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Blurred boundaries, self-consciousness and other contemporary film noir themes

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Doug Keesey, English professor, and Josh Machamer, associate professor in the Theatre and Dance Department, joined us for a conversation about contemporary film noir that made me want to 1) hear conversations between two thinkers in the liberal arts more often and 2) watch 40 movies in the next week.

Neo-Noir: Contemporary Film Noir from Chinatown to The Dark Knight
Inspired by Keesey’s recent book, Neo-Noir: Contemporary Film Noir from Chinatown to The Dark Knight, we learned about how women’s studies courses have changed how directors portray the femme fatale, among other things. Professor Keesey prepared helpful notes for us, some of which I’ll share with you.

Disputed genre
First, this is a “disputed genre.” No one totally agrees on the definition. I like that.

Second, Keesey’s process was to go about watching films to see what he discovered – rather than know the theory he wanted to prove. He said he wrote the introduction to his latest book after he had compiled his notes and observations so, as the last step.

Neo-noir themes
Here are some things you may see when watching contemporary film noir (from his notes):

1. Self-consciousness: Those characters totally know they are living in a noir world. See, Pulp Fiction.

2. Blurred Boundaries: Not always easy to tell apart the investigator, villain and victim. See, Memento.

3. Hybrid Genres: Police procedural > gangster > white > country > techno > superhero noir.  See, Matrix.

4. Contemporary social changes and historical events: These are films that explore feminism, gay liberation, civil rights, government corruption. See, Single White Female.

5. Trends and technological advances in filmmaking: color, widescreen, dissonant music. See, Point Blank.

Evolution of the femme fatale
Getting back to how women’s studies courses have influenced film, Keesey said you can see the impact of feminism and resulting cultural shifts towards women in neo-noir. He explained that in looking at reviews and literature from classic film noir (1941-1958) they don’t acknowledge that the femme fatale may have some very compelling reasons for why she does what she does. In other words, while today we may see her actions as understandable (while – arguably – perhaps not justifiable) back in the day there wasn’t a lot of attention paid. The way Keesey summed it up: whereas noir was a morality tale, neo-noir is a warning not to be so self-righteous — a reverse morality tale perhaps.

Movement towards androgyny
Another way women and gender are addressed in neo-noir is in the movement towards androgyny — characters not behaving in typically male and female ways. A questioner asked about Drive with Ryan Gosling. I haven’t yet seen it, but Keesey explained that while Gosling looks very male and acts very male, the soundtrack and his acting style make him a more androgynous character. If you’ve seen it, do you agree?

Following the one-and-a-half hour conversation which also included Machamer’s jokes and musical theater references, a exploration of Oedipus’ tale, the claim that idealization is demonization and delicious bagels, Keesey asked us what we think is worth studying in contemporary film noir. Drive is on the list. Others? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

Conversations with Cal Poly AuthorsConversations with Cal Poly Authors is a public engagement and outreach program of the library that occurs about once a quarter in Room 111H of the library and is open to all. This conversation took place on November 18, 2011. For more information about this event: lib.calpoly.edu/authors/dougkeesey/

Join us February 3, 2012 when we discuss Matt Ritter’s new book, A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us, which according to reviewers is just as much prose as it is field guide.