Shadows Against Light: the Soul Of Noir

It is no secret: Dieselpunk is such a young genre that many readers don’t even know what it is (surely my Word spellchecker doesn’t). There is a complex explanation to what Dieselpunk is, but today I’ll go for the simpler one. It’s a speculative genre, with very definite aesthetic characteristics inspired by the ‘diesel’ era, which stretches from the late 1910s to the early 1950s and generally includes the two World Wars. A time of shocking change and deep doubts.

Being a –punk genre, Dieselpunk is also subversive. It doesn’t like things as they stand and it rebels against them, sometimes with a fight, sometimes in a subtler way.

At its core, Dieselpunk is a genre of doubts. It rebels against what it sees, but it doubts what it’ll find beyond the rebellion.

This is something Dieselpunk as in common with a predecessors that greatly influences how these stories are recounted and thought. A predecessor coming straight out of the diesel era: film noir.

Coming of age in 1940s/1950s Hollywood, film noir was deeply affected by the two World Wars and the doubts they bred. It’s a kind of storytelling that, although coming from a very specific historical experience, still talks to us today, to our innermost insecurities. Insecurities that were amplified by historic events between the two World Wars on both sides of the Atlantic.

The geography of noir

Germany

It’s impossible to talk about film noir without talking about German Expressionism.

Germany in the 1920s was a place of experimentation and dynamic artistic energy. The Weimar Republic was an experimentation in itself and in its earlier days it raised Germans’ hopes in the future after the terrible experience of WWI. Theatre, visual arts and the newly born art of filmmaking were bursting at that time. The Bauhaus movement treaded new paths in architecture and design, and the kabaret was an extremely popular form of entertainment.

But the bright dream of democracy slowly crumbled under the weight of war debts and difficult international relationships. Artists were the firsts to catch the new wind, they caught the insecurities of a people that aspired to greatness but had a very sandy ground under their feet.

Expressionism had actually been born before WWI, but it was after the war that the movement found its brightest moment. It caught the disappointment of the fail democratic dream and the anxieties about what would come after it. Artists were the firsts to see the dangers of the rising power of the Nazi Party. They grasped fears people weren’t yet elaborating, combined them with the essentiality of the Bauhaus aesthetics and turned that feeling into a visual rendition of people’s deepest emotional and psychological state of being.

Their distorted, irregular shapes sought to bring the human subconscious to the surface, and by using visual effects rather than literary symbols, they sought to sparkle an emotional rather than an intellectual reactions. Where the intellect could be persuaded, emotions could not be quenched.

These artists who gave voice and looks to people’s unspoken fears became very dangerous for the Nazi Party. But they were aware of it and from the early 1930s they left Germany in increasing numbers, heading to France first, then across the ocean, to America.

France

In the 1930s another visual — specifically cinematographic — movement developed in France, which came to be known as French Poetic Realism. It had something in common with Expressionism in how it looked at harsh realities but in a highly stylised way.

Poetic Realisms concerned itself with the life and the daily fights of lower classes in the big cities, lives that were often touched by doubts about the future and sometimes downright despair. But they never showed the darker, grimmer face of it, they rather gave a romantic rendition tinged with melancholy.

Like German Expressionism, French Poetic Realism sought to cause an emotional response, rather than an intellectual one, through a visual medium. German Expressionists understood this language and picked it up as they passed through France on their way to America.

United States

What they found there were two distinct but related forms of entertainment: the gangster film and the hard-boiled detective story. Once again, a language they understood.

First emerged during the Twenties, these stories’ main characters — gangsters on the one hand, detectives on the other — were presented in a romantic way that was often barely realistic. Stories were tinged with pessimism and delusions and where set in a dark, gritty urban environment.

The film industry was flourishing in Germany and many of the newly arrived German artists were trained in the new art of filmmaking. They were directors, actors, screenwriters, stage and light technicians. They had been born into Expressionism and had picked up Poetic Realism. When they landed in Hollywood and found job there, they put down their roots, and bloomed.

