More recently than I care to admit, I was a video store clerk. I’d like to think I’ve moved on to bigger and better things, but one perk I do miss is all the free movies. Free movies are why I’ve seen a lot more crime/noir films than I’ve read crime/noir books. I’m trying slowly to remedy that imbalance, but right now I’m going to celebrate movies—the steady stream of fantastic crime movies that have been produced in the wake of Pulp Fiction, the film that rather single-handedly revitalized the genre way back in 1994. Some folks call these movies Neo-Noir, as good a term as any, though perhaps a little odd for those of us who know that noir never really went away.
But there is something unique about the best of these Neo-Noir movies, and it comes down to a customer complaint I received one day at the video store where I worked. He was returning Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece Memento—returning it early. Moreover, he wanted his money back. When I asked him if there way something wrong with the tape, he said, “There sure as hell is. It runs backwards. I can’t get it to run the right way.” I wanted to ask him if he’d gotten past the opening credits, which literally do run backwards, or if he’d started watching the movie itself, in which the individual scenes themselves run forward, but the scenes themselves are arranged together in reverse chronological order. But I didn’t want to get into it with him. I just gave him his money back and chalked him up as a philistine.
Anyone watching Memento or Pulp Fiction will immediately recognize the “something unique” that many of the best Neo-Noir films display. It is formal innovation, formal experimentation—the willingness to mess around with the way the story is told. Memento tells its story backwards (with some elements running chronologically forward, clearly delineated from the other elements because they are shot in black-and-white). Pulp Fiction unravels as a series of interconnect short stories: each short story is chronological, but the intersections between the stories are not always chronologically exact. Thus, Vincent Vega can be shot to death in an apartment bathroom and appear later in the movie perfectly alive and well.
Some people can’t handle this kind of “nonsense.” In most movies, even most crime movies, audiences are not asked to think much about how a story is put together. In fact, the old Hollywood line usually runs parallel to what the poet Samuel Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” That is, readers and audiences convince themselves to stop thinking “this is just a movie/book” and start emotionally experiencing the story as if it were real. This is the bread and butter of fiction. If we can’t evoke emotional responses in our readers, we might as well pawn our laptops and cameras.
The problem with movies that are formally innovative—that mess around with the way the story is told—is that they keep the audience aware of their artifice, their fakeness. It’s much harder to let oneself get lost in the alternate reality of The Usual Suspects when one is being confronted with several competing versions of the same story. David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is even more daunting because the way Lynch messes around with narrative is even more convoluted. He rearranges so much in the last third of the film that actors are suddenly playing different characters, dead people are inexplicably resurrected, and the chronology becomes oddly circular, perhaps even incomprehensible.
Even a movie as old as Psycho has its moments; when Marion Crane is hacked to bits in the shower, the audience response is not only “oh, poor Marion, must she be so harshly punished for her sins?” It is also, “hey, Hitch, you can’t kill off the main character twenty minutes into the movie.” We are responding to the emotions that the story itself evokes, but we are also responding to the manner that Hitchcock and Joseph Stephano tell the story. The Psycho example illustrates that form is most noticeable when it is audacious and jarring. When it is conventional, we don’t think about form much at all.
In previous Killer Year posts I’ve tried to articulate some reasons why I love the crime/noir genre—reasons which I hope explain why other people, like those reading these posts, also like the genre. I’ve been on fairly safe ground so far, as one is hard-pressed to find too many people who say they enjoy predictable plots, flat characters, shallow themes, and dull atmosphere. But I’m fully aware that my love for formal innovation is shared by a minority of viewers and readers. Most people can’t stand it. Most people want their money back after watching a few minutes of Memento or Mulholland Drive. They simply can’t stand to see the firm foundations of Story get so destabilized. They complain they can’t get “into” the story emotionally if they have to constantly stay intellectually attuned to its formal components.
I’m not going to try to argue against people’s reactions, as it is terribly difficult to convince anyone that they shouldn’t have the feelings they have. Still, I’ve never bought the idea that the human mind is so simple a machine that we can’t respond in two entirely different ways simultaneously. People complain that formal tinkering—such as the shocking revelation at the end of The Usual Suspects that suddenly questions every apparent truth in the narrative—“pulls them out of the moment.” They might say it’s rather like being suddenly asked by your partner during sex if you paid the electric bill this month. But I wonder: aren’t we clever enough creatures to be able to feel and think in two different directions at the same time? I can be sad for Marion Crane as she slumps down dead in the bathtub and I can simultaneously wonder what Hitchcock thinks he’s up to by killing her off.
