Noir meets reality

Laurie dix

Sin City – Frank Miller (Laurie Dix)

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Sin City is a comic I had previously overlooked, although perhaps foolishly.

Created by Frank Miller in 1991, Sin City was a series of 6 stories (spread across several comics), which all mimicked and exaggerated the ‘Noir’ style. Most of the illustrations appear as white on black, often highly textured and detailed, which is something I find intriguing.

Not only is the visual style an enhanced representation of how Frank Miller perceives ‘Noir’, the six stories overlap, having certain crossover points.

Unwittingly, I think that what we have ended up creating with Johnny Noir, is a not-so-stylish Sin City; The story crossovers, the style, the fact that in 2005 it was made as a film which sparked off more interest in the comics, so there were now comics and a film existing alongside one another… We’ve basically ripped it off without meaning to. Although our story is incredibly different, I am now looking at Frank Miller’s products and thinking ‘There is no way we will not be directly compared to this’. All I can hope is that the comparisons are good.

I like Frank Miller’s layouts, often using up entire spreads with one image which contains several fluid panels, so there are no spaces between the panels, but several images on one page.

I especially like the graphic style, using white on black rather than black on white, the heavy use of texture and the contrast. I think this is a direction I would definitely like to go with the comics, inviting more comparisons, but with the understanding that we all draw inspiration from somewhere.


Notes on: Road to Perdition (Laurie Dix)

Road To Perdition is, again, not a movie I would count as a noir, but it sits somewhere between classic ‘Gangster’ film and noir, due a combination of elements.

Whereas I would consider some of the more famous films to be considered true ‘Gangster’ films (Goodfelllas, Casino, The Godfather, etc.) I would not say that the ‘Gangster’ film is a genre in and of itself. It is a subject matter, a storyline, a plot point or a background rather than the basis for a genre. In the same respect, ‘Noir’ is not a genre. It is an atmosphere, or a style, the feel the film gives. Thus, in this respect, many films could be one and/or the other without being considered to belong to either one genre.

Road to Perdition is one of these films that does not quite fit in on either the ‘Noir’ nor the ‘Gangster’ venn diagram. It does, however, have a lot of the key elements which are associated with noir, and for these purposes, I am counting it as ‘Neo-Noir’, albeit one of the more ‘gentle’ examples (I say gentle, but I guess I mean ‘Not ultra-violent or packed full of swearing and drugs abuse’, like so many other gangster films.)

Mike Sullivan works for John Rooney, some sort of crime lord associated with bootlegging alcohol. After his son, Michael Sullivan Jr. witnesses a murder carried out by his father and Connor Rooney (son of John Rooney), things become more complicated and both Michael Sullivan and Michael Sullivan Jr. are chased across America, with a trail of bodies catching up to them as the Rooneys and other gangsters try to bump them off.

Now, as I mentioned before, this does not really fall into what I would call the camp of ‘Gangster Movies’, but there is the Gangster element there. In the same vein, it is not a noir, but it has some of the tropes.

