Neo-Noir: Affects of Seriousness

What is with all the teen-noir at the moment? Or neo-noir or whatever you want it called? OK, it is not as if popular culture is suddenly saturated with it, and I am not complaining as neo-noir of any description is far more preferrable to the stupidities of other forms of mass-culture. What I find interesting are the affects of seriousness and mattering itself which saturate neo-noir texts such as Veronica Mars and Brick, perhaps Buffy, definitely Angel, or the established influence of noir on cyberpunk evidenced by my favourite D&G-quoting anime Ghost in the Shell.

Noir is well suited to fiction set in teenage worlds. One of the charecteristics of noir is that the world is hard, unforgiving, and as the wikipedia entry for Noir puts it “inherently corrupt and unsympathetic.” Neo-noir is an apparatus of capture for the affects that exist within what psychanalysts would call a fantasy projection of the world of teenagers. Teenage protagonists routinely ‘deal’ (to quote Buffy) with ‘adult’ concerns and worries. The situations are serious, they require someone of sophisticated toughness to ‘deal’. The affects of seriousness itself are the elements that seem to make these neo-noir texts work, or work for some people. WHo is attracted to these sorts of shows? And it is an attraction, of charisma or perhaps of a romantic dimension.

One of the joys of Veronica Mars was the ability of the writers to (mostly) balance the the affects of seriousness with a lightness or levity. The lightness is also in part produced by the physical presence of the lead actress Kirsten Bell. The male characters are all so completely unattractive, except for Veronica’s best friend, whatever his name is. Setting most of the action in her father’s private investigation business means there is a constant supply of ‘seriousness’ from petty and major crime. The multiple relationship arcs in the second season also serve as loci of seriousness as romantic problems are set alongside crime and slights of personhood (often one in the same for distraught partners who seek out the private eye firm to dig up dirt on cheating or provisional partners). What I like about the show is how this is set alongside the reliefs of inter-textual references to popular culture and the odd, light moments of friendship captured so well by the writing. The character of Veronica Mars is given a quick wit, and the writers do not attempt to drop explicit signifiers of a particular generation through argot and the like. Haircuts and cars (or bikes) are the main signifers of contemporaneity. Oh, plus the music… Ethnicity and class differences place the world of Veronica Mars in a much larger set of congruences with the actual world.

From what I can figure out, the tension between seriousness and lightness around which the affects of Veronica Mars (the show) are distributed is almost completely absent from the recent film Brick. There is no lightness to balance the heavy darkness, hence no tension. It is an ultra-noir teen-noir neo-noir film. There is no relief from the relentless pursuit by the main character for the truth of what happened. He consumes himself in the process in this war of abolition. The language is of a different time, and one of the reasons why the film has a slightly surreal feel to it. Who talks like that? Who ever talked like that beyond characters in works of fiction? I got a ‘squawker’? It weighs the film down with the burden of affective implausibility. In the end those indexes of seriousness, which were meant to carry a certain affective charge of noir, become the opposite. It all becomes hilarious. Socially inept nerd kids talking like they are out of some 1930s pulp novella. Hilarious. Imagine if you heard a couple of kids talking like that on a train. The absence of any mark of youth or non-adult means there is no affective tension of the sort that gives Veronica Mars its what-the-fuck-just-happpened-ness.

An example (which is quite brutal, so I apologise), Veronica’s rape becomes an event that is differentially repeated throughout the second series, it goes from being a sickening rape of unknown proportions, to consensual sex she can’t remember, but which at least is partially joyful (that scene is perhaps one of the best I have ever seen in any work of filmed fiction), to all manner of fucked up shit and so on. I am talking about the range of affect around which the singularities of this event are arrayed and distributed, and then continually arranged and redistributed, which bodies, which acts, what states, at what times, and so on. Veronica Mars (the show) captures this movement, the rearrangement of a constellation of singularities which define a singular event repeated in different ways. We feel like we know what has happened, but then we don’t.

