Many critics suggest that Touch of Evil (1958) was the last true noir film, not because the studios stopped making hard-boiled noir films, but because it seemed that as a society, as a culture, America was moving towards something different and was unable to associate themselves with the ambiguous morals of the genre (it’s ironic that postmodernism would base itself on this idea). However, the genre has actually evolved – it has elevated itself – into new, more controversial, more sophisticated realms. Beginning in the uncertain times of post-war America in the 1970’s (Chinatown), moving towards Reagan’s America in the 1980’s with films like Blue Velvet and Blade Runner there seemed to be a new kind of noir that was being labeled as “neo-noir.” These films were representations of how the genre was moving outside the boundaries of noir only being films about seedy gangsters, femme fatales, and cops and robbers; these classic elements of the genre were now being replaced by greedy water companies, and corrupt politicians or policemen who were representations of the evil America never thought could exist in the people they trusted.
Fredric Jameson states that neo-noir represents some kind of nostalgic look into the past, it attempts to “see the present as (past) history; the classical nostalgia film, while evading its present altogether, registered its historicist deficiency by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts” . This idea is especially evident through the films Chinatown, Blue Velvet, and Blade Runner, films that show how the genre has evolved and adopted the themes of postmodernism to make smart, creative comments about the state of the present by looking into the past .
The modern noir (Chinatown and beyond), uses the genre differently as a means to comment on the instability and ambiguity of the modern world. Not all modern noir films can be classified as “neo-noir” or “postmodern-noir,” they are labeled that in the sense that they came after what many refer to as the last true film noir, Touch of Evil. After Touch of Evil was released in 1958, the genre was reduced to an “at home viewing” type of entertainment, as the studios felt they had to do something to rival the convenience of television. This meant the creation of cinemascope and the widescreen film, which meant bigger budgets, lots of sets, and even more extras. The film-going experience now was merely an excuse to see just how much money the studious were willing to spend to show the average moviegoer just why cinema was better than television. So, just like the characters in film noir, the genre was pushed to the outside, living on television and existing within a medium that many people did not take seriously. Critics saw the genre as nothing more than cops and robbers, gangsters, and femme fatales, located in world that the general public was not interested in seeing anymore. Filmmakers saw it as a way to make serious films for little money, with big themes that lay underneath its style.
Touch of Evil
In Orson Welles’ last great film he constructed an influential crime film with all of the greatest elements of noir thrown in. We have the corrupt and seedy Sheriff Quinlan (played by Welles) and Vargas (Charlton Heston), the DEA agent who is committed to bringing the corruption of Quinlan’s town to an end. The interesting thing about Touch of Evil is that is doesn’t simply rest on its beautiful cinematography for it to warrant serious consideration as a great film, it is in the obtrusive and effective framing and blocking techniques, and the way the cinematography acts as dialogue that Welles best explains the themes of the film. The best example is in the virtuoso opening tracking shot that lasts for minutes. It is not as if Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, are showing off, this is not style for style’s sake; it’s that Welles is saying this film (and his filmmaking style; Welles never made another film for the Hollywood machine) does not move in the traditional, linear sense. As Roger Ebert states in his brilliant essay , the film “is a series of loops and coils”. The film is edited together in a jarring, sometimes disruptive fashion (in particular the torment scene of Janet Leigh in a hotel room) suggesting that the film and its characters and morals also do not move in a linear fashion. Rather, as the opening shot suggests, the film moves in loops and coils, and Welles and Metty trap their characters within the same shot. The effect is two-fold: we, as the audience, are introduced to all of the characters, and all of the characters intertwined in the scene to show how jumbled and disjointed things are going to be in this town. Like the picture of Vargas above, we are strangers in this town, and ironically Vargas, a Mexican, is a stranger too, in his homeland. The theme of displacement and disorientation fit perfectly with what Welles is trying to visually say with his famous opening shot.