Tropes of Noir

  • The Protagonist
    The ‘Maverick’. Whereas he stands mostly for justice and doing the right thing as far as he is concerned, his morals can be questionable and often he has to fight his own personal demons throughout the film.
    Whereas Michael Sullivan is working as a gangster, and he has killed in the past and is still willing to, he acts mostly honestly. Even when he robs banks, it is in order to injure the gangsters, not the banks or the civilians, and he even allows the tellers to keep a little bit of the money in order to make the trauma worth their while. The protagonist fits to a lot of classic ‘Noir’ stereotypes in terms of his motivation and moral ambiguity.
  • The Antagonist – (The Police Chief/ The Mob Boss/ The Husband)
    One of the less common tropes, but a trope nonetheless, it the use of the antagonist. Usually it falls into one of three categories, and in this instance, takes the form of the mob boss. The protagonist and the Mob Boss will usually be wary of one another, knowing that either would kill the other for the right price, but they can be useful to each other as well. There is almost always a double cross, and in this film, there are a few. Double crosses and power plays, people trying to sell each other out to the highest bidder and trying to rid themselves of a potential trouble by killing them, these all belong, though not exclusively, to noir.
  • A Body
    In Road To Perdition, whereas the body count isn’t especially high, there are bodies, and they are important. What kicks off the whole story is a funeral being held by the Boss for one of the underlings, and through this it sets off a chain reaction which causes more bodies to follow. In almost every Noir, there is a body at some point.
  • The Situation
    This is an unconventional one, but one I believe still suits. Normally, the protagonist would be a loner, often an alcoholic, he would have no one to turn to which is why he acts in the way that he does, not considering other people and being able to act with ambivalence when it comes to other characters. In this film, Michael Sullivan does have people, until they’re killed and he is left with his eldest son. Although not really being left on his own, he and his son are stranded with only each other, and once his wife and youngest son are dead, the situation changes dramatically, acting as a catalyst for the ‘Noir’ situation.
  • The World
    Noir films tend to be based in the 1920’s and 1940’s, even spanning as far as the early 50’s although rarely. Road to Perdition is set in 1931, which is just about in the middle of when Noir began to be popular, so the world is right. Prohibition is still in effect, and so bootlegging is still a viable way for people to make money, and America is in the throes of the depression and recovering from the Wall Street crash a couple of years previous. The timing could hardly be more perfect in terms of when to set a film which could be linked to Noir. It seems almost impossible to set a film in this time period without including some of the tropes of noir.
  • The Context
    See above for a lot of the context given, in terms of the depression post WWI. But also it is worth noting that the amount of immigrants to America rose massively during this time, although there had already been a surge of Irish and Italian immigrants in the mid 1800’s and the late 1800’s to early 1900’s respectively, so it does not seem that unfeasible that our story should follow a family of Irish Americans who work for an organised crime ring run by Irish Americans and who have ties to the Italian American organised crime circuits. Considering the timing of it all, it seems to make quite a lot of sense.

And so, even though Road to Perdition is not a true noir, it does not have the look nor the script of a ‘Traditional’ or ‘Classic’ noir, it does have a lot of the same characteristics, and simply being set in the 1930’s seems to basically cement its place in the world of noir. Although it is always difficult to put a film to a certain genre, I think it is not unfair to class this film amongst the Neo-Noir, perhaps among films such as The Untouchables; not really gangster films, but that should be considered alongside them all the same.

It is important to see what has become of this genre, and how it has changed over the years and evolved along with cinema.

It is also worth watching this film simply for the cinematography, which is by Conrad L. Hall, who worked closely with Sam Mendes on many of his films, and who was a sterling Director of Photography, which is what a lot of the ‘Noir Style’ comes down to.


Notes On: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (Laurie Dix)

‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ is a story by Brett Halliday, adapted for screen and directed by Shane Black.

It is obvious that there are noir influences at work here, and there are several throwbacks to films from the 1940’s. Although rather tongue in cheek, this is a very cleverly written and well thought out film which mirrors some of the classic tropes of noir excellently, whilst maintaining and a modern and humorous twist.

The story follows Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.) as he turns from a life of crime and burglary, through the accidental death of his friend, to a life of high society as he inadvertently becomes an actor and embroiled in a murder case which gets way out of hand. With the help of his agent; ‘Gay’ Perry, and his high school sweetheart; Harmony Lane, Harry’s ‘Acting Lessons’ in how to be a detective quickly become uncovering a real murder investigation.

