtly violent and had their own values and beliefs that they lived by which, since highlighted in Taxi Driver, had become a prominent feature of the neo-noir genre. In similar fashion to the Coen Brothers Tarantino’s films were at times bright and vibrant, with isolation and despair created with clever filming techniques and complex narratives, juxtaposed with dark characters (Figure IV) fitting of the genre.
Figure IV: Laidback psychopath Vic Vega, Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Tarantino coupled his brilliantly written characters with method actors who could not only give brilliant performances but were also known to audiences within the genre. Both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction starred Harvey Keitel (Taxi Driver) and Steve Buscemi (Millers Crossing, Barton Fink). One of the most common recurring neo-noir conventions used by Tarantino was the use of Dutch Angles (Figure V and VI) and while the Tarantino films that followed would go on to be more artistic and stray from the neo-noir genre there would still elements of his neo-noir roots.
Figure V: Tarantino’s trunk shot, Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Figure VI: An homage to himself, Tarantino’s trunk shot, Pulp Fiction (1994)
With the new millennium came new writers and directors looking to make their mark on the neo-noir genre. At the same time the Hollywood blockbuster had turned its attention to the comic book genre and both Marvel and DC studios were looking to capitalise on the growing market. Bryan Singer (X-Men) and Christopher Nolan (Batman) would go on to produce two of the most successful franchises in modern cinema. While Singer’s X-Men films contained only traces of his neo-noir past (The Usual Suspects 1995) it was Christopher Nolan who would go on to create what many had thought was not possible; a comic book noir fusion in the form of Batman Begins (Ebert 2005). The neo-noir genre was not unknown to Nolan who in 2000 produced Memento, which was met with much critical acclaim (Berardinelli 2001), and it was his desire to tell this kind of dark story that lead him to Warner Brothers in an effort to revive the Batman franchise. The neo-noir elements used by Nolan in Batman Begins (2005) were extremely well utilised, with his depiction of Batman befriending the shadows and using the night not only a salute to the classic noir film of old (Figure VII) but also a much more accurate adaptation of the comic books.
Figure VII: Batman emerges from the mist, Batman Begins (2005)
Similar to Nolan’s work the comic book/neo-noir fusion was also prevalent in Sin City (Miller, Rodriguez and Tarantino 2005), which again paid homage to the classic Hollywood noir period, while simultaneously staying true to its violent neo-noir roots. A traditional noir feature that appeared in this film was the heavy use of character narration – a feature that Nolan himself had also used in the aforementioned Memento (2000). While similar in convention the use of narration varied heavily between the two. While Miller’s Sin City was narrated in a traditional manner, aiding the production as a story telling tool, the narration in Nolan’s Memento gave a very biased account as it was coming directly from the main character. This narration was made even more questionable as the character in question was suffering from amnesia throughout the film.
Throughout this progression there has been constant dialogue within the film community surrounding the validity of neo-noir as a genre. While it can be debated to what extent a film conforms to the conventions of neo-noir it cannot be said that the genre does not exist as a whole. The purpose of defining a genre, however loosely it may be, is to give the audience a preconceived idea of what they will be consuming (Nelmes 2012). While this is a widely recognised theory it does not eliminate individuals from making their own judgement and voicing an opinion within the mediasphere. This discussion is furthered by what (Langford 2006) describes as a, “… postmodern preoccupation with generic hybridity (which) relies on a historically unsupported notion of classical genres as far more rigid and secure…” To put this into perspective the classic noir genre was not recognised until sometime after it was popularised (Naremore 2008). This example shows that while the neo-noir genre has been in existence since at least the 1960’s it may be some time before the discussion is finalised – if at all.
Given this ongoing debate regarding the neo-noir genre it is also not uncommon for the term to be applied to films for showing even the slightest use of its conventions. It is not uncommon for directors, both those who have and have not previously been associated with the genre, to have the label applied to their films within the inter-textual relay – though mostly the label is reserved for directors who have previously been associated with the genre. An example of this can be seen in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 release The Departed. While by no means a neo-noir film the use of its conventions (Figure VIII), as well as the appearance of Jack Nicholson (Chinatown 1974), and Scorsese’s noir history it is not uncommon to see the two mentioned together.