Quinlan is a nasty character who embodies many of the traditional stereotypes and clichés that are attributed to Mexican lawmen, while Vargas has many of the attributes of the stereotypical gringo. This ironical flip is another way we feel like Vargas is lost in his hometown. In one scene Vargas tails Quinlan with a radio as his partner is asking him questions. Now, watching this one cannot help but think that there had to be an easier way to go about doing this, but what is suggested again through the brilliant blocking and set design is a sense of uncertainty: things are askew. Vargas weaves his way through the tangled metal of oil rigs and scrap yards and as the angles take us from high-up, from Vargas’ view suggesting authority and righteousness, to low-down angles, in which we see from Quinlan’s point of view, giving us the visual affirmation that he is the dirtiest of cops. The “tailing” scene is almost as masterful as the opening tracking shot. It is here that Welles has tremendous fun with dutch angles, obtrusive blocking and framing, set design, and lighting. Welles is using the camera to tell us what we cannot hear from Quinlan as Vargas is following him. The audio is so bad on the wire that Vargas’ partner is wearing that we have to rely on the visual language of the film to let us know what is going on. And how perfect, that the scene end with Quinlan in the mud.
And then there is Welles himself, playing Quinlan like a director of a movie.
Orchestrating the investigation like a director orchestrates the filming of his movie. Roger Ebert makes the same correlations about Welles playing Quinlan like a director (but he says it much better) in his essay:
There is a sense, as Ebert states, that with most of Welles’ characters, that this role is autobiographical. This is where Touch of Evil becomes something more than a beautifully shot, stylish film noir. It is in this character that we catch a glimpse of Welles himself. When one sees Quinlan the sheriff as Welles the filmmaker, the film takes on a whole new self-reflexive meaning. Welles was not that fat when he made the film, he donned tons of make-up and put pillows in his suit to make him appear bigger than he was. When Quinlan enters a room, you are aware of it because of how obtrusive his presence is – and it is not just his presence, but also his attitude – which is all captured beautifully by the framing of every shot Quinlan appears in. He is larger than life. He is the only, and often the loudest, authoritative voice in the room. Much like Welles, he is often misunderstood as a brute, and this is seen through the sympathetic loyalties of Quinlan’s cronies. Yes, maybe he is doing things the wrong way, but the result in Touch of Evil is always ambiguous. You are never quite sure if Quinlan was on to something or not, regardless of how unconventional his methods were (again used to show how he clashed with the culture of Vargas) he just might have been right.
Much of Welles’ work was autobiographical, and the characters he chose to play (Kane, Macbeth, Othello) were giants destroyed by hubris. Now consider Quinlan, who nurses old hurts and tries to orchestrate this scenario like a director, assigning dialogue and roles. There is a sense in which Quinlan wants final cut in the plot of this movie, and doesn’t get it. He’s running down after years of indulgence and self-abuse, and his ego leads him into trouble.
Welles often called himself an actor of kings, an apt description for roles he chose to play; larger than life characters who, again invoking Ebert, were brought down by hubris. In Touch of Evil we see Welles portray Quinlan as a once brilliant detective, who is haunted by his past and has allowed his ego to bring him down. And that could be said about Welles himself.
Loneliness is at the heart of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. At one point Detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is asked “Are you alone?” by a voice on the phone; “aren’t we all?” he replies. Chinatown is a film noir in the traditional sense (the nostalgic opening credit sequence reminds you of that fact) with its private eye, femme fatale, hidden truths, and shadow lands; however Polanski takes these classic noir tropes and plays with them. The shadows of alleyways and seedy locations have been replaced by stark, glossy 1940 Los Angeles business buildings -- seedlings for what would grow into the metropolis we recognize today. Polanski also removes the traditional femme fatale role from his film, as Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is the victim, not the seductive siren. Gittes is a private detective, but Polanski has some fun with this particular trope as he has his Tec’s nose sliced in half. Gittes even says at one point that he is a snoop, and what good is a snoop with only half a nose.
But what makes Chinatown stand apart from the “traditional” noir film is its study of human isolation. It didn’t mark the dawn of what we now call “neo-noir” (that distinction goes to John Boorman’s more cynical, hard-boiled noir Point Blank), but it did popularize it, and again elevated the genre into a higher art form. It was the first film to take the limitations studios wanted to place on the genre and break through them. So, if Touch of Evil was the last classic noir to be made, then Chinatown is definitely the first “neo-noir”.