Why does ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’ come under my list of ‘Noir Inspired films’? Again, to the list of tropes:

  • Detective stories (hardboiled), again, are at the heart of the the Noir genre, and this films is a murder mystery, which is basically the same thing.
  • There is an internal monologue throughout, explaining though processes and ideas happening in real time and in retrospect, a ‘Philip Marlowe’ trope.
  • The Protagonist is, in fact, a “Misunderstood” criminal, who we see trying to steal toys for his nephew at the top of the film. He is also a ‘detective’ (or at least, working with a detective and so working as a detective) which is one of the more common careers for Noir protagonists.
  • Although there aren’t ‘Gangsters’ as such, there are people in power with powerful friends, people who want Harry dead for various reasons, who are, for all intents and purposes, Hired Guns, which to my mind, often equates to ‘gangsters’ (provided your definition of ‘Gangster’ is not ‘Cosa Nostra’ or the like).
  • There are several suspects, which are all deployed at various times in order to lead us down various routes of suspecting who the culprits may be, and their motives.
  • There is a body, in fact there are a few (the body count rises as the film progresses, but there is a body which acts as a catalyst for this whole affair).

Although the film is very tongue-in-cheek and ridiculous, it is a well told, fun story, and holds many references to film noir. Whereas the film may not be a noir itself, it does reference a lot of the more common tropes of noir, and therefore counts, in my eyes, as a consequence of noir, and so has earned the right to have comparisons drawn.


Why Batman is Noir (Laurie Dix)

Batman comics have undergone many, many different styles and stories, from the original 1940’s comic strips, to the 1970’s ‘Adam West’ TV series, a number of darker graphic novels (Frank Miller’s ‘Year One’, Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke’, etc.) a number of Animated series, computer games and films.

The basic elements always apply: Batman is the superhero guise of orphaned multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne, who supports James Gordon in the Gotham City Police Department and whose enemies include a number of colourful characters including the Joker, the Penguin, Poison Ivy and Catwoman amongst several others.

How ‘Batman’ can be considered ‘Noir’:
(see reference: Raymond Durgnat’s ‘Paint it Black’ for the list of ‘Tropes’ I will be comparing to)

  • Being created in the 1940’s by Bob Kane, this was around the same time that the ‘Noir’ style really became identified. As mentioned in earlier blog posts (Notes on Film Noir and Film Noir Tropes) America was undergoing the depression, and so the mood of the films and stories at the time often reflected this, being downbeat and focusing on ‘Real Characters’, and occasionally needed some hope. This is what Batman represented: hope in a world where there was none.
  • Noir stories are often associated with Detective Fiction or ‘Hardboiled’ fiction, which is precisely what Batman is. Batman is often referred to as ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’, and there is often call for ‘Captions’ in comics, which have a tendency to relay as internal monologue, something Noir is famous for (see Raymond Chandler and his character Philip Marlowe).
  • Noir tends to take place in dark alleyways, places where there is little light but a lot of shadow, which adds to the overall aesthetic. Gotham City is a world where every street is a place with the potential to be a crime scene. Indeed, the Bat Signal only works in a world where the sky is always cloudy, and the world is always dark. Gotham City represents a world where everything is enshrouded in darkness all the time.
  • The protagonist is a maverick, who goes by his own rules. Although he does everything in the spirit of upholding the law, he is not afraid to break the rules in order to maintain justice.
  • The Femme Fatale: This could be a number of people, although most commonly Batman is paired with Selena Kyle (Catwoman) who is a thief. Although not a true femme fatale, the relationship between Batman and Catwoman is a complicated one which could be compared to some of the relationships between the lead Male and Female in several of the Noir films.
  • Gangsters are among some of Gotham City’s villains, mostly the Falcone family and the Maroni family. One of the common themes of Noir stories is the Gangster element.
  • ‘Portraits and Doubles’/The Figure in the Mist; a common theme in Noir, which revolves around dopplegangers and switches. In the Batman universe, there are a few villains whose stories mirror that of Bruce Wayne’s (rich family, orphaned, inherited millions) but that stray where Bruce chose a life of justice and truth, they perhaps followed a different path. The character ‘Hush’ has a story which revolves around him trying to give himself Bruce Wayne’s face in order to make it appear as if Bruce was committing certain crimes, allowing him to walk away free.
  • Sexual Pathology: the relationships between many characters could be drawn against this trope: Joker and Harley Quinn have a variation on The Florence Nightingale effect, wherein Dr. Harleen Quinzel was mesmerised by her patient, The Joker, to the extent that she freed him from Arkham Asylum and became his sidekick. Batman and Catwoman, as mentioned before, have an interesting relationship which could fit here, and it may also be noted that Catwoman’s primary weapon is a whip, which may relate to the idea of the exploration of Sadism in Noir. In terms of homosexuality there have been many theories about the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson (Batman and the original Robin). All of these themes link back to Noir.
  • Psychopaths: See every Batman villain, and even Batman himself.

