Te Philosophy of Neo-Noir

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Te books published in the Philosophy of Popular Culture series will illuminate
and explore philosophical themes and ideas that occur in popular culture. Te
goal of this series is to demonstrate how philosophical inquiry has been reinvigo-
rated by increased scholarly interest in the intersection of popular culture and
philosophy, as well as to explore through philosophical analysis beloved modes
of entertainment, such as movies, TV shows, and music. Philosophical concepts
will be made accessible to the general reader through examples in popular
culture. Tis series seeks to publish both established and emerging scholars who
will engage a major area of popular culture for philosophical interpretation and
examine the philosophical underpinnings of its themes. Eschewing ephemeral
trends of philosophical and cultural theory, authors will establish and elaborate
on connections between traditional philosophical ideas from important thinkers
and the ever-expanding world of popular culture.
Series Editor
Mark T. Conard, Marymount Manhattan College, NY
Te Philosophy
of Neo-Noir
Edited by Mark T. Conard
The฀University฀Press฀of฀Kentucky
Publication of this volume was made possible in part by a grant
from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Copyright · 2007 by Te University Press of Kentucky
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Te Filson Historical Society, Georgetown College,
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Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University,
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and Western Kentucky University.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Te philosophy of neo-noir / edited by Mark T. Conard.
p. cm. — (Te philosophy of popular culture)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-0-8131-2422-3 (hardcover : alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 0-8131-2422-0 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. Film noir—United States—History and criticism.
I. Conard, Mark T., 1963-
PN1993.9.F34P36 2006
791.43’6336—dc22
2006032084
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the requirements of the American National Standard
for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials.
Manufactured in the United States of America.
Member of the Association of
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Contents
Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1
Part 1: Subjectivity, Knowledge,
and Human Nature in Neo-Noir
Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 7
Jerold J. Abrams
Blade Runner and Sartre: Te Boundaries of Humanity 21
Judith Barad
John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento 33
Basil Smith
Problems of Memory and Identity in
Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero 47
Andrew Spicer
Part 2: Justice, Guilt, and Redemption:
Morality in Neo-Noir
Te Murder of Moral Idealism: Kant and the Death of
Ian Campbell in e Onion Field 67
Douglas L. Berger
Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan 83
Aeon J. Skoble
“Saint” Sydney: Atonement and Moral Inversion in Hard Eight 91
Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch
Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World 101
Mark T. Conard
Part 3: Elements of Neo-Noir
Te Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 119
Richard Gilmore
Te Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself:
Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir 137
omas S. Hibbs
Te New Sincerity of Neo-Noir: Te Example of
e Man Who Wasn’t ere 131
R. Barton Palmer
“Anything Is Possible Here”: Capitalism, Neo-Noir, and Chinatown 167
Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
Sunshine Noir: Postmodernism and Miami Vice 183
Steven M. Sanders
Contributors 203
Index 207
vi Contents
Acknowledgments
First, I’d like to thank the contributors for all their hard work and pa-
tience, which are clearly evident in these terrific essays. Many thanks are
also due to Steve Wrinn and Anne Dean Watkins at the University Press of
Kentucky, with whom it continues to be a real pleasure to work. Last, for
all their love and support, I want to thank my family and friends, especially
Pepper Landis, John and Linda Pappas, Aeon Skoble, and Jerry Williams.
vii
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1
Introduction
In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Jefrey (Kyle MacLachlan) allows his
curiosity to get the best of him, as he spies on Dorothy Vallens (Isabella
Rossellini), has sadomasochistic sex with her, and ends up shooting the
vile Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)—all very noir. In Alan Parker’s Angel
Heart (1987), Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is unwittingly sent on a search
for himself by none other than Lucifer—also trés noir. How about when, in
Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), police omcer Bud White (Russell
Crowe) shoots an unarmed suspected rapist or hero cop Ed Exley (Guy
Pearce) shotguns Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) in the back:
Yep, clearly noir. And you know it’s noir when, in Bryan Singer’s e Usual
Suspects (1993), Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) discovers that
Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who may or may not be Keyser Soze, has been
spinning a tale about an assassination dressed up to look like a drug heist,
to the point where at the end of the movie we in the audience don’t know
if anything we’ve just been watching is supposed to have happened or not.
Indeed, it’s all so very noir.
But what does that mean, exactly: What is film noir: And what is
neo-noir:
My earlier volume, e Philosophy of Film Noir (University Press of
Kentucky, 2006), dealt mostly with movies from the classic noir period,
which falls between 1941 and 1938, beginning with John Huston’s e
Maltese Falcon and ending with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. You know
a classic noir film when you see it, with its unusual lighting (the constant
opposition of light and shadow), its tilted camera angles, and its of-center
scene compositions. But, besides these technical cinematic features, there
are a number of themes that characterize film noir, such as the inversion of
traditional values (bad guys as heroes, traditional good guys like cops do-
ing bad things) and a kind of moral ambivalence (it’s hard to tell right from
wrong any more); there’s also the feeling of alienation, paranoia, and pes-
simism; themes of crime and violence abound; and the movies attempt to
disorient the spectator, mostly through the filming techniques mentioned
above. Some classic examples of films noirs are Double Indemnity (Billy
2 Mark T. Conard
Wilder, 1944), e Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), e
Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), and Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur,
1947).
Te term neo-noir describes any film coming afer the classic noir pe-
riod that contains noir themes and the noir sensibility. Tis covers a great
deal of ground and a lot of movies since the taste for noir and the desire
of filmmakers to make noir films have shown no sign of waning in the de-
cades afer the classic era. Tese later films are likely not shot in black and
white and likely don’t contain the play of light and shadow that their classic
forerunners possessed. Tey do, however, contain the same alienation, pes-
simism, moral ambivalence, and disorientation.
In fact, neo-noir films in some ways seem better able to embody the
noir outlook. Tis is for a couple of important reasons. First, the term film
noir was employed only retroactively, describing a cycle of films that had
already (largely) passed. Consequently, the filmmakers of the classic pe-
riod didn’t have access to that expression and couldn’t have understood or
grasped entirely the meaning or shape of the movement to which they were
contributing, whereas neo-noir filmmakers are quite aware of the meaning
of noir and are quite consciously working within the noir framework and
adding to the noir canon. Second, because of the abandonment of govern-
ment oversight and censorship and the introduction of the ratings code,
neo-noir filmmakers can get away with a great deal more than their classic
noir predecessors. Whereas, under the censorship of the Hays Omce, for
example, no crime could go unpunished, in neo-noir the criminals can,
and, indeed, very ofen do, succeed. Good things happen to bad people,
and bad things happen to good people (just like in real life!), which seems
in line with noir’s cynicism and pessimism.
Some examples of neo-noir movies include John Boorman’s Point Blank
(1967) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) from the 1960s, Roman
Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)
from the 1970s, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) and David Lynch’s
Blue Velvet (1986) from the 1980s, and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs
(1992) and Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) from the 1990s. More
recent examples include the Coen brothers’ e Man Who Wasn’t ere
(2001) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2003).
Te present volume investigates the philosophical themes and under-
pinnings of neo-noir films and also uses the movies as a vehicle for explor-
ing and explaining traditional philosophical ideas. It comprises thirteen
essays from scholars in both philosophy and film and media studies. Te
Introduction 3

essays are written in nontechnical language and require no knowledge of
philosophy to appreciate or understand.
Part 1, “Subjectivity, Knowledge, and Human Nature in Neo-Noir,” be-
gins with “Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema,” in which
Jerold J. Abrams argues that, whereas in classic noir the detective searches
the modern cityscape for an external villain, in neo-noir, by contrast, the
detective’s task is to reorganize a disjointed time continuum, in which what
is efectively hidden is the detective’s own identity as the villain. Next, in
“Blade Runner and Sartre: Te Boundaries of Humanity,” Judith Barad fo-
cuses on the question of how we can distinguish human beings from so-
phisticated computers, thereby raising the question of what it means to
be human at all. In “John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento,” Basil
Smith discusses Locke’s theory of personal identity—what makes a person
the same over time—and the lessons that Christopher Nolan’s Memento
(2000) has for such a theory. Last, in “Problems of Memory and Identity
in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero,” Andrew Spicer claims that the neo-
noir protagonist’s memory and identity are problematized in a contingent
and meaningless world where time is chaotic, and dream and reality inter-
mingle.
Part 2, “Justice, Guilt, and Redemption: Morality in Neo-Noir,” begins
with “Te Murder of Moral Idealism: Kant and the Death of Ian Campbell
in e Onion Field,” in which Douglas L. Berger examines the issue of
whether human beings carry an inbuilt conscience, an awareness of right
and wrong, in light of a cop-noir rendition of a true murder story. Next, in
“Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan,” Aeon J. Skoble discusses
how Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) dramatizes Plato’s claim that be-
ing just and virtuous is in one’s self-interest and being unjust and vicious
is destructive of the self. Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch argue, in
“‘Saint’ Sydney: Atonement and Moral Inversion in Hard Eight,” that Paul
Tomas Anderson’s largely overlooked 1996 neo-noir enlarges the discus-
sion of justice and morality by showing that the protagonist’s redemption
is mired in moral perversity and is, therefore, problematic and partial. Last,
in “Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World,” I claim that the
postmodernism of Tarantino’s films undermines the attempts at redemp-
tion that his characters always seem to undertake.
Part 3, “Elements of Neo-Noir,” opens with “Te Dark Sublimity of
Chinatown,” in which Richard Gilmore avers that Roman Polanski’s clas-
sic neo-noir engages not just the ideas and themes of noir but also those
of classic philosophy and aesthetics. Next, in “Te Human Comedy
4 Mark T. Conard
Perpetuates Itself: Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir,” Tomas S.
Hibbs claims that the threat of nihilism, ofen prominent in classic noir,
becomes a working assumption in much of neo-noir, revealing the various
quests of the noir protagonist to be pointless, absurd, and thus comic, and
that the most representative examples of this turn to the comedic in neo-
noir are the films of the Coen brothers. In “Te New Sincerity of Neo-Noir:
Te Example of e Man Who Wasn’t ere,” R. Barton Palmer argues that
the Coen brothers’ film attempts to recapture and represent the structure
of feeling of the immediate postwar years, including especially the era’s
anomic obsession with uncertainty. Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray, in
“‘Anything Is Possible Here’: Capitalism, Neo-Noir, and Chinatown,” inves-
tigate from a Marxist perspective how the forms of capitalism shape the
characteristic unfolding of noir themes in this classic neo-noir film. Last,
in “Sunshine Noir: Postmodernism and Miami Vice,” Steven M. Sanders
asserts that, as a postmodern noir TV show, Miami Vice rejects any foun-
dation on which our knowledge of reality could rest and, instead, provides
new and alternative interpretations of the world, rather than a window into
reality or a “mirror of nature.”
Tere is a tremendous wealth of great neo-noir films and TV shows
from which to choose for a volume like this, and we believe that the ones
we’ve selected are a representative sample. Tere is, perhaps, one glaring
omission: the work of Martin Scorsese, whose noirs are some of the most
important and memorable, including Taxi Driver (1976), Mean Streets
(1973), and Raging Bull (1980). However, we take Scorsese’s work—which
is not limited to noir—to be so important that we’re planning on devoting
an entire separate volume to it.
We certainly hope and trust that our analyses of these terrific movies
will deepen and enrich your understanding of them and, perhaps, prompt
you to engage in a bit of philosophical reflection about the world and hu-
man existence. And, if Socrates is right that “the unexamined life is not
worth living,” a bit of philosophy and reflection is bound to be a good
thing.
Part 1
Subjectivity, Knowledge,
and Human Nature
in Neo-Noir
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Space, Time, and Subjectivity
in Neo-Noir Cinema
Jerold J. Abrams
Much of the time, classic film noir takes place in Los Angeles—but it’s al-
ways in the city, always a detective looking for clues to unravel the mystery
of whodunit. One of the best is Bogart playing Philip Marlowe in e Big
Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), walking dark and lonely streets, interviewing
suspects, never believing any of them. Tis was a grand time in American
cinema—the early to late 1940s—but, of course, none of it would last, for
classic noir peaked early and fast. And, by 1938, with Orson Welles’s Touch of
Evil it was all too evident: “dark cinema” had become heavy with routine and
self-consciousness. Decadence had set in, and the future of noir was a big
question mark. But then something new happened: suddenly noir began to
reinvent itself from within. Tis new noir—this “neo-noir”—still had all the
old trappings of classic noir, like detectives, labyrinths, and femmes fatales.
But then any new growth always bears the marks of its beginnings.
Two things, however, were diferent and really make neo-noir what it
is today. First is setting: what used to be the contemporary “space” of the
Los Angeles city now becomes the “time” of the distant future and the dis-
tant past. Second is character: rather than looking for a criminal in the city
that surrounds him, now the detective’s search is for himself, for his own
identity and how he may have lost it. Or, to put the same point another way,
the classic noir detective is a hardened stoic—not a flat character (mind
you), but hardly “conflicted” in Shakespeare’s sense. With neo-noir, how-
ever, that is precisely the point. Te character is “divided” against himself,
although not so much emotionally, as in Shakespeare, as epistemologically:
divided in time as two selves, and one is looking for the other.
Hirsch and Dimendberg on the Transition to Neo-Noir
Te basic categories of noir and neo-noir have been fairly widely writ-
7
8 Jerold J. Abrams
ten up—and no one’s better at it than Foster Hirsch. In Detours and Lost
Highways, Hirsch maps the continuity of the genre and finds neo-noir to be
a perfectly natural extension of the same old classic themes. “While there
have been many local changes,” he writes, “noir’s basic narrative molds have
remained notably stable.”
1
So, again, the detective, the crime, the femme
fatale, the maze—it’s all right there, right from the very beginning. But
there are local changes, as Hirsch notes, and taken together these form the
fundamental shif within noir to neo-noir. Important among these changes
are the placing of social issues, like race, class, and gender, already latent in
noir, at the forefront of dark cinema, basically because they have come to
the forefront of contemporary society. Equally important, however, is the
change in setting mentioned before. “Neo-noir,” writes Hirsch, “is as likely
to take place in vast open spaces as in the pestilential city of tradition.”
2

Tink of Touch of Evil at the very end of classic noir: it moves the action
out of Los Angeles and into another country, Mexico, and into the desert,
giving noir a new kind of danger.
Edward Dimendberg makes the same sort of point in Film Noir and
the Spaces of Modernity. “Te end of film noir,” writes Dimendberg, “also
coincides, and not fortuitously, with the end of the metropolis of classical
modernity, the centered city of immediately recognizable and recognized
spaces. . . . One might speculate that as spatial dispersal became a ubiqui-
tous cultural reality, centripetal space began to appear excessively archaic.”
3

In the old noir, the city was centripetal, meaning always tightly organized
around a city center; but then, suddenly, afer the war—afer America was
established as a superpower and capitalism moved into high gear—the city
seemed to fly apart centrifugally. Te point may, at first, seem a little ab-
stract—the very idea that the city somehow “flew apart” at the edges is
odd—but really it’s not that hard to imagine.
You see it everywhere in the form of “postmodern” architecture. In
the modern city you always knew where you were because the architec-
tural styles were so incredibly diversified: how could you miss the Empire
State Building or the uoiivwoou sign: You couldn’t. And, of course, these
monuments are all still there, but a lot has changed as well. For with post-
modern architecture now the buildings look all the same: massive repetition
of forms, like some mad architect used a strip mall stencil to design every-
thing from prisons to churches to video stores. So, now, the landmarks are
all identical, all mass-produced—and you get lost in space, in the same mo-
ment you get found in the universal markers: “Blockbuster,” “Wal-Mart,”
“Gap,” “Barnes & Noble.” And so fades away the modern city—and with it
Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 9
both the setting and the cause of all classic film noir. Dimendberg is right,
and so is Hirsch.
But there’s more to it than that, something else that really signals the
birth of the new noir. For, as centripetal space dissolved, so too did the
locus of community. Everyone was moving around, leaving one place, go-
ing to another: jobs, education, travel as an end in itself (especially in the
1960s: think of the beat generation). Add to all this multiculturalism and
the steady dissolution of the nuclear family, and, pretty soon, with all this
centrifugal motion, traditional social bonds seemed quaint on a good day,
oppressive on a bad day, and everyone agreed: things would never be the
same. So, in place of the family, the community, the nation-state, or the
church, a new king emerged in the form of the “self ”: the self as the king of
its very own mind.
Fusion of Detective and Villain
And that, as I see it, is what the shif to neo-noir is really all about.
Everything takes place in relation to the self: the self is the detective, the
self is the villain, and all the clues exist solely within his own mind. Sure,
there was some of this in classic noir—just like Hirsch’s social issues—in
the form of early amnesia noirs, but it hardly defined the genre, anyway not
like it does today. And the reason is simple: the postmodern conditions
of cultural flux and centrifugal space in the second half of the twentieth
century simply forced the individual subject to the forefront of culture and,
ultimately, to the forefront of the new noir.
And, in my view, this really marks the third development in the form
of the detective story. Te first form is the classic nineteenth-century ver-
sion, especially Sherlock Holmes. In that formula, we have the first-person
perspective of John Watson, a medical doctor (and really a kind of detec-
tive), who is, in fact and quite clearly, looking for the essence of the mind
of Holmes. However, this investigation of the self into an other takes place
only when the other, namely, Holmes, is looking for another still, namely,
the villain.
Everything changes, however, as the nineteenth century becomes the
twentieth and Sherlock Holmes, in turn, steadily becomes Phillip Marlowe
and Sam Spade. For, now, Watson is gone. And it’s the detective himself
who is telling the story about his own search for the other as villain. So
it’s still a first-person-singular detective story, but the degrees between the
reader (or the viewer) and the villain have closed by one: namely, the re-
10 Jerold J. Abrams
moval of Watson, such that our first-person perspective is, in fact, closer to
the actual events of the case. Tis is the second major form of the detective
story, namely, classic noir.
And, if you decrease the degrees even further by one, you get neo-noir
as a third form. It’s still a first-person narrative—and, like noir, it’s still the
detective who’s doing the talking, but he’s no longer looking for some mys-
terious villain in the city. He’s looking for himself: he’s looking for himself
as an other.
Forms of Neo-Noir Time
Somehow, the detective’s mind has divided, typically because of a traumat-
ic event that causes some form of amnesia. Tis can be in the form of ret-
rograde amnesia, in which the detective cannot remember past events, or
anterograde amnesia, in which he cannot form new memories, or lacunar
amnesia, which involves the loss of memory about a particular event.
But it can also be caused by hallucinations, multiple personalities, arti-
ficial memory implants, a high-tech revealing of the future, or any number
of other alterations in the continuum of self-consciousness. In fact, it can
even be caused by the detective’s conscious or unconscious awareness of
his own internal thoughts in dialogue. Tat is, because thought takes place
largely in language and language involves the simultaneous performances
of a speaker and a hearer, the detective may divide these roles into char-
acters, taking one of them for “himself ” and another for another person
existing outside himself.
In all these cases, the key thing to keep in mind is this: one self is al-
ways ahead, and the other is always behind. And this is precisely why the
idea of time is so very important to the structure of all neo-noir. Indeed,
I think it’s fair to say that there are really three distinct forms of neo-noir,
which correspond to the three parts of the time continuum, namely, past,
present, and future. Tese three forms may be called past neo-noir, present
neo-noir, and future neo-noir (or future noir, as Paul Sammon calls it).
4
Past Neo-Noir
Past neo-noir is usually low-tech, contrasting it with the very high-tech fu-
ture noir, and almost always theological. e Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski,
1999) is a perfect example: it’s the story of a “book detective,” Dean Corso
(Johnny Depp), who investigates e Nine Gates, a book written in the
Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 11
Middle Ages by Satan himself. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank
Langella), an expert on the occult and a famed book collector, to investi-
gate two other copies of e Nine Gates. Balkan owns one, but he’s sure it’s a
forgery—basically because the devil won’t appear on command. Naturally,
Corso says yes. Balkan may be totally nuts—no doubting that—but still the
job is easy money. So of Corso goes to Europe—a trip that is symbolic of
going back into the past, into the Middle Ages—to examine the other two
copies.
In investigating the matter, however, Corso soon realizes that Balkan’s
copy is not a forgery and that neither are the other two. In fact, there aren’t
even three books in the first place: they’re all part of a singular text—three
books in one, a kind of demonic “trinity” of texts. Now Corso is intrigued,
and he’s starting to believe. But, as he goes deeper into the mystery of e
Nine Gates, he soon discovers himself at the center of the plot: the devil has
chosen him and not Balkan to find the Ninth Gate to hell, a discovery that
Corso is only too happy to make. For Corso has been “converted,” and he is
now searching for his own demonic salvation—his own otherworldly dark
power. And, by film’s end, he is, indeed, a full-fledged servant of Satan,
prepared to do whatever it takes to unlock the Ninth Gate.
You find the same kind of fusion of historical noir and theological plot
as well in Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987), which is actually a past/theo-
logical noir fused with the story of Faust. Te very noirish detective Harry
Angel (Mickey Rourke) is commissioned by Louis Cypher (as in “Lucifer,”
played by Robert De Niro), who wants Angel to find Johnny Favorite,
whose real name was Liebling. “I gave Johnny some help at the beginning
of his career,” says Cypher. But Favorite, having been in the war, has shell
shock and amnesia and is now a virtual zombie—and, as a consequence,
“the contract was never honored.” Angel agrees to check it out, in part be-
cause he too was in the war and also had shell shock; naturally he’s sym-
pathetic to the situation. But what he doesn’t know is that he, Angel, is (or
was) Favorite—and was Liebling before that. Indeed, Angel is the one with
amnesia, which means that he doesn’t remember making a pact with the
devil. So, in a sense, he’s not totally obligated to make good on it: he’s not
the same person anymore. Of course, that’s hardly going to wash with the
devil, who still wants Favorite’s soul.
And this is why Cypher sends Angel looking for himself: so that he
can figure out who he used to be, which he does. In doing so, he begins as
all noir detectives do, with a series of typical noir interviews, or at least he
thinks he does: in fact, he’s actually murdering, without knowing it, each
12 Jerold J. Abrams
of the suspects he visits. Here, the devil is using Angel’s amnesia and per-
sonality split against him, so that, instead of remembering murders, Angel
remembers something else, like eating a cheeseburger at a local diner.
Efectively, the devil is framing Angel against himself to make him so guilty
of other sins as to be worthy of his original Faustian bargain. And, by film’s
end, Angel is, indeed, a devil—crying, screaming (Mickey Rourke is bril-
liant here), “I know who I am. I know who I am,” as he descends into the
fiery depths of hell.
As a third example of past neo-noir—one certainly not typically catego-
rized as noir—Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg and George Lucas,
1981) is important to note for its historical and theological place in the
tradition. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a detective, certainly: he inves-
tigates lost artifacts, and he’s also slightly on the criminal side, something
in between a scholar and a grave robber. He wears a gun and a noir fedora,
uses clipped Hemingway-like language, strikes a stoic pose, gets beaten up
all the time (just like Bogie), and in standard neo-noir fashion goes looking
through time for a find of theologically gigantic proportions—nothing less
than the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant. At the same time, he is also look-
ing for himself, looking for an experience of the Ark in order to test his
faith—or whether he has any. He wants to know who he is: a man of faith
or a man of science. And he finds his answer at the end—in a moment, with
just the slightest shred of scientific evidence for God. All of a sudden, now
he’s a believer, and now he knows: the Ark is very deadly indeed. So, when
Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) wants to see it, he warns her, “Shut your
eyes!”—or the light exploding from the Ark will penetrate the windows of
her soul.
It’s this last scene that really clinches Raiders’s position in the noir and
neo-noir tradition. For it’s taken almost directly from the classic film noir Kiss
Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1933)—also a detective film about a very danger-
ous box of light. And, again, it all happens right at the end: Dr. G. E. Soberin
(Albert Dekker) tells an overcurious woman, Gabrielle/Lily Carver (Gaby
Rodgers) (and, of course, here’s the link to Marion in Raiders): “You have been
misnamed, Gabrielle. You should have been called Pandora. She had a curios-
ity about a box, and opened it, and let loose all the evil in the world.” But Lily/
Gabrielle doesn’t care: “Never mind about the evil. What’s in it:” She just can’t
help herself, and—noom! A massive nuclear explosion. Spielberg and Lucas
basically redid this classic noir scene by turning the science into religion—no
longer is the dangerous box of light nuclear; now it’s an even more dangerous
box of spiritual light, “fire of God,” as Indiana puts it.
Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 13
Quentin Tarantino clearly loved this theme in noir, so, when it came
time thirteen years later to do his own neo-noir, Pulp Fiction (1994), he
simply redid the same theme once again. Here, Jules Winnfield (Samuel
L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) are sent to recover a brief-
case, again, a kind of “box,” that, when opened, also gleams hard golden
light. We are never told what it is—but clearly the box of fiery light in a
noir film and the question “What is it:” asked by Honey Bunny (Amanda
Plummer) are reminiscent of Gabrielle’s demise in Kiss Me Deadly and
Marion Ravenwood’s near miss in Raiders.
Future Neo-Noir: Detective Science Fiction and Alien Noir
Now, as we move to the opposite end of the neo-noir spectrum and to fu-
ture noir, some of the old theological elements will remain, certainly—but
really only germinally. Indeed, for the most part, they fade away and are
replaced by science and high technology.
In Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), for example, Detective Rick
Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-cop, gets called back to do one last job:
the extermination of four humanoid “replicants.” Originally, the replicants
were built to do manual labor “of-world,” but recently they’ve returned to
meet their maker, in hopes of extending their four-year life span. Problem
is, they blend in rather well: you can’t just pick them out of a police lineup.
In fact, the only way to test them is Voigt-Kampf, a kind of sci-fi Turing
test used to tell robots from people, and this is also the future noir ver-
sion of the classic noir “interview.” On most androids it works pretty easily
(maybe twenty or thirty questions, cross-referenced), but there is a new
race of replicants, a special line, and Rachael (Sean Young) is one of them—
it takes over a hundred questions to figure her out.
Rachael is special—so special, in fact, that she doesn’t even know she’s
an android. She doesn’t know her entire cognitive groundwork is artifi-
cial: her memories aren’t real. Still, fake as she is, Rachael is no fool—she’s
incredibly intelligent, and, being quite human in many ways, she figures
out her real identity just by looking into Deckard’s eyes, almost as if she
were testing him too. So she goes to Deckard’s apartment, just afer her
Voigt-Kampf test, with all her false pictures and all her false memories,
and forces him to tell her the truth to confirm what she already knows—
which he does. By this point, however, Rachael has figured out even more
than Deckard has: “You know that Voigt-Kampf test of yours:” she asks.
“Did you ever take that test yourself:” Deckard doesn’t answer, but even
14 Jerold J. Abrams
later that same evening, while playing piano, he dozes a little and has a brief
dream of a unicorn running by. So we know right away: the same program
must have been used on the other detective, Gaf (Edward James Olmos),
who makes paper and matchstick sculptures of unicorns. Clearly, the two
cops were built with the same imagination implants. However, Deckard—
being the best of the blade runners—also has something of Rachael in him,
and the piano is the clue: Rachael also knows how to play piano, and we are
given no good reason why Deckard (a cop) would own one, let alone know
how to play in the first place. But, from the perspective of the history of the
detective story, really, this makes perfect sense, for his imagination is infused
with the same aesthetic creativity you find in all great detectives, from Edgar
Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, to Sherlock Holmes, who plays the violin, even
up through James Bond, whose artistic tastes are well refined indeed. And,
once you’ve got this point, it’s all too apparent: Deckard doesn’t have a past at
all. He might as well have been built a week ago—just like Rachael.
It’s this way in all future noirs—the detective must find himself, de-
spite high technology, but using those same tools as well. Take, for example,
Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002). Here, the detective is John Anderton
(Tom Cruise), chief of Pre-Crime—an experimental form of law enforce-
ment in Washington DC. Te secret of Pre-Crime is “pre-cognition”—in the
form of three precognitive geniuses, Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell (whose
names refer to three detective writers: Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan
Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett). Tese “pre-cogs” are kept drugged, to keep
them calm—basically brilliant zombies—while visions of an imminent fu-
ture race steadily through their minds and are then projected onto a screen
above them. Once the future crime is viewed, then Anderton’s crew can
nab the criminal before he even commits the crime.
It’s the ultimate form of crime prevention: catch the killer before he can
even get to his victim. In fact, the project of Pre-Crime is so successful that
it’s ready to go national very soon, until a scandal breaks out: the pre-cogs
have revealed the name of a new future murderer, Chief Anderton himself.
And now Anderton must go on the run, efectively “running from him-
self ”—indeed, from a system he helped create. At the same time, of course,
he must also run forward into the future toward a murder that, he knows,
he must at once commit and simultaneously prevent—and he doesn’t have
a clue as to his own motive.
So you get the basic idea: past noir is theological, and future noir is
sci-fi. And, in the transition, God and the devil are replaced by science and
technology. Tis is, however, by no means also to say that there is noth-
Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 15
ing otherworldly about future noir. Quite the contrary. In fact, an impor-
tant form of the future noir subgenre is what we might call alien noir. And
e X-Files—which is both a television series (created by Chris Carter)
and a 1998 film (directed by Rob Bowman)—is certainly one of the most
popular examples of this form. Still, as neo-noir as e X-Files is, there
is also an ever-so-slight return to Conan Doyle’s original formula. Dana
Scully (Gillian Anderson) is the new Watson: she’s a medical doctor and
a companion and counterpoint to Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who is,
in turn, the new Sherlock Holmes. Mulder is a brilliant detective with an
almost supernatural ability to solve seemingly unsolvable crimes, in large
part because he has Holmes’s wild imagination.
However, rather than looking for earthly villains, Mulder’s looking for
aliens, who are plotting with our government to colonize the earth and
make humanity into a slave race. And he has one rather large problem in
uncovering this conspiracy: the hard evidence against the government, and
in support of the existence of aliens, is always just beyond arm’s reach. And,
whatever evidence he has, he knows it could have been “put there” as part
of an elaborate charade intended to lead him on a wild goose chase. Even
his own memories, he knows—they could have been manufactured. Did he
really see his sister Samantha abducted by aliens when they were children:
Or was it all staged: Or maybe it’s lacunar amnesia: that one memory is
simply gone, and Mulder as a boy imposed fantasies about aliens on top
of it. Even with intensive regression hypnotherapy, he’s never 100 percent
sure. And Scully is always there to give him the scientific point of view, as
a foil to his madness.
Similarly, Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998) also has aliens plotting against the
human race—although, rather than the “little green men” of e X-Files, these
aliens look like us and wear trenchcoats and fedoras in typical noir fashion.
Tey’ve taken us from earth and replanted us on a massive spaceship—which
we think is a city, although it’s really a replica of a typical classic noir Los
Angeles cityscape. Tey’re experimenting on us, trying to find the essence
of the human soul. And, to do this, they force us to go to sleep each night
so that they can rearrange our memories and self-identities. By setting all
human memories in flux and giving your memories to me and mine to you
overnight—over millions of trials—the aliens believe that the essence of
human consciousness will rise to the top. And, in truth, the whole thing
goes pretty well—that is, until John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) begins to fig-
ure it out and decides to go looking for the rest of his mind, if it exists at
all. As Dr. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) puts it, trying to explain the
16 Jerold J. Abrams
whole mess to Murdoch’s wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly): “Wherever your
husband is, he is searching . . . for himself.”
So, in a sense, the experiment actually works, just not how the aliens
expected it to work. And, here again, Dr. Schreber, who functions as a kind
of narrator, explains it to the aliens: “Weren’t you looking for the human
soul: Tat’s the purpose of your little zoo, isn’t it: Tat’s why you keep
changing people and things around every night. Maybe you have finally
found what you’ve been looking for.” Indeed, they have found the essence of
humanity—only they don’t know they’ve found it because they don’t have
the proper tools to identify it. For it’s not about the continuity of memory,
or pure reason, or free will, or really the human mind at all. It is, rather,
our connection to one another that defines us as individuals. It’s not what’s
“inside” us but what’s “between us” that makes us what we are.
3
Present Neo-Noir
Now, when it comes to present neo-noir, these films take place neither in
the distant past nor in the distant future. Of course, that’s hardly to say that
time is not “of the essence”—far from it. In fact, present neo-noir, in my
opinion, ofers the best of neo-noir—and particularly for its use of time.
For example, in Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000), the sleuth Leonard
Shelby (Guy Pearce) is looking for “John G.,” the man who killed his wife
and bashed in his skull, leaving him with anterograde amnesia. He cannot
for the life of him form any new memories. So, every five to ten minutes
or so, whoosh: it’s all gone. Now he knows where he is—now he doesn’t.
Apparently, he’s chasing someone. No, that’s wrong; someone’s chasing him.
And who’s on the other end of the phone: Leonard’s world is reborn afresh
with every paragraph of thought. So he needs to develop a “system,” as he
calls it, in order to find his way back, or forward, to his wife’s killer—and,
of course, we are never sure it isn’t really him.
Te system works like this. In place of natural memories, Leonard cre-
ates a well of artificial memories. He tattoos messages all over his body,
backward, so he can read them in a mirror—and takes lots of photographs
and covers them in notes (a fine homage to Blade Runner). He’s trying des-
perately to impose some kind of temporal order, some semblance of causal-
ity, on a shattered metaphysical continuum of duration. But it’s a hopeless
enterprise because of the nature of interpretation, how indeterminate it is.
Every time Leonard wakes up with his freshly wiped memory, he simply
reinterprets anew all his old tattoos and pictures and then proceeds to put
Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 17
those new interpretations onto his body in the form of new tattoos and so
on, ad infinitum. Indeed, every day he’s just drifing further and further into
darkness, helplessly suspended by a thin thread of semantic maybes. So it’s
only natural that, by film’s end, we are hardly any closer to the truth. And
Leonard the neo-noir Sisyphus of memory can do little else than just keep on
going, keep on tattooing and taking pictures—which, of course, he does.
It’s the same with e Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002), another
amnesia noir. Two weeks are gone, all blacked out, and Jason Bourne (Matt
Damon) doesn’t even know his own name. All he knows is that a fishing
boat dragged his unconscious body out of the ocean, with bullets in his
back. So now he’s got to figure out who he is and who is trying to kill him—
and, of course, those two answers are basically the same. But Bourne doesn’t
even know where to begin. He can’t exactly look to his surroundings—noth-
ing’s really changed there, and anything he’d find would simply throw him
back on himself. So, just as in Memento, the detective must rely on clues
from his own body to reveal truths about his mind. Only, in Memento,
the detective self-consciously plants these clues on the surface of his own
body, while, in e Bourne Identity, the CIA has planted them, unwittingly,
throughout Bourne’s very behavioral structure.
Engineered with drugs and weaponry and the highest kind of training,
Bourne is entirely beyond the rule of law, completely beyond good and evil
(as Nietzsche would put it). So, of course, he is totally surprised when his
body snaps into action—taking out two policemen with their own weap-
ons in just seconds flat. It’s like he’s watching himself from above, watching
his arms do things he can’t remember learning. Efectively, Bourne’s body
knows more about his identity than he does. And that’s the purpose of
the film—the ultimate dialectical reconciliation of body and mind, mind
guided by body, to higher self-awareness. Who was I: Who am I: Am I a
killer: Bourne must find the answers while running from those who al-
ready know.
And, again, it’s the same sort of theme in Fight Club (David Fincher,
1999)—the narrator (we are not given his name until late in the film) must
discover his own identity afer a psychological break. Only, rather than
getting shot in the back like Bourne, he finds that his mind collapses un-
der the sheer weight of high capitalism and a dizzying disgust at a million
swarming manufactured household objects (which perfectly recalls Jean-
Paul Sartre’s existential novel Nausea).
6
Desperate, he goes to a support
group and begins “guided meditation” into his own mind—or what the
group leader calls his “cave.” Here, he must find his “power animal,” which
18 Jerold J. Abrams
turns out to be a penguin, and really rather a meek self-reflection. Still,
as the narrator’s psychosis worsens, the power animal becomes powerful
indeed—powerful enough to move outside the narrator’s own mind and
appear to him in the form of another person, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).
Now, by no means does the narrator understand this: he thinks Tyler
is just another guy, someone he meets on an airplane who happens to have
the same briefcase. Naturally, Tyler is sympathetic to the narrator’s situa-
tion—being the other half of him—and his need for a release, so together
they form a new kind of therapy group called “Fight Club.” Only their ther-
apy sessions consist not in crying and drinking cofee but in very violent
fistfights. And it works pretty well, for a while anyway. But, as more partici-
pants join in and the sessions become larger and larger, the once-therapy-
oriented Fight Club quickly becomes the terrorist organization “Project
Mayhem,” with Tyler in the dictatorial lead.
Indeed, the narrator’s alter ego, Tyler Durden, is steadily becoming au-
tonomous: so much so that the narrator can even see Tyler both as another
person and as himself. So he decides to confront Tyler face-to-face and
demand an explanation for what’s been going on, which, of course, Tyler
is more than happy to give: “People do it every day. Tey talk to them-
selves. Tey see themselves as they’d like to be. Tey don’t have the cour-
age you have, to just run with it. Naturally you’re still wrestling with it, so
sometimes you’re still you. Other times, you imagine yourself watching
me. Little by little, you’re just letting yourself become . . . Tyler Durden.”
And now the narrator knows: he simply must eliminate Tyler. But, with
seemingly no options lef, he goes for broke and shoots himself through the
mouth, killing Tyler and somehow saving himself.
As a final example of present neo-noir, you can see once more the same
basic framework in : Faith in Chaos (Darren Aronofsky, 1998). Only now,
rather than trying to locate himself in time, as is typical of a neo-noir detective,
Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is trying to find his way out of time—making
a distinctly Pythagorean neo-noir detective story. Te Pythagoreans were an
ancient and elite cult of philosophers, about a half millennium before Christ,
who believed that mathematics lay at the foundation of the universe—and that
material reality and change and time are simply illusions of the human mind.
Max, who explicitly follows Pythagoras, believes this—and believes, too, that,
once he has discovered the numerical structure of being, the temporal world
of becoming will be rendered readily apparent and simple. Evolution, the stock
market, the flow of cigarette smoke—all of it will be seen as simply the illusory
efects of a deeper ontological and mathematical cause.
Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 19
Problem is, Max’s computer, Euclid, has reached its upper limit on
power and complexity, and he just can’t go any further with it: if he’s go-
ing to unbind reality, he’ll need a better system. So, of course, when he’s
ofered a special chip by an unethical corporate investment firm that is
interested in his work, he can hardly say no. Afer all, he’s right on the edge,
as he tells his mentor: “I’m so close.” But, when he gives the chip to Euclid,
along with a mathematical translation of the Torah as a data set, it’s all too
much to handle, and Euclid crashes—just moments afer becoming fully
self-conscious and spitting out a 216-digit number that renders machines,
like ourselves, conscious and is also the name of God. Tis is the numerical
structure of being—and now Max has it. It’s inside him: he can see it, and
it’s beautiful. But somehow it’s not staying put—it’s moving around, and
it’s changing him. It’s doing to him what it did to Euclid and Max’s mentor
as well. It’s making him omniscient, and it’s making him insane, and he
knows: soon his mind will crash from the overload of seeing too much of
God’s universe all at once. So Max has only one choice: he must lobotomize
himself to get rid of these ascending divine powers—just as the narrator of
Fight Club must, when faced with his own ascending powers of madness.
However, instead of a gun, Max takes a drill to the side of his skull.
Neo-Noir’s Irreconcilable Dinerences
Of course, in the end, while neo-noir is certainly new, some things never
change. For, despite the transformation of space into time and the fusion
of the detective and the villain, certain staples will always define the genre
as a whole. Obvious among these are the maze, the detective, the femme
fatale, and so many other things. But perhaps most important is that key
noir element of inescapability. Remember, in classic noir, the detective will
catch a criminal or solve a case: those are the basic outlines of any detective
story. But what classic noir really reveals is the human condition: that we
can never escape it, and the detective knows it; there’s no way out of the
maze of the noir city. Well, here, too—even though the city may be dissolv-
ing before our very eyes—the detective still remains hopelessly trapped,
for he can never escape the illusions of his own mind. Indeed, by film’s
end, it’s true, we are a little closer to reconciling parts of the self—but that’s
never really the point. What’s really the point is that total, transparent self-
consciousness recedes indefinitely into the future and indefinitely into the
past, always to be chased, but never to be caught.
20 Jerold J. Abrams
Notes
I would like to thank Elizabeth F. Cooke, Mark T. Conard, Kevin Graham, and
Chris Pliatska for many conversations on (or relating to) neo-noir cinema. I would
also like to thank Mark Conard and Bob Porfirio for reading and commenting on
an earlier version of this essay (and for many discussions of film in general). Of
course, any mistakes that remain are my own.
1. Foster Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (New York:
Limelight, 1999), 14. See also Foster Hirsch, e Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir
(1981; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 2001).
2. Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways, 14–13.
3. Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 233.
4. On this, see Paul M. Sammon, Future Noir: e Making of “Blade Runner”
(New York: Perennial, 1996).
3. Other films in this category of future noir use the same techniques. For ex-
ample, Paycheck (John Woo, 2003) is the story of Michael Jennings (Ben Ameck),
a “backwards engineer” who has had his memory “wiped” and now must figure
out what kind of future he has engineered. He leaves himself clues from the future
that he must interpret in the “past” in order to discover what he used to know.
Or consider Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001). David Ames (Tom Cruise) is
cryonically preserved—only he doesn’t know it yet. He must figure this out and
must figure out too that the life he thinks he’s leading is an artificial “lucid dream”
(an enhancement added on to his cryonic suspension)—only, now, the dream has
become a nightmare.
6. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (1938), trans. Lloyd Alexander (New York: New
Directions, 1976).
21
Blade Runner and Sartre
Te Boundaries of Humanity
Judith Barad
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) combines film noir and science fiction
to tell a story that questions what it means to be human, a question as
old as Methuselah.
1
However, this ancient question still arises in 2019 ..u.
within a setting that pits humans against androids. Te humans consider
the androids, which they call replicants, to be nothing more than multi-
faceted machines. Created on an assembly line by the Tyrell Corporation’s
genetic engineers, they are organisms manufactured to serve as slave labor
for exploring and colonizing other planets. As manufactured artifacts, they
are thought of as expendable substitutes for their human masters. Since the
replicants are accorded neither legal nor moral rights, their expendability
is assumed. Although these complex androids look human, act human, and
are at least as intelligent as their human designers, they are manufactured
to live only four years as a way of ensuring that they will never be equal to
humans. Naturally, they lack emotional development, a fact that is used to
identify them as replicants.
2
Te noir film raises some interesting questions: If artificial intelligence
were placed in a body that looked and acted human, would such a machine
be a human: Would a human, in turn, be nothing more than a machine:
In fact, would androids difer in any important way from the humans who
created them:
Vive la Dinerence:
Some philosophers, like Alan Turing, argue that there is no important dif-
ference between an android and a human because the human brain is a
kind of computer that processes inputs (the things we sense) and generates
outputs (our behavior). Tey believe that computers will soon be able to
imitate the input-output processing of the brain. In fact, there are com-
22 Judith Barad
puter programs that can converse with humans so skillfully that it’s nearly
impossible to distinguish their responses from those of a human. Turing
insists that, if we can’t distinguish between the answers a computer gives
to questions and the answers a human being gives, then the computer has
the equivalent of a human mind. If, in addition, a computer has an organic
body that is indistinguishable from a human body, then the computer and
the human are essentially the same kind of being. In that case, someone
would, doubtlessly, start a computer rights movement.
Jean-Paul Sartre disagrees with Turing’s argument. According to
Sartre, there’s an enormous diference between a human artifact, such as a
computer, and a human being. In Existentialism and Human Emotions, he
claims that “existence precedes essence” in human beings alone.
3
In other
words, we are first born, we first exist, and only later choose the nature or
essence we will have. In choosing our essence, we difer from any manufac-
tured thing, a thing in which essence precedes existence. Rather than use
Sartre’s example of a paper cutter to explain this concept, let’s substitute an
android. Suppose a genetic engineer decides to manufacture an android.
Tis engineer knows what he is making; that is, he knows the essence of the
android, and he knows how the android will be used before he begins creat-
ing it. In other words, the android’s essence exists in the genetic engineer’s
mind before the android is actually manufactured. If by the essence of the an-
droid we mean the procedure by which it’s made and the purpose for which
it will be produced, then the android’s essence precedes its existence.
In Sartre’s view, the traditional notion of God leads us to confuse the
human with a manufactured item. God is thought of, afer all, as the maker
of human beings. He knows exactly what He will create before He creates
anyone. He knows what each human being will be before He creates him
or her, before each one exists. So Sartre insists that the concept of the hu-
man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of the android in the
mind of the genetic engineer. Just as the genetic engineer creates each an-
droid for a certain purpose, God creates each human for a certain purpose.
Neither the human nor the android is a free being; they are determined by
their makers.
Sartre, however, was an atheist. Since there is no God, he reasoned,
there isn’t anyone who can determine the nature of any human being.
Human nature can’t be determined in advance because there’s no one who
knows what each human will become in advance. It’s only the human be-
ing herself who can determine the kind of person she will be. We’re simply
what we make of ourselves through our choices and actions. In humans,
Blade Runner and Sartre 23
and humans alone, the fact of existing comes before an individual’s own
choice of the kind of essence or nature she will develop.
Freedom and Responsibility
Although the replicants of Blade Runner are engineered to act and reason
as humans, they can’t choose their own essence. Tis inability is, in Sartre’s
view, what diferentiates any manufactured being from humans. Te repli-
cants aren’t responsible for their condition because they were programmed
to fulfill a certain function; as members of a series, they didn’t choose their
essence. Disagreeing with Turing, Sartre insists that no human is reducible
to a programmed, manufactured being. Instead, humans create their own
nature through free choices and actions. We can choose our occupation,
our level of education, our marital status, our religion or lack of one, our
lifestyle, and our attitudes, beliefs, and values. Since we choose our nature,
we are responsible for it. We can’t blame anyone else for what we are since
we can, at any moment, choose to become a new, diferent sort of person.
We are free because we can rely neither on a god nor on society to direct
our actions or to program our natures. Our freedom consists mainly in our
ability to envision additional possibilities for our condition.
Once we accept our freedom, we must also accept its accompanying
responsibility. Since we could have made diferent choices, we should as-
sume responsibility for what we have become. Sometimes, however, we try
to escape responsibility by pretending we’re not free. We try to convince
ourselves that outside influences have shaped our nature—God, our fam-
ily, our genes, society. Sartre exposes this belief as a cop-out, claiming that
the human is the sum of everything he ever chooses to do. If we choose to
believe that we are determined by outside factors, we are responsible for
adopting this belief. To be human means to create oneself—the emotions
one chooses to feel, the beliefs one chooses to retain, and the actions one
chooses to perform.
Since replicants have a maker who programs them, Sartre’s view tells
us that they, unlike humans, can justifiably blame someone else for their
essence. In fact, some replicants, having the advanced Nexus-6 design,
blamed humans to the point of committing mutiny. As a result, a death
sentence was imposed on any that returned to earth. It would be reason-
able to suppose that no replicant would want to risk the return trip. But
four fugitive replicants are trying to reach their maker, a genetic engineer
turned corporate big shot, to plead with him to extend their lives.
24 Judith Barad
Te Voigt-Kampn Test
Te first fugitive replicant we see, Leon Kowalski (Brion James), looks so
human we aren’t immediately aware that he’s a replicant. Not only does this
waste-disposal engineer look human, but he seems acutely nervous and, as
he is being tested, shows unmistakable fear. If Sartre’s distinction between
manufactured items and humans is right, and if the humans depicted in
the film are right in claiming that there’s a diference between replicant and
human, then it should be a discernible diference. If there isn’t a discern-
ible diference, then it isn’t clear why they should be subservient to human
beings.
In Blade Runner, the only way to test whether someone is a human or
a replicant is by means of the Voigt-Kampf (V-K) test, which monitors
emotional response by means of a subject’s involuntary iris fluctuations,
capillary dilation, and blush response. Not all emotional responses, how-
ever, are important in distinguishing between a human and a replicant.
Te test doesn’t try to identify, for example, fear or rage. Fear and rage are
basic emotions that even someone who has just four years of life can ex-
perience. Just observe a young child, and you’ll know this is true. But the
emotion of empathy, the power to place oneself in the position of someone
else and vividly feel the emotions of that other individual, is on a diferent
level. Unlike more primitive emotions, empathy requires maturity, a ma-
turity that takes more than four years to develop. Tis emotion is exactly
the emotion that the V-K test focuses on by asking hypothetical questions
involving human or animal sufering. Since Leon doesn’t have this kind of
emotional sophistication, the test almost immediately identifies him as a
replicant.
Sartre may approve of the V-K test because of the importance he places
on human emotions, which, he recognizes, arise from our very being. But,
since this being is the one created from the choices we make as free adult
humans, we can control them. We can choose the kinds of emotions we
want to feel by choosing our beliefs and choosing what we want to focus
on. Of course, many people suppose that humans have little control over
their emotions. If they’re angry, they think, someone has made them an-
gry. Sartre argued against this view since he recognized that, if we’re angry,
we’ve chosen to be in this condition. If Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is
remorseful about being a blade runner, a special police omcer assigned to
track down replicants, he has chosen to be remorseful. Alternatively, he
could choose to look at the bright side of his job, or he could simply choose
Blade Runner and Sartre 25
not to do it. Emotions, Sartre said, are ways in which we freely choose to
perceive and respond to the world. Our inability to blame anyone else for
what we are is the basis for such emotions as despair, fear, remorse, and
anguish.
Tere’s a vast diference between the emotions of an adult, who has the
capacity to control his emotions, and the emotions of a child, who hasn’t
yet developed that capacity. Since four years is the amount of time a rep-
licant has to live, his emotions can develop only as much as those of a
four-year-old child. So the V-K test is a reasonable test to administer when
trying to separate individuals who have mature emotional responses from
those who have immature emotional responses.
While Sartre might appreciate the test, his version of it would focus on
the emotions of despair, anguish, and forlornness, rather than empathy.
Confronting life alone, without a Creator, produces the emotion of forlorn-
ness. We are forlorn, according to Sartre, when we realize that nothing and
no one limits our choices. Sartre claims that the absence of God has set us
free from His rules. We must then create our own values, our own rules.
We’re not simply the product of environmental conditioning or the genes
we inherit. People end up forlorn in their futile attempts to find certainty
and guidelines. We’re forlorn when we discover that science doesn’t have
all the answers. We’re forlorn when we realize the emptiness of our excuses:
“I didn’t have the time.” “I was brought up that way.” “He made me angry
(or sad or happy).” “I couldn’t help myself.” “Everyone else does it.” Tese
excuses can’t remove our freedom, and, concomitantly, they can’t help us
shed our responsibility. Yet many people keep making excuses for them-
selves because they can’t bear the anxiety produced by the full awareness of
their freedom and responsibility.
Blade Runner shows us this forlornness and anxiety through Deckard,
who, Sartre would say, is attempting to escape these emotions so vital to the
human condition. In a voice-over, Deckard explains that he quit his job as
a blade runner because he had “a bellyful of killing.” He returns only when
his former boss threatens him. If Deckard were truly aware of his freedom,
he would have refused, threat or no threat. But, at this point in the film,
since he doesn’t fully appreciate his humanity, he rationalizes that he would
“rather be a killer than a victim.” Sartre would see his excuse as a futile at-
tempt to flee his anxiety. He would ask Deckard: “What if everyone accept-
ed the job of killing others:” People who are like Deckard, Sartre says, will
“shrug their shoulders and answer, ‘Everyone doesn’t act that way.’” Te
philosopher then adds: “But really, one should always ask himself, ‘What
26 Judith Barad
would happen if everybody looked at things that way:’ Tere is no escap-
ing this disturbing thought except by a kind of double-dealing.”
4
Sartre’s next words would certainly apply to Deckard: “A man who
lies and makes excuses for himself by saying not everybody does that, is
someone with an uneasy conscience.”
3
As the film continues, Deckard’s
conscience does become more and more “uneasy,” to the point where it
becomes anguished. But Sartre would admonish us against feeling sorry
for him. For Sartre, anguish is a good thing to experience because it means
we own up to our responsibility. Only an emotionally mature human can
sincerely accept responsibility for his or her choices.
Sartre counsels us that, when we choose, we should restrict our eforts
to what is under our immediate control. In other words, why waste time
trying to do the impossible: Sartre thinks this realization leads to despair
because we can no longer hope that we will be rescued by our Creator, by
a prince charming, by winning the lottery, or by an omnipotent manufac-
turer. No longer hoping that someone will come along on a white horse to
save us, we experience despair. Yet, in despairing about things over which
we have no control, we can increase our power. Tis sounds odd, but our
despair over knowing we must act for ourselves means that we must use
our own power. Rather than focusing our energy on things beyond our
control, we concentrate on what we can do. Deckard can’t save his society
by himself, but it is within his power to save an individual.
In sum, Sartre would approve of a test that presents various hypotheti-
cal situations and measures an individual’s responses to them. Although
he would substitute forlornness, anguish, and despair for empathy, the test
would still gauge emotional maturity. Afer all, one can’t be a mature per-
son without accepting responsibility for one’s choices and actions.
At the same time, the test contains an internal flaw, a major one. Te
problem is that many human adults never develop emotional maturity. Most
of us can recall an adult we’ve met who displayed the emotions of a young
child. Using Sartre’s perspective, we would acknowledge that such an adult
has made herself this way and is responsible for her condition, unlike the
child. Yet, if an emotionally immature adult is tested to determine whether
she is human, the results may be inconclusive. At best, the test can prove only
that the subject is mature; it can’t prove that the subject is human.
But She Iooks Human
Although the V-K test works well at the beginning of Blade Runner, it
Blade Runner and Sartre 27
might not have worked near the film’s end when Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer),
a replicant military model, develops emotional maturity. But first let’s ex-
amine another scene where the test is successful. Deckard is assigned by
his former boss, Captain Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh), to see if the V-K test
will work on the new Nexus-6 replicants, who so closely resemble human
beings. Bryant, who refers to replicants in a derogatory way as “skin jobs,”
shows Deckard a video of the renegade replicants. Before sending Deckard
to the Tyrell Corporation, owned by the omnipotent manufacturer who
creates and sells the replicants, Bryant explains to him that the androids
“were designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions.
Te designers reckoned that, afer a few years, they might develop their
own emotional responses. . . . So they built in a failsafe device . . . [a] four-
year life span.” In other words, the designers purposefully designed the
replicants so that they could never become the equal of an adult human
being. Tis design kept them in a subservient position.
Arriving in the spacious omce of Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Deckard
encounters a replicant owl before he meets Rachael (Sean Young), who ap-
pears to be one of the corporation’s executives. Deckard wears the kind of
trenchcoat that is usually worn by detectives in film noir, and Rachael is the
classic femme fatale of film noir. Her lips painted bright red, she wears her
dark hair tied up tightly behind her head and frequently wears jackets with
the kind of padded shoulders that became Joan Crawford’s signature mark.
As they wait for Tyrell to show up, Rachael coolly observes that Deckard
doesn’t seem to appreciate the work of the corporation. Deckard responds
indiferently: “Replicants are like any other machine. Tey’re either a ben-
efit or a hazard.” In Sartre’s terms, Deckard thinks of replicants as things
that exist only to fulfill the essence, the purpose created for them by human
beings. At the same time, he is unaware that he has allowed his society to
program this belief, a prejudice, into his mind.
Te film makes it clear that human physical appearance alone doesn’t
make an individual a human being. René Descartes, a seventeenth-
century philosopher, dispels this notion in seeking the essential nature of
a human being. He says that, when he observes from a window human
beings passing by on the street below him, he sees “hats and cloaks that
might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by
springs.”
6
In other words, merely looking at someone, or even interacting
with someone, doesn’t supply sumcient evidence that the individual is hu-
man. People ofen leap to erroneous conclusions on the basis of insumcient
evidence.
28 Judith Barad
Aware of this tendency to leap to unwarranted conclusions, Tyrell enters
and tells Deckard to administer the V-K test on a human subject—Rachael.
Complying, Deckard determines, afer an unusually high number of ques-
tions, that she’s a machine. However, she is unaware of it at this point and
leaves before Deckard reveals his findings. Immediately, Deckard’s view of
her changes, a view that is reflected in his choice of words, as he asks Tyrell:
“How can it not know what it is:” She has now become to him an object, an
“it,” rather than a person.
Wanting to convince Deckard that she’s human, Rachael goes to his
apartment with a childhood photograph of herself and her mother. But
the blade runner, shattering her hopes, says that her memories are sim-
ply the implanted memories of Tyrell’s sixteen-year-old niece. Although
Deckard is cool to her at first, Rachael’s tears awaken his deadened empathy.
Uncomfortable about his unfamiliar feelings toward an inhuman “thing,”
he advises her to go home. In a voice-over, Deckard says: “Replicants
weren’t supposed to have feelings. Neither were blade runners. What the
hell was happening to me:” He has now started to question the beliefs that
were programmed into him by society. In Sartre’s view, he has taken a step
toward being more human.
Somewhat later, Deckard calls Rachael from a bar to apologize and invites
her for a drink. She hangs up on him. However, she must have changed her
mind because she subsequently shows up in the vicinity just in time to blast a
hole in Leon’s back before he can gouge out Deckard’s eyes and kill him.
Afer Rachael saves his life, Deckard takes her back to his apartment.
Never having killed anyone before, she is quite shaken up by her action.
Deckard gets a drink and, in the hard-boiled tone of a classic film noir de-
tective, tells her that it’s “part of the business.” He goes through the motions
of life mechanically, while Rachael is anguished by her responsibility for
killing someone. Hmmm . . . now who is the real human being:
Awakening from a brief snooze, Deckard hears Rachael playing the
piano. Acknowledging her individuality for the first time, the blade run-
ner tells her that she plays “beautifully.” Ten he tenderly kisses her face.
Afraid, she opens the door and tries to leave the apartment. But Deckard,
feeling a surge of sexual desire, slams the door and pushes her against the
venetian blinds. Te shadows cast patterns on their faces that are remi-
niscent of 1940s noir films. Deckard commands her to say “kiss me,” and
she complies. Again, he orders her to say “I want you” and to put her arms
around him. His use of force prevents her from making a free choice, which
is the prerogative of a human.
Blade Runner and Sartre 29
Meeting Your Maker
Like Descartes, Deckard knows that, no matter how appealing, the physical
appearance of being human isn’t the essence of actually being human. So
he treats Rachael as a parrot that lacks free choice. But, if appearance isn’t
the essence of the human being, what about the ability to think: Descartes
argues amrmatively. His argument is depicted in the film when one of the
fugitive replicants, Pris (Daryl Hannah), attempts to convince J. F. Sebastian
(William Sanderson), a shy employee of the Tyrell Corporation, that, be-
cause she thinks, there’s no relevant diference between her and those usu-
ally thought of as humans. She isn’t like the walking, talking mechanical
toys that Sebastian has created to alleviate his loneliness. To help him rec-
ognize this, she quotes Descartes: “I think, therefore, I am.” But let’s think
about it! Is thinking enough to establish one’s humanity: It does, indeed,
prove that the one who thinks exists or lives, but it doesn’t prove that the
thinking thing is necessarily human. Tere may be a god who thinks, as
well as thinking extraterrestrials or nonhuman animals.
Yet Sartre, who was influenced by Descartes, provides another per-
spective from which to view the statement “I think, therefore, I am.” Tere
can be no awareness of “I” without an awareness of others. In discover-
ing the truth of Descartes’ statement, Sartre notes that one discovers “not
only himself, but others as well.” Saying the word “I” implies that there
are other centers of consciousness around me. “In order to get any truth
about myself,” Sartre continues, “I must have contact with another person.”
Once we acknowledge this fact, we discover a world of “intersubjectivity,”
for, as Sartre observes: “In discovering my inner being I discover the other
person at the same time.”
7
Ironically, it’s only the replicants who, through
most of the film, display intersubjectivity by caring about each other. All
the humans—Deckard, Sebastian, Chew (James Hong), and Tyrell—live
alone, without any apparent intimate relationship to anyone else. Lacking
the opportunity to develop intersubjective relationships, they don’t really
seem to care about each other. Intersubjectivity—where the consciousness
of individuals is intertwined—is what gives rise to the feeling of empathy.
Two replicants who deeply care about each other and have an intersub-
jective relationship are Pris and Batty, who are lovers. Batty has accompa-
nied Pris to Sebastian’s apartment. He tries to get Sebastian to look at the
replicants another way: “We’re not computers; we’re physical.” By contrast-
ing the replicants’ physical nature with the nature of computers, Batty im-
plies something more than that the replicants aren’t merely material. Both
30 Judith Barad
computers and replicants are made of material, but Batty is amrming that,
unlike computers, the replicants are embodied. Tis embodiment is a nec-
essary condition for experiencing emotions. Only an embodied being can
have feelings. Emotions or feelings, insofar as we know them, depend on
certain physiological conditions, such as having nerve endings and certain
areas of the brain. Tey result in certain bodily efects, such as a rise in
blood pressure, increased respiration or heartbeat, sweating, and so on. As
organisms cloned from genetic material, the replicants are embodied, and
their embodiment makes them capable of emotional experiences, unlike a
computer.
Knowing that their termination dates are imminent, the lovers con-
vince Sebastian to take them to Tyrell, hoping that he will increase their
life span. Tyrell, the androids’ creator, can be said to be their god. Batty
treats him as such when they meet, telling him: “It’s not an easy thing to
meet your maker.” Getting right to the point, he asks his creator to repair
them so that they’ll live longer. Afer giving Batty a technical explanation
of his limitations, Tyrell informs him: “You were made as well as we could
make you.” Batty objects: “But not to last.” Now surely Batty knows that
Tyrell can’t make him immortal. He simply wants to add more years onto
his life span. But, beyond the innate desire to live that all animals possess,
he wants to appreciate his experiences in a fuller way, a more mature way.
Tis intention is corroborated in his last scene.
Seeming to glimpse Batty’s motive for desiring more life but knowing
that he can’t do anything about it, Tyrell tries to appease him: “Te light
that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very,
very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You’re the prodigal son.” Afer the “god of
biomechanics” exhorts his creation to “Revel in your time!” Batty kisses
Tyrell on the lips. Perhaps he is somewhat grateful for Tyrell’s advice, for he
will soon begin to revel in the time he has lef as he toys with Deckard. But,
before doing so, he crushes his creator’s skull and gouges out his eyes.
Batty’s action shows that he agrees with a statement that Sartre quotes:
“If God doesn’t exist, everything would be permitted.”
8
By killing his god,
Batty is reborn, now able to create his own essence. Along with Sartre, he
recognizes that no god can determine his fate. With no one to determine
his fate, he alone must assume responsibility for himself. He begins to ex-
perience the forlornness that Sartre describes. Living outside a replicant’s
programming, he must create his own rules and continue existing on his
own terms. Now he is free—but without any creator to rely on for direc-
tion. Tyrell can neither give him more life nor make him human. Batty
Blade Runner and Sartre 31
must save himself. At the same time, he knows despair, for no one can
rescue him from the death that he knows is drawing ever closer. He can’t
count on anyone else. Yet it’s at this point that he would meet Sartre’s crite-
ria for being human, for living in the human condition.
An Existential Choice
Meanwhile, Deckard kills Pris, an act that is sure to increase Batty’s emo-
tional turmoil. When he discovers her lifeless body, Batty despairs deeply
and kisses her tenderly one last time. However, he doesn’t have much time
to despair since Deckard is continuing his pursuit. Batty, who has superior
strength and intellect, soon gets the upper hand—and in more than one
sense, since he avenges the deaths of the two female replicants by breaking
two fingers on one of Deckard’s hands. Shortly aferward, Batty’s own hand
starts to malfunction, indicating that his termination date is very near. In
defiance, he drives a long nail all the way through his hand. Turning his
attention to the blade runner, he warns, as he rams his head through a
bathroom wall: “Four, five, try to stay alive. Come on, get it up. Unless
you’re alive, you can’t play. And if you don’t play [you’re dead]. Six, seven,
go to hell, or go to heaven.” Heaven is life that is reveled in at each moment;
hell is being emotionally dead to life. Rather than being malicious, Batty
intends to make the blade runner realize that life should be reveled in, that
play is essential to being alive.
Batty then pursues Deckard, and it becomes clear that the hunter and
hunted have switched positions. Deckard, enduring the pain and disability
of his broken fingers, struggles hand over hand up the side of a building,
finally making it up to the roof. No rest for the weary, however, since Batty
appears from an opening in the roof. Running for his life, Deckard jumps
to another roofop. He miscalculates and falls short, dangling precariously
of the side of a tall building.
Before continuing the chase, Batty stands with his arms crossed, ap-
parently lost in thought. He knows that he will face the kind of anguished
choice described by Sartre: shall he let Deckard die, or shall he save him:
Not only has Deckard tried to kill him, but the blade runner has killed his
lover. Batty is also fully aware that Deckard would have killed him had he
been given the chance. In his good hand, Batty holds a dove, a real bird that
contrasts with Tyrell’s artificial one. Shall he side with his impaled hand,
representing death, or with the hand in which he holds life, the dove:
Making the leap to the next roofop efortlessly, Batty says to the terri-
32 Judith Barad
fied blade runner: “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it: Tat’s what
it is, to be a slave.” His words, spoken without vindictiveness, seem to be
an attempt to awaken Deckard’s empathy. As Deckard loses his grip, Batty
grabs his hand and saves him. At last, he has freely chosen his essence by
choosing to be a life giver rather than the life-taking combat model he was
programmed to be.
Aferward, Batty wearily sits down, still cradling the dove, and says:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire of the
shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhauser
gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” His words,
expressing the value of his life experiences, are all the more poignant be-
cause these are the last words of his life. At the same time that his allotted
four years have expired, the dove is liberated, and Batty is freed. In these
four years, he has acquired a unique combination of experiences, expe-
riences that he both remembers and cherishes. It’s not in merely seeing
objects and understanding what they are that we express our humanity.
Rather, our humanity is expressed in the deep emotional appreciation that
we bring to what we perceive. Ironically, given Tyrell’s final advice to his
“prodigal son,” Batty knows how to “revel” in the present moment. It is this
emotional response, so unique to each individual, that gives a human his
or her worth as a human being.
Te Authentic Human
Batty has become Deckard’s savior in more ways than one. Not only has
he saved his biological life, but he also saves his humanity. He has taught
Deckard what it means to be a mature, free human being rather than an
artificial one, symbolized by Tyrell’s artificial, imprisoned bird. Witnessing
Batty’s death, Deckard muses: “I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe,
in those last moments, he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just
his life, anybody’s life, my life.”
Te film suggests that Batty’s emotional maturity, his choice of empa-
thy and compassion, is what makes a human truly human. In the end, it’s
not Tyrell or any genetic engineer who can make Batty human—he must
create this in himself. Being human isn’t a particular DNA configuration
but a state of mind, of feeling. By accepting his own death and saving the
man who has been trying to kill him, he shows emotional maturity. He
would have passed the Voigt-Kampf test.
Batty’s love of life contrasts with Deckard’s experience of life as routine,
Blade Runner and Sartre 33
dreary, and uneventful. He had been unable to revel in the present mo-
ment. With a new outlook on life, involving a much deeper appreciation
of it, Deckard returns to his apartment to find Rachael. Instead of forcing
her responses, as he did earlier, he questions her about her feelings for
him, and she freely answers. Te empathy that both Rachael and Batty
have helped him develop leads Deckard to respect Rachael’s autonomy
and, thus, perceive her as an equal. Tey no longer have a superior/infe-
rior relationship.
Te humans tried to preserve their presumed superiority by making
another group inferior. Te inferior beings had been animals, but, in the
world of Blade Runner, animals have become rare. So another kind of being
must substitute for animals since maintaining the illusion of superiority
depends on perceiving another group as inferior. Superiority, of course,
results in slavery or oppression for the group seen as inferior. Only a lack
of empathy, of emotional maturity, could permit this kind of hierarchical
thinking.
Emotional maturity varies in humans as well as in replicants. Some
people lack empathy completely, while others are so empathetic they see
no diference between themselves and others. Many individuals who look
human, sound human, and have human DNA would fail the V-K test. Just
think of the BTK killer! If such individuals fail the test, does this mean
they’re not fully human: Does the inability to feel someone else’s sufering
make us more like a machine and less human: Tere are copious examples
in news reports every day about how people behave in an inhuman way.
Perhaps Blade Runner suggests a way to assess the human depth of those
who are biologically human. Since, as Sartre argues, a person can choose
the kind of being he is, one who chooses against life, against empathy, and
against his responsibility would have no room to complain.
As the film concludes, Batty, Rachael, and Deckard have found the
freedom to be truly human. At the moment Batty feels the deep emotion
that motivates him to kill his creator, he escapes his genetically engineered
programming. Rachael and Deckard too find freedom from their program-
ming—through the love they develop for each other. But someone may
object that, since Deckard wasn’t a replicant, he wasn’t programmed. Tis
objection doesn’t take into account that many people allow themselves to
be programmed by their families, their societies. Blade Runner and Sartre
urge us to escape this programming and become authentically human.
34 Judith Barad
Notes
1. Tere are two issues outside the scope of this essay: Deckard’s replicant
status and whether androids like those depicted in Blade Runner are possible. Te
conclusion of the essay may render the first question moot. Regarding the second
question, I think it highly improbable that such beings can be manufactured, al-
though we may eventually be able to genetically alter human beings.
2. While many philosophers distinguish between a human, as a biological en-
tity, and a person, as a being possessing certain mental states, I am using the term
human to include both biological and psychological traits.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism” (1946), in Existentialism and Human
Emotions, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, 1937), 13.
4. Ibid., 18–19.
3. Ibid., 19.
6. René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), trans. Donald A.
Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 68.
7. Sartre, “Existentialism,” 37–38.
8. Ibid., 22. Sartre is quoting Dostoyevsky.
35
John Iocke, Personal Identity,
and Memento
Basil Smith
In his Essay concerning Human Understanding, John Locke famously ofers
an explanation of personal identity. In particular, he holds that our con-
scious memories constitute our identities.
1
Christopher Nolan’s Memento
(2000) tests this theory of personal identity. In the film, Leonard Shelby
(Guy Pearce), an insurance investigator from San Francisco, sufers short-
term memory loss as a result of an assault on his wife, Catherine (Jorja
Fox), and himself. But now, without his memories, he can hardly function.
He insists that his attackers have destroyed his ability to live. Leonard asks:
“How can I heal if I cannot feel time:” Te question for us, however, is
what can Memento tell us about personal identity: I address this question
while attempting to show that, in some measure, Locke and Memento of-
fer similar sets of messages. In particular, I argue that they both provide
evidence that memory constitutes personal identity. Tis is not to say that
they ofer exactly the same messages or that the messages they agree on are
not counterintuitive on many fronts. Te point of the comparison, rather,
is to delineate what this theory of personal identity implies and how it leads
to a theory of survival without identity.
2
Iocke on Personal Identity
To begin, Locke defines what he means by a person. He says that a person
is always conscious of what he thinks. Te person “can consider itself as
itself, the same thinking thing, in diferent times and places.” But, so far,
this definition does not say what personal identity is. To answer this, Locke
notes that, insofar as consciousness always accompanies thinking, identity
is a matter of consciousness “extending backwards to unite thought and
action” (267). In other words, such identity is constituted by “being able
to repeat the idea of any past action” in a series and, thus, is a matter of
36 Basil Smith
memory. If something is not retrievable by consciousness ever again, it is
not part of that person anymore (268). But this admission entails that per-
sonal identity is not static or unified but, rather, a complex set of memories
that continually changes. To further argue for his positive thesis, Locke of-
fers some negative observations, supported by various puzzle cases. In fact,
his strategy is to ofer such cases to indicate what identity is not, which,
in turn, provides indirect evidence that his theory is true, that identity is
a matter of conscious memories. Tese puzzle cases should be familiar to
anyone versed in science fiction.
To bolster his thesis that personal identity is conscious memory, Locke
argues that neither a soul nor a body is necessary for such identity.
3
To
show this, he postulates that, if one consciousness had used many souls
or bodies, as in the case of a contemporary man recalling the memories
of an ancient philosopher, that consciousness would be who he is. In this
case, it seems that, so long as a person is conscious of, and can remember,
a linear series of memories, even if that consciousness is contained in dif-
ferent souls or bodies, those memories constitute that person (270). Tis
seems correct, for, although we cite souls or bodies as evidence of personal
identity, the identity itself is the series of memories. By contrast, Locke also
notes that, if any single soul or body were to be host to diferent conscious-
nesses over time—as when, say, one man uses a body or soul by day and
another uses the same body or soul by night—then we would say that that
soul or body was not one person but two diferent people. In other words,
since there would be two series of conscious memories, there would be two
people using that one soul or body (274). Tis again seems correct, for, in
such cases, we would say that there were two persons, not one, who made
use of one soul or body. Tese puzzle cases indirectly suggest that personal
identity is a matter of conscious memory.
Locke ofers his theory of personal identity for two reasons. Te first
reason is that, since we are constantly changing as persons, we need an ac-
count of what makes us the same person over time. If we did not have such
an account, it would be dimcult to explain why our lives matter so much to
us. In other words, our concern for such identity is “founded on a concern
for happiness,” which is easier to obtain if we are persons (278). Te second
reason is to provide a proper understanding of our responsibility for our ac-
tions. Locke says that, if we think of identity in this way, our consciousness
can become concerned and accountable, in that it “owns and imputes to
itself past actions” (277). It follows that, when any consciousness happens
to lose any memories, when any memories are irretrievable, then they are
John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento 37
no longer part of that person. Locke insists that whatever past actions con-
sciousness cannot reconcile to its appropriate present are as though they
have never been done. To his credit, however, he concedes that there is
ofen no way for us to say when this is.
4
Locke incurs two problems with his theory of personal identity that
must be mentioned before proceeding. Te first of these, as Tomas Reid
notes, is that his theory seems to deny the transitivity of such identity.
Transitivity is the logical relation that, if A is B and B is C, then A is C.
Imagine a boy who stole apples and was punished, who later won an award
as a young omcer, and who is now a retired general. Te young omcer re-
members the boyhood events, and the general remembers the young om-
cer events but cannot recall the boyhood events. Reid notes that, for Locke,
this lack of conscious connection indicates that the boy and the general
are not the same person and, thus, transitivity is denied. He insists that, “if
there is any truth in logic,” the boy and the general are the same person.
3