If someone were to ask me what the film represents, I would simply say: loneliness. Loneliness for the J.J. Gittes character, and loneliness as seen through the lens of the camera as it pans across the empty spaces of Los Angeles with almost a weeping eye, as it knows what is about to come: the industrialization of the desert area. The loneliness at the heart of a lot of noir heroes from the 40’s, is represented by the private detective, the idea of the loneliest of men rummaging though the despair and secrets of others lives while running away from their own problems. Like Sam Spade and the characters of Raymond Chandler stories, Chinatown reintroduces the audience to a fundamental film type – the private detective – a man who occupies human tragedy for a living. But this is different, Gittes hates his job, and through the eye of Polanski and his cinematographer John Alonzo, we see a desolate Los Angeles landscape that is the perfect representation of how Gittes feels: empty. After the nostalgic and traditional opening credit sequence, Chinatown turns into an existential noir, a subject that seeks to understand and wrestle with the very idea of loneliness.
We also see Polanski using lighting, colors, and the vastness of what once was Los Angeles to show that he too is aware of the influence of noir on his film. His framing of shots is also a call back to the classic noir films, especially Touch of Evil, and how each shot is framed to give one the sense of claustrophobia, this is juxtaposed with the widescreen cinematography of the landscape of Los Angeles: “L.A. is a small town,” Gittes says at one point, and Chinatown is very much concerned with the process by which Los Angeles was transformed from desert community to giant metropolis. Claustrophobia is a hallmark of any classic film noir. Polanski and Alonzo are embracing the widescreen format, unlike earlier noir that was pushed to the side for bigger epics and cinemascope, Chinatown is using the widescreen to comment on the vastness that once was L.A. It creates a landscape that reminds the viewer of something out of Camus, an existential void where Gittes pans across the desert community, from Los Angeles until the Pacific, pondering his loneliness. The film creates an almost unbearable tension between the width of its frame and the ways in which the camera seems to be bearing down on the characters and their environment. Joe McElhaney states that the film:
Is intensified by the shallow sense of space, activities placed front and slightly off center, occasionally broken by shots of extreme and narrow depth […] The dominant colors of Chinatown are brown, gray, and black — barely colors at all, an indication of the film’s debt to the noir tradition of black-and-white, and of its attempts to render this drought-ridden environment as completely closed in on itself. The various hues of brown and gold (associated with the parched, sunbeaten desert earth surrounding Los Angeles) seep into every corner of the characters' lives, from clothing to homes to work environments. Evelyn’s clothing often represents her state of mind.
Yet, behind it all is the investigation of the drought. The screenplay explains, "Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water." Alonzo's cinematography evokes the L.A. you can glimpse in the backgrounds of old movies, where the sun beats down on streets that are too wide, and buildings seem more defiant than proud. (Notice the shot where the bright sun falls on the fedoras of Gittes and two cops, casting their eyes into shadows like black masks.) Tim Dirks in his essay hits on one of the key ideas behind the film being “neo-noir”:
The film's claustrophobic, cyclical, bleak mood surrounding the heroic quest of the detective struck a responsive chord after the scandalous Watergate era of the early 1970s. The film's two puzzling mysteries and tragedies – family-related and water-related – are beautifully interwoven together. The water-rights scandal at the heart of the film expresses how ecological rape of the land has occurred in outrageous land-development schemes that redirect the water's flow. It reminds viewers that the days of abundant natural resources (and life-giving water that turns a forbidden wilderness into a plentiful garden) are past - the land has become barren due to the selfish manipulations of rich and powerful businessmen.The businessman has replaced the goon with a fedora and gun; men in suits who work in skyscrapers and work for the government have replaced these classic noir villains. This fed the uncertainty of the time that Dirks talks about, and this is where I invoke Jameson once again: Polanski is using the “nostalgic” to represent his issues with the present. There’s a scene in Chinatown that gets to the very core of this idea -- when Gittes asks Noah Cross (John Huston) what more he