In short, every trope identified with Noir can be read in the Batman series, and although it will change depending one whose version you are reading, there can be a number of comparisons drawn.

Although Marvel did their own series of ‘Noir’ comics, taking characters who already existed and turning their stories into the ‘Noir’ style, I believe Batman to be, at heart, a noir, and whereas it is occasionally masked, all the elements are there, and it has been obvious to several artists, writers and directors that this is at the heart of Batman.


The Random Adventures of Brandon – Edgar Wright & Tommy Lee Edwards (Laurie Dix)

The Random Adventures of Brandon is a project set up by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Spaced) for Microsoft which brings comics into the era of Web 2.0.

The premise is simple:

Brandon is a writer with a coffee addiction and dreams. After struggling with writers’ block, he drinks too much coffee and eventually falls asleep, having insane and unsettling dreams, and upon waking finds that a story has written itself.

Edgar Wright wrote the set up, and is now asking the people of the internet to continue telling the story. With a team of animators and web-techs, he picks and chooses ideas proffered by the internet, and weaves them together to create a story which, in essence, is writing itself.

It’s an incredibly ambitious project, and one I like the idea of a lot. Crowd sourcing can be potentially hazardous, but when you have the potential combined minds of everyone in the world, the stories that could be told could be amazing.

The idea for crowd sourcing stories has been around for ages (I recently re-visited some of my old ‘Directors works’ DVD’s and watched a short documentary about how Spike Jonze was trying to get members of the public to write their own Oasis video) but only now, with the rise of the internet and the capabilities now offered, crowd sourcing ideas is entirely feasible. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the internet, as well as having the potential to tap the minds of some of the most creative people in the world, there is also the risk of having to deal with a barrage of hate and, honestly, some really bad ideas.

I thought that this idea for a comic was something innovative and exciting, and whereas I would never want to experiment with something like this for myself (I don’t like relenting that much control over my stories, at the moment. My stories are my own, and even now I have people offering ideas to me which are dreadful, and I just have to try and respond politely and pretend I’ll take the idea into account), but I thought it was incredibly relevant to us, especially when we were considering adding voiceover to our comics.

Comics for the next generation.


Notes On: De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté (Laurie Dix)

De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) is not really a noir, although it is a good film and there can be certain comparisons drawn.

Tom earns his money through nefarious deeds. Since the death of his mother, Tom has never quite gotten to grips with the death, and does not appreciate his father looking for love.
Tom finds respite in playing the piano, something his mother encouraged him to do, and now has a choice between the life of crime or a new life of music.

The plot unlike anything I have ever heard of before, and after the first time I watched it I was sure if I’d missed something important, because I couldn’t believe that’s all there was to it. I first watched it with my brother, and his understanding of it was: “I am a French gangster, but I just really want to play the piano.” which is basically what I understood as well.
There is more to it, involved in the relationships Tom has with various people; his colleagues, his father, his piano teacher, but all this just emphasises his choice between Piano and Piano-wire.

As I mentioned at the top of this blog, this is not really a noir, but there are certain elements which can be compared to noir.