Figure VIII: Jack Nicholson has a back alley meeting, The Departed (2006)
The neo-noir genre has developed over the years from a simple extension of the classical noir period to a self-sustained genre in its own right. While the classification of what makes a film neo-noir may not be concrete there is no denying that the genre exists and it is simply a matter of concluding whether a film is neo-noir or simply borrowing aspects from neo-noir. The conventions used are unique, and while they may have been drawn from other aspects of film, they are now definitive of the genre. From the early works of Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, through to the contemporary works of Christopher Nolan, the genre has progressed a great deal thanks in part to its ability to co-exist with other genres with political motivation and awareness also at the forefront. As long as there is a need for alternative means of storytelling this adaptability and awareness will see that the neo-noir genre will remain a part of the Hollywood film industry for many more years to come.
Martin, R 1999, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: The legacy of film noir in contemporary American cinema, Scarecrow Press, Maryland
Schwartz, R 2005, Neo-noir: The New Film Noir Style from Psycho to Collateral, Scarecrow Press, Maryland
Nelmes, J 2012, Introduction to film studies, 5th edition, Routledge, London
Langford, B 2006, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh
Naremore, J 2008, More Than Night: Film noir in its contexts, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles
Berardinelli, J 2001, Memento, ReelViews.net, viewed January 10th 2016, < http://www.reelviews.net/reelviews/memento>
Jha, A 2004, Scientists vote Blade Runner best sci-fi film of all time, The Guardian, viewed January 10th 2016, <http://www.theguardian.com/science/2004/aug/26/sciencenews.sciencefictionspecial>
Ebert, R 2005, Batman Begins, Rogerebert.com, viewed January 10th 2016, < http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/batman-begins-2005>
Miller, DG 2014, The Elements of Neo-noir, Geekcentricity, viewed January 10th 2016, < http://geekcentricity.com/the-elements-of-neo-noir/>
The Manchurian Candidate 1962, film, United Artists, United States, Directed by John Frankenheimer
Chinatown 1974, film, Paramount Pictures, United States, Directed by Roman Polanski
Taxi Driver 1976, film, Columbia Pictures, United States, Directed by Martin Scorsese
Star Wars 1977, film, 20th Century Fox, United States, Directed by George Lucas
Alien 1979, film, 20th Century Fox, United States, Directed by Ridley Scott
Blade Runner 1982, film, Warner Brothers, United States, Directed by Ridley Scott
Millers Crossing 1990, film, 20th Century Fox, United States, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Barton Fink 1991, film, 20th Century Fox, United States, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Reservoir Dogs 1992, Miramax Films, United States, Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Pulp Fiction 1994, Miramax Films, United States, Directed by Quentin Tarantino
The Usual Suspects 1995, Spelling Films International, United States, Directed by Bryan Singer
Memento 2000, Newmarket, United States, Directed by Christopher Nolan
Batman Begins 2005, Warner Brothers Pictures, United States, Directed by Christopher Nolan
Sin City 2005, Miramax Films, United States, Directed by Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
The Departed 2006, Warner Brothers, United States, Directed by Martin Scorsese
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, n.d., image, movpins.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://www.movpins.com/big/MV5BMjEzMTQ1NzA5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTI2MDUyNw/still-of-jack-nicholson-in-chinatown-(1974)-large-picture.jpg>
Roy Arrives (Bladerunner Screenshot), n.d., image, wordpress.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <https://filmgrab.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/34-roy-arrives1.png>
Bladerunner Screenshot, n.d., image, alfamovie.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://www.alfamovie.com/wp-content/uploads/v_p_images/1982/06/64_58_screenshot.jpg>
Vic Vega with milkshake, n.d., image, wordpress.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <https://screensense.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/reservoirdogs.jpg>
Reservoir Dogs Screenshot, n.d., image, blogspot.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-rqjBCqs8xR0/T3dOIKFXRFI/AAAAAAAABD4/cI08_bNoMeU/s1600/Reservoir+dogs.png>
Pulp Fiction Screenshot, n.d., image, pinimg.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/73/98/83/73988360fe7605aabc2c1090b4445942.jpg>
Batman in the shadows, n.d., image, bluray.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://images3.static-bluray.com/reviews/471_1.jpg>
The Departed Screenshot, n.d., image, moviecomix.com, viewed January 10th 2016 <http://moviecomix.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/The-Departed-2006-Dual-Audio-Hindi-Eng-1080p-BluRay-2.4GB-moviecomix.com3_.png>