Yet this objection is not decisive, for many of the stages from the boy to the
general overlap, so there is a sense in which the general and the boy are the
same person afer all. But Locke does not say this, for, if there really are no
memories that the boy and general share, there is no reason to say that they
are the same person. So he admits that personal identity is not transitive in
the way required here.
Te second problem with Locke’s theory is that conscious memories
“presuppose, and therefore cannot constitute, personal identity.” In other
words, memories seem to be united in a series only because most of them
really happened to the same person. If this were not the case, so the objec-
tion goes, merely having deluded memories of being someone else would
make one into that person.
6
But, given this possibility, it is more plausible
to say that personal identity is constituted by the “thinking substance” (a
mind or soul) and is not a matter of conscious memories at all. Tis objec-
tion too is less than decisive. Derek Parfit, a contemporary philosopher,
notes that it assumes that the conscious memories in any series really did
happen to the same person. To remedy this, Parfit insists, a notion of mem-
ory that does not presuppose this is easily developed.
7
If conscious memo-
ries are thought of in this way, we may suppose that they are in a particular
series, but not that they happened to any particular person. Tese two ob-
jections indicate that personal identity is not transitive, that our conscious
memories don’t have to be true, and that there is no unified or static self
underneath memories.
In what follows, I will ignore these common criticisms of Locke on
38 Basil Smith
personal identity because, as we have seen, they do not work—but also for
a more compelling reason. Tis is that Memento threatens personal iden-
tity in a diferent way. Te film suggests, in the character of Leonard Shelby,
the problem of fusion, or the problem that two conscious series of memo-
ries might be combined. In point of fact, what is unique about Memento
is the way in which it poses this problem. It is not just that Leonard may
have been fused from two consciousnesses, but also that there is no way
to discern, either from the inside or from the outside, which elements of
the two former persons now exist in the resultant person, and, thus, that
nobody knows which beliefs from which series are true or false. Leonard
may be constituted by two series of conscious memories in an uneasy mix.
But what is really troubling is how his plight may mirror ours.
Te Meaning of Memento
When Leonard and his wife, Catherine, are assaulted in their home,
Catherine is killed, and Leonard is struck on the head, losing the ability to
make new memories, which eventually drives him to seek vengeance. Yet
this is all on the surface, for underneath this plot lurks the problem of what
constitutes personal identity over time, or the issue of what makes a person
the same person at two distinct times. Leonard insists that “we all need
mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are” and endeavors to find or create
some memories for himself. Memento asks us to question who Leonard is
afer he is unable to make new memories and, by extension, to ask that of
ourselves. But the film is not neutral on the answer to these questions, sug-
gesting that we revise many of our presuppositions about personal iden-
tity. In particular, it asks us to abandon the notion that personal identity
is transitive, that our memories must be true, but also that such identity is
not static or unified. In rough outline, then, Memento suggests just what
Locke argues concerning personal identity and what Parfit adapts. To ex-
plain how this is so, it will be necessary to examine the plot in detail.
Memento is confusing in two ways. Te first way is that the film is shot
in a disorienting fashion. It has both color and black-and-white scenes.
Te color scenes are presented in reverse chronological order. Tey take
place, moreover, over a short period of time, such that the end of each new
scene is repeated as the beginning of the next one. Interspersed with these
color scenes are black-and-white scenes of a single telephone conversation.
Tis conversation is presented in normal chronological order and occurs
before the color scenes. Since the color scenes are presented backward and
John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento 39
the black-and-white ones forward, in the beginning of the film, the last
chronological black-and-white scene gradually turns into the first chrono-
logical color one. Memento is also shot with numerous flashbacks, of two
principal types. Te first type is those that are shot twice, with significant
diferences, and they suggest diferent pasts. Te second type must be pure
fantasy and could not occur in any past.
8
Te point of all these flashbacks
is to disorient the audience as much as possible.
However, Memento is confusing in a second way, which is more im-
portant here. Tere are two versions of the plot. It is prudent to describe
these versions not as we see them but as they occur chronologically. In the
first version, Leonard and Catherine are assaulted at home, and the latter
dies. During this assault, Leonard is struck on the head, sufers short-term
memory loss, and, thus, cannot make new memories. But he remembers
the crime and hopes to avenge his wife, the police report having convinced
him that there was a second assailant. Because of his phone conversation
(the subject of the black-and-white scenes), Leonard infers that the second
assailant is named John G. He proceeds to track this person down—by
taking Polaroid pictures of everything he will soon forget, by making copi-
ous notes, and by tattooing important facts on his body. But he is haunted
by the irony that, in his former job as an insurance investigator, he had
denied coverage to one Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), who had
been, he had suspected, faking the very condition that he now sufers from.
Unfortunately, Sammy had a diabetic wife who could not bear the loss of
her husband as a person. In her despair, she allowed Sammy to inject her
with insulin, killing her, and Sammy was then put in a mental institution.
Leonard is also used by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), a former cop who
worked his case and who presumably is his interlocutor in the black-and-
white telephone conversation scenes. Teddy has Leonard kill any number
of drug dealers by leading him to believe that those persons are his John G.
Leonard eventually realizes this deception and is not pleased. Importantly,
he makes a note about Teddy, saying: “Don’t believe his lies.” He spots
Teddy in his car and then has a tattoo made of the license plate number,
which will later suggest that Teddy may be his John G.
9
But at the time
Leonard knows that Teddy is not his man and that he will forget this later.
He asks himself: “Do I lie to myself to be happy:” He knows that this lie to
himself may result in his committing murder, yet he lies anyway. Leonard
also meets Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), a barmaid and girlfriend of a
drug dealer whom he has just killed. She suspects that Leonard has killed
her boyfriend but still uses him to protect herself against Dodd (Callum
40 Basil Smith
Rennie), another drug dealer. She notices that Leonard has a tattoo of a li-
cense plate number on his leg and runs the plate for him. Leonard matches
up the license plate number with new information and infers that Teddy is
his John G. He subsequently lures Teddy to a warehouse and kills him.
In the second version of the plot, events are quite diferent. In an im-
portant conversation between Leonard and Teddy, a diferent past is sug-
gested. Teddy admits that he was the cop assigned to his case and admits
that he now uses Leonard to kill drug dealers. He tells Leonard that, by
doing so, he has given him “a reason to live.” Teddy insists that Catherine
survived the assault, which fact is hinted at in two ways. In a flashback,
afer the assault, Catherine blinks. Moreover, the date of death listed on
the police report is much later than the date of the assault. Teddy also says
that Catherine was the diabetic, and this too is hinted at. In a flashback,
we see her being injected with insulin, and then the same scene is replayed
with her not being injected. Leonard has apparently transposed elements
of his past with the past of Sammy Jankis. In efect, he has projected his own
memories onto Sammy and invented false ones for himself. Tis explains
why he says of his wife that she “was perfect to me.” He is then committed
to the mental institution, and this too is hinted at. In a flashback, we briefly
see Leonard sitting in the institution, from which he later escapes. Teddy
lastly tells Leonard that there really was a second assailant, his John G., and
that Leonard has already killed that person.
Understandably, when Teddy tells him all this, Leonard is dismayed at
having been turned into a killer. In fact, he does not believe that Catherine
survived the assault, that she was a diabetic, or that it is possible that he has
transposed any memories. Nor does he believe that he has projected his own
memories onto Sammy or that he has invented false ones for himself. Despite
this, it seems that he is willing to manipulate the evidence, to create a puzzle
for himself, merely to justify his ongoing quest to avenge his wife, even if that
puzzle is already solved. He even deceives himself into believing that Teddy
is his John G. and, thus, sets up the latter to be murdered. Leonard later
meets Natalie, whom he protects from Dodd, but who accidentally puts him
onto Teddy, whom he then kills. Tis version of the plot seems to be what
Christopher Nolan intended, but this is hardly the end of the story. Even if
this version of the plot is the intended one, it still leaves many elements un-
settled, and there may be no way to reconcile them. Yet, for the purposes of
this essay, this is no matter. Given these outlines of two diferent versions of
the plot, we can still address our main concern, which is what the film can
tell us about the issue of personal identity.
John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento 41
Iocke, Parfit, and Memento
In the foregoing, I have explained how Locke argues that personal identity
is a matter of our conscious memories over time, that Parfit adapts this
argument, and that Memento tests this general theory. Te importance of
the film is that it is another puzzle case, although one of a unique sort.
Is Leonard Shelby the same person as he was when he could make new
memories: If that original person is gone, is he now someone diferent:
To answer these questions, let us distinguish Leonard 1 and Leonard 2,
corresponding to the two versions of the plot, cited above. Leonard 1 is
the person who sufers an assault, who is trying to avenge his wife who has
died in the assault, and so on. He has a linear series of conscious memories
with only one gap, that produced by the assault. He makes new memo-
ries, which connect onto his old series and are then forgotten. But, actually,
Leonard 1 may not sound like a person at all, for his personhood is not
bound by chronology. Te new parts of his series of memories are almost
immediately forgotten, regardless of when this occurs. But, if we assume
that personal identity is a matter of consciousness of memories, dropping
any chronological requirement for it should not be that counterintuitive.
10
Leonard 1 is not a multiple person or a person with overlapping but
distinct identities. He may seem like a multiple person, for his conscious
memories are born and then die, every few minutes, compounding his per-
sonhood over time. If this were correct, he would become and then cease
to be many persons, with the only overlap being what he can manage with
his professed “conditioning,” whatever that amounts to.
11
But, although
Leonard 1 sufers his memories’ being born and then dying continually,
this is harmless here. In fact, it is not as though his entire personhood is
born and then dies, with a distinct person taking its place each time. Tis
is because, although his entire series of conscious memories may be repro-
duced and eliminated every five minutes, in the next five minutes that same
series comes back to him, except for those few memories that were formed
in the previous few minutes. Leonard 1 returns every time, with the excep-
tion of those recent conscious memories, and, thus, is just who he believes
himself to be. Since this is so, he is not a multiple person, and there is no
mystery about his personal identity. Tus, Leonard 1 does not shed light on
the issue of personal identity.
Te issues are diferent when we look at Leonard 2. He is the person
who sufers an assault and who accidentally kills his wife, who did not die
in the assault, with insulin. He then transposes his own past with that of
42 Basil Smith
Sammy Jankis, in that he projects his memories onto Sammy and invents
false ones for himself. He then enters a mental institution, escapes, and
tries to avenge his supposedly murdered wife. Leonard 2 is a more trou-
bling case for the issue of personal identity, for a myriad of reasons. Te
main worry is that he should have a linear series of conscious memories
but does not. To see why this is, let us create another distinction. Leonard
2a is the person who existed before the assault. Tis is the person who lived
with his wife but whose series of conscious memories halted soon afer the
assault. Leonard 2a sufers a kind of death when his entire set of memories
is infected, is fused with that of another person. In point of fact, there is no
way to ascertain the details of this fusion, either from the inside or from
the outside, or to decide which of his present memories are true and which
false. But this is not really death, for some person seems to survive.
Leonard 2b comes into being at this point. He is the person who is cre-
ated by the assault. Tis occurred when Leonard 2a took his own conscious
memories and projected them onto Sammy Jankis and then invented false
ones for himself. But who is Leonard 2b: In point of fact, Locke would not
find this an easy question to answer, for this person has not a series of con-
scious memories but only an uneasy mix of two, which are fused together.
In Locke’s theory, there does not seem to be an answer to this question.
Parfit insists: “Any two people fused together will have diferent character-
istics, diferent desires, and diferent intentions.” Te trouble is that some
of these states will be compatible and some not. It follows that, in any fused
person, when that person is stable enough to have a consistent set of char-
acteristics, some of both persons will be sacrificed. Parfit notes that, afer-
ward, the resultant person will not be wholly similar to either and, thus,
that this may seem like a kind of death.
12
In other words, such identity fu-
sion may strike us as death, for our personhood changes. But such partial
survival is not really the end either. Leonard 2b is such a person, although
the question now is whether such personhood is worth having.
Tere is no real answer to who Leonard 2b is—only that he bears de-
grees of resemblance to both his former persons. Te message here is that
“survival itself can have degrees” yet also that this sort of identity is, in fact,
worth having.
13
Mark Rowlands notes that this revelation can change our
expectations, for, as soon as we drop the prejudices that personal identity is
transitive, that our memories must be true, and that there must be a static
and unified self, we realize that no one is ever identical with himself over
time but, rather, that “we are all just survivors, very close survivors, of the
persons we were a moment ago.”
14
Tis realization allows us to drop our
John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento 43
vain hopes for anything more from personal identity and to see that we
should alter our attitudes about it. But the moral here is that cases of per-
sonal identity fusion are not so unusual. Te diference between Leonard
2b and us is that he has projected his former memories onto another per-
son and created false ones for himself, which we presumably do not do. But
this is an inessential diference, for we are still forced to reinterpret our own
pasts (our memories aren’t like photographs or written chronicles; they’re
hazy, fragmented, partial), and this activity of reinterpretation again issues
in a mixture of true and false memories that become our personal identity.
In other words, our true and false memories determine who we will be.
13
Leonard 2b, as well as we, have fused personal identities, at least to
some extent. Tere are two disturbing consequences of this. Te first con-
sequence is that, just as Leonard 2a has a special concern for his future,
we have a special concern for our futures. Since Leonard 2a counts on not
becoming Leonard 2b, and since we count on not becoming anything we
do not choose to be, it is rational for both to have a special concern for
their respective futures. But, if Leonard 2a comes to believe that he will be
the fused Leonard 2b, and if we come to believe that we will be fused, then
neither of us will count on being the same person in the future. If Leonard
2a and we suspect that our future persons will be entirely unlike us, then
neither will have any rational interest in those future persons.
16
But, plainly,
this is a problem, for we all care about our futures and do so rationally.
However, this problem of concern for our future personhoods may not
be so serious afer all. We still may have many conscious memories that
traverse the former and later persons. Since this is so, we can be optimists
about our futures, in the hope that these memories will justify our special
concern for them.
Te second consequence of our having fused personal identities, at
least to some extent, concerns the attribution of responsibility. If we are
fused persons to any degree, this renders any attribution of responsibil-
ity dimcult. Te memory theory of personal identity, and its successor in
terms of survival, is supposed to explain such responsibility, but does not
seem to. Leonard 2b is a mix of Sammy Jankis and invented memories, just
as we reinterpret our pasts and become a mix of true and false memories.
Tis consequence spells trouble, for, in such cases of fusion, there seems
to be no way to say who is really responsible for any action. If we are fused
persons, it is dimcult to know what element of us bears responsibility for
our actions. Tis problem, although dimcult, is not completely intractable,
for we still do attribute responsibility to fused persons. In attributions, we
44 Basil Smith
just attempt to decrease the amount of responsibility that the present per-
son bears in inverse proportion to any increase in the fusion he sufers. In
the end, however, perhaps there can be only conjectures about these dif-
ficulties concerning our concern for our futures or about the attribution of
responsibility.
Conclusion
So, what can we really glean from this comparison of Locke and Memento
on the topic of personal identity: Te first lesson is that personal identity is
constituted by our having a series of conscious memories, at least usually.
In most cases, this memory theory seems to be the only plausible candi-
date for a conception of personal identity. Tis is so even though there is
no chronological constraint on any linear series of conscious memories.
Te second lesson is that any series of conscious memories can be fused
with another, such that the result is a mix of two persons or a mix of the
true and false. But, then, it follows that our personal identity is not really
identity at all but, rather, a matter of survival, which, in turn, admits of
degrees. Tis may seem like a radical notion, but it is so only because we
are used to thinking of personal identity as transitive, of our memories as
true, and of identity as static and unified. Te third lesson is that, given this
memory theory of personal identity, our special concern for our futures,
and the attribution of responsibility to such persons, may turn out to have
problems afer all.
17
Notes
1. In point of fact, many philosophers call this theory of personal identity
the memory theory. But this is misleading because memories are of many kinds
of mental states, such as desires, beliefs, and even long-term goals. It follows that
this theory of personal identity in terms of memory is really about psychological
continuity over time.
2. John Locke bears this in mind, for he notes that his speculations on per-
sonal identity are “apt to look strange to some readers.” Tis is so, he says, only
because of the “ignorance of the nature of that thinking thing that is in us” (Essay
concerning Human Understanding [1690], ed. Walter Ott [New York: Barnes &
Noble, 2004], 278 [page numbers for subsequent quotations will be given in the
text]).
3. It does not matter for this account if it is souls or bodies that are said to be
necessary for personal identity. Tis is because the postulation of either as neces-
John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento 45
sary for such identity is open to the same criticism, that either souls or bodies may
provide evidence for personal identity but are irrelevant to what it actually is.
4. Locke distinguishes between the man and the person. He says that, since
these are usually the same, “human laws punish both,” and rightfully so. He in-
sists that God will have the solution for our errors, for “in the great day, when the
secrets of the heart shall be laid open, no one will be made to answer for what he
knows nothing of ” (278).
3. Tomas Reid, On the Intellectual Powers of Man (1783), reprinted in
Personal Identity, ed. John Perry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973),
113.
6. Anthony Flew, “Locke and the Problem of Personal Identity” (1931), re-
printed in Locke and Berkeley: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. C. B. Martin and
D. M. Armstrong (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 139.
7. Derek Parfit, “Personal Identity” (1971), reprinted in Perry, ed., Personal
Identity, 209.
8. In particular, in the end of the film, we see a flashback wherein Leonard
has “John G. raped and killed my wife,” yet also “I’ve done it,” tattooed on his chest,
with his wife alive, lying beside him. But, if his wife is alive, he would not have
either tattoo. Tis must be part of a dream, perhaps one that mixes his desire for
vengeance with his desire to see his wife alive.
9. In this version, Leonard is correct that Teddy lies about many things:
about his wife dying during the assault; about Sammy Jankis; and about his not yet
having killed John G. Leonard is lied to by Teddy and, thus, is justifiably angry. In
this version, Leonard has many reasons to kill Teddy afer all.
10. Tere is a chronological requirement for personal identity on this account
simply because all that matters now is continuity. Tis is easily imagined, e.g., in
cases of hibernating for generations and then waking up. In such cases, chronology
is broken, but, given the continuity, we would still expect to wake up as ourselves.
11. Mary Litch seems to understand Leonard in this way. In particular, she
says that, afer the assault, “there are too many distinct contenders” to be him
(Philosophy through Film [New York: Routledge, 1992], 77). But, plainly, even if
Leonard is reproduced every few minutes, it does not follow that his personhood
is fractured by this.
12. Parfit, “Personal Identity,” 212.
13. Ibid., 213.
14. Mark Rowlands, Sci-Phi: Philosophy from Socrates to Schwarzenegger (New
York: St. Martin’s Grimn, 2003), 118.
13. Leonard 2b and we are still in diferent positions, however, for his fusion
is worse than ours. Even so, his case suggests that, ofen, we do not know just how
bad the fusion is. Te trouble is that, without this sort of knowledge, we might be
more fused than we think we are and that, because of that, we cleave to a false per-
sonal identity. Michael Baur interprets Leonard 2b in this way, yet with more detail
46 Basil Smith
(see his “We All Need Mirrors to Remind Us Who We Are: Inherited Meaning
and Inherited Selves in Memento,” in Movies and the Meaning of Life, ed. Kimberly
Blessing and Paul Tudico [Chicago: Open Court, 2003]).
16. Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
1984), 307.
17. Teodore Sider notes that, even if the memory theory of personal identity
does have such problems, that does not help any other theory. Tis is especially so,
he says, because the problems are the same for other theories. See his “Personal
Identity over Time,” in Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics, ed. Earl
Conee and Teodore Sider (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
47
Problems of Memory and
Identity in Neo-Noir’s
Existentialist Antihero
Andrew Spicer
Most thoughts are memories. And memories deceive.
—Will Graham, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
(Mike Hodges, 2003)
One of the most arresting traits of film noir is its depiction of male protag-
onists who lack the qualities (courage, incorruptibility, tenacity, and dyna-
mism) that characterize the archetypal American hero and who therefore
function as antiheroes. Typical noir male protagonists are weak, confused,
unstable, and inefectual, damaged men who sufer from a range of psy-
chological neuroses and who are unable to resolve the problems they face.
Noir’s depiction of its male protagonists—what Frank Krutnik calls its
“pervasive problematising of masculine identity”—is expressive of a funda-
mentally existentialist view of life.
1
As Robert Porfirio argues, noir’s “non-
heroic hero” is such because he operates in a world “devoid of the moral
framework necessary to produce the traditional hero.”
2
In this essay, I wish
to argue that the development of neo-noir—which may be loosely defined
as films noirs made afer the “classic period” (1940–39) by filmmakers who
draw consciously on that body of films—intensified these existential char-
acteristics. Te two films I focus on—Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)
and Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)—are extreme examples of a per-
vasive tendency, depicting an antihero whose memory is, or may be, faulty,
whose experience of time is confused, and who is deeply uncertain about
his past and unsure about the meaning of the present activity he is engaged
in and the very fabric of his identity. Both films were made by English
writer-directors and show the continued importance of émigré talent to
the development of American film noir.
48 Andrew Spicer
Existentialism and Film Noir
Te term existentialism was coined toward the end of the Second World
War by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel as a label for the emerging
ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, whose Being and Nothingness was first published
in 1944.
3
As William Barrett argues, it is a philosophy that addresses mod-
ern experience and was, therefore, one that could “cross the frontier from
the Academy into the world at large.” Barrett defines its central characteris-
tics as “alienation and estrangement; a sense of the basic fragility and con-
tingency of human life; the impotence of reason confronted with the depths
of existence; the threat of Nothingness, and the solitary and unsheltered
condition of the individual before this threat.”
4
Because, in Sartre’s famous
phrase, “existence precedes essence,” there are no transcendent values or
moral absolutes, and man is forever struggling for self-definition, trying
to forge an identity from the confusing assault of experience. Although, as
Barrett suggests, existentialist ideas began to seem relevant in the uncer-
tain cultural climate of postwar America, one should not ascribe this to the
direct influence of Sartre or to an explicit body of philosophical writing. As
Porfirio argues, film noir exhibits a “generalized adoption” of existentialist
ideas rather than adherence to the work of any specific thinkers, and there
is no evidence that American film noir was directly afected by the writ-
ings of European existentialists. Porfirio contends that film noir’s adoption
of existentialism derives much more directly from the work of the “hard-
boiled” school of writers, notably Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler,
and Cornell Woolrich, and from Ernest Hemingway.
3
Tis, I suggest, is
entirely typical of the ways in which popular culture assimilates ideas and
attitudes that are dimcult, complex, and challenging.
Porfirio notes valuably that, although existentialism has its positive
aspect—emphasizing “freedom,” “authenticity,” “responsibility”—film
noir is much more concerned with its darker side, which emphasizes
alienation, loneliness, and the fear that any or all activity may be futile
and meaningless. Thus, the noir protagonist’s choice is never a real one,
never an opportunity to escape the bonds of convention, except through
the hollow freedom represented by sex, money, power, and the promise
of adventure. The noir antihero often acts from desperation rather than
rational choice, reacting to an inchoate, contingent world dominated
by blind chance that is always threatening, carrying an undercurrent of
violence that can strike at any moment. In a world where the familiar
is fraught with danger and a sense of dread, the noir hero tries to make
Problems of Memory and Identity 49
some order out of what happens, a momentary stay against confusion.
6

As Steven Sanders suggests, noir is imbued with a strong fatalism that
emphasizes not freedom but constraint and entrapment, pervaded by a
strong sense of absurdity that stems from the seriousness with which the
protagonist views his actions and their ultimate insignificance.
7
Because,
as Alan Woolfolk argues, the noir protagonist is dominated by the past,
particularly what the past holds for the present and the future, the stabil-
ity of linear chronology is undermined, and time becomes discontinu-
ous and fragmented.
8
Te narrative devices—flashbacks, voice-overs, and
dream sequences—that are such a striking feature of film noir are at-
tempts to render this discontinuity.
Existentialism and Modernist Neo-Noir
Porfirio’s comments relate to “classic noir,” and it is possible to argue that
neo-noir has been more powerfully pervaded with existentialist ideas,
again derived not from philosophical writings but from European film
practice. John Orr has identified a neo-modernist “movement” in film that
emerged at the end of the 1930s in France and Italy and gradually dissemi-
nated outward during the 1960s and 1970s. Neo-modernist films such as
Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) exhibit indeterminate narra-
tives and complex, enigmatic characterization. European neo-modernism is
profoundly existentialist, showing a pervasive concern with problems of
identity and memory, depicting unmotivated characters adrif in ambigu-
ous situations that are beyond their comprehension and that they are inca-
pable of resolving.
9
As Robert Kolker argues, this European neo-modernism
encouraged American filmmakers to break with the coherent, character-
driven causality of classic Hollywood cinema and develop a modernist
American cinema that exhibited the same characteristics as European neo-
modernism.
10
Te psychologically or emotionally motivated classic hero
was replaced by the “unmotivated hero,” who, Tomas Elsaesser notes,
brought “an almost physical sense of inconsequential action, of pointless-
ness and uselessness: stances which are not only interpretable psychologi-
cally, but speak of a radical skepticism about American virtues of ambi-
tion, vision, drive,” which had underpinned the classic Hollywood action
genres.
11
In a period of escalating production costs and shrinking audi-
ences, studios became willing to look to young talent outside the estab-
lished system, and, for a time, American cinema entered a period of ex-
perimentation in which a new generation of filmmakers—such as Arthur
50 Andrew Spicer
Penn and Martin Scorsese—was given the space to make challenging films.
Te demise of the Production Code allowed a greater degree of latitude in
the depiction of the protagonist’s motivations and the possibility of unre-
solved, ambiguous, “open” endings.
Whereas European directors tended to abandon genre altogether for
a more intellectualized and abstract art cinema, American neo-modern-
ists worked, for the most part, within a popular generic tradition but, in
the process, undertook a radical generic revisionism, critiquing the cul-
tural myths at the heart of popular genres, exposing them as defunct, in-
adequate, or even destructive.
12
Although this revisionism occurred across
a range of genres, the antitraditionalism of film noir lent itself particu-
larly well to a critique of American values, as Paul Schrader argued in his
seminal “Notes on Film Noir” (1972), ofering itself as ripe for revaluation
and reappropriation to a generation disillusioned by the war in Vietnam.
13

Without abandoning altogether the pulp fiction origins of the crime genre,
American neo-noir directors deliberately showed standard narrative con-
ventions—such as the quest, investigation, or journey—collapsing, thereby
questioning narrative itself as a meaningful activity. Te confusion, alien-
ation, and fragmented identity that characterized the classic noir hero be-
came incorporated into a more extreme epistemological confusion, where
any action was shown as both pointless and absurd.
14
In Robert Altman’s
remake of the classic noir e Long Goodbye in 1973, Chandler’s “mod-
ern knight,” the private eye Philip Marlowe, was played by Elliott Gould
as a shambling, distracted drifer, his banal or inconsequential actions of
a piece with the film’s episodic, rambling narrative, in which the drives of
the investigative thriller are replaced by an existential uncertainty about
the meaning of events.
Point Blank: “Did It Happen: A Dream, a Dream”
Tese developments in American neo-noir were heralded by John Boorman’s
astonishing Point Blank (1967), which Jack Shadoian identifies as “a seri-
ous attempt to bring the genre perceptually and aesthetically up-to-date,”
Foster Hirsch as “the first truly post-noir noir,” and David Tomson as
“the first and maybe still the richest merging of an American genre with
European art house aspirations.”
13
An inexperienced young director,
Boorman sensed the possibilities that were opening up, a moment when
“there was a complete loss of nerve by the American studios”: “Tey
were willing to cede power to the directors.”
16
Boorman was helped in
Problems of Memory and Identity 51
his negotiations with MGM by the star, Lee Marvin, who handed over
to Boorman virtually total creative control.
17
Point Blank is highly con-
scious of classic noir; there are echoes of several such films, including
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). But Boorman was primarily in-
fluenced by modernist European filmmakers, including Antonioni’s ex-
perimentation with color in Il deserto rosso (e Red Desert, 1964) and
especially Alain Resnais’ L’année dernière á Marienbad (e Last Year at
Marienbad, 1961), with its exploration of the ambiguities of desire, mem-
ory, and identity.
Narrative Ambiguity
In essence, Point Blank is an archetypal revenge thriller, but turned in-
side out. In the opening scene, Walker (Lee Marvin) is shot at point-blank
range by his close friend Mal Reese (John Vernon) in a cell on Alcatraz, the
location for their hijack of syndicate money. Walker’s wife, Lynne (Sharon
Acker), now Reese’s lover, looks on, so Walker sufers a double betrayal.
Reese and Lynne depart, leaving Walker for dead. In an audacious series of
discontinuous, elliptical cuts, typical of the film, Boorman shows Walker
apparently escaping from Alcatraz, but his figure is photographed from
unusual angles to make it appear grotesque, primeval, and in one shot his
face is lit from below so that it resembles a primitive mask. As he enters
the turbulent waters surrounding the prison, a voice-over intones the his-
tory of this “escape-proof jail” from which no one has got away, as a shock
cut shows us a besuited, fully recovered Walker aboard a tourist boat that
circles the Rock. Tus, Boorman deliberately makes it unclear whether
Walker survived the shooting and, thus, whether the events we witness
are actually happening or whether they are Walker’s compensatory hal-
lucination just before he dies, captured in his mutterings as he collapses:
“Did it happen: A dream, a dream.” In an interview, Boorman commented:
“Seeing the film, one should be able to imagine that this whole story of
vengeance is taking place inside his head at the moment of his death.”
18

Indeed, as Jack Shadoian argues, Walker’s actions are not bound by ordi-
nary logic. He seems able to appear and reappear in diferent locations,
able to obliterate space and time, and is, thus, subject to the dream logic
of desire, not of reality: “Te narrative mode is imitative of dream because
dream is the only mode in which the hero’s situation can be put. Te film
is Walker’s dream.”
19
However, carefully set against this is Point Blank’s fre-
quent emphasis on the quotidian banality of modern life, on the gadgets
52 Andrew Spicer
that dominate interior spaces, on advertising billboards and radio jingles;
in one scene, Walker, slumped on a sofa, channel-hops as he watches televi-
sion, like any ordinary, “distracted” modern viewer.
Visual Style
It is this hesitation between mundanity and fantasy that makes the film
so powerful, leaving the viewer constantly unsettled, unsure how to inter-
pret events. Boorman combines the pace and drive of the typical American
thriller with a series of distancing devices that encourage critical reflec-
tion. Te film’s visual style deliberately hesitates between realism (which
Boorman felt was an important element of film noir) and abstraction, the
environments distorted, but not too violently, to reveal Walker’s state of
mind. Te famous scene in the discotheque, with its lurid psychedelic col-
ors and screaming black vocalist, was expressive of all the violence seething
in his head. Audiences were able, Boorman thought, to accept this device
through the fluidity of the editing.
20
Boorman deliberately avoided the
“garish” color saturations that were the norm at this point, ofen choos-
ing to shoot at night so that the color was drained out, thereby achieving
the “monochromatic intensity” he wanted.
21
He used a subtle but tightly
controlled color palette, gradually changing from cold grays and silvers
through blue and green to warmer yellows and reds, the characters’ cos-
tumes always reinforcing the dominant color of each scene. By choosing to
shoot with a new forty-millimeter Panavision lens, which gave an extreme
wide angle but also more depth of field in close-ups, Boorman made his au-
dience aware of some background action without it being too distracting.
Te score was also experimental, more tonal than melodic—very unusual
at this point—which also creates a distancing efect, but without plunging
into asynchronous abstraction.
Characterization and Performance
Tis hesitation also informs the character of Walker himself. On one level,
he is a supreme individualist, relentlessly pursuing the two people who have
betrayed him and demanding the restoration of the money he is “owed.”
But, on another, more mythic level, as established in the opening scene,
he is a “force,” an antihero who represents old-fashioned human values
in a world of nameless corporations and shadowy, bureaucratic criminal
empires where there seems to be no real distinction between legality and
Problems of Memory and Identity 53
criminality. For Boorman, Walker was “a catalyst who exposes the corrup-
tion of their world.” He is possessed by all the nausea and alienation that
characterize existential man, expressing, in an exaggerated form, the rage
and frustration that ordinary citizens feel in the face of the impersonality
of modern life dominated by technology, their desire for direct access to
the people in charge, to give a human face to corporate America. Despite
studio opposition, Boorman chose to set Point Blank in Los Angeles, which
his outsider’s eye transformed into the representative city of modernity,
anonymous and indiferent, with its vast, vertiginous buildings of steel and
plate glass. Boorman commented: “I wanted my setting to be hard, cold
and in a sense futuristic. I wanted an empty, sterile world, for which Los
Angeles was absolutely right.”
22
As a modernist, Boorman replaced conventional character psychology
with a blank mask, using Marvin’s taught, angular frame and expression-
less face, what Boorman called his “stony intensity,” to suggest a walking
corpse, profoundly alienated from everything and everyone. Marvin’s pres-
ence as the antihero is disconcerting because of the menace and violence
associated with the actor’s persona, not least from his chilling performance
in Don Siegel’s remake of e Killers (1964). Boorman, who developed a
deep relationship with Marvin, felt that Point Blank was also about the
actor’s existential estrangement from American society and, indeed, hu-
manity, consequent on his having been brutalized as a seventeen-year-old
boy sent to war in 1943. Boorman argued that all Marvin’s performances
were underscored by his struggle to recapture the humanity he felt he had
lost.
23
Tus, Point Blank can be read as part of a representative personal
biography of a man who comes back from the dead and tries to find his
humanity, thus reinforcing the figure’s mythic status. Although Point Blank
presents Walker as an indestructible automaton, thrashing assorted hoods,
it also endows him with a certain humanity, noticeably in the flashbacks to
his courtship of Lynne, his friendship with Mal Reese, and their idyllic if
ultimately destructive ménage a trois.
Repetitions and Doublings
However, in the main action, Walker’s fragile humanity is overwhelmed by
revenge. In the second scene, Walker bursts into Lynne’s apartment, push-
ing her roughly aside and firing repeatedly into the empty bed, as if at-
tempting to kill her and Reese in flagrante and, thus, eradicate the hideous
memory of them together on Alcatraz. Afer Lynne talks to him—Walker
54 Andrew Spicer
does not react—about her drif toward Mal, there is a slow-motion replay
of his entry and the shooting, making it almost lyrical, afer which Walker
appears to come to in an empty room. As he goes into the bedroom, there
is an overtly sexual shot of Lynne on the bed, her dress pulled up around
her thighs, only for Walker to find that she is now dead, having taken an
overdose. Point Blank consistently collocates sex, money, and death. Walker
takes his wedding ring of and places it tenderly on her hand. Shortly afer,
when he returns to the bedroom, there is no body, no covers on the bed,
and he slumps into the corner of the room, a space now strangely empty, as
if he were back in the cell on Alcatraz. Not only does the scene hesitate be-
tween dream and reality, but it also exhibits the other key element of Point
Blank’s style, its use of repetition, ofen through an innovative deployment
of flashbacks that seem more expressive of a character’s feeling or state of
mind than an objective rendering of the past. Boorman observed that he
wanted to create a feeling of “déja vu”: “Everything that happens to Walker
has happened to him before. . . . Te impression is that he is caught in a
revolving door, that his life is repeating itself.”
24
Part of this repetition is the curious doubling (typical of dreams) of the
characters. Angie Dickinson was cast in the role of Lynne’s sister, Chris,
because of the strong physical resemblance between the two actresses.
23

