Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Upbeat Noir?

John McFetridge

Is that an oxymoron? Does noir have to be a downer? Certainly for anything to be treated as ‘serious” these days it needs to be downbeat, depressive, even defeatist.

Pretty much every serious TV show from the past ten years has been a downer; Tony Soprano was in therapy (was he suffering from depression?), no one was ever happy on The Wire, Breaking Bad is about a guy with lung cancer getting ready to die, Rome, Deadwood (wow, Deadwood, could you be more of a downer?), Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Mad Men, Rubicon – all these shows do is mope around. They’re pathologically depressed.

Is it the zietgiest these days?

It’s taking me back to my youth in the 70’s, back when every movie seemed to end on a down note. At the time Pauline Kael said it was the result of Hollywood being unable to tell stories about the war in Vietnam – war movies were Audie Murphy and John Wayne and the triumphs of the allies.

I have a slightly different theory that says after World War Two there was a fear of a new world being created in which the “common” people might actually have a say and the powerful laid a “beat down” on them. Oh, it wasn’t just a beating, it was a carrot and a stick – the carrot was a good economy and a house in suburbs and the stick was enforced conformity and no complaining allowed (even if you were the wrong colour or you were a single mother or someone else who wasn’t getting any carrots).

A good example, I think, is the movie The Best Years of our Lives which was released in 1946 and actually feels more like a post-Vietnam movie, all those guys with post-trauamatic stress not being able to do their old jobs, especially now that their bosses are the guys who didn’t go to war, or having only one arm and not being able to work. It swept the Academy Awards but a year later the HUAC trials started up again, ten Hollywood writers went to jail, thousands of people lost their jobs and were blacklisted and movies were no longer critical of any aspect of post-war life and certainly no one had any trouble adjusting to life in the suburbs where it was all happy days all the time. The Peter Seeger song, “Now That It’s All Over” explains the era quite well, I think, with the lines, “There’s plenty of men struttin’ around/That’ll have to be put back down.”

And then TV emerged as the dominant medium and a production code was voluntarily adopted by the networks (or forced on them by advertisers, reports vary ;) that not only required Rob and Laura Petrie to sleep in single beds and wouldn’t allow Lucille Ball to be “pregnant,” but also required all crimes to be solved, all cops to be good guys and all bad guys to be completely bad – born that way. Oh yeah, homosexuals had to die in the end.

By the 70’s the damage was done (or the code was a success, if you prefer) and the post-war world looked a lot like the pre-war world – individual wealth was always good and unions were always bad. The political spectrum started in the middle and moved to varying degrees of the right. The carrot wasn’t needed so much, the economy took its first downturn and even the stick wasn’t needed so much, happiness didn’t have to be enforced and the production code (remember it was voluntary) slipped away.

And the movies started to have downer endings.

So what’s going on today? How come all these characters are depressed or dysfunctional?

I can understand the cops, I guess, having to fight this seemingly endless, losing battle with crime but why are the criminals so depressed?

Is it because they aren’t sociopaths and even they wish the world was in better shape?

Is it just cyclical? Star Wars pretty much ended the bleak 70’s downer endings movies and started up the happy endings again, have we just passed into the next cycle, the depressive TV show?

Does this trend have anything to do with the world at large? Is it even a trend?

What do you think?


Paul D Brazill said...

From the TV shows that you mention, the ones that I've seen are really funny, though. Deadwood is very, very funny!

Maybe we just find it easier to accept life's (sucker) punchline these days. There is nowhere to hide!

My fave downer ending in a film is in The Graduate, the 'now what?' look on the stars faces! Doh!

Bryon Quertermous said...

I agree with Paul that all of the shows you mention have had moments of great humor. But I think the biggest thing going is that with audiences splintering so much on TV and in the movies, if you can't have huge commercial success you've got to go for critical success and everyone knows the easiest way to critical success is to be dark and serious.

You've seen this is the rise of noir short fiction. Crime writers seeking literary cred or literary writers seeking a larger audience settled in the middle with dark crime fiction.

If you read through any edition of the Best American Mystery Stories you'll see the bulk of the stories are dark, especially the ones pulled from the literary journals.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think a story can be very dark if it has one or two things going for it: it has a character you root for, if you have learned some essential truth from it, if the end offers some hope, if it has humor to balance the dread. Now WINTER"S BONE had an almost Jesus-like protagonist who never wavered, so is that noir?
I know the definition of noir is that things start out badly and only get worse, but frankly I am tired of reading stories with extreme violence for the sake of it. I am tired of stories that never look at the victims of such violence--that never really bother to develop anything but violence. I yearn for a return things implied but not shown.

Steve Weddle said...

Seems there's still a good deal of "sanitized" crime stories on TV. When I was a kid we had ADAM-12 and now they have CSI. We had HAWAII FIVE-0. They have, THE MENTALIST. (Ha. You thought I was going to say BIG BANG THEORY?)

I think the push to having series on the movie channels is the biggest difference. I still remember what a big deal it was on MOONLIGHTING when David called Maddie the b-word.

John McFetridge said...

Paul, you'e right, the humour is very important. And I don't think many people see the ending of The Graduate as a downer - he gets the girl, doesn't he? But you make a good point about the look on their faces.

I agree Bryon, the niche markets have a lot to do with it.

Yeah, Steve, there are certainly a lot of sanitized shows - especially crime shows - that never really question the status quo.

Patti, I agree, we have far too many victims. I saw a recent episode of Law & Order SVU and I was shocked at how cruelly they treated a guy who had come out of prison (where he had been for a bloodless theft and allowed to be repeatedly raped) in order to catch a rapist/murderer (who had also raped the guy in prison). I kept waiting for someone to remark about how they were treating this guy, threatening him, brutalizing him, never once considering he was also a victim of multiple violent sexual assaults but it never happened.

The phony self-rightousness these characters wrap themselves in seems to know no bounds.