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Shades of Noir (Haymarket) Paperback – November 17, 1993
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From Library Journal
The essays in this volume examine the widely studied and discussed genre from a variety of perspectives, not always agreeing on exactly what constitutes film noir or which movies exemplify its elements. Beyond such acknowledged classics as Double Indemnity (1944), one contributor sees noir elements in recent black-oriented films such as A Rage in Harlem (1991), while another attempts to explain the noir significance of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The more interesting selections here include an essay on female characters and one on the making of Fritz Lang's The Blue Gardenia (1953). Other pieces, notably the introduction and essay by Copjec, become bogged down in virtually impenetrable academese and are too nitpicky to interest most readers. Not really suitable as an introduction to the genre, this is worth considering as a secondary source for larger collections.
- David C. Tucker, DeKalb Cty. P.L., Decatur, Ga.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Joan Copjec is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Culture at the State University of New York, Buffalo.
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Anyone who has taken a college film course will recognize the heavily Laconian and Marxist themes that run through this collection of essays as typical of film theory. You can either stomach it or you can't. The socio-economic and structuralist theorizing places these essays more in the realm of "cultural studies" than film history. The essays are extremely dense, as the intended audience is fellow academics, not the casual film noir fan. Nevertheless, they contain some interesting insights and new perspectives that are not entirely fantastical if the reader is willing to wade through it. I have to say, though, that this volume unconsciously elucidates the problem of defining film noir. Film noir has never been difficult to define. It has simply always been advantageous for academics not to define it -or to define it in whatever way suits their projects of the moment. So I guess they have left the job to us amateurs, who will make quick work of it. ;-)
The essays are as follows:
(1) "Film Noir on the Edge of Doom" by Marc Vernet. Vernet speculates about the motives of French theorists who "invented" film noir, as he denies that the film noir movement or style ever existed. This is the essay that Alain Silver fired a torrent of criticism at Vernet for in the introduction to his book "Film Noir Reader". Vernet displays an remarkable ignorance of cinematography, hard-boiled crime fiction, American film criticism, and cinema before 1940. (2) "The Synaptic Chandler" by Fredric Jameson. Analysis of the "peculiar nature of Chandler's plot construction", i.e. illogic, the "radio aesthetic" of film noir, and a Heideggerian perspective on the noir world.
(3) "Strange Pursuit: Cornell Woolrich and the Abandoned City of the Forties" by David Reid and Jane L. Walker. Primarily discusses how Woolrich's depression-era sensibility was particularly suitable to film noir and why it found an audience in the post-War 1940s. Very worthwhile for debunking the persistent claims that audiences were drawn to film noir due to "post-war depression" or disillusionment and that the femme fatale was the result of threats to masculine culture posed by women in the workplace. Compares hard-boiled fiction to the crime and adventure novels of the 1830s-1840s.
(4) "The Mystery of The Blue Gardenia" by Janet Bergstrom. Presents the production history of Fritz Lang's film, analysis, and comparison to Vera Caspary's story. I never thought "The Blue Gardenia" had much substance or that it was film noir. I still don't, but the particulars of its adaptation to film are interesting. (5) "Film Noir and Women" by Elizabeth Cowie. Attempt to "change the characterization of film noir as always a masculine film form". The roles of "duplicitous women", female protagonists, and victims. Analysis of several films, in particular Fritz Lang's "Secret Beyond the Door".
(6) "The Phenomenal Nonphenomenal: Private Space in Film Noir" by Joan Copjec. Starts with observation that the origin of detective fiction coincides with mid-19th century "passion for counting". The role of reason in film noir, particularly as exemplified in voice-over narration. Focus on "Double Indemnity". (7) "The Thing That Thinks: The Kantian Background of the Noir Subject" by Slavoj Zizek. Compares classic film noir to films of the 1980s that combine noir with other genres. Focus on "radical undermining of self-identity" in 1987's "Angel Heart" and 1982's "Blade Runner".
(8) "Home Fires Burning" by Fred Pfeil. The "domestication of film noir" in the neo-noir of the 1980s, focusing on the small-town domestic space of the art house "Blue Velvet" and the cyborg-as-father in the blockbuster "Terminator 2". Attributes this emphasis on nuclear family to "Reaganism". (9) "Noir by Noirs: Toward a New Realism in Black Cinema" by Manthia Diawara. Race and class in black film noir, focusing on "A Rage in Harlem". (10) "Democracy's Turn: On Homeless Noir" by Dan MacCannell. Diatribe on film noir's alleged "confrontation between capitalism and democracy". The disappearances of the "actual spaces" of film noir as seedy neighborhoods were gentrified.