Monday, December 28, 2015

Noir Grows Darker Every Day

The arrival of the anti-hero such as Frank Chambers, in James M. Cain's novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, into literature in its way legitimized noir fiction, changed the essential nature of the men who were protagonists from the nice guy, clean-living sort into worried, alienated individuals who believed they had a score to settle.

These anti-heroes may at one time have been interested in a more docile, family-oriented type of romantic relationship, but seemed to become involved with women who enhanced the risky lifestyle they were venturing.  

When the time arrived for women characters to carry the load as dramatic lead, they had the ame sense of mistrust, of looking over their shoulder to see if they were being followed.  For all that they were part of the growing evolution in story and the characters who inhabited them, women were far and away the more trapped group, justifiably suspicious, wanting a life where they had more control over their circumstances.

Control often meant for man and woman characters if not an expatriot life in some foreign remove, a life on the run, where there was constant danger of the past catching up with them to exact in a strange irony the same kind of justice they were rebelling against.  

A significant aspect of noir fiction is the spontaneous act or whim, perhaps caused by a breaking point, where they defied, rebelled, possibly even in one way or another took what they believed was owed them.

For the longest time, you pondered this tough guy/tough gal kind of story in such fabled magazines as Black Mask and Dime Detective, taking in the gritty morality plays of Dashiell Hammett, watching his admirers and imitators coping with the man/woman theme, the attempts at getting by in a life they considered a rigged game.

When you look at the results of evolution and the historical replication of the rigged-game life, you see, particularly in short stories, the growing tendency for the lead character to be vulnerable, often in more ways than one, uncertain, notional, apt to act on an improvised plan.

The story often begins at the moment where the impulse is about to acted upon; the he or she of the story has found a way to scratch that immediate, persistent itch at a place difficult or impossible to reach.  The dramatic logic makes sense; we see characters doing things.  There is no description, little if no interior monologue, only action, performed with a fated sense of desperation, which is the thing that intrigues us, pulls us in.

Maybe we will learn some of the backstory later on in the narrative, but even if we do, the backstory has to be filtered through the consequences of the action.  Thus the formulaic arc from the plotted, event-driven story has changed.  You remember a writers' magazine from your youth, the entire back cover devoted to a single observation:  A sympathetic character struggles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal.  Inside the magazine ore five- and six-hundred word exhortations from writers such as William Saroyan, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Day Keene, a writer you truly admired and eventually ended up playing poker with every month.

In the same magazine, there was also an exhortation from Robert Turner, whom you would eventually publish, assuring you the formula worked because it had brought him out from Florida to work in television.  And yes, certainly a note from Frank Gruber, whom you would also publish several times, assuring all who read his paragraphs that the formula was a true paradigm for successful storytelling.

Not anymore.  Neither in commercial fiction or those idiosyncratic veerings and wanderings off the cliff of convention known as literary fiction, which is to say a close examination through the thought and actions of individuals who are living, moving simulacrums of ourselves, writers who spend part of the working day or night in scary, threatening places.  We are in the process made aware of some flaw or notion of our own.

Your fascination these last several years with action and the theories behind acting practices comes from more than one source, but it was a dear and longtime actor friend who, in sharing some of the exercises with you and confessing to her own idiosyncratic nature, made one thing perfectly clear.  The actor does what the person won't do; the actor goes where the madness, fear, suspicion, and uncertainty go.  The actor brings it back, convincingly and honest.

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