could possibly want, Cross replies: “The future, Mr. Gittes.” Gone are the villains who are looking to rob banks or pull off heists, Chinatown is the seminal “neo-noir” film where the villains look for something much more than money, they want control. This can be seen in later noir pictures like Blade Runner and Dark City, futuristic or cyber-punk versions of the same themes. By the end of Chinatown, when the mystery is finally solved, the metaphor is clear enough: America is not the innocent place it once was. Like Polanski’s vision of Los Angeles, it too has been transformed into something much bigger, creating more places for the seediness to hide. These thoughts were becoming more permanent in the 1970’s. Polanski sets up these themes, but it is Ridley Scott and David Lynch who slam them home in 1980’s with Blade Runner and Blue Velvet.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner reverses this notion I have been discussing with Chinatown, the idea of what Jameson introduces that to look into the past, filmmakers are saying something about the present. With Blade Runner, we get the opposite, a look into the future to show the over consumerism and consumption of mass commercialism. Scott’s version of L.A. is filled with digitized billboards, and skyscrapers with advertisements being projected onto them, and the constant advertising heard over a loud speaker (the film is based on a Philip K. Dick story, and this is seen in another one of his stories, “Minority Report” where the advertisements address you personally), it’s a carnivalesque atmosphere, like that of Vegas; characters going about their business in a dehumanized city. This Los Angeles is nothing more than an absent center, something that Fredric Jameson touches on in his book Postmodernism: Or the Culture Logic of Late Capitalism when he mentions the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles:
[B]uilt in the new Los Angeles downtown by the architect and developer John Portman, whose other works include the various Hyatt Regencies, the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and the Renaissance Center in Detroit….they [these postmodern buildings] no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a difference, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system if the surrounding city, but rather they seek to speak that very language, using the lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically “learned from Las Vegas”.The aping of Las Vegas in modern day Los Angeles is eerily similar to Scott’s vision back in 1982. Scott’s take on the giant metropolis lacking distinction, following the rules of the commercialized game. When Jameson reports in further detail about his journey through the hotel it’s as if he’s describing a labyrinth of compartmentalized shops and various merchants. It’s a dizzying array of high-class advertisement all offering a better life within so that you don’t have to think about the dirty Los Angeles that’s outside of the reflective glass walls (the hotel reflects the image of the streets so that one can not see inside the hotel, the inside acts as its own sheltered world, truly a Utopia or Disneyland, which I’ll explain later). This correlates with a theme that Scott broaches quite early in the film, the idea of the “off world” existence; but more on that later.
So is Blade Runner a film noir? I would call it a cyber-noir, or postmodern-noir, with stylish elements that allow the viewer to think deeper about some of postmodernism's key ideas. Many critics like Roger Ebert, simply say that it is all style and no substance, a film that is only interested in its grandiose set design, and not in explaining or elaborating on the rich and complex storyline created by Philip K. Dick. I disagree with Ebert though; I think that if one looks at the film hard enough they can see the noir elements that are there as well as the ideas of one of postmodernism’s most influential thinkers, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard introduces in his book Simulations the idea of a “hyperreality” (2) and the “loss of the real” (25), copies become what we associate with real and Blade Runner seeks to explore these deep questions in two ways: one is through the idea of escaping this world and living a better life on the “off world” a kind of hyperreal existence, it also examines the characters of Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) replicants created by the Tyrell Corporation, to see if we as a society can rise up against the corporations that look to control us through commercialism. The other way which the film explores Baudrillard’s thinking is through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. Baudrillard’s claim can best represent all of the films discussed when he says: “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (12).