When he first meets Chris, Walker has to rouse her from a death-like sleep,
and their relationship seems to replay the earlier one between Walker and
Lynne, with Chris used as the bait for Walker’s revenge on Mal Reese, who
is captured by Walker when he is in bed with Chris in his penthouse apart-
ment. In a later scene when Walker finally sleeps with Chris, as they make
love, Boorman cuts to Walker and Lynne in the same position, then Reese
and Lynne, and finally Reese and Chris, a seemingly endless repetition of
interchangeable couplings. A latent homosexuality in male relationships is
a characteristic of crime films, and, as Shadoian points out, the relation-
ship of Walker and Reese has strong homoerotic undercurrents, with Reese
dragging Walker to the floor when they meet at a convention, pleading
with Walker to help as he lies on top of him. When Walker surprises Reese
in the penthouse, he drags him out of bed naked, saying, “I want you this
way,” only for Reese to die accidentally as he becomes entangled in the
sheets, loses his footing, and falls to the street below.
26
Tis homoeroticism
is also part of the film’s doubling, as Walker and Reese are doppelgängers,
Reese representing the conformist side of Walker, a venal dark self, willing
to betray and kill and to take his place in the Organization.
It is Chris who questions Walker’s whole quest of revenge, calling him
Problems of Memory and Identity 55
a “pathetic sight, chasing shadows,” but, even afer the deaths of Lynne and
Reese, Walker clings stubbornly to the task of recovering “his” money. Tis
leads to a return to Alcatraz (the only place where actual money is ex-
changed within the Organization), where, in a final savage irony, Walker
finds that the man who has apparently been helping him (and who seemed
to be a policeman) is Fairfax (Keenan Wynn), the head of the Organization,
engaged in using Walker as the means to dispose of his rivals. At this point,
Walker refuses Fairfax’s ofer to join him, recognizing, at long last, how he
has been brutalized by his revenge, and the utter futility of his desire to get
his money back, and his own ultimate powerlessness: he has changed noth-
ing. He retreats into the shadows of Alcatraz, “gradually melds back into
nothingness,” as Boorman puts it.
27
Boorman’s “warming” of the film’s colors also delivers another ironic
blow, as the rich orange-brown hues of a new dawn envelop the ruined
prison, underscoring the redundancy of Walker’s circular story, revealed as
an empty spectacle or a recurring nightmare, the delusion of a man already
dead. Tus, a story of revenge becomes an existentialist narrative about
the nature of desire, the fallibility of memory, and the fragility of identity
in the face of a contingent and meaningless world, expressing the blank
pointlessness of modern existence.
Existentialism and Postmodern Neo-Noir
Although neo-noir has passed, as I have argued elsewhere, from a radi-
cal modernism to a more commodified postmodernism, it remains a form
that continues to accommodate complex, dimcult ideas and in which exis-
tentialist attitudes continue to flourish.
28
Te development of independent
(“indie”) cinema has provided a space that ofers more creative freedom
than is possible in mainstream filmmaking, where the control of the major
studios is more strict, generating thought-provoking pictures in the ab-
sence of the widespread distribution of European films. In the 1990s, the
boundary between indies and the majors has become increasingly blurred,
and many neo-noirs straddle what is becoming a diminishing divide be-
tween art house films and mainstream cinema. Tis blurring of boundaries is
partly dependent on shifs in patterns of consumption. As many commenta-
tors have pointed out, audiences have become increasingly knowledgeable,
cine-literate, capable of accepting and enjoying a degree of uncertainty and
an enigmatic quality in characterization and narrative. Te massive home
consumption of films on video and now DVD has been an integral part of
56 Andrew Spicer
this process, allowing audiences to inspect films in great detail and enjoy
the minutiae of knowing references. Hence the growth of cult films, which
“become the property of any audience’s private space” and can be enjoyed
in a variety of ways.
29
Contemporary neo-noir filmmakers have used these conditions to ex-
periment boldly in both narrative and subject matter. Postmodern noirs
ofen display highly convoluted plots that circle back on themselves and
a pervasive uncertainty about the reliability of what is being shown or
told and the processes of memory, underscored by an existential fear of
meaninglessness. A flashback structure is common, but, as John Orr notes,
postmodern flashbacks are more visceral, oblique, and ambiguous than
their predecessors.
30
In some indie noirs, this unreliability is pushed to-
ward a radical indeterminacy that is profoundly existentialist. In Romeo Is
Bleeding (1994), directed by the Hungarian-born but English-raised Peter
Medak, the confessional flashback narrative of the corrupt New York cop
Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman) is both self-serving and deceitful as he re-
arranges chronology in order to disguise or evade his own motives. His
recollections are frequently interrupted by dream sequences, which under-
mine his credibility as a narrator and question the whole basis of his story.
Memento: “Do I Iie to Make Myself Happy:”
Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is highly conscious of these develop-
ments, but it also reaches back to classic noir and Point Blank.
31
Memento
also shows the influence of European art cinema and of the complex nar-
rative structures and discontinuous editing of Nicolas Roeg’s films, in-
cluding Performance (1970). Nolan—who is bicultural, with an American
mother and English father, and has spent time in both England and the
United States—was, like Boorman, an inexperienced director making
his debut American film, having earned a reputation in the United States
with his first film, Following (1998), made for only £7,000 using friends
and acquaintances from University College London, where Nolan studied.
Following, which attracted attention afer it won prizes at several festivals,
is a thoroughly existentialist film displaying elements that Nolan developed
in Memento—a fragmented visual style, a complex, ofen baming narrative
with a triple time scheme, and an unreliable narrator whose confusions
about memory and identity remain unresolved. Memento was a modestly
budgeted indie film whose success allowed it to cross over onto the main-
stream circuit and achieve widespread distribution and exhibition. Nolan
Problems of Memory and Identity 57
set his film in Los Angeles, not because, like Boorman, he saw its futuristic
modernity, but because he wanted his setting to have an anonymous famil-
iarity, a world of nondescript bars and impersonal motels that was “quint-
essentially American,” dependent on being located in a vast country that
had a homogeneous culture. Nolan valued, as did Boorman, the realism
of film noir and was anxious to ground his complex story in an everyday,
mundane world that was palpably recognizable and contemporary.
32
Reverse Chronology
Memento is the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), an insurance inves-
tigator who has lost his short-term memory through a head injury sufered
when he tried to rescue his wife from being raped and murdered. Shelby
is determined to take revenge on his wife’s killer, one “John G.” In order
to compensate for his amiction, he takes Polaroid snapshots of places and
people he encounters, writing captions on those snapshots in order to re-
tain essential information. He also has a series of tattoos inscribed on his
body to preserve other facts he finds out, including John G.’s car registra-
tion. Although a number of films noirs have protagonists who sufer from
amnesia—Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943), e Blue Dahlia (George
Marshall, 1946), Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman, 1946), Somewhere in
the Night (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1946), and High Wall (Curtis Bernhardt,
1947), for example—Shelby’s condition is diferent because he retains his
long-term memory, a certainty about who he is, and the circumstances of
his wife’s death but cannot make new memories afer that trauma. Shelby
describes his situation as “like you always just woke up,” and, although he
is able to plan ahead, he cannot recall what he has just done. Nolan felt that
this gave him the opportunity to explore memory and identity with greater
precision: “It’s not like these amnesia movies where there’s no rules, where
the guy doesn’t know anything so anything can be true. . . . Tis is a knot-
tier—[Shelby] knows who he was but not who he has become.”
33
It was also
the device through which Nolan could “freshen up and re-awaken some of
the neuroses behind the familiar elements” and, thus, renew “the confusion
and uncertainty and ambiguity that those types of characters used to have,
but lost because we’ve come to expect those kind of surprises.”
34
In doing
so, he breathes new life into familiar existentialist tropes.
Memento employs an innovative and complex narrative structure that
reinforces the uncertainty and ambiguity the antihero experiences. Like
many noirs, Memento begins with a murder: Shelby shoots Teddy (Joe
58 Andrew Spicer
Pantoliano), the undercover policeman who has been helping him but who
he now feels is his wife’s killer. But, instead of a conventional investigative
flashback in which the events leading up to the murder are then explained
and their motivation revealed, Memento unfolds in reverse, each scene de-
picting events that immediately precede the action we have just watched.
Tis constantly undermines the audience’s expectations, keeping viewers
in the state of heightened attention that Nolan felt was essential to under-
stand the film’s ambiguities and the process of memory itself, what we learn
in each new scene constantly undermining the knowledge that the previ-
ous scene seemed to establish as genuine. It is impossible, as Nolan asserts,
for the audience to orient itself to the sequence of events as the structure is
a hairpin or widening gyre: “You can never find out where you are in the
time-line, because there is no time-line. . . . If it was a straight-backwards
film, you could just take that two-dimensional time-line and flip it over,
but you can’t do that with this film. Later on down the line, you realize that
the film doesn’t run back; it’s a Möbius strip.” Memento is peppered with
flashbacks, direct or indirect repetitions of the same events that are, nev-
ertheless, used to provide a slightly diferent perspective because of their
context, showing “how the same situation can be viewed diferently, de-
pending on what information you already know up to that point.”
33
In ad-
dition, Memento constantly shifs from color to black and white, a further
disorientation, as the two color registers have diferent resonances for the
audience. Initially, the black-and-white sequences—in which Shelby is in
telephone dialogue with a confidant (possibly Teddy, but this is never made
clear)—seem to provide a more objective, quasi-documentary depiction of
Shelby’s situation, but gradually, as the pace of the intercutting between the
two modes increases, the black-and-white sequences are also revealed as
subjective, thus creating the possibility that, as in Point Blank, everything
is happening inside his head.
Characterization and Performance
Tese structural ambiguities inform our understanding of Shelby himself.
On one level, he is the distraught victim of a hideous and traumatic crime,
and his desire for revenge is understandable and even morally justified. His
fevered search for his wife’s killer makes him an empathetic character, en-
gaged in the search for truth and justice, and his problems of memory loss
compound our sympathy and our desire that he should succeed, despite
the odds, like any conventional hero. As Nolan comments, the audience
Problems of Memory and Identity 59
is drawn inexorably into Shelby’s consciousness, identifying with him be-
cause we never know more than he does as the narrative structure “mirrors
the mind-set [he] is trapped in.”
36
An extreme example of existential man,
Shelby is forever engaged in the act of self-creation but haunted by a fear of
meaninglessness and a fall into chaos. His condition means that he can be
exploited, sucked into the schemes and counterschemes of Teddy, and ma-
nipulated by the ostensibly sympathetic but hard and ruthless femme fa-
tale Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) so that she might benefit from a lucrative
drug deal. Te flashbacks that show Shelby together with his wife have an
engaging, bittersweet quality. Te disturbing scene in which Shelby hires a
prostitute to restage his recollections of his final night with his wife is toler-
able because it is an attempt to shock him into recovering his memory, an
attempt that fails because he cannot remember why he asked her there.
However, the flashbacks to Shelby’s time as an insurance salesman re-
veal a far less engaging figure, a slick careerist, indiferent to the plight
of Sammy Jankis, amicted with a similar short-term memory loss. Shelby
rejects Jankis’s claims for support because he suspects, or wants to believe,
that his condition is faked. Shelby conveys his suspicions to Jankis’s dia-
betic wife, who dies as she attempts to test Sammy through repeated de-
mands that he inject her with insulin. And, as the events unfurl backward
toward the opening shooting of Teddy, there is increasing evidence not
only that Shelby is capable of exploiting his condition but also that he has a
suppressed and easily triggered violence that can erupt at any moment. His
brutality is displayed when he punches Natalie, when he beats and ties up
Dodd (who may be part of the drug deal), and when he kills Jimmy Grantz,
whom he is all too ready to accept as his wife’s murderer.
Te ambivalence that the audience feels toward Shelby’s character is
crucial to Memento’s structure, and Nolan wanted the sense of a dialogue
between Shelby’s past and present selves as he attempts to bridge the inde-
terminate gap in time between his wife’s murder and his present position.
Nolan was fortunate, he admits, in casting an actor who was capable of
great subtlety in his performance.
37
Guy Pearce manages the dimcult feat of
being, at the same time, bewildered and cunning, projecting a man haunt-
ed by the fear that he may have done something wrong, a man who has a
darker side that may even be capable of murder but that his amnesia has
allowed him to forget. In a beautiful touch, Pearce conveys how, each time
he wakes, Shelby is intrigued by the tattoos that cover his torso, but not
shocked by them, as they have become part of his consciousness. Pearce
was also a star without a clearly defined persona—unlike Brad Pitt, who for
60 Andrew Spicer
a time was interested in playing Shelby—and therefore brought to the role
an Everyman quality, the attractive but not heroic ordinary guy caught up
in a maelstrom of confused feelings and uncertainty.
38
An Unresolved Ending
Memento’s backward-spiraling narrative ensures that this existential con-
fusion intensifies rather than settling itself, culminating in the chilling fi-
nal scene that, instead of resolving the issues, provokes a more profound
uncertainty. Afer Shelby kills Grantz in a deserted warehouse on the out-
skirts of the city (another of Memento’s archetypal noir locations), Teddy,
who has orchestrated the killing, tells Leonard not only that he has used
him to kill a series of undesirables but that Shelby’s wife actually survived
the attack and died later when Shelby accidentally administered a fatal
dose of insulin. Shelby has subsequently fabricated this action into the
story of Sammy Jankis, who not only had no wife but is a vulgar con man.
Tis disclosure undermines what had seemed to be the only certainty, the
veracity of Shelby’s long-term memories, and, with that, the whole basis of
the romantic revenge quest that he has set himself. Teddy tells Shelby (in
what is the closest Memento comes to a direct statement) that memories
are not records but subjective interpretations, which can be changed or
distorted. Distracted, his whole identity in tatters, Shelby replies: “Do I lie
to make myself happy:” Shelby, now dressed in the clothes we have always
seen him in, which belong to the gangster Grantz, drives of at high speed
in Grantz’s Jaguar, but not before writing “Don’t believe his lies” on Teddy’s
photograph, an action that proves the fallibility of the system that he has
prided himself on and that also condemns Teddy to death in the scene that
is now about to take place. Teddy’s death will eradicate what Shelby has just
been told, and he will be able to continue his quest. But were the dreadful
revelations Shelby has just been told true: Or were they the weasel words of
a corrupt, manipulative undercover cop under pressure, stalling for time:
Is Teddy another unreliable narrator: Like Point Blank, Memento ends on a
note of profound existential ambiguity.
Conclusion
Chris Darke commented: “Te real pleasure of Memento lies in its open-
ness to re-viewing and hence to interpretation.”
39
Tis process was encour-
aged by the film’s detailed Web site, which helped Memento quickly attain
Problems of Memory and Identity 61
the cult status it now enjoys, including a three-disc DVD release. Whether
it will achieve, in time, the status that Point Blank now commands is an
open question, but both can justifiably be called meta-noirs, films that
radically revise and reconstruct the elements of film noir in order to pose
deeper questions about the nature of existence. Trough their ambiguous
antiheroes, both explore the complex and fraught nature of memory and
the problems of identity, demonstrating the powerful undercurrent of exis-
tentialism that runs throughout the whole development of film noir.
Notes
I am grateful to my partner, Joyce Woolridge, Alex Ballinger, Dr. Brian McFarlane,
and Mark T. Conard for their comments on a draf of this essay.
1. Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity (London:
Routledge, 1999), 99.
2. Robert Porfirio, “No Way Out: Existentialist Motifs in the Film Noir,” Sight
and Sound 43, no. 4 (1976): 212–17, reprinted in Film Noir Reader, ed. Alain Silver
and James Ursini (New York: Limelight, 1996), 83.
3. David E. Cooper, Existentialism, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), 1.
4. William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1938;
reprint, New York: Anchor, 1990), 9, 36.
3. Porfirio, “No Way Out,” 80–82.
6. Ibid., 81, 88, 91–92.
7. Steven M. Sanders, “Film Noir and the Meaning of Life,” in e Philosophy
of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006),
96–97, 102.
8. Alan Woolfolk, “Te Horizon of Disenchantment: Film Noir, Camus, and
the Vicissitudes of Descent,” in ibid., 117–19.
9. John Orr, Cinema and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1993).
10. Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2000).
11. Tomas Elsaesser, “Te Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 1970s:
Notes on the Unmotivated Hero,” Monogram, no. 6 (October 1973): 13–19, re-
printed in e Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the
1970s, ed. Tomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath, and Noel King (Amsterdam:
Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 282, 290.
12. John Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art
and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 227–43.
13. Paul Schrader, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment 8, no. 1 (1972): 8.
14. Larry Gross, “Film après Noir,” Film Comment 12, no. 2 (1976): 44–49.
13. Jack Shadoian, Dreams and Dead Ends: e American Gangster/Crime
62 Andrew Spicer
Film (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 234; Foster Hirsch, Detours and Lost
Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (New York: Limelight, 1999), 17; David Tomson,
“As I Lay Dying,” Sight and Sound 8, no. 6 (June 1998): 17.
16. Boorman quoted in Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the
Sex ’n’ Drugs ’n’ Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (London: Bloomsbury,
1998), 22.
17. See Boorman’s comments included on the DVD of Point Blank (released
by Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. Entertainment in 2003).
18. Boorman quoted in Michel Ciment, John Boorman, trans. Gilbert Adair
(London: Faber & Faber, 1983), 78.
19. Shadoian, Dreams and Dead Ends, 234. I am indebted generally to
Shadoian’s highly perceptive reading of this film.
20. Boorman quoted in Ciment, John Boorman, 73.
21. Boorman, DVD commentary.
22. Boorman quoted in Ciment, John Boorman, 79, 73.
23. Boorman, DVD commentary. See also Boorman’s film Lee Marvin: A
Personal Portrait (1999).
24. Boorman quoted in Ciment, John Boorman, 78.
23. Ibid.
26. Shadoian, Dreams and Dead Ends, 239–60.
27. Boorman, DVD commentary.
28. See Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (Harlow: Longman/Pearson Education,
2002), 149–33.
29. Timothy Corrigan, Cinema without Walls: Movies and Culture aer
Vietnam (London: Routledge, 1992), 80–83. See also Barbara Klinger, “Te
Contemporary Cinephile: Film Collecting in the Post-Video Era,” in Hollywood
Spectatorship: Changing Perceptions of Cinema Audiences, ed. Melvyn Stokes and
Richard Maltby (London: British Film Institute, 2001), 132–31.
30. John Orr, e Art and Politics of Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
Press, 2000), 138.
31. Te link between the two films was picked up in Philip French’s review of
Memento (Observer, 22 October 2000), but Nolan claims not to have seen Point
Blank (see James Mottram, e Making of “Memento” [London: Faber & Faber,
2002], 37).
32. See Mottram, Making of “Memento,” 93, 167, 138.
33. Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, “How Memento Began,” in
Memento and Following, by Christopher Nolan (London: Faber & Faber, 2001),
233–34.
34. Nolan quoted in Mottram, Making of “Memento,” 40.
33. Ibid., 34, 36.
36. See Nolan’s comments included on the DVD of Memento (released by
Pathé Distribution in 2004).
Problems of Memory and Identity 63
37. Nolan, DVD commentary. Te point is made several times.
38. Tom Charity, “Who’s Tat Guy:” Time Out, October 4–11, 2000, 18. For
Pitt, see Mottram, Making of “Memento,” 106–7.
39. Chris Darke, “Mr. Memory,” Sight and Sound 10, no. 11 (November 2000):
43. It must be acknowledged that some commentators regard Memento as merely
showy. See, e.g., Ronald Schwartz, Neo-Noir: e New Film Noir Style from “Psycho”
to “Collateral” (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2003), 78–79.
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Part 2
Justice, Guilt, and Redemption:
Morality in Neo-Noir
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Te Murder of Moral Idealism
Kant and the Death of Ian Campbell
in e Onion Field
Douglas L. Berger
e Onion Field and Moral Philosophy
Before Ian Campbell joined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and
became a plainclothes street felony cop, this reflective, bagpipe-playing son
of Scottish immigrants had taken college courses as a premed student at the
University of California, Los Angeles, and nurtured an interest in the phi-
losopher Immanuel Kant. Ian was apparently so fascinated by philosophy
that his college friends ofen found the attachment inexplicable and teased
him that it got in the way of both his other studies and his life in general.
1
It
seems as though, afer Ian joined the force, his mother and friends noticed
that the work undermined his belief that he could improve society and lef
him with the impression that all he could do as a policeman was “hold the
line.”
2
Kant was a moral idealist. He thought that all rational beings had a
deep sense of their moral duty; even if they did not or could not carry out
their duty, people could, he believed, tell the diference between actions
they ought to do and those they ought not to do. Ian Campbell was begin-
ning to struggle with this Kantian conviction, although his wish to “hold
the line” can still be seen as an efort to preserve this sense of justice and
moral duty. On the night of March 9, 1963, this thirty-one-year-old mild-
mannered father of two, this Kant buf, was literally shot to pieces by two
petty thieves in the farm country of Bakersfield.
In the director Harold Becker’s 1979 neo-noir rendition of e Onion
Field, former LAPD omcer Joseph Wambaugh’s 1973 true-story novel, the
events of Ian Campbell’s murder and its almost unfathomable afermath are
dramatized with a chillingly realistic accuracy. In the film, Campbell (Ted
Danson) and his partner of only eight days, Karl Hettinger (John Savage),
67
68 Douglas L. Berger
are kidnapped afer pulling over small-time robbers Gregory Powell (James
Woods) and Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales) in downtown Los Angeles.
When they reach a remote onion field of Wheeler Ridge, Powell, wrong-
ly surmising that the kidnapping itself will ensure him a trip to the gas
chamber if he is caught, shoots Campbell, and a terrified Hettinger flees for
his life as one of the two thieves finishes Campbell of. Both assailants are
caught, brought to trial, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced
to death by the California Superior Court. But, afer several U.S. Supreme
Court decisions in 1964 and 1963 regarding Miranda rights as they apply
to postcrime police interrogations, Powell and Smith are allowed to ap-
peal their convictions and sentences for seven more years. In the course
of these bizarre events, an eerie, antimoral tale unfolds. Powell and Smith,
presumably both guilty of slaying a man in cold blood for no good rea-
son at all, actually feel no sense of guilt whatsoever. Hettinger, however,
because he surrendered his weapon to the robbers when Powell got the
drop on Campbell at the original kidnapping scene, is denounced by the
police force, and he becomes burdened by a sense of guilt so overwhelming
that it leads him to petty thievery, brief stints of child beating, prolonged
depression, and at least one attempt at suicide. Neither Powell nor Smith
ever sufers the death penalty, and both men even feel contented with their
prison lives, while Hettinger never really recovers from blaming himself
for his partner’s death.
One of the incredible ironies of this true story is how stunning an illus-
tration it is of how wrong Kant seems to have been about human nature—
and particularly about human moral consciousness. Kant was convinced
that any human being who had any capacity at all for rational decision
must be capable of distinguishing right from wrong, must be able to judge
on his or her own which actions are moral and which immoral. Apart from
the actual murder, the most horrifying thing about e Onion Field seems
to be that, despite everything Kant says, Powell and Smith, two more or less
“rational” criminals, never betray for a moment any sense that their mon-
strous killing of Campbell was really very wrong. Tey feel no remorse for
the slaying. Hettinger, on the other hand, a levelheaded and sensible cop,
a victim of the mortifying experience who realistically could have done
nothing at all to prevent it from happening, has his whole life almost to-
tally destroyed by guilt, a guilt that overpowers him and robs him of all
his strength. How could a Kantian theory of the inherently moral rational
human will possibly explain how the guilty could feel so guiltless and the
innocent so responsible:
e Murder of Moral Idealism 69
Kant and the Workings of Moral Conscience
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), a polymath university professor turned sem-
inal philosopher who reportedly never once in his life lef his hometown
of Königsberg, East Prussia, wrote at the age of sixty-four at the end of
Critique of Practical Reason that thinking about “the moral law within me”
was the most elevating of all natural and human wonders.
3
Te ability of
human beings not only to do good deeds but also to figure out for them-
selves, apart from any overbearing authority or coercion or influence, what
is good is what makes them truly human, truly able to transcend the mere-
ly animal passions and desires and be free. Of course, doing the right thing
is not always easy. We are not moral gods; we must constantly struggle
against our needs, wants, biases, and ambitions in order to act according
to moral principles. But it is that struggle, that resistance of reason against
the onslaught of the passions and desires, that makes it possible for us to
choose the right thing over the wrong thing. Our ability to be both moral
and free is, therefore, based on the fact that we can and do reason.
4
We may
not, as rational beings, be born with the knowledge of absolute right and
wrong, but we are born, Kant thinks, as rational beings, with the capacity
to deduce that knowledge. Every rational being can know the good—and,
in fact, as far as Kant is concerned, can know it without great dimculty.
But we might doubt this attractive picture of human reason and moral
consciousness as being a rather bold overestimation. Can reason really rise
above our passions: A later German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer
(1788–1860), otherwise a great admirer of Kant, would, for instance, ob-
ject that there are such persons as “evil geniuses,” people who can use their
reason to achieve utterly diabolical ends, people without the slightest bit of
moral conscience.
3
As far as Schopenhauer was concerned, human reason
is more ofen than not simply the tool of an insatiable and desiring will,
helping that will get whatever it wants in the moment. Kant’s picture of
reason and willing is certainly less grim, and, in fact, Kant thought that
willing itself was proof that people could control their passions with rea-
son. Let’s say, for example, that I want to be rich. Enjoying a life of wealth
is the object of my desires, my personal version of happiness. Kant would
say that you cannot become rich merely by wanting it, and you certainly
won’t be able to become rich if you always spend all the money you have
on the most expensive things you can buy. Tere is only one basic way to
increase your wealth, namely, to make sure that you take in more money
than you spend. Tat rule or principle that shows all people the basic path
70 Douglas L. Berger
to increasing their wealth is what Kant calls a maxim. Maxims of various
kinds instruct a person about how to use certain means to achieve certain
ends: “If you want x, you must do y.” When people want things, they learn
very quickly that they cannot just acquire them without using any means
whatsoever, that they must make their actions conform to the best possible
means for the desired acquisition.
6
Now, this does not entail that being rich
is necessarily a good, moral thing, nor does it imply that everyone wants
to be rich; it simply means that, should a person want to be rich, he or
she ought to follow a basic principle of wealth building. Because people’s
desired goals are diferent, Kant calls them hypothetical, and he calls the
methods of achieving these various goals, the “oughts” of how to attain
things, hypothetical imperatives. So far, Kant believes that he has shown
that, if they are to be successful, the human pursuits of goals must be ratio-
nal, must, that is, follow certain methodic principles, and, thus, that human
will must be subordinate to reason. He has shown, in other words, how
what he calls practical reason is fundamentally concerned with how to at-
tain what is desired, and it is precisely this same practical reason that is, he
will claim, the arbiter of moral judgments. For, as we have seen, Kant wants
to go one giant step beyond merely pragmatic considerations and show not
only that human beings can figure out through reason how they ought to
achieve certain ends in a technical sense but also that they can know for
certain which ends they ought to achieve in a moral sense.
To have moral knowledge is, for Kant, to be able to deduce that cer-
tain actions are always to be undertaken by everyone, and these actions he
calls categorical imperatives. A simple test can be run on any action under
consideration. When we are pondering whether what we intend to do is
genuinely moral, we are to ask ourselves whether we believe that everyone
should do what we intend to do. Kant’s two famous immediate examples
of how this test works are those of asking to borrow money from someone
with no intention of repaying it and not helping a stranger in distress on
the street.
7
I could not possibly believe that everyone should ask to bor-
row money with no intention of repaying it because the society that would
result would be one in which no one would believe anyone else’s promise
and this would doubtless yield an unsustainable community. Neither could
I possibly believe that no one should ever help strangers in need because,
in such a society, no one would help me if I required assistance. Terefore, I
can know that making deceitful promises is always morally wrong and that
refusing to help others is always morally wrong, which means that, in order
to act morally, I must make promises only in good faith and unfailingly
e Murder of Moral Idealism 71
help others to the best of my ability.
8
Te test of whether an act is moral
is, therefore, whether its performance ought to be universal, whether it
should be incumbent on everyone at all times. What is so special about this
kind of certain moral knowledge, what makes it so unique, is that it can
be determined by reason absolutely and completely; this moral knowledge
can apply to every instance of an action under consideration for everyone.
Kant says that this kind of moral knowledge is a fact of reason. We can and
do have access to such knowledge of universal moral imperatives, all the
“oughts” and “ought nots” of life, merely by virtue of possessing the capac-
ity to reason.
9
Tis account leads Kant to some fascinating views about feelings or
sentiments frequently associated with morality. For instance, we are of-
ten moved by our intimacy or afection for others, or out of a generalized
compassion for others, to act morally toward them. Kant would say that,
while it is certainly a good thing that such emotions provide us assistance
in doing right by others, they do not in and of themselves make our actions
right. Afer all, even a bunch of conspiring murderers can feel loyalty to
and even compassion for one another. What makes actions morally just is
that they conform to what Kant alternatively calls the moral law and duty.
Moral law and duty can be thought of simply as whatever a categorical
imperative deduced by reason dictates that we do. A truly morally praise-
worthy person is one who helps others or pursues justice not out of some
compelling emotion to do so but because he or she judges that the required
action is his or her duty and carries it out solely because it is his or her duty.
We may experience certain emotions as by-products of conforming to our
duty, the pains that a duty may require in ignoring our desires or sacrificing
our own needs, for example, or the spiritual elevation that can come with
the inward conviction that we are, indeed, doing the right thing, or simply
the respect that submission to the moral law entails. However, as Kant ar-
gues in Critique of Practical Reason, moral sentiments may be poignantly
acute should we fail to do our duty and commit an immoral act, for, in
this case, no matter how much we lie about, rationalize, or obfuscate our
transgression, we will always feel the guilt and shame that are the pangs of
conscience. Using a courtroom metaphor, Kant says that a person who has
done something wrong is like a convicted criminal before the inner judge
of his or her own moral reason, his or her conscience:
With this agree perfectly the judicial sentences of that wonderful
faculty in us which we call conscience. A man may use as much art
72 Douglas L. Berger
as he likes in order to paint to himself an unlawful act that he re-
members, as an unintentional error, a mere oversight, such as one
can never altogether avoid, and therefore as something in which
he was carried away by the stream of physical necessity, and thus
to make himself out innocent, yet he finds that the advocate who
speaks in his favour can by no means silence the accuser within, if
only he is conscious that at the same time when he did this wrong
he was in his senses, that is, in possession of his freedom. . . . Tis
cannot protect him from the blame and reproach that he casts
upon himself.
10
Te only way, as far as Kant is concerned, that a sense of guilt or shame
could not befall a person who had done something wrong is if that person
was completely dispossessed, through some horrible disease or trauma, for
example, of reason itself. But such a disease would more than likely be
utterly incapacitating and would probably result in whoever was amicted
with it being placed in an asylum before he or she could do serious harm
to others. Outside of this, so long as a human being is rational enough to
figure out how to perform practical actions, such as the merely “technical”
skills that would best enable him or her to rob a bank, he or she is also ra-
tional enough to feel the inner moral guilt that this crime supposedly elic-
its. In Kantian language, we would say that anyone who has enough reason
to follow hypothetical imperatives also has enough reason to be conscious
of categorical imperatives. Regardless of whether he or she is ever caught
or convicted, ever confronted with charges by lawyers or victims or made
to sufer punishment, the criminal knows very well, Kant insists, that he or
she is guilty.
Te flip side of such moral assurance is also available to those who
do abide by the moral law, even in the face of the painful sacrifices that
such obedience may demand. A righteous person may have to sufer great
hardship and loss in fulfilling his or her obligation to the good, even to
the extent of putting his or her own life at risk. But, in that case, no matter
how traumatic the sacrifice, the righteous person will always be comforted
by the certainty that his or her actions were right: “When an upright man
is in the greatest distress, which he might have avoided only if he could
have disregarded duty, is he not sustained by the consciousness that he has
maintained humanity in its proper dignity in his own person and honored
it, that he has no reason to be ashamed of himself in his own sight, or to
dread the inward glance of self-examination:”
11
e Murder of Moral Idealism 73
To summarize, Kant believed that the two things that guarantee the
real existence of a distinction between moral and immoral acts are the free-
dom of the human will to behave independently of the impulsive drives
of passion and the fact that this same human will is reasonable, that it can
deduce diferent levels of obligation in the actions it undertakes. We do not
need to be told what is right or forced to act rightly either by God or by
the law of the state, for we can figure out quite readily of our own powers
what the diferences are between morally right and morally wrong acts by
mere virtue of possessing the capacity to reason. Tis moral knowledge
that is the human birthright is fortified and supported by conscience; con-
science will inwardly try and convict anyone who is guilty of transgressing
the moral law by racking them with feelings of guilt and shame, and at the
same time it will vindicate, strengthen, and ennoble a person who has lived
up to his or her duty. According to this scheme, then, a guilty man will feel
guilty because his conscience will tell him he is guilty, while an innocent
man will never feel guilty because his conscience will bear out for him his
blamelessness. Kant would consider it utterly impossible for the reverse
to happen; that is, he would not believe that a guilty person could feel in-
nocent and an innocent person guilty. Each person’s inward sense of duty
would either convict her or vindicate her according to her deeds.
Was it this noble vision of duty that inspired the quiet college student,
a Korean War veteran, Ian Campbell to become, to everyone else’s surprise,
and even partly to his own, a police omcer in the first place: Was it pre-
cisely this inspiration that friends and family alike noticed was beginning
to wane as Ian saw what he saw on the real streets of Los Angeles: If so, the
claims of that noble Kantian vision were betrayed by the encounter of four
men in March 1963 and what came afer it. Tis Kantian moral idealism
was shattered just as Ian Campbell’s heart was literally shattered by bullets
fired from his own .38 caliber Smith and Wesson. For what happened to
Karl Hettinger, Greg Powell, and Jimmy Smith seems to fly in the face of all
that Kant believed about the human moral conscience.
Te Death of Conscience in e Onion Field
Harold Becker’s neo-noir or cop-noir film is a mostly accurate rendition of
Wambaugh’s literary investigation into the dreadful crime and its demor-
alizing afermath as well as his intense character studies.
12
All the movie’s
main actors, two of whom were making motion picture debuts, turned in
brilliant performances and even bore more than striking physical resem-
74 Douglas L. Berger
blances to the real-life figures they portrayed. In the film’s opening dialogue,
in what serves as an eerie prolepsis of coming events, the second-generation
child of Scottish immigrants, bagpipe-playing Campbell is blowing what
he calls the “ancient funeral dirge” “MacCrimmon Will Never Return” in
a basement prison cellar as his new partner, Hettinger, introduces him-
self. On the very same afernoon in downtown Los Angeles, Jimmy Smith,
who was just released on a thef conviction from Folsom Prison the previ-
ous day and is looking for money to get him by, meets Gregory Powell.
Although Smith is immediately intimidated by Greg’s chilling looks and
not at all fooled by his phony manner, he accepts money from him and
agrees to meet him sometime soon, it is implied, to team up as robbers.
Later that evening, as Campbell and Hettinger eat and ride their first night
together as plainclothes cops on the street, they share family histories and
childhood dreams. Hettinger, who has just been transferred from blue-
suit tramc-ticket detail to the felony squad, relates his wish to an amused
Ian that he always wanted to be a tomato farmer who dwells only with the
“smogless sky, clean earth, clean people,” and he adds dryly: “Police work
is so noisy, tomatoes are so quiet.” But, earlier in the evening, Karl laments
that the tramc-ticket beat is boring, and he thinks that in the felony squad
he might run into “somethin’ right around the corner . . . somethin’ other
folks don’t see.” Campbell retorts ponderingly: “What if it’s something you
don’t understand:”
13
Hettinger, despite his seemingly retiring and already
mildly depressed personality, wants to see something beyond the pale. He
will soon get his wish.
Over the next week Powell and Smith pull a few clumsy armed rob-
beries, with Greg doing the gun pointing and Jimmy doing the driving.
Te contrast between the two is somewhat surreal. Greg’s seething tem-
per and total lack of self-restraint boil over more than once—most notably
when, in his apartment, he holds his old partner in robbery, Billy Small, at
gunpoint right in front of Jimmy because he suspects that Billy has been
stealing from him. Greg comes of as controlling and always ready to lash
out in unbridled rage at even the slightest annoyance, with wide and un-
blinking eyes and almost blue quivering lips when he flies of the handle.
Jimmy comes across as quiet, unassuming, and harmless, even though he
unhesitatingly has sex with Greg’s visibly pregnant wife the minute Greg
steps out. Jimmy wants to cut Greg loose because he is utterly spooked by
Greg’s hair-trigger temper as well as by the fact that Greg is too “touchy”:
Greg is always placing his hands on Jimmy’s biceps or around his shoul-
ders. When Greg buys Jimmy a gun, Jimmy meekly tries to cover his alarm.
e Murder of Moral Idealism 75
But Jimmy is unable to sneak of. By their eighth night together, when they
have to leave Las Vegas for a short stint in Los Angeles to rip of another
store for more money, we already have a sense that Greg, though overtly
more ominous, is soon going to be foiled by his own incompetence while
Jimmy, though he is tender and cool, is also smarter, a far better con man,
and somehow even more dangerous.
On the night of the murder—and all the scenes were shot by Becker
on location—Powell and Smith, wearing idiotically conspicuous matching
leather jackets and caps bought by Powell as disguises, are pulled over by
Campbell and Hettinger for an illegal U-turn and a broken lef taillight that
Powell hasn’t had a chance to fix. When asked by Campbell to step out of
the car, Powell suddenly and impulsively draws his pistol and takes cover
behind the taller policeman with the gun in Campbell’s spine. Hettinger
gets the drop on an unarmed and terrified Smith but hesitates as his part-
ner calmly instructs him: “He’s got a gun in my back, give him yours,
Karl.”
14
Hettinger surrenders his weapon, and the cops drive of at gunpoint
in Powell’s car into the Bakersfield countryside with the thieves, leaving
their abandoned squad car behind with its lights still on. Powell assures
Campbell and Hettinger that he will release them when he drops them of
a long walk away from the highway, but, when he deduces wrongly that the
“little Lindburgh Law” proscribes capital punishment for kidnapping, he
hastily changes his plans.
13
Afer letting the omcers out in a farmer’s onion
field, Powell asks Campbell and Hettinger if they have ever heard of the
law. When Campbell answers yes, Powell raises his gun and shoots him
right above his upper lip, and he drops straight back, in slow motion, onto
the ground like a felled tree. Hettinger screams and makes a run for it, and,
as he briefly turns back, he sees someone, he can’t tell whom, firing four
bullets into the chest of his prostrate friend. He desperately and miracu-
lously escapes to a house with the help of Emmanuel McFaddon, a local
farmer working the combine late, with Powell in pursuit. Smith flees in
Powell’s car, making his own longed-for escape, but too late.
16
Both Powell
and Smith are apprehended in short order.
Te following few days find Greg and Jimmy being interrogated by the
homicide detective assigned to the case, the experienced and savvy Pierce
Brooks (Ronny Cox). Greg at first tries to pawn all the shooting of on
Jimmy, but, when he has to face questioning in front of Hettinger, he is
compelled to fess up that he fired first.
17
He knows at that point that he
is destined for the gas chamber but remains defiant and unfazed. Jimmy
shows no signs of believing that he fired a single shot.
18
Brooks, who has
76 Douglas L. Berger
already been told by Hettinger that Jimmy was the one who most likely fin-
ished Campbell of, makes a play afer a drawn-out series of corroboratory
questions to break Jimmy’s conscience. “Jimmy,” he asks gently, “have you
ever felt bad when you did something wrong” “Like how:” Jimmy retorts,
nervously pumng a cigarette. “Has your conscience ever bothered you, like
feeling guilty:” Jimmy’s tone suddenly turns serious, tempered, but with
complete conviction. “Mr. Brooks, I believe, I think, that is something that
rich white guys dreamed up to keep guys like me down. I honest don’t be-
lieve there is such a thing, such a feeling. ‘Guilty:’ Tat’s just somethin’ a
man says in court when his luck runs out.” Jimmy, whose mother was black
and father white, is resolved that his plight in life has been determined by
white dominance, and, beyond believing in his own present innocence,
he rejects the very idea that the emotion of guilt is anything but a trick of
the oppressor—and, even for all his own bad luck, he would never be fool
enough to fall for that. Indeed, in a previous scene depicting his arrest,
when a horde of cops bursts into his room while he sleeps and slams him
to the floor, calling him a “cop killer,” a weeping Smith bawls: “I ain’t no cop
killer! Tey gas people for that!” All the fear that has poured out of Jimmy
since his arrest has nothing to do with a gnawing underground sense of
guilt; it is prompted only by the specter of execution.
All the while, Karl Hettinger is on moral trial with the LAPD. Te word
spreads fast that he was responsible for his partner’s death because he sur-
rendered his weapon to the thieves. He is asked to make debriefing rounds
to morning roll calls for several days, with a fellow omcer urging him: “If
you just tell them how you guys fouled up, I mean, you can’t bring Ian back,
but, if you just tell them all the things you guys did wrong, all the things
you wish you had done, it just might save the lives of some of those boys in
there.”
19
Te same morning, patrol meetings break out into debates about
Hettinger’s conduct, with one veteran beat cop, presumably in his sixties
and with the experience of surviving afer having surrendered his own gun
to a robber, defending Karl’s decision to give both his partner and himself
a chance. At that point, the captain of the downtown department walks
in solemnly, with a mean stare, and announces: “Anyone who gives up his
gun to some punk is a coward. Anybody who does it can kiss his badge
good-bye if I can help it. You’re policemen, you put your trust in God.”
Hettinger has to give repeated testimony about the murder during the first
criminal trial, some of it on location, which results in his frequent weeping
on the stand, migraine headaches, and hearing his own screams day and
night as he relives the killing while looking into his fallen partner’s open
e Murder of Moral Idealism 77
eyes and smashed mouth. Te first trial finds both Powell and Smith guilty
of the shooting and sentences both to death, but the case is retried based
on mid-1960s changes in law. Another trial follows, and Hettinger’s pain
only deepens and worsens. Afer Smith is convinced of a strategy revealed
to him by a “death row lawyer” (Christopher Lloyd) that would allow him
and Powell to shield one another from execution by getting separate trials,
Smith gives Powell a reconciliation blow job in the jailhouse shower, and a
deal is brokered. But, as Hettinger is brought back over and over for more
testimony in an endless series of increasingly absurd trial motions and fur-
ther appeals, his shame at “allowing” Campbell’s death overtakes him. It’s
as if he is on trial instead of the murderers. And it starts to become obvious
that the perpetrators are going to be spared the death penalty and get of
lightly, whereas Hettinger will be serving a life sentence of his own. Te
killers’ guilt is questioned, and then questioned again, and then again, but
it is Hettinger’s guilt that is never in doubt to others.
Hettinger is reassigned to a detail that has him looking for pickpockets
and small-time thieves in department stores, but, ironically, he can control
his torturous migraines only by himself stealing watchbands, buckles, and
other jewelry from store cases. Predictably, he is caught cold one day and
faced with the option of either resigning the force or being prosecuted.
When he asks his own interrogator what he should do, he hears back: “Well,
omcer, if you’re guilty, there’s only one thing you can do. Are you guilty:”
Karl glares at the investigator with a knowing look and immediately signs
his resignation. When, shortly thereafer, he tells his wife, Helen, what has
happened, she tries to reassure him: “You’re the most honest man I’ve ever
known. I don’t know a lot, but if you stole, it wasn’t Karl Hettinger, it wasn’t
you. . . . Tere are reasons people do things.” Karl protests: “I deserve to be
in jail.” A man whose life has been undermined by thieves can find com-
fort only in being a petty crook. As the appeals drag on and Karl becomes
a gardener, his exasperation reaches its nadir when he tries to silence his
squealing newborn by hitting her hard in her crib and then slumping down
on the couch and putting a long-barreled service revolver in his mouth.
His older child interrupts him, protesting that the baby is still crying, and
Karl stops himself, but his descent into unassuagable guilt has led him to
the brink of suicide, presumably to atone for his partner’s having met the
same fate years earlier because of his supposed failure.
Te crux of this dark tale lies here. Tat Hettinger might feel great
sadness and long-term trauma as a result of being a witness to the murder
of a partner and friend is understandable. But why should he feel all this
78 Douglas L. Berger
guilt and shame: Afer all, were we merely to focus on the circumstances
of the kidnapping and murder, we would see that he had no realistic op-
tions. Powell was hiding behind Campbell during the initial encounter, his
pistol in Campbell’s back, and Campbell himself told Hettinger to give up
his weapon; had Hettinger tried to force a resolution, the same result, and
perhaps worse, might have ensued. Te LAPD, however, takes the result to
indicate that the surrender of a weapon in such a situation will lead only to
loss of life, as if an alternative solution would have had a diferent outcome.
What are we to make, not just of this infantile conclusion, but especially of
Hettinger’s submission to it and the manner in which his entire life is lef
in shambles more by his self-mortification than anything else: How can an
obviously innocent man feel so guilty: If Kant were right, we should expect
Hettinger’s inner knowledge that he did the right thing, the only thing that
gave him and his partner at least a chance to live, to bolster him, make him
“fearless before his inner judge.” Instead, even though he knows he did the
right thing, he still succumbs to shame. And, at the same time, how can
two overwhelmingly guilty thugs, who blasted a man to pieces, depriving
his wife and children of him for all time, feel such an utter lack of guilt: Has
not what happened to the Kant enthusiast Ian Campbell in e Onion Field
lef Kantian moral idealism utterly defenseless:
Kant’s Dreams and Hettinger’s Nightmares
What we seem to have in Kantian moral philosophy is a very skillful articu-
lation of a very ancient article of philosophical faith, a faith that stretches
back to the Greek martyr Socrates. Tat article of faith pledges that the
good person is the rational person, that all human beings, even when they
are doing wrong, are somehow aware that they are in the wrong, that no
one would willingly commit an injustice if he knew it was an injustice, that,
if human beings are essentially rational, and if rationality is good, then
human beings are essentially good. Tat vision, that dream of the unity of
truth and goodness, served as practically the entire justification for dedi-
cating one’s life to philosophy for century afer century in Western culture
and impelled generation afer generation to strive for social justice and
progress. Te stifling, frightening conclusion that we appear to be present-
ed with in e Onion Field is that such a dream really is only a dream, that
human beings may, in fact, have no inbuilt or inherent moral conscience,
and that they can carry out the most self-evidently horrifying of crimes
against one another with no checks, no trepidations, and no regrets.
e Murder of Moral Idealism 79
Wambaugh’s narrative account tries to ward of this ominous implica-
tion, explaining away Smith’s and Powell’s denials of guilt as clear cases of
“sociopathy.”
20
But we must remember first of all that Kant would have con-
sidered a condition like sociopathy impossible. If a person has enough cog-
nitive capacity to make calculated and planned decisions in any arena of
her practical conduct, then she possesses reason, and, if she possesses rea-
son, she can distinguish between right and wrong acts. Smith and Powell
do possess reason, and they can make plans and carry them out, so Kant
would pronounce them quite rational. Second, simply invoking a theory of
sociopathy to explain the cases of Powell and Smith would seem to concede
that the existence of a moral conscience within any person depends not on
nature but on the success or failure of socialization. If I can call a sociopath
anyone who does not abide by the norms or agree with the values of a
society, then sociopathy is not necessarily a moral disease, just a failure of
adjustment to social rules. Neither would this say anything about whether
the rules of society were actually moral; it would demonstrate only what
means were necessary to compel someone to accept those rules. Merely
saying that Smith and Powell had some kind of disease that destined them
for social maladjustment really ends up dissolving Ian Campbell’s mur-
der in a way that someone with Campbell’s Kantian preferences could not
accept. Afer all, even were this alternative view about the merely social
nature of moral conscience in the end actually correct, would a man like
Ian Campbell have volunteered to fight first in the Korean War and then
again on the front lines of the LAPD to defend just that: No, certainly not.
Ian Campbell, having been the Kantian that he was, put his life on the line
and eventually gave it away to justify a moral idealism that enthroned sa-
cred duty as its commander. Sadly, despite all Campbell’s basic decency, a
decency grounded in his Kantian convictions, the old philosophers’ dream
was really an illusion, the falsity of which was proved by Ian Campbell’s
death and Karl Hettinger’s descent into a living nightmare.
But, then again, perhaps we should take another look at that night-
mare, the nightmare in which Ian Campbell’s death haunted Karl Hettinger.
What was all Hettinger’s self-imposed guilt and seemingly incomprehen-
sible thievery about: What was it meant to accomplish: Beyond the di-
mension of his seeming acceptance of the responsibility assigned to him
for Campbell’s death, another reason that Hettinger takes on the burden
of shame is that, in a moral sense, the sufering that it entails has a certain
purifying value, expiating or atoning for the lack of guilt exhibited by the
perpetrators. Powell and Smith are so busy trying to save themselves from
80 Douglas L. Berger
the death penalty—which means, of course, that they are so busy denying
their guilt—that Karl, who has to watch the trials and their utter failure
to administer justice, carries the guilt on his own quite literally slumped
shoulders.
21
He keeps saying, almost like a mantra throughout the film,
whenever a new trial begins, that his malady will subside once the trial
is finally over. In other words, when the actual guilt of the real killers is
finally determined, decided, and punished, he will release himself from
the feelings of shame that he has agreed to carry with him, but, as long as
guilt is not being assumed and proper punishment has not been meted
out, he must continue to bear it so that Campbell’s death will have some
sort of expiation, so that some sense of what he has internalized as justice
can be acknowledged. Tis also explains the other facet of why Karl turns
to thievery: it helps him, in its own thoroughly creepy way, assume the
role and identity of a real lawbreaker so that the sense of assumed guilt,
so in need of being atoned for and redeemed, can be further justified.
22

Te dream that Karl insists on having is a dream about moral conscience,
about the preservation of a sense of justice. If Ian Campbell’s faith in Kant’s
moral dreams was an illusion, it was an illusion that he tried mightily to
salvage until the pitch-black and chilly night his life was taken from him
in the onion field. And, even though that dream became Karl Hettinger’s
constant nightmare, it was a shattered dream somehow still worth having,
a way he could go on helping his distressed partner, a lease on life that Karl
borrowed from Ian and desperately wanted to pay back.
Notes
1. Joseph Wambaugh, e Onion Field (New York: Dell, 1973), 24–23, 232.
2. Ibid., 23.
3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788), trans. Tomas
Kingsmill Abbot (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), 134.
4. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1783), trans. H.
J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 81.
3. See Arthur Schopenhauer, e World as Will and Representation (1819),
trans. E. F. J. Payne, 2 vols. (New York: Dover, 1969), 1:314–28.
6. Kant, Groundwork, 84–83.
7. Ibid., 88–91.
8. Kant did not believe that we should push ourselves to accomplish the im-
possible, and, thus, obviously we cannot help all human beings at all times. He was
very careful to point out that the command “ought” assumes that the commanded
action “can” be done. We are, therefore, enlisted by categorical imperatives to do
e Murder of Moral Idealism 81
whatever lies in our ability and are not held responsible for whatever may be be-
yond it.
9. Kant, Critique, 17.
10. Ibid., 87.
11. Ibid., 76.
12. Tere are, as is always to be expected, a number of important dialogic and
dramatic departures from Wambaugh’s novel, some of which will be mentioned
here.
13. It is interesting that, in Wambaugh’s account, these words about running
into something right around the corner are put into Ian’s mouth, not Karl’s (see
Wambaugh, e Onion Field, 11).
14. Te novel’s version of events has Campbell telling this to Hettinger twice
before Karl surrenders the weapon (ibid., 133).
13. Greg is corrected about his knowledge of the Lindburgh Law when he con-
fesses to shooting Campbell in the face first. “Te Lindburgh Law,” homicide de-
tective Pierce Brooks tells him contemptuously, pertains only “to cases of kidnap-
ping for ransom with bodily harm. Up until the first shot was fired, the Lindburgh
Law didn’t apply. It wasn’t a capital crime until then.” Powell’s witless bungling has
resulted in an unnecessary death and assured, it would seem, his own execution.
16. Trough more than seven years of criminal trials and investigations, it was
never determined precisely whether Powell or Smith fired the shots that actually
killed Campbell. Hettinger consistently testified that he thought it must have been
Smith since it was Powell who began chasing him when he fled. But the darkness
prevented him from being able to tell for certain. Wambaugh’s novel recounts how
all the available physical and psychological evidence pointed to Smith, who was,
indeed, convicted and, at the conclusion of the first trial in November 1963, sent
to death row along with Powell on one count of first-degree murder (e Onion
Field, 327). He was convicted again in 1969 at the close of an absurdly prolonged
second trial but received only a life sentence when, in return for sexual favors in
prison, Powell took the Fifh at Smith’s retrial and, thereby, practically obviated the
records of past investigations (ibid., 427–28). Powell’s death sentence was upheld
in 1970, but the penalty was never carried out because the California Supreme
Court outlawed capital punishment in the state in 1972 (ibid., 434). Powell and
Smith were both released in March 1983, but both soon returned to prison, where
they spent the rest of their lives. An entire separate volume could conceivably be
written on the absurd permutations of the legal proceedings, whose transcripts by
1970 exceeded forty-five thousand pages (ibid., 373).
17. It is interesting that, in the novel, Wambaugh has Greg admit to shooting
Campbell when he is first confronted with Jimmy during the interrogation, before
Hettinger ever sees him (ibid., 217).
18. Brooks, Wambaugh tells us in the novel, took special note in his initial
questioning of Jimmy that he did not even recount four shots being fired afer
82 Douglas L. Berger
Campbell initially fell, nor did he recall a stray shot being fired from the .32 he
admitted he was holding. Brooks concluded almost immediately that he was either
intentionally or unintentionally blocking his own actions out of his mind but that
he had definitely fired the four bullets into Campbell’s chest and perhaps let of
another blind shot at the fleeing Hettinger (ibid., 211, 217).
19. Once again, there is here an interesting divergence from the novel, which
depicts Hettinger as tiring of telling the story over and over to individual cops on
his first day back to work, volunteering to speak to the roll calls himself to get it
over with (ibid., 213–16).
20. Ibid., 227–28.
21. Wambaugh notes—basing this very odd part of the story on real records
of annual physicals—that Hettinger actually lost an entire inch of height (ibid.,
339–40).
22. In the novel, Hettinger finds a certain kind of comfort in the crimes he has
committed afer he is expelled from the police force and has become a gardener,
namely, that the memory of his own stealing makes memories and fear of the mur-
der fade away (ibid., 146).
83
Justice and Moral Corruption
in A Simple Plan
Aeon J. Skoble
Te American Dream in a Gym Bag
At the start of the neo-noir film A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi, 1998), Hank
Mitchell (Bill Paxton) has a good life and is happy and well-adjusted. When
he, his brother, Jacob (Billy Bob Tornton), and their friend Lou (Brent
Briscoe) find a large bag of cash from what they deduce was a criminal
enterprise, they hatch a “simple plan” that will enable them to keep it and
enrich themselves, which they think will increase their happiness. Te dev-
astation that ensues, not just in terms of body count, but also in terms of
moral and psychological decay, follows Plato’s analysis of justice and cor-
ruption in his Republic almost exactly, especially his understanding of jus-
tice as a kind of psychological harmony in books 2–4 and his analysis of
moral decay in books 8–9. For Plato, justice is internal peace or harmony,
a rational self-control of emotions and appetites, and injustice is psycho-
logical disharmony, when one or another of the passions dominates, when
self-control is lacking. On Plato’s theory, people who allow themselves to
become unjust in this way will become miserable, literally incapable of
happiness. I have found few films that dramatize this theme as efectively as
A Simple Plan. Let us see how looking at the film and the Republic together
enhances our appreciation of both.
But is this really a neo-noir film, when bad consequences follow from
bad behavior: Isn’t noir really about moral ambiguity or nihilism: First of
all, it isn’t obvious how to categorize a film as film noir to begin with,
1
and
the category neo-noir seems even more slippery. Many so-called neo-noirs
are in color, of course, but being filmed in black and white isn’t really the
essential defining characteristic of film noir. It’s the “darkness” of the situa-
tions or characters that is the true referent of the word noir, and many color
films are dark in this way. A Simple Plan is dark in precisely this way: it is a
84 Aeon J. Skoble
portrait of moral corruption, and the lies and deaths that ensue. A Simple
Plan also shares many other commonly accepted stylistic conventions of
film noir, for example, the unsettling camera angles and the settings that
emphasize or suggest isolation and loneliness. By showing an otherwise
good man driven to lie, steal, and ultimately commit murder, the film, it
might be argued, contains implicit moral ambiguity, which some take to be
a hallmark of film noir. On this point, however, I would argue that there is
nothing morally ambiguous about the story: it’s quite plain that Hank de-
stroys himself through his choices. And, indeed, it isn’t obvious that moral
ambiguity is a hallmark of film noir at all—many classic noirs turn out to
present clear visions of right and wrong and demonstrate the self-destruc-
tive efects of vice.
2
In the film, the plan is supposed to be simple: hang on to the illicit
money rather than spend it right away, to see whether anyone claims it,
and, if it remains unclaimed, then begin spending it. But no one can really
stick to the plan. Lou needs the money to pay of some debts, Jacob wants
to renovate the family farm, and Hank’s wife, Sarah (Bridget Fonda), per-
suades him that they need the money for their new baby. Tey modify the
plan by putting some of the money back, which they think will free them
up to spend at least some of what’s lef. Tis decision commits them to that
classic blunder, returning to the scene of the crime, and, sure enough, this
results in their killing a witness to their actions. Te killings, the deceptions,
and the distrust continue to build: Hank and Jacob first try to blackmail
Lou, and then end up killing him. Hank and Jacob are obliged to accom-
pany (what turn out to be imposter) FBI agents to the plane wreck, which
results in more killings—including the tragic killing of Jacob by Hank. Just
to add insult to injury, when the real FBI agents arrive, they reveal that the
serial numbers of the money have been recorded, which means that Hank
and Sarah can’t even spend it. Hank ends up burning it in his fireplace.
Why does the simple plan turn out to be not so simple afer all: Largely
because the characters underestimate the ramifications of their actions,
and rationalize those actions in myopic ways. Hank’s first reaction is the
ethical one: this isn’t our money; we ought to turn it in. How does he let
himself depart from this attitude in so radical a way: We can approach this
question by way of considering some of Plato’s theories about justice and
self-interest. One device that Plato uses to motivate this issue is a story, told
by one of the characters in the Republic, of a shepherd, Gyges, who finds a
magic ring that renders the wearer invisible.
3
Eventually, liberated from the
constraints of his fear of getting caught, he commits all manner of unjust
Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan 85
acts. Te point of this device is to raise the question of whether you would
commit unjust acts if you knew you would not get caught. If the fear of
getting caught is the only reason to avoid injustice, that would suggest that
justice is not intrinsically valuable and, indeed, that shrewdness is more valu-
able than virtue. If this were the case, then cultivating justice for its own sake
would be foolish, and one would do better by oneself to care only to seem to
be just, while advancing one’s own self-interest as much as possible.
Why Be Moral:
Plato’s Republic is, among other thing, a lengthy discussion of this very
issue, why one should be moral. Plato has the character Socrates discuss
the nature of both justice and self-interest with some earnest young phi-
losophers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, as well as the more blustery and in-
timidating Trasymachus, who thinks that talking about “being virtuous”
is a waste of time. Socrates has claimed that justice is more profitable than
injustice, that “it is never just to harm anyone.”
4
Trasymachus thinks that
this is almost self-evidently absurd, and that what most consider injustice
would, in fact, be the more profitable course of action. For instance, if I
successfully stole a Lincoln Town Car, I’d be better of, since I would have
the satisfaction that comes from driving one without having had to spend
the money it ordinarily takes to get one. On this view, as long as I perceive a
positive change, I’m better of. As Jacob notes: “Hell, Hank, I’ve never even
kissed a girl. You know, if me becoming rich is gonna change all that, you
know, I’m all for it.” Trasymachus argues that “those who give injustice
a bad name do so because they are afraid, not of practicing but of sufer-
ing injustice.”
3
Te implication is that moral rules are just an artifice to
keep people from predatory pursuit of self-interest. But, toward the end
of the Republic, Socrates notes that he and Trasymachus didn’t really dis-
agree. What this turns out to mean is that, on Plato’s analysis, there is no
dichotomy between being just and being self-interested, since being just is
in one’s self-interest, and being unjust is contrary to one’s self-interest. To
see why this is so, we must note that for a moral realist—one who thinks
that morality is objective—self-interest is not identical to subjective desire.
For instance, if Smith is a heroin addict, what he desires is another injec-
tion of heroin, but this is not actually in Smith’s best interests. One can
be mistaken, in other words, about what constitutes self-interest. A Simple
Plan dramatizes this efectively by using Hank’s ultimately tragic mistake
about the nature of his own self-interest.
86 Aeon J. Skoble
Hank tells us in voice-over that his father taught him that what a man
needs to be happy is “a wife he loves, a decent job, and friends and neigh-
bors who like and respect him.” As we see him at the outset of the narra-
tive, Hank seems to endorse his father’s claims about the seemingly simple
components of the good life and, at worst, is amicted with small doses of
resentment or covetousness. (His wife, Sarah, is more explicitly covetous
of a more amuent lifestyle.)
6
When his friend Lou characterizes finding
someone else’s lost (and almost certainly ill-gotten) money as realizing the
American dream, Hank protests, championing the value of work. (“You
work for the American dream, you don’t steal it.”) But, in very short order,
he comes to think that he could make a better life with the found money
than he could by working at his job. Plato notes that while things like mon-
ey and fame may be pleasing, they are not constitutive of happiness and
will not bring happiness by themselves. Te virtuous man who acquires
wealth might be happy, but the vicious man will not be made happy by
wealth. Virtue may, indeed, facilitate the acquisition of wealth, but, Plato
says, the wealth itself will not facilitate the acquisition of virtue and, thus,
of happiness. Hank has thus made a calculation about how best to achieve
his own interests, concluding that the unjust thing would be the self-in-
terested thing to do. As Plato might have predicted, this turns out to be a
mistake: Hank ends up making himself far more miserable. It’s not merely a
calculative failure, however: the miscalculation is the product of his failing to
understand the nature of his own happiness (specifically, his embrace of the
idea that if only he had more money, he would have a happier life).
But why is it a mistake: Could the tragedy have been prevented: Plato
argues that the just life is, in fact, the happy life, so if we can figure out what
is entailed by pursuing justice, that will be sumcient for pursuing happi-
ness. On Plato’s view, justice is a kind of internal harmony, where all the
aspects of the psyche are coordinated toward well-being:
7
“It does not lie in
a man’s external actions, but in the way he acts within himself, really con-
cerned with himself and his inner parts.” By “parts” of the psyche, Plato is
referring to our various passions and appetites as well as our rational facul-
ties. Rational self-control, he argues, will be more conducive to psychologi-
cal harmony than its alternatives—a life dominated by desires for money or
fame, or one dominated by fear and hate. It requires wisdom, courage, and
moderation in order to bring our passions under the regulating influence
of reason, but the life of rational moderation of the passions so achieved
is justice, and it will result in a happier life, one free of inner turmoil. Te
just man “orders what are in the true sense of the word his own afairs well;
Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan 87
he is master of himself, puts things in order, is his own friend. . . . from a
plurality becomes a unity.” Justice, then, is “that which preserves this inner
harmony and indeed helps to achieve it,” and injustice is “that which always
destroys it.”
8
Virtue Is Its Own Reward
Te dichotomy between justice and self-interest evaporates on this view.
While others will surely benefit from my being a just person, the reason for
my cultivating justice, and its most tangible reward, will be my own hap-
piness. If I thought I would serve my own interests better by being unjust,
this analysis would quickly reveal such a course of action to be self-de-
structive: is it even plausible to think that by pursuing ignorance, coward-
ice, and intemperance I should bring about my long-term well-being: In
one sense, rational self-control is the only sort of self-control that is worthy
of the name. To be “controlled” by one’s passions is really to no longer have
self-control at all. Tis is because desires are directed solely at their object,
whereas reason is that part of our psyche that can adjudicate between con-
flicting emotions, or balance short-term and long-term interests. For ex-
ample, my desire for a doughnut won’t be satisfied by anything except eat-
ing a doughnut. Reason can result in my not acting on these desires—and
even, optimally, in my having them less frequently. For me to be dominated
by my desires, on the other hand, is essentially for me to lack autonomy, to
eat a doughnut even when this isn’t in my best interests. Tus, just as I can
be enslaved by another person, I can also be “enslaved” by my passions:
fear, greed, unchecked desires.
More broadly, we can be mistaken about our own happiness because
we can be mistaken about what constitutes our own happiness. Hank tells
us in voice-over that he realizes now that he was, in fact, happy prior to the
events related in the film, only he didn’t realize it. People with overpriori-
tized passions for material gain are precisely those who will not be content
with what might otherwise seem to be a good life. One consequence of
letting one’s passions grow unmoderated by reason is that one might come
to think one’s good life isn’t really so good. Tat is, it is one’s unmoderated
desire for acquisition that leads to permanent discontentedness. Hank and
Sarah did have a good life prior to the events related in the film, yet when
faced with the prospect of a vast accumulation of material wealth, they
became dissatisfied. On Plato’s theory, this new dissatisfaction is actually
a mistake.
88 Aeon J. Skoble
An easy and common misinterpretation of the Platonic theory is to
characterize the role of reason as purely instrumental, assuming that one
could be, for instance, a “rational thief.” Well, it’s certainly the case that the
rational thief will be happier and more prosperous than the irrational one,
but this misses Plato’s larger point. On this view, having rational control of
the passions implies having sumcient wisdom to see that cultivating vicious
lifestyles will, ultimately, be self-destructive—precisely the sort of foresight
that Hank lacks. Despite what Hank and his conspirators tell themselves
about the simplicity of the plan, is it even remotely likely that such a plan
would not engender an ever-increasing network of deception and mis-
trust: Plato explains that it is entirely predictable that the vicious person
will make himself sufer by his injustice. For example, he cannot truly have
any friends, since genuine friendship is possible only among good people.
He cannot have a trusting relationship with anyone, since all others will be
regarded either as “flatterers or those in need of flattery”; indeed, he him-
self becomes a “flatterer of the most wicked men.” Tose closest to him be-
come the greatest threats to him, further eroding any chance of tranquility.
All of Plato’s predictions apply to Hank, Jacob, Lou, and Sarah: “Is this not
the kind of prison in which [the unjust man] is held: His nature is . . . full
of many fears . . . he takes refuge in his house.”
9
Hank avoids being sent to
prison, but he has, nevertheless, become a prisoner, first of his own greed,
and then of the consequences of his actions. Jacob had earlier asked Hank,
referring to their scheme: “Do you ever feel evil:” Eventually, Hank clearly
does, and he doesn’t like it.
To Know the Good Is to Do the Good
It is a lack of foresight combined with self-deception that facilitates the
characters’ descent into corruption. Plato suggests that evil is ignorance:
we are always trying to do what is best for us, but we might be wrong. In
one sense, this claim is the subject of some philosophical controversy, for
it raises questions about the nature of culpability and about weakness of
will. But, in another sense, it is unobjectionable and illuminative. Why am
I robbing the bank: Because I want lots of money. Why do I want lots of
money: Because that will make me happy. Te bank robber isn’t trying to
make himself worse of; he is trying to make himself better of—or, more
accurately, better of as he understands it. But his understanding of what
constitutes being better of may well be mistaken, either through complete
ignorance or through a kind of self-deception, perhaps an unwillingness
Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan 89
to acknowledge or act on dimcult realities. Hank rationalizes his lies and
criminal actions, deceiving himself about his need for the money, about
the circumstances of finding it, about killing people.
Hank’s error is twofold. First, by acquiescing in his desire for money
and choosing to value it more highly than virtue, he has produced an im-
balance in his psyche, one that will necessarily lead to inner conflict as
reason can no longer be a moderating influence. Second, by acting on this
desire, he has created a situation that will lead to distrust, deception, and
violence. Plato anticipates both dimensions of this self-deception in his
depiction of the self-inflicted sufering of the unjust. Since he has char-
acterized justice as a state of internal peace and harmony, it follows that
the unjust person will be psychologically conflicted, incapable of attaining
happiness, and, furthermore, will make himself the enemy of others. Jacob
comes to regret what they have done, and even remarks: “I wish somebody
else had found that money.” Hank loses friends, loses the respect of his wife
and brother, and, ultimately, loses self-respect, as he is obliged to kill his
own brother, for which he loathes himself. Like Plato’s archetypal unjust
man, Hank has by his own actions rendered himself entirely unhappy. Te
days when he isn’t tormented by memories of what he has done are “few
and far between.”
Plenty of films dramatize the theme that crime doesn’t pay, but there’s
more to Plato’s theory of justice than that. In many films, the reason crime
doesn’t pay is that the criminal is unsuccessful, doesn’t get away with it, and
is, thus, punished. Plato’s point is that, even if one were to get away with it
in the sense of avoiding capture and punishment, as is the case with Hank,
one would nevertheless sufer as a result of one’s own corrupted character.
Tis would be less dramatically interesting and less edifying if the “crimi-
nal” were a thoroughly despicable character. When the narrative centers
on someone who is seeking the good but who fails, as Hank does, owing to
intemperate acquisitiveness and a fundamental misjudgment of the nature
of happiness, that is the stuf of tragedy.
Notes
I am grateful to Mark T. Conard for his patience with and helpful comments on
this essay.
1. See, e.g., Mark T. Conard, “Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of
Noir,” in e Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington: University
Press of Kentucky, 2006), 7–22.
90 Aeon J. Skoble
2. See my “Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir,” in ibid., 41–48.
3. For further discussion of the ring of Gyges story, see, e.g., John Pappas, “It’s
All Darkness: Plato, the Ring of Gyges, and Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in Woody
Allen and Philosophy, ed. Mark T. Conard and Aeon J. Skoble (Peru, IL: Open
Court, 2004), 203–17.
4. Plato, Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube and C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1974), 333e.
3. Ibid., 344c.
6. Indeed, the character of Sarah is an interesting twist on the canonical femme
fatale of film noir. She is a woman of corrupting influence who induces Hank to get
in deeper, yet she’s also his pregnant wife. Tis contrast highlights the fact that she
is even less in control of her appetites (to use the Platonic framework) than Hank is
of his. Her immediate change of heart upon seeing the money demonstrates that,
unlike Hank, she has hitherto paid only lip service to the morals she claims.
7. Tis conception of justice difers from many ordinary conceptions of jus-
tice, not only modern notions of justice’s being related to fairness, but also ideas
common in Plato’s time, such as the idea that justice entails benefiting one’s friends
and harming one’s enemies.
8. Plato, Republic, 443d, 443d–e, 444.
9. Ibid., 379e, 379c.
91
“Saint” Sydney
Atonement and Moral Inversion
in Hard Eight
Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch
Imagine James Cagney doesn’t die at the end of
White Heat. Image he lives and it’s thirty, forty
years later and he’s got to pay for what he’s done.
—Paul Tomas Anderson
In Hard Eight (1996), the first-time writer-director Paul Tomas Anderson
ofers a distinctly modern interpretation of a character type familiar from the
original era of noir. In his contemporary rendering, which is neither rever-
ential homage nor postmodern deconstruction, Anderson ofers an elegant,
rigorous character study as well as a provocative reexamination of some of
noir’s central philosophical, thematic, and visual motifs. Confronting uni-
versal moral issues—guilt and innocence, crime and punishment—raised
by earlier crime dramas, the film investigates the possibilities of salvation
within a traditionally treacherous cinematic realm.
Sydney, the film’s generous protagonist (played with magnificent grav-
ity by Philip Baker Hall), is a mysterious criminal with a dark and guilty
past that he intends to keep secret. In classic noir, Sydney would most likely
be an opaque, one-dimensional figure of corruption and vice, like Richard
Widmark in Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947) or James Cagney in
White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949). In Anderson’s challenge to genre tradi-
tion, however, Sydney is tempted to perform a series of benevolent acts in
order to unburden his conscience. Succumbing fully to the opportunity to
play savior and saint, he rescues John (the irrepressibly sheepish John C.
Reilly), a witless, down-on-his-luck young man. A character like John in
traditional noir would be lured into some sort of dubious criminal activ-
92 Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch
ity. Tink of initially “innocent” characters like those played by William
Holden in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1930), Fred MacMurray in
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), and Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet
Street (Fritz Lang, 1943). Here, however, John’s overwhelming defenseless-
ness is a catalyst for Sydney’s charity, and it is Sydney who is catapulted into
atypical action. Essentially, the film is a sentimental tale of an aging career
criminal who seeks to repent for his mortal sins by engaging in a loving
relationship.
Te film begins with Sydney, seen from behind, approaching John
outside a roadside cofee shop somewhere along a bleak Nevada high-
way. Sydney’s dark reflection looms in the glass door next to where John
is huddled in a corner, and Sydney’s flapping black coattails lead us into
the scene. Te composition of the shot clearly establishes Sydney as the
dominant force, the mysterious figure who will guide us through the nar-
rative. Finding John broke and alone, Sydney, with forthright generosity,
ofers him a cigarette and a cup of cofee. John, though skeptical, accepts
Sydney’s kindness. Afer learning that John is without family or friends and in
a financial bind, having lost all his money trying to win enough cash to bury
his recently deceased mother, Sydney ofers the young man the chance to re-
turn to Las Vegas. He says: “I think if you need help paying for your mother’s
funeral, we can work it out. I want you to see that my reasons for doing this are
not selfish, only this: I’d hope that you would do the same for me.” He promises
to teach John some gambling secrets that might reverse his luck. Tough still
wary, and cynical and sarcastic besides, John accepts Sydney’s invitation.
Two years later, close friends and doing rather well for themselves, John
and Sydney are in Reno. Sydney refers to John as an “old friend,” and there
is no doubt that their relationship has evolved from one of mentor and
student to that of surrogate father and son. As Sydney says: “I know John,
and I love him like he was my own child.” Two problematic characters,
however, complicate Sydney’s plan of redemption: Clementine (Gwyneth
Paltrow), a casino cocktail waitress and part-time prostitute, a bargain base-
ment femme fatale who becomes John’s love interest, and Jimmy (Samuel
L. Jackson), a sleazy casino security guard and generic thug who, much to
Sydney’s chagrin, befriends John.
Hard Eight’s Reassessment of Noir
Taking its neo label seriously, Hard Eight reinterprets the figure of the
femme fatale, who is still a knotty catalyst for trouble, but far from the
“Saint” Sydney 93
devious, rapacious sexpot of classic noir. She is neither fatalistic nor cas-
trating like her classic era counterparts, and little is to be gained from her
misguided actions other than the undermining of her own well-being. Tis
witless neo–femme fatale is a damaged yet sympathetic character who does
whatever it takes simply to get by within a world of limited possibilities. A
lost soul not unlike Sydney, Clementine becomes another provocation to
Sydney’s awakened conscience. With Sydney’s guiding hand, she and John,
during their first day together, fall in love and get married. Clementine,
however, is not so eager to change her ways and soon involves John, and
subsequently Sydney, in a botched hostage situation with one of her “cli-
ents.” Uncontrollable and dimcult to understand, she stands as a potential
threat to them all. Sydney saves the hapless newlyweds by covering up their
crime and urging them to leave town. Events may not transpire according
to Sydney’s plan, but he is not deterred from making sure his “children” are
safe. Clementine, shocked by her own actions, is remorseful and repen-
tant when confronted with her attraction to decadent behavior, a shameful
weakness that threatens the possibility of a better life.
Jimmy, the other blocking character, is a lubricious lowlife who em-
bodies the return of Sydney’s repressed criminal past. He is a familiar,
rather than reconfigured, character type—a traditional hood of a kind
that remains an unaltered element of crime dramas. He’s been around and
knows about Sydney’s days as a high-rolling gangster in Atlantic City. He
also knows Sydney’s secret: Sydney killed John’s father. A low-class oppor-
tunist who never has his own cigarettes (a telltale breach of noir etiquette),
Jimmy presents a potentially mortal threat to the mobster’s treasured se-
crecy and his newfound family. Confronted with Jimmy’s capacity to de-
stroy his identity as a caring patriarch, Sydney feels that there is only one
answer to this problem: Jimmy must go.
While the film solicits empathy and understanding for Sydney, it pres-
ents Jimmy as unredeemable. Te character’s callous, misogynistic out-
bursts and his attempt to extort money from Sydney hinder our sympathy.
His death is presented not as a tragic loss of life but as a form of rough
vigilante justice. Te film makes a distinction between two kinds of im-
moral characters, with Sydney’s integrity contrasted to Jimmy’s selfishness.
Yes, Sydney may be a killer, but Jimmy is worse. Sydney has a conscience
and a code of honor, while Jimmy is rotten through and through. Te film
protects Sydney, alluding only briefly to his criminal past. Although we
are never told why he killed John’s father, the detail of his having shot the
man in the face is enough to tell us that it was a brutal murder, a heinous
94 Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch
act that contradicts Sydney’s bittersweet amiability. Significantly, however,
except for one visible murderous act—removing Jimmy, which is presented
as an acceptable form of self-defense and as a “sacrifice” that must be made
in order to ensure his safety and that of his dependents—Sydney’s violence
is contained within a backstory that is kept intentionally murky. Jimmy’s
statement to Sydney while holding him hostage at gunpoint—“You prob-
ably think I’m some kind of asshole or something. But I’m not a killer like
you”—may be accurate in defining a level of distinction between two im-
moral characters, and Jimmy’s condemnation of Sydney’s past may give
him a comforting moral edge. But Jimmy is the one who will lose his life, a
fate that the film seems to endorse, at least provisionally.
If Jimmy is punished for being the rat that he is, what happens to this
fatherly, kindhearted killer: Classic noir ofen uncovers a dark side buried
within bourgeois characters; in Anderson’s neo-noir revision, a capacity for
good is revealed within a hard-boiled, stone-faced killer. John’s innocence
and devotion pierce Sydney’s plate-glass armor to the point where, at the
end, he is able to announce, “I love you,” a virtually impossible declaration
from the dark heart of traditional noir. In this ambitious replay, a reversal
of the earlier cycle’s entrenched pessimism, a killer proves capable of char-
ity and emotional awakening. Nevertheless, Sydney cannot—and must not
if the film is to avoid a plunge into moral anarchy—achieve complete tran-
scendence over his criminal past.
Crime and Punishment in Hard Eight
In the way that it portrays the criminal’s destiny, Hard Eight interrogates
the concept of punishment as it was conventionally depicted in classic noir.
At the same time, in encouraging us to understand Sydney’s turmoil and,
thereby, to some extent, forgive his moral trespass, the film in a parallel
move plays with customary designations of good and evil. Afer having
killed Jimmy in not quite cold blood, Sydney remains seemingly unpun-
ished and on the lam. Fleeing town, he returns to the scene of his first
meeting with John and, afer a moment of mild contemplation, tucks the
cuf of his shirt, stained with Jimmy’s blood, under his coat sleeve. Te ges-
ture seems to put to rest his latest evil deed, and, once again, Sydney com-
pounds his relegation to a realm of immorality. At the very least, Sydney
is a rational man who knows that, like the tarnished patina of his con-
science, the stains on his sleeve will linger with him always. In the end, he
remains where we found him at the beginning, locked within a moral and
“Saint” Sydney 95
existential prison. Self-reflective moral anguish is both his penalty and his
fate. And this self-realization—in the final shot, Sydney notices the small
stain of Jimmy’s blood on his sleeve with a contemplative grimace—is the
uniquely modern moral reprimand that constitutes Hard Eight’s concep-
tion of justice and punishment.
1
Redemption and transcendence—the
gifs that his beneficence bestows on his wards—are, for Sydney himself,
beyond reach. Mired in moral conflict, his own salvation is destined to
remain problematic.
Part of Sydney’s punishment is his always-to-be-frustrated search for
atonement, which is not religious penance or a desire to be absolved of his
crimes by becoming a target of vengeance. Rather, his quest is to regain
his humanity through selfless loving acts and, thereby, to placate his guilty
conscience. However, being unable fully to evade his deviant past as well
as his criminal psyche, Sydney is damned, and his road toward satisfaction
is more like a river of blood. Nonetheless, he is not senselessly unleashing
bloodshed on the general public—his crimes are strictly confined to the
removal of criminals from depths even lower than his. He is both saint and
sinner, tending to those he has chosen to protect with as much money and
as much might as he has to give.
Sydney is also, within the enclosed world of Hard Eight, both judge
and executioner. However dim it may be, his moral sensibility is the ethi-
cal compass of the film and its solitary guiding light. His pilgrimage is set
within a sumptuous hotbed of sin, a world of perpetual gambling and per-
petual night where the law simply does not exist. No police are in sight,
and there is no visual allusion to any conventional form of legal or moral
authority. Te film was shot on location in Reno, an analogue to the classic
noir urban landscape, a setting filled with shadows, indulgence, and desire.
In the casinos, under the eternal illumination of gaudy chandeliers and
bright neon, gamblers play games of chance and tempt fate in ways that
reflect the protagonist’s high-risk spiritual odyssey. In the hermetic casino
suites, sleazy motel rooms, and anonymous gambling floors are the begin-
nings and endings of many wicked goings-on. Instances of anger and ar-
rogance cut into scenes and interrupt discussions in order to keep us aware
that we are in an antagonistic environment that is ever threatened by risk.
Te fluid rhythm of organs and xylophones—sounds as dreamy and
ethereal as the smoke-filled atmosphere—mimics the sultry jazz of classic
noir. Te cool, contemplative sound track envelops the film in a sleek twi-
light mood, ripe with bittersweet melancholy. Te inclusion of Christmas
music, which plays sofly in the background while Sydney has cofee with
96 Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch
Clementine and reveals that he once had a family of his own, emphasizes the
film’s aura of selfless giving and its underlying theme of familial reunion.
In contrast to the milieu of classic noir that the film evokes, in its re-
stricted night world there is no possibility of a champion of the law coming
forward to administer an ethical reprimand. Instead, suspended in a neo-
noir limbo, the characters must fend for themselves, and, in the absence of
any visible authority, Sydney, the tarnished angel, must negotiate the moral
balance, tending to those he has chosen to protect and dispensing with
intruders.
Although Sydney dominates every scene and is clearly placed as our
guide through the film’s narrative and moral maze, there is a subtle yet
palpable sense throughout that he is being followed, monitored, by a pres-
ence just beyond his view. Te external sensation is very much like the fate
or destiny that watches over and bedevils the hapless characters in classic
noir. Te unsteady, whirling, handheld camera that gazes at Sydney with
voyeuristic intensity suggests an outside observer, an invisible power or
force that judges Sydney as we do. It is this “second author” who compen-
sates for the film’s absence of authority figures and restrains Sydney from
claiming complete power over a scenario and a setting spinning fearfully
out of control. Te fact that this story takes place during the Christmas
season further evokes, however fleetingly, this theological presence.
If Sydney’s redemption is contaminated, if his good deeds cannot fully
atone for his crimes, are his compromised actions able to save John and
Clementine: Despite his criminal solution, Sydney in a certain sense is a
purist and an idealist who kills with the best of intentions and in the belief
that his actions are labors of love. From his own limited, and even blas-
phemous, perspective, he has done the right and only thing he could do
in order to protect his surrogate children. His soured blessings seem ca-
pable of altering the destinies of two seemingly hard-luck cases like John
and Clementine. However, if Sydney cannot escape the consequences of
his misdeeds, do the recipients of his generosity have a chance: Tentatively,
Anderson implies that they do. While their savior is doomed to remain a
perpetual wanderer in a shadowy realm, John and Clementine appear to
have been rescued. John is no longer poor and alone, and Clementine is
now a loving wife, no longer self-destructive, no longer desperate. With
Sydney’s assistance, John’s and Clementine’s lives have been enriched to a
degree as plausible and pleasant as any that could be hoped for, given the
sordid context of their union. Given a second chance, perhaps they can
escape the tentacles of the underworld.
“Saint” Sydney 97
Sydney and Bob le flambeur: Contemporary and Classic
Although Anderson has presented his archetypal character in distinctly
neo-noir terms, Sydney returns at the end to the world of guns, gambling,
eternal night, smoke, and jazz—the mise-en-scène of high-classic noir that
was the filmmaker’s inspiration and his point of departure. Specifically,
Anderson has cited his indebtedness to Bob le flambeur (1933), a French
noir directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
2
All Anderson’s cues are taken, with
respect, from Melville’s crime drama. Like Hard Eight, Bob le flambeur un-
covers the humanity lurking within the heart of a compulsive gambler and
criminal. As Anderson does, Melville contemplates his protagonist’s search
for altruistic love amid moral impoverishment, but he arrives at far more
pessimistic conclusions.
Bob Montagné (played by the afable yet grim Roger Duchesne) is a
well-dressed, well-respected gentleman gambler in the notoriously sleazy
Pigalle district of Paris, a place “that is both heaven and hell,” as the narra-
tor tells us while we watch a cable car descend from the regal Sacré Coeur
cathedral into the depths of Pigalle’s gambling quarter below. Bob’s world,
like Sydney’s, is a place where “people pass one another, forever strangers,”
and victims of chance idle on every corner. Pigalle, like Anderson’s Reno,
is a den of sin. Bob dresses in formal black suits and has a “fine hood-
lum face,” as he describes himself while peering into the rusted mirror of a
parked car. Unexpectedly gracious, like Sydney, Bob, “an old, young man,
legend of a recent past,” is also a generous patriarch who has a fatal weak-
ness for high-risk gambles and playing savior to a pair of misanthropic
losers, Paolo and Anne. Paolo, Bob’s protégé and companion, whom he has
groomed into a savvy denizen of the Pigalle underworld, never passes up
a chance for risky opportunity. Following Bob’s every command and ac-
cepting his fatherly advice with the enthusiasm of a young student, Paolo,
unlike John, has become completely, irreversibly immersed in the illicit
way of life Bob has taught him. He has become a criminal in his own right,
a killer. Anne, unlike Clementine, is a traditional femme fatale, a conniving
narcissist incapable of loving Paolo.
Bob, like Sydney, is a generous, would-be saint who cannot resist the
challenge of protecting his damaged children. Yet, as Robert Porfirio points
out in his classic essay on noir: “Te word ‘hero’ never seems to fit the noir
protagonist, for his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to
produce the traditional hero.”
3
Despite their “sacrifices,” the characters are
limited by their criminal education and can never fully succeed as conven-
98 Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch
tional patriarchal heroes, thus standing as dubious. Further complicating
Bob’s scenario, his “children,” unlike Sydney’s brood, are beyond reclama-
tion. To Paolo, the lure of crime is greater than that ofered by Anne, and, in
the film’s traditional dispensation of punishment, he must sufer the conse-
quences—during a casino heist, he is killed in a shoot-out with police. And
Anne herself, never remorseful, never ashamed, is an irretrievably lost soul
who returns to a life on the street, unloved and unchanged. In contrast to
Anderson’s criminal patriarch, Bob, who is similarly benevolent, caring,
ruminative, and selfless, does not become a successful liberator, nor is he
lef unpunished. He is arrested by the police, who have been trailing him
from the beginning (and who have a moral and legalistic presence that
Anderson removes from Hard Eight).
Although Melville locates a human core in his criminal protagonist,
his moralistic conclusions adhere to convention: punishment matches
crime; redemption is beyond the reach of characters who inhabit a smoky
noir underground. Rewriting the terms and the results of Bob’s sought-for
sainthood, Anderson’s project in Hard Eight is to discover the possibility
of salvation and transcendence in a kind of story world from which it is
customarily banished. Like Melville, Anderson clearly was seduced by the
challenge of humanizing a criminal and, thereby, subverting old-fashioned
notions of a clear-cut division between good and evil, right and wrong.
Te dramatic allure of the good/bad guy as a character type has become
a current motif in neo-noir—it’s one of the ways in which the genre has
continued to renew itself.
Hard Eight and e Professional
In this regard, it is instructive to consider the writer-director Luc Besson’s
e Professional (1994), a tale of yet another criminal attacked by con-
science. However, the protagonist, Léon (Jean Reno, who has a severe yet
boyish charm), is far more deeply entrenched in a moral void than is either
Bob or Sydney. Irrepressibly corrupt, he’s a crack assassin, “a cleaner” who
rids the world of those he is hired to dispose of (when asked whether he
“cleans” anyone, Léon replies: “No women, no kids, that’s the rules”). Léon
is a man with an ambiguous past who goes to see children’s films, lives on
a diet entirely composed of milk, and makes his living accepting assas-
sination jobs ofered by Tony, his only friend. Léon is calculating and
cold, and he suppresses any emotions except those for Mathilda (Natalie
Portman), a young girl who is lef alone and in danger afer her family
“Saint” Sydney 99
is ruthlessly gunned down by narcotics agents. When Mathilda arrives at
his apartment in total desperation, she becomes the agent of the assassin’s
moral awakening.
Like Bob and Sydney, Léon is presented as a transgressive character, a
bad man who is capable of love and sacrifice and lives by a moral code of
sorts. Yet there is far less chance for him than for either of the other sav-
iors. Where Bob’s and Sydney’s crimes are for the most part confined to the
past or to ofscreen space, Léon is a killing machine, a lethal weapon who
mows down scores of adversaries. Léon is so damaged that he corrupts
even the object of his salvation quest—his protectiveness is mixed with
sexual perversity, and, in contrast to the father-child pairings in Hard Eight
and Bob le flambeur, the specter of incest taints that in e Professional.
(When asked by a receptionist about her “father,” Mathilda replies: “He’s
not my father. He’s my lover.”)
Léon, like the other patriarchs, is romanticized in a way that eludes
total condemnation. And, just as Sydney’s degree of corruption is allevi-
ated by comparing him to the unregenerate Jimmy, so Léon is contrasted,
favorably, to a crooked DEA agent responsible for the death of Mathilda’s
family. Obsessed with Beethoven and pills, Stansfield (Gary Oldman) is
a charismatic demon. He’s a man of enigmatic charm who is without any
conscience and who commits acts far worse than those of the professional
assassin. (He tells Mathilda: “I take no pleasure in taking life if it’s from a
person who doesn’t care about it.”) Even so, Léon is depraved beyond any
possible recuperation, and, to maintain its moral accountability, the film
must annihilate him. When, in the final act, he kills himself and Stansfield
with a grenade, Léon is posthumously redeemed: the explosion that con-
sumes both villains is, simultaneously, Léon’s atonement for his life and his
sacrificial act of protection for Mathilda.
Neo-Noir and Social Responsibility
Because of the social threats that they embody, both Bob le flambeur and
Léon the professional are punished in accord with the codes of conventional
justice. For Sydney, however, the purest of these benighted patriarchs, Paul
Tomas Anderson proposes a more subtle retribution. Although many re-
visions have been made in the contemporary continuation of noir, there
are few films that allow the criminal to go entirely unpunished. Hard Eight
is unusual in its ability to both limit and imprison its protagonist while still
allowing him to roam “free”: Sydney’s is a prison without bars and without
100 Donald R. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch
escape. Te film’s existential punishment for its protagonist—unmasking
the character’s self-loathing—is morally more provocative than any expect-
ed form of admonition. Symptomatic of a current turn in noir scenarios,
all three films solicit partial forgiveness from the audience in attempting to
humanize and to express compassion for their antiheroes. And, in seeking
partial absolution for their criminal protagonists, the films engage in a kind
of moral relativism that is potentially nihilistic. e Professional and Hard
Eight are representative of a moral and philosophical perspective found
in many neo-noir revisions of the code of ethics that underwrote classic
noir. Ultimately, the films honor the social contract—they recognize that
to present crime without punishment, or sin without atonement, would
be irresponsible. But is it possible that their demonstrations of sympathy
for the devil, and their moral inversions, could lead to more films like the
virulently antisocial e Minus Man (Hampton Fancher, 1999) or Natural
Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994):
In Hard Eight, Paul Tomas Anderson presents a straight-faced, dead-
pan character study that expands the emotional as well as the moral and
philosophical parameters of historical crime dramas. Sydney is the result
of Anderson’s theoretical rumination: “Imagine James Cagney doesn’t die
at the end of White Heat.”
4
Te film is a modern-day continuation of the
classic criminal archetype, an extension of the black-and-white heavy who
lived to see the noir credits roll. Anderson’s debut film is a subtle, beauti-
fully crafed, and largely overlooked neo-noir that enlarges the discussion
of crime and morality in ways that earlier psychological thrillers, produced
under the constraints of the Production Code and of a diferent cultural
and historical context, could not.
Notes
Te epigraph to this essay is taken from Paul Tomas Anderson’s DVD commen-
tary (see n. 2 below).
1. For more on the concept of justice in neo-noir, see Aeon J. Skoble, “Justice
and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan” (in this volume).
2. See Paul Tomas Anderson’s commentary included on the DVD of Hard
Eight (released by Sony Pictures in 1999).
3. Robert Porfirio, “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” (1976),
in Film Noir Reader, ed. Alain Sliver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight, 1996),
83.
4. Anderson, DVD commentary.
101
Reservoir Dogs
Redemption in a Postmodern World
Mark T. Conard
Mv. Pi×x: Did you kill anybody:
Mv. Wui1i: A few cops.
Mv. Pi×x: No real people:
Mv. Wui1i: Just cops.
—Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992)
Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Kill Bill (both volumes:
2003, 2004) are arguably the most successful (and I would say important)
of the four full-length feature films that Quentin Tarantino has directed.
And each is more or less explicitly about redemption.
1
Further, Tarantino is
widely recognized as a quintessentially postmodern neo-noir filmmaker.
2