I think a lot of it is to do with the fact that it’s French, and some French directors do Style very well (I was also going to mention ‘Three Colours Blue’, ‘Le Triplette du Belleville’ and ‘Delicatessen’ in terms of stylistic influences when it comes to my own writing and my understanding of ‘Modern noir’) there is the gangster element, but not so much as to be able to call it a Gangster movie, and there are his relationships with women.

The lighting is incredibly important throughout this film, but most important is the music. You would expect a film about a piano-playing-gangster to have a good soundtrack, and it does. One which highlights the moment and emphasises the story; a mix between electro and classical music, the score is of utmost importance in guiding the story and creating tension and emotion.

In noir films, the score follows a theme throughout which is adapted to suit the moment. In more recent films, this happens less and less, focusing instead more on individual tracks throughout, rather than following one theme. In ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’, there are a few themes, but the essence of the theme is still there: the music following a certain expression.

Again, certain noir tropes can be identified:

  • A ‘Maverick, Rule-breaking’ protagonist (who smokes)
  • A female, forbidden love interest
  • Gangsters
  • A body
  • The ‘Situation’ (the protagonist being ‘A loner’)
  • More gangsters

In conclusion, ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’ is not a ‘Noir’, but certain elements are there. I think a lot of this is due to European influences; obvious in European cinema, but these came to be in American cinema due to people fleeing their native countries during WWII, and working in American cinema. If you trace back these influences, there are still flavours of this style in European cinema today; merely a different branch of the same family tree.


Notes on: Brick (Laurie Dix)

Brick is about the closest thing you will get to a modern noir, and one of my favourite films.

It takes what we recognise as tropes of noir, and makes it relevant and modern.

The story follows Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he investigates a cryptic message left for him by his ex-girlfriend Laura.
After following a few clues, it does not take Brendan long to be absorbed into a dark criminal underworld, where he comes face to face with some rather unsavoury characters.

Brick uses the traditional slow cross fades in between locations, and relies heavily on lighting and colour to express mood and atmosphere. The differences between Brick and the traditional Noir are slim, but important. Traditional noir, being made in the 40’s, adhered to the rules set out by cinema at the time. Nowadays, the rules have changed in terms of how to make a film, and so, to prevent the film from seeming to be ‘badly made’ or ‘old hat’, Brick combines some modern elements of filmmaking with some elements of 40’s cinema.

(N.B. There can be some argument that ‘Brick’ does not count as a Noir, but more similar to ‘Hard-Boiled’, but the line is so fine it counts as a noir for all intents and purposes.)

“Traditional Noir Tropes”

  • Slow cross dissolves between locations
  • A ‘Femme Fatale’ character
  • Emphasis on lighting (rather than the cinematographer using light as their main medium, the emphasis is on shadow).
  • A mystery
  • The ‘Antagonist’ being a ‘Mobster’ (who earned his power due to controlling contraband, traditionally this would have been alcohol, in this modern equivalent, it is drugs)
  • Suspects
  • A body
  • The ‘Jazz’ influence
  • An unrealistic and overly stylistic script
    (One of my favourite lines is;
    Brendan is on the verge of being attacked by some stoners. After punching one of them in the face, another begins to approach, he turns to him and says:
    “Throw one at me if you want, hash-head. I still have all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.”)

Modern Elements

  • Young cast
  • Modern editing/Quick edits
  • Drugs influence
  • The American High School back drop
  • Modern cinematography (in terms of angles)
  • A lot of elements have been modernised simply due to the access to more modern equipment. In order to analyse exactly how else is ‘modernises’ aspects of film, one would have to examine how cinema has evolved over the past seventy years, which is a subject too big for this blog post.

Brick is a wonderful film, stylistic and cool, and does the ‘Noir’ genre a lot better than I could ever hope to do. It also has the benefit of being nearly two hours long, over which time you can built an intriguing story. It cannot be done quite as well over ten minutes, and in my opinion, ‘Noir’ stories need time to draw you in. They are a slow process, and one that cannot be accurately represented in a short time.