Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Noir

Even though French is not your language, you know enough of it to recognize noir when you see it, which is largely at funerals. You can also rationalize logical jumps from noir being black in French to a wave of French film critics calling dark, murky, moody, gloomy films by the appellation noir. If the critics had been Mexican or Spanish, we'd be talking cinema negro.


Little or no wonder that noir would bleed over to extend its coverage to the stories and novels that had their genesis in the late '50s and '60's, gathering momentum in the paperback novels of the time. In particular, Gold Medal Novels carried forth the noir sensitivity, allowing characters who did not fit well into the more traditional dreams of post-war prosperity to nevertheless dream a kind of noir version of the American Dream.

Gold Medal Novels were the extensions of the pulp magazines, particularly such rousing venues as Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Flynn's Detective Stories, where plot meant good guys struggling against the rigged game of privilege and influence. An unfortunate choice of a remantic partner invariably led to pressures that induced extraordinary risk, which in turn was guaranteed to produce consequences. Noir became the inexorable voice of consequences getting out of hand.

Combustion. The center that cannot hold. Things going awry. The Sorcerer's Apprentice with a loaded gun. These conditions and qualities became standards by which a segment of the reading public judged the stories, then stayed with them and were to some extent the same standards they saw in their own life.

Although many of these stories--magazine and paperback originals--spoke to you, they did not entirely satisfy you to the point where you remained faithful and did not stray. They reminded you in their way of a high school girlfriend whom you liked well enough and, appropriately, she liked you, although neither of you knew quite why. Perhaps your fondness for noir was because writers you admired found homes for their works therein; perhaps it was the lure of on-the-job training, perhaps it was an affinity for the voice inherent. Many of your friends who wrote noir were by no means lacking in humor. Maybe it was because, as Donald MacCampbell told you when he was your agent, noir is a kind of joke gone bad. Later, when you, as editor, signed MacCampbell for his Don't Step on It, It Might Be a Writer, he reminded you how noirish it was for a writer to be editing his agent.

No Country for Old Men is certainly noir; it begins with a drug deal gone bad, something only as steady a hand as McCarthy could bring off so convincingly in these recent years. Perhaps the notion of a joke gone bad is your portal into the dark world, and perhaps MacCampbell, were he still among the living, would think it had taken you a long time to get the picture.

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