His films are postmodern in the artistic sense, insofar as they are, for ex-
ample, blends of genres and highly allusive. But they’re also postmodern
in terms of the underlying epistemology and the position on morality and
values that they take. Tat is, they reflect a postmodern sensibility about
our ability (or lack thereof) to know and understand the world and about
the value and significance (or lack thereof) that our lives and actions have.
I argue here that this postmodern sensibility undermines the characters’
attempts at redemption in the films. Tat is to say, in a postmodern world,
such as the one depicted in Tarantino’s films, there can be no such thing as
redemption. While I include discussions of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, the
arguments below focus primarily on Reservoir Dogs.
Redemption
First, what is redemption: In a strict religious sense, redemption refers to
102 Mark T. Conard
Christians’ salvation through Christ’s sufering and death on the cross. Tat
is, according to orthodoxy, humans are born into original sin, but God sac-
rificed his son (and/or himself, if you believe in the Holy Trinity) for the
guilt and sin of mankind. People find salvation and redemption from sin,
then, when they accept Jesus as their lord and savior and admit their guilt.
More colloquially, however, redemption can refer to any attempt by a person
to change his way of living (from something bad or ignoble to something
better and more worthwhile) or to make up for past wrongdoings.
Pulp Fiction, then, is primarily about the redemption of two characters,
Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis).
3

Jules believes that he witnesses a miracle when someone shoots at him and
his partner, Vincent (John Travolta), at close range and misses. Tis inci-
dent compels him to want to quit being a gangster and get in touch with his
spiritual self (he says that he wants to wander the earth “like Caine on Kung
Fu”). Butch, on the other hand, is a boxer and double-crosses the head
gangster, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), by not throwing a fight when
he’s supposed to. Trough a series of coincidences, Butch and Marcellus
end up as prisoners in the hands of sexual perverts who are intent on rap-
ing them. Butch’s supposed redemption occurs when he is about to escape
while the gangsters work over Marcellus and, instead, decides to return
and save his former boss. Having thus been saved, and apparently escaping
the criminal world, Butch rides out of town with his girlfriend on a chop-
per named Grace, an obvious reference to Butch’s salvation.
Reservoir Dogs is about the bloody afermath of a botched jewel heist.
Philosophically, the most important and fascinating part of the film is the
remarkable opening breakfast scene, which occurs prior to the heist, in
which the gangsters, all using color code names, sit around a table in a din-
er talking about the meaning of pop songs and the pros and cons of tipping
waitresses. Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) argues that Madonna’s “Like a
Virgin” is about a woman who is sexually very experienced and who meets
a particularly well-endowed man. When they have sex, then, it’s painful
for her, thus reminding her of the first time she had intercourse. She re-
gains that innocence through pain and sufering. It’s a reasonable enough
conclusion to say that this is how we’re to interpret the rest of the film: that
it’s about redemption through pain and sufering. As noted above, this is a
very traditional and religious view of the matter: that it’s through Christ’s
sufering and death that mankind is saved.
One of the gangsters, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), is actually an under-
cover cop who has infiltrated the organization in order to bust its head, Joe
Reservoir Dogs 103
Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). In the course of his escape from the robbery,
Mr. Orange is wounded and spends the rest of the film lying on the floor
of the warehouse, where most of the action takes place, bleeding profusely.
Concluding that the police had to have known about the heist ahead of
time, the other gangsters speculate on who betrayed them, who the “rat”
in the group is. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) staunchly defends Mr. Orange
against (as it turns out correct) accusations that he, Mr. Orange, is the rat
since the two of them have formed a bond in escaping together and since
Mr. White witnessed Mr. Orange being wounded and has had to take care
of him. I’ll suggest here that Mr. Orange plays the dual role of Judas and
Christ in this tale of redemption. In the morally upside-down gangster
world, he’s Judas insofar as he’s the betrayer, an undercover cop trying to
bust the gang, and he’s Christ insofar as it’s through his bloody sufering
that the gangsters are ostensibly redeemed. Tis is ironically amrmed by
his bond with Mr. White, given that the color white is typically associated
with innocence, and given that Harvey Keitel, who plays Mr. White, por-
trayed Judas in Martin Scorsese’s e Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mr.
White, then, while defending Mr. Orange throughout the film against the
rat accusations, to the point of killing the gangster boss, Joe, and his son,
Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), unknowingly reflects, and holds the key to,
Mr. Orange’s true identity.
4
“Real People” and Uniforms
So what are Jules and Butch and the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs being re-
deemed from? And in what does their second innocence consist: Clearly,
they desire to be redeemed from the life of the gangster. In discussing the
botched heist, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) refers to civilians (i.e., those who
are neither cops nor gangsters, regular folks) as “real people.” Te implica-
tion here is that cops and gangsters are not “real” people. To be redeemed,
then, is, of course, to get out of the life, as Jules and Butch ostensibly did,
to become a real person.
It’s interesting to note that, in Tarantino’s films, both cops and gangsters
have uniforms that distinguish them from real people. Cops are dressed in
typical blue uniforms, and robbers wear the classic black suit, white shirt,
thin black tie combination (this is true in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs
as well as Kill Bill).
3
Tis is not a hard-and-fast rule, however, and there
are some important exceptions. For example, neither of the head gangsters
in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, Marcellus Wallace and Joe Cabor—or
104 Mark T. Conard
Nice Guy Eddie, for that matter—wears the gangster uniform, and, in Kill
Bill, it’s the Crazy 88 (part of the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia) who wear it,
while the DiVAS have, as assassins, diferent, though just as cool, uniforms
(e.g., the slick yellow leather outfit worn by the Bride [Uma Turman] in
volume 1).
6
In Pulp Fiction, the transformation from gangster to real person (or at
least the desire therefor) is, then, symbolized by the shedding of the uni-
form and the donning of everyday clothes. Recall that, subsequent to their
supposed experience of a miracle, Jules and Vincent are splattered with
the blood of Marvin (Phil LaMarr), whom Vincent accidentally shoots. In
the process of cleaning up the mess and disposing of the evidence, the two
of them get rid of their gangster uniforms and put on Jimmie’s (Quentin
Tarantino) clothes, T-shirts and short pants. Whether Jules succeeds in re-
forming and becoming a real person, we don’t know. Vincent of course
has no desire to become a real person, and, in the narrative ending of the
film, which is the second vignette shown, he’s back in uniform and is killed
by Butch.
7
Further, in Kill Bill, the Bride first attempts to shed her various
cool assassin uniforms to put on a wedding dress. She is prevented from
leaving the life and becoming a real person when the remaining DiVAS,
at the behest of Bill (David Carradine), nearly kill her. By the end of the
film, afer she’s found her redemption through violence and revenge, she
succeeds in becoming a real person, wearing a skirt, and taking on the role
of mother.
8
Like Vincent in Pulp Fiction, the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs do not
desire to be real people, and Mr. Orange seems to revel in his role as a de-
tective while in the guise of a gangster. Te characters never shed the uni-
form, never succeed in becoming real people. But they are redeemed from
being gangsters, albeit through death.
9
As I said, it’s through Mr. Orange’s
sufering, his sacrifice, and Mr. White’s devotion to him as a result, that
every one of them (with the possible exception of Mr. Pink, whose fate we
don’t know) is killed. Likewise, Marvin Nash, the uniformed cop whom
Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) kidnaps and tortures, is redeemed through
death in the same way.
Modernist Neo-Noir
Critics generally categorize neo-noir films as either modernist (sometimes
called neo-modernist) or postmodernist. Andrew Spicer, for example,
identifies two distinct periods of neo-noir films: the modernist era, which
Reservoir Dogs 105
ran from roughly 1967 to 1976, and the postmodernist period, which be-
gan in 1981 with Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and in which we still find
ourselves today. Before discussing Tarantino’s role as a postmodern film-
maker, I want to talk briefly about his modernist predecessors.
Just as classic noir films were influenced by or were a reaction to World
War II, the cold war, and the dawning of the atomic age, so modernist films
were, in part, a response to similarly disruptive and disillusioning events
in later decades, such as the Vietnam War, the Kennedy and King assas-
sinations, and Watergate. Further, now-classic neo-noir filmmakers, like
Scorsese, Hopper, and Coppola, knew both American and European film
history well and were conscious of where their work fit into that history.
10
In terms of the form and content of modernist noirs, Spicer says: “[Tere
is] in these modernist neo-noirs a self-reflexive investigation of narrative
construction, which emphasizes the conventions in order to demonstrate
their inevitable dissolution, leading to an ambivalence about narrative it-
self as a meaningful activity. Te misplaced erotic instincts, alienation and
fragmented identity that characterized the classical noir hero, are incorpo-
rated into a more extreme epistemological confusion, expressed through
violence which is shown as both pointless and absurd.”
11
Part of the out-
look or sensibility of classic noir films was paranoia, pessimism, alienation,
and moral ambivalence. Further, these movies had the efect of disorient-
ing the spectator, largely through lighting, editing, oblique camera angles,
etc. Modernist noirs, says Spicer, embody this same outlook or sensibility,
but in a more self-conscious and deliberate way, and, further, they express
an even greater “epistemological confusion” or skepticism, meaning that
they question deeply our ability as subjects to know and understand the
world and ourselves. Tis skepticism is reflected in a dissolution of narra-
tive construction. Tat is, straightforward narrative lines (e.g., boy meets
girl, there’s some sort of obstacle to their being together, they overcome the
obstacle and live happily ever afer) are abandoned in favor of more and
more complex and confusing story constructions.
Just as neo-noir filmmakers are more explicitly conscious of their place
in the history of filmmaking than were their classic noir predecessors,
so too contemporary audiences are more cine-literate than earlier mov-
iegoers. Tat is, viewers today have the ability to see a great many more
films than people did fify years ago, through TV, videos, and DVDs of
course, but also simply because there are so many more films made each
year than there were in the past, both in the United States and abroad.
12

Consequently, today’s audiences are much more savvy about the history
106 Mark T. Conard
of cinema and the techniques involved in filmmaking than earlier mov-
iegoers were. Modernist noir filmmakers, says Spicer, challenged these
cine-literate audiences in a way that they’d not been challenged before:
“Modernist neo-noirs abandoned the crisp fast-paced trajectory of their
predecessors in favour of meandering, episodic and inconclusive stories,
circling back on themselves. Above all modernist noir was self-reflexive,
drawing an audience’s attention to its own processes and self-consciously
referring not only to earlier films noirs, but also to the myths that under-
pinned their generic conventions. Neo-modernist noirs demanded a great
deal from their audiences, who were challenged rather than consoled.”
13

So, in addition to abandoning neatly framed and quick-paced narratives,
modernist noirs refused to allow audiences one of the great pleasures of ear-
lier moviegoing experiences (and of entertainment generally), the escape of
being sucked into a seamless story, and they did this by continually remind-
ing viewers of the techniques and artifices of filmmaking. Tat is, filmmakers
wouldn’t allow audiences to forget that they were watching a movie: “Te
modernist film emphasizes the film’s formal exploration of its own medi-
um.”
14
Consequently, while disorienting the audience and expressing alien-
ation, pessimism, paranoia, and epistemological skepticism, modernist noirs
gave the audiences no neat resolutions and no comforting escape.
Postmodern Art
Tarantino is known as a postmodern filmmaker. But what does that mean, and
how are postmodern noirs diferent from their modernist predecessors:
Arthur Danto famously proclaimed that we’ve come to the “end of art.”
He prefers to use the expression posthistorical (or contemporary), rather
than postmodern, believing that postmodernism is but one movement or
style in the posthistorical period, though his comments about posthistori-
cal art certainly apply to postmodernism as well. In Danto’s view, previous
periods in art (Renaissance art, expressionism, impressionism, etc.) were
governed by an overarching “narrative,” a story about what art should and
must be in order to be art. Tis narrative then formed the constraints and
rules according to which artists had to work. If you didn’t follow the rules,
then what you were doing wasn’t art. (For example, in the nineteenth cen-
tury, you’d be laughed at for painting Campbell’s soup cans or hanging a
urinal on the wall.) However, revolutionary artists who created new move-
ments in art were able to break (some of) the old rules and create new ones,
in efect writing a new narrative, a new story, about what art was supposed
Reservoir Dogs 107
to be. What Danto means by the end of art, then, is not that there is no
more art, that artists can no longer produce art, but, rather, that there is
no longer any overarching narrative or story to tell us what art is. In efect,
anything can be art. He says: “[Contemporary art] is defined by the lack of
a stylistic unity, or at least the kind of stylistic unity which can be elevated
into a criterion and used as a basis for developing a recognitional capacity,
and there is in consequence no possibility of a narrative direction.” Tere
is no longer any criterion by which we can recognize what is or isn’t art.
Tere’s no “narrative direction,” no story to guide us and tell us how we’re
supposed to make art. “Tere is no a priori constraint on how works of art
must look—they can look like anything at all.”
13
Further, given this loss of
a narrative to guide artistic practice, there is also a loss of any notion of
progress and improvement. Tat is, without a sense of what an artist is sup-
posed to do to create art, there’s no possible criterion to say that he or she
is getting better at it, more closely approximating the artistic ideal, since
there is no such ideal.
So, given a lack of constraints, a lack of a story to tell them what to
do, what do contemporary, or postmodern, artists do: What guides their
work: As I discussed earlier, modernist films are defined, in part, by their
self-referentiality, the fact that they refer to the history of filmmaking and
to the techniques of filmmaking. And this kind of historical referentiality is
carried on in postmodern art as well. Spicer says: “As an aesthetic style that
derives from this radical relativism, postmodern cultural practices charac-
teristically employ la mode retro, which appropriates past forms through
direct revival, allusion and hybridity, where diferent styles are used to-
gether in a new mixture.”
16
Postmodern artworks aren’t striving for some
telos or ideal and improving on past movements. Rather, they reappropri-
ate past forms by reviving or alluding to them, and they hybridize these
past forms and genres into a complex mix. And this is true of postmodern
neo-noirs: “Te postmodern neo-noirs of the nineties are more overtly al-
lusive and more playful in their intertextual references than the films of the
eighties,” says Richard Martin.
17
Spicer goes on to say: “Two basic tenden-
cies are at work in postmodern noir, revivalism, which attempts to retain
the mood and atmosphere (stimmung) of classical noir, and hybridization
where elements of noir are reconfigured in a complex generic mix.”
18
In
postmodern neo-noirs, the noir sensibility is revived or retained, and the
noir style of filmmaking is hybridized with other genres.
We can easily see now why Tarantino is considered a postmodern
filmmaker. His movies are peppered with allusions to popular culture.
19

108 Mark T. Conard
Reservoir Dogs, for example, contains references to Madonna, “Te Night
the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” Beretta, the Silver Surfer comic books,
the Get Christie Love! TV show, the Ting from the Fantastic Four comic
books, and the Joel Schumacher film e Lost Boys (1987). Pulp Fiction
has even more pop culture references, including those to Fonzie, Green
Acres, Flock of Seagulls, Pepsi, Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, and the
1970s TV series Kung Fu; Travolta’s dancing is reminiscent of his role
in John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977); and, of course, the Jack
Rabbit Slim’s scene is full of icons like Ed Sullivan, Marilyn Monroe, and
Buddy Holly.
Further, Tarantino’s movies very ofen reference earlier films, and they
frequently blend genres in the way described above. For example, his work
is highly influenced by French new wave directors such as François Trufaut
and Jean-Luc Godard, to the point where Tarantino named his production
company “A Band Apart,” a reference to Godard’s Bande à part (Band of
Outsiders, 1964); the jewelry store in Reservoir Dogs is named “Karina’s”
afer Bande à part’s star, Anna Karina; and Uma Turman’s hairdo in Pulp
Fiction is reminiscent of Karina’s.
20
James Naremore says: “Reservoir Dogs
bristles with allusions to Godard, Kubrick, and others.”
21
Perhaps the most dramatic and extreme example of Tarantino’s allu-
sions to other films and his hybridization of genres is Kill Bill. Volume 1
is mainly a samurai revenge story, but it has some western elements and
an extended Japanese anime segment showing the childhood formation of
one of the DiVAS, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). Volume 2 is mainly a western
with samurai and kung fu elements, and both volumes have other genres
mixed in with the main themes, particularly noir, blaxploitation, gangster,
and action movies. And these are just the broader allusions, themes, and
references that those of us who aren’t as schooled as Tarantino is in the his-
tory of pop culture and movies can recognize.
Ofen, artworks that reference popular culture do so for the purpose of
criticism. Tat is, artists reflect on contemporary culture in order to expose
inequalities or injustices inherent in that culture, for example, homopho-
bia, sexism, racism, or the unequal distribution of wealth. Naremore, for
one, claims that Tarantino’s references don’t work this way: “For all his tal-
ent, Tarantino’s ‘hypertext’ is relatively narrow, made up largely of testos-
terone-driven action movies, hard-boiled novels, and pop-art comic strips
like Modesty Blaise. His attitude toward mass culture is also much less iron-
ic than that of a director like Godard. In efect, he gives us Coca-Cola with-
out Marx.”
22
Tat is, whereas a filmmaker like Godard might make ironic
Reservoir Dogs 109
references to Coke products for the purposes of a Marxist critique of capi-
talist society, Tarantino doesn’t mean his references to be ironic. Tey’re
straightforward, thrown in because they’re amusing and cool. And, indeed,
Tarantino’s attitude toward popular culture really does seem to be loving
and afectionate. Te scenes and the dialogue are, no doubt, brilliant and
unforgettable—how could you not be mesmerized by the spectacle of gang-
sters sitting around a breakfast table discussing the meaning of a Madonna
song or driving in a car talking about what fast-food items are called in
Europe, at least the way Tarantino treats them: But, alas, these scenes and
references lack any kind of critical element, so anyone who cares about
such things will be disappointed that Tarantino’s movies at best leave social
inequalities and injustices in place and untouched. We’ll see below why this
is necessarily the case, given the postmodernist attitude about ethics and
values implied in his films.
Postmodern Skepticism
But postmodernism doesn’t apply just to art; indeed, the characterization
of postmodern art in terms of narratives, ideals, and the abandonment of
the notion of progress sketched above applies more generally to the whole
postmodern era and particularly to its knowledge and truth claims, its
science and philosophy. In a very influential work, Jean-François Lyotard
says: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward
metanarratives.”
23
Tat is to say, in earlier periods, our attempts to know
things about the world and human existence within science and philoso-
phy were guided (as in art) by a metanarrative, one of those overarching
stories that gave sense and structure to our practices and made knowledge
claims possible. So, in the Enlightenment, for example, we had the story
about a Cartesian rationality that people possessed and an external world
with a comprehensible and logical structure that could be discovered, un-
derstood, cataloged, and communicated. Tat is, Descartes believed that
human beings were essentially rational minds attached somehow to bod-
ies and that these minds were capable of figuring out completely how the
world works. And this was the story that drove scientific and philosophi-
cal practices during the Enlightenment. It told scientists and philosophers
how to go about learning about the world and human existence.
Te postmodern era, however, says Lyotard, is characterized by a rejec-
tion of, or an incredulity about, any metanarrative, thus throwing doubt on
our ability to know and understand the world and human existence. Tis
110 Mark T. Conard
leads to a radical relativism about knowledge. We’re reduced to individual
perspectives about things, but there are no criteria (no metanarratives) by
which to claim that one perspective is better or more accurate than another.
Consequently, we can no longer really claim to know anything objectively
about the world.
Richard Rorty is a contemporary philosopher who accepts this relativ-
ism. Instead of talking about narratives or stories, he uses the term vocabu-
laries, by which he means ways of talking about things: “Te contingency
of language is the fact that there is no way to step outside the various vo-
cabularies we have employed and find a metavocabulary which somehow
takes account of all possible vocabularies, all possible ways of judging and
feeling.” Tere’s no overarching vocabulary that takes into account our dif-
ferent ways of talking about things in our diferent pursuits, as poets, scien-
tists, philosophers, politicians, etc. Tus, there are no criteria or objective
standards by which to show or prove that the way a scientist or philosopher
talks about the world is any more accurate or true than the way anyone
else talks about it: “On this view, great scientists invent descriptions of the
world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what
happens, just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of
it for other purposes. But there is no sense in which any of these descrip-
tions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself.”
24
Rorty
is a pragmatist: diferent vocabularies are useful for diferent pursuits and
practices. But he’s also a relativist: just because they’re useful doesn’t mean
they’re accurate or true since we have no criteria by which to judge such a
thing.
Tis postmodernist relativism, its skepticism about knowledge, is of-
ten reflected in postmodern art and films. In a discussion of Bryan Singer’s
e Usual Suspects (1993), Martin says: “Postmodern esthetic constructs
promote epistemological failure, constantly fragmenting the boundaries
between past and present, fantasy and reality, fiction and history.”
23
Tat is,
postmodern films ofen blur or erase the boundaries between reality and
fiction, past and present, etc., in order to make it impossible for the view-
er to know with certainty what’s going on in the narrative, thus reflecting
postmodern skepticism about knowledge. e Usual Suspects is a excellent
neo-noir example of this. Te movie shifs back and forth from present to
past, and much of the story is told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), sitting
in a police detective’s omce. However, as we find out at the end of the film,
Verbal has been spinning a yarn (the story that we’ve just been watching)
made up of elements that he took from around the omce—signs, posters,
Reservoir Dogs 111
and even the detective’s cofee mug. Consequently, we the viewers have no
way of knowing whether anything we’ve been watching is true, including
the suggestion at the end that Verbal is really Keyser Soze (or whether there
really is any such person), given that most of what we learn about Soze is
presented to us by Verbal himself in his made-up tale.
Tis postmodern skepticism is reflected in Tarantino’s films in a vari-
ety of ways. For example, he has a penchant for rearranging the chrono-
logical order of his narratives. Tey bounce back and forth in time. Tis
happens in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill. He also ofen fudges
the line between reality and fiction, for example, by presenting a realistic
narrative but throwing in surrealistic or cartoonish elements, as when in
Pulp Fiction Butch takes a cab ride and the background images, what’s sup-
posed to be happening outside the cab, are obviously fake, from a diferent
movie, or when in Kill Bill the Bride is able to perform samurai acrobat-
ics that are physically impossible, as when she deals with the Crazy 88.
Tarantino even has the real-life bank robber Eddie Bunker play one of the
gangsters in Reservoir Dogs. Further, he sometimes has the story told from
several diferent perspectives. Woods says: “[In Reservoir Dogs] cameras
pan, perspectives shif—what’s out of view is just as important as what’s in
shot. Reality is a subjective, ever-changing chimera.”
26
And about Reservoir
Dogs Tarantino says: “Part of the excitement of the movie comes from the
fact you don’t quite know exactly what happened, it’s just everyone’s inter-
pretation.” Dawson goes on to elaborate: “Tus, by not actually showing
the robbery, the viewer’s only take on reality is through having each char-
acter recount his own separate version of events. Our perspective is their
perspective. And each perspective is a little diferent.”
27
Postmodern Ethics and Values
Postmodern skepticism or relativism also extends to the realm of ethics
and values and, hence, to the meaning and value of our lives and actions.
Tat is to say, previously, we had an overarching narrative, or metanar-
rative, to tell us the meaning and value of our lives and our choices. For
most people throughout human history, this story has included the idea
of a god or gods. Christianity, for example, includes the story of an all-
powerful creator God, who made the universe and determined the value
of things, handing down commandments to Moses, directions on what to
do and what not to do in order to find salvation. Within that story, then,
Christians understood what was the right way to live, what was good, what
112 Mark T. Conard
ought to be done. And, again, this story includes an explanation of how to
be redeemed, how to leave a life of sin and find grace.
With its rejection of all metanarratives, then, postmodernism embrac-
es a relativism about values and morality. Tat is to say, there’s no longer
any overarching story to tell us what’s right and wrong, good and bad, how
we ought to live our lives. Tus, any action, any way of living your life, is
morally equivalent to any other. Tere’s no god’s-eye perspective or abso-
lute commandment to say, for example, that you shouldn’t murder people
or that you should tell the truth. Tere are only individual perspectives
about these things, and there’s no way to argue or prove that one perspec-
tive is more correct than another.
As mentioned above, Tarantino’s films are ostensibly about redemp-
tion, so they suggest that some ways of living (e.g., as a real person) are
objectively better in a moral sense than other ways (e.g., as a gangster).
However, because the universe that these characters inhabit is a postmod-
ern one, their attempts at redemption are bound to fail, one way of living
being, according to postmodernism, morally equal to any other way.
I’d argue that this failure is interestingly suggested (again) in the opening
breakfast scene in Reservoir Dogs. Te head gangster, Joe, is picking up the
tab for breakfast, and he tells the others to put in for the tip. “Should be about
a buck apiece,” he says. While the others ofer up the cash, Mr. Pink sits there
passively. Nice Guy Eddie calls him on it, insisting that he chip in. Mr. Pink
refuses. He says that he doesn’t tip because he doesn’t believe in it: “I don’t
tip because society says I have to. All right, if someone deserves a tip, if they
really put forth an efort, I’ll give them a little something extra. But this tip-
ping automatically, it’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just do-
ing their job.” He says that he too worked minimum wage gigs, but, when he
did, he didn’t have a job that society deemed “tipworthy.” Te other gangsters
are shocked at his seeming callousness (which is interesting enough in its
own right, given that they think nothing of shooting people), but Mr. Pink’s
refusal reveals the conventionality of our forms of life, our ways of living.
Tipping is just something we take for granted. We accept it as natural, as the
way things are and have to be. It’s the right thing to do. But, by pointing out
the conventionality of this institution, Mr. Pink shows its arbitrariness. It’s
not objectively the right thing to do. It’s simply something that we’ve decided
is right, and it’s right only because most of us consider it to be so:
Mv. Wui1i: You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.
Tese people bust their ass. Tis is a hard job.
Reservoir Dogs 113
Mv. Pi×x: So’s working at McDonald’s, but you don’t feel the
need to tip them. Tey’re serving you food, you should tip ’em. But
no, society says tip these guys over here, but not those guys over
there. Tat’s bullshit.
If tipping were somehow objectively right, if we had some sort of metanar-
rative to explain its objective goodness, we’d be able to explain why we tip
diner waitresses and not the people who work at McDonald’s. It’s an arbi-
trary convention, such that, objectively speaking, tipping a hardworking
waitress isn’t any more right or good than stimng her.
As I argued above, part of the symbolism of redemption in Tarantino’s
films, part of leaving the life and becoming a real person, is the shedding of
the uniform of either cop or gangster and donning the clothes of everyday
folks. In Pulp Fiction, Jules’s friend Jimmie is a real person: he’s married,
brews gourmet cofee in his kitchen, is worried about his wife catching him
with gangsters in the house, and appreciates oak bedroom furniture. Afer
disposing of their bloody clothes, then, Jules and Vincent put on Jimmie’s
clothes, short pants and T-shirts, outfits that you might wear to play beach
volleyball. Tus, symbolically, they’re on their way to becoming real peo-
ple. But, when the Wolf (Harvey Keitel) asks Jimmie what they look like
wearing those clothes, Jimmie quips that they look like “dorks.” (“Ha ha
ha, motherfucker; they’re your clothes,” says Jules.) Tus, symbolically, the
value and meaning of living a real life is undermined. Just as tipping a wait-
ress is objectively no diferent from or better than not tipping her, so too
the only real diference between being a gangster and being a real person
is that real people are dorks and gangsters are cool. One way of life is not
morally superior to the other. Tarantino says: “When you first see Vincent
and Jules, their suits are cut and crisp, they look like real bad-asses. . . . But
as the movie goes on, their suits get more and more fucked up until they’re
stripped of and the two are dressed in the exact antithesis—volleyball
wear, which is not cool.”
28
Indeed, in Tarantino’s postmodern world, where
violence is eroticized and stylized, and where one way of life cannot be
morally superior to another, if it’s a choice between being a cool gangster
and being a dorky real person, who wouldn’t choose to be cool: Nobody
wants to be a dork.
114 Mark T. Conard
Notes
I’d like to thank J. J. Abrams and Bill Irwin for helpful comments on earlier drafs
of this essay.
1. Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) is well made and contains many of the post-
modern elements discussed below, but, on the one hand, it’s not as original or bril-
liant as the other three, and, on the other hand, it’s not about redemption.
2. In an interview, Tarantino denies that his films are neo-noir: “‘It’s not noir.
I don’t do neo-noir,’ insists Tarantino” (Paul A. Woods, King Pulp: e Wild World
of Quentin Tarantino [London: Plexus, 1998], 103).
3. In my “Symbolism, Meaning, and Nihilism in Quentin Tarantino’s
Pulp Fiction,” in e Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington:
University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 123–33, I talk about the “transformation”
of these two characters. Tat essay is about their attempts to see beyond post-
modern nihilism. Te present essay is something of a continuation of that idea,
though it concludes that, in fact, they don’t (or, more accurately, can’t) succeed
in escaping that nihilism.
4. Keitel believes that it’s really Mr. Orange who is seeking redemption for his
betrayal of Mr. White and the other gangsters when he confesses at the end: “And
Mr. Orange, who represents the law, has to seek redemption for carrying out what
the law demands of him” (Woods, King Pulp, 33). I don’t think this contradicts
what I’m arguing here: both cops and gangsters could need redemption from their
way of life, while, at the same time, Mr. Orange might need to be redeemed from
an individual act of betrayal (though, if a cop needs to be redeemed for attempting
to infiltrate a gang in order to arrest the leader, this might be further evidence of
the nihilism inherent in the film, as I argue below). However, since my larger argu-
ment is that there’s no possibility of redemption in a postmodern world, in the end
it doesn’t matter who’s seeking redemption.
3. About Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino says: “You know, you can’t put a guy in a
black suit without him looking a little cooler than he already looks. It’s a stylistic
stroke. It looks like I’m doing a genre movie and my genre character’s in uniform,
like Jean-Pierre Melville’s trenchcoats, or Sergio Leone’s dusters that he’d have his
characters wearing. So it does have that cool jazzy thing” (Jef Dawson, Quentin
Tarantino: e Cinema of Cool [New York: Applause, 1993], 78). In his discussion
of Pulp Fiction, Woods claims that it’s Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s e Killers (1964)
specifically who is “Vincent and Jules’ prototype in Pulp Fiction: the classic emo-
tionless hitman in thin-lapelled suit and skinny tie” (King Pulp, 78).
6. It’s interesting to note that the people working at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Pulp
Fiction wear a sort of uniform as well, dressed as they are as famous pop icons.
And there’s something decidedly unreal about them: they’re hollow representa-
tions of real, famous people. Vincent understands this when he refers to the res-
taurant as a “wax museum with a pulse.” Te people working there are wax figures,
Reservoir Dogs 115
not real at all. And Vincent knows this because he can identify with them as not
being real; he sees himself in them. Tis is why he’s able to correct Mia when she
mistakes Mamie Van Doren for Marilyn Monroe. (My thanks to J. J. Abrams for
pointing this out to me.)
7. Recall that the movie forms a complete and coherent narrative but is
chopped into vignettes and rearranged so that the end of the narrative comes in
the middle of the movie.
8. Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), Budd (Michael Madsen), and even Bill also
seem to have at least attempted to become real people in the four years since their
attack on the Bride. Vernita is a wife and mother living in suburban Los Angeles,
Budd is an alcoholic bouncer and janitor at a “tittie” bar, and Bill is playing father
to his and Beatrix’s daughter. Teir past catches up with them, of course, as the
Bride takes her revenge, thus ultimately thwarting their attempts at redemption
(or, alternatively, they’re redeemed through death, as are the gangsters in Reservoir
Dogs).
9. Not an uncommon notion of redemption, historically. Te Inquisition
typically burned heretics, e.g., afer having tortured them into confessing their
supposed guilt, believing that they’d be better of dead than living as sinners.
10. Andrew Spicer says: “All these film-makers [Hopper, Coppola, Scorsese,
Schrader] were steeped in film history and their films reflect a critical conscious-
ness of both European and American film traditions. Te increasingly influential
notion of the auteur-director as the key creative force in film-making gave them
the confidence to experiment and to see their films as vehicles for their own artis-
tic self-expression” (Film Noir [Harlow: Longman, 2002], 133).
11. Ibid., 136.
12. Tarantino says: “Tere were always movie bufs who understood film and
film convention, but now, with the advent of video, almost everybody has become
a film expert even though they don’t know it” (Woods, King Pulp, 74).
13. Spicer, Film Noir, 148.
14. Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism
(Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 173.
Such an awareness of the art object as an art object is an important element
of modern art generally, which is why these films are labeled modernist or neo-
modernist. Arthur C. Danto says: “Modernism in art marks a point before which
painters set about representing the world the way it presented itself, painting peo-
ple and landscapes and historical events just as they would present themselves to the
eye. With modernism, the conditions of representation themselves become central,
so that art in a way becomes its own subject” (Aer the End of Art: Contemporary
Art and the Pale of History [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997], 7). So
premodernist films are those from the golden age of Hollywood that seek to mimic
real life (however faithfully), while modernist films are those we’ve been discussing,
films that consciously reflect on the history and techniques of filmmaking.
116 Mark T. Conard
13. Danto, Aer the End of Art, 12, 16.
16. Spicer, Film Noir, 130.
17. Richard Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: e Legacy of Film Noir in
Contemporary American Cinema (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1997), 117.
18. Spicer, Film Noir, 130.
19. “Te most obvious element of Tarantino’s films is their obsessive allusions,
verbally and visually, to an eclectic range of popular culture” (ibid., 171).
20. Dawson, Quentin Tarantino, 88. About the Travolta-Turman dance scene
in Pulp Fiction, Dawson reports: “To allay [Turman’s] fears, Tarantino simply
took her and Travolta to a trailer and showed them a video of Jean-Luc Godard’s
Bande à Part, with Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur doing a little
synchronized jig to the juke box in a French café. Tarantino liked that scene, not
because of how well they danced, but because the characters simply enjoyed doing
it” (ibid., 187).
21. James Naremore, More an Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 163.
22. Ibid., 218.
23. Jean-François Lyotard, e Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
(1979), trans. Geof Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.
24. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989), xvi, 4.
23. Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, 124.
26. Woods, King Pulp, 37.
27. Dawson, Quentin Tarantino, 66.
28. Woods, King Pulp, 103.
Part 3
Elements of Neo-Noir
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Te Dark Sublimity
of Chinatown
Richard Gilmore
American film noir was always neo-noir. It was first seen as a genre, first
recognized for its genuinely surprising darkness, in 1946 and in France.
1

Tat is five years afer the generally accepted year of the first instances of
pure film noir and in another country. Tat means that the first experi-
ences of film noir as a genre, if it can be called a genre (as a phenomenon,
if genre is too strong), already included a certain distance, a certain level
of detachment, a certain re-visionary artfulness. I am not saying that the
early noir films were made from this perspective, or even that, before it was
identified as a genre, noir was experienced from this perspective, but only
that, when films began to be recognized as noir, that recognition included a
detour through Europe, especially through France and Germany, a detour
that did not occur when one recognized a film as a western, or as a melo-
drama, or even as a simple detective story. Tis detour sets up an experi-
ence of detachment, a moment of recognition, that engages the concepts of
re-vision and neo-noir.
Tis detour also engages the concept of philosophy. Te dominant post-
Enlightenment philosophy of both France and Germany in the early twen-
tieth century was existentialism, a rubric even more argued over than that
of film noir. Te nineteenth-century continuation of the Enlightenment
project looked to the future with a kind of shadowless hope. Science, ed-
ucation, technological progress, all seemed to promise a utopian future
for human beings. Te dark existentialisms of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard,
Heidegger, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre tracked the burgeoning recognition of
the inescapable shadows that humanity casts—greed, violence, and anxiety
along with the oppression of workers, world war, crime, racial oppression,
political oppression, social oppression, colonization, and then the threat of
nuclear war. Existentialism was a philosophy that sought to confront the
darkest aspects of the human condition. Te United States in the 1940s had
119
120 Richard Gilmore
plenty of darkness to confront—the devastation of the Depression, world
war, and the threat of nuclear destruction, to name just a few of its sources.
A central feature of philosophy is the move to abstract, to generalize,
to see in a group of particulars some general pattern. Tis is also what is in-
volved in identifying or discussing a genre. To talk about film noir or neo-
noir is to have already begun to do philosophy. Te value of philosophy is
the power that is granted to those who can identify the operative patterns
that obtain in a given situation. To be able to see the patterns means being
able to see the opportunities that a situation ofers as well as being able to
see the dangers that one might want to avoid. Tose who cannot see the
patterns will feel like they are in the grip of fate, helpless against the forces
that seem to conspire against them.
It is worth pointing out that general patterns can be extremely dimcult
to see. It is frequently only by some deviation in an established pattern that
the pattern itself becomes visible. Why were the French able to see some-
thing that Americans could not see in their own films: Te French recog-
nized the emergent character of noir in Hollywood movies because they
had not been able to see Hollywood movies for five years during World
War II. When Hollywood movies became available once again in France,
the French were struck by the darkness and strangeness of many of the
films they were now seeing coming out of Hollywood.
2
For Americans, the
continuity in the gradual darkening of certain American films occluded
the pattern. Te genre of film noir itself was doing a kind of philosophy.
Te narratives of film noir were identifying phenomena that were emerg-
ing in society at the time, new forms of anxiety, of violence, of greed, of
oppression and resistance to oppression. Neo-noir functions in a similar
way, tracking emergent social patterns of its times. Neo-noir, in addition,
functions as a kind of philosophy of noir. It is a reflection on, as well as a
re-creation of, the genre of noir.
So neo-noir is also something somewhat diferent from classic noir. It
is more general, more detached, more ironic, more philosophical than clas-
sic noir. It involves a level of self-reflexivity that classic noir lacked. To use
Freudian vocabulary, classic noir tends to be obsessed with the problem
of the return, the return, Freud would say, of the repressed. Te past re-
turns to haunt the protagonist or the protagonist (and antagonistic) couple.
Neo-noir, at least in the movie Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), which
may be the first authentic neo-noir, is more concerned with the problem of
repetition.
3
A return is still a singular event. Tere is the sense in a classic
noir of the narrative being unique, unique both for the protagonists and
e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 121
for the spectators. A repetition undoes this uniqueness. Te threat of the
return still holds out the possibility of an evasion. A repetition, however,
suggests an inevitable, inexorable fate, an unevadable fatality. I take the word
Chinatown to be, in part, a sign for a repetition, the repetition of a particular
tragedy, the inevitability of death in a particular kind of situation.
Chinatown, Noir, and Nostalgia
Chinatown begins, afer the wistful nostalgia evoked by the opening credits
and haunting music, with a black-and-white image of a man and a woman
having outdoor clothed sex. Tat image is replaced by a second, similar
image, then a third and a fourth. Te sequence is disorienting on sev-
eral levels. Tere is the disjunction between the nostalgia of the opening
credits and the raw, explicit sex of the photographs. Te nostalgia of the
opening sequence invokes a time of black-and-white film that seems to
be reinforced by the black-and-white images, but then that expectation is
immediately undone when the recognition occurs that these are just black-
and-white photographs appearing in a color film. More generally, one can
characterize the disjunction in terms of the intrusion of the raw into the
apparent promise of the sweetly nostalgic, the intrusion of ambiguity into
the apparent promise of the predictable and straightforward.
4
Nostalgia: the word itself invokes the idea of a return. From the Greek
nostos meaning “return home,” nostalgia is a word for the sense that some-
thing important that one once possessed has been lost. Nostalgia is about
the hope of recovery of the lost thing. Nostalgia pervades film noir because
it underlies the desperation and violence that pervade film noir. It is the
hidden romanticism in film noir. Wild risks are taken because of a desper-
ate faith that the game can be won, that the lost thing can be recovered.
Te “thing” in the idea of nostos is home or, more accurately for film noir,
some romanticized idea of what would constitute a sense of finally being
home. I am using home now as a word for feeling like you are where you
belong. Te idea of home is the desire for a return of something from one’s
childhood, when one simply had a home. At some point, that home that
one had is lost. I take it that the desperate attempts to achieve some object,
commit some crime, win some impossible love, are all attempts to achieve
some sense of finally returning home, to feel like one is where one belongs.
One longs for this precisely because one feels its absence. Te feeling of not
being where one belongs is the feeling of alienation. Alienation is the great
theme of existentialism. It is a feeling that seems to have become pervasive
122 Richard Gilmore
with the rise of modernity. Home, however, is notoriously hard to achieve
in the narratives of film noir. Tose narratives are pretty consistently les-
sons on the moral “Beware of what you wish for.”
Venetian Blinds, Noir, and Suspicion
Te photographs in the opening scenes of Chinatown turn out to be of
Curly’s wife (Elizabeth Harding) having sex with another man. Te nar-
rative that emerges is that Curly (Burt Young) has hired Jake Gittes (Jack
Nicholson) to spy on his wife to determine whether she is having an af-
fair. Te photographs are proof that his worst suspicions are true. He may
have had suspicions, but Curly still seems quite surprised and upset by the
fact of the matter. In evident torment, he tosses the photographs against
the wall, goes over to the blinds, flattens himself against them, and then
begins to take a bunch of them into his mouth. Jake says: “All right, Curly.
Enough’s enough. You can’t eat the venetian blinds. I just had them in-
stalled on Wednesday.”
It is an odd gesture, trying to eat the blinds. Part of what it means to
do philosophy, to be philosophical, is to try to be sensitive and responsive
to the oddness of things. It is in the odd, frequently, that will be found
the signs pointing to the previously unseen patterns that obtain. It was the
oddness in the post-1946 Hollywood movies that got the French thinking
about a new genre that they would call noir. Why does Curly want to eat
the blinds: What does this gesture signify: Why do Roman Polanski and
Robert Towne, the director and writer, respectively, of Chinatown, want
Curly to eat the blinds: Blinds are a very significant visual and metaphoric
trope in classic film noir. Shadows cast by light through blinds haunt many
of the classic films noirs, such as e Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941),
Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1943), e
Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), and Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur,
1947), just to name a few.
3
For one thing, blinds, venetian blinds, are a sign, especially in the
1940s, of a certain social class, the bourgeois class, as well as of aspirations
to that class. Te rise of the bourgeoisie is one of the most salient features
of modernity. An interesting attending philosophical development is the
rise of what Paul Ricoeur describes as the hermeneutics of suspicion.
6
A
hermeneutics is just a way of looking at and interpreting some text or phe-
nomenon. Te hermeneutics of suspicion will involve looking at some of
the things that are most sacred to the bourgeoisie—God, morality, love,
e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 123
the family, money—with suspicion, suspecting that they may not really be
what they are presented as and taken to be.
Te great masters of this hermeneutics of suspicion are Nietzsche,
Freud, and Marx.
7
Tere is a scene in Chinatown where Jake is pressing
Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) with questions while sitting at a table in
a restaurant. In particular, he presses her for the name that goes with her
middle initial, “C.” She asks him why he wants to know. His question is one
that appears to be at once banal and intrusive. Evelyn Mulwray is clearly
discomfited by it, and the answer to it will turn out to be at the very center
of the mystery of the plot. He says: “I’m just a snoop.” Nietzsche, Freud, and
Marx are real snoops, asking the most uncomfortable questions and dis-
covering extremely disconcerting answers. Nietzsche will ask about God
and morality. He will conclude that God is dead and that morality is just
the will to power in disguise. Freud will expose our romanticized notions
about love and family. Marx will raise questions about some of our deep-
est assumptions about justice, what constitutes social fairness, and what
money is. Te result of these philosophical articulations of the dark side of
Western, capitalist, democratic culture is what Sartre called bad faith and
bad conscience. Bad conscience is the state one is in when one continues
to act according to the norms and values of the bourgeoisie, even though
one’s suspicions about the validity of those norms have been awakened.
Bad faith is a kind of refusal to see, a refusal to see that becomes a blind
spot that we are no longer aware of but that haunts us with vague feelings
of hypocrisy, inauthenticity, and alienation.
Visually, blinds cut and fragment an image. Tey suggest an inner,
darker realm in contrast to an outer, brighter realm. Tey suggest the pres-
ence of obscurities. Tey hide things in the image. Tey darken our vision,
creating a mood of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. Te word signifies their
function—blinds. Teir function is to blind, to cut of the light because we
do not like too much light, cannot bear too much light. If we take light to
be a trope for something like truth or reality, then blinds are metaphori-
cally in the service of protecting us from too much truth, too much reality.
As T. S. Eliot put it: “Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”
8
Some
people, I would say, can bear more reality than others—or, at least, are
willing to try to. Part of the paradox of the pain of the bourgeois reality is
that it is, at least partially, self-inflicted. It is our very cooperation with the
questionable bourgeois norms, our desire to use blinds, that causes our dis-
ease, although what alternatives there are to cooperation, to the acceptance
of some level of blindness, has always been a bit unclear.
124 Richard Gilmore
Given this background, an interpretation of the oddness of Curly’s at-
tempting to eat the blinds is that he does so because he has had a little too
much reality and wants to recover his condition of less painful blind-ness.
He wants to incorporate, by eating, these physical blinds in order to recover
a more symbolic blindness so that his pain will be less. Tis is an expression
of a kind of nostalgia, a desire to return to his prefallen home, with his pre-
fallen wife there. Curly has become what, in a sense, we have all become—a
man who knows too much. Roman Polanski and Robert Towne want Curly
to eat the blinds not just for these reasons but also because they want to
invoke this classic image from traditional film noir. Tey want to announce
the themes of the movie, that the movie will be about light and darkness,
knowledge and the evasion of knowledge, the search for knowledge and
the costs of knowledge, but with an ironic, neo-noir twist.
9
Iabyrinths, Scotomas, and Hubris
Te plot of Chinatown is convoluted and labyrinthine.
10
Te protagonist,
Jake Gittes, always seems to be several steps ahead of us, the audience, but
a good step behind the unfolding clues of the case. It is ofen confusing
whom Jake is working for at any given moment in the movie. He has within
the context of the movie been explicitly hired by three diferent people for
three diferent cases. He has been hired by the faux Mrs. Mulwray, who is
really Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd), to spy on her putative husband Hollis
Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) to see whether he is having an extramarital af-
fair. He is hired by the real Mrs. Mulwray to investigate the death of Hollis
Mulwray. He is hired by Noah Cross (John Huston) to try to find the young
woman, Katherine Cross (Belinda Palmer), with whom Hollis Mulwray
was, apparently, having an afair. He also has his own interests in the case.
He is invested in protecting his reputation, but he also seems to be pursu-
ing his own line of inquiry solely for knowledge’s sake, maybe even for
goodness’s sake.
Each case contains a counternarrative, and the revelation of each coun-
ternarrative works to destabilize the larger, overarching narrative of the
movie itself. Te first case starts out seeming to be fairly straightforward.
Jake thinks that he is investigating a case of an extramarital afair. Tis is
very familiar terrain for him. He knows how to discover the signs that will
reveal this pattern in people’s behaviors. Te downside to this familiarity is
that he tends to find the signs pointing in the direction he expects, whether
or not they really are pointing in that direction. Interestingly, the movie
e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 125
presents us, the audience, with the same seduction. Tere is a moment, for
example, when Jake is spying from a roofop on Hollis Mulwray with the
young woman. Mulwray kisses her, a moment that Jake gets on film as de-
cisive evidence of the afair. We, too, take it to be a definitive sign that this
is an afair. Tat is, we see it as an erotic kiss even though, as it will turn out,
it is not. Te kiss itself, as kisses are, is deeply ambiguous. It could be an
erotic kiss, or a paternal kiss, or just a friendly kiss, or some other type of
kiss. Te danger in reading signs is having a particular expectation of what
the sign must mean that occludes its real meaning. Te counternarrative
is that the woman who hired Jake is not really Mrs. Mulwray and that the
whole case is really about not infidelity but water and power, as Jake will
eventually discover.
Te philosopher Daniel Dennett, in considering some peculiar features
of the mind, discusses the phenomenon of the scotoma. Te scotoma is the
blind spot that occurs in our vision because of the way the optic nerve
interrupts the field of cones and rods at the back of our eye. What is most
interesting about the scotoma is that we are not aware that it is there. We
“see” no blind spot. Why is that: It is because the mind fills in the scotoma
on the basis of information, signs, from the area surrounding the scotoma.
If we are looking at a tree with a pattern of leaves, the basic pattern of the
leaves gets reproduced by our mind to cover the scotoma, with the result
that the visual field seems to be full and complete.
11
Tere are, I want to say, conceptual as well as perceptual scotomas.
Tere are situations in which our mind completes the pattern according
to our expectations even when the pattern is not complete, even when
there may be insumcient information to complete the pattern, even when
there are counterindications to the pattern that we are expecting to find.
Troughout the movie Chinatown Jake Gittes is continually being con-
fronted with the fact of his own conceptual scotomas. He is constantly be-
ing surprised by things he failed to see or, rather, things for which he saw
the signs but failed to read them properly because of his own preconceived
ideas about what the signs must mean. We see this in his initial investiga-
tion of Hollis Mulwray’s supposed afair, especially with the photographs
of Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross arguing. We see it in the situation of the
“Chinaman” joke. We see it in his attitude toward the information given
him by the Chinese gardener about the water. We see it in his attitude to-
ward Evelyn Mulwray. We see it in his investigations throughout the movie
until the final revelation of his final scotoma in Chinatown itself.
For all that, however, Jake is an excellent investigator. He, better than
126 Richard Gilmore
almost anyone else, understands how appearances can be deceiving. He ex-
pects deviance, perversity, infidelity, and crime behind facades of respect-
ability. Tis is precisely his problem. His expectations have so frequently
been found to be justified that he has come to trust his expectations too
much. He understands that he sees more than most people, so he has be-
gun to believe that he sees all there is to see. What he has seen has made
him pretty cynical about people’s motives, but his cynicism will look naive
when it comes to the truth of the matter. His expectations circumscribe the
possible patterns that he will be able to see. Tey will create the scotoma
that will prevent him from seeing, from even imagining, the real linea-
ments of the case. His failure of imagination will lead to the tragedy that
occurs in Chinatown.
Te Greek word for the source of Jake’s scotoma is hubris. Hubris de-
scribes an unwarranted confidence, an overarching arrogance that does
not have the proper respect for human ignorance, especially one’s own. It is
given as an admonition on the wall of the Oracle of Delphi: “Avoid hubris.”
It is the underlying subject of all the great ancient Greek tragedies. Te
hamartia, the fatal flaw, of the heroic protagonists can always be framed in
terms of a certain rashness, an overconfidence in their own abilities that
makes them fail to respect the overwhelming ambiguities that, in fact, sur-
round them. It is this overconfidence that leads them to their doom.
Oedipus, Greek Tragedy, and Guilt
Oedipus is an appropriate figure from ancient Greek tragedy to invoke
when thinking about Chinatown because the parallels between the two sto-
ries are quite striking.
12
Oedipus was the first “detective” in Western litera-
ture, investigating the murder of the previous king of Tebes, Laius. Jake is
investigating the death of Hollis Mulwray, the water king (as it were) of Los
Angeles.
13
Oedipus Rex begins with the city of Tebes experiencing a ter-
rible plague, a situation not unlike the drought in Los Angeles at the begin-
ning of Chinatown.
14
Oedipus will discover himself to be involved, unwit-
tingly but somehow culpably, in some fairly complicated family dynamics.
His culpability, his guilt, is somehow tied to the tragedy gripping his city.
Te resolution of the mystery behind the crime that he is investigating is
connected to the recovery of the health of his city. Oedipus will discover
that he himself is implicated in the crime he is investigating.
In many ways, Jake is much more peripheral to the major events occur-
ring in Chinatown than Oedipus is to the events occurring in Oedipus Rex.
13

e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 127
Los Angeles is not Jake’s city the way Tebes is Oedipus’s (since Oedipus
was the king). Nor is it Jake’s family that is at the center of the plot the way it
most definitely is Oedipus’s family. Nor is Jake a direct player in the events
that have occurred. He did not kill Hollis Mulwray, nor can he save the city.
Yet, given the striking parallels between the two stories, it makes sense to
ask whether there is some way in which Jake is culpable, if only very tan-
gentially, in the drought that has gripped the city. More directly, it makes
sense to ask whether Jake is somehow, if somewhat unknowingly, culpable
in the death of Hollis Mulwray and thus is, like Oedipus, ultimately inves-
tigating issues that go to the very core of his own identity.
Te new venetian blinds are a sign. Te new Florsheim shoes are a sign,
as are the tailored suits, the convertible car, the classy secretary, and the
well-appointed omce. What are they signs of: A counternarrative in Jake’s
own consciousness, a counternarrative to that of his down-to-earth, truth-
searching character. Jake, clearly, has some social aspirations. He aspires,
presumably, to wealth and power, to be respected, and, one might say, to
leave Chinatown behind him. Tat is what we think wealth and power can
do for us—eliminate the ambiguities and uncertainties of life.
Te problem, of course, is that the ambiguities and uncertainties will
not go away; they keep, as it were, returning. Tis return takes the form for
Jake, as it does for Oedipus, of the emergence of one counternarrative afer
another. Every time Jake begins to think that he is getting a handle on what
is really going on, another counternarrative emerges that undoes the nar-
rative that seemed to tie everything together, leaving him once again adrif.
First, there is the narrative of the suspicious wife who wants to know about
her husband’s infidelity. Tat gives way to a narrative about the city water
supply and the building of a new dam. Tat gives way to a narrative about
money and land. Tat gives way to a narrative about the endlessness of the
desire for power. Tat gives way to a narrative about a very complicated,
very particular family sexual dynamic. Tat shifs the narrative to ques-
tions about good and evil, innocence and guilt, freedom and compulsion.
All these narratives seem to lead inexorably to Chinatown. Chinatown is
the place where all the narratives are undone. It is the place that suggests a
narrative of its own, the narrative that human beings will never figure out
the narrative soon enough or completely enough to avoid the inevitability
of tragedy. Jake’s guilt, like Oedipus’s, is tied to his refusal to acknowledge
certain ambiguities in time.
Tis guilt is signaled in Chinatown with a trope that is quite similar to a
trope from Oedipus Rex. In Oedipus Rex, Teiresias is the seer who is physi-
128 Richard Gilmore
cally blind. Oedipus can physically see but is, as it were, spiritually blind:
he cannot see who he himself is or what he has done. A similar play on
seeing, but most frequently via glasses, is a recurring trope in Chinatown.
In Chinatown, however, the reference to flawed vision is aimed at only one
eye, the lef eye. Jake loses the lef lens of his sunglasses at the orange ranch
in the northwest valley. Evelyn has a flaw in her lef eye. Jake knocks the lef
taillight out on Evelyn’s car so that he will be able to recognize it driving at
night, making the damaged car a kind of iconic sign of Evelyn herself. Te
eyeglasses found in the pond at the Mulwray house have a cracked lef lens
and, we will learn, belong to Noah Cross.
16
I take the fact that it is always
the lef eye as a reference to sinister, from the Latin for “on the lef.” Tese
are flaws in vision, signs of conceptual scotomas, that will result in terrible
things happening. Te one character who consistently wears glasses—but
without a reference to a flawed vision in his lef eye in particular—is Hollis
Mulwray, the one who could see the dark events portended from the begin-
ning. Tat makes him a kind of Teiresias.
Guilt, Alienation, and the Hitchcockian Blot
Tis is getting at the dark truth of film noir in general. Noir films worked
to destabilize the overly cheerful narratives of the typical Hollywood film
as well as the overly optimistic narratives that we construct for our own
lives. Tey did this by showing how counternarratives can emerge, by rais-
ing questions, in films, about our bourgeois narratives of love, and family,
and work, and money. “Te bloody paths down which we drive logic into
dread.”
17
Tis is a beautiful description of the investigations of Jake Gittes
as well as of those of Oedipus. Te same could be said of those of Nietzsche,
Freud, and Marx. Borde and Chaumeton conclude: “All the films of this
cycle [of film noir] create a similar emotional efect: that state of tension
instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed.
Te aim of film noir was to create a specific alienation.”
18
Are the tension and alienation of neo-noir somehow diferent from
those of classic noir: Te answer, I believe, is yes. Te anxieties are diferent
because the historical consciousness is diferent and the philosophy of the
time is diferent. Te year 1974 was already well into what would be called
postmodernity.
19
It was just afer the Vietnam War and during the height of
the Watergate scandal. It was a time when a considerable amount of anxi-
ety was being created for people simply by an overabundance of compet-
ing, contradictory, and incommensurate narratives. Somebody had to be
e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 129
lying, but who and why, and what would it mean for the future of our coun-
try: Philosophy was undergoing twin disruptions, one on the British and
American side, and another on the Continental (mostly French) side. In
1967, Richard Rorty published the edited collection e Linguistic Turn.
20