One of the first shots of the film, and one of its most famous, is of the city with its towering digitized billboards and a voice that can be heard telling people to escape to the “off world” where there are no problems and you can start you life over, away from “reality.” This is a place where your “dreams can come true.” These are the sounds of an, “easy money,” get rich quick mentality that was rampant in the 1980’s. All of life’s problems go away if you run away from them. The voice is head over the city, a city that has turned into a large scale, run-down Chinatown. This “off world” idea is what Baudrillard is getting at with his idea of the simulacrum, the copy without an original, life is good and life is easy if you leave the “real” world for your own that you can create. This “reality” is the idea behind Baudrillard’s mention (and what Jameson is getting at with his summation of the Bonaventure Hotel) of the “reality” of Disneyland:
Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.So, this “off world” vacation that is offered to those who live in the Los Angeles of 2012, is the same that is being offered to those who live in the present of 1982. This loss of the real, and the hyperreality, shows how Blade Runner is unlike any other noir; it is dealing with the questions of consumerism through the realm of cyber-noir. And even though the noirish qualities of the film best represent the relationship between Deckard and Rachel one cannot ignore the films main point: that through commercialism and over-consumption we can alleviate all of our problems, we can let the replicants, or Others, that look so much like us, “expire” while we buy and consume anything we can to make ourselves feel more like men or women, and we equate this commercialism to happiness, when in reality we are just as the replicants are, products off an assembly line. The film asks us if we can be like Roy and Pris and rebel against the Tyrell corporations of our lives, if we can rebel against the commercialism that plagues our society that is turning humans into indefinite, unidentifiable consumerist robots. This leads me to my next point about the film, the “reality” of its characters, especially as it is seen through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel.
When the film was initially released in 1982 it had Ford’s narration guiding the viewer through the story, also providing a traditional nostalgic homage to the great noir films of 40’s and 50’s. The ending was left ambiguous, in fact, in the 1982 version you weren’t sure whether or not Deckard was a replicant. Creating an even bigger dilemma with him having to “expire” Roy and Rachel and the other replicants. When the film was released years later in a “Director’s Cut” the narration was axed and a happy ending tacked on. The ambiguity was gone, Deckard and Rachel leave for the “off world” and live happily ever after. There are so many versions of the film out there now, and there are elements of the original 1982 version that I dislike (for how retro the voice of over narration is by Ford, it really placates the viewer and spells everything out a little too much), but the Director’s Cut really neuters the ambiguity of Deckard and Rachel’s relationship and the uncertainty surrounding Deckard’s status as a blade runner. Does he not want to kill them because he is one? He is just as much a slave to his boss as the androids to the Tyrell Corporation. It is this reason that the original 1982 version (the newest “Final Cut” version is pretty good too, much better than the Director’s Cut) stands as the best example of the film as “neo-noir”.
I’d like to talk about the scene where Deckard kisses Rachel -- before this moment happens he keeps her from leaving his apartment and traps her by the window. The way Deckard moves is robotic, and when they kiss, Rachel shows more emotion than Deckard. In another scene we see Rachel crying, where Deckard, it seems, is incapable of emoting anything. Of course the problematic 'signs' of humanity are the crux of the film, built into the very images used to forward the story. I think it very telling that it was the aspects of Blade Runner that most challenged ideas of humanity that were cut or altered. In particular, the removal of the Unicorn Dream sequence also removed the most obvious suggestion that Deckard was a replicant. Also, when the Director’s Cut version you no longer get the great line from Deckard's voice-over telling us "Rachel was special - no termination date”. This omission changes the impact of Gaff's final line: "Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?” In the original release Gaff is seen as outsmarted, as opposed to philosophically correct in the Director's Cut. I think these changes give the film less impact at the end. The themes/meaning behind the film changes, the ambiguity is gone, and all of the mystery of the replicant/human dilemma seems to be removed. That haunting last line loses all of its power.
In the newest cut of the film (the version Scott supposedly wanted to release to begin with) the ending is perfect. Rachel and Deckard are leaving his apartment, Deckard scared that someone might be there not just terminate Rachel, but him also for not getting the job done. As they leave Deckard sees one of Graff’s origami animals (a unicorn, suggesting that they know about Deckard's implanted dreams id he is indeed a replicant), he picks it up, hears the final line echo in his memory (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”), clinches the origami in his hand, and gets onto the elevator with Rachel. The end. No happy ending to the off world, no final showdown either, but you get the sense that Deckard knows Graff is now after them both and they will always be hunted; further evidence that Deckard himself may in fact be a replicant.