But is film noir even a genre?

There is debate about this point: is film noir a genre? It flourished in America between 1940s and 1950s, especially on screen, but its influence goes far beyond that time and that medium. In fact some scholars argue that noir isn’t a genre but rather a mood, a state of heart and mind.

Paul Schrader, in his Note on Film Noir, argues that “a film of urban nightlife is not necessarily a film noir, and a film noir needs not necessarily concern crime and corruption.” Basically, he contends that all film noir (and noir stories in general) have a few characteristics in common, but those characteristics alone are not enough to make up a noir story.

It’s a gut feeling more than a recipes, which is exactly what Dieselpunk has captured, in my opinion.

So what are these characteristics?

Themes

Noir stories tend to have an ambiguous, unsettling voice that very rarely gives any certainties. Their protagonists are never clear-cut characters and they live and move in urban environments where everyone is left to fend for themselves.

Against these feelings of uncertainty the individual can oppose very few personal weapons, a thing they are sharply aware of.

The feeling of imbalance is very strong and works on many levels. The sense of oppression is always on the fringes.

Mood and style

The constant opposition between areas of light and shadow is clearly a visual rendition of that feeling of imbalance and a particularly clear testimony of the influence of German Expressionism. Light and shadows often creates distorted, disquieting shapes and figures that talk about the innermost uncertainty of the soul more than the true appearance of urban life.

These are indeed slightly fantastical stories. They don’t depict life realistically, but they colour it in a darker, unsettling shade that sends a message rather than merely represent any actual reality.

In this sense, it can be said that film noir, like Expressionism, sought to reveal what was invisible by causing an emotional reaction in the viewers. Nothing was ever what it looked like. Emotions went deeper.

Urban modernity

Cities were growing exceptionally fast both in America and Europe and they were changing rhythms and life styles faster than people could ever adjust to.

Already in the Twenties, especially in America, big cities had brought together people from all walks of life and forced them together, regardless of their origin, their culture, their beliefs, their values or their language. Forced one upon the other without any means of mediation, communities had developed distrust toward the other rather then understanding, fear rather than cooperation. The terrible experience of the Great Depression of the Thirties deepened the distance between individuals as everyone tried to survive in any way possible.

Here’s where the sense of isolation and loneliness comes from. Cities became a foreign land were everyone was a potential enemy. In the big crowded cities, people felt lonelier than ever.

Noir gave a look and a story structure to that feeling. Expressionism transformed the feeling into experience.

Conflicted Heroes

Classic American heroes used to be positive. They used to believe that if you are good, honest and persevering, you’ll always get what you desire.

Film noir gave birth to a new hero who was anti-intellectual, anti-emotional and pro-action. Noir protagonist were almost always single men, psychologically flawed or wounded, men who, while appearing morally ambiguous or compromised, usually adhered to their own personal code of right and wrong.

They were the incarnation of the lost men in the big city who can only count on himself. The soldier who came back from war and could not forget what he saw on the battlefields. Who wasn’t sure what he believed anymore because war had destroyed his every truth. But who was, nonetheless, still a fighter.

Femme Fatales

Women, on the other hand, were glamorous and seductive, strong and self-confident, very focused. In short: dangerous. These women who in the Twenties had become aware of their sexuality and had started demanding the same treatment and possibilities as men; these women who had taken up men’s jobs and roles while their men were abroad fighting — they were also ‘other’ and potential enemies.

It has been suggested that the noir famme fatale was the incarnation of the male’s insecurity in front of women’s new independence.

Like light and shadows in the visual effect of Expressionism, the constant imbalance between known and unknown, confidence and insecurity, characterises the feel and mood of film noir.

Dieselpunk comes in the footsteps of noir stories. Its darkness and ambiguity and the sense of unbalance echoes what film noir recounted us long ago. A story that, in spite of time, still talk to us.

Originally published at bardconstantine.wordpress.com on February 22, 2016.

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