Te “linguistic turn” marked a shif from the high, old way of metaphysical
philosophy, in which the question of “truth” was central, to a concern with
language, a concern that regarded truth as just another property of sentenc-
es. In France, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida were
the new hermeneuts of suspicion, attempting a new decoding of modern
values but, like the Americans and Brits, paying especially close attention
to the properties of language and the disconnect between language and
the world. Tis disconnect undoes the possibility of any absolute truth and
allows for the “deconstruction” of any text, of any narrative. Noirs raised
doubts about specific narratives; neo-noirs, like Chinatown, raise doubts
about getting to the bottom of any narrative.
What Jake is striving for, among other things, is to achieve a consistent
narrative of what is going on. Each time a consistent narrative begins to
form, signs of a counternarrative pop up. Slavoj Žižek—a slippery, post-
modern kind of thinker if ever there was one—has identified what he calls
the Hitchcockian blot.
21
It is the signifier in a scene in a movie that suggests
a counternarrative. Žižek gives as an example the scene from Hitchcock’s
Foreign Correspondent (1940) in which the protagonist, played by Joel
McCrea, finds himself in the Dutch countryside surrounded by windmills.
Te countryside seems bucolic and beautiful—until he notices that one of
the windmills is rotating in the wrong direction. It must be a nefarious signal
system. Suddenly, all the values in the scene are transformed from quiet, bu-
colic beauty to the sense of the dark, pervasive presence of Nazi evil.
Tere are many Hitchcockian blots in Chinatown. Hollis Mulwray’s ob-
viously principled stand against building the new dam is a blot that Jake all
but ignores in his pursuit of lurid photographs of Hollis and his supposed
mistress. Te photo of Noah Cross and Hollis Mulwray arguing is another
one. Te object in the pond at the Mulwray house that Jake notices but can-
not identify is a blot. Te fish in the omce of Mr. Yelburton (John Hillerman)
and the sign of the Albacore are blots. Te flaw in Evelyn’s eye is, perhaps,
the quintessential blot, the blot that exists for all of us. And, of course, the
blinds in Jake’s omce are a metablot, a signifier, not for Jake to pick up on,
but for us, the audience, to recognize. Te concept of “Chinatown” itself is
the blot of all blots, the blot that suggests that there is no consistent narra-
tive other than the repeated undoing of every narrative.
130 Richard Gilmore
Alienation, the Uncanny, and Freud
I associate the sense of a “specific alienation” with the experience of the
uncanny. Te sense of the uncanny is a sense that there is something more
going on, something of which one cannot quite get a glimpse. It is the sense
of the pervasive ambiguities that have not yet made themselves explicit. It
emerges with the burgeoning sense of a counternarrative to the narrative
that one has been assuming obtains. Freud ofers a fascinating analysis of
the uncanny, an analysis that provides some useful tools for unpacking the
emotional power delivered by Chinatown.
Freud’s analysis is complicated and largely linguistic, but his surprising
conclusion is: “Te uncanny is in some way a species of the familiar.”
22
Te
“species of the familiar” with which the uncanny is associated by Freud is
our infantile fears and desires. Te primary fears are the fear of death and
the fear of castration. Te fear of castration is, itself, a complex fear because
it is a fear associated with the fulfillment of one’s desire. Tat is, what the
infant desires is the complete possession of the love object, the mother. Te
obstacles and prohibitions to that desire get experienced in the psyche of
the infant, according to Freud, as the threat of castration. Te uncanniness
of Oedipus, says Freud, lies for us in the subconscious recognition of the
appropriateness of his self-blinding when he discovers that he has had sex
with his mother. Freud reads the destruction of the organs of his eyes as a
“mitigated” substitute for the destruction of another organ, his penis. Te
psychological tension created by this infantile dynamic is that we desire
what we fear and fear what we desire. We want what we desire, and we are
terrified of actually possessing the object of our desire.
Freud also analyzes the uncanniness of the doppelgänger, the double,
in terms of primitive and infantile fears and desires. A psychological re-
sponse to the fears of death and of castration, according to Freud, is the
imaginative act of doubling. As Freud says: “Te double was originally an
insurance against the extinction of the self, or, as [Otto] Rank puts it, ‘an
energetic denial of the power of death.’ . . . Te invention of such dou-
bling as a defense against annihilation has a counterpart in the language of
dreams, which is fond of expressing the idea of castration by duplicating or
multiplying the genital symbol.”
23
Let us consider these ideas from Freud about the uncanny in relation
to Chinatown. I am assuming that, as it does for me, the movie creates
in others the sense of something uncanny. First of all, the idea of the de-
struction of one organ as a symbolic stand-in for castration certainly seems
e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 131
relevant to Chinatown. Jake, himself, frames the point of his ongoing inves-
tigation as an attempt to recover the health of his slashed nose. Tis is in
the scene outside the restaurant where he has explained to Evelyn Mulwray
that he is “just a snoop.” His nose was slashed for, as it were, putting it
where it did not belong, at least according to the ideas of some. Te other
prominent repetition of the genital symbol in the movie is the long-lensed
cameras that Jake uses to do his snooping. His strength (the intelligence
that informs his snooping, the tools he uses) will also be his weakness. His
considerable power to come up with the question that will reveal what is
hidden will lead him to answers to questions he would rather not ask.
Tere are at least two doppelgänger relationships suggested in the
movie. Te first is the doubling between Jake and Hollis Mulwray. Jake
seems to be Hollis’s double, following him wherever he goes, lurking in the
shadows as Hollis conducts his own investigations. Tis doubling is most
strikingly suggested by the identical loss of each’s lef shoe, which may also
serve as an additional reference to Oedipus. Oedipus’s name, in Greek,
means “swollen foot.” Tis name has the literal significance of referring to a
wound that Oedipus received when he was abandoned as an infant and, in
the process, his feet were bound. Te name may also have a more symbolic
significance in relation to his foot—as a stand-in for an organ that will be
the source of some trouble for Oedipus (and, in a way, for Jake).
Although the second doppelgänger relationship in the movie is more
ambiguous, I take it that Noah Cross serves as another kind of double for
Jake. Jake’s aspirations to move up in social class, his evident hunger for
more money, his impassioned commitment to appear more respectable,
represent a theme emphasized throughout the movie. Tese aspirations are
most tellingly revealed in Jake’s speech. He seems most awkward when he
tries to use words (like métier) that he seems to associate with wealth, power,
and respectability and most himself when he describes something moving
as fast as “the wind from a duck’s ass,” a comment for which he apologizes,
as he always does when his real self emerges through the veneer that he is
trying to construct. Noah Cross, not to mention his daughter Evelyn, rep-
resents an extreme form of these very things to which Jake aspires.
Hollis Mulwray, then, would be a kind of best-self version of Jake, and
Noah Cross a worst-self one. Jake is caught in the middle, aspiring to some
kind of moral goodness and, simultaneously, to greater wealth and power.
He occupies a kind of nether region between the two, desiring both and
neither. Interestingly, Evelyn Mulwray is trapped in the same gray region
between Hollis and her father, Noah Cross. Jake and Evelyn, no doubt, are
132 Richard Gilmore
attracted to one another because of the recognition of this shared condi-
tion and, thus, serve each other as doubles. Te desire each has for the
other must include the desire to find in the other some way out of the ter-
rible prison of these ambiguities. To find in the other, to find with the other,
some way “home.”
Tese ambiguities are based on mutually exclusive desires. It seems
clear that it is Jake’s perception that his desire for goodness can come only
at the price of giving up his desire for wealth and power, and vice versa. Te
fear of castration that Freud emphasizes is really just the fear of a loss of
one’s power, a fear that will be realized if Jake achieves either desire. Evelyn
loves the goodness of her husband, Hollis, but clearly has contempt for
his lack of passion. She seems genuinely, weirdly, to feel a passion for her
father even as she is horrified by his evil. Can one be good and have social
power: Can one find a love that is both good and passionate: Tese are
the questions that Jake and Evelyn want answered in the amrmative by the
other. Tese are questions that most of us want answered in the amrmative.
Te uncanniness of Chinatown derives from our more or less dim sense
of these doublings, these desires and fears, these questions lurking in the
background of the story of the movie as it unfolds.
Aristotle, Tragedy, and the Sublime
Te first, and best, analysis of Oedipus Rex is by Aristotle in the Poetics.
Aristotle’s Poetics, it can be argued, has as its central theme the problem of
the sublime. Te sublime is an aesthetic category that refers to an experi-
ence that begins with the experience of fear or terror but ends with the
experience of joy or awe. Te central theme of the Poetics is explaining the
power of, and our love for, dramatic tragedies. A paradox of dramatic trag-
edy is that what we enjoy watching as theater, as a fiction, we would be hor-
rified to see in real life, things like murder, death, and incest. At the theater,
we do feel horror while watching these things, but we also love watching
them and feel a kind of joy and awe aferward. Tis is precisely the trajec-
tory of the experience of the sublime.
24
Aristotle intends to explain why we
have this experience when we watch a dramatic tragedy.
Aristotle’s explanation of this phenomenon depends on his analysis
of catharsis. A catharsis is a purging, a release. In a somewhat ambigu-
ous description of how tragedy works, Aristotle says: “By means of pity
and terror we experience a catharsis of such emotions.”
23
Te idea is that,
through experiencing a surfeit of fear and pity in the controlled context
e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 133
of a dramatic narrative, we are freed of a certain amount of fear and pity
that we ordinarily carry around with us, and we experience this release
with something like joy. How does an increase in fear and pity free us of
fear and pity: Te answer must be that there are diferent kinds of fear and
pity. I take our ordinary fear and pity to be of one order, generated by the
self-preoccupied anxieties that develop in our regular lives. And I take the
fear and pity that we experience in a dramatic tragedy to be of a diferent
order, getting us to see, by comparison, the triviality of our daily concerns.
A peek into the abyss makes worrying about having too small of an omce
or about how to aford a big-screen television seem pretty trivial. To be able
to see the triviality of some of our daily anxieties because we are able to see
them in the context of a larger picture, a larger narrative, is, I take it, a sign
of wisdom.
Te Way to Wisdom
“Chinatown” is the abyss. It is the postmodern abyss of the endless repeti-
tion of narratives. We will die before we get to the bottom of the narratives
because there is no bottom. Tat is the tragic wisdom. It is a wisdom to
make us not just more sympathetic toward the futile strivings afer a coher-
ent narrative of our fellow human beings, but more understanding toward
our own futile strivings for this. Te tragic wisdom is the awareness of
this futility. Te only truth is this truth, that every truth is pregnant with
the alien body of its own counternarrative. Te scotoma is structural and
inherent in the fact of sight itself. Tis is a sad truth, but even sadness can
be a basis for human companionship, for shared understanding, for the
possibility of love.
Chinatown has a structure that is very similar to that of an ancient
Greek tragedy. It begins with a man who is essentially good, but flawed,
who is in a position of some power and authority, but who is forced to
learn the limits of his authority and power in this world, and it ends with
terrible revelations and death. Several critics complained on the film’s re-
lease about its ending, its darkness.
26
As a matter of fact, it was originally
meant to have a happier ending, with Evelyn killing Noah Cross and Jake,
Evelyn, and Katherine escaping to Mexico. Polanski changed the ending to
the much darker one that the movie actually has. He said that the movie
would have been “meaningless” with the happier ending.
27
Why mean-
ingless: Aristotle’s suggestion is that meaning emerges only when we are
confronted with radical ambiguities in our accepted narratives. Meaning
134 Richard Gilmore
begins to emerge when we are able to begin to see counternarratives, when
we begin to be aware that there are larger narratives, narratives that put our
own overinvested narrative into perspective. Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx
are saying something similar. To begin to see a counternarrative, to begin
to see that there is more going on, larger issues at stake, is always to enter a
realm of darkness, where all one’s previous guideposts will now serve only
to heighten the ambiguity. Seeing more, however, is the way of wisdom,
even if there is a dark side to this wisdom. It is a dimcult way, not, perhaps,
the way for everyone, but it is important for us all that there are some will-
ing to take it. We can get a glimpse of that way through great art and great
movies. We can get a sense of that dark wisdom, and experience some of
the power of that wisdom, in the dark sublimity of Chinatown.
Notes
I would like to thank Mark Conard for many helpful suggestions on the original
and subsequent drafs of this essay.
1. Te first articles in French identifying noir as something like a genre were
Nino Frank’s “Un nouveau genre ‘policier’: L’aventure criminelle” (L’ecran français
61 [1946]: 8–9, 14) and Jean-Pierre Chartier’s “Les Américains aussi font des films
‘noirs’” (Revue du cinema 2 [1946]: 67). See the discussion in James Naremore,
More an Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University
of California Press, 1998), 13.
2. Tis point is made in several of the seminal essays on film noir, starting
with Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s “Towards a Definition of Film
Noir” (1933), and also including Raymond Durgnat’s “Paint It Black: Te Family
Tree of the Film Noir” (1970) and Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir,” all of
which are included in Alain Silver and James Ursini, eds., Film Noir Reader (New
York: Limelight, 1996).
3. Tat Chinatown is the first authentic neo-noir is a claim made in Nicholas
Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York:
Henry Holt, 1997), 241. Naremore (More an Night, 206–7) argues a similar case
in his contrast of Chinatown with e Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)—that,
although e Long Goodbye was made a year earlier, it was more a “hallucinatory”
parody of noir than a real return to something profoundly noir, as Chinatown was.
4. Fredric Jameson also makes the connection between Chinatown and nos-
talgia, but to a somewhat diferent end. See his “Postmodernism and Consumer
Society,” in e Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998
(New York: Verso, 1998), 8–9. Jameson also talks about nostalgia and film in
“Film: Nostalgia for the Present,” in Postmodernism; or, e Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 279–96.
e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 135
3. My thanks to Tony McRae for some technical assistance in tracking down
the use of blinds in some of the classic films noirs. For more on noir, see http://www.
film-trip.com.
6. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970), 32–33.
7. Ibid., 32.
8. T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” from Four Quartets, in Collected Poems, 1909–
1962 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), 176.
9. Some of the neo-noir twists in Chinatown include explicit references
to the first classic noir, e Maltese Falcon. Te whole opening sequence can be
read—and has been by several commentators on the film—as a reference to the
opening of e Maltese Falcon: a woman comes to a detective’s omce with a bogus
story to get him involved in a very complicated plot for her own personal reasons,
etc. Tere is also an explicit reference to the scene of scraping Miles Archer’s name
of the door with a similar scene in Chinatown in which Hollis Mulwray’s name
is being scraped of a door. A nice Ozymandias-ish comment on the briefness of
our tenure on earth. Tere is also, most strikingly, the appearance of the director
of e Maltese Falcon, John Huston, in Chinatown as the antibiblical Noah Cross.
For more on the references to e Maltese Falcon in Chinatown, see Christopher,
Somewhere in the Night, 242, and Naremore, More an Night, 207–8.
10. For more on labyrinths in noir, see Jerold J. Abrams, “From Sherlock
Holmes to the Hard-Boiled Detective in Film Noir,” in e Philosophy of Film Noir,
ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 69–88.
11. Daniel C. Dennett, Conciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991), 324–23.
12. Tis has frequently been remarked on. Some very good essays on the paral-
lels between the two are John Bolton, “Language, Oedipus, and Chinatown,” MLN
106, no. 3 (1991): 933–30, and Vernon Shetley, “Incest and Capital in Chinatown,”
MLN 114, no. 3 (1999): 1092–1109. Tis connection is also made in Michael Eaton,
Chinatown (London: British Film Institute, 1997), 67.
13. Tis idea is explicitly remarked on by Bolton (“Language, Oedipus, and
Chinatown,” 940).
14. A point also made by Eaton (Chinatown, 67).
13. Tis is a point made by Shetley (“Incest and Capital in Chinatown,”
1094).
16. Mary-Kay Gamel refers to these as “images of flawed sight” (“An American
Tragedy: Chinatown,” in Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema, ed. Martin
Winkler [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001], 133).
17. Tis line is quoted in one of the earliest and most influential works on film
noir, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir améri-
cain (1941–1956) (Paris: Minuit, 1933). It is taken from the presurrealist writer
Isidore Ducasse, Count Lautréamont. I found it in excerpted form in Borde and
Chaumeton, “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” 19.
136 Richard Gilmore
18. Borde and Chaumeton, “Towards a Definition of Film Noir,” 23.
19. Te classic text on postmodernism—identifying it, naming it, and de-
scribing it—is Jean-François Lyotard, e Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge (1979), trans. Geof Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1984). See also Mark T. Conard, “Reservoir Dogs:
Redemption in a Postmodern World” (in this volume).
20. Richard Rorty, ed., e Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).
21. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through
Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 88.
22. Sigmund Freud, e Uncanny, trans. David McLintock (New York:
Penguin, 2003), 134.
23. Ibid., 142.
24. I have in mind here Kant’s concept of the sublime. For a more complete
explanation, see Immanual Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (New
York: Prometheus, 2000), secs. 23–29.
23. Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Richard Janko (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), 7
(49b23).
26. See, e.g., James Kavanagh, “Chinatown: Other Places, Other Times,” Jump
Cut 3 (1974): 1, 8; Andrew Sarris, “Chinatown and Polanski-Towne: Tilting toward
Tragedy,” Village Voice, November 7, 1974, 83; and Murray Sperber, “‘Do as Little
as Possible’: Polanski’s Message and Manipulation,” Jump Cut 3 (1974): 9–10.
27. See Roman Polanski’s comments included on the DVD of Chinatown (re-
leased by Paramount Pictures in 1999).
137
Te Human Comedy
Perpetuates Itself
Nihilism and Comedy
in Coen Neo-Noir
omas S. Hibbs
BU××v Linowsxi: Ulli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a nihilist.
Tui DUui: Ah. Must be exhausting.
—e Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998)
From their inaugural film, the 1984 Blood Simple, through the film blanc
of the 1996 Fargo, to the 2001 e Man Who Wasn’t ere, the Coen broth-
ers have exhibited a preoccupation with the themes, characters, and sty-
listic techniques of film noir. By the time they made Blood Simple in 1984,
neo-noir was already established as a recognized category of film.
1
Prior to
Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comedic unraveling of noir motifs in Reservoir
Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), the Coens were already making con-
sciously comic use of noir plots and stylistic techniques. Without Tarantino’s
penchant for hyperactive and culturally claustrophobic allusions to pop
culture, the Coens focus, instead, on traditional noir character types and
intricate plots whose complexity is bizarre.
Because it is so ofen characterized by self-conscious deployment of
the techniques of classic noir, neo-noir evinces a strong inclination toward
pastiche and the satiric. Tis makes comic themes more at home in the
world of neo-noir than they were in the founding era of noir. Classic noir
avoids overt moral lessons and leaves little room for well-adjusted, happy,
virtuous types of Americans. Te world of classic noir profers a “disturb-
ing vision . . . that qualifies all hope and suggests a potentially fatal vul-
nerability,” against which no one is adequately protected.
2
Classic noir has
138 omas S. Hibbs
deeply democratic instincts: no one wins; the unforgiving laws of the hu-
man condition apply universally to every individual. Te grim pessimism
of classic noir is hardly congenial to the sorts of comic films that flourished
in America during the same time period.
Tis does not mean, however, that comedy is utterly alien to classic
noir. Te depiction of characters as trapped in a labyrinth at the mercy of
a hostile fate can transform the tone of the action from the gravely tragic
to the absurdly comic. What initially seems serious and ominous can, over
time, come to seem humorous. Angst and fear can be sustained for only so
long; endless and pointless terror becomes predictable and laughable. But
the shif to a comic perspective involves more than the mere passage of
time; comedy is more than tragedy plus time. What matters is the passage
of time without any prospect of hope or intelligibility. Life in an absurd
universe is rife with comic possibilities. Struggle and striving begin to ap-
pear superfluous and foolish. A classic noir film such as Detour (Edgar G.
Ulmer, 1943) toys with its main character to such an extent that his con-
tinued gravity can come to seem a self-inflicted farce. Similarly, the deg-
radation of afection—the perverse erotic attractions in which noir ofen
wallows—lends itself to wry, detached irony, the dominant tone in Sunset
Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1930).
Te baroque sensibility of noir has always contained the seeds of sty-
listic excess, even of the celebration of style for its own sake. In neo-noir,
the accentuation of hopelessness and the overtly self-conscious deploy-
ment of artistic technique make the turn to dark comedy nearly inevi-
table. By contrast with classic noir films, whose style is reserved and less
self-conscious, neo-noirs almost inevitably draw attention to their style,
going so far in some cases as to make style itself the subject of the film.
In the very act of recognizing the artifice, we are in on the joke, on the
sleight of hand performed by the filmmaker. Te result is amusement,
even laughter.
As Foster Hirsch points out, one of the distinguishing features of
neo-noir is a “cavalier amorality” that can steep viewers in a “depraved
point of view.”
3
Jean-Pierre Chartier’s early and negative reaction to noir
seems to apply more aptly to certain neo-noir films. Chartier lamented
noir’s “pessimism and disgust toward humanity”; void of even the most
“fleeting image of love” or of characters who might “rouse our pity or
sympathy,” noir, he felt, presents “monsters, criminals whose evils noth-
ing can excuse, whose actions imply that the only source for the fatality
of evil is in themselves.”
4
e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 139
Nietzsche and Nihilism
Tere are, then, important links between neo-noir and nihilism. According
to its most trenchant analysts, nihilism involves the dissolution of standards
of judgment; for the nihilist, there is no longer any basis for distinguish-
ing truth from falsity, good from evil, noble from base action, or higher
from lower ways of life. Nietzsche thought that nihilism would be the de-
fining characteristic of the twentieth century, an epoch in which “the high-
est values” would “devalue themselves” and the “question ‘why:’” would
find “no answer.”
3
Nietzsche is most famous for proclaiming the death of
God. He certainly does not mean that a previously existing supreme being
has suddenly expired; instead, he holds that the notion of God, created by
humans to serve a variety of needs, is becoming increasingly less credible.
But Nietzsche does not limit the efects of nihilism to religion; nihilism
undermines all transcendent claims and standards, including those un-
derlying modern science and democratic politics. Te great questions and
animating visions—those regarding truth, justice, love, and beauty—that
previously gave shape and purpose to human life no longer resonate in
the human soul. All moral codes are seen to be merely conventional and,
hence, optional.
For most human beings, decline, diminution, and despair accompany
nihilism. Te bulk of humanity falls into the category of the last man: “Alas,
the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to
despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man. What is love: What is a
star: Tus asks the last man and blinks. Te earth has become small and on
it hops the last man who makes everything small.” Te contented, petty last
men create a society that is ruthlessly homogeneous (“everybody wants the
same, everybody is the same”) and addicted to physical comfort (“one has
one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night; one
has a regard for health”).
6
Tese are the passive nihilists, the pessimists, the
representatives of “the decline and recession of the power of the spirit.”
7
But nihilism is “ambiguous.” If, in one sense, nihilism is the “unwel-
come guest,” it is also an opportunity, clearing a path for “increased pow-
er of the spirit.”
8
Active nihilists see the decline of traditional moral and
religious systems as an occasion for the thoroughgoing destruction of
desiccated ways of life and the creation of a new order of values. Active
nihilists, the philosopher-artists of the future, will engage in the “trans-
valuation of values.” Tey stand beyond good and evil and engage in aes-
thetic self-creation, a project that is an afront to society’s religious and
140 omas S. Hibbs
democratic conventions, rooted, as they are, in moral absolutes or demo-
cratic consensus.
At times, Nietzsche’s remedy for the nihilistic epoch, his path beyond
nihilism, promotes a particularly virulent form of aristocracy. As he puts it
frankly in the chapter “What is Noble:” in Beyond Good and Evil:
Every enhancement of the type “man” has so far been the work of
an aristocratic society—and so it will be again and again—a soci-
ety that believes in the long ladder of an order of rank and difer-
ences in value between man and man, and that needs slavery in
some sense or another. With that pathos of distance that grows out
of the ingrained diference between strata . . . keeping down and
keeping at a distance, that other, more mysterious pathos could
not have grown up either—the craving for an ever new widening
of distances within the soul itself, the development of ever higher,
rare, more remote, further-stretching, more comprehensive states
. . . the continual “self-overcoming of man.”
9
What Nietzsche calls the pathos of distance is at work in a variety of neo-
noir dramas, from Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) and Cape Fear
(Martin Scorsese, 1991) and Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) to e
Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1993).
10
In these neo-noir films, certain char-
acters rise above the noir labyrinth, not by passing through it or learning
to navigate its shifing waters, but by acts of diabolical will. Impervious to
the laws of the human condition, these characters get away with lives of
criminality. Tis shif constitutes a movement in the direction of nihilism
and a recoiling from the fundamentally democratic world of classic noir.
Te human condition is no longer universal; the noir trap is no longer seen
as an indelible feature. Instead, it constrains only those who lack the will-
power, or will to power, necessary to rise above, and control, conventions.
Neo-noir’s greatest departure from classic noir consists in a turn to aristo-
cratic nihilism. Te most resourceful of these characters are in control of
the noir plot, using their cunning and artistry to ensnare others. Were it
not so cumbersome, we might call this the nihilistic myth of the American
super-antihero.
Nihilistic comedy has no limits on the targets of its humor; it turns the
most atrocious of human acts—rape and beating in Cape Fear, cannibal-
ism in e Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), and maiming in
Reservoir Dogs—into quasi-comic expressions of exuberant amoral energy.
e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 141
It mocks our longing for justice, for the protection of the innocent and
the punishment of the heinous criminal, and for truth and understanding.
Te comic unraveling of the horror genre from within begins with the cel-
ebration of the evil antihero as beyond good and evil, as more interesting,
attractive, and complex than the purportedly good characters in a story.
Once this nihilistic move has been made, it is quite natural to repudiate
and mock properly human longing for justice, truth, and love. Nihilism, as
Nietzsche saw, entails the diminution of human aspiration to the vanishing
point; it involves the death of man.
Tese are the consequences of the nihilistic turn in neo-noir, which re-
pudiates justice, love, and truth in favor of aesthetic self-creation. Criticisms
of conventional conceptions of justice, truth, and other ideals are not nec-
essarily nihilistic. Indeed, the very notion of a critique presupposes that
one has, implicitly at least, an awareness that things are not as they should
be, that it would be better for things to be otherwise. As Shakespeare writes
in King Lear: “Tis is not the worst, so long as we can say ‘this is the worst’”
(4.1). But thoroughgoing nihilism eviscerates any such standards or, what
is more to the point, even the intelligibility of the quest for such standards.
Gravity cannot be sustained. Audiences are entertained by the demonic
superheroes who put on a good show and are much more clever and wit-
tier than other, conventional characters. A character such as Hannibal
Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in e Silence of the Lambs is at first terrifying,
then entertaining, and finally humorous as, in the film’s final frames, he
responds to a question as to his plans by saying, wryly, that he’ll be having
an old friend for dinner.
Noir, Nihilism, and Comedy in e Big Lebowski
Te comic denouement of e Silence of the Lambs signals the unraveling
of the hero genre from within, a point driven home with great gusto in
such spoofs of the genre as Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) and Scary Movie
(Keenan Ivory Wayans, 2000) and their sequels. If the gravity of the quest
to understand and fend of evil produces no great insight about good or
evil, just the surface aesthetics of the evildoer, then the audience, having
become jaded, anticipates the aesthetics of evil and sees the whole drama
as a farce. Tere is, thus, an opening for a democratic rejoinder to the sort
of angst-ridden nihilism that celebrates the tragic heroism of the loner who
faces the meaninglessness of life with gravity. Te democratic and comic
response is: Why bother: What’s all the fuss about: If there is no meaning,
142 omas S. Hibbs
then why get worked up about anything: And what, in a pointless universe,
could possibly provide a basis for distinguishing, as Nietzsche wants to, be-
tween noble and base ways of facing the abyss: Tis sort of comedy mocks
radicals of all sorts, whether they be nihilists or zealous reformers. Such is
the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ comic leveling of nihilism in the e
Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998).
e Big Lebowski begins and ends with the noir commonplace, voice-
over narration. As a tumbleweed blows down the streets of Los Angeles and
over a beach, the narrator introduces “the Dude,” a name no one else would
“self-apply.” “Our story,” he relates, is set in the early 1990s, at the time of
our national “conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis.” Sometimes, the narrator
continues, “a man is, I won’t say a hero, but sometimes a man is just right for
his time and place.” Tat man is the Dude, the “laziest man in LA County,”
an achievement that puts him high in the “running for laziest worldwide.”
Te camera turns to the Dude, wearing shorts and a bathrobe and shopping
for groceries. A television in the store plays President George H. W. Bush’s
speech about the Iraqi threat: “Tis aggression will not stand.”
Later that day, the Dude is attacked at home by intruders who call him
Lebowski, stuf his head in the toilet, and demand that he repay the money
his wife owes Jackie Treehorn. A perplexed Dude objects that no one calls
him Lebowski and that he’s not married—gesturing to the raised toilet seat
as confirming evidence. Te intruders suddenly come to their senses and
one of them asks: “Isn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire:” In a parting
gesture, they urinate on the rug—an act of defilement that the Dude regrets
because “that rug really tied the room together.”
Tese opening scenes introduce readily identifiable neo-noir themes.
Tere is the theme of the loner, certainly not the hero of the old westerns, but
rather the uprooted drifer, symbolized in the tumbleweed blown by chance
forces beyond its control or comprehension. Ten there is the motif of a shal-
low and artificially constructed political culture, suggested in the television
coverage of the Gulf War. As we shall see, the film replays 1960s themes of
the establishment versus the antiestablishment, especially in the contrast be-
tween the two Lebowskis. Finally, there is the noir staple of the “wrong man,”
the chance misidentification of an ordinary man as a culprit or criminal of
some sort, a misidentification that sparks a series of trials on the part of the
wrongly accused. Comic incongruity arises from the theme of the wrong
man and from the repeated presence of the Dude in settings where he clearly
does not belong, what the Coens call the anachronism of incompatibility.
Te Dude’s social life revolves around bowling with his friends Walter
e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 143
(John Goodman), a Vietnam vet and recent convert to Judaism, and Donny
(Steve Buscemi), a pleasant, shy follower. Learning about the intruders,
Walter insists that the issue is not the rug but the other Jef Lebowski,
whom the men were afer. Te Dude decides to visit the Big Lebowski
(David Huddleston), a man confined to a wheelchair as a result of injuries
sufered in the Korean War. When the Dude asks for remuneration for his
destroyed rug and proclaims, “Tis aggression will not stand,” Lebowski
taunts him, saying that, when he lost his legs in Korea, he did not ask for a
handout. He “went out and achieved”: “Your revolution is over. Te bums
lost.” Soon afer this encounter, a humbled and weepy Lebowski invites
the Dude back to the house and shows him a ransom note, indicating that
his wife, Bunny, has been kidnapped. Te Dude takes a drag of his joint
and says: “Bummer, man.” Lebowski ofers the Dude $20,000 and his own
beeper to act as a courier. An incredulous Dude asks Lebowski’s assistant:
“He thinks the carpet pissers did this:”
Troughout much of the film, someone in a blue car follows the Dude.
Late in the film, he runs up to the car and yanks out the driver, who ex-
plains that he is a “private dick,” working on the same case as the one the
Dude’s working on. He then admits fawningly: “I admire your work. Te
way you play one side against the other.” Here, the Dude once again plays
the wrong man role; this time he is misidentified as a professional, a private
detective with the knowledge and cleverness to manipulate human charac-
ter types for his own ends.
Tis is, of course, a complete illusion; to underscore the Dude’s impo-
tence, the Coens immediately shif to a scene in which a group of Germans
break into his apartment and find him in his bath. As he complains that this
is a “private residence,” they drop a marmot into the tub just between his
legs and announce: “We want the money. We believe in nothing. If we don’t
get the money, we will come back tomorrow and cut of your johnson.”
Walter shares the Dude’s dislocation, but he, unlike the Dude, is troubled
by his rootlessness. Te Dude is ofen irked at Walter’s strange Jewish devo-
tion. When the Dude accuses him of living in the past, Walter responds:
“Tree thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax,
you’re goddamn right I’m living in the fucking past!” Walter wants to have
an identity, to define himself in relation to a way of life, a tradition, larger
than himself. How badly he wants this is clear from his willingness to rate
National Socialism above nihilism on the “ethos” scale. Yet his own em-
brace of Judaism, a result of his marriage to a Jewish woman from whom
he is now divorced, serves to underscore the absurdity of attempting to
144 omas S. Hibbs
introduce an ethos into a fragmented contemporary culture. His Judaism
is an incoherent mixture of various elements, dislocated from contexts in
which they originally may have made a kind of sense. Walter ranks bowl-
ing on about the same level as his religious devotion. Concerned about the
Dude’s preoccupation with the case of the missing wife, Walter exclaims:
“We can’t drag this negative energy into the tournament.”
Without any direct contribution from the Dude, the case wraps up nice-
ly. It turns out that Bunny was just on an unannounced vacation. Outside
the bowling alley, the Germans, who think that Bunny is still missing, torch
the Dude’s car and demand money, claiming that, if they are not paid, they
will kill Bunny. A timid Donny asks: “Are these the Nazis:” Walter replies:
“No, these men are nihilists. Tere’s nothing to be afraid of. . . . Tese men
are cowards.” When the Dude tells them that Bunny is alive and there will
be no financial transaction, one of the Germans complains: “It’s not fair.”
Walter taunts them: “Fair: Who’s the fucking nihilist here: What are you,
a bunch of fucking crybabies:” In the ensuing conflict, Donny has a heart
attack and dies.
Walter here puts his finger on the problem of self-described nihil-
ists and of the incompatibility between nihilism and human life, no mat-
ter how debased. Nihilism cannot, strictly speaking, be lived. An utterly
amorphous and completely pointless life would deprive an individual not
just of any inspiring sense of purpose but even of the basis for deliberating
and pursuing anything whatsoever. Moreover, everyone complains about
something, and this is rooted in some sense, however misguided and self-
interested, of injustice or wrongs sufered. Full-blown nihilism cannot be
lived; it can only be approached asymptotically.
Although the Dude is not foolish enough to proclaim himself a nihil-
ist, his life borders on nihilism. He is skeptical of large-scale beliefs such as
those to which Walter assents. He does not need an ethos, except insofar as
that is mere style, which is about what the Jewish religion is for Walter. But
the Dude has beliefs. He believes, for example, in private property, at least
for himself. He thinks of himself as a respectable citizen; he is a low-class,
minimally ambitious version of what the social critic David Brooks has
called a Bobo, a bourgeois bohemian, someone who combines elements of
1960s counterculture with degrees of bourgeois conformity and standards
of success.
11
Brooks’s new social standard-bearers are much more bourgeois
than bohemian; inversely, the Dude is more bohemian than bourgeois. He
is little concerned with societal standards of success and insouciantly repu-
diates the work ethic. But, like Walter, he is also passionate about bowling
e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 145
and is deeply concerned with how his team will perform in the upcoming
competition.
Te Dude accepts the basic absurdity of the cosmos, of life in the most
advanced civilization ever to grace the face of the earth. His way of life af-
firms the equal significance or insignificance of all human endeavors, but
none of this stops him from judging certain things to be unseemly. Te
Dude has not so much an ethos as a style, a way of taking it easy, living
lightly. Despite his lack of conscious planning and his absence of ambition,
he manages to contribute to ongoing natural processes. At one point, he
has sex with Maude, the Big Lebowski’s libidinous and artistically rebel-
lious daughter. Aferward, she asks a number of questions about his life
and his habits of recreation. Te zenith of his life was organizing campus
protests in the 1960s; his recreation consists in car cruising and the occa-
sional acid flashback. He gets out of bed and notices that Maude remains
on her back cradling her legs, a strategy designed to increase the chances
of conception. “What did you think this was all about:” she asks. When
he expresses worries about the responsibilities of fatherhood, she explains
that a deadbeat dad is exactly what she wants.
Te Dude is a kind of comic hero, at least for our narrator (Sam Elliott),
who shows up onscreen in the final scene at the bowling alley, where he
and the Dude exchange pleasantries. Te cowboy matter-of-factly reiter-
ates the Dude’s own self-referential proclamation, “Te Dude abides,” and
ofers some reflective, concluding observations:
Te Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in
that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, the Dude, takin’ her easy for
all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals. Welp, that
about does her, wraps her all up. Tings seem to’ve worked out
pretty good for the Dude ’n’ Walter, and it was a purt good story,
dontcha think: Made me laugh to beat the band. Parts, anyway.
Course—I didn’t like seein’ Donny go. But then, happen to know
that there’s a little Lebowski on the way. I guess that’s the way the
whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down
through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a
time until—aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Wal, uh hope you
folks enjoyed yourselves.
Te Dude’s abiding signals an escape, or at least a reprieve, from the world
of noir; in spite of the threats to his life, the Dude emerges from the noir
146 omas S. Hibbs
plot, from its labyrinth, unscathed. Te tone of the ending, the sugges-
tion that the human comedy perpetuates itself through the ongoing birth
of new humans, strikes a comic note diferent from that of mere satire or
denunciatory cynicism. Here, the impulses and resources of nature toward
reproduction and survival are seen as more powerful than the destructive
forces of noir. As Pascal puts it (a sentiment later stolen by Hume): “Nature
backs up helpless reason and stops it going so wildly astray.”
12
Basic Familial Instincts in Coen Comedy
As one critic has noted, e Big Lebowski is about “friendship and surro-
gate families.”
13
Tis strikes a note of comic amrmation absent in even the
most complex noir films, wherein the family is nearly always a source of
the noir trap, and marriages and the begetting of children provide no way
out. If surrogate families are at the heart of e Big Lebowski, real families
figure prominently in other Coen films, especially in the brothers’ most
critically acclaimed neo-noir, Fargo. With a plot akin to that of A Simple
Plan (Sam Raimi, 1998), Fargo features criminals undone by their own
futile, criminal plans. Te characters are blood simple, a phrase that the
Coens borrowed from Dashiell Hammett, who borrowed it from police
talk to describe the way criminals lose control of full rationality at the mo-
ment of committing the crime and, thus, inevitably leave incriminating
clues behind. Apparently cold and calculating, they nonetheless act with-
out adequate foresight; the consequences of their acts quickly swirl out of
control. Called a film blanc because of the near-whiteout conditions that
prevail in the film’s setting in the flatlands of North Dakota, Fargo features
criminals who sufer “snow blindness,” the self-deceiving illusion of infalli-
bility.
14
As in Blood Simple, so too here criminals are subject to a comedy of
errors. Yet Fargo is a very diferent film from Blood Simple; it inscribes the
comedy of criminal error within a more traditional structure of the detec-
tive who amrms the goodness of conventional mores, a married and preg-
nant female detective named Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in
an Oscar-winning performance).
In the final scenes of Fargo, Marge’s role as commentator eclipses in
significance her role as investigator. Indeed, the criminals seem destined
to destroy themselves. Marge’s comments about her expected baby amrm
a certain way of life as making sense, as bearing fruit, and as something
worth preserving and handing on to the next generation. Her domestic life
is void of the sort of calculating, radically individualist spirit that infects
e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 147
the families of the criminals in the film and the typical families that inhabit
other noir films.
Despite its gruesome violence and somber tone, Fargo’s conclusion
calls to mind certain features of classical comedy, which ofen ends with a
wedding, an amrmation of order, especially of the marital bond as the cor-
nerstone of hope in society. Amrming the reasonableness of conventions,
classical comedy mocks radicals—be they criminals or well-intentioned
reformers. Marge does not seek deeper meaning beneath the surface; com-
mitted to a conventional understanding of justice, she is not on a great
quest to discern the nature and causes of evil. Te causes, if there are any
discernible (greed for a “little bit of money”), are readily available on the
surface of criminal action; yet, given the risks, the cost, and the afront to
natural goodness (“It’s a beautiful day”), evil remains inexplicable: “I just
don’t understand it.” Marge witnesses at close range the noir trap of crimi-
nality, but it does not destroy her—or even tempt her.
In a review of Fargo entitled “Te Banality of Virtue,” Laura Miller ob-
serves the “dullness of the Midwestern characters” and the essential empti-
ness of their values. She wonders: “In the universe of Fargo, where virtue
is a kind of ignorance and wickedness a nullity, where do real people fit
in:”
13
Indeed, the Coens’ alternatives to nihilists, the characters who avoid
entrapment by the noir vices of lust and greed, seem not so much virtu-
ous as incapable of the complexities of vice. Tey seem to sufer from a
sort of Forrest Gump syndrome, a sort of banality of goodness, a strange
and comic counterpoint to Hannah Arendt’s famous thesis concerning the
banality of evil.
16
If this line of interpretation were correct, then we might
see the substance, or lack thereof, in the Coens’ films as a “knowing, highly
allusive” form of filmmaking that is no more than “pastiche.”
17
Yet the gentle levity with which the Coens treat these characters and
the way the characters embody natural tendencies, which they cannot them-
selves articulate, suggest the presence of something more than mere banality.
Foster Hirsch, for example, describes McDormand’s character as “a cockeyed
optimist, wide-eyed but hardly stupid.”
18
Indeed, the interweaving of com-
edy and fertility harks back to pagan and Shakespearean comedy, with the
celebration of rites of fertility and marriage, of an order of nature that over-
comes human vice and frailty and reconciles opposing forces and conflicting
wills. No such complete reconciliation is possible in neo-noir, not even in the
Coens’ comic neo-noir. Yet the Coens’ penchant for presenting fertility and,
in some films, familial fidelity as ways of avoiding entanglement in the noir
traps of lust and greed points in the direction of such comic reconciliation.
148 omas S. Hibbs
Te themes of family and procreation are the preeminent issues in the
Coens’ early pure comedy, Raising Arizona (1987), the story of a recidi-
vist petty thief, Hi (Nicholas Cage), and a female prison guard, Ed (Holly
Hunter). Over a number of years and many return trips to prison, Hi falls in
love with Ed, and she accepts his proposal of marriage. Te film includes a
number of noir themes—crime, repetition, entrapment, and the spoiling of
the future by deeds committed in the past. Yet here those noir themes are,
ultimately, inscribed within an overarching comic structure that contains
both the theme of fertility and that of hopeful reconciliation. Troughout
much of the film, Hi appears incapable of learning or altering his behav-
ior. He admits in a voice-over that he is not sure where folks stand on the
incarceration issue, whether it is about rehabilitation or just revenge. As
we watch him being arrested yet again, he comments that he has begun to
believe that revenge is the only possibility that makes any sense.
His marriage to Ed seems to have a salutary efect, at least until Ed is
diagnosed as barren. Hi comments that her “insides were a rocky place
where my seed could find no purchase.” Seeing the announcement of the
birth of the Arizona quints, born to the wealthy Nathan Arizona and his
wife, Ed suggests that they kidnap one of the boys since the Arizona family
has more than it can handle. Hi scales a ladder, enters the boys’ bedroom,
and takes Nathan Jr. In a surprise twist, Hi is the one who cannot live with
the thought of their deed. His conscience exacts revenge in a dream where
he is pursued by the “lone biker of the apocalypse,” a vengeful giant of a
man sporting a tattoo: “Mama Didn’t Love Me.” Te tattoo is a whimsical
statement of the core theme of the film, that familial love is the essence of
human life. Te crimes that Hi and Ed commit are but a perverse pursuit
of properly human goods, one in which there is a twisted acknowledgment
of the primacy of familial bonds.
Te few noir elements in the film are subordinate to a larger narrative, a
story of fidelity and the hope for fertility. Hi and Ed eventually come to their
senses and return the baby. Relieved of their burden of conscience, Hi has an-
other dream, which may, he concedes, have been just wishful thinking, a dream
of the future in which Nathan Jr. is happy and successful and Hi and Ed gather
around a dinner table with their numerous ofspring. What the Coen broth-
ers hint at in a number of their noir films they explicitly embrace in Raising
Arizona: the resilience of human nature’s basic instincts, not the instincts for
lust and domination of others, but those for love, afection, and procreation,
instincts that steer human beings toward a happy ending, in spite of the dam-
age done and the detours caused by their calculative misjudgments.
e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 149
Notes
1. For a nice discussion of neo-noir and a division of it into modernist and
postmodernist stages, see Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (Harlow: Longman, 2002),
130–74. Also indispensable is Foster Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of
Neo-Noir (New York: Limelight, 1999).
2. J. P. Telotte, Voices in the Dark: e Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 1989), 218.
3. Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways, 10.
4. Jean-Pierre Chartier, “Les Americains aussi font des films ‘noirs,’” Revue
du cinema 2 (1946): 67.
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, e Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New
York: Vintage, 1968), bk. 1, “European Nihilism,” no. 2, p. 9.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, us Spoke Zarathustra, in e Portable Nietzsche,
trans. Walter Kaufmann (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1968), 129.
7. Nietzsche, e Will to Power, no. 22, p. 17.
8. Ibid.
9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New
York: Vintage, 1966), no. 237, p. 201.
10. For further discussion of the relation between Nietzsche, nihilism, and
noir, see Mark T. Conard, “Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir,” in
e Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington: University Press of
Kentucky, 2006), 7–22.
11. See David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: e Upper Class and How ey Got
ere (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
12. Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin, 1966),
no. 131, p. 64.
13. James Mottram, e Coen Brothers: e Life of the Mind (Dulles, VA:
Brassey’s, 2000).
14. Ibid., 124.
13. Laura Miller, “Te Banality of Virtue,” Salon.com, http://archive.salon.
com/09/reviews/fargo1.html.
16. I have discussed Gump, nihilism, and comedy in great detail in Shows
about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from e Exorcist to Seinfeld (Dallas:
Spence, 1999). On the banality of evil, see Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem:
A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963; rev. and enlarged ed., 1963; reprint,
Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1994).
17. See Spicer, Film Noir, 149, and James Naremore, More an Night: Film
Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,
1998), 214–13.
18. Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways, 243.
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151
Te New Sincerity of Neo-Noir
Te Example of e Man
Who Wasn’t ere
R. Barton Palmer
Old Noir and New Noir
If one truth has emerged from the intense scholarly debate during the
last two decades over the nature of Old Hollywood, it is that the writing
of American film history must avoid the essentialist trap of considering
the so-called classic text of that era as an undiferentiated flow of product
whose watchwords were sameness and conformity. A correlative of this
truth is that, even with its emphasis on package production (with each film
in some sense a unique entity unto itself), New Hollywood filmmaking
still ofers regular forms of textuality that difer from those of the studio
era only in subtle rather than fundamental ways. Tus, the two distinct
periods of Hollywood history are characterized by complex forms of con-
tinuity and discontinuity, as exemplified by the film noir phenomenon,
whose two periods (classic and neo-noir) mirror larger changes in the
industry.
An exemplary neo-noir film is Joel and Ethan Coen’s e Man Who
Wasn’t ere (2001), which, in ways that have come to be accepted as typi-
cally postmodern, recycles key narrative and thematic elements of classic
film noir (and the série noire fiction that, in complex senses, provided the
cinematic series with material). But the film also breaks decisively from
the models of the Hollywood past by probing deeply the social history of
the early postwar years, as it self-reflexively explores the concept of that
era that has developed during the last half century in a film culture that
has become fascinated by noir. An obsession with returning to, yet also
remaking, the studio past deeply marks neo-noir films such as e Man
Who Wasn’t ere. Here is a film that reflects not only larger trends within
contemporary culture (particularly postmodernism) but also the develop-
152 R. Barton Palmer
ment of Hollywood as the purveyor of those evolving forms of textuality. It
is to that development that I turn first.
Old Hollywood and New Hollywood
Te functionalist analysis ofered in the much-cited and controversial study
e Classical Hollywood Cinema ofers powerful evidence and compelling
argument supporting the emergence of a group style in the American film
industry during the first half of the twentieth century. Tis was, in sum, an
aesthetic that developed inevitably from standardized modes of produc-
tion at all levels within Hollywood and served well the assembly-line as-
pects of studio work.
1
Yet such centripetal tendencies toward identity and
regularity (natural enough forces in a business based on the emcient, rapid
manufacture of a product that needed to fit the stabilized needs of the ex-
hibition sector) were from the outset necessarily balanced by an equally
strong commitment to diference and diversification. Studio-era produc-
tions, to put it simply, needed at a fairly general level to be as interchange-
able as practically possible (in order to take advantage of economies of
scale and to keep the exhibition sector running smoothly), but, in terms of
specific appeals to the audience, Hollywood’s releases had to be seen as in-
terestingly and significantly distinct from one another. Tis fact ofers one
explanation for the emergence of film noir, a series that exhibits a strong
sense of diference from other studio varieties produced under identical
conditions for the same market.
In Old Hollywood, consumption was modulated by a dialectic of iden-
tity and nonidentity. Audiences went to theaters week in and week out to
have essentially the same experience (popularly conceived as going to the
movies), but each time with a never-before-seen film. As Murray Smith
points out, moreover, filmgoers needed to be encouraged in their atten-
dance habit not so much by singular as by multiple (and constantly shif-
ing) appeals to their interests of the moment: “Te variety of genres and
the range of stars testified to and catered for a range of diferent audience
tastes; and . . . the individual film is distinctive to a degree that most mass-
produced commodities are not.”
2
Forces of convergence were matched by equally powerful forces of di-
vergence during the studio era. Yet, as Michael Storper has convincingly
shown, the pre-1948 Hollywood industry (i.e., commercial filmmaking be-
fore the end of vertical integration) was essentially Fordist, that is, catering
in terms of product, pricing, and service to a mass public largely conceived
e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 153
as undiferentiated.
3
Classic Hollywood was certainly not post-Fordist in
the sense of providing specialized products for a cluster of divergent mar-
kets.
4
Whether the New Hollywood of the last three decades is thoroughly
post-Fordist is currently much debated. Blockbusters, a central element of
New Hollywood textuality, are arguably Fordist in their calculated appeal
to huge, mass audiences. Yet it is undeniable that the American industry, at
least in part, now seeks to develop and control profitable niches in the exhi-
bition sector through the production of radically diferent kinds of films.
3
Tis postclassic strategy is, perhaps, most visible in the New Hollywood
treatment of what might be called the film genre system, an essential element
of classic Hollywood filmmaking that provided producers and filmgoers
alike with one way to negotiate the dialectic of similarity and diference
efectively. In the studio era, genre films were defined by a shared iden-
tity; that is, their claims to uniqueness, established by the fashion in which
they inevitably modified the conventions of the genre, were simultaneously
compromised as those same conventions were referenced and perpetuated
by the very act of redefinition. During the studio period, individual genres
(musicals, detective stories, women’s pictures, and so forth) might be more
attractive to some (theoretically) identifiable element of the mass audience,
but—and this was crucial—every genre was thought to have some appeal
to all filmgoers. Tis was, of course, true also for the film type (or genre,
or series, or discursive formation) that we retrospectively identify as film
noir, whose emergence and (always limited and minoritarian) success with
audiences of the time had its sources in the “irregular” or “creative” perme-
ability of Hollywood to an unlimited number of literary, cinematic, and
cultural influences. Te stylistic, thematic, and narrative diference that
so marks these films for scholars today should, thus, be understood as a
predictably unpredictable divergence from the template that was the “clas-
sic text.” Never produced for or marketed to an identified niche, film noir
was “for everyone,” even if these dark tales of urban malaise, which ofered
versions of the contemporary national experience that challenged the op-
timism that was then more generally a feature of Hollywood films, did not
suit every taste every time.
In contrast, film noir’s contemporary reflex, usually referred to as neo-
noir, is not “for everyone,” and this change in the nature of the noir phe-
nomenon has everything to do with the conditions now prevailing in the
American industry. A singular quality of New Hollywood production is
that there has been, as Smith puts it, “a return to genre filmmaking” afer
the brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when an American art
154 R. Barton Palmer
cinema held sway. Tis return to genre establishes a continuity with the
studio past, but with the crucial diference that this production strategy,
as Smith observes, is “now marked by greater self-consciousness.”
6
In part,
this self-consciousness manifests itself in a rhetoric of metagenericism;
genre is referenced in these films so as to comment pleasurably on genre.
Instead of simply informing and shaping the viewer’s experience, genre is
foregrounded as theme and as textuality, in gestures of self-reflexivity not
unknown to classic Hollywood films, though much more common and
forcefully present now. More important, however, self-consciousness today
manifests itself also in product diferentiation; in other words, genre is in-
flected diversely in the films designed for separate niche markets.
Tus, New Hollywood metagenericism becomes a key element, on the
one hand, in the deliberate playfulness and “knowing” escapism of such B-
movie extravaganzas as the Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones franchises and,
on the other, in the intellectually compelling contemplation of the work-
ings of intertextuality, including generic conventions, that is such an attrac-
tive feature in current commercial/independent productions such as Todd
Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2002), which resuscitates in an exaggerated yet
“realistic” fashion the 1930s melodramas of Douglas Sirk in order to dis-
sect and correct their gender, sexual, and racial politics. Today’s “event”
franchises are also connected to readily identifiable genres (among other
aspects of popular culture such as comic books and graphic novels), built
on special efects, and designed to hasten the flow of adrenaline for huge
audiences of largely youthful filmgoers. Te event film finds its other in the
commercial/independent (or “Indiewood”) production, put together on a
modest budget and marketed to a relatively small coterie of cognoscenti
and film bufs whose expected pleasures are more dependent on notions of
artistry, style, wit, and intellectually engaging themes.
Tese tastes are especially catered to by many neo-noir productions,
those that not only recycle studio-era conventions but take the idea of classic
film noir (as inferred from valued texts and critical works) as their subject
matter, thus solidifying the claims of those films to be of a genre (and, more
broadly speaking, something like a worldview that we might call noirness).
Richard Martin has aptly characterized this central aspect of the transition to
neo-noir: “Te industrial assimilation of the term film noir . . . has contrib-
uted to its establishment as a contemporary Hollywood genre irrespective
of how one is inclined to define the generic status of the classic films of the
forties and fifies.”
7
I would add only that, like many of the texts it gener-
ates, this assimilation is thoroughly self-conscious, a studied and deliberate
e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 155
return to a classic type that, through the attention paid to it by French new
wave and Hollywood renaissance directors, has become much valued in
the more sophisticated areas of contemporary film culture.
Noir is an element of contemporary filmmaking and consumption
comparable in some ways to auteurism (now said by many to have entered
a self-conscious, “neo” phase as well), for it connects complexly to particu-
lar forms of viewer taste that we can legitimately label highbrow. Noting
the growing popularity of neo-noir in the early 1990s, James Naremore
opines that “the dark past keeps returning.”
8
Or, to put it a bit diferently,
New Hollywood filmmakers keep returning to the dark past, if for diferent
reasons than their Old Hollywood predecessors.
Metagenericism, the self-conscious and critical return to the cinematic
past, is one of the most important of the features of contemporary noir,
and it marks this stage of the phenomenon as radically diferent from its
classic phase. Tese earlier films exist within the boundaries of an emerg-
ing, if unorganized, group practice; neo-noir films, more ofen than not,
take that practice as their subject matter, as the “meaning” that they intend
to express and deconstruct for a narrowly defined audience knowledge-
able about, and fascinated by, Hollywood history, which such filmgoers are
eager to see recognized and commented on. Tis is one of the diferences
between modernist and postmodernist versions of cultural production, or
between Fordist and post-Fordist senses of product.
9
As one might expect, given the general appeal to cinematic “knowing-
ness” of the contemporary commercial/independent film, neo-noirs of the
Indiewood variety self-consciously reflect a central thematic preoccupation
of the genre: the domination of the present by the past (put another way,
the failure of a future for the characters to emerge from the machinations
of the plot). But, if noir heroes, like Jef Bailey in Out of the Past (Jacques
Tourneur, 1947), are recalled from their plans to make a new life and forced
to relive who they once were, sufering disappointment and destruction as
a result, neo-noir films draw representational and thematic strength from
cinematic and literary history, which, in the spirit of a creative archaeology,
they reconstruct, revise, and always, in one way or another, celebrate. Such
metagenericism demands to be carefully anatomized; it reflects complex,
even contradictory cultural currents.
Te New Sincerity
Te cultural critic Jim Collins has interestingly pointed out that contempo-
156 R. Barton Palmer
rary Hollywood production emphasizes two distinct kinds of genre films
that hardly fit into the category blank parody, Fredric Jameson’s dismis-
sive description of the postmodern resuscitation of once-vital but now ex-
hausted cultural forms. On the one hand, genre hybrids such as Back to
the Future Part III (Robert Zemeckis, 1990), which are “hyperconsciously
intertextual,” play their knowingness of forms like the western and the sci-
ence fiction film for laughs. Teir “eclectic irony” exploits the “dissonance”
produced by the unpredictable yoking together of disparate, irreconcilable
elements, which are drawn not from the real but from the ready-mades
of the cultural past. Tis is the efect that Collins describes as “John Ford
meets Jules Vernes and H. G. Wells,” and it is usefully exemplified in Back
to the Future Part III by the sequence in which Marty (Michael J. Fox)
and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) find themselves transported back, not to the
Old West, but to the Old West of Hollywood film.
10
At one point, their
DeLorean “time machine” is hauled across Monument Valley like a buck-
board, an incongruous (and, of course, antirealist) invocation of many Ford
movies, most notably Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). On the other hand,
“new sincere” explorations of classic genres aim at conveying some kind
of “missing harmony,” some transcendent significance that the celebrated
exemplars of the genre allude to but never fully express or properly config-
ure. Tus, the western, as the director Kevin Costner has shown in Dances
with Wolves (1990), can be reshaped through an engagement with real as
opposed to cinematic American history, revealing what, for either ideo-
logical or institutional reasons, has hitherto been confined to its margins
or simply unexpressed. Te new western can occupy itself with the struggle
for control over the land between native peoples, who, no longer demon-
ized as Indians, emerge as representatives of a natural, self-sustaining, and
peaceful society. Opposed to them are the rapacious white settlers bent on
extracting wealth from the land through its mindless destruction.
Collins concludes that these two types of genre film “represent contra-
dictory perspectives on ‘media culture’: an ironic eclecticism that attempts
to master the array through techno-sophistication; and a new sincerity that
seeks to escape it through a fantasy technophobia.”
11
We might add to his
analysis that, at least in his two examples, eclectic irony and the new sin-
cerity are both deployed with a view toward recovering valued pasts (the
end of the frontier, the advent and flourishing of teen culture in the 1930s),
imagined as distinct from the flat and unsignifying present, as, in fact,
vanished realms of plentitude (however problematic that richness might
eventually be seen to be as it sufers the fall into being narrativized and
e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 157
represented). Perhaps the unrealizable aims of recovering the unmediated
truth of history and defying the omnipresent regime of representations
through an ironic probing of their depth in time, if strategies opposed in
their stance toward media culture, equally reflect what many have identi-
fied as a central theme of postmodernism: its archaeological fascination
with resurrecting a past that is always already seen nostalgically, that is, as
impossibly beyond the irresistible urge toward its reconstitution. Here is a
form of pleasure that neo-noir is ideally positioned to engage, what with its
connection to bygone forms of both representation (cinematic, televisual,
and literary) and culture (the fashions and mores of wartime and early
postwar America, which now seems to many a kind of golden age of the
national experience).
e Man Who Wasn’t ere: Filling in the Blanks
In his history of postclassic noir filmmaking, Richard Martin observes: “By
the early seventies . . . there was in coexistence two distinctive neo-noir tra-
ditions, the revisionist and the formulaic.” Te latter, which I would term
noir redivivus, is “a manifestation of renewed cinematic interest in a popular
narrative pattern that had temporarily [in the late 1930s and throughout the
1960s] been relegated to the small screen and other art forms.”
12
Tis series
represents a continuation of classic film noir more or less as such, that is, un-
self-consciously, as customary narrative patterns and themes are updated,
occasionally even provided with a contemporary twist, but not connected
to the understanding of noirness that has been emerging in American film
culture since the 1960s. Te category noir redivivus even includes remakes
of well-known noir releases that avoid any reference to the original film,
postwar culture, or noir visual style, costuming, and art design; the trend
is exemplified by Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1930; Irwin Winkler,
1992), Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947; Barbet Schroeder, 1993), Out
of the Past (1947)/Against All Odds (Taylor Hackford, 1984), and numerous
other classic/neo-noir pairings.
13
For Martin, revisionist neo-noirs are, in
contrast, “inspired by the nouvelle vague’s experimental/investigative ap-
proach to film,” an aesthetic energized by a pronounced nostalgie for the
recent Hollywood past, which is resurrected with both wit and reverence in
key new wave films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de soue (Breathless,
1939). Te American revisionist neo-noir films “self-consciously investi-
gate the generic traditions [they] invoke” and, ofen, “eschew postmod-
ern pastiche for a more integrated, if no less self-conscious, use of generic
158 R. Barton Palmer
convention, with a return to textual depth instead of just a play of surfaces”
(emphasis added).
14
Martin finds in neo-noir a somewhat diferent contrast than does
Collins between two types of New Hollywood genre productions: not the
eclectic irony of postmodern pastiche, but a straightforward refitting of
classic conventions, and not an attempted escape from generic bound-
aries in the spirit of the new sincerity but an integrated investigation of
those traditions, whose truths are deepened rather than discarded. Tough
the revisionist recyclings are not defined by the new sincerity in the same
sense that Dances with Wolves can be said to be, they are, however, exactly
what we should expect in the particular case of neo-noir, which, unlike the
western (which aims in some sense to signify the American West), has no
world as such to demystify and authenticate. Instead, neo-noir’s restorative
objective is a complex nexus of representations, primarily literary and cin-
ematic, that cluster around a modern idée fixe: the dark, threatening city.
In the revisionist neo-noir tradition, then, integration creates textual depth
through the self-conscious turn of investigative gestures, invoking the real
of postwar culture through a reembodying and historicizing of noir con-
ventions, which are not discarded but rather fulfilled, that is, provided with
contextual depth. Te end result is that the revisionist neo-noir ofers the
nostalgic spectator something along the lines of what Collins calls missing
harmony, with noir conventions (and, especially, intertextual references)
now thoroughly naturalized and authenticated through their deep ground-
ing in cultural themes.
Te diference between what Martin calls formulaic and revisionist neo-
noir can be readily seen in two Indiewood productions of the Coen broth-
ers, Joel and Ethan: Blood Simple (1984) and e Man Who Wasn’t ere
(2001).
13
Like most of the films of the early stages of the noir revival in the
1980s, Blood Simple updates classic conventions but does not attempt to
identify the truth of the genre by giving expression to what it should have
said but never could; with its contemporary setting, the film also ofers
little more than superficial references to the cultural and representational
past, especially the sordid world of plotting, betrayal, and ironic reversal
limned in the fiction of James M. Cain, a founding influence on classic film
noir.
But e Man Who Wasn’t ere does something quite diferent with
Cain’s most noteworthy tales of sexual mischief and murderous plotting,
the novels Double Indemnity (1936) and, especially, e Postman Always
Rings Twice (1934), which are deliberately invoked not just to further what
e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 159
the postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard terms the recycling of the cultural
remains of a discarded and discredited earlier epoch.
16
Instead, the Coens
use these quotations as a framework on which, in the spirit of the new
sincerity, they reconstruct the noir universe—or, perhaps more accurately,
attempt to produce for the first time its true version. Cain’s two novels un-
fold in the early years of the Depression and reflect that era of social break-
down and economic scarcity. But the original Hollywood versions (Billy
Wilder’s Double Indemnity [1944] and Tay Garnett’s e Postman Always
Rings Twice [1946]) are set in a vaguely contemporary America; neither
film attempts to update Cain’s narratives in order to explore deeper cur-
rents within contemporary culture, including and especially the profound
changes being brought about by the war.
e Man Who Wasn’t ere, in contrast, ofers a deeply particularized
context, with textual depth created by pervasive and connected themat-
ic references, closely linking a resurrected noir narrative a la Cain to the
era that shaped it and, thus, making present the cultural history hitherto
mostly unexpressed in the genre. e Man Who Wasn’t ere is set in 1949,
when the revelation that the Russians now possessed the atomic bomb be-
gan to mark profoundly what in retrospect seems truly the age of doubt, as
the historian William Graebner terms it. Tis was a time that, in Graebner’s
formulation, was strongly colored by “the anxiety of the lonely, fragmented
individual,” of which the Coens’ protagonist is a striking example. Unlike
Cain’s scheming adulterers, who are trapped by limited economic horizons
and oppressive institutions, especially marriage and social class, all the
characters in e Man Who Wasn’t ere sufer from a vaguer but perhaps
deadlier malaise, the deep feeling of the age that, as described in Graebner’s
apt account, “like life itself, values seemed to come and go, without pattern
or reason.”
17
Tis anomie produces a strong sense of disconnection, even
absence, to which the characters react in various ways, seeking either to
“make it big” in the tradition of the American dream or to withdraw from
the struggle by numbing themselves with alcohol or music. Tey settle in
the end for neither success nor escape, but for death, which haunts and
frustrates all their aspirations yet paradoxically ofers as well the opportu-
nity for transcendence.
Neo-Noir Uncertainty
Te main character of e Man Who Wasn’t ere is Ed Crane (Billy Bob
Tornton), a barber malgré lui who is frustrated in his plans to make it big
160 R. Barton Palmer
in the dry-cleaning business and comes to see life as a series of sudden, in-
explicable, and irretrievable losses, his thoughts haunted by the memory of
the thousands of “Nips vaporized at Nagasaki.” His boss’s wife is haunted by
an even more bizarre and gloomier “metaphysics,” her belief that she and
her husband were briefly abducted by aliens, an incident that they report
to the proper authorities, only to be persecuted, she thinks, by the govern-
ment, which for reasons unknown is reluctant to admit the truth—all this
an evocation of the mass paranoia that gripped America in the course of
the great UFO panic, which began in 1949 and extended throughout the
next decade.
Printed (but not filmed) in a flat black and white that avoids all forms
of glamorizing, including, at least for the most part, the stylings that have
been in the last four decades codified as noir (including low-key lighting,
pronounced chiaroscuro efects, disjointed editing, a mise-en-scène as well
as camera framings that suggest entrapment, and so forth), e Man Who
Wasn’t ere ofers itself more as a rich period piece. Here is a new sincere
version of film noir in which Cain’s explorations of lust and greed, the dis-
contents of violation, and the ironic, horrifying ends toward which crim-
inality relentlessly drives the characters yield a meaning that is perhaps
closer to the everyday truth of noirness, this weltanschauung’s evocation
of the uncertainty of human life, its fascination with the loathing, disgust,
and horror of the abject that haunts everyday experience. Cain’s materi-
als are deliberately existentialized, accommodated to Camusian absurdism
and Sartrean nausea, in a thematic move that reflects the way in which
scholarly discussions of film noir have intellectualized the phenomenon by
providing it with philosophical underpinnings. Tis existentializing, one
might add, is also yet another way to deepen the context of the story by
locating it within forms of thought popular in the postwar era. In fact, un-
like classic noir, the film does not focus on the identification of, and then
a bare escape from, the threat to orders both sexual and cultural posed
by an underworld of temptation and rapacious criminality. e Man Who
Wasn’t ere is actually more about the hope for spiritual growth, the leap
of faith made possible by the embrace of meaninglessness, a concept for
which the Coens also discover a historical explanation in the spirit of the
new sincerity.
In a Cainian tangle of illegitimate motives and ironic misconnections,
Ed in self-defense kills Big Dave (James Gandolfini)—the employer and
lover of Ed’s wife, Doris—whom he had blackmailed in order to get the
money necessary to get started in the dry-cleaning business; he escapes the
e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 161
scene undetected. Doris (Frances McDormand) is mistakenly put on trial
for the crime (which she had plausible reasons to commit), and Ed half-
heartedly confesses his culpability to her hotshot attorney, Riedenschneider
(Tony Shalhoub), who does not think that the jury will believe him. As the
lawyer explains it, though the legal system is omcially committed with its
seemingly forensic proceedings to the discovery of the truth, it is really
concerned only with credibility, the issue at the thematic center of the film.
Doris’s fate hangs on what the jurors and judge can be made to believe
or, rather, what they can be persuaded not to believe through the evoca-
tion of reasonable doubt. “Tere’s a guy in Germany,” the lawyer says, who
maintains that, when you want to understand something scientifically, you
have to look at it, but “your looking changes it.” Applied to human afairs,
this means that you can never truly know “the reality of what happened”
as you explore actions and motivations. Tus, Riedenschneider places
his concern about alibis and workable defenses (a motif derived directly
from e Postman Always Rings Twice) within a broader context of ideas
through these meditations on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (which
is never named as such). For it no longer seems the case that lawyers like
Riedenschneider are simply being cynical when they ignore getting at the
truth of the case as they search for an explanation that will work rhetori-
cally, as it were, to convince jurors that they do not, in fact, know what
happened.
Viewed from the perspective of universal and inescapable uncertainty,
reasonable doubt is no more than the admission that provisional certainty
(a certainty subject to only minimal doubt) is ofen a mirage. In the court-
room, the provisional certainty needed to convict is easily undermined by
the demonstration that there is a plausible alternative, some other way of
construing the facts. Tis plausible alternative, however, does not require
absolute and detailed proof; it does not require, in fact, provisional cer-
tainty. It must point only toward the improbability of knowing for sure.
Tus, the lawyer’s profession, as Riedenschneider explains, occupies itself
with the serial demonstration of a central epistemological axiom, of whose
ineluctability he must persuade jurors. As he puts it, “there is no what hap-
pened,” and the ironic correlative of this postulate is that, “the more you
look, the less you know.” An inescapable paradox rules human afairs; the
“only fact,” the only certainty, is uncertainty. Not only does uncertainty
undermine the all-too-human search afer determinate knowledge. It also
reveals an unknowability that deepens as the desire to know and, thereby,
master experience grows stronger.
162 R. Barton Palmer
Te lawyer understands, if in a partial and self-serving fashion, some
of the larger implications of Heisenberg’s theorizing (whose ultimate
point is quite the opposite of what Riedenschneider maintains, it being
to identify a provisional form of certainty, the relative probabilities in
the tracking of the position and momentum of subatomic particles). But
Riedenschneider deceives himself that the uncertainty principle ofers him
mastery over Doris’s plight. And this is because he falls victim to another
paradox, his own certainty about uncertainty, the mistaken notion that the
chain of “unknowing” must end somewhere in an unshakable predictabil-
ity of which he may take advantage, that, in short, there are no surprises in
store. Riedenschneider’s detective has discovered what the lawyer thinks
is the key to the successful defense of Doris. Big Dave, it turns out, was
not the war hero he always bragged of being; though drafed, he was never
stationed anywhere but stateside. His fabrications provide the blackmailer
that Doris said approached Dave (it was, of course, Ed) with an exploitable
weakness. Big Dave would have been easy prey to anyone who learned the
truth of his service record, which would not have been hard to do. And,
as Riedenscheider points out, the fact that Big Dave had lied to the very
people sitting on the hometown jury means that they would be more likely
to see such a blackmailer as a real possibility. He exults that the jurors will
feel reasonable doubt about the state’s version of Dave’s death. Doris will,
thus, be acquitted.
Yet it is not to be. We should not forget that, “the more you look, the
less you see.” Big Dave’s continual self-revelation, his incessant bragging,
actually concealed unexpected secrets. But the exposure of these lies ofers
only a slim point of certainty with regard to him. And, most important,
that Dave has been unmasked does not mean that either Doris or Ed is now
knowable. Riedenschneider, as it turns out, hasn’t even learned all there is
to know about Dave. But knowledge, even the immediate kind that flows
from one’s own experience, is of dubious value. Te knowledge that the law-
yer thought would assure his client’s deliverance actually drives her to sui-
cide, making any question of legal proceedings irrelevant. Riedenscheider
never takes the trouble to determine whether Doris and Dave were actually
having an afair, even though Ed’s confession ofers his jealousy about their
relationship as his motive, which Doris never disputes. Tus, the revelation
about Big Dave’s past has an efect on Doris that Riedenschneider in no
way foresees. Doris’s attraction to her lover was, as Ed had earlier surmised,
based on, first, the he-man image that he presented to the world (so much
of a contrast to the slightly built, unassuming, and depressive Ed, who
e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 163
proved unfit for war service because of fallen arches) and, second, the promise
that Dave ofered her of a deliverance from economic marginality and sexual
boredom. Dave was going to expand his department store operation by build-
ing an “annex” where Doris would be comptroller. Te blackmailer deprived
them of this hope by taking the money Dave needed for the new enterprise and
put them in jeopardy by forcing Doris, who was the bookkeeper, to betray her
profession and embezzle money (“My books were always perfect”). Ten, in an
ironic turning borrowed straight from Cain, Doris, who had sacrificed herself
to save Dave, stands accused of his murder.
But the revelation that Dave’s “bigness” was, in the final analysis, only a
mirage proves too much for Doris to bear. She commits suicide in her cell
the night before the trial is scheduled to begin. Shocked, Riedenschneider
still fails to understand, thinking that Doris had despaired of his ability to
get her of. Because he does not even consider the truth of Ed’s revelation
that Dave and Doris were having an afair, the lawyer never thinks that
getting of might no longer matter to her once she has learned the truth
about Dave. Sometimes knowledge is, indeed, a curse, a truism that echoes
interestingly throughout the remainder of a narrative built on misunder-
standing, misdirection, misreading, and misconnection.
e Man Who Wasn’t ere ofers a series of variations on the uncer-
tainty principle (“there is no what happened”) and its twin, though op-
posed, correlatives: unknowability (“the more you look, the less you know”)
and the discontents of knowing (“sometimes knowledge is a curse”). What
animates the characters’ experience with uncertainty and (un)knowing is
a vague, numbing dissatisfaction with the absurdity of things that gives
rise to an inchoate malaise and, finally, a desperate desire for change (or,
perhaps better, self-refashioning). Doris, Ed, and Big Dave all regret their
too easily granted acquiescence to mediocrity and ordinariness. Yet, true
to the noir vision of human experience, they prove unable to change their
circumstances. Only in extremis does Ed feel the desire for spiritual tran-
scendence, as, about to be executed, not for killing Big Dave, but for killing
his erstwhile business partner (whom, in yet another ironic turning, Big
Dave had actually murdered), he admits that “seeing it whole gives you
some peace,” ofering yet another parallel to Camus’ stranger, Meursault,
who likewise experiences a profound preexecution éclarcissement.
Cain’s Influence
In the spirit of the new sincerity, e Man Who Wasn’t ere resuscitates
164 R. Barton Palmer
generic conventions (the narrative of get-rich schemes, sexual misadven-
ture, and fateful coincidences popularized by Cain and the film adaptations
of his novels), but it does not do so self-consciously, at least in the usual
sense. What I mean is that these elements are not ostentatiously identi-
fied as borrowings, to be ironized or celebrated as forms of representation;
instead, they are naturalized (invoked more or less realistically) even as
they are provided with depth and context, including both an appropriate
intellectual schema (the meditations on uncertainty) and an authentic his-
torical context (the great UFO scare, anxiety about the atomic bomb, the
secular musings of Heisenberg on human curiosity and its inevitable weak-
ness, as well as the postwar imperative to make it big in an era of expanding
opportunity).
Te Cainian influence is, of course, meant to be obscure yet also palpa-
bly there in order to appeal to the knowingness of the well-informed noir
aficionado, who would naturally not fail to see it clearly, enjoying how the
Coens have reworked (and, in some ways, much improved on) their bor-
rowed materials. e Man Who Wasn’t ere, however, is not at all, properly
speaking, a remake or adaptation; it is structured by no rhetoric of identity
despite its hauntingly referenced sources. But these occulted quotations
are more than a form of flattering puzzle meant to be decoded by those
well versed enough in matters cinematic and literary. Contextualized, in-
tegrated, and provided with depth, this network of intertextual references
also ofers a resurrected and a now fully represented world, a version of the
American structure of feeling of the late 1940s, an element of that era’s ide-
ology only hinted at (or, perhaps better, referenced) by classic film noir.
Tis is not to say that the Coens’ film rejects entirely an ironic view
of the cinematic past. In a scene once again derived from Cain (Frank
Chambers on the eve of his execution for a crime he did not commit, con-
templating the meaning of his life with the prison chaplain in Garnett’s
Postman), the anticipated last moments of Ed’s life play out in an execution
chamber whose abstract, minimalist design comes right from a German ex-
pressionism as Walt Disney might imagine it. As a whole, however, the film
eschews such eclecticism (carried to a humorous extreme in Carl Reiner’s
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid [1982], an ingenious pastiche in which Steve
Martin plays a detective literally inserted into the narratives of a number of
classic noir films). Instead, e Man Who Wasn’t ere attempts to locate
the “missing harmony” of classic noir, that structure of feeling that in some
sense animates the earlier movement but the full evocation of which has
hitherto escaped representation.
e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 165
Evoking spiritual malaise rather than, in the classic noir tradition, the
criminality of the dark city, the film’s title refers to Ed Crane, whose lack
of passion makes him absently present. Like Meursault, he is a man both
alienated and anomic, but he becomes, at least retrospectively, self-analyti-
cal, the possessor of knowledge that separates him from others who live
happily unenlightened about life’s bitter ironies and impenetrable strange-
ness. At first saying not yes but only all right to life and, aferward, refusing
to reconnect with the epistemological limitations of his fellows, Crane is
never fully there, and this alienation sets him both apart from and over
others. Afer his encounter with the absurd (the chain of events that lead
him involuntarily to kill Big Dave and bring about the deaths of Doris and
his erstwhile business partner), Ed refuses the easy embrace of unreflec-
tive meaninglessness that full immersion into everydayness brings. But
the title can also be taken as usefully characterizing the film’s cultural ar-
chaeology: the attempt of the Coens to bring to life the noir protagonist
such as he never was but should have been. Shaped for a niche audience
of knowledgeable cinephiles, the film exemplifies not just the interesting
intellectual project of revisionist neo-noir but the concern more generally
of New Hollywood commercial/independent filmmaking with the critical
resurrection of the institutional past.
Notes
1. See David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Tompson, e Classical Hollywood
Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (London: Routledge, 1983).
2. Murray Smith, “Teses on the Philosophy of Hollywood History,” in
Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, ed. Steve Neale and Murray Smith (London:
Routledge, 1998), 8. Tis point is also made usefully, if in a diferent way, by Richard
Maltby, who argues: “Hollywood functions according to a commercial aesthetic,
one that is essentially opportunist in its economic motivation. Te argument that
Hollywood movies are determined, in the first instance, by their existence as com-
mercial commodities sits uneasily with ideas of classicism and stylistic determina-
tion” (Hollywood Cinema, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Blackwell, 2003], 13).
3. Vertical integration of the film industry involved, for the five major stu-
dios, the organization of production, distribution, and exhibition activities under
the same corporate structure, a powerful business arrangement that was ended by
Supreme Court action at the close of the 1940s.
4. See Michael Storper, “Te Transition to Flexible Specialisation in the US
Film Industry,” in Post-Fordism: A Reader, ed. Ash Amin (Oxford: Blackwell,
1994), esp. 216–17.
166 R. Barton Palmer
3. In addition to Smith’s “Teses on the Philosophy of Hollywood History,”
a useful contribution to this ongoing discussion comes from Richard Maltby,
“‘Nobody Knows Everything’: Post-Classical Historiographies and Consolidated
Entertainment,” in Neale and Smith, eds., Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, 21–44.
6. Smith, “Teses on the Philosophy of Hollywood History,” 11.
7. Richard Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: e Legacy of Film Noir in
Contemporary American Cinema (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1999), 3.
8. James Naremore, More an Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and
Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 277.
9. Te model developed by the French theorist Jean Baudrillard to describe
the radical transition from modernity to postmodernity might be usefully invoked
to characterize the change from classic noir to neo-noir. For Baudrillard, the proj-
ect of modernity is the analysis of cultural phenomena utilizing a “hermeneutics
of suspicion” that allows (as in the classic examples of Marx and Freud) undiscov-
ered, “deep” layers of meaning to be recognized and acknowledged. Postmoderity,
in contrast, rejects such sweeping claims for meaning and is occupied with “play-
ing with the pieces” of a rejected, discredited, yet still fascinating culture. In such a
project of restoration lies, in Baudrillard’s view, the only hope for cultural rebuild-
ing. See Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext[e], 1983).
10. Jim Collins, “Genericity in the Nineties: Eclectic Irony and the New
Sincerity,” in Film eory Goes to the Movies, ed. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and
Ava Preacher Collins (New York: Routledge, 1993), 243.
11. Ibid., 262.
12. Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, 27.
13. For further discussion, see Constantine Verevis, “Trough the Past Darkly:
Noir Remakes of the 1980s,” in Film Noir Reader 4: e Crucial emes and Films,
ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight, 2004), 306–22.
14. Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, 27, 33, 32.
13. Tese comments draw on the fuller discussion of the two films in R. Barton
Palmer, Joel and Ethan Coen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 13–33,
62–79. I thank the University of Illinois Press for permission to reprint some of the
material that first appeared in that book.
16. For a useful discussion of Baudrillard’s theorizing of the postmodern, see
Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), 60–121.
17. William Graebner, e Age of Doubt: American ought and Culture in the
1940s (Boston: Twayne, 1991), 19–20.
167
“Anything Is Possible Here”
Capitalism, Neo-Noir, and Chinatown
Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
Is not justice the specific virtue of man:
—Plato, Republic
Classic noir crests, according to Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton,
in the late 1940s, when the uplif expected from entertainment during the
war efort ends. Noir, in Borde and Chaumeton’s view, is inextricable from
the mood of disillusionment. As James Naremore describes their thinking
about noir films: “Such pictures functioned as a critique of savage capital-
ism.”
1
Tis essay considers how the everyday, if unseen, compulsions of
capitalism shape neo-noir and distinguish it from classic noir. Art may ex-
press the defining shape of its world, as Hegel teaches, but historical ma-
terialism reminds us that human life is conditioned by historically chang-
ing needs and ways of organizing society to transform nature in order to
meet those needs.
2
Water is one of the most prominent and pressing of
human needs, and Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) is all about how an
expanding Los Angeles is going to meet its needs for water. Te desire for
private gain in the meeting of common needs, which lies at the root of the
capitalist system, is put in the limelight here. As Plato long ago showed in
the Republic, the drive to make money poses a threat to justice. We draw
on Plato and Marx to see how this drive runs through Roman Polanski’s
masterpiece.
Neo-Noir and the Compulsions of Corporate Capitalism
In the 1970s, neo-noir renewed the theme of mistrust amid the Vietnam deba-
cle, the Watergate scandal, and the receding postwar boom. Shadowy streets
are replaced by the labyrinth of corporate bureaucracy and International-
168 Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
style high-rise omce buildings, like the glass box that Harry Caul (Gene
Hackman) tries to force his way into at the end of e Conversation (Francis
Ford Coppola, 1974), and compulsion appears as the daily routine. What
earlier appeared savage increasingly pervades ordinary life, as if there is no
way out. Te noose at the end of the noir highway still hangs. Te blacks
and whites of classic noir change into sepia and sand, but social unease
persists. Chinatown is shot in color, but, in homage to noir, Polanski fills
the screen with shades of tan, not by use of filters so much as by choice of
clothes and wall coverings. Te Los Angeles desert speaks for itself. Te
opening credits establish the palette; as we hear the trumpet’s blue notes,
we see tones of brown.
Neo-noir inhabits a social world where wealth has lost its glitter and
takes the abstract form of value. Conveying the power of abstractions over
human lives poses a challenge that Chinatown addresses in artful ways.
Hegel reminds us that art employs concrete forms, such as image or story.
3