Brick, on the other hand, can’t quite match Veronica Mars. Part of the reason is the length of a film simply can’t allow for such a long duration of affective modulation. There is a similar event, but I won’t discuss it, cause it would be a spoiler. However, I can say that it plays itself out in the final scene, and I don’t mean finding out who the ‘baddie’ is. There is always going to be a baddie, that is the logic of the film. I mean the repetition of a fact that throws a different light upon all that has preceded.

Lastly, I like the weird quasi-romantic interest in Brick, Laura (Nora Zehetner), I think mainly in a reminds-me-of-a-couple-ex’s sort of way, although the psychotic bourgie thing she’s got going on in the film may have something to do with it.

3 replies on “Neo-Noir: Affects of Seriousness”

  1. Your interpretation of VM is spot on, but I can’t help think you’ve missed the most specific genre borrowing when you compare it with ‘Brick’.

    ‘Brick’ is a contemporary hard-boiled crime story. Claims of post-modernism (or re-interpreting the genre structure) are warranted because it defies some of the conventions of hard-boiled fiction.

    Firstly, the protagonist should not have a past with any of the other characters in the story. If you look at any of Dashiell Hammet’s Co-op protagonist’s (the film shamelessly borrows from some of the author’s classic lines) they generally are called into town to sort out one problem and discover a far deeper social problem, which, for want of of a better term, everyone is corrupt.

    ‘Brick’ follows the path, but there seems never to be the question of why the protagonist wants to ‘fix’ the problem. The answer to this question is clear in ‘Brick’; vengeance. This is what leads to the loss of tension, because the protagonist is stuck in this social millieu, he is not a man without a past who has no future at the end of the film, besides pissing off the San Fran to do more of the same. He can’t afford to be flippant and billigerent.

    Like you I also like the quasi-romantic interest, and this is probably the only aspect in the film that hasn’t diverted from the genre. She is at once a suspected victim, then provocatuer, and eventual perpetrator. But at no moment did I think the protagonist was going to become emotionally vulnerable with her.

    But, I think, if you watch this film with the hard-boiled conventions in mind (I had people sitting next to me in the cinema having no clue what was going on) then it can be really exciting. I love the clue-chewing-and-spitting-out aspect of the hard-boiled. It works well in a feature-length film because things don’t feel phony, or deliberately left to linger, only to be sprung on the audience at the end to neatly tie up the film.

  2. oh, I am calling hard-boiled ‘noir’!! is this wrong? I thought it was from the same family or genealogy of genre? a distinct cousin perhaps? I have no real clue with classifications for things. I think I am not a fan of hard boiled, or at least I have definitely not seen enough to get the intertextual genre references that you are making. ACtually, I know I have not seen enough if I didn’t realise it was a mistake to say that hard boiled is something noir-y or -ish.

    However, the whole dialogue thing in Brick rubbed me up the wrong way. Mainly because I suspect that a similar language exists which is much more contemporary. eg why are the police called ‘bulls’ and not ‘pigs’? Where did hard-boiled get its language originally? So what are the equivalent sources for dialogue and terminology?

    What I like is your final point about the temporality of action and rhythms of disclosure. How the ‘hangingness’ (of action left hanging) is built into the plot line because of the conventions of current television. However, in Brick there is a constant return to the facts of the matter, or the state of the facts of the matter.

    hmmm, the chewing and spitting of clues is more a detective-digestion comparable to a cow’s multiple stomachs. While, say, VM is a game of distinction almost, an investigation by way of degustation, like the kind of he-said-she-said of the gossipy must-try-that-little-thai-place. She knows who’ll eat what (or who), or figures it out. In VM each tabloid factoid spins terrain, while for Brick the clues need to be consumed and reconsumed.

  3. I just finished making a neo noir called Kill, My Lovely. It’s about a detective that falls in love with a murder suspect. I was influenced by other neo noirs such as Insomnia, Match Point and Kiss Me Deadly. I’ve been submitting to festivals and hoping to hear back soon. Check out my website which has a trailer for it.

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