Regardless of which version you are watching, the form/techniques used to introduce these themes are as strong as ever. Especially the lighting in the film, the heavy use of backlighting, hard lighting and light coming through moving objects (like fans) make the film's grim future alive. The lighting also adds to the feeling of film noir. Many science fiction movies are shot in an unnaturally hard light, as if they were shot in a hospital (for example Stanley Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey). In Blade Runner we have a vivid feeling of dark alleys, sinister rooms and chambers, which is essential to old detective stories. These lighting techniques also introduce us to the ambiguous love affair between Deckard and Rachel. Notice how Rachel and Ray are usually lit in bright light, and how Deckard and the other humans are always in darkness. The opposite is used in most film noir. Ridley Scott’s idea to light the film this way is brilliant as one can see in the picture above, Deckard looks no more “alive” than Rachel.
By looking into the future, the film questions the state of the world in 1982, a time when this kind of postmodern thinking was starting to be embraced. Simulations was published a year after this film was released, but already the short stories of Philip K. Dick were introducing people to these postmodern ideas. All of this to say: Blade Runner is the quintessential neo-noir. It has been called neo-noir, cyber-punk, and postmodern, but it is the perfect example of how a filmmaker can take a genre like film noir, and create something completely new, something that is completely elevated above every other kind of noir picture. As was the case with Chinatown, Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet succeed in taking noir elements and breaking free from the confines of genre labeling to create films that aren’t just simply noir, but noir as high art.
If Chinatown uses the style of noir to create an atmosphere of loneliness and despair -- revealing the corrupt truths of America the way Gittes reveals the corruption of the Cross case; and if Blade Runner uses noir's style to look into the future to raise the level of awareness about a kind of hyperreality we live in, then David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is an attack on the ideological nostalgic 1950’s America filtered through Lynch's twisted, microscopic lens. Lynch’s film peers into the secrecy of our lives in order to see what lies underneath the façade of “everytown” USA. Blue Velvet involves families, strokes, teenagers in love, severed ears, murder, drugs, and yes, sadomasochism. And yet Lynch does in deed bring all of these elements together in noir fashion to create an ethereal experience, something so surreal and so bizarre, it is as if the viewer is taking hits from Frank Booth's gas tank.
What Lynch does so brilliantly, and the reason why people refer to Blue Velvet as a neo or postmodern-noir, is through an ideological lens he paints a picture of how we wished the small American town actually were so squeaky-clean and upheld the ideals of Americana. At the time Lynch was making the film, 1986, this was a powerful response to Reagan’s America. The film has two kinds of scenes: (1) The everyday small-town scenes, in which people go out on dates to the soda fountain and drive around town in shiny cars, and (2) the subterranean scenes in which the most unspeakable acts take place behind closed doors (i.e. the reasoning for the severed ear…not only are we blind to such things existing around us, now we have become deaf). We see this common thread running through both Chinatown and Blade Runner but something new comes into play with Blue Velvet. That theme of exhibitionism and how no matter how we may want not to look, we cannot help but not turn away, and the idea that if we look hard enough there is corruption and perversion underneath every rock.
Lynch offers two key visuals to guide the viewer as they wade through these troublesome postmodern waters. The first symbol is at the beginning of the film in the form of a severed ear. We come to find later that the ear does indeed belong to someone important to the story; however, more than mere foreshadowing and plot device, Lynch is asking the audience to remember the visual throughout the film. It is a reminder that drugs and sadomasochism are protruding this small quiet town and that if you look hard enough, you can find just about anything in your seemingly comfortable existence. The other meaning behind the ear seems to be more politically charged. Through Lynch’s own twisted and darkly comedic way (Blue Velvet is both comedy and noir) he is reminding us that we have turned a deaf ear to the things we choose not to listen or look for in our own small town America’s. Notice how the films opening is in slow motion, people smiling, white picket fences, firemen, dogs, and friendly neighbors waving at the camera. Lynch juxtaposes this ideological world with the ear, the representation of the outside world that is about to invade this small town.