It is lef to philosophy to delineate truth in pure abstractions, not particu-
lar embodiments. Hence, art communicates widely in visceral ways, while
philosophy divulges wisdom to the few. Hegel also observes that modern
society pushes art to its limits, for abstractions, notably value that is ex-
pressed in money, have become actuality.
4
How are these real abstractions
to be depicted in concrete ways: What constitutes injustice, conspiracy,
or corporate crime can be so complex as to elude your average juror or
moviegoer.
Crime is a staple of classic noir. Noir’s depiction of social rot got past
the censors by putting the focus on the criminal element, not the better
sort. Small-timers hunt crooks, tunnel afer jewels, track exotic treasure
from city to city, spin the roulette wheel in search of the “great whatsit.”
3

Te denizens of noir don’t soar to the heady heights of Holmes or Moriarty.
Te femme fatale exerts her deadly appeal on lonely, inept losers. Inevitably,
the dreams of such inconsequential men shatter.
J. J. (Jake) Gittes (Jack Nicholson) in Chinatown meets and exceeds the
scale of the genre. His humor is rude, his temper short, and his reading of
Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) flawed. His rash confrontation with Noah
Cross (John Huston) sets up Evelyn’s death, a repetition of an earlier disas-
ter that he provoked in Chinatown. Gittes may be noir, but the heist has
changed. Water, not diamonds, becomes the stuf of dreams. Capitalism’s
alchemy can turn anything into gold.
6
Wealth loses its sensuous, palpable
character. Te “whatsit” no longer lies in the armored safe but in routing
the competition. Information, secrecy, zoning, annexation, law, land titles,
“Anything Is Possible Here” 169
news coverage, opinion polls, environmental policy, political leverage, and
lobbying become sources of power. Closing the deal, like blowing the safe,
takes expert timing. Now, its leaders double-cross an entire city.
Te market in traditional society was a face-to-face place visited to
secure food and sundries. Today’s capitalist market isn’t a place down the
street; it pervades our world. Seldom are we outside its reach. Marx and
Engels describe the expansive and transformative power of capital: “Te
bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more
massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding gen-
erations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, applica-
tion of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways,
electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canaliza-
tion of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier
century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered
in the lap of social labor:” (emphasis added).
7
A modern audience barely
notices the Promethean dimensions of everyday life. Don’t we taunt the
gods daily without consequence: Te idea that “anything is possible” takes
root in capitalist society. In neo-noir, nature doesn’t loom as an invincible
presence; it is not the mysterious or dream-like other; it doesn’t set limits
to our grasping. Nature shrinks before capital and takes its orders. Why not
build the country’s largest urban sprawl in a desert: Why not cut channels
from Alaska to the American Southwest to guarantee water supply:
8
Why
not build cities on fragile river deltas and floodplains, line the beaches with
condos, and bury the horizon with skyscrapers: If it is conceivable, it can
be done.
Chinatown’s Los Angeles is a triumph of capital’s dominion over na-
ture. Money, lots of money, is made of sand and water. Dams are built,
rivers rerouted, lakes drained; away from the city, land returns to desert.
Te natural care of parent for child is perverted. Te femme fatale of noir
is replaced in neo-noir by a victim. Evelyn Mulwray is not the deadly siren,
and Chinatown is not in the grip of a dragon lady. Te scarlet covering
Evelyn’s lips and nails is that of a wounded creature desperate not to be
crushed entirely. What is unspeakable must be shown. In poignant ways,
she repeatedly touches her neck and face as if to reclaim them from some
powerful grip, and she stumbles over the epithet father. Nature proves no
match for the aggressive force of capitalism and its patriarchs.
For Edward Dimendberg, diferent spaces capture the contrast between
noir and neo-noir. From Frank Lloyd Wright, Dimendberg borrows the
contrast of centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. Noir inhabits the built
170 Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
city of downtown, streets, sidewalks, store windows, dingy alleys, cheap
hotels, pedestrians, bars, railroad stations, shadowy corners, and short taxi
rides. Tis centripetal space comprises a dense visual center of “skyline,
monuments, recognizable public spaces, and inner-city neighborhoods.”
Noir unfolds in cities of yesterday before the flight to the suburbs. In the
postwar decades, downtown declines as suburban peripheries expand. Te
walk down the street, the hop on the streetcar, is replaced by the commute
through a grid of highways. Populations are dispersed, and generic con-
struction makes one sprawling development indistinguishable from the
next. Los Angeles epitomizes the space of neo-noir: a city without a center
crisscrossed with freeways. Te centrifugal space of neo-noir “can be lo-
cated in a shif toward immateriality, invisibility, and speed”: “Separation
replaces concentration, distance supplants proximity, and the highway and
the automobile supersede the street and the pedestrian. Where centrip-
etality facilitates escape or evasion by facilitating invisibility in an urban
crowd, centrifugality ofers the tactical advantages of speed and superior
knowledge of territory. Frequently lacking visible landmarks, centrifugal
spaces substitute communication networks and the mass media to orient
those who traverse them.”
9
Contrasting spaces can be compared to views of a home. Noir is lived
space; it takes in the rooms, halls, windows, and ceilings as they appear to
those who dwell there. Neo-noir takes the builder’s view, a gutted house
with pipes, ducts, wires, grids, circuit breakers, pumps, furnaces, compres-
sors suddenly in view. In the closing scene of e Conversation, Harry Caul
provides such a view of his apartment by futilely ripping it apart to find a
listening device. Dimendberg cites the French theorist Lefebre’s observa-
tion “that an apparently solid house is ‘permeated from every direction by
streams of energy which run in and out of it by every imaginable route:
water, gas, electricity, telephone lines, radio and television signals.’” Largely
invisible technologies edge out face-to-face encounters. What happens at a
distance—an error made by a utility worker in another state—can plunge
your city into darkness. Te older sense of distance yields to the simultane-
ity of new technologies.
10
Te action of neo-noir unwinds within social systems that difer from
the world of classic noir. In place of the head hoodlum looms an orga-
nization of indeterminate form. Like the hydra, the corporation survives
regardless of how many members of the criminal corporate hierarchy are
killed, which they are, for example, in Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967),
as the protagonist, Walker (Lee Marvin), relentlessly pursues the $93,000
“Anything Is Possible Here” 171
owed him. Information is fragmented since no observer takes in the whole
process. Despite being the best operator in the surveillance business, e
Conversation’s Harry Caul can’t piece together the clues to avoid being
complicit in murder. And, in the film’s bleak ending, he cannot keep the
big corporation from bugging him. Chinatown portrays the makings of
centrifugal space in the history of Los Angeles. Drama focuses on the un-
usual topic—a public utility thriller—and the pipes, trenches, and dams
that supply the city’s water. Te land and water fraud is a many-headed
hydra whose visible face is the treacherous Noah Cross. Unseen are the
leading citizens of Los Angeles who bought into the conspiracy and the
politicians and police who protect them. Appearance and reality blur until
the distinction itself comes into question: Does reality exist to challenge
these appearances: Complex systems invite relativism: Are perceptions so
contextual that they render judgment impossible: Where is the yardstick
that can judge an Enron: Is it fraud or just business as usual: Te neo-noir
landscape, says Dimendberg, is “devoid of landmarks and centers and is
ofen likely to seem permanently in motion.”
11
e Shanghai Gesture
In classic noir, the site of transgression was ofen the casino or dive. Te
land deals at the heart of Chinatown push speculation outside the red-light
district to society at large. Seeds of Chinatown were sown in its noir pre-
decessor e Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941), which takes up
the themes of land speculation and parental violence against a daughter.
12

Te desperate young woman, Poppy (Gene Tierney), immediately em-
braces the Shanghai gambling palace as a Xanadu, marveling: “Anything
is possible here.” Separated from her Chinese mother—Mother Gin Sling
(Ona Munson)—since birth, Poppy is undone by the descent into corrup-
tion at the roulette wheel in what she does not know to be her mother’s
casino, while her wealthy, permissive father schemes to buy and raze the
entire neighborhood. Two forms of speculation clash: the drunken haze
at the gambling table and the calculated efort of the British capitalists to
force out the locals and redevelop the red-light district. Mother Gin Sling
trades in human weakness and obsessive dreams; Poppy’s capitalist father
pursues money wherever it leads. In the casino—a brothel in the original
play but changed by the film censors—the temptations are visceral: gam-
bling, drink, drugs, and sex. A capitalist society chases afer abstractions:
the return on the investment, more money. Speculation becomes as rou-
172 Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
tine as the Sunday circuit from church to brunch to cruising new subdivi-
sions in the afernoon with an eye to an upward trade before the hous-
ing bubble bursts. Unlike Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Mother Gin
Sling is anything but naive and self-sacrificing; she faces down the Western
money men with the implacable justice of the Chinese New Year dinner,
at which all debts must be paid, including the respect that an insolent,
drunken daughter owes to her mother. Poppy pays with her life as Mother
Gin Sling shoots her dead with Poppy’s own pistol. Outside, Mother Gin
Sling’s strongman (Mike Mazurka) leers, “You likey Chinese New Year:”
to Poppy’s father, moments afer he hears the two shots disguised by fire-
works. Tis cruel coda ends with a tracking shot that descends into the
casino in full Babylonian revelry.
For Foster Hirsch, key elements of noir are not subject to revision by
neo-noir. Characters should not be outfitted with complex psychological
motivations. Noir sensibility is summoned from cardboard characters. For
the most part, remakes of classic noir, such as e Postman Always Rings
Twice (Bob Rafelson, 1981), explain too much.
13
Chinatown succeeds in
moving beyond stereotypes to a complexity of plot and character without
losing the noir efect. Postmodern irony is checked; the noir noose stays
in place. Gittes mocks the Chinese in tasteless jokes and complains about
the seediness of the Chinese district, where years earlier he made his big
mistake. At the end of the film, the police omcer uncufs Gittes, and his
colleague tells him to go home and forget the whole bloody incident; afer
all, “it’s Chinatown.” Te myth of the decadent Chinese thrilled Tierney’s
Poppy on entering her mother’s casino: a place where anything is possible.
Despite its talk about Chinatown, Polanski’s film belies the myth. In the
film, the Chinese have nothing to do with moral turpitude; Chinese ser-
vants shelter Evelyn and Katherine on their flight, while the city’s finest,
not its lower ranks, are at the center of the conspiracy. Afer a policeman
shoots Evelyn through the eye on the streets of Chinatown, the Chinese
stolidly gather to witness the disaster.
Moneymaking and Moral Order
Plato’s Republic can be read as an anxious meditation on the consequenc-
es for society of the spread of moneymaking.
14
Te dialogue opens at the
Piraeus, the commercial port of Athens, and the action soon moves to the
home of a rich arms merchant from Syracuse, Cephalus. Te topic of jus-
tice first turns up in the conversation between Cephalus and Socrates. Each
“Anything Is Possible Here” 173
of Socrates’ three partners in the dialogue—the elderly Cephalus, his son
Polemarchus, and the Sophist Trasymachus—is identified with money-
making. Teir definitions of justice grow more disturbing: telling the truth
and paying your debts; helping your friends while harming your enemies;
and imposing your boundless wants on everyone else. Tese three defini-
tions reflect three familiar phenomena of commercial life: the seemingly
benign exchanges in the marketplace; the dog-eat-dog world of capitalist
competition; and the formation of monopolies, which tyrannically impose
prices. Te sequence suggests that moneymaking has the dangerous ten-
dency to devolve from the benign but narrowly self-interested activity of
trade, to gloves-of competition, and, finally, to despotism. Te association
of money with tyranny continues into book 2. Tere, the shepherd who
discovers the power of the ring of Gyges to make its wearer invisible uses it
to sleep with the king’s wife and then kill the king. Te Lydian king Gyges
was known in the ancient world as the first to coin money and as a tyrant.
Money, invisibility, and tyranny are joined together in Plato’s imagination.
13

Moneymakers abide by the minimal justice of the marketplace when they
feel that they have to. But they love money, not justice. And the love of
money knows no limits. Tey are incipient tyrants who must be held in
check by the law and its power to punish wrongdoers. When they convince
themselves that they can act unjustly by making their misdeeds invisible,
they will do so. No wonder, then, that Plato’s myth of the metals excludes
the ruling classes from moneymaking lest its boundlessness take over.
Trasymachus asserts that limits are illusory; only strength is real.
Reality has no form; meanings are provisionally bestowed by the powerful.
Plato warns of the threat posed by the unlimited. Without proper limits,
human existence unravels. Te remainder of the Republic ofers Plato’s re-
ply to Trasymachus and his defense of the forms inherent in reality. For
Plato, justice is the peculiarly human virtue: “And is not justice the specific
virtue of man:”
16
Without justice, you’re a beast—like Trasymachus or
like Noah Cross, pawing his daughter-granddaughter in the terrible final
moments of Chinatown. A society or an individual without proper limits
breeds violence and destruction. Justice is not a luxury; it makes human
life possible.
17
Capitalism contravenes Plato’s notion of justice as reasonable self-
limitation. A society organized as capitalist must grow continuously: capital
is self-valorizing value. Staying ahead of the competition is where money is
made. Individuals must determine what is enough for their well-being. An
individual without any sense of enough can be judged greedy or pathetic. But
174 Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
what does enough mean to a society founded on endless accumulation: While
enough traditionally signifies virtue for individuals—for Aristotle, virtue is
largely a matter of striking a mean between extremes—it spells destruction
for this type of society. In capitalism, this unending compulsion to accumu-
late permeates everyday life—everyone’s life. Te dynamic at its core may
be abstract, but it is routine: the point is always to make more money. When
his partner asks him why water is being diverted in the middle of a drought,
Jake Gittes knows the answer immediately—“Money”—even though he ad-
mits to not knowing how the money will be made. Te boundlessness
championed by Trasymachus is business as usual here. Dante consigned
usurers to the edge of the hot, barren sands of the seventh circle of hell
and charged them with crimes against nature. By its nature, money is
an inert thing; it doesn’t grow. Yet, somehow, in the hands of the usurer
and, more generally, of the capitalist, money breeds money. Where Dante
paired the usurers with the infertile sodomites, Chinatown’s screenwriter,
Robert Towne, pairs the Los Angeles capitalists who contrive to make a
city spring from coastal sand with the strange fruit born of incest, the
sister-daughter.
“Of Course, He Has to Swim in the Same Water We All Do”
Jake’s angry barbershop exchange with the man in the next chair shows
how explosive the topic of justice can be. Scanning the headline story of
Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), caught in apparent adultery, the man
provokes Gittes with the remark: “You’ve got a hell of a way to make a
living.” Jake goes of like a firecracker. Hearing that the man works in the
mortgage department of the bank, Jake shoots back: “I don’t kick families
out of their houses like you bums at the bank.” Hot to defend himself, Jake
protests: “I make an honest living . . . an honest living, you understand.”
Jake recoils at the challenge to his human decency.
Noah Cross asks whether Gittes—or “Mr. Gitts,” as Cross keeps call-
ing him—thinks that Police Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez), with whom
Gittes had worked in Chinatown, is honest. Gittes responds: “As far as it
goes.” But he then adds the reminder: “Of course, he has to swim in the
same water we all do.” A man with a taste for low humor, Jake may savor
the thought that, like fish, we all have to live with our own and everyone
else’s shit. But Jake exposes a truth that takes us back to Plato and Aristotle:
gauge your expectations of individuals by the justice of the social orders
they inhabit.
18
What pond we swim in matters. Expect to be disappointed
“Anything Is Possible Here” 175
by those who dwell with slavery, religious war, racial apartheid, adultery,
patriarchy, castes, poverty, or corruption. Don’t get your hopes too high
when, behind the scenes, the mayor, heads of public utilities, newspaper
editors, and leading financiers con the public for big bucks.
In the Los Angeles of Chinatown, Plato’s fears have been realized. Te
film opens with an act of common adultery caught in a photograph. While
showing an honest face to the people, the city fathers secretly engage in
deception, coercion, and even murder in order to make a killing sell-
ing real estate in the soon-to-be-water-rich San Fernando Valley. When
fraud assumes these proportions, who is lef to pursue the criminals: In
Trasymachus’s view, injustice on a massive-enough scale gets recognized
as justice.
As the showdown nears, Gittes confronts Cross, genuinely perplexed.
What drives the powerful in their boundless pursuit of more: “Why are
you doing it: How much better can you eat: What can you buy that you
can’t already aford:” Cross’s answer is simple: “Te future.” Gittes uncov-
ers the fraud, but, when the showdown comes, he doesn’t have backup. He
pleads with Escobar to stop Cross: “He’s rich; he gets away with anything.”
Evelyn rebukes Jake with the truth of his own statement: “He owns the
police.” And Cross crushes him like a bug.
Te Rape of the Owens Valley
Hollis Mulwray, Los Angeles’s chief waterworks engineer, waits on the
beach through the night to witness tons of freshwater secretly dumped into
the ocean. Mulwray had been Cross’s partner in owning the Los Angeles
waterworks; the upright Mulwray insisted that they sell the utility to the
city. He has a sense of limits and considers water a resource that belongs
to the public, not a commodity to monopolize. Cross manipulates pub-
lic omcials and valley growers to orchestrate panic over a water shortage
and secure the municipal vote in favor of the new reservoir. Mulwray, like
Gittes, lives with the guilt of a disastrous judgment out of the past. A man
of integrity—Mulwray went to Evelyn Cross’s aid in Mexico and married
her—he refuses to repeat the disaster. As chief engineer, he won’t build a
dangerous and unnecessary dam. Convinced that he poses a major obsta-
cle to his plans, the old tyrant Cross drowns Mulwray in his own backyard
tidal pool in what is made to appear an accident. On the very day that the
vote secures water rights to the valley, the powerbrokers involved in the
conspiracy closes their land deals, turning worthless tracts into a “Cadillac
176 Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
desert” overnight.
19
Los Angeles’s residents didn’t know a cross when they
saw one.
Te future growth of Los Angeles was ensured by what is called the
rape of the Owens Valley. Te building of a twelve-foot-diameter aqueduct
over the period 1908–13 rerouted the Owens River over two hundred miles
to the south and sparked a land boom. Real estate fortunes were made
in Los Angeles, while, back in the Owens Valley, ranches and farms were
abandoned as the battle over water rights spurred the great westward mi-
gration. Te dynamics of corporate capitalism contribute to the conflict,
secrecy, and compulsion of Chinatown’s plot. In particular, capitalist cul-
ture fosters neo-noir moral ambiguity. Did the survival of the great city
require the destruction of the lowly valley: If so, then perhaps no rape oc-
curred. If necessity drives events, then moral judgment sputters.
Te futility of the little guy confronting the corporate giant can be
heard in a desperate letter written to President Teodore Roosevelt by a
farm woman of the Owens Valley:
Now as president if the U.S. do you think that is right: And is there
no way by which our dear valley and our homes can be saved: Is
there no way by which 800 or 900 homes can be saved: Is there no
way to keep the capitolist from forcing the people to give up their
water right and letting the now beautiful alalafa feilds dry up and
return to a barren desert waist: Is there no way to stop this thiever-
ing: As you have proven to be the president for the people and not
the rich I, an old resident who was raised here, appeal to you for
help and Advice.
20
Roosevelt sided with Los Angeles, citing the utilitarian calculus: seek the
greatest good for the greatest number.
21
Counting votes put the needs of
Los Angeles for water ahead of those of the Owens Valley farming com-
munity. Who is in the right, as Trasymachus held, comes down to who is
stronger.
Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning script for Chinatown is informed by
the history of Los Angeles. Te film, released in 1974, is set in 1937 but
concerns events that occurred decades earlier. Te dates matter. Te aque-
duct that brought water to the San Fernando Valley was finished by 1913,
and the dam that Mulwray regrets building, the St. Francis, collapsed in
1928, with 430 lives lost.
22
A group of wealthy and influential citizens of Los
Angeles did buy up land in the valley and made a fortune. Even the name
“Anything Is Possible Here” 177
of the chief engineer in the film—Hollis Mulwray—derives from William
Mulholland, the man who, from 1886 to 1928, ran the privately owned
Los Angeles City Water Company, which became the publicly owned Los
Angeles Department of Water and Power District, and designed the aque-
duct. In his book on the water wars, John Walton sums up the historical
inaccuracies and the deeper truth of Chinatown:
Te decisive events occurred from 1903 to 1906 and involved no
conspiracy or contrived water shortage. City voters overwhelm-
ingly approved repeated bond measures for aqueduct construction
without the inducement of panic. A land syndicate of prominent
business interests did purchase San Fernando Valley real estate for
subsequent profit, but that was known and little regarded by the
public, which shared in the spirit of boosterism. . . . Te signifi-
cance of Chinatown is that despite factual inaccuracies it captured
the deeper truth of the rebellion. Metropolitan interests appro-
priated the Owens Valley for their own expansionary purposes
through the use of blunt political power.
Chinatown was released during a struggle in the 1970s to save the endan-
gered habitat at Mono Lake, to which the Owens River aqueduct had been
extended to supply Los Angeles with yet more water. Te film contributed
to this environmental activism, which ended with a court order in 1983
preserving the lake.
23
Te city finally was forced to respond to the environ-
mental impact of its thirst for water.
Towne crystallizes the intricacies of California’s water wars in the crime
of incest. Evelyn Mulwray’s struggle with Cross over Katherine—“my sister
and my daughter”—mirrors the rape of the Owens Valley, nature at the
mercy of human excess. Te two mysteries are exposed together. Incest—
the graphic violation—illumines the background maneuvering that tore
a river from its natural bed and sent it coursing two hundred miles south
to soak suburban lawns. Te city—like the predatory father—knows no
limits.
Water, the source of wealth, also symbolizes the milieu of making
money and getting by that engulfs us all. Good and bad alike swim in it, in
the end making it dimcult to distinguish one from the other. Noah Cross’s
“future” only repeats the past: more schemes to make money. Access to
water turned the San Fernando Valley overnight into rich parcels that
would, first, become the country’s leading agricultural county and, then,
178 Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
in a second boom, house the bedroom communities of Los Angeles: “Te
aqueduct led to rapid real estate development. . . . Te result, before and
afer the First World War, was one of the largest, most profitable, and most
sustained land booms in American history. Te rise of values in a boom-
town like Glendale, for example, where land sold for $2.30 an acre in 1906
and $1,300 a lot in 1908, was created by the magic of promotion and the
availability of water.”
24
Anything is possible.
Marking the End of the Post–World War II Golden Age
Somewhere in or around 1973, for reasons that few could explain, America
went into a slump from which it has never recovered. Tat year featured the
push to withdraw from Vietnam, the end of the gold standard, the Watergate
scandal, the first OPEC-engineered oil shock, General Augusto Pinochet’s
overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile, and the demolition of
the huge St. Louis public housing project Pruitt-Igoe. Both Chinatown and
e Conversation appeared in 1974, accurately warning that the mounting
disillusionment in America would settle in. Looking on the bloody body
of Evelyn Mulwray, Jake murmurs his final, despairing words in the film,
“As little as possible,” recalling what his police supervisor expected him to
do in Chinatown. Faced with unexpectedly implacable foes and forces, the
1960s movement of social and cultural protest had irretrievably lost steam
by 1973. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” President Jimmy Carter’s sour,
soul-searching address to the “stagflating” nation in July 1979—which
spoke of the unspeakable, a generation of Americans with lowered expecta-
tions—made it omcial. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan, “It’s morn-
ing in America,” only flouted reality with wishful thinking. Te optimistic
spirit of the Kennedy and Johnson years had been squelched. Te terrible
military adventure in Vietnam that later expanded to Cambodia had torn
America apart while devastating Southeast Asia. Tough American troops
would not evacuate Vietnam until 1973, President Nixon had already given
up on winning the war. “Vietnamization,” the handing of of the war to
South Vietnamese troops, was an exit strategy that failed to provide cover
for American defeat. Around 1973, the remarkable golden age that had fol-
lowed World War II petered out, and a long, still-continuing period of eco-
nomic stagnation began. During the quarter century ending in 1973, real
wages of private nonagricultural, nonsupervisory workers rose 60 percent,
hitting a level never again reached, despite the country’s longest stretch
“Anything Is Possible Here” 179
without a recession, during the Clinton—“It’s the economy, stupid”—presi-
dency. While the poverty rate fell during the 1990s, it never went as low as
11.1 percent, the rate in 1973. Te minimum wage was never higher than
in 1968. In the three decades following the mid-1970s, while the wages of
individual workers slipped, household incomes went up almost a third,
thanks to the massive entrance of women into the paid labor force. In the
seventeen years between 1979 and 1996, the average number of hours that
women worked for pay increased by 37 percent.
23
It appears that the grace
period sponsored by that rapid social transformation has played itself out
and that—without fanfare or explanation—we have entered a new, more dis-
heartening period. Tough a four-year expansion followed the short reces-
sion of 2000–2001, for the first time in American history median household
incomes went flat for five consecutive years.
26
Te postwar party is over, but,
largely on the strength of the dollar, Americans keep reveling in consump-
tion, reaching for their credit cards, and running up a yearly negative balance
of trade pushing a trillion dollars.
By the early 1970s, many critics of American domestic life and foreign
policy had come to a sobering conclusion: America was not as innocent
and well-meaning as they had once imagined. In the five years from 1963
through 1968, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and
Robert F. Kennedy were all assassinated. A “police riot” at the Democratic
national convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968 spawned an unsuc-
cessful show trial of antiwar leaders for conspiracy to incite a riot. Te lead-
ing national organization of radical students, Students for a Democratic
Society (SDS), splintered at its Chicago convention in 1969, with some fac-
tions embracing violence and going underground. Te shooting to death
of six students by national guard troops at Kent State and Jackson State in
May 1970 during a nationwide student strike protesting the U.S. invasion
of Cambodia tore the fabric of civility. Perhaps the American governing
class was, as Noah Cross ejaculates, capable of “Anything!”
Tom Hayden’s 1972 book e Love of Possession Is a Disease with em
marked the sea change that had taken place.
27
Hayden, a baby boomer
born into a modest Catholic family in Michigan, was radicalized at the
University of Michigan and was the chief author of the 1962 New Lef
manifesto of the SDS, the Port Huron Statement.
28
Tat hopeful amalgam
of nuclear age existentialism and economic democracy gave way, ten years
later, to a much darker forecast. Hayden’s 1972 thesis was that the same
“love of possession” that animated the Indian Wars drove American policy
in Southeast Asia and around the world. In a similar vein, the seemingly
180 Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray
inescapable repetition of past tragedies for which they held themselves
responsible crushes Hollis Mulwray, Jake Gittes, and Harry Caul. In this
embittered post-1960s political climate, Noah Cross’s words to Gittes, the
same words that Jake heard from the district attorney in Chinatown, ring
like a bell: “You may think that you know what you’re dealing with, but,
believe me, you don’t.”
Notes
1. James Naremore, introduction to Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton,
e Panorama of American Film Noir: 1941–1953 (1933), trans. Paul Hammond
(San Francisco: City Lights, 2002), viii.
2. See the developmental, historical approach to art that Hegel takes in his
Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon,
1973).
3. See ibid., 91–103 (“Introduction: Position of Art in Relation to the Finite
World and to Religion and Philosophy”).
4. See ibid., 393–611 (“Dissolution of the Romantic Form of Art”).
3. Te term is used in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1933).
6. On capitalism’s alchemy, see Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes
(London: Penguin/New Lef Review, 1976), 208, 229.
7. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, e Communist Manifesto, in Karl Marx,
Selected Writings, ed. Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 163.
8. Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: e American West and Its Disappearing
Water (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986), 126.
9. Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 177, 178.
10. Ibid., 141 (quote), 211.
11. Ibid., 171.
12. Te land-speculating father in e Shanghai Gesture, Sir Guy Charteris, is
played by Walter Huston, the real father of John Huston, who plays Evelyn’s father,
Noah Cross, in Chinatown. John Huston is widely considered to have fathered film
noir with e Maltese Falcon (1941), his debut as a director.
13. Foster Hirsch, Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (New York:
Limelight, 1999), 36–37.
14. “Ancient society . . . denounced money as tending to destroy the economic
and moral order” (Marx, Capital, 230).
13. See Marc Shell, e Economy of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1978).
16. Plato, Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube and C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1974), 10 (333c) (translation modified).
“Anything Is Possible Here” 181
17. For further discussion of Plato’s view of justice and its relation to neo-
noir, see Aeon J. Skoble, “Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan” (in this
volume).
18. Two thousand years afer Plato, Immanuel Kant writes: “A people’s good
moral condition is to be expected only under a good constitution” (Perpetual Peace
and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey [Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983], 124).
19. Marc Reisner coined the term in his Cadillac Desert.
20. John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion
in California (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992),
147.
21. Reisner, Cadillac Desert, 84–86.
22. Ibid., 103.
23. Walton, Western Times, 231–32 (quote), 267–68.
24. John H. M. Laslett, “Historical Perspectives: Immigration and the Rise of a
Distinctive Urban Region, 1900–1970,” in Ethnic Los Angeles, ed. Roger Waldinger
and Mehdi Bozorgmehr (New York: Sage, 1996), 47.
23. James Heintz and Nancy Folbre, Field Guide to the U.S. Economy (New
York: New Press, 2000), 34.
26. David Leonhardt, “Poverty in U.S. Grew in 2004, While Income Failed to
Rise for 3th Straight Year,” New York Times, August 31, 2003, A1, A14.
27. Tom Hayden, e Love of Possession Is a Disease with em (Chicago:
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972).
28. Tom Hayden gives this passage from the Port Huron Statement as an
epigraph to his Reunion: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1988): “We are
people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universi-
ties, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. . . . We would replace power
rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstances by power and uniqueness rooted
in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity. As a social system, we seek the estab-
lishment of a democracy of individual participation. . . . If we appear to seek the
unattainable then let it be known that we do so to avoid the unimaginable.”
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183
Sunshine Noir
Postmodernism and Miami Vice
Steven M. Sanders
Tis is Miami, pal, where anything can happen and
usually does.
—Sonny Crockett to Ricardo Tubbs, Miami Vice
From Classic Noir to Neo-Noir
Film noir by now has achieved not just familiar but totemic status. Brand
noir is utilized in editorials, magazine articles, advertising campaigns,
and music videos. Its suggestive power evokes a mood, style, or sensibil-
ity redolent of certain predominantly black-and-white films of the 1940s
and 1930s such as Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), Out of the Past
(Jacques Tourneur, 1947), Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak, 1949), D.O.A.
(Rudolph Maté, 1930), and Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1933). As oth-
er commentators have noted, the suitability of film noir for variation and
adaptation makes it both unproductive and unnecessary to try to provide
a precise definition of the genre. It is most fruitfully approached by means
of examples and best understood as a way of not just seeing but being in the
world.
It is widely agreed that the classic film noir cycle lasted from e Maltese
Falcon (John Huston, 1941) to Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1938). In the
years that followed, American cinema underwent significant changes in
style, sensibility, and audience appeal. Te term neo-noir is used to denote
films noirs that came afer the classic period, and I shall follow Andrew
Spicer in referring to the years from 1981 on as the postmodern phase of
neo-noir.
1
As a comprehensive intellectual and cultural movement, post-
modernism consists of theses in metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics
that include antirealism and a rejection of truth; skepticism about knowl-
184 Steven M. Sanders
edge according to which there is no secure, indubitable foundation on
which our knowledge of reality rests; and a studied emphasis on contingency,
irony, self-reflexivity, and enigmas of personal identity. Postmodernists reject
the rationalist tradition of Descartes and Kant as a framework for addressing
the perennial questions of philosophy. Instead of seeking the foundations of
our knowledge, postmodernist epistemology stresses the contingent, con-
ventional, historically conditioned context of our knowledge claims. Rather
than positing a substantial metaphysical self, postmodernists find a contin-
gent, historically conditioned, and socially constructed nonsubstantial self.
2
Te postmodern noir filmmaker emphasizes the subversive power of
film and rejects the rationalist and realist traditions that privilege aesthetic
disinterestedness and the omniscient approach to narrative. Tis postmod-
ernist approach has had a hardy cinematic half-life and can be found in
episodic crime drama produced for television as well. It is clearly in evi-
dence in the 1980s television series Miami Vice.
3
Te casual viewer may re-
member Miami Vice primarily for its music, fashion, and location sites and
for a visual style epitomized by ambitious traveling shots where the night
lights of Biscayne Boulevard moved smoothly across the hood of Sonny
Crockett’s black Ferrari while Phil Collins sang “In the Air Tonight” on
the sound track. But, as a vehicle of postmodernist meanings and neo-noir
style, Miami Vice at its best was a harbinger of things to come in televised
crime melodrama. Te inexplicable and the ironic ofen found their way
into the details of story and plotline, happy endings and facile moral uplif
were conspicuously absent, and camera placement and movements took on
far greater significance than they previously had in episodic crime drama.
In this essay, I ofer an interpretive commentary on exemplary instances
of the postmodernist turn in Miami Vice. Tree episodes in particular il-
lustrate the postmodern noir approach, according to which narrative is es-
sentially expressive, perspectival, interpretive, and value laden rather than
descriptive, factual, referential, and objective. In the world of “sunshine
noir,” we find new, alternative, and diverse interpretations and perspectives
rather than a mirror of nature.
Neo-Noir Comes to Miami
We Miamians have a saying: “Once, a philosopher. Twice, an arrest record.”
Te saying epitomizes both the forebearance we have for anybody who
wants to try anything once and the determination of law enforcement to
restrain those who go too far. Of course, Miami has long been famous as
Sunshine Noir 185
a resort where “too much is never enough,” a saying of another Miamian,
the architect Morris Lapidus, whose Fontainebleau Hotel is a midcentury
Miami Beach icon. But, beginning in the 1970s, economic collapse made
the cities of Miami and Miami Beach vulnerable to urban degeneration
and cultural stasis. By the early 1980s, things were even worse. Crime and
racial unrest cast a pall over the once-vibrant metropolis. In 1984, Dade
County reportedly had the highest murder rate in the United States. To this
one must add drug smuggling on a massive scale and the intense pressure
of the Mariel boatlifs, which brought tens of thousands of Cubans, many
from Castro’s prisons, to Miami’s shore. At the same time, perhaps no oth-
er American destination was so passionate about transfiguring the com-
monplace. With its genius for self-promotion on full display, metropolitan
Miami went about remaking itself. Miami Beach, “the place where neon
goes to die,” in the words of comic Lenny Bruce, began restoring its Art
Deco District with its eclectic mix of deco, streamline, and Mediterranean
architecture. Te area would one day be rife with clubs, restaurants, retail
shops, and photographers’ models. As real estate developers made specula-
tive investments throughout Miami and its beaches, movie and television
professionals sought out locations.
Against this background of transition, Miami Vice creator Anthony
Yerkovich and the show’s executive producer, Michael Mann, sensed
that the quintessentially telegenic Greater Miami, with its cycle of de-
cline, decay, redevelopment, and renewal (invariably followed by further
repetitions of the cycle), amrmed the indeterminacy and contingency of
postmodern noir. In the words of Nicholas Christopher: “Te noir city,
forming and reforming itself endlessly, . . . is inevitably on a road to dis-
solution, the knowledge of which ticks at every moment in the hearts of its
inhabitants.”
4
Miami Vice premiered on NBC in September 1984 with an
approach to episodic crime drama that combined a noir sensibility with
South Florida locales and extravagant production values. Sunshine noir
was born.
3
Instead of simply reproducing classic noir’s urban chiaroscuro,
Miami Vice represented metropolitan space as a highly colored, brightly lit
zone of fast-paced activity with grand prix racing, powerboating, jai alai,
and the like, as illustrated in the kinetic montages that followed the pre-
credits grabber that opened every episode and accompanied the closing
credits. “Te important thing,” Michael Mann said about the philosophi-
cally contested relation between the actual city of Miami and its televised
reconstruction, “is to create a situation which lets the viewer see what the
viewer wants to see.”
6
186 Steven M. Sanders
Over the course of the series, the demographic, economic, political,
and cultural transformations that South Florida was undergoing were re-
flected and refracted in the lives and fortunes of its protagonists, vice de-
tectives Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael
Tomas). Long a bilingual (English and Spanish) city, Miami experienced
rapid multiculturalization that was due largely to immigration from Cuba,
Haiti, and Central and South America and was woven into the program’s
plots and themes.
7
Miami Vice registers an awareness of these changes and
represents the city not only as a place where, as Crockett informs Tubbs,
“you can’t tell the players without a program,” but also as itself a charac-
ter. Tis city-as-character aspect of Miami Vice is, in fact, one of the most
prominent film noir motifs.
8
A combination of inspired scriptwriting, jaunty direction, and tour
de force performances in guest-starring roles by Ed O’Neill, Bruce Willis,
Dennis Farina, William Russ, John Glover, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy,
Bruce McGill, and others assured that Miami Vice exhibited a wide range of
sharply delineated characters (in addition to the central figures) through-
out its five-year run. Te character actor Martin Ferrero, in a recurring role
(Izzy Moreno), injected fortifying doses of humor, as did Charlie Barnett
(Noogie Lamont) and, in supporting roles, Michael Talbott (Stan Switek)
and John Diehl (Larry Zito). Cameo appearances by Ed Lauter, Jef Fahey,
Walter Gotell, and Timothy Carhart, among many others, added texture to
the atmosphere. Nearly every episode featured quirky, of-center perfor-
mances. Second leads and character actors (Ray Sharkey, Pepe Serna, Joe
Dallesandro, Keye Luke), celebrities (Miles Davis, Bill Russell, Phil Collins,
Frank Zappa), stars in the making (Julia Roberts, Bill Paxton, Ben Stiller,
Wesley Snipes), and talented newcomers (Steve Buscemi, Larry Joshua,
Ned Eisenberg, Chris Rock) were cast as drug dealers, cops on the take,
corrupt politicians, porn performers, con artists, and other shadow figures
of the noir demimonde.
Te metamorphosis of classic film noir with its dark portent, envel-
oping paranoia, and sense of doomed fatefulness into the South Florida
neo-noir for which I have coined the term sunshine noir preserved many
of the narrative elements found in classic noir: crime, featuring a con-
test between good and evil in which the protagonists, as ofen as not, are
seen as antiheroes; betrayal and violence; plot twists and reversals; and a
cinematic style (the early seasons of Miami Vice were shot on film rather
than videotape).
9
Against the classic noir grain, but very much in keep-
ing with the sunshine noir sensibility, designs, colors, and locations em-
Sunshine Noir 187
phasized South Florida’s iconography, both natural (the Atlantic Ocean,
Biscayne Bay, the Everglades) and man-made (I. M. Pei’s CenTrust Tower
on Miami’s imposing skyline, Arquitectonica’s postmodern private resi-
dence, Spear House, and the Atlantis condominium with its signature sky
court on Brickell Avenue). Consistent with its site-specific format, Miami
Vice ofen decoupled its film noir elements from the low-rent atmospher-
ics associated with classic film noir: location shoots included sites known
for their beauty, such as Key Biscayne, Coral Gables, and Coconut Grove.
Jan Hammer’s deeply saturated music sound track replaced the jazz of clas-
sic film noir, while pop, reggae, soul, and new wave singles established a
contemporary mood. With songs like “Tiny Demons” (Todd Rundgren),
“Voices” (Russ Ballard), “Smuggler’s Blues” (Glenn Frey), and “What Is
Life:” (Black Uhuru), Miami Vice achieved an almost uncanny fit between
music, sensibility, and theme week afer week.
Te Noir Way of Seeing Tings
Additional continuities between the noir films of the classic period and
the postmodern neo-noir of Miami Vice can be summarized in terms of
five features that make up the film noir way of seeing things.
10
First (for the
most part, because there are some notable exceptions), the protagonists in
film noir are men whose pasts involve a range of indiscretions, problems,
bad judgments, and character flaws. Illustrative of this basic element of
male protagonists with troubled pasts are Crockett’s Vietnam War experi-
ences and impending divorce, Tubbs’s vengeance-motivated impersonation
of a New York undercover detective as he seeks out his brother’s killer, and
Lieutenant Martin Castillo’s (Edward James Olmos) shadowy DEA back-
ground in Southeast Asia. Te feature is also found, for example, in dis-
turbing episodes such as “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” where Bruce
McGill is cast as a deranged ex-detective whose obsession with bringing an
acquitted drug dealer to justice conceals an unspeakable act from his past,
and “No Exit,” where Bruce Willis is cast as a sadistic, wife-abusing arms
dealer. It figures prominently in the episode “Back in the World,” featuring
a central character with a war background similar to that of the eponymous
figure in e ird Man (Carol Reed, 1949) (diferent wars, of course). G.
Gordon Liddy is cast as an army infantry omcer who is trying to sell his
rapidly decomposing cache of Vietnam War–era heroin to addicts, killing
them in the process, just as Harry Lime, the Orson Welles character, is sell-
ing diluted penicillin to hospitals whose patients are dying from it.
188 Steven M. Sanders
Second, most of the drama of film noir is enacted against the backdrop
of a godless world. Events of significance grow out of the exercise of human
choice rather than from divine providence. Religion plays no determina-
tive role in the lives of any of the protagonists in Miami Vice, although a
number of episodes deal with religious themes. “Evan” in the first season is
a meditation on guilt, atonement, and redemption as Evan Freed (William
Russ), an undercover ATF agent and former pal of Crockett’s, must deal
with the way he taunted and tormented a gay fellow omcer who subse-
quently committed suicide; “Whatever Works” and “Tale of the Goat” (in
the second season) and “Amen . . . Send Money” (in the fourth) feature
Santeria, Voodoo, and feuding televangelists, respectively. However, the
existence of a divine creator and the possibility of an aferlife are rarely, if
ever, mentioned either as sources of strength or as solutions to the prob-
lems of the central characters.
Tird, film noir is permeated with enigmas of personal identity—its
meaning, fragmentation, partial recovery, and ultimate loss. In Miami Vice,
Crockett, Tubbs, Gina, and Trudy must maintain a precarious balance be-
tween their actual identities and their undercover masks, a problem that
can rise to tragic pitch, as I discuss below in connection with the episode
“Heart of Darkness.”
Fourth, while film noir protagonists must make choices and are free
in some vague sense, their actions are, nevertheless, products of and con-
strained by troubled pasts, an idea reinforced by the voice-over narration
and flashback structure of classic film noir and by flashback and other
techniques of character exposition and backgrounding in Miami Vice. In
the pilot episode, “Brother’s Keeper,” Crockett’s partner (Jimmy Smits) is
killed in a car bomb explosion as he attempts to make a routine buy from
a drug dealer. Tubbs witnesses the killing of his brother, an undercover po-
lice detective, by agents of a drug kingpin. Both events recur in flashback
in subsequent episodes. Tese events, together with subsequent develop-
ments that fill out each character’s backstory, lay the foundation for the
“deterministic tyranny of that past.”
11
It is as if the events and patterns in
the lives of each exert a controlling impetus, impelling them toward what
Butler describes as “the core dilemma of Miami Vice”: whether Crockett
and Tubbs “will surrender themselves to the world of vice.”
12
Fifh, there is a self-protecting code of amoral self-interest among film
noir protagonists that tends to erode in connection with their encoun-
ters with the femme fatale and subsequent betrayal by her. In Miami Vice,
women are cast primarily as nurturers or redeemers and rarely as femmes
Sunshine Noir 189
fatales. Gina Calabrese (Saundra Santiago), with whom Crockett has an
intermittent afair, ofers him comfort when he is served his divorce pa-
pers and support when he is investigated by Internal Afairs. Crockett’s
and Tubbs’s romantic interests are more frequently depicted as victims
(of drug addiction, shoot-outs, and strong-arm tactics by loan sharks, to
mention three examples) than as scheming, treacherous villains. In 1983,
it was plausible for Butler to observe: “Miami Vice still lacks one key noir
character: the sexy, duplicitous woman. . . . Surprisingly, all of the women
with whom Crockett and Tubbs have become involved have functioned as
redeemers.”
13
Nevertheless, the episodes “Te Great McCarthy” in the first
season and “Definitely Miami,” “Little Miss Dangerous,” and “French Twist”
in the second ofer us chilling examples of the femme fatale type as, respec-
tively, a woman playing Tubbs of against her drug-smuggling boyfriend, a
woman attempting to manipulate Crockett into a drug deal with her homi-
cidal lover, a psychotic prostitute–serial killer who makes a play for Tubbs
and nearly costs him his life, and a seductive French Interpol agent.
Tree Exemplary Episodes
As Butler observes, style is not the only element linking Miami Vice and
film noir.
14
Not only atmosphere and detail but also story line and theme
make the series work as postmodern noir. Te fractured identities of “Heart
of Darkness,” the oneiric overdetermination of “Shadow in the Dark,” and
the shifing allegiances and paranoia of “Lend Me an Ear” should be under-
stood as indicating postmodern noir’s fundamentally indeterminate uni-
verse of dislocated values, dissociated identities, and loyalties ever on the
verge of dissolution. Even Crockett’s Daytona Spyder can be seen as a target
of the postmodern critique of personal identity since it is for the purpose
of posing as the fast-living “Sonny Burnett” that he has been provided with
the Ferrari, the cigarette boat, the sloop St. Vitus Dance, the Rolex watch,
and the stylish wardrobe. If he is stripped of these things, it is impossible
to know what, if anything, remains of his core personhood or whether,
indeed, there is an enduring self at all. At the end of the fourth season,
Crockett sufers a concussion while undercover and metamorphoses into
Sonny Burnett. Te white linen jackets and pastel silks give way to dark
colors and coarser fabrics. Over the span of the series, we witness many
challenges and shocks to the identities and values of the central figures. Let
us therefore look at three character-driven, theme-intensive episodes as if
they were three postmodernist neo-noir films writ small.
190 Steven M. Sanders
“Heart of Darkness”
It was a risky venture to follow the brisk, action-oriented two-hour Miami
Vice pilot with an episode that achieves almost Conradian bleakness. Te
aerial establishing shot of a bright, sunny, and beautiful downtown Miami
is an ironic comment on the sordid pretitle sequence that opens “Heart
of Darkness.”
13
Crockett and Tubbs, working undercover as out-of-town
porn theater owners looking to buy product, have been assigned to bring
down the operation of the South Florida porn impresario Sam Kovics (Paul
Hecht). On the set of a porn film in the making, the buy is actually a set-
up for a prearranged bust to establish the pair’s credentials as legitimate
buyers. (Observing the action on the set, Crockett quips: “If all else fails,
we can always bust ’em for felony bad dialogue.”)
16
Te ruse works, and
they’re sprung from jail in a matter of hours by Kovics’s right-hand man,
Artie Rollins, who seems to be running interference for the elusive Kovics.
Rollins is in reality Arthur Lawson (Ed O’Neill), an undercover FBI agent.
A typical neo-noir protagonist, Lawson has become so proficient in his un-
dercover role that he has begun to identify with Artie Rollins. In a violent
sequence, he nearly beats to death a customer who is late with a payment to
Kovics. Crockett and Tubbs learn that, over the past six weeks, Lawson has
cut himself of from the bureau, abandoned the wired apartment in which
he had been set up, and moved into a luxurious waterfront condo. He has
stopped filing reports and calling his wife. Tis has generated suspicion
among his superiors at the bureau that he has gone over to the other side.
Lawson is, indeed, a man in the middle, caught between a quotidian
life and marriage and a world of money, sex, and criminal activity that he
is not only investigating but also participating in. Morally speaking, his
position is precarious. His aim is to gather enough evidence against Kovics
to guarantee an airtight conviction, but, while he is undercover, he doesn’t
want anyone to question his methods. “Are you trying to get me killed:
I’m on an investigation here!” he shouts at Crockett and Tubbs afer he has
learned that they are vice detectives. He tells the dismayed pair: “If I make
a strategic decision to cut corners, to throw the book away, it’s my decision,
’cause it’s me out here and nobody else.”
Crockett is determined to use Artie to bring down Kovics’s operation,
but Tubbs is increasingly skeptical about the usefulness of the unpredict-
able agent. Much of the power and appeal of the episode comes from trying
to answer questions that arise about both Artie’s reliability and Crockett’s
motivation to defend him. One way to interpret the episode is, therefore, to
Sunshine Noir 191
see it in terms of people who have taken on roles and responsibilities that
they are neither entirely satisfied in assuming nor entirely free to escape.
Tis gives the episode its philosophical dimension, for, by the episode’s
end, Arthur Lawson realizes that his undercover intrigues have all been
attempts to give his life meaning, a realization that he expresses when he
tells Crockett and Tubbs: “I don’t know if I can go back to my wife and that
life. It’s like I’ve been riding an adrenalin high, all that money and all those
women. And afer a while, all of the things that went before, it got like a . . .
it’s like a . . . I don’t know.”
Te changes that Arthur Lawson undergoes in the ways he feels about
his wife and “that life” are manifestations of his ambivalence and anxiety.
He seems unable to either reject or wholly accept those drives and desires
that are expressed through the persona of Artie Rollins. Part of the ex-
planation of this is the typical noir one of the far-reaching efects of the
past; another part is the existentialist idea of freedom. Te roles, relations,
and commitments in terms of which Arthur Lawson has defined himself
reach back into his past and are not easily forsaken. Tey need not be con-
tinuously amrmed because they are sustained by the inertial forces of habit
and convention, forces that are now breaking up as Lawson recognizes the
dreadful freedom of choice open to him. Jonathan A. Jacobs, discussing
Andre Gide’s existentialist novel e Immoralist (1902), observes that the
realization of such freedom produces anxiety and may, indeed, estrange
one from oneself. Lawson is in a state of “unrelieved tension” between op-
posites, each side of him at once vying for dominance and restrained by
the other.
17
Tere is, in fact, a double realization at the heart of “Heart of Darkness,”
for Tubbs realizes that Crockett’s compassion for Artie has its motiva-
tional source in a profound identification with the undercover agent. It
reflects his own ambivalence about the undercover life that he, Crockett,
must live in his guise as Sonny Burnett. When Lieutenant Lou Rodriguez
(Gregory Sierra) wants to pull Lawson in, Crockett comes to his defense,
insisting that they can count on Artie’s help, but Tubbs remains skepti-
cal: “Artie doesn’t know what he’s doing from one second to the next. You
can’t see that right now. You know why: Because you don’t see Artie, you
see yourself.” Nevertheless, in a showdown with Rodriguez, Tubbs sides
with Crockett: “Leave Artie on the streets, and he’ll deliver Kovics,” he tells
Rodriguez. Tubbs thus defends his partner’s judgment against his own bet-
ter judgment, ushering in an ofen-repeated series motif of bonding be-
tween the two.
192 Steven M. Sanders
A disturbing coda consolidates the episode’s bleak vision. A midnight
drug deal with Kovics results in the vice detectives’ covers being blown and
their lives being put on the line. Tey are saved by Artie, who executes (there
is no other word for it) Kovics and his bodyguard, themselves murderers,
in the process. As Lawson is taken downtown for debriefing by FBI per-
sonnel, an overlapping sound track, George Benson’s “Tis Masquerade,”
extends into the next scene inside a cop bar, where Crockett and Tubbs are
trying to unwind afer the evening’s harrowing events. Te ensuing dia-
logue foregrounds and underscores the theme of “Tis Masquerade”: the
multiple roles that each of the central figures perforce must play and the
erosion of identity entailed by such masquerades. “You know those mirrors
at amusement parks,” Crockett asks Tubbs, “the ones that warp everything
out of whack: I feel like I’ve been staring at myself in one for the past three
days.” Te association of the masquerade with disguising identity is obvi-
ous. But Arthur Lawson’s masquerade, his embrace of the fantasy life of
Artie Rollins, with its sexual enticements and excitement and its casting of
of conventional morality, is also a flight from an identity that he can neither
embrace nor disown. Ultimately, “Heart of Darkness” signals a postmod-
ernist skepticism about the unity, coherence, and continuity of the subject,
the preferred critical term for the self in postmodernist thought.
Te pair is joined in the bar by Lou Rodriguez, who tells them that he
has just received a phone call from the federal agent who has been debrief-
ing Lawson for the past three hours: “[Lawson] stepped out for a breather,
made a call to his wife, went into the men’s room, and hung himself.” Tis
news is delivered in reaction shots that conclude with Crockett in close-
up, his eyes widening in shock, followed by a shot of Crockett, Tubbs, and
Rodriguez that ends the episode in freeze-frame as the haunting lyric of
“Tis Masquerade” bears grim witness to Artie’s suicide.
“Shadow in the Dark”
“Shadow in the Dark,” from Miami Vice’s third season, brings together the
itinerary of a demented cat burglar (Vincent Caristi), the dysfunction of
Police Lieutenant Ray Gilmore (Jack Tibeau), who is driven to a break-
down trying to capture him, and the unraveling of Crockett as he tries to
pry inside the identity of the burglar. All this is set in a claustrophobic,
nightmarish universe of intersecting encounters patterned on the leitmotif
of shared and, ultimately, shattered identities. Te dark style is an indica-
tion of things to come when scriptwriter Chuck Adamson would become
Sunshine Noir 193
the cocreator of the celebrated, if short-lived, series Crime Story (1986–88).
Te episode handles its multiple ironies with verve and imagination: An
enigmatic central figure who has police bamed is caught only afer Gilmore,
conferring from a psychiatric lockup, confirms Crockett’s intuitive sense of
when and where the next home invasion will occur. Of course, Crockett’s
determination is itself the product of an obsession to crack the case.
Te intruder works an enclave of expensive, multilevel homes with lots
of glass. We observe him once he is inside one of these homes. He covers
his face with flour, takes cuts of raw meat from the kitchen refrigerator, and
bites into them. He leaves bizarre drawings on the walls. Troughout the
episode, he wears ragged clothing to indicate his status as an outsider, an
interloper in the upper-middle-class milieu he is terrorizing. Te charac-
ter’s derangement, which has congealed into the set of behaviors seen on
the screen, is so clouded in ambiguity that we must simply accept it since it
is never given hard propositional form. It is something felt, its eerie quality
conveyed by a haunting Jan Hammer score. “He’s a cat burglar who spe-
cializes in pants—no jewels, no hoops, no currency,” Gilmore tells the per-
plexed Crockett and Tubbs when they are commandeered by the burglary
division to help with the investigation. “And he never wakes anyone up.”
But what is clearly on Gilmore’s mind, and increasingly on Crockett’s as he
enters these proceedings, is what is going to happen when the intruder does
wake someone up.
Key sequences bring out the episode’s epistemological themes. Gilmore,
who has finally gone over the edge, is found in the kitchen of a home where
he believes he has cornered the intruder. He fires his weapon five or six
times into the freezer unit, where he insists the intruder is hiding. Of
course, Gilmore has gone mad. Police omcers arrive on the scene to take
him into custody as he continues raving: “To catch these guys you gotta
think like ’em, feel like ’em, walk like ’em, talk like ’em, see like ’em. . . .”
Crockett is drawn deeper into the investigation, and his obsession with
the intruder is a confusing mix of hatred, fear, fascination, and desire. He
tries to decode the burglar’s malevolent pattern by circumventing normal
investigative procedures and putting himself into the intruder’s mind-set.
“Shadow in the Dark” is given a look that echoes and comments on these
disorienting and disturbing aspects of Crockett’s behavior. For example,
everything is slightly askew and shot at a tilted angle in the scene in which
Crockett, looking into a mirror and applying flour to his own face, attempts
to mimic the cat burglar’s persona.
Crockett photographs houses in the city’s northeast grid and tries to
194 Steven M. Sanders
pick out the site of the next home invasion. “Tere’s something about these
houses . . . certain kinds of houses, a certain vibe. Tere’s something about
these drawings, Gilmore was cueing in on them. I can’t explain,” he tells
Castillo, “but I think I’m on to it.” He patrols the area at night in a scene
in which deep blacks predominate, as in much of film noir. In a riveting
sequence, he sees the bizarre drawings of the intruder on a neighborhood
sidewalk. He enters a backyard. In a series of quick cuts shot from low an-
gles, there’s a sudden, startling, high-pitched screech as the intruder comes
at Crockett at close range, followed by another quick cut to Crockett at his
desk at headquarters as he abruptly wakes from this nightmare, knock-
ing over the desk lamp. Tis fast cutting gathers up all the intensity of the
scene and disperses it into the scene that follows as Crockett calls in Tubbs,
Switek, Gina, and Trudy for an impromptu midnight search of the neigh-
borhood where he believes he has just “seen” the intruder. Tey find noth-
ing, but the shot of Crockett and Tubbs driving away from the neighbor-
hood reveals the intruder lurking in the darkness. Te efect of this stun-
ning bit of foreshadowing will be fully realized later in the episode.
Te investigation begins to take its toll on Sonny. Castillo finds him
having an afer-dinner drink as the early morning sun pours through the
window of the street-front restaurant. “It’s funny when you work all night,”
he tells the vice lieutenant. “Te whole world seems like it gets out of synch
with you. It’s like you can sneak up on it.” Te ominous comment is de-
livered with a note of menace as Castillo orders two cups of cofee and
Crockett signals to the waiter that he’ll have another shot instead:
C.s1iiio: Just think straight.
Cvocxi11: I don’t need to think straight. I need to think like
him.
C.s1iiio: Tinking undercover, sometimes you can’t stop
when you need to.
Cvocxi11: Te answer we need is not in the book, it’s in his
head.
Te illusory and oneiric aspects of “Shadow in the Dark” are indicative
of a postmodern challenge to the idea that science is the only valid method
of human knowing. Crockett realizes that he cannot catch his adversary by
means of rational deduction or any other conventional use of rationality.
Instead, he employs a process of reenacting the mental life of the intruder, a
method reminiscent of the Verstehen approach associated with the German
Sunshine Noir 195
philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey.
18
Once he has achieved this understanding,
Crockett manages to trap his man in the process of a break-in, knife in
hand, as he is about to assault his victim. He beats the man bloody before
omcers arrive on the scene to take him into custody. But the efect that the
fiend has had on Crockett is palpable. He taunts the vice detective as he is
led away by police: “You live with me, don’t you:”
“Shadow in the Dark” is not only the account of Crockett’s unrelenting
search through the dark and damaged world in which he must move if he
is to find the deranged intruder. It is also Crockett’s vigil as a spectator of
his own story. In an interrogation sequence, Crockett sits on the observer’s
side of a two-way mirror, and, for a moment, we have a side view of both
men. As we cut to Crockett’s point of view, we see the prisoner and hear
his non sequitur responses through the thick plate glass of the interroga-
tion room. With this visual mnemonic recalling Jean-Paul Sartre’s remark
in his “Explication of e Stranger” that the Camus novel was written as if
through plate glass, transparent to facts and opaque to meanings, we are
reminded that we are dealing with a postmodernist, skeptical sensibility,
where even the facts are opaque.
19
Te episode as a whole is filled with
references to and images of glass, as if scriptwriter Adamson and director
Christopher Crowe were intent on revealing the dislocations and distor-
tions that all attempts to interrogate or discover the truth impose on their
subject matter and disavowing once and for all the realist assumption that
the camera gives us reality as if shot through a pane of glass.
20
A close-up shot of the intruder’s face as it is reflected in the glass win-
dow that separates him from Crockett is followed by a quick cut as the
man suddenly smashes the glass, then another quick cut to Crockett the
moment he awakes in confusion on board the St. Vitus Dance, echoing the
earlier waking nightmare sequence. Te representation of the transition
from Crockett’s sleep to his wakefulness as a sudden break is designed to
subvert our confidence in his ability to distinguish delusion from reality,
and this reversal of the episode’s narrative assumptions is, therefore, epis-
temologically destabilizing since the ending strongly suggests that it has
all been Crockett’s dream. (And, if it has not been his dream, we are lef
to wonder at what cost Crockett has purchased his triumph. Te price of
his victory is bound to be many nights of troubled sleep.) We fade out on
Crockett, face in hands, trying to rub the memory out of his head. “Shadow
in the Dark” thus ends with a deliberate distancing efect, keeping us in
suspense and making us observers of and participants in Crockett’s con-
fusion.
21
As a postmodern device for calling into question the reliability
196 Steven M. Sanders
of what we’ve been shown all along, it is an efective way of undermining
the realist metaphysical assumptions and epistemological certainties that
belong to an earlier, modernist period.
“Lend Me an Ear”
In “Heart of Darkness,” the self is built on a fantasy life to which Arthur
Lawson is so drawn that he is finally consumed by it. “Shadow in the Dark”
depicts an implosion of the self on itself. But fantasy and isolation are not
the only sources of jeopardy to the self. Tere is also a potent element in
both classic noir and the neo-noir variations that follow—paranoid fear,
with its obvious potential for cognitive impairment and emotional frac-
ture. In “Lend Me an Ear,” an episode from the third season, the paranoia
theme is used to great efect as it confirms the saying, attributed to poet
Delmore Schwartz, that even paranoids have (real) enemies.
Steve Duddy (John Glover), an ex-cop and electronics expert, is con-
tracted by the vice squad to do “ofensive sweeping” (i.e., surveillance bug-
ging) of a suspected drug dealer, Alexander Dykstra (Yorgo Voyagis), a
client for whom Duddy does “defensive sweeping” (i.e., debugging) and
who, under the guise of laundering drug dealers’ profits, is exporting their
cash and killing them in the process. All this is abbreviated nicely in a
striking angled shot of the interior of Dykstra’s posh home at the episode’s
opening that conveys Duddy’s topsy-turvy moral universe. Duddy’s loyal-
ties are equivocal and conflicted, and, in consequence, they are problem-
atic both to himself and to those in whom he must place limited trust.
In a remarkable set piece reminiscent of e Conversation (Francis Ford
Coppola, 1974), a film that “Lend Me an Ear” resembles for its ultimate
collapse into moral solipsism, Duddy tells Crockett and Tubbs: “Everybody
wants to know what everybody else is doing, but nobody wants to be the
other guy.”
22
Duddy then concedes the downside to his occupation: “It’s
paranoia. I know a million ways to watch somebody, to listen to somebody,
to peel open his secret lives. . . . And now I’m always wondering when I’ll
be the target and how they’re going to get me.”
Duddy seeks to fulfill his responsibilities and heed the call of con-
science, on the one hand, and to satisfy the needs of prudential self-interest,
on the other. Of course, these need not come into conflict; we are speaking
here of what is possible, not what is inevitable. But Duddy is clearly in con-
flict when, while debugging Dykstra’s home, he witnesses a cold-blooded
killing. Interrogating his girlfriend with Duddy’s own voice-stress analyzer,
Sunshine Noir 197
Dykstra believes he has caught her in a lie and shoots her. (“I cannot tol-
erate dishonesty,” he tells the stunned electronics wizard.) Duddy reports
the murder by placing an anonymous phone call to the police. Te tape of
the call is sent to Crockett and Tubbs, who, in turn, take it to Duddy for
analysis. “Tis voice has been electronically altered,” he tells them. “No way
you’re going to get a voiceprint. Why don’t you just pick him up: You’ve got
your tip.”
But they have no evidence with which to charge Dykstra, they complain
in exasperated tones. Duddy prepares an edited tape—based on surrepti-
tiously recorded phone conversations that are innocuous in themselves but
devastating in the doctored version—in which Dykstra appears to have
revealed his entire operation. Of course, Dykstra really has done the things
the doctored tape has him disclosing, but there’s no way the vice detectives
can know that. Duddy feeds this cut-and-paste “conversation” to vice sur-
veillance, giving them sumcient “evidence” out of Dykstra’s own mouth to
arrest him. Crockett, however, sees through Duddy’s machinations. He and
Tubbs converge on Duddy’s house, but not before Dykstra and his gunmen
have arrived. Duddy, anticipating Dykstra’s discovery of the burst trans-
mitters with which he has bugged his home, kills Dykstra and one of his
men in a shoot-out. Crockett promptly arrests Duddy, but the district at-
torney refuses to press charges. Crockett is furious and welcomes a chance
to give Duddy a taste of his own medicine.
Te final scene opens on Duddy at his workstation, where half a dozen
television monitors show identical images of Crockett, who tells the star-
tled Duddy: “Steve, I know what you did, and you’ll have to live with that.
But just remember, I’ll be watching.” Tus, Duddy has become what he
fears most, the subject of surveillance, caught in the web of forces from
which he cannot free himself. Te message is more than tit for tat, the price
he must pay for divided loyalties. It is also one of paranoia, a common
theme in film noir and in 1970s suspense thrillers like e Anderson Tapes
(Sidney Lumet, 1971), e Conversation, and e Parallax View (Alan J.
Pakula, 1974).
23
Te atmosphere of fear and suspicion in which Duddy lives
is epitomized by his maxim: “Always leave yourself a way out.” Tis reflects
Duddy’s choice of individual assertion as well as his opportunism, and it is
an application of the postmodernist idea that our ethical decisions are not
privileged by agent-neutral reasons or an objective good. Our values have
nothing to do with objective constraints or good reasons but are fictions,
shaped and altered by those in power for their own interests, which might
well include inducing us to make an accommodation to the status quo.
198 Steven M. Sanders
Miami Vice and Postmodern Noir
A hallmark of Miami Vice and a feature that it shares with films that go
back to the classic noir cycle is the accumulation of details to convey not
only a sense of time and place but also a mood. Miami Vice is proof, to bor-
row a phrase from Philip Gaines, of the undeniable through-line of film
noir sensibility—filtered, I have argued, through a postmodernist prism.
24