In many cases, formal experimentation actually enhances the emotional effect of the story. The Usual Suspects ruminates for two hours on the nature of con men and the lies that they tell, but the viewer doesn’t quite get the gut-punch pain of being conned until the last reel when he discovers that he himself has been lied to. Jules Winnfield’s decision to find redemption in Pulp Fiction is an interesting turn of events, but it is made all the more powerful by the dramatic irony caused by the non-chronological storytelling (kudos to my teacher Dr. Paul Schmidt for this observation). In the diner Vincent Vega chides Jules for his decision to reject his criminal life, but the viewer feels the catharsis of that decision more strongly because we’ve already seen Vega get gunned down for his sins. We’ve seen the fate that Jules escapes. In Austrian director Michael Haneke’s brilliant and deeply disturbing Funny Games, the sick psychological torture that two psychopaths unleash on an innocent family becomes even more unbearable when one of the psychopaths begins implicating the audience, first winking at the camera, then asking us what we’d like him to do to the poor family next.
My vote for this year’s best movie is Rian Johnson’s Brick. It takes all the conventions of a classic hardboiled detective story and sets it in a California high school, so that the sleuth is a teenage boy, the police commissioner is the vice principal, the femme fatale is the art major, etc. Plenty of folks hated this movie because they did not find the dialogue to be authentic to the way modern California teenagers speak. But it’s a conceit—Dashiell Hammett’s dialogue from the mouths of Laguna Beach kids. It’s not supposed to be realistic, and yet some folks simply can’t get emotionally involved in something with so obvious a conceit. Fine, but I still contend that the conceit makes the movie even more emotionally powerful. Never before have the tropes of hardboiled noir been made so emotionally familiar and resonant to me as when they were combined with my own memories of the trauma of being a teenager in love.
Not all formally experimental movies are noir, just as most noir films are not formally experimental. But I’m intrigued by how frequently the very best movies seem to combine the two: Pulp Fiction, Memento, Brick, Funny Games, The Usual Suspects, Mulholland Drive, Closer. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an exception—a genius formal experiment with absolutely no noir elements whatsoever—but otherwise formalism and noir seem like perfect bedfellows. Formal experiments that require us to piece together a story quite obviously mirror the kind of work detectives do when they are piecing together a case, so formal experiments can be said to immerse the viewer into the mindset of the sleuth. Formal experiments are also disturbing, confusing, upsetting, frustrating—all emotional conditions perfectly suited for the dark alleys of crime fiction. What better way to get the viewer to feel the pain of victimization than to victimize the viewer, as in The Usual Suspects and Mulholland Drive?
Some of the prevailing motifs of noir are directly addressed by formal experiments as well. Both Memento and Mulholland Drive contain the familiar noir element of the amnesia victim, and both films use unique form to place the viewer inside of the mindset of an amnesiac. Memento is told in reverse chronology so that we can know as little about Leonard’s true self as he knows about it. Mulholland Drive suddenly changes course and reassigns characters to new roles to approximate the sense of dissociation of the self that comes from amnesia. Like many noir films, The Usual Suspects addresses the subjectivity of truth—and then goes as far as to question its own identity as an objective story. Funny Games explores the age old question of guilt and blame by making the viewer feel guilty and blameworthy even for watching the exploits of two guiltless psychos.
For whatever reason, I have not noticed a preponderance of this kind of formal experimentation in crime/noir books, at least not to the degree that I’ve seen it in films. I’ve noticed it in plenty of mainstream literary fiction, but not so much in the crime genre. This conspicuous absence could be partly related to my limited reading experiences in the genre, but I’ve not even heard about crime books that perform innovative and puzzling experiments with form. So I’ll end with a call to action: either to recommend a great “experimental” crime book that’s already out there, or to explain why there are not quite so many great examples in the literary world as there are in the film world, or to go out and write a great crime book that is also formally innovative so I can read and enjoy it…
Pyres (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
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