The other key visual is one that is crucial to any good noir film: lighting. Lynch uses many of the techniques of noir, but the film isn’t as toned down with drab colors or shadows like those in Chinatown and Blade Runner. Lynch uses specific, vibrant colors, focusing them on one part of the screen creating an almost uber-glossy rendition of noir, with its night clubs and nightmare sequences being drenched in spotlight, where the lighting seems non-existent -– this is a dark world where there is rarely any room for light to enter -– there is also an emphasis on disorientating color schemes (Lynch is a painter in addition to a filmmaker) to create a world of both illusion and allusion. The film is both dreamy and grotesquely real, there is almost a hazy feel throughout the film, the feeling between being asleep and being awake throughout the nightclub scenes and especially the nightmarish scene where Jeffery and Dorothy are taken to the strange house of Ben (Dean Stockwell), the man holding Dorothy’s child. And yet, the film is beautiful to look at, an allusion to some of the great noir films like Double Indemnity, T-Men, White Heat, and Touch of Evil; Lynch is obviously aware that pastiche is the ultimate postmodern trope.
Even some of the films most uncomfortable scenes (i.e. Frank coming by for his “required” sex with Dorothy) are lit with beautiful soft light and framed with a kind of innocence that would exist in the 1940’s the era Lynch is definitely mimicking (or mocking). For example, the scene where Jeffery is witnessing Frank torture Dorothy is seen through his point of through the blinds of a closet. The scene is framed and portrayed in way where Jeffery is almost like a child, witnessing for the first time the uncertainties of sexuality. He’s peering through the blinds of the closet, what he is witnessing is cut-up, fragmented. Lynch uses this visual to create a sense of confusion. Is what he’s seeing erotic or unlawful? Jeffery’s thoughts are ambiguous at first, but when he is caught the scene plays out like that of twelve-year-old boys being caught “experimenting” with their mother's Cosmo magazines. Thus begins the journey of Blue Velvet, it is from that point on that Jeffery just keeps going down, further and further into the abyss bringing everyone “innocent” with him.
Another way Lynch comments on the small town is through the visitation of Jeffery. Jeffery used to live in the town and is visiting from college because his father had a stroke. Once he left for college, one can see how Lynch suggests that he became “wise” to the world, he is no longer deaf or blind to what is happening around him. This is why in one of the films most uncomfortable scenes, when Dorothy stands on Jeffery’s front lawn naked, he is seemingly unfazed by the event and hurries to cover her up and save her, leaving his girlfriend Sandy (Laura Dern) to wonder what is happening. She doesn’t understand and begins crying, storming home angry at Jeffery. The next scene, Jeffery has taken Dorothy home and is seen speaking with the angered Sandy on the phone, and to hammer the point home, Lynch has Jeffery say very little and has Sandy forgiving him for everything, even though Jeffery has in fact continuously rendezvoused with Dorothy for sex. Sandy, still blinded by teenage romance and unable to see the big picture because she is trapped by the ideals of her small town, is willing to exculpate the problems of her and Jeffery’s relationship caused by Dorothy. She is blind to the possibilities of Jeffery even having a sexual relationship with Dorothy. This is another reason why in the first scene that we are introduced to Frank and Dorothy (the closet scene mentioned earlier), Lynch has Jeffery in the closet and not Sandy. He represents that outer world; he’s placed amidst the other outsiders of the story.
And finally Lynch’s film is cyclical, it ends the same way it begins, minus the stroke victim, but added is the reconciliation of Dorothy and her son. However, this doesn’t change the fact that Jeffery will leave, and everything will be back the way it was before, the town will be blind to any kind of future corruption and for that matter we are all guilty of that according to Lynch. The film is cyclical, yes, however throughout the film, as is the case with Blade Runner, there is a plot revolving around an absent center. Lynch gives us this de-centered, de-stabilized universe while keeping the main themes circling around this absent center; this is the vortex that Jeffery finds himself pulled down into the more he discovers about Dorothy and her situation. The last shot of the film suggests that even though we see Dorothy with her son, the film remains cyclical in the sense that there will always be corruption (in our towns, in politics, etc.) and that even though there may be these outsiders that invade these small towns -– invaders that come in and try to help the ideological small town open their eyes to the “real” world –- there is no point, there will always be corruption (this is the nihilistic Lynch kicking in, here) and America will forever remain deaf to the cries of the Dorothy’s of America.