Te pervasive doubts about the meaning of life, the continuity of personal
identity, and the possibility of knowledge of reality that are found in the ex-
emplary episodes considered here are indicative of a postmodern noir sub-
text that runs through Miami Vice like a dark thread. Te doubts reflect, as
well, a grasp of Miami itself as a city on the edge, a place whose disruptive
and destructive elements can be partially contained but never eliminated.
Te perspectivist approach of postmodern philosophers was antici-
pated by Nietzsche, in whose work it was, no doubt, articulated most bril-
liantly.
23
As a philosophical doctrine, it nullifies the idea that there can be
a final or best description of reality or an objective standpoint from which
conflicting conceptions of knowledge, value, and the self can be evaluated.
While this position is defended by postmodern philosophers, it is ofen
simply a working assumption made by those in the arts who are more
concerned with techniques for giving it form than with philosophical ar-
guments in its defense. Of course, the constraints of commercial episodic
television and the network structure that sustained them were far too rigid
in the early to mid-1980s to permit anything like the transgressive meta-
narratives now found as a matter of course on cable television. Even the
episodes of Miami Vice that attack the bourgeois institutions of law, poli-
tics, and art in typical postmodernist fashion, or that convey the message
that there is no epistemologically favored position or metaphysical center,
did so within these constraints. Nevertheless, “Shadow in the Dark,” for
example, with its attention to the cat burglar’s marginalized identity and its
dreamlike confusion, went fairly far in disrupting coherent narrative and
suggesting a postmodernist skeptical and relativist critique of knowledge
and personal identity.
To the extent that its 111 episodes constitute chapters of “Te Book of
Miami Vice,” it is a radically underdetermined text, for there will always be
more than one ending consistent with its stories. Te final episode, “Free
Fall,” seems to provide at best only a highly ambiguous answer to what
Butler identified as the core dilemma of Miami Vice—whether Crockett
and Tubbs would succumb to the lure of vice. Having reached the end of
Sunshine Noir 199
their tether in a thoroughly politicized and corrupt international police
operation, Crockett and Tubbs are looking for a way out. Tubbs thinks he’ll
return to New York; Crockett plans to keep driving south. In the guise of
providing narrative closure, the show executes a stunning backward arc,
looping back on itself at the end of the two-hour series finale with the same
exchange between Crockett and Tubbs that five years earlier had closed out
the pilot episode:
Cvocxi11: Ever consider a career in Southern law enforcement:
TUnns: Maybe . . . may-be. [Laughter.]
26
Notes
I am grateful to my colleague and fellow Miami Vice aficionado Aeon J. Skoble for
helpful discussions and to Mark T. Conard for comments on an earlier draf.
1. Andrew Spicer, Film Noir (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2002), 130, 149–63.
A clear and concise account of postmodernism and its application to aesthet-
ics generally is provided in the introductory discussion in John W. Bender and
H. Gene Blocker, eds., Contemporary Philosophy of Art (Englewood Clifs, NJ:
Prentice-Hall, 1993), 1–9. Stephen R. C. Hicks provides a lucid study of the his-
torical background, themes, assumptions, and consequences of postmodernist
thought in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to
Foucault (Tempe: Scholargy, 2004). See also my review essay on Hicks’s book in
Reason Papers 28 (Spring 2006): 111–24.
2. For further discussion of postmodernism and its relation to neo-noir, see
Mark T. Conard, “Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World” (in this
volume).
3. I am indebted to Jeremy G. Butler’s perceptive “Miami Vice: Te Legacy of
Film Noir” (1983), in Film Noir Reader, ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New
York: Limelight, 1996), 289–303.
4. Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American
City (New York: Free Press, 1997), 88.
3. Tere are anticipations in the Miami Beach–based neo-noir pastiches Tony
Rome (Gordon Douglas, 1967) and Lady in Cement (Gordon Douglas, 1968), in
Elmore Leonard’s novels Stick (New York: Arbor, 1983) and La Brava (New York:
Arbor, 1983), and in Charles Willeford’s pulp-noir hybrid novels Miami Blues
(New York: St. Martin’s, 1984) and New Hope for the Dead (New York: St. Martin’s,
1983).
6. Michael Mann quoted in T. D. Allman, Miami: City of the Future (New
York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987), 97. Lawrence Grossman claims: “Miami Vice
. . . is all on the surface. And the surface is nothing but a collection of quotations
200 Steven M. Sanders
from our own collective historical debris, a mobile game of Trivia. . . . Te narra-
tive is less important than the images” (quoted in Marc O’Day, “Postmodernism
and Television,” in e Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, ed. Stuart Sim,
2nd ed. [New York: Routledge, 2003], 108). Grossman here sets up a false alterna-
tive. Why should we deny that Miami Vice’s striking images complement strong
narratives: As I argue below, Miami Vice succeeds as an example of postmodern
noir in both dimensions.
7. In this respect, the episodes discussed below are unrepresentative.
8. For an absorbing discussion and numerous illustrations of this theme, see
Christopher, Somewhere in the Night. I discuss Las Vegas noir in “No Safe Haven:
Casino, Friendship, and Egoism,” in e Philosophy of Martin Scorsese, ed. Mark T.
Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).
9. Sharon Y. Cobb provides a useful overview of film noir elements in
“Writing the New Noir Film,” in Film Noir Reader 2, ed. Alain Silver and James
Ursini (New York: Limelight, 1999), 207–13.
10. I discuss the first, second, and fourth features in “Film Noir and the
Meaning of Life,” in e Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington:
University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 91–103.
11. Te phrase is Spencer Selby’s. See his Dark City: e Film Noir (Jeferson,
NC: McFarland Classics, 1984), 43. He uses it to refer to the idea found in Ernest
Hemingway’s short story “Te Killers,” an idea preserved in Robert Siodmak’s
1946 film noir of the same title.
12. Butler, “Miami Vice,” 296.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., 298. Butler does not identify a specifically postmodern phase of film
noir as I do, following Spicer (see n. 1 above); nor does he discuss the three epi-
sodes of Miami Vice that I examine below.
13. As Spicer notes: “Te panoramic establishing shots [in postmodern noir],
ofen arresting in their beauty, serve only as an ironic contrast to the sordid dra-
mas that unfold” (Film Noir, 138).
16. Te teleplay for “Heart of Darkness” was written by A. J. Edison.
17. Jonathan A. Jacobs, Virtue and Self-Knowledge (Englewood Clifs, NJ:
Prentice-Hall, 1989), 79–80.
18. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911) is known for the view that, in order to fully
understand an individual’s thoughts, motives, feelings, and intentions, as they are
expressed in gestures and actions, we must go beyond the type of causal explana-
tion found in the empirical sciences. What is needed is a special kind of under-
standing of meanings, values, and purposes, an understanding that Dilthey called
Verstehen.
19. Jean-Paul Sartre, “An Explication of e Stranger,” in Camus: A Collection
of Critical Essays, ed. Germaine Bree (Englewood Clifs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962),
108–21.
Sunshine Noir 201
20. Te image of the writer whose books “give us reality as it really is, through
a pane of glass,” goes back to Zola, as James Wood points out in his discussion of
literary realism and its postmodernist critics in “Te Blue River of Truth,” New
Republic, August 1, 2003, 24.
21. Andrew Spicer calls Orson Welles’s noir masterwork Touch of Evil a “de-
liberately disorienting, confusing film” with a “sense of a waking nightmare,” a
description that applies to “Shadow in the Dark” as well (Film Noir, 61).
22. Te teleplay for “Lend Me an Ear” was written by Michael Duggan from a
story by Dick Wolf.
23. For an acute discussion of the paranoid thriller and its resemblance to film
noir, see Mark Feeney, Nixon at the Movies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
2004), chap. 9.
24. According to Philip Gaines: “Te through-line of film noir is undeniable”
(“Noir 101,” in Silver and Ursini, eds., Film Noir Reader 2, 341). Gaines mentions
Miami Vice as an example of “TV noir,” not postmodern noir.
23. Nietzsche’s perspectivism is found, among other places, in his 1882 e
Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974).
26. Te teleplay for “Brother’s Keeper,” the Miami Vice pilot episode, was writ-
ten by Anthony Yerkovich. A testament to the vitality of Miami Vice is this list, pre-
pared by Aeon Skoble pretty much of the top of his head, of the large number of
familiar faces who appeared in the series: Bruce Willis, Michael Richards, Laurence
Fishburne, John Leguizamo, Melanie Grimth, Penn Jillette, Gene Simmons, Ving
Rhames, Benicio Del Toro, Helena Bonham Carter, David Strathairn, Michael
Madsen, Charles S. Dutton, Stanley Tucci, Esai Morales, Viggo Mortensen,
Paul Guilfoyle, Annette Bening, Dean Stockwell, Lou Diamond Phillips, Willie
Nelson, Miguel Ferrer, Penelope Ann Miller, Kelly Lynch, Alfred Molina, Xander
Berkeley, R. Lee Ermey, Dylan Baker, Chris Cooper, Melissa Leo, Pruitt Taylor
Vince, Amanda Plummer, Michael Chiklis, John Pankow, Eartha Kitt, Jon Polito,
John Santucci, Pam Grier, Reni Santoni, John Turturro, Laura San Giacomo, Kyra
Sedgwick, Mykel T. Williamson, and Clarence Williams III.
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203
Contributors
Jivoiu J. Anv.ms is assistant professor of philosophy at Creighton University.
His research focuses on aesthetics, philosophy of film, pragmatism, and ethics.
His publications include essays appearing in Philosophy Today, Human Studies,
the Modern Schoolman, and Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. His “From
Sherlock Holmes to the Hard-Boiled Detective in Film Noir” appeared in e
Philosophy of Film Noir (University Press of Kentucky, 2006).
JUui1u B.v.u is professor of philosophy and women’s studies at Indiana State
University. Afer graduating magna cum laude from Loyola University of Chicago
in 1980, she attended Northwestern University. She received her Ph.D. in philoso-
phy from Northwestern in 1984. In 1983 she accepted a position in philosophy at
Indiana State, where she eventually served as the chairperson for nine years. She is
the author of three books and numerous articles on ethics, including such topics as
feminist ethics, the role of emotion in moral judgments, the treatment of animals,
the philosophy of Tomas Aquinas, and the ethics of Star Trek. She has given doz-
ens of national and international scholarly presentations and has recently been an
ethics consultant for the Boeing Corp.
DoUci.s L. Bivciv is assistant professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois
University, Carbondale. He did his doctoral and postdoctoral work at Temple
University in Philadelphia and Tübingen University in Germany, specializing in
classical Indian and contemporary cross-cultural philosophy, specifically Asian-
Continental thought. He has also had extended university teaching experience in
Tokyo, Japan. He is the author of “e Veil of Maya”: Schopenhauer’s System and
Early Indian ought (Global Academic Publishing, 2004) as well as numerous ar-
ticles on Indian and cross-cultural philosophy.
M.vx T. Co×.vu is assistant professor of philosophy at Marymount
Manhattan College in New York City. He is the coeditor of e Simpsons and
Philosophy (Open Court, 2001) and Woody Allen and Philosophy (Open Court,
2004) and the editor of e Philosophy of Film Noir (University Press of Kentucky,
2006) and e Philosophy of Martin Scorsese (University Press of Kentucky, forth-
coming). He is the author of “Kill Bill: Volume 1, Violence as Terapy” and “Kill
Bill: Volume 2, Mommy Kills Daddy,” both published on Metaphilm.com. He is
also the author of the novel Dark as Night (Uglytown, 2004).
204 Contributors
Do×.iu R. D’Aviis is a graduate of Brooklyn College, where he received his
bachelor’s degree in art history as well as the 2003 Walter Cerf Award for Excellence
in Art. He was coinstructor for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s spring 2003
Young Film Critics Workshop. He is currently the studio assistant to the contem-
porary artist Fred Wilson and a research assistant to the author Foster Hirsch, with
whom he has coauthored his first two essays for publication: the essay in the cur-
rent volume and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Talk about Fight Club.”
Ricu.vu Giimovi is associate professor of philosophy and director of the
Honors Program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is the author
of Philosophical Health: Wittgenstein’s Method in “Philosophical Investigations” and
Doing Philosophy at the Movies.
Tuom.s S. Hinns is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture and dean
of the Honors College at Baylor University. In addition to teaching a variety of in-
terdisciplinary courses, he teaches in the fields of medieval philosophy, contempo-
rary virtue ethics, and philosophy and popular culture. He is the author of, among
other works, Dialectic and Narrative in Aquinas: An Interpretation of the Summa
Contra Gentiles (University of Notre Dame Press, 1997) and Shows about Nothing
(Spence Publications, 2000). He is currently finishing two books: Aquinas, Ethics,
and the Philosophy of Religion: Metaphysics and Practice (Indiana University Press)
and Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Lost Code of Redemption (Spence
Publications). He has published articles on film, culture, and higher education
in the New Atlantis, the Weekly Standard, the Dallas Morning News, the National
Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Fos1iv Hivscu is professor of film at Brooklyn College and the author of
sixteen books on film and theater. Among his titles are Film Noir: e Dark Side
of the Screen, Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir, Kurt Weill on Stage
from Berlin to Broadway, and Acting Hollywood Style. He is currently completing a
biography of Otto Preminger to be published by Knopf.
P.1vicx MUvv.v is professor of philosophy at Creighton University. He is
the author of Marx’s eory of Scientific Knowledge and the editor of Reflections on
Commercial Life. His research interests center on the relation between capitalism
and modern philosophy and include the British empiricists, Hegel, Marx, and the
Frankfurt School. With Jeanne Schuler, he is working on a series of articles on the
dogmas of bourgeois philosophy and on False Moves in Philosophy, a study of the
ways in which dualisms between the subjective and the objective breed skepticism.
R. B.v1o× P.imiv is the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature at Clemson
University, where he also directs the film and international culture Ph.D. program.
Contributors 205
Among his most recent publications on film are Joel and Ethan Coen (University
of Illinois Press, 2004); with Linda Badley and Steven Jay Schneider, Traditions
in World Cinema (University of Edinburgh Press, 2003); and with David Boyd,
Aer Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality (University of Texas Press,
2006). Forthcoming are Hollywood’s Dark Cinema (2nd rev. ed., University of
Illinois Press), 19th Century American Fiction on Screen (Cambridge University
Press), and 20th Century Fiction on Screen (Cambridge University Press).
S1ivi× M. S.×uivs is emeritus professor and former chair of the Philosophy
Department at Bridgewater State College, in Massachusetts. He is the coeditor of
e Meaning of Life: Questions, Answers, and Analysis (Prentice-Hall, 1980) and the
author of forthcoming essays on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick,
and Martin Scorsese. He has written widely on ethics, epistemology, political phi-
losophy, and popular culture for academic journals and other publications and is
the author most recently of “Poker and the Game of Life,” in Poker and Philosophy
(Open Court, 2006). He is currently coediting a book on noir television.
Ji.××i ScuUiiv is an associate professor of philosophy at Creighton
University. She has published in the history of philosophy and critical theory, in-
cluding articles on Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Arendt, Iris Murdoch, and Habermas.
With Patrick Murray, she is working on a series of articles on the dogmas of bour-
geois philosophy and on False Moves in Philosophy, a study of the ways in which
dualisms between the subjective and the objective breed skepticism.
Aio× J. Sxonii is associate professor of philosophy and chair of the Philosophy
Department at Bridgewater State College, in Massachusetts. He is the coeditor of
Political Philosophy: Essential Selections (Prentice-Hall, 1999), e Simpsons and
Philosophy (Open Court, 2001), and Woody Allen and Philosophy (Open Court,
2004) and the author of the forthcoming Freedom, Authority, and Social Order
(Open Court). He writes on moral and political philosophy for both scholarly and
popular journals. His “Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir” appeared
in e Philosophy of Film Noir (University Press of Kentucky, 2006).
B.sii Smi1u is assistant professor of philosophy at John Tyler Community
College. He completed his Ph.D. on Cartesian skepticism and the semantic internal-
ism/externalism debate. He is the author of “Davidson, Irrationality, and Ethics,” in
Philosophy Today, as well as “Plantinga and Wittgenstein on Properly Basic Beliefs,”
in Philo: e Journal of Humanist Philosophers. He is also the author of various re-
views in Metaphilosophy, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and other such journals.
A×uviw Sviciv is reader in cultural history at the Bristol School of Art,
Media, and Design, University of the West of England. He has published widely on
206 Contributors
British cinema, including Typical Men: e Representation of Masculinity in Popular
British Cinema (I. B. Tauris, 2001) and is the author of Film Noir (Longman, 2002).
He has recently completed a study of Sydney Box for the British Film Makers se-
ries and an edited collection of essays on European film noir, both for Manchester
University Press.
207
Index
absurdity, 4, 49, 30, 103, 138, 143, 160,
163, 163
Acker, Sharon, 31
Adamson, Chuck, 192, 193
Against All Odds, 137
Aldrich, Robert, 12, 180, 183
alienation, 1, 2, 48, 30, 33, 103, 106,
121, 123, 128, 130, 163
Allen, Karen, 12
Altman, Robert, 30, 134
ambiguity, 49–31, 36–38, 60–61,
83–84, 121, 123–27, 130–34, 176,
193
amnesia, 9, 10–12, 13, 16, 17, 37, 39
Anderson Tapes, e, 197
Anderson, Gillian, 13
Anderson, Paul Tomas, 93, 91, 94, 96,
97, 98, 99, 100
Angel Heart, 1, 11
antihero, 47–61, 100, 140–41, 186
Antonioni, Michelangelo, 49, 31
Arendt, Hannah, 147, 149, 203
Aristotle, 132–33, 174
Aronofsky, Darren, 18
Arquitectonica, 187
Art Deco District, 183
atonement, 77, 80, 93–96, 99, 100, 188
Back to the Future Part III, 136
Band of Outsiders, 108
Barrett, William, 48, 61
Barthes, Roland, 129
Basic Instinct, 140
Baudrillard, Jean, 139, 166
Baur, Michael, 43
Becker, Harold, 67, 73, 73
Benson, George, 192
Bernhardt, Curtis, 37
Besson, Luc, 98
Big Lebowski, e, 141–46
Big Sleep, e, 2, 7, 122
Blade Runner, 13–14, 16, 21–34
Blood Simple, 137, 146, 138
Blue Velvet, 1, 2
Bob le flambeur, 97–98, 99
Body Heat, 2, 103, 140
Bogart, Humphrey, 7
Bolton, John, 133
Bonnie and Clyde, 2
Boorman, John, 2, 47, 30–33, 36–37,
62, 170
Borde, Raymond, and Etienne
Chaumeton, 128, 134, 133, 167
Bourne Identity, e, 17
Bowman, Rob, 13
Briscoe, Brent, 83
Brooks, David, 144, 149
Bruce, Lenny, 183
Bunker, Eddie, 111
Buscemi, Steve, 103, 143, 186
Butler, Jeremy G., 188, 189, 198, 200
Cage, Nicholas, 148
Cagney, James, 91, 100
Campbell, Ian, 67–82
Camus, Albert, 160, 163, 193
Cape Fear, 140
Caristi, Vincent, 192
208 Index
Carradine, David, 104
Carter, Chris, 13
categorical imperative, 70–72, 80
CenTrust Tower, 187
Chandler, Raymond, 48, 30
Chartier, Jean-Pierre, 134, 138, 149
Chaumeton, Etienne. See Borde,
Raymond, and Etienne
Chaumeton
Chinatown, 2, 119–36, 167–81
Christianity, 102–3, 111
Christopher, Nicholas, 134, 133, 183,
199, 200
Clurman, Harold, 37
Coen brothers, 2, 137–49, 131–32,
138–66
Collins, Jim, 133–36, 138
Collins, Phil, 184, 186
Connelly, Jennifer, 16
Conversation, e, 168, 170–71, 178,
196, 197
Coppola, Francis Ford, 103, 113, 168,
196
Costner, Kevin, 136
Cox, Ronny, 73
Craven, Wes, 141
Crime Story, 193
Criss Cross, 183
Cromwell, James, 1
Crowe, Cameron, 20
Crowe, Christopher, 193
Crowe, Russell, 1
Cruise, Tom, 14, 20
cynicism, 2, 126, 146
D.O.A., 183
Damon, Matt, 17
Dances with Wolves, 136
Danson, Ted, 67
Danto, Arthur, 106–7, 113, 116
Dark City, 13
Darke, Chris, 60, 63
Dassin, Jules, 137
Dawson, Jef, 111, 114, 116
De Niro, Robert, 11
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, 164
Deadline at Dawn, 37
Dekker, Albert, 12
Demme, Jonathan, 140
Dennett, Daniel, 123
Depp, Johnny, 10
Derrida, Jacques, 129
Descartes, René, 27, 29, 109, 184
desire, 28, 30, 31, 33, 69, 71, 83, 86, 87,
89, 93, 127, 130, 132, 191, 193
determinism, 22–23, 27, 30, 43, 188
Detour, 122, 138
Dickinson, Angie, 34
Dilthey, Wilhelm, 193, 200
Dimendberg, Edward, 7–9, 169–71
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 34, 119
Double Indemnity, 1, 31, 92, 122,
138–39, 183
Duchesne, Roger, 97
Duchovny, David, 13
Dunaway, Faye, 123, 168
Dupin, C. Auguste, 14
Durgnat, Raymond, 134
Eaton, Michael, 133
Eliot, T. S., 123
Elliott, Sam, 143
Elsaesser, Tomas, 49, 61
empathy, 24–26, 28, 29, 32–33, 93
ethics. See morality
existentialism, 17, 22, 47, 48–30, 33,
33–36, 37, 39, 60, 61, 93, 100, 119,
121, 160, 179, 191
Fancher, Hampton, 100
Far from Heaven, 134
Fargo, 137, 146–47
femme fatale, 7, 8, 19, 27, 39, 90, 92,
93, 97, 168, 169, 188–89
Index 209
Ferrero, Martin, 186
Fight Club, 17–18
film blanc, 137, 146
Fincher, David, 17
Flew, Anthony, 43
Following, 36
Fonda, Bridget, 84
Fontainebleau Hotel, 183
Ford, Harrison, 12, 13, 24
Fordism, 132–33, 133
Foreign Correspondent, 129
Foucault, Michel, 129
Frank, Nino, 134
Freud, Sigmund, 120, 123, 128, 130,
132, 134, 166
friendship, 33, 88, 146
Gaines, Philip, 198, 201
Gandolfini, James, 160
Garnett, Tay, 2, 139, 164
Glover, John, 186, 196
Godard, Jean-Luc, 108, 116, 137
Goodman, John, 143
Gould, Elliott, 30
Graebner, William, 139
Hackford, Taylor, 137
Hall, Philip Baker, 91
Hammer, Jan, 187, 193
Hammett, Dashiell, 14, 48, 146
Hannah, Daryl, 29
Hanson, Curtis, 1, 2
happiness, 36, 69, 83, 86, 87, 89
Hard Eight, 91–100
harmony, 83, 86–87, 89, 136, 138, 164
Hathaway, Henry, 91, 137
Hauer, Rutger, 27
Hawks, Howard, 2, 7, 122
Hayden, Tom, 179, 181
Hays Omce, 2
Hegel, G. W. F., 167, 168, 180
Heidegger, Martin, 119
Heisenberg uncertainty principle,
161–62, 164
Hemingway, Ernest, 12, 48, 200
High Wall, 37
Hirsch, Foster, 7–9, 30, 138, 147, 149,
172
Hitchcock, Alfred, 37, 128–29, 203
Holden, William, 92
Hollywood, 49, 113, 120, 122, 128,
131–33, 136, 137, 138, 139, 163
Hong, James, 29
Hopper, Dennis, 1, 103, 113
Huddleston, David, 143
Hume, David, 146
Hunter, Holly, 148
Huston, John, 1, 122, 124, 133, 168,
180, 183
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, 47
independent cinema, 33, 36, 134, 133,
163
Indiana Jones, 133
Indiewood, 134, 133, 138
intersubjectivity, 29
Jackie Brown, 114
Jackson, Samuel L., 13, 92, 102
Jacobs, Jonathan A., 191, 200
James, Brion, 24
Jameson, Fredric, 134, 136
Jesus, 102–3
Johnson, Don, 186
Judaism, 143–44
Jurassic Park, 134
justice, 38, 67, 71, 78, 80, 83–90, 93,
93, 99, 123, 139, 141, 147, 167,
172–74, 187
Kant, Immanuel, 67–73, 78–80, 136,
181, 184
Kasdan, Lawrence, 2, 103, 140
Keitel, Harvey, 103, 113
210 Index
Kierkegaard, Soren, 119
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, 101, 103, 104,
108, 111
Killers, e, 33, 114, 200
King Lear, 141
Kiss Me Deadly, 12–13, 180, 183
Kiss of Death, 91, 137
Kolker, Robert, 49, 61
Krutnik, Frank, 47, 61
Kubrick, Stanley, 108
L.A. Confidential, 1, 2
Lang, Fritz, 92
Lapidus, Morris, 183
Last Temptation of Christ, e, 103
Last Year at Marienbad, e, 31
L’avventura, 49
Liman, Doug, 17
Litch, Mary, 43
Liu, Lucy, 108
Locke, John, 33–38, 41–42, 44, 43
Long Goodbye, e, 30, 134
Lucas, George, 12
Lynch, David, 1, 2
Lyotard, Jean-François, 109, 116, 136
MacLachlan, Kyle, 1
MacMurray, Fred, 92
Madonna, 102, 108, 109
Madsen, Michael, 104, 113, 201
Maltese Falcon, e, 1, 122, 133, 180,
183
Man Who Wasn’t ere, e, 2, 137,
131, 137–63
Mankiewicz, Joseph L., 37
Mann, Michael, 183, 199
Marcel, Gabriel, 48
Marshall, George, 37
Martin, Richard, 107, 110, 116, 134,
137–38, 166
Martin, Steve, 164
Marvin, Lee, 31, 33, 114, 170
Marx, Karl, 108, 123, 128, 134, 166,
167, 169, 180
Marxism, 109
McDormand, Frances, 146
Mean Streets, 4
Medak, Peter, 36
Melville, Jean-Pierre, 97, 98, 114
Memento, 16–17, 33, 38–44, 47, 36–61,
62
memory, 10, 11–12, 13, 13, 16–17, 20,
28, 32, 33–44, 47, 49–61, 82
metagenericism, 134–33
Miami Vice, 183–99, 200, 201
Miller, Laura, 147, 149
Minority Report, 14
Minus Man, e, 100
morality, 47, 48, 38, 67–73, 76, 78–80,
83–89, 91–100, 101, 103, 103,
109, 111–13, 122, 123, 131, 137,
139–40, 172, 176, 181, 184, 188,
190, 192, 196, 197
Moss, Carrie-Anne, 39, 39
Mottram, James, 62, 63, 149
Munson, Ona, 171
Naremore, James, 108, 116, 134, 133,
149, 133, 166, 167, 180
Natural Born Killers, 100
Nazis, 129, 144
Nietzsche, Friedrich, 17, 89, 119, 123,
128, 134, 139–42, 149, 198, 201
Night and the City, 137
nihilism, 83, 100, 114, 137, 139–43,
147, 149
Ninth Gate, e, 10–11
Nolan, Christopher, 16, 33, 40, 47,
36–39, 62
O’Neill, Ed, 186, 190
Oldman, Gary, 36, 99
Olmos, Edward James, 14, 187
Onion Field, e, 67–82
Index 211
Orr, John, 49, 36, 61, 62
Out of the Past, 2, 122, 133, 137, 183
Palminteri, Chazz, 1
Paltrow, Gwyneth, 92
Pantoliano, Joe, 39, 38
Parallax View, e, 197
paranoia, 1, 103, 106, 160, 186, 189,
196, 197, 201
Parfit, Derek, 37–38, 41–42, 43, 46
Parker, Alan, 1, 11
Pascal, Blaise, 146, 149
Paxton, Bill, 83, 186
Pearce, Guy, 1, 16, 33, 37, 39
Pei, I. M., 187
Penn, Arthur, 2, 30
Penn, Chris, 103
Performance, 36
personal identity, 33–46, 184, 188, 189,
198
Pi: Faith in Chaos, 18
Pitt, Brad, 18, 39, 63
Plato, 83–89, 90, 167, 172–73, 174,
173, 181
Plummer, Amanda, 13, 201
Poe, Edgar Allan, 14
Point Blank, 2, 47, 30–33, 36, 38, 60,
61, 170
Polanski, Roman, 2, 10, 120, 122, 124,
133, 167, 168, 172
Porfirio, Robert, 20, 47, 48–49, 61, 97, 100
Portman, Natalie, 98
Postman Always Rings Twice, e, 2,
138, 139, 161, 164, 172
postmodernism, 8, 9, 33–36, 91,
104–13, 114, 128, 129, 133, 136,
149, 131, 133, 136–39, 166, 172,
183–83, 187, 189, 192, 194–93,
197, 198, 199, 200, 201
Production Code, 30, 100
Professional, e, 98–100
Proyas, Alex, 13
Pulp Fiction, 13, 101, 102, 103, 104,
108, 111, 113, 114, 116, 137
Rafelson, Bob, 172
Raging Bull, 4
Raiders of the Lost Ark, 12, 13
Raimi, Sam, 3, 83, 146
Raising Arizona, 148
rationality. See reason
reason, 16, 23, 43, 48, 67–73, 78–79,
86–89, 94, 109, 146, 181, 194
Red Desert, e, 31
redemption, 80, 92, 93, 93, 96, 98, 99,
101–4, 112–13, 114, 113, 188, 189
Reid, Tomas, 37, 43
Reilly, John C., 91
Reiner, Carl, 164
relativism, 100, 107, 110–13, 171, 198
Reno, Jean, 98
Reno, Nevada, 92, 93, 97
Reservoir Dogs, 2, 101–4, 108, 111,
112–13, 114, 113, 137, 140
Resnais, Alain, 31
Rhames, Ving, 102, 201
Ricoeur, Paul, 122
Robinson, Edward G., 92
Rodgers, Gaby, 12
Rodriguez, Robert, 2
Roeg, Nicolas, 36
Romeo Is Bleeding, 36
Rorty, Richard, 110, 116, 129, 136
Rossellini, Isabella, 1
Roth, Tim, 102
Rourke, Mickey, 1, 11, 12
Rowlands, Mark, 42, 43
Russ, William, 186, 188
Sanderson, William, 29
Sartre, Jean-Paul, 17, 21–33, 48, 119,
123, 160, 193
Saturday Night Fever, 108
Savage, John, 67
212 Index
Scarlet Street, 92
Scary Movie, 141
Schopenhauer, Arthur, 69, 80
Schrader, Paul, 30, 61, 113, 134
Schroeder, Barbet, 137
Schwartz, Delmore, 196
Scorsese, Martin, 2, 4, 30, 103, 103, 113, 140
Scott, Ridley, 13, 21
Sammon, Paul, 10, 20
Scream, 141
Seales, Franklyn, 68
self-deception, 88–89, 146
Sewel, Rufus, 13
Shadoian, Jack, 30, 31, 34, 61, 62,
Shakespeare, William, 7, 141, 147
Shalhoub, Tony, 161
Shanghai Gesture, e, 171–72, 180
Shetley, Vernon, 133
Sider, Teodore, 46
Siegel, Don, 33, 114
Sierra, Gregory, 191
Silence of the Lambs, e, 140, 141
Simple Plan, A, 83–90, 146
Sin City, 2
Singer, Bryan, 1, 110, 140
Sirk, Douglas, 134
skepticism, 49, 103–6, 109–11, 183,
192, 193, 198
Smith, Murray, 132
Socrates, 4, 78, 83, 172–73
Spacey, Kevin, 1, 110
Spellbound, 37
Spicer, Andrew, 103–6, 107, 113, 149,
183, 200, 201
Spielberg, Steven, 12, 14
Stone, Oliver, 100
Storper, Michael, 132
“sublime,” concept of, 132–33, 134,
136
Sunset Boulevard, 92, 138
sunshine noir, 184, 183, 186
Sutherland, Kiefer, 13
Talbott, Michael, 186
Tarantino, Quentin, 2, 13, 101, 102,
103, 104, 103, 106, 107–9, 111,
112, 113, 114, 113, 116, 137
Taxi Driver, 2, 4
Telotte, J. P., 149
Tibeau, Jack, 192
ird Man, e, 187
Tomas, Philip Michael, 186
Tomson, David, 30, 62
Tornton, Billy Bob, 83, 139
Turman, Uma, 104, 108, 116
Tierney, Gene, 171, 172
Tierney, Lawrence, 103
Touch of Evil, 1, 7, 8, 183, 201
Tourneur, Jacques, 2, 122, 133, 183
Towne, Robert, 122, 124, 174, 176,
177
tragedy, 86, 89, 121, 126–28, 132–33,
138, 141, 188
Travolta, John, 13, 102, 108, 116
Trufaut, François, 108
Turing test, 13
Turing, Alan, 21–22, 23
Turkel, Joe, 27
Ulmer, Edgar G., 122, 138
Usual Suspects, e, 1, 110, 140
Verhoeven, Paul, 140
Vernon, John, 31
vice, 84, 86, 88, 91, 147, 188, 198
Vietnam War, 30, 103, 128, 143, 167,
178, 187
virtue, 49, 83–88, 89, 137, 147, 167,
173–74
Von Sternberg, Josef, 171
Walsh, M. Emmet, 27
Walsh, Raoul, 91
Walton, John, 177
Wambaugh, Joseph, 67, 73, 79, 81, 82
Index 213
Wayans, Keenan Ivory, 141
Welles, Orson, 1, 7, 183, 187, 201
White Heat, 91, 100
Widmark, Richard, 91
Wilder, Billy, 2, 31, 92, 122, 138, 139,
183
Willis, Bruce, 102, 186, 187, 201
Winkler, Irwin, 137
Woods, James, 68
Woods, Paul A., 111, 114, 113, 116
Woolfolk, Alan, 49, 61
Woolrich, Cornell, 48
Wynn, Keenan, 33
X-Files, e, 13
Young, Burt, 122
Young, Sean, 13, 27
Zemeckis, Robert, 136
Žižek, Slavoj, 129
Zwerling, Darrell, 124, 174

e Philosophy of Neo-Noir

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e books published in the Philosophy of Popular Culture series will illuminate and explore philosophical themes and ideas that occur in popular culture. e goal of this series is to demonstrate how philosophical inquiry has been reinvigorated by increased scholarly interest in the intersection of popular culture and philosophy, as well as to explore through philosophical analysis beloved modes of entertainment, such as movies, TV shows, and music. Philosophical concepts will be made accessible to the general reader through examples in popular culture. is series seeks to publish both established and emerging scholars who will engage a major area of popular culture for philosophical interpretation and examine the philosophical underpinnings of its themes. Eschewing ephemeral trends of philosophical and cultural theory, authors will establish and elaborate on connections between traditional philosophical ideas from important thinkers and the ever-expanding world of popular culture. Series Editor Mark T. Conard, Marymount Manhattan College, NY

e Philosophy of Neo-Noir
Edited by Mark T. Conard

The฀University฀Press฀of฀Kentucky

University of Kentucky. Manufactured in the United States of America.Publication of this volume was made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.9. p. Kentucky 40508-4008 www. Editorial and Sales O ces: e University Press of Kentucky 663 South Limestone Street. Kentucky Historical Society. cm. paper) 1.. Georgetown College. Mark T. paper) ISBN-10: 0-8131-2422-0 (hardcover : alk. I. Film noir—United States—History and criticism. Centre College of Kentucky. Conard.com 11 10 09 08 07 5 4 3 2 1 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data e philosophy of neo-noir / edited by Mark T.43’6556—dc22 2006032084 is book is printed on acid-free recycled paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials. University of Louisville. 1965PN1995. Berea College. — ( e philosophy of popular culture) Includes bibliographical references and index. Conard. and Western Kentucky University. Member of the Association of American University Presses . ISBN-13: 978-0-8131-2422-3 (hardcover : alk. Copyright © 2007 by e University Press of Kentucky Scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth. Kentucky State University.kentuckypress. Transylvania University.F54P56 2006 791. e Filson Historical Society. Murray State University. All rights reserved. Eastern Kentucky University. Northern Kentucky University. serving Bellarmine University. Lexington. Morehead State University.

Berger Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan 83 Aeon J. Time. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World 101 Mark T. Guilt. and Redemption: Morality in Neo-Noir e Murder of Moral Idealism: Kant and the Death of Ian Campbell in e Onion Field 67 Douglas L. Conard . Knowledge. and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 7 Jerold J. and Human Nature in Neo-Noir Space.Contents Acknowledgments Introduction 1 vii Part 1: Subjectivity. Abrams Blade Runner and Sartre: e Boundaries of Humanity Judith Barad John Locke. and Memento 35 Basil Smith Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero 47 Andrew Spicer 21 Part 2: Justice. Skoble “Saint” Sydney: Atonement and Moral Inversion in Hard Eight 91 Donald R. Personal Identity.

Neo-Noir. Sanders Contributors Index 207 203 . Hibbs e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir: e Example of e Man Who Wasn’t ere 151 R.vi Contents Part 3: Elements of Neo-Noir e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 119 Richard Gilmore e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself: Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir 137 omas S. Barton Palmer “Anything Is Possible Here”: Capitalism. and Chinatown 167 Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray Sunshine Noir: Postmodernism and Miami Vice 183 Steven M.

which are clearly evident in these terrific essays. Aeon Skoble. vii . John and Linda Pappas. with whom it continues to be a real pleasure to work. Last. and Jerry Williams. for all their love and support. especially Pepper Landis. Many thanks are also due to Steve Wrinn and Anne Dean Watkins at the University Press of Kentucky. I want to thank my family and friends. I’d like to thank the contributors for all their hard work and patience.Acknowledgments First.

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and ends up shooting the vile Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)—all very noir. But. 2006). its tilted camera angles. such as the inversion of traditional values (bad guys as heroes.Introduction In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). paranoia. beginning with John Huston’s e Maltese Falcon and ending with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. In Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987). Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) discovers that Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). traditional good guys like cops doing bad things) and a kind of moral ambivalence (it’s hard to tell right from wrong any more). and pessimism. themes of crime and violence abound. in Curtis Hanson’s L. there’s also the feeling of alienation. But what does that mean. besides these technical cinematic features. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is unwittingly sent on a search for himself by none other than Lucifer—also trés noir. and the movies attempt to disorient the spectator. has been spinning a tale about an assassination dressed up to look like a drug heist. it’s all so very noir. police o cer Bud White (Russell Crowe) shoots an unarmed suspected rapist or hero cop Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) shotguns Captain Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) in the back? Yep. Indeed. Confidential (1997). dealt mostly with movies from the classic noir period. Je rey (Kyle MacLachlan) allows his curiosity to get the best of him. which falls between 1941 and 1958. who may or may not be Keyser Soze. clearly noir. You know a classic noir film when you see it. How about when. to the point where at the end of the movie we in the audience don’t know if anything we’ve just been watching is supposed to have happened or not.A. Some classic examples of films noirs are Double Indemnity (Billy 1 . there are a number of themes that characterize film noir. mostly through the filming techniques mentioned above. and its o -center scene compositions. in Bryan Singer’s e Usual Suspects (1995). with its unusual lighting (the constant opposition of light and shadow). And you know it’s noir when. exactly? What is film noir? And what is neo-noir? My earlier volume. has sadomasochistic sex with her. e Philosophy of Film Noir (University Press of Kentucky. as he spies on Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini).

Confidential (1997) from the 1990s. which seems in line with noir’s cynicism and pessimism. in neo-noir the criminals can. indeed. the term film noir was employed only retroactively. Whereas. 1947). e term neo-noir describes any film coming a er the classic noir period that contains noir themes and the noir sensibility. Some examples of neo-noir movies include John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) from the 1960s. neo-noir films in some ways seem better able to embody the noir outlook.2 Mark T. is covers a great deal of ground and a lot of movies since the taste for noir and the desire of filmmakers to make noir films have shown no sign of waning in the decades a er the classic era. for example. It comprises thirteen essays from scholars in both philosophy and film and media studies. In fact. however. and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Curtis Hanson’s L. and bad things happen to good people (just like in real life!). e . First.A. under the censorship of the Hays O ce. More recent examples include the Coen brothers’ e Man Who Wasn’t ere (2001) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005). Conard Wilder. 1946). contain the same alienation. pessimism. because of the abandonment of government oversight and censorship and the introduction of the ratings code. is is for a couple of important reasons. neo-noir filmmakers can get away with a great deal more than their classic noir predecessors. very o en do. Second. 1944). no crime could go unpunished. e Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett. Consequently. describing a cycle of films that had already (largely) passed. moral ambivalence. and Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur. and disorientation. ese later films are likely not shot in black and white and likely don’t contain the play of light and shadow that their classic forerunners possessed. Good things happen to bad people. and. e Big Sleep (Howard Hawks. Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) from the 1980s. ey do. succeed. 1946). the filmmakers of the classic period didn’t have access to that expression and couldn’t have understood or grasped entirely the meaning or shape of the movement to which they were contributing. whereas neo-noir filmmakers are quite aware of the meaning of noir and are quite consciously working within the noir framework and adding to the noir canon. Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) from the 1970s. e present volume investigates the philosophical themes and underpinnings of neo-noir films and also uses the movies as a vehicle for exploring and explaining traditional philosophical ideas.

an awareness of right and wrong.” begins with “Space. in “Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan. and Memento. Donald R. Part 3. In “John Locke. in light of a cop-noir rendition of a true murder story. Skoble discusses how Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) dramatizes Plato’s claim that being just and virtuous is in one’s self-interest and being unjust and vicious is destructive of the self. in “Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero. by contrast. Next. thereby raising the question of what it means to be human at all. in “ e Human Comedy .” that Paul omas Anderson’s largely overlooked 1996 neo-noir enlarges the discussion of justice and morality by showing that the protagonist’s redemption is mired in moral perversity and is.” in which Jerold J.” I claim that the postmodernism of Tarantino’s films undermines the attempts at redemption that his characters always seem to undertake.” in which Richard Gilmore avers that Roman Polanski’s classic neo-noir engages not just the ideas and themes of noir but also those of classic philosophy and aesthetics. and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema.” Aeon J. Berger examines the issue of whether human beings carry an inbuilt conscience. and dream and reality intermingle.” opens with “ e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown. Part 1. Next. Last. “Justice. Part 2. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch argue.Introduction 3 essays are written in nontechnical language and require no knowledge of philosophy to appreciate or understand. Last.” Judith Barad focuses on the question of how we can distinguish human beings from sophisticated computers. “Elements of Neo-Noir.” begins with “ e Murder of Moral Idealism: Kant and the Death of Ian Campbell in e Onion Field. Time. therefore. Abrams argues that. Next. and Redemption: Morality in Neo-Noir. in “Blade Runner and Sartre: e Boundaries of Humanity. in “Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World. in which what is e ectively hidden is the detective’s own identity as the villain. in “‘Saint’ Sydney: Atonement and Moral Inversion in Hard Eight.” in which Douglas L. and Human Nature in Neo-Noir. whereas in classic noir the detective searches the modern cityscape for an external villain. in neo-noir. Personal Identity. problematic and partial.” Basil Smith discusses Locke’s theory of personal identity—what makes a person the same over time—and the lessons that Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) has for such a theory.” Andrew Spicer claims that the neonoir protagonist’s memory and identity are problematized in a contingent and meaningless world where time is chaotic. the detective’s task is to reorganize a disjointed time continuum. “Subjectivity. Guilt. Knowledge.

provides new and alternative interpretations of the world. ere is. Hibbs claims that the threat of nihilism. absurd. prompt you to engage in a bit of philosophical reflection about the world and human existence. Last.” omas S.” a bit of philosophy and reflection is bound to be a good thing. We certainly hope and trust that our analyses of these terrific movies will deepen and enrich your understanding of them and. Mean Streets (1973). we take Scorsese’s work—which is not limited to noir—to be so important that we’re planning on devoting an entire separate volume to it.4 Mark T. Barton Palmer argues that the Coen brothers’ film attempts to recapture and represent the structure of feeling of the immediate postwar years. one glaring omission: the work of Martin Scorsese.” investigate from a Marxist perspective how the forms of capitalism shape the characteristic unfolding of noir themes in this classic neo-noir film. revealing the various quests of the noir protagonist to be pointless. In “ e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir: e Example of e Man Who Wasn’t ere. Miami Vice rejects any foundation on which our knowledge of reality could rest and. And. and that the most representative examples of this turn to the comedic in neonoir are the films of the Coen brothers. and thus comic. Jeanne Schuler and Patrick Murray.” ere is a tremendous wealth of great neo-noir films and TV shows from which to choose for a volume like this. including Taxi Driver (1976). Conard Perpetuates Itself: Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir. Neo-Noir. and Chinatown. and Raging Bull (1980). and we believe that the ones we’ve selected are a representative sample. rather than a window into reality or a “mirror of nature. whose noirs are some of the most important and memorable. perhaps. in “Sunshine Noir: Postmodernism and Miami Vice. becomes a working assumption in much of neo-noir. .” Steven M. perhaps. if Socrates is right that “the unexamined life is not worth living. as a postmodern noir TV show. in “‘Anything Is Possible Here’: Capitalism. including especially the era’s anomic obsession with uncertainty. However. o en prominent in classic noir.” R. Sanders asserts that. instead.

Part 1 Subjectivity. and Human Nature in Neo-Noir . Knowledge.

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And. however. Second is character: rather than looking for a criminal in the city that surrounds him. e character is “divided” against himself. Or. walking dark and lonely streets. Decadence had set in. classic film noir takes place in Los Angeles—but it’s always in the city. labyrinths. always a detective looking for clues to unravel the mystery of whodunit. First is setting: what used to be the contemporary “space” of the Los Angeles city now becomes the “time” of the distant future and the distant past. were di erent and really make neo-noir what it is today.Space. for his own identity and how he may have lost it. Time. as in Shakespeare. Two things. however. by 1958. is new noir—this “neo-noir”—still had all the old trappings of classic noir. is was a grand time in American cinema—the early to late 1940s—but. and the future of noir was a big question mark. 1946). of course. but hardly “conflicted” in Shakespeare’s sense. But then any new growth always bears the marks of its beginnings. With neo-noir. and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema Jerold J. the classic noir detective is a hardened stoic—not a flat character (mind you). never believing any of them. that is precisely the point. with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil it was all too evident: “dark cinema” had become heavy with routine and self-consciousness. none of it would last. One of the best is Bogart playing Philip Marlowe in e Big Sleep (Howard Hawks. interviewing suspects. and femmes fatales. and one is looking for the other. But then something new happened: suddenly noir began to reinvent itself from within. Abrams Much of the time. Hirsch and Dimendberg on the Transition to Neo-Noir e basic categories of noir and neo-noir have been fairly widely writ7 . as epistemologically: divided in time as two selves. for classic noir peaked early and fast. although not so much emotionally. to put the same point another way. now the detective’s search is for himself. like detectives.

like race. . Equally important.”2 ink of Touch of Evil at the very end of classic noir: it moves the action out of Los Angeles and into another country. a er the war—a er America was established as a superpower and capitalism moved into high gear—the city seemed to fly apart centrifugally. the detective.” writes Hirsch. already latent in noir. as Hirsch notes. is the change in setting mentioned before. at first.”3 In the old noir. Edward Dimendberg makes the same sort of point in Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. “ e end of film noir.8 Jerold J. class. of course. “is as likely to take place in vast open spaces as in the pestilential city of tradition. the landmarks are all identical. however. and gender. But there are local changes. “noir’s basic narrative molds have remained notably stable. Hirsch maps the continuity of the genre and finds neo-noir to be a perfectly natural extension of the same old classic themes. Mexico. but a lot has changed as well. the maze—it’s all right there. . And. at the forefront of dark cinema. the city was centripetal. the crime. “also coincides. and taken together these form the fundamental shi within noir to neo-noir. but then. like some mad architect used a strip mall stencil to design everything from prisons to churches to video stores. “Neo-noir. Abrams ten up—and no one’s better at it than Foster Hirsch.”1 So.” he writes. basically because they have come to the forefront of contemporary society. “While there have been many local changes. giving noir a new kind of danger. now. In the modern city you always knew where you were because the architectural styles were so incredibly diversified: how could you miss the Empire State Building or the sign? You couldn’t. meaning always tightly organized around a city center. Important among these changes are the placing of social issues. e point may. the femme fatale. right from the very beginning. again. For with postmodern architecture now the buildings look all the same: massive repetition of forms. in the same moment you get found in the universal markers: “Blockbuster.” “Wal-Mart. the centered city of immediately recognizable and recognized spaces.” “Gap. centripetal space began to appear excessively archaic.” writes Dimendberg. seem a little abstract—the very idea that the city somehow “flew apart” at the edges is odd—but really it’s not that hard to imagine. and not fortuitously.” And so fades away the modern city—and with it .” “Barnes & Noble. You see it everywhere in the form of “postmodern” architecture. all mass-produced—and you get lost in space. In Detours and Lost Highways. One might speculate that as spatial dispersal became a ubiquitous cultural reality. these monuments are all still there. suddenly. So. . with the end of the metropolis of classical modernity. and into the desert.

this investigation of the self into an other takes place only when the other. something else that really signals the birth of the new noir. Everything changes. Everything takes place in relation to the self: the self is the detective. is what the shi to neo-noir is really all about. the self is the villain. and everyone agreed: things would never be the same. anyway not like it does today. in fact and quite clearly. in turn. and so is Hirsch. the community. So. And. as I see it. so too did the locus of community. However. pretty soon. Dimendberg is right. and all the clues exist solely within his own mind. the villain. Add to all this multiculturalism and the steady dissolution of the nuclear family. Time. we have the first-person perspective of John Watson. leaving one place. but the degrees between the reader (or the viewer) and the villain have closed by one: namely. now. For. and. namely. traditional social bonds seemed quaint on a good day. the nation-state. ultimately. a new king emerged in the form of the “self ”: the self as the king of its very own mind. education. who is. or the church. this really marks the third development in the form of the detective story. And the reason is simple: the postmodern conditions of cultural flux and centrifugal space in the second half of the twentieth century simply forced the individual subject to the forefront of culture and. the re- . is looking for another still. however. Watson is gone. In that formula. For. So it’s still a first-person-singular detective story. there was some of this in classic noir—just like Hirsch’s social issues—in the form of early amnesia noirs.Space. And it’s the detective himself who is telling the story about his own search for the other as villain. namely. in place of the family. as centripetal space dissolved. but it hardly defined the genre. and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 9 both the setting and the cause of all classic film noir. going to another: jobs. But there’s more to it than that. Sure. Everyone was moving around. looking for the essence of the mind of Holmes. a medical doctor (and really a kind of detective). steadily becomes Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade. travel as an end in itself (especially in the 1960s: think of the beat generation). e first form is the classic nineteenth-century version. with all this centrifugal motion. as the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth and Sherlock Holmes. Fusion of Detective and Villain And that. to the forefront of the new noir. oppressive on a bad day. Holmes. especially Sherlock Holmes. in my view.

10

Jerold J. Abrams

moval of Watson, such that our first-person perspective is, in fact, closer to the actual events of the case. is is the second major form of the detective story, namely, classic noir. And, if you decrease the degrees even further by one, you get neo-noir as a third form. It’s still a first-person narrative—and, like noir, it’s still the detective who’s doing the talking, but he’s no longer looking for some mysterious villain in the city. He’s looking for himself: he’s looking for himself as an other.

Forms of Neo-Noir Time
Somehow, the detective’s mind has divided, typically because of a traumatic event that causes some form of amnesia. is can be in the form of retrograde amnesia, in which the detective cannot remember past events, or anterograde amnesia, in which he cannot form new memories, or lacunar amnesia, which involves the loss of memory about a particular event. But it can also be caused by hallucinations, multiple personalities, artificial memory implants, a high-tech revealing of the future, or any number of other alterations in the continuum of self-consciousness. In fact, it can even be caused by the detective’s conscious or unconscious awareness of his own internal thoughts in dialogue. at is, because thought takes place largely in language and language involves the simultaneous performances of a speaker and a hearer, the detective may divide these roles into characters, taking one of them for “himself ” and another for another person existing outside himself. In all these cases, the key thing to keep in mind is this: one self is always ahead, and the other is always behind. And this is precisely why the idea of time is so very important to the structure of all neo-noir. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that there are really three distinct forms of neo-noir, which correspond to the three parts of the time continuum, namely, past, present, and future. ese three forms may be called past neo-noir, present neo-noir, and future neo-noir (or future noir, as Paul Sammon calls it).4 Past Neo-Noir Past neo-noir is usually low-tech, contrasting it with the very high-tech future noir, and almost always theological. e Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999) is a perfect example: it’s the story of a “book detective,” Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), who investigates e Nine Gates, a book written in the

Space, Time, and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema

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Middle Ages by Satan himself. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), an expert on the occult and a famed book collector, to investigate two other copies of e Nine Gates. Balkan owns one, but he’s sure it’s a forgery—basically because the devil won’t appear on command. Naturally, Corso says yes. Balkan may be totally nuts—no doubting that—but still the job is easy money. So o Corso goes to Europe—a trip that is symbolic of going back into the past, into the Middle Ages—to examine the other two copies. In investigating the matter, however, Corso soon realizes that Balkan’s copy is not a forgery and that neither are the other two. In fact, there aren’t even three books in the first place: they’re all part of a singular text—three books in one, a kind of demonic “trinity” of texts. Now Corso is intrigued, and he’s starting to believe. But, as he goes deeper into the mystery of e Nine Gates, he soon discovers himself at the center of the plot: the devil has chosen him and not Balkan to find the Ninth Gate to hell, a discovery that Corso is only too happy to make. For Corso has been “converted,” and he is now searching for his own demonic salvation—his own otherworldly dark power. And, by film’s end, he is, indeed, a full-fledged servant of Satan, prepared to do whatever it takes to unlock the Ninth Gate. You find the same kind of fusion of historical noir and theological plot as well in Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987), which is actually a past/theological noir fused with the story of Faust. e very noirish detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is commissioned by Louis Cypher (as in “Lucifer,” played by Robert De Niro), who wants Angel to find Johnny Favorite, whose real name was Liebling. “I gave Johnny some help at the beginning of his career,” says Cypher. But Favorite, having been in the war, has shell shock and amnesia and is now a virtual zombie—and, as a consequence, “the contract was never honored.” Angel agrees to check it out, in part because he too was in the war and also had shell shock; naturally he’s sympathetic to the situation. But what he doesn’t know is that he, Angel, is (or was) Favorite—and was Liebling before that. Indeed, Angel is the one with amnesia, which means that he doesn’t remember making a pact with the devil. So, in a sense, he’s not totally obligated to make good on it: he’s not the same person anymore. Of course, that’s hardly going to wash with the devil, who still wants Favorite’s soul. And this is why Cypher sends Angel looking for himself: so that he can figure out who he used to be, which he does. In doing so, he begins as all noir detectives do, with a series of typical noir interviews, or at least he thinks he does: in fact, he’s actually murdering, without knowing it, each

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of the suspects he visits. Here, the devil is using Angel’s amnesia and personality split against him, so that, instead of remembering murders, Angel remembers something else, like eating a cheeseburger at a local diner. E ectively, the devil is framing Angel against himself to make him so guilty of other sins as to be worthy of his original Faustian bargain. And, by film’s end, Angel is, indeed, a devil—crying, screaming (Mickey Rourke is brilliant here), “I know who I am. I know who I am,” as he descends into the fiery depths of hell. As a third example of past neo-noir—one certainly not typically categorized as noir—Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, 1981) is important to note for its historical and theological place in the tradition. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is a detective, certainly: he investigates lost artifacts, and he’s also slightly on the criminal side, something in between a scholar and a grave robber. He wears a gun and a noir fedora, uses clipped Hemingway-like language, strikes a stoic pose, gets beaten up all the time (just like Bogie), and in standard neo-noir fashion goes looking through time for a find of theologically gigantic proportions—nothing less than the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant. At the same time, he is also looking for himself, looking for an experience of the Ark in order to test his faith—or whether he has any. He wants to know who he is: a man of faith or a man of science. And he finds his answer at the end—in a moment, with just the slightest shred of scientific evidence for God. All of a sudden, now he’s a believer, and now he knows: the Ark is very deadly indeed. So, when Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) wants to see it, he warns her, “Shut your eyes!”—or the light exploding from the Ark will penetrate the windows of her soul. It’s this last scene that really clinches Raiders’s position in the noir and neo-noir tradition. For it’s taken almost directly from the classic film noir Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955)—also a detective film about a very dangerous box of light. And, again, it all happens right at the end: Dr. G. E. Soberin (Albert Dekker) tells an overcurious woman, Gabrielle/Lily Carver (Gaby Rodgers) (and, of course, here’s the link to Marion in Raiders): “You have been misnamed, Gabrielle. You should have been called Pandora. She had a curiosity about a box, and opened it, and let loose all the evil in the world.” But Lily/ Gabrielle doesn’t care: “Never mind about the evil. What’s in it?” She just can’t help herself, and— ! A massive nuclear explosion. Spielberg and Lucas basically redid this classic noir scene by turning the science into religion—no longer is the dangerous box of light nuclear; now it’s an even more dangerous box of spiritual light, “fire of God,” as Indiana puts it.