Why is Blue Velvet considered a great neo-noir? Because it takes some of the classic elements of the genre, just as the other films have, and Lynch makes it his own. In film noir ordinary people find out that evil lurks just beneath the surfaces of their lives; they inevitably get caught up in the shadow worlds, they find themselves capable of committing unspeakable acts. A proper film noir is, contrary to the limitations of genre labeling, not usually a gangster or crime film, but the story of how evil enters everyday lives. The genre is profoundly pessimistic; it does not show bad people doing bad things, but average people doing bad things. This complicates things and makes it all the more ambiguous because the implication is that we are all capable of evil.
Misc. Films and End Notes
Film noir is still being used effectively today. I have given three examples of how the genre has been elevated to heights it was unable to reach in the past. This is not to say that the genre is bad. I love film noir, and some of my favorite films are the classic noir’s of the 40’s and 50’s (Scarlet Street, Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, T-Men, and White Heat are just a few of my favorites), but with the addition of cyber and postmodern elements to the genre, one can see how these “neo-noir” films (Chinatown, Blade Runner, and Blue Velvet) are noir at the highest form. They have elevated the genre to high art by dealing with issues of the absent center (Blue Velvet) and the dehumanized (Blade Runner); by using the style of the classic film noir seen in Touch of Evil and Chinatown. These three films were all influenced by Touch of Evil and even more films since are emulating the successes of Welles’ vision by using the noir genre themselves to speak about the depravity of society (Blood Simple), the lust the government has for control of our thoughts (Dark City), how through the medium of celebrity magazines, hookers are “replicated” to look like movie stars (a kind of simulacra) where nothing is what it seems in “La La Land” (L.A. Confidential), and the use of classic postmodern tropes like pastiche and the unreliable narrator (Memento).
The truth is that the genre is still full of great ideas in addition to the genre being more than capable of still churning out stylish films. The point remains the same: Many films could qualify as “noir:” films by such great filmmakers as David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and True Romance), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas), and films like Heat or Collateral by Michael Mann. Below are what I think represents decent companion lists for some of the quintessential films and texts that will give the viewer (and reader) a sense of what “neo-noir” is. Just because a film has cops and robbers and an ambiguous “good” guy versus “bad” guy storyline doesn’t immediately make it a “noir” film. In fact the best noir films are usually not gangster films, they are films about the evil that creeps into our daily lives and causes us to either: do the evil we never thought we were capable of or witness such an evil we never thought could exist in our comfortable lifestyles.
Recommended Neo-Noir Viewing:
• Samuel Fuller’s, The Naked Kiss (1964)
• John Boorman’s hilariously violent, Point Blank (1967)
• Robert Altman’s, The Long Goodbye (1973)
• Arthur Penn’s, Night Moves (1974)
• Lawrence Kasdan’s, Body Heat (1981)
• Brian DePalma’s homage to Hitchcock, Body Double (1984)
• The Coen Brothers’, Blood Simple (1985)
• David Mamet’s masterpiece, House of Games (1987)
• Stephen Frears’, The Grifters (1990)
• John Dahl’s, The Last Seduction (1993)
• Kathryn Bigelow’s extremely underrated, Strange Days (1995)
• Curtis Hanson’s masterful look at the seedy side of L.A., L.A. Confidential (1997)
• Alex Proyas’ brilliant mix of German Expressionism and Noir, Dark City (1997)
• The Coen’s again with, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
• Christopher Nolan’s postmodern noir, Memento (2001)
• David Lynch’s beautiful, labyrinthine, Mulholland Drive (2001)
• Steven Spielberg’s masterful adaptation of Philip Dick’s, Minority Report (2002)
• Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s, Sin City (2005)
Books and Essays I’ve cited throughout:
You can take a look at a number of the essays by clicking on the authors’ name, which I hyperlinked, throughout my piece.
For Fredric Jameson’s thoughts read, Postmodernism: Or the Culture Logic of Late Capitalism
For essential postmodern reading check out Jean Baudrillard’s, Simulations
Also recommended is the fantastic book that takes a philosophical approach to the genre, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, edited by Mark T. Conrad.