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Quentin Tarantino clearly loved this theme in noir, so, when it came time thirteen years later to do his own neo-noir, Pulp Fiction (1994), he simply redid the same theme once again. Here, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) are sent to recover a briefcase, again, a kind of “box,” that, when opened, also gleams hard golden light. We are never told what it is—but clearly the box of fiery light in a noir film and the question “What is it?” asked by Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) are reminiscent of Gabrielle’s demise in Kiss Me Deadly and Marion Ravenwood’s near miss in Raiders. Future Neo-Noir: Detective Science Fiction and Alien Noir Now, as we move to the opposite end of the neo-noir spectrum and to future noir, some of the old theological elements will remain, certainly—but really only germinally. Indeed, for the most part, they fade away and are replaced by science and high technology. In Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), for example, Detective Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), an ex-cop, gets called back to do one last job: the extermination of four humanoid “replicants.” Originally, the replicants were built to do manual labor “o -world,” but recently they’ve returned to meet their maker, in hopes of extending their four-year life span. Problem is, they blend in rather well: you can’t just pick them out of a police lineup. In fact, the only way to test them is Voigt-Kamp , a kind of sci-fi Turing test used to tell robots from people, and this is also the future noir version of the classic noir “interview.” On most androids it works pretty easily (maybe twenty or thirty questions, cross-referenced), but there is a new race of replicants, a special line, and Rachael (Sean Young) is one of them— it takes over a hundred questions to figure her out. Rachael is special—so special, in fact, that she doesn’t even know she’s an android. She doesn’t know her entire cognitive groundwork is artificial: her memories aren’t real. Still, fake as she is, Rachael is no fool—she’s incredibly intelligent, and, being quite human in many ways, she figures out her real identity just by looking into Deckard’s eyes, almost as if she were testing him too. So she goes to Deckard’s apartment, just a er her Voigt-Kamp test, with all her false pictures and all her false memories, and forces him to tell her the truth to confirm what she already knows— which he does. By this point, however, Rachael has figured out even more than Deckard has: “You know that Voigt-Kamp test of yours?” she asks. “Did you ever take that test yourself?” Deckard doesn’t answer, but even

by no means also to say that there is noth- . At the same time. In fact. And. And. from Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin. who plays the violin. and we are given no good reason why Deckard (a cop) would own one. So you get the basic idea: past noir is theological. to Sherlock Holmes. to keep them calm—basically brilliant zombies—while visions of an imminent future race steadily through their minds and are then projected onto a screen above them. God and the devil are replaced by science and technology.14 Jerold J. Chief Anderton himself. Clearly. once you’ve got this point. let alone know how to play in the first place. the two cops were built with the same imagination implants. who makes paper and matchstick sculptures of unicorns. of course. he must at once commit and simultaneously prevent—and he doesn’t have a clue as to his own motive. It’s this way in all future noirs—the detective must find himself. it’s all too apparent: Deckard doesn’t have a past at all. really. e secret of Pre-Crime is “pre-cognition”—in the form of three precognitive geniuses. for his imagination is infused with the same aesthetic creativity you find in all great detectives. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg. Deckard— being the best of the blade runners—also has something of Rachael in him. Abrams later that same evening. Once the future crime is viewed. the project of Pre-Crime is so successful that it’s ready to go national very soon. He might as well have been built a week ago—just like Rachael. while playing piano. and Dashiell (whose names refer to three detective writers: Agatha Christie. e ectively “running from himself ”—indeed. but using those same tools as well. 2002). is is. from the perspective of the history of the detective story. And now Anderton must go on the run. he dozes a little and has a brief dream of a unicorn running by. chief of Pre-Crime—an experimental form of law enforcement in Washington DC. he must also run forward into the future toward a murder that. It’s the ultimate form of crime prevention: catch the killer before he can even get to his victim. Ga (Edward James Olmos). and Dashiell Hammett). then Anderton’s crew can nab the criminal before he even commits the crime. however. from a system he helped create. the detective is John Anderton (Tom Cruise). Arthur. Here. and future noir is sci-fi. even up through James Bond. ese “pre-cogs” are kept drugged. But. this makes perfect sense. despite high technology. whose artistic tastes are well refined indeed. he knows. for example. So we know right away: the same program must have been used on the other detective. Agatha. in the transition. and the piano is the clue: Rachael also knows how to play piano. However. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. until a scandal breaks out: the pre-cogs have revealed the name of a new future murderer. Take.

rather than the “little green men” of e X-Files. he’s never 100 percent sure. and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 15 ing otherworldly about future noir. in large part because he has Holmes’s wild imagination. Even with intensive regression hypnotherapy. Time. who is. Mulder is a brilliant detective with an almost supernatural ability to solve seemingly unsolvable crimes. Dark City (Alex Proyas. However. as a foil to his madness. to do this. if it exists at all. although it’s really a replica of a typical classic noir Los Angeles cityscape. Daniel Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland) puts it. an important form of the future noir subgenre is what we might call alien noir. ey’re experimenting on us. the whole thing goes pretty well—that is. Even his own memories. Quite the contrary. these aliens look like us and wear trenchcoats and fedoras in typical noir fashion. trying to find the essence of the human soul. Still. trying to explain the . rather than looking for earthly villains. Mulder’s looking for aliens. in truth. the new Sherlock Holmes. he knows—they could have been manufactured. 1998) also has aliens plotting against the human race—although. And. And. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is the new Watson: she’s a medical doctor and a companion and counterpoint to Fox Mulder (David Duchovny). whatever evidence he has. And Scully is always there to give him the scientific point of view.Space. And. they force us to go to sleep each night so that they can rearrange our memories and self-identities. In fact. And e X-Files—which is both a television series (created by Chris Carter) and a 1998 film (directed by Rob Bowman)—is certainly one of the most popular examples of this form. is always just beyond arm’s reach. and in support of the existence of aliens. Did he really see his sister Samantha abducted by aliens when they were children? Or was it all staged? Or maybe it’s lacunar amnesia: that one memory is simply gone. ey’ve taken us from earth and replanted us on a massive spaceship—which we think is a city. Similarly. there is also an ever-so-slight return to Conan Doyle’s original formula. in turn. as neo-noir as e X-Files is. By setting all human memories in flux and giving your memories to me and mine to you overnight—over millions of trials—the aliens believe that the essence of human consciousness will rise to the top. And he has one rather large problem in uncovering this conspiracy: the hard evidence against the government. and Mulder as a boy imposed fantasies about aliens on top of it. until John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) begins to figure it out and decides to go looking for the rest of his mind. As Dr. he knows it could have been “put there” as part of an elaborate charade intended to lead him on a wild goose chase. who are plotting with our government to colonize the earth and make humanity into a slave race.

” So. in Memento (Christopher Nolan. Apparently. he is searching . our connection to one another that defines us as individuals.” as he calls it. or pure reason. in a sense. he’s chasing someone. explains it to the aliens: “Weren’t you looking for the human soul? at’s the purpose of your little zoo. And who’s on the other end of the phone? Leonard’s world is reborn afresh with every paragraph of thought. It is. So he needs to develop a “system. that’s wrong. when it comes to present neo-noir. the experiment actually works.” Indeed. who functions as a kind of narrator. or free will. on a shattered metaphysical continuum of duration. Dr. of course. It’s not what’s “inside” us but what’s “between us” that makes us what we are. No. For it’s not about the continuity of memory. e system works like this. Abrams whole mess to Murdoch’s wife. these films take place neither in the distant past nor in the distant future.. we are never sure it isn’t really him.5 Present Neo-Noir Now. rather. Now he knows where he is—now he doesn’t. Every time Leonard wakes up with his freshly wiped memory. o ers the best of neo-noir—and particularly for its use of time. backward. leaving him with anterograde amnesia. every five to ten minutes or so. . Emma (Jennifer Connelly): “Wherever your husband is. Leonard creates a well of artificial memories. some semblance of causality. whoosh: it’s all gone. that’s hardly to say that time is not “of the essence”—far from it. . to his wife’s killer—and. So. how indeterminate it is. present neo-noir. In place of natural memories. in my opinion. He cannot for the life of him form any new memories. He tattoos messages all over his body.16 Jerold J. just not how the aliens expected it to work. Of course. Schreber. Maybe you have finally found what you’ve been looking for. In fact. he simply reinterprets anew all his old tattoos and pictures and then proceeds to put . the sleuth Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is looking for “John G. here again. in order to find his way back. isn’t it? at’s why you keep changing people and things around every night. or really the human mind at all.” the man who killed his wife and bashed in his skull. someone’s chasing him. And. But it’s a hopeless enterprise because of the nature of interpretation. 2000). so he can read them in a mirror—and takes lots of photographs and covers them in notes (a fine homage to Blade Runner). or forward. for himself. they have found the essence of humanity—only they don’t know they’ve found it because they don’t have the proper tools to identify it. For example. He’s trying desperately to impose some kind of temporal order.

Indeed. E ectively.” which . So now he’s got to figure out who he is and who is trying to kill him— and. Bourne’s body knows more about his identity than he does. All he knows is that a fishing boat dragged his unconscious body out of the ocean. keep on tattooing and taking pictures—which. and Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) doesn’t even know his own name. to higher self-awareness. Only. of course. helplessly suspended by a thin thread of semantic maybes. Two weeks are gone. completely beyond good and evil (as Nietzsche would put it). It’s the same with e Bourne Identity (Doug Liman. throughout Bourne’s very behavioral structure. and anything he’d find would simply throw him back on himself. he must find his “power animal. of course. it’s the same sort of theme in Fight Club (David Fincher. every day he’s just dri ing further and further into darkness. ad infinitum. of course. those two answers are basically the same. all blacked out. unwittingly. Only. again. It’s like he’s watching himself from above. 1999)—the narrator (we are not given his name until late in the film) must discover his own identity a er a psychological break. in e Bourne Identity. So. mind guided by body.” Here. just as in Memento. the CIA has planted them. So it’s only natural that. But Bourne doesn’t even know where to begin. watching his arms do things he can’t remember learning. he does. He can’t exactly look to his surroundings—nothing’s really changed there. rather than getting shot in the back like Bourne. And. Engineered with drugs and weaponry and the highest kind of training. 2002). he goes to a support group and begins “guided meditation” into his own mind—or what the group leader calls his “cave. Who was I? Who am I? Am I a killer? Bourne must find the answers while running from those who already know. and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 17 those new interpretations onto his body in the form of new tattoos and so on. we are hardly any closer to the truth. the detective must rely on clues from his own body to reveal truths about his mind. while. he is totally surprised when his body snaps into action—taking out two policemen with their own weapons in just seconds flat. Bourne is entirely beyond the rule of law. another amnesia noir. And Leonard the neo-noir Sisyphus of memory can do little else than just keep on going. in Memento. he finds that his mind collapses under the sheer weight of high capitalism and a dizzying disgust at a million swarming manufactured household objects (which perfectly recalls JeanPaul Sartre’s existential novel Nausea).6 Desperate. Time.Space. by film’s end. the detective self-consciously plants these clues on the surface of his own body. And that’s the purpose of the film—the ultimate dialectical reconciliation of body and mind. with bullets in his back. So.

Indeed. killing Tyler and somehow saving himself. Only now.18 Jerold J. the once-therapyoriented Fight Club quickly becomes the terrorist organization “Project Mayhem. the narrator’s alter ego. And it works pretty well. Naturally you’re still wrestling with it. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).” And now the narrator knows: he simply must eliminate Tyler. the power animal becomes powerful indeed—powerful enough to move outside the narrator’s own mind and appear to him in the form of another person. someone he meets on an airplane who happens to have the same briefcase. But. . to just run with it. Tyler is sympathetic to the narrator’s situation—being the other half of him—and his need for a release. for a while anyway. once he has discovered the numerical structure of being. Max. with seemingly no options le . . As a final example of present neo-noir. Still. Abrams turns out to be a penguin. about a half millennium before Christ. which. the flow of cigarette smoke—all of it will be seen as simply the illusory e ects of a deeper ontological and mathematical cause. that. as is typical of a neo-noir detective. So he decides to confront Tyler face-to-face and demand an explanation for what’s been going on. rather than trying to locate himself in time. you can see once more the same basic framework in : Faith in Chaos (Darren Aronofsky. so together they form a new kind of therapy group called “Fight Club. the stock market. he goes for broke and shoots himself through the mouth. believes this—and believes. 1998). so sometimes you’re still you. Now. you imagine yourself watching me. Other times. is steadily becoming autonomous: so much so that the narrator can even see Tyler both as another person and as himself. as the narrator’s psychosis worsens. of course. e Pythagoreans were an ancient and elite cult of philosophers. as more participants join in and the sessions become larger and larger. Naturally. Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is trying to find his way out of time—making a distinctly Pythagorean neo-noir detective story. But. you’re just letting yourself become .” Only their therapy sessions consist not in crying and drinking co ee but in very violent fistfights. ey talk to themselves. ey don’t have the courage you have. Tyler Durden.” with Tyler in the dictatorial lead. ey see themselves as they’d like to be. Tyler Durden. by no means does the narrator understand this: he thinks Tyler is just another guy. the temporal world of becoming will be rendered readily apparent and simple. Evolution. . who explicitly follows Pythagoras. who believed that mathematics lay at the foundation of the universe—and that material reality and change and time are simply illusions of the human mind. Little by little. and really rather a meek self-reflection. Tyler is more than happy to give: “People do it every day. too.

and it’s making him insane. and it’s beautiful. Remember.Space. like ourselves. for he can never escape the illusions of his own mind. here. and he knows: soon his mind will crash from the overload of seeing too much of God’s universe all at once. of course. the detective. is is the numerical structure of being—and now Max has it. conscious and is also the name of God. in classic noir. But what classic noir really reveals is the human condition: that we can never escape it. and Subjectivity in Neo-Noir Cinema 19 Problem is. the detective will catch a criminal or solve a case: those are the basic outlines of any detective story. by film’s end. when he gives the chip to Euclid. . Time. we are a little closer to reconciling parts of the self—but that’s never really the point. transparent selfconsciousness recedes indefinitely into the future and indefinitely into the past. It’s making him omniscient. So. It’s inside him: he can see it. there’s no way out of the maze of the noir city. Max takes a drill to the side of his skull. Neo-Noir’s Irreconcilable Di erences Of course. he’ll need a better system. What’s really the point is that total. when faced with his own ascending powers of madness. when he’s o ered a special chip by an unethical corporate investment firm that is interested in his work. and Euclid crashes—just moments a er becoming fully self-conscious and spitting out a 216-digit number that renders machines. along with a mathematical translation of the Torah as a data set. Obvious among these are the maze. has reached its upper limit on power and complexity. instead of a gun. Well. Euclid. he’s right on the edge. and he just can’t go any further with it: if he’s going to unbind reality. while neo-noir is certainly new. it’s true.” But. For. but never to be caught. and so many other things. It’s doing to him what it did to Euclid and Max’s mentor as well. he can hardly say no. and it’s changing him. A er all. But perhaps most important is that key noir element of inescapability. always to be chased. But somehow it’s not staying put—it’s moving around. in the end. some things never change. the femme fatale. certain staples will always define the genre as a whole. and the detective knows it. However. as he tells his mentor: “I’m so close. despite the transformation of space into time and the fusion of the detective and the villain. Indeed. So Max has only one choice: he must lobotomize himself to get rid of these ascending divine powers—just as the narrator of Fight Club must. it’s all too much to handle. too—even though the city may be dissolving before our very eyes—the detective still remains hopelessly trapped. Max’s computer.

Sammon. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge. Paycheck (John Woo. Other films in this category of future noir use the same techniques. David Ames (Tom Cruise) is cryonically preserved—only he doesn’t know it yet. 1996). Detours and Lost Highways. Lloyd Alexander (New York: New Directions. 1999). 3. 2001). reprint. Conard. On this. 1. 2003) is the story of Michael Jennings (Ben A eck). 2. the dream has become a nightmare. Nausea (1938). 14. Kevin Graham. see Paul M. MA: Harvard University Press. For example. Edward Dimendberg. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (New York: Limelight. a “backwards engineer” who has had his memory “wiped” and now must figure out what kind of future he has engineered. 255. I would also like to thank Mark Conard and Bob Porfirio for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this essay (and for many discussions of film in general). 1976). trans. any mistakes that remain are my own.20 Jerold J. now. 5. Jean-Paul Sartre. Mark T. 4. Hirsch. 6. New York: Da Capo. Abrams Notes I would like to thank Elizabeth F. . Future Noir: e Making of “Blade Runner” (New York: Perennial. Or consider Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe. See also Foster Hirsch. 14–15. He must figure this out and must figure out too that the life he thinks he’s leading is an artificial “lucid dream” (an enhancement added on to his cryonic suspension)—only. and Chris Pliatska for many conversations on (or relating to) neo-noir cinema. Of course. Foster Hirsch. 2001). Cooke. He leaves himself clues from the future that he must interpret in the “past” in order to discover what he used to know. e Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir (1981. 2004).

there are com21 . they are organisms manufactured to serve as slave labor for exploring and colonizing other planets. ey believe that computers will soon be able to imitate the input-output processing of the brain.Blade Runner and Sartre e Boundaries of Humanity Judith Barad Blade Runner (Ridley Scott. this ancient question still arises in 2019 . argue that there is no important difference between an android and a human because the human brain is a kind of computer that processes inputs (the things we sense) and generates outputs (our behavior). a question as old as Methuselah. they are manufactured to live only four years as a way of ensuring that they will never be equal to humans. act human. a fact that is used to identify them as replicants. would such a machine be a human? Would a human.2 e noir film raises some interesting questions: If artificial intelligence were placed in a body that looked and acted human. like Alan Turing. to be nothing more than multifaceted machines. Since the replicants are accorded neither legal nor moral rights. Although these complex androids look human. within a setting that pits humans against androids. would androids di er in any important way from the humans who created them? Vive la Di érence? Some philosophers. and are at least as intelligent as their human designers. Naturally. in turn. As manufactured artifacts. e humans consider the androids. . 1982) combines film noir and science fiction to tell a story that questions what it means to be human.1 However. Created on an assembly line by the Tyrell Corporation’s genetic engineers. be nothing more than a machine? In fact. they are thought of as expendable substitutes for their human masters. their expendability is assumed. which they call replicants. In fact. they lack emotional development.

a thing in which essence precedes existence. In humans. God creates each human for a certain purpose. Sartre. doubtlessly. someone would. as the maker of human beings. we are first born. they are determined by their makers. It’s only the human being herself who can determine the kind of person she will be. the traditional notion of God leads us to confuse the human with a manufactured item. the android’s essence exists in the genetic engineer’s mind before the android is actually manufactured. before each one exists. Jean-Paul Sartre disagrees with Turing’s argument. such as a computer. there isn’t anyone who can determine the nature of any human being.22 Judith Barad puter programs that can converse with humans so skillfully that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish their responses from those of a human. In Existentialism and Human Emotions. If by the essence of the android we mean the procedure by which it’s made and the purpose for which it will be produced. we di er from any manufactured thing. start a computer rights movement. Suppose a genetic engineer decides to manufacture an android. Turing insists that. in addition. and only later choose the nature or essence we will have. Rather than use Sartre’s example of a paper cutter to explain this concept. he knows the essence of the android. So Sartre insists that the concept of the human in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of the android in the mind of the genetic engineer. According to Sartre. there’s an enormous di erence between a human artifact. was an atheist. he claims that “existence precedes essence” in human beings alone. Human nature can’t be determined in advance because there’s no one who knows what each human will become in advance. is engineer knows what he is making. and a human being. a er all. Since there is no God. He knows exactly what He will create before He creates anyone.3 In other words. then the computer has the equivalent of a human mind. He knows what each human being will be before He creates him or her. In Sartre’s view. if we can’t distinguish between the answers a computer gives to questions and the answers a human being gives. In choosing our essence. then the computer and the human are essentially the same kind of being. Neither the human nor the android is a free being. In other words. Just as the genetic engineer creates each android for a certain purpose. God is thought of. then the android’s essence precedes its existence. we first exist. a computer has an organic body that is indistinguishable from a human body. however. We’re simply what we make of ourselves through our choices and actions. . In that case. If. let’s substitute an android. that is. and he knows how the android will be used before he begins creating it. he reasoned.

and the actions one chooses to perform. unlike humans. having the advanced Nexus-6 design. Freedom and Responsibility Although the replicants of Blade Runner are engineered to act and reason as humans. the beliefs one chooses to retain. Since we could have made di erent choices. however. Since replicants have a maker who programs them. Since we choose our nature. choose to become a new. at any moment. But four fugitive replicants are trying to reach their maker. we are responsible for adopting this belief. . is inability is. our family. Once we accept our freedom. We can’t blame anyone else for what we are since we can. our religion or lack of one. the fact of existing comes before an individual’s own choice of the kind of essence or nature she will develop. As a result. blamed humans to the point of committing mutiny. we should assume responsibility for what we have become. Sartre’s view tells us that they. manufactured being. we are responsible for it. a genetic engineer turned corporate big shot. In fact. society. they didn’t choose their essence. and values. we try to escape responsibility by pretending we’re not free. Sartre exposes this belief as a cop-out. and our attitudes. a death sentence was imposed on any that returned to earth. Instead.Blade Runner and Sartre 23 and humans alone. as members of a series. If we choose to believe that we are determined by outside factors. our lifestyle. they can’t choose their own essence. We try to convince ourselves that outside influences have shaped our nature—God. to plead with him to extend their lives. our level of education. e replicants aren’t responsible for their condition because they were programmed to fulfill a certain function. we must also accept its accompanying responsibility. our marital status. our genes. can justifiably blame someone else for their essence. claiming that the human is the sum of everything he ever chooses to do. To be human means to create oneself—the emotions one chooses to feel. humans create their own nature through free choices and actions. We can choose our occupation. Disagreeing with Turing. di erent sort of person. beliefs. It would be reasonable to suppose that no replicant would want to risk the return trip. some replicants. what di erentiates any manufactured being from humans. in Sartre’s view. Our freedom consists mainly in our ability to envision additional possibilities for our condition. Sometimes. We are free because we can rely neither on a god nor on society to direct our actions or to program our natures. Sartre insists that no human is reducible to a programmed.

Sartre argued against this view since he recognized that. Leon Kowalski (Brion James). is emotion is exactly the emotion that the V-K test focuses on by asking hypothetical questions involving human or animal su ering. If Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is remorseful about being a blade runner. or he could simply choose . and blush response. for example. as he is being tested. which. looks so human we aren’t immediately aware that he’s a replicant. they think. we’ve chosen to be in this condition. fear or rage. shows unmistakable fear. someone has made them angry. Unlike more primitive emotions.24 Judith Barad e Voigt-Kamp Test e first fugitive replicant we see. a maturity that takes more than four years to develop. Not all emotional responses. We can choose the kinds of emotions we want to feel by choosing our beliefs and choosing what we want to focus on. since this being is the one created from the choices we make as free adult humans. If they’re angry. the power to place oneself in the position of someone else and vividly feel the emotions of that other individual. then it isn’t clear why they should be subservient to human beings. but he seems acutely nervous and. he could choose to look at the bright side of his job. Since Leon doesn’t have this kind of emotional sophistication. the only way to test whether someone is a human or a replicant is by means of the Voigt-Kamp (V-K) test. capillary dilation. Fear and rage are basic emotions that even someone who has just four years of life can experience. we can control them. If Sartre’s distinction between manufactured items and humans is right. is on a di erent level. however. empathy requires maturity. Just observe a young child. are important in distinguishing between a human and a replicant. which monitors emotional response by means of a subject’s involuntary iris fluctuations. and if the humans depicted in the film are right in claiming that there’s a di erence between replicant and human. he recognizes. But the emotion of empathy. a special police o cer assigned to track down replicants. arise from our very being. Of course. and you’ll know this is true. the test almost immediately identifies him as a replicant. if we’re angry. Not only does this waste-disposal engineer look human. Sartre may approve of the V-K test because of the importance he places on human emotions. many people suppose that humans have little control over their emotions. Alternatively. But. then it should be a discernible di erence. e test doesn’t try to identify. he has chosen to be remorseful. If there isn’t a discernible di erence. In Blade Runner.

according to Sartre. We’re forlorn when we discover that science doesn’t have all the answers. his emotions can develop only as much as those of a four-year-old child.” Sartre would see his excuse as a futile attempt to flee his anxiety. ‘What . and. remorse. he would have refused.Blade Runner and Sartre 25 not to do it. they can’t help us shed our responsibility. Sartre would say. While Sartre might appreciate the test. rather than empathy. since he doesn’t fully appreciate his humanity. are ways in which we freely choose to perceive and respond to the world. Deckard explains that he quit his job as a blade runner because he had “a bellyful of killing. We are forlorn. at this point in the film.” “I was brought up that way. So the V-K test is a reasonable test to administer when trying to separate individuals who have mature emotional responses from those who have immature emotional responses. We’re not simply the product of environmental conditioning or the genes we inherit. ere’s a vast di erence between the emotions of an adult.’” e philosopher then adds: “But really. Blade Runner shows us this forlornness and anxiety through Deckard.” He returns only when his former boss threatens him. fear. Our inability to blame anyone else for what we are is the basis for such emotions as despair. We’re forlorn when we realize the emptiness of our excuses: “I didn’t have the time. People end up forlorn in their futile attempts to find certainty and guidelines. when we realize that nothing and no one limits our choices. and the emotions of a child. anguish. Yet many people keep making excuses for themselves because they can’t bear the anxiety produced by the full awareness of their freedom and responsibility. In a voice-over. He would ask Deckard: “What if everyone accepted the job of killing others?” People who are like Deckard. will “shrug their shoulders and answer. If Deckard were truly aware of his freedom. ‘Everyone doesn’t act that way. and anguish.” ese excuses can’t remove our freedom.” “He made me angry (or sad or happy). But. our own rules. produces the emotion of forlornness. concomitantly.” “Everyone else does it.” “I couldn’t help myself. who has the capacity to control his emotions. Emotions. Confronting life alone. is attempting to escape these emotions so vital to the human condition. who hasn’t yet developed that capacity. and forlornness. he rationalizes that he would “rather be a killer than a victim. We must then create our own values. Since four years is the amount of time a replicant has to live. Sartre said. one should always ask himself. Sartre claims that the absence of God has set us free from His rules. who. without a Creator. his version of it would focus on the emotions of despair. Sartre says. threat or no threat.

In other words. a major one. In sum. the test can prove only that the subject is mature.”5 As the film continues. But Sartre would admonish us against feeling sorry for him. For Sartre. At best. but it is within his power to save an individual. Deckard can’t save his society by himself.” to the point where it becomes anguished. the test would still gauge emotional maturity. we should restrict our e orts to what is under our immediate control. we can increase our power. No longer hoping that someone will come along on a white horse to save us. is someone with an uneasy conscience. by winning the lottery. Sartre counsels us that. Only an emotionally mature human can sincerely accept responsibility for his or her choices. e problem is that many human adults never develop emotional maturity. Sartre would approve of a test that presents various hypothetical situations and measures an individual’s responses to them. one can’t be a mature person without accepting responsibility for one’s choices and actions. Using Sartre’s perspective. if an emotionally immature adult is tested to determine whether she is human. in despairing about things over which we have no control. unlike the child. the test contains an internal flaw. A er all. we concentrate on what we can do. Rather than focusing our energy on things beyond our control. but our despair over knowing we must act for ourselves means that we must use our own power.”4 Sartre’s next words would certainly apply to Deckard: “A man who lies and makes excuses for himself by saying not everybody does that. it . we experience despair. Although he would substitute forlornness. But She Looks Human Although the V-K test works well at the beginning of Blade Runner. anguish. when we choose. why waste time trying to do the impossible? Sartre thinks this realization leads to despair because we can no longer hope that we will be rescued by our Creator. it can’t prove that the subject is human. we would acknowledge that such an adult has made herself this way and is responsible for her condition. by a prince charming. At the same time. is sounds odd.26 Judith Barad would happen if everybody looked at things that way?’ ere is no escaping this disturbing thought except by a kind of double-dealing. anguish is a good thing to experience because it means we own up to our responsibility. Most of us can recall an adult we’ve met who displayed the emotions of a young child. Deckard’s conscience does become more and more “uneasy. Yet. Yet. or by an omnipotent manufacturer. the results may be inconclusive. and despair for empathy.

. Captain Bryant (M. At the same time. she wears her dark hair tied up tightly behind her head and frequently wears jackets with the kind of padded shoulders that became Joan Crawford’s signature mark. Before sending Deckard to the Tyrell Corporation. they might develop their own emotional responses. whose motions might be determined by springs.”6 In other words. Bryant explains to him that the androids “were designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. he sees “hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines. or even interacting with someone. to see if the V-K test will work on the new Nexus-6 replicants. ey’re either a benefit or a hazard. a seventeenthcentury philosopher. Her lips painted bright red. . the designers purposefully designed the replicants so that they could never become the equal of an adult human being. Deckard thinks of replicants as things that exist only to fulfill the essence. So they built in a failsafe device . e designers reckoned that. Rachael coolly observes that Deckard doesn’t seem to appreciate the work of the corporation. . he is unaware that he has allowed his society to program this belief.” In other words. People o en leap to erroneous conclusions on the basis of insu cient evidence. René Descartes. a replicant military model. the purpose created for them by human beings. is design kept them in a subservient position.Blade Runner and Sartre 27 might not have worked near the film’s end when Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). As they wait for Tyrell to show up.” In Sartre’s terms. owned by the omnipotent manufacturer who creates and sells the replicants. . into his mind. e film makes it clear that human physical appearance alone doesn’t make an individual a human being. who appears to be one of the corporation’s executives. Bryant.” shows Deckard a video of the renegade replicants. when he observes from a window human beings passing by on the street below him. . Emmet Walsh). who so closely resemble human beings. doesn’t supply su cient evidence that the individual is human. merely looking at someone. . dispels this notion in seeking the essential nature of a human being. Deckard is assigned by his former boss. a prejudice. Deckard encounters a replicant owl before he meets Rachael (Sean Young). develops emotional maturity. [a] fouryear life span. a er a few years. Deckard responds indi erently: “Replicants are like any other machine. Deckard wears the kind of trenchcoat that is usually worn by detectives in film noir. But first let’s examine another scene where the test is successful. and Rachael is the classic femme fatale of film noir. who refers to replicants in a derogatory way as “skin jobs. He says that. Arriving in the spacious o ce of Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel).

an “it. feeling a surge of sexual desire. Deckard hears Rachael playing the piano. . But Deckard. as he asks Tyrell: “How can it not know what it is?” She has now become to him an object. A er Rachael saves his life. His use of force prevents her from making a free choice. Somewhat later. Never having killed anyone before. Acknowledging her individuality for the first time. he orders her to say “I want you” and to put her arms around him. Neither were blade runners. Rachael goes to his apartment with a childhood photograph of herself and her mother. she must have changed her mind because she subsequently shows up in the vicinity just in time to blast a hole in Leon’s back before he can gouge out Deckard’s eyes and kill him. What the hell was happening to me?” He has now started to question the beliefs that were programmed into him by society. Deckard takes her back to his apartment. In a voice-over. he has taken a step toward being more human. she opens the door and tries to leave the apartment. She hangs up on him. a view that is reflected in his choice of words. Rachael’s tears awaken his deadened empathy. In Sartre’s view. Deckard commands her to say “kiss me. the blade runner tells her that she plays “beautifully. while Rachael is anguished by her responsibility for killing someone. Hmmm . But the blade runner. she is quite shaken up by her action. Afraid. Deckard determines. a er an unusually high number of questions. However.” He goes through the motions of life mechanically. says that her memories are simply the implanted memories of Tyrell’s sixteen-year-old niece. in the hard-boiled tone of a classic film noir detective.” rather than a person. Deckard calls Rachael from a bar to apologize and invites her for a drink. Wanting to convince Deckard that she’s human. she is unaware of it at this point and leaves before Deckard reveals his findings. which is the prerogative of a human. tells her that it’s “part of the business. that she’s a machine. Again. Complying. However.28 Judith Barad Aware of this tendency to leap to unwarranted conclusions. Immediately.” and she complies. Deckard’s view of her changes. Tyrell enters and tells Deckard to administer the V-K test on a human subject—Rachael. Uncomfortable about his unfamiliar feelings toward an inhuman “thing. e shadows cast patterns on their faces that are reminiscent of 1940s noir films. Deckard says: “Replicants weren’t supposed to have feelings.” en he tenderly kisses her face. .” he advises her to go home. slams the door and pushes her against the venetian blinds. Deckard gets a drink and. Although Deckard is cool to her at first. now who is the real human being? Awakening from a brief snooze. . shattering her hopes.

Sebastian. To help him recognize this. She isn’t like the walking. what about the ability to think? Descartes argues a rmatively. attempts to convince J. prove that the one who thinks exists or lives. who are lovers. therefore. without any apparent intimate relationship to anyone else.” Once we acknowledge this fact. there’s no relevant di erence between her and those usually thought of as humans. I am. So he treats Rachael as a parrot that lacks free choice.” Saying the word “I” implies that there are other centers of consciousness around me. through most of the film. Both .” Sartre continues. Chew (James Hong). she quotes Descartes: “I think. we’re physical. provides another perspective from which to view the statement “I think. “I must have contact with another person. who was influenced by Descartes. Lacking the opportunity to develop intersubjective relationships. a shy employee of the Tyrell Corporation. Batty has accompanied Pris to Sebastian’s apartment. Sartre notes that one discovers “not only himself. He tries to get Sebastian to look at the replicants another way: “We’re not computers. display intersubjectivity by caring about each other. it’s only the replicants who. but it doesn’t prove that the thinking thing is necessarily human.Blade Runner and Sartre 29 Meeting Your Maker Like Descartes. but others as well. no matter how appealing. as well as thinking extraterrestrials or nonhuman animals. Sebastian (William Sanderson). they don’t really seem to care about each other. His argument is depicted in the film when one of the fugitive replicants. Yet Sartre. that. if appearance isn’t the essence of the human being. indeed.” But let’s think about it! Is thinking enough to establish one’s humanity? It does. Intersubjectivity—where the consciousness of individuals is intertwined—is what gives rise to the feeling of empathy. therefore. I am. as Sartre observes: “In discovering my inner being I discover the other person at the same time. the physical appearance of being human isn’t the essence of actually being human. Deckard knows that. we discover a world of “intersubjectivity.” By contrasting the replicants’ physical nature with the nature of computers. ere may be a god who thinks. But. because she thinks. Two replicants who deeply care about each other and have an intersubjective relationship are Pris and Batty. Batty implies something more than that the replicants aren’t merely material.”7 Ironically.” ere can be no awareness of “I” without an awareness of others. All the humans—Deckard. “In order to get any truth about myself. F. talking mechanical toys that Sebastian has created to alleviate his loneliness.” for. Pris (Daryl Hannah). and Tyrell—live alone. In discovering the truth of Descartes’ statement.

is embodiment is a necessary condition for experiencing emotions. the replicants are embodied. Along with Sartre. but Batty is a rming that. and their embodiment makes them capable of emotional experiences. insofar as we know them. the replicants are embodied. Batty’s action shows that he agrees with a statement that Sartre quotes: “If God doesn’t exist. he asks his creator to repair them so that they’ll live longer. Only an embodied being can have feelings. depend on certain physiological conditions. Tyrell can neither give him more life nor make him human. A er giving Batty a technical explanation of his limitations. Look at you. increased respiration or heartbeat. now able to create his own essence. for he will soon begin to revel in the time he has le as he toys with Deckard.” Batty objects: “But not to last. And you have burned so very. Knowing that their termination dates are imminent. Tyrell informs him: “You were made as well as we could make you.” Getting right to the point. he alone must assume responsibility for himself. unlike a computer. he must create his own rules and continue existing on his own terms. unlike computers.30 Judith Barad computers and replicants are made of material. ey result in certain bodily e ects. before doing so. Emotions or feelings. But. very brightly. beyond the innate desire to live that all animals possess. Seeming to glimpse Batty’s motive for desiring more life but knowing that he can’t do anything about it. He simply wants to add more years onto his life span. With no one to determine his fate. and so on. he crushes his creator’s skull and gouges out his eyes. everything would be permitted. As organisms cloned from genetic material. Batty treats him as such when they meet. But. Perhaps he is somewhat grateful for Tyrell’s advice. Batty . he wants to appreciate his experiences in a fuller way. Roy. You’re the prodigal son. Now he is free—but without any creator to rely on for direction. sweating.” A er the “god of biomechanics” exhorts his creation to “Revel in your time!” Batty kisses Tyrell on the lips. Tyrell. Tyrell tries to appease him: “ e light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. hoping that he will increase their life span. the lovers convince Sebastian to take them to Tyrell. can be said to be their god. a more mature way. He begins to experience the forlornness that Sartre describes. is intention is corroborated in his last scene. Batty is reborn.”8 By killing his god. such as a rise in blood pressure. the androids’ creator. he recognizes that no god can determine his fate. telling him: “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker. such as having nerve endings and certain areas of the brain. Living outside a replicant’s programming.” Now surely Batty knows that Tyrell can’t make him immortal.

Six. Shall he side with his impaled hand. since Batty appears from an opening in the roof. Rather than being malicious. or with the hand in which he holds life. In defiance. five. However. you can’t play. Batty despairs deeply and kisses her tenderly one last time. representing death. try to stay alive.” Heaven is life that is reveled in at each moment. Deckard. he warns. Running for his life. He knows that he will face the kind of anguished choice described by Sartre: shall he let Deckard die. an act that is sure to increase Batty’s emotional turmoil. Yet it’s at this point that he would meet Sartre’s criteria for being human. An Existential Choice Meanwhile. When he discovers her lifeless body. soon gets the upper hand—and in more than one sense.Blade Runner and Sartre 31 must save himself. indicating that his termination date is very near. get it up. He can’t count on anyone else. a real bird that contrasts with Tyrell’s artificial one. Turning his attention to the blade runner. enduring the pain and disability of his broken fingers. Batty says to the terri- . the dove? Making the leap to the next roo op e ortlessly. Batty holds a dove. struggles hand over hand up the side of a building. And if you don’t play [you’re dead]. since he avenges the deaths of the two female replicants by breaking two fingers on one of Deckard’s hands. He miscalculates and falls short. as he rams his head through a bathroom wall: “Four. Deckard jumps to another roo op. and it becomes clear that the hunter and hunted have switched positions. he drives a long nail all the way through his hand. Batty’s own hand starts to malfunction. Batty stands with his arms crossed. he knows despair. go to hell. however. or go to heaven. finally making it up to the roof. apparently lost in thought. Batty then pursues Deckard. Come on. but the blade runner has killed his lover. he doesn’t have much time to despair since Deckard is continuing his pursuit. that play is essential to being alive. dangling precariously o the side of a tall building. hell is being emotionally dead to life. who has superior strength and intellect. In his good hand. seven. for living in the human condition. Before continuing the chase. At the same time. for no one can rescue him from the death that he knows is drawing ever closer. Batty intends to make the blade runner realize that life should be reveled in. Deckard kills Pris. Shortly a erward. No rest for the weary. Unless you’re alive. or shall he save him? Not only has Deckard tried to kill him. Batty. Batty is also fully aware that Deckard would have killed him had he been given the chance.

At last. and says: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. my life. of feeling. so unique to each individual.” e film suggests that Batty’s emotional maturity. experiences that he both remembers and cherishes. He would have passed the Voigt-Kamp test. like tears in rain. the dove is liberated. A erward. . it’s not Tyrell or any genetic engineer who can make Batty human—he must create this in himself. and Batty is freed. Not only has he saved his biological life. It’s not in merely seeing objects and understanding what they are that we express our humanity. Deckard muses: “I don’t know why he saved my life. given Tyrell’s final advice to his “prodigal son. Witnessing Batty’s death. Ironically. At the same time that his allotted four years have expired. he shows emotional maturity. he has freely chosen his essence by choosing to be a life giver rather than the life-taking combat model he was programmed to be.” Batty knows how to “revel” in the present moment. still cradling the dove. expressing the value of his life experiences. e Authentic Human Batty has become Deckard’s savior in more ways than one. anybody’s life. It is this emotional response. are all the more poignant because these are the last words of his life. spoken without vindictiveness. he loved life more than he ever had before. in those last moments. Maybe.” His words. symbolized by Tyrell’s artificial. In these four years. our humanity is expressed in the deep emotional appreciation that we bring to what we perceive. Being human isn’t a particular DNA configuration but a state of mind. is what makes a human truly human. free human being rather than an artificial one. Batty wearily sits down.32 Judith Barad fied blade runner: “Quite an experience to live in fear. he has acquired a unique combination of experiences. As Deckard loses his grip.” His words. He has taught Deckard what it means to be a mature. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhauser gate. imprisoned bird. Batty grabs his hand and saves him. but he also saves his humanity. Not just his life. seem to be an attempt to awaken Deckard’s empathy. isn’t it? at’s what it is. his choice of empathy and compassion. Batty’s love of life contrasts with Deckard’s experience of life as routine. to be a slave. Attack ships on fire o the shoulder of Orion. Rather. By accepting his own death and saving the man who has been trying to kill him. In the end. All those moments will be lost in time. that gives a human his or her worth as a human being.

since Deckard wasn’t a replicant. does this mean they’re not fully human? Does the inability to feel someone else’s su ering make us more like a machine and less human? ere are copious examples in news reports every day about how people behave in an inhuman way.Blade Runner and Sartre 33 dreary. while others are so empathetic they see no di erence between themselves and others. e humans tried to preserve their presumed superiority by making another group inferior. against empathy. of emotional maturity. Batty. but. he escapes his genetically engineered programming. he questions her about her feelings for him. Superiority. Rachael and Deckard too find freedom from their programming—through the love they develop for each other. and she freely answers. is objection doesn’t take into account that many people allow themselves to be programmed by their families. sound human. involving a much deeper appreciation of it. With a new outlook on life. and against his responsibility would have no room to complain. e empathy that both Rachael and Batty have helped him develop leads Deckard to respect Rachael’s autonomy and. Many individuals who look human. . he wasn’t programmed. Only a lack of empathy. Instead of forcing her responses. Some people lack empathy completely. ey no longer have a superior/inferior relationship. At the moment Batty feels the deep emotion that motivates him to kill his creator. So another kind of being must substitute for animals since maintaining the illusion of superiority depends on perceiving another group as inferior. Blade Runner and Sartre urge us to escape this programming and become authentically human. as he did earlier. Emotional maturity varies in humans as well as in replicants. and uneventful. could permit this kind of hierarchical thinking. and have human DNA would fail the V-K test. Rachael. thus. their societies. as Sartre argues. He had been unable to revel in the present moment. in the world of Blade Runner. and Deckard have found the freedom to be truly human. one who chooses against life. Deckard returns to his apartment to find Rachael. Since. But someone may object that. results in slavery or oppression for the group seen as inferior. animals have become rare. e inferior beings had been animals. a person can choose the kind of being he is. of course. As the film concludes. Perhaps Blade Runner suggests a way to assess the human depth of those who are biologically human. perceive her as an equal. Just think of the BTK killer! If such individuals fail the test.

René Descartes. 3. Regarding the second question. 4. ere are two issues outside the scope of this essay: Deckard’s replicant status and whether androids like those depicted in Blade Runner are possible.34 Judith Barad Notes 1. 1980). as a biological entity. Ibid. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett. e conclusion of the essay may render the first question moot. trans. Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). 2. although we may eventually be able to genetically alter human beings. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library. Ibid.. While many philosophers distinguish between a human.” 37–38. Donald A. “Existentialism” (1946). Jean-Paul Sartre.. Ibid. trans. in Existentialism and Human Emotions. . and a person. 8. I think it highly improbable that such beings can be manufactured. 19. 6. Sartre. 18–19. 13. I am using the term human to include both biological and psychological traits. 68. 1957). as a being possessing certain mental states. Sartre is quoting Dostoyevsky. “Existentialism. 5.. 22. 7.

1 Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) tests this theory of personal identity.” But. Locke notes that. in di erent times and places. In particular. su ers shortterm memory loss as a result of an assault on his wife. John Locke famously o ers an explanation of personal identity. the same thinking thing. so far. e person “can consider itself as itself. an insurance investigator from San Francisco. e point of the comparison. To answer this. He says that a person is always conscious of what he thinks. But now.2 Locke on Personal Identity To begin. identity is a matter of consciousness “extending backwards to unite thought and action” (267). without his memories. and Memento Basil Smith In his Essay concerning Human Understanding. in some measure. thus. he can hardly function. Personal Identity. he holds that our conscious memories constitute our identities. is what can Memento tell us about personal identity? I address this question while attempting to show that. In particular. rather. In the film. is to delineate what this theory of personal identity implies and how it leads to a theory of survival without identity. Locke defines what he means by a person. however. I argue that they both provide evidence that memory constitutes personal identity.John Locke. Catherine (Jorja Fox). He insists that his attackers have destroyed his ability to live. this definition does not say what personal identity is. such identity is constituted by “being able to repeat the idea of any past action” in a series and. Locke and Memento offer similar sets of messages. Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). insofar as consciousness always accompanies thinking. and himself. is is not to say that they o er exactly the same messages or that the messages they agree on are not counterintuitive on many fronts. Leonard asks: “How can I heal if I cannot feel time?” e question for us. In other words. is a matter of 35 .

although we cite souls or bodies as evidence of personal identity. is again seems correct. If something is not retrievable by consciousness ever again. ese puzzle cases should be familiar to anyone versed in science fiction. Locke o ers his theory of personal identity for two reasons. as in the case of a contemporary man recalling the memories of an ancient philosopher. who made use of one soul or body. To bolster his thesis that personal identity is conscious memory. rather. when any memories are irretrievable. those memories constitute that person (270).3 To show this. for. In this case. In fact. a linear series of memories. that identity is a matter of conscious memories. If we did not have such an account. our concern for such identity is “founded on a concern for happiness. By contrast. e second reason is to provide a proper understanding of our responsibility for our actions. Locke offers some negative observations. even if that consciousness is contained in different souls or bodies. supported by various puzzle cases. our consciousness can become concerned and accountable. not one. then they are .36 Basil Smith memory. e first reason is that. we need an account of what makes us the same person over time.” which is easier to obtain if we are persons (278). it seems that. provides indirect evidence that his theory is true. he postulates that. since there would be two series of conscious memories. It follows that. Locke says that. when any consciousness happens to lose any memories. for. In other words. say. in such cases. it would be di cult to explain why our lives matter so much to us. we would say that there were two persons. there would be two people using that one soul or body (274). To further argue for his positive thesis. Locke argues that neither a soul nor a body is necessary for such identity. if one consciousness had used many souls or bodies. one man uses a body or soul by day and another uses the same body or soul by night—then we would say that that soul or body was not one person but two di erent people. ese puzzle cases indirectly suggest that personal identity is a matter of conscious memory. in turn. and can remember. is seems correct. the identity itself is the series of memories. that consciousness would be who he is. if we think of identity in this way. which. if any single soul or body were to be host to di erent consciousnesses over time—as when. But this admission entails that personal identity is not static or unified but. in that it “owns and imputes to itself past actions” (277). In other words. so long as a person is conscious of. Locke also notes that. it is not part of that person anymore (268). since we are constantly changing as persons. his strategy is to o er such cases to indicate what identity is not. a complex set of memories that continually changes.

So he admits that personal identity is not transitive in the way required here. ese two objections indicate that personal identity is not transitive. however. for many of the stages from the boy to the general overlap. so the objection goes. notes that it assumes that the conscious memories in any series really did happen to the same person. Transitivity is the logical relation that. e first of these. and Memento 37 no longer part of that person. given this possibility. a notion of memory that does not presuppose this is easily developed. it is more plausible to say that personal identity is constituted by the “thinking substance” (a mind or soul) and is not a matter of conscious memories at all. if there really are no memories that the boy and general share. Derek Parfit. then A is C. personal identity. that our conscious memories don’t have to be true.7 If conscious memories are thought of in this way. we may suppose that they are in a particular series. for Locke. a contemporary philosopher. for. Parfit insists. Locke insists that whatever past actions consciousness cannot reconcile to its appropriate present are as though they have never been done. Imagine a boy who stole apples and was punished. thus. but not that they happened to any particular person.4 Locke incurs two problems with his theory of personal identity that must be mentioned before proceeding. is that his theory seems to deny the transitivity of such identity. To his credit. and the general remembers the young o cer events but cannot recall the boyhood events.” the boy and the general are the same person. But Locke does not say this. “if there is any truth in logic. this lack of conscious connection indicates that the boy and the general are not the same person and. is objection too is less than decisive. To remedy this. merely having deluded memories of being someone else would make one into that person. e second problem with Locke’s theory is that conscious memories “presuppose. he concedes that there is o en no way for us to say when this is. transitivity is denied. Reid notes that. and that there is no unified or static self underneath memories. I will ignore these common criticisms of Locke on . In what follows. there is no reason to say that they are the same person. He insists that. who later won an award as a young o cer.John Locke. as omas Reid notes.” In other words. e young o cer remembers the boyhood events.6 But. and therefore cannot constitute. if A is B and B is C. memories seem to be united in a series only because most of them really happened to the same person. and who is now a retired general. If this were not the case.5 Yet this objection is not decisive. so there is a sense in which the general and the boy are the same person a er all. Personal Identity.

38 Basil Smith personal identity because. Memento suggests just what Locke argues concerning personal identity and what Parfit adapts. e first way is that the film is shot in a disorienting fashion. But the film is not neutral on the answer to these questions. is is that Memento threatens personal identity in a di erent way. moreover. It is not just that Leonard may have been fused from two consciousnesses. the problem of fusion. e Meaning of Memento When Leonard and his wife. e film suggests. Leonard insists that “we all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are” and endeavors to find or create some memories for himself. either from the inside or from the outside. It has both color and black-and-white scenes. are assaulted in their home. Catherine is killed. that nobody knows which beliefs from which series are true or false. To explain how this is so. which elements of the two former persons now exist in the resultant person. and. But what is really troubling is how his plight may mirror ours. In rough outline. Interspersed with these color scenes are black-and-white scenes of a single telephone conversation. and Leonard is struck on the head. e color scenes are presented in reverse chronological order. losing the ability to make new memories. it asks us to abandon the notion that personal identity is transitive. Memento is confusing in two ways. it will be necessary to examine the plot in detail. which eventually drives him to seek vengeance. but also that there is no way to discern. Memento asks us to question who Leonard is a er he is unable to make new memories and. but also that such identity is not static or unified. over a short period of time. is conversation is presented in normal chronological order and occurs before the color scenes. to ask that of ourselves. as we have seen. such that the end of each new scene is repeated as the beginning of the next one. Leonard may be constituted by two series of conscious memories in an uneasy mix. Catherine. Yet this is all on the surface. then. In particular. Since the color scenes are presented backward and . what is unique about Memento is the way in which it poses this problem. in the character of Leonard Shelby. they do not work—but also for a more compelling reason. ey take place. thus. or the problem that two conscious series of memories might be combined. In point of fact. for underneath this plot lurks the problem of what constitutes personal identity over time. suggesting that we revise many of our presuppositions about personal identity. or the issue of what makes a person the same person at two distinct times. by extension. that our memories must be true.

saying: “Don’t believe his lies. ere are two versions of the plot. he had suspected. Teddy has Leonard kill any number of drug dealers by leading him to believe that those persons are his John G. and by tattooing important facts on his body. Sammy had a diabetic wife who could not bear the loss of her husband as a person. and. e first type is those that are shot twice. faking the very condition that he now su ers from. Leonard is also used by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano). which is more important here. It is prudent to describe these versions not as we see them but as they occur chronologically. cannot make new memories. Because of his phone conversation (the subject of the black-and-white scenes).8 e point of all these flashbacks is to disorient the audience as much as possible. Unfortunately. she allowed Sammy to inject her with insulin. by making copious notes. the last chronological black-and-white scene gradually turns into the first chronological color one. killing her.9 But at the time Leonard knows that Teddy is not his man and that he will forget this later. with significant di erences. Importantly. which will later suggest that Teddy may be his John G. But he remembers the crime and hopes to avenge his wife. Leonard eventually realizes this deception and is not pleased. and Sammy was then put in a mental institution. Leonard is struck on the head. yet he lies anyway. Leonard and Catherine are assaulted at home. su ers short-term memory loss. and the latter dies. the police report having convinced him that there was a second assailant. In her despair. he makes a note about Teddy. However. in his former job as an insurance investigator. and Memento 39 the black-and-white ones forward. Memento is also shot with numerous flashbacks. During this assault. he had denied coverage to one Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky). He asks himself: “Do I lie to myself to be happy?” He knows that this lie to himself may result in his committing murder. e second type must be pure fantasy and could not occur in any past.” He spots Teddy in his car and then has a tattoo made of the license plate number.John Locke. Memento is confusing in a second way. Personal Identity. Leonard infers that the second assailant is named John G. a former cop who worked his case and who presumably is his interlocutor in the black-andwhite telephone conversation scenes. a barmaid and girlfriend of a drug dealer whom he has just killed. She suspects that Leonard has killed her boyfriend but still uses him to protect herself against Dodd (Callum . in the beginning of the film. thus. But he is haunted by the irony that. and they suggest di erent pasts. of two principal types. In the first version. He proceeds to track this person down—by taking Polaroid pictures of everything he will soon forget. who had been. Leonard also meets Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss).

by doing so. but this is hardly the end of the story. In an important conversation between Leonard and Teddy. his John G. He even deceives himself into believing that Teddy is his John G. for the purposes of this essay. Teddy admits that he was the cop assigned to his case and admits that he now uses Leonard to kill drug dealers. this is no matter. a er the assault. He subsequently lures Teddy to a warehouse and kills him. a di erent past is suggested. which fact is hinted at in two ways. is version of the plot seems to be what Christopher Nolan intended. that she was a diabetic. is explains why he says of his wife that she “was perfect to me. sets up the latter to be murdered.. and that Leonard has already killed that person. he does not believe that Catherine survived the assault.” Teddy insists that Catherine survived the assault. we see her being injected with insulin. Catherine blinks. and this too is hinted at. we briefly see Leonard sitting in the institution. Teddy also says that Catherine was the diabetic. merely to justify his ongoing quest to avenge his wife. Moreover. whom he then kills. Yet. In a flashback. from which he later escapes. In fact. Leonard matches up the license plate number with new information and infers that Teddy is his John G.40 Basil Smith Rennie). He tells Leonard that. Leonard is dismayed at having been turned into a killer. but who accidentally puts him onto Teddy. Given these outlines of two di erent versions of the plot. and. to create a puzzle for himself. Nor does he believe that he has projected his own memories onto Sammy or that he has invented false ones for himself. Teddy lastly tells Leonard that there really was a second assailant. In a flashback. . In the second version of the plot. thus. In a flashback. another drug dealer. when Teddy tells him all this. In e ect. he has given him “a reason to live. Even if this version of the plot is the intended one. and this too is hinted at. or that it is possible that he has transposed any memories. even if that puzzle is already solved. Understandably. we can still address our main concern. Despite this. and there may be no way to reconcile them. which is what the film can tell us about the issue of personal identity. it seems that he is willing to manipulate the evidence. the date of death listed on the police report is much later than the date of the assault. whom he protects from Dodd. Leonard later meets Natalie. She notices that Leonard has a tattoo of a license plate number on his leg and runs the plate for him. it still leaves many elements unsettled. he has projected his own memories onto Sammy and invented false ones for himself.” He is then committed to the mental institution. events are quite di erent. Leonard has apparently transposed elements of his past with the past of Sammy Jankis. and then the same scene is replayed with her not being injected.

John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento 41

Locke, Parfit, and Memento
In the foregoing, I have explained how Locke argues that personal identity is a matter of our conscious memories over time, that Parfit adapts this argument, and that Memento tests this general theory. e importance of the film is that it is another puzzle case, although one of a unique sort. Is Leonard Shelby the same person as he was when he could make new memories? If that original person is gone, is he now someone di erent? To answer these questions, let us distinguish Leonard 1 and Leonard 2, corresponding to the two versions of the plot, cited above. Leonard 1 is the person who su ers an assault, who is trying to avenge his wife who has died in the assault, and so on. He has a linear series of conscious memories with only one gap, that produced by the assault. He makes new memories, which connect onto his old series and are then forgotten. But, actually, Leonard 1 may not sound like a person at all, for his personhood is not bound by chronology. e new parts of his series of memories are almost immediately forgotten, regardless of when this occurs. But, if we assume that personal identity is a matter of consciousness of memories, dropping any chronological requirement for it should not be that counterintuitive.10 Leonard 1 is not a multiple person or a person with overlapping but distinct identities. He may seem like a multiple person, for his conscious memories are born and then die, every few minutes, compounding his personhood over time. If this were correct, he would become and then cease to be many persons, with the only overlap being what he can manage with his professed “conditioning,” whatever that amounts to.11 But, although Leonard 1 su ers his memories’ being born and then dying continually, this is harmless here. In fact, it is not as though his entire personhood is born and then dies, with a distinct person taking its place each time. is is because, although his entire series of conscious memories may be reproduced and eliminated every five minutes, in the next five minutes that same series comes back to him, except for those few memories that were formed in the previous few minutes. Leonard 1 returns every time, with the exception of those recent conscious memories, and, thus, is just who he believes himself to be. Since this is so, he is not a multiple person, and there is no mystery about his personal identity. us, Leonard 1 does not shed light on the issue of personal identity. e issues are di erent when we look at Leonard 2. He is the person who su ers an assault and who accidentally kills his wife, who did not die in the assault, with insulin. He then transposes his own past with that of

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Sammy Jankis, in that he projects his memories onto Sammy and invents false ones for himself. He then enters a mental institution, escapes, and tries to avenge his supposedly murdered wife. Leonard 2 is a more troubling case for the issue of personal identity, for a myriad of reasons. e main worry is that he should have a linear series of conscious memories but does not. To see why this is, let us create another distinction. Leonard 2a is the person who existed before the assault. is is the person who lived with his wife but whose series of conscious memories halted soon a er the assault. Leonard 2a su ers a kind of death when his entire set of memories is infected, is fused with that of another person. In point of fact, there is no way to ascertain the details of this fusion, either from the inside or from the outside, or to decide which of his present memories are true and which false. But this is not really death, for some person seems to survive. Leonard 2b comes into being at this point. He is the person who is created by the assault. is occurred when Leonard 2a took his own conscious memories and projected them onto Sammy Jankis and then invented false ones for himself. But who is Leonard 2b? In point of fact, Locke would not find this an easy question to answer, for this person has not a series of conscious memories but only an uneasy mix of two, which are fused together. In Locke’s theory, there does not seem to be an answer to this question. Parfit insists: “Any two people fused together will have di erent characteristics, di erent desires, and di erent intentions.” e trouble is that some of these states will be compatible and some not. It follows that, in any fused person, when that person is stable enough to have a consistent set of characteristics, some of both persons will be sacrificed. Parfit notes that, a erward, the resultant person will not be wholly similar to either and, thus, that this may seem like a kind of death.12 In other words, such identity fusion may strike us as death, for our personhood changes. But such partial survival is not really the end either. Leonard 2b is such a person, although the question now is whether such personhood is worth having. ere is no real answer to who Leonard 2b is—only that he bears degrees of resemblance to both his former persons. e message here is that “survival itself can have degrees” yet also that this sort of identity is, in fact, worth having.13 Mark Rowlands notes that this revelation can change our expectations, for, as soon as we drop the prejudices that personal identity is transitive, that our memories must be true, and that there must be a static and unified self, we realize that no one is ever identical with himself over time but, rather, that “we are all just survivors, very close survivors, of the persons we were a moment ago.”14 is realization allows us to drop our

John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento 43 vain hopes for anything more from personal identity and to see that we should alter our attitudes about it. But the moral here is that cases of personal identity fusion are not so unusual. e di erence between Leonard 2b and us is that he has projected his former memories onto another person and created false ones for himself, which we presumably do not do. But this is an inessential di erence, for we are still forced to reinterpret our own pasts (our memories aren’t like photographs or written chronicles; they’re hazy, fragmented, partial), and this activity of reinterpretation again issues in a mixture of true and false memories that become our personal identity. In other words, our true and false memories determine who we will be.15 Leonard 2b, as well as we, have fused personal identities, at least to some extent. ere are two disturbing consequences of this. e first consequence is that, just as Leonard 2a has a special concern for his future, we have a special concern for our futures. Since Leonard 2a counts on not becoming Leonard 2b, and since we count on not becoming anything we do not choose to be, it is rational for both to have a special concern for their respective futures. But, if Leonard 2a comes to believe that he will be the fused Leonard 2b, and if we come to believe that we will be fused, then neither of us will count on being the same person in the future. If Leonard 2a and we suspect that our future persons will be entirely unlike us, then neither will have any rational interest in those future persons.16 But, plainly, this is a problem, for we all care about our futures and do so rationally. However, this problem of concern for our future personhoods may not be so serious a er all. We still may have many conscious memories that traverse the former and later persons. Since this is so, we can be optimists about our futures, in the hope that these memories will justify our special concern for them. e second consequence of our having fused personal identities, at least to some extent, concerns the attribution of responsibility. If we are fused persons to any degree, this renders any attribution of responsibility di cult. e memory theory of personal identity, and its successor in terms of survival, is supposed to explain such responsibility, but does not seem to. Leonard 2b is a mix of Sammy Jankis and invented memories, just as we reinterpret our pasts and become a mix of true and false memories. is consequence spells trouble, for, in such cases of fusion, there seems to be no way to say who is really responsible for any action. If we are fused persons, it is di cult to know what element of us bears responsibility for our actions. is problem, although di cult, is not completely intractable, for we still do attribute responsibility to fused persons. In attributions, we

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just attempt to decrease the amount of responsibility that the present person bears in inverse proportion to any increase in the fusion he su ers. In the end, however, perhaps there can be only conjectures about these difficulties concerning our concern for our futures or about the attribution of responsibility.

Conclusion
So, what can we really glean from this comparison of Locke and Memento on the topic of personal identity? e first lesson is that personal identity is constituted by our having a series of conscious memories, at least usually. In most cases, this memory theory seems to be the only plausible candidate for a conception of personal identity. is is so even though there is no chronological constraint on any linear series of conscious memories. e second lesson is that any series of conscious memories can be fused with another, such that the result is a mix of two persons or a mix of the true and false. But, then, it follows that our personal identity is not really identity at all but, rather, a matter of survival, which, in turn, admits of degrees. is may seem like a radical notion, but it is so only because we are used to thinking of personal identity as transitive, of our memories as true, and of identity as static and unified. e third lesson is that, given this memory theory of personal identity, our special concern for our futures, and the attribution of responsibility to such persons, may turn out to have problems a er all.17

Notes
1. In point of fact, many philosophers call this theory of personal identity the memory theory. But this is misleading because memories are of many kinds of mental states, such as desires, beliefs, and even long-term goals. It follows that this theory of personal identity in terms of memory is really about psychological continuity over time. 2. John Locke bears this in mind, for he notes that his speculations on personal identity are “apt to look strange to some readers.” is is so, he says, only because of the “ignorance of the nature of that thinking thing that is in us” (Essay concerning Human Understanding [1690], ed. Walter Ott [New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004], 278 [page numbers for subsequent quotations will be given in the text]). 3. It does not matter for this account if it is souls or bodies that are said to be necessary for personal identity. is is because the postulation of either as neces-

but. In this version. But. Ibid. 4. 1968). In particular. he would not have either tattoo. reprinted in Perry. “human laws punish both.” yet also “I’ve done it. 11. Personal Identity. Parfit. 5. e trouble is that. 6. if his wife is alive. 118. 13. ed. we see a flashback wherein Leonard has “John G. Armstrong (New York: Doubleday.. is justifiably angry. Locke distinguishes between the man and the person. plainly. without this sort of knowledge. we cleave to a false personal identity. perhaps one that mixes his desire for vengeance with his desire to see his wife alive. Leonard 2b and we are still in di erent positions. He insists that God will have the solution for our errors. M..” tattooed on his chest. thus. C. Derek Parfit. and about his not yet having killed John G.” 212. ed. Martin and D. chronology is broken. omas Reid. since these are usually the same. 115. 2005). given the continuity. we might be more fused than we think we are and that. it does not follow that his personhood is fractured by this.. 9. Anthony Flew.g. In this version. raped and killed my wife.John Locke. “Personal Identity” (1971). ere is a chronological requirement for personal identity on this account simply because all that matters now is continuity. is must be part of a dream. Leonard has many reasons to kill Teddy a er all. Sci-Phi: Philosophy from Socrates to Schwarzenegger (New York: St. 209. Martin’s Gri n. reprinted in Locke and Berkeley: A Collection of Critical Essays. for “in the great day. “there are too many distinct contenders” to be him (Philosophy through Film [New York: Routledge. however. Personal Identity. ed. 12. she says that. In particular. He says that. yet with more detail . 10. On the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785). Leonard is correct that Teddy lies about many things: about his wife dying during the assault. 215. we would still expect to wake up as ourselves. But. that either souls or bodies may provide evidence for personal identity but are irrelevant to what it actually is. because of that. with his wife alive. 15. 7. 159. Leonard is lied to by Teddy and. 1992]. we do not know just how bad the fusion is. Even so. 1975).” and rightfully so. B. about Sammy Jankis. Mark Rowlands. reprinted in Personal Identity. 14. no one will be made to answer for what he knows nothing of ” (278). e. “Locke and the Problem of Personal Identity” (1951). Michael Baur interprets Leonard 2b in this way. in cases of hibernating for generations and then waking up. even if Leonard is reproduced every few minutes. “Personal Identity. Mary Litch seems to understand Leonard in this way. a er the assault. is is easily imagined. lying beside him. and Memento 45 sary for such identity is open to the same criticism. when the secrets of the heart shall be laid open. 77). In such cases. o en. in the end of the film. his case suggests that. for his fusion is worse than ours. John Perry (Berkeley: University of California Press. 8.

Derek Parfit.” in Movies and the Meaning of Life. he says. 307. 2005]). ed. Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press. See his “Personal Identity over Time. even if the memory theory of personal identity does have such problems. 2005). is is especially so. eodore Sider notes that.” in Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics. ed. 16. Earl Conee and eodore Sider (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 17. 1984).46 Basil Smith (see his “We All Need Mirrors to Remind Us Who We Are: Inherited Meaning and Inherited Selves in Memento. . because the problems are the same for other theories. that does not help any other theory. Kimberly Blessing and Paul Tudico [Chicago: Open Court.

faulty. and dynamism) that characterize the archetypal American hero and who therefore function as antiheroes. Noir’s depiction of its male protagonists—what Frank Krutnik calls its “pervasive problematising of masculine identity”—is expressive of a fundamentally existentialist view of life. whose experience of time is confused. Both films were made by English writer-directors and show the continued importance of émigré talent to the development of American film noir. 1967) and Memento (Christopher Nolan. I wish to argue that the development of neo-noir—which may be loosely defined as films noirs made a er the “classic period” (1940–59) by filmmakers who draw consciously on that body of films—intensified these existential characteristics. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (Mike Hodges. tenacity. 2003) One of the most arresting traits of film noir is its depiction of male protagonists who lack the qualities (courage. 2000)—are extreme examples of a pervasive tendency. noir’s “nonheroic hero” is such because he operates in a world “devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero. 47 . And memories deceive.”2 In this essay. and who is deeply uncertain about his past and unsure about the meaning of the present activity he is engaged in and the very fabric of his identity. incorruptibility. unstable.1 As Robert Porfirio argues. —Will Graham. Typical noir male protagonists are weak. depicting an antihero whose memory is. or may be.Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero Andrew Spicer Most thoughts are memories. e two films I focus on—Point Blank (John Boorman. damaged men who su er from a range of psychological neuroses and who are unable to resolve the problems they face. confused. and ine ectual.

never an opportunity to escape the bonds of convention. carrying an undercurrent of violence that can strike at any moment. and challenging. Although. “existence precedes essence. complex.” Barrett defines its central characteristics as “alienation and estrangement. and man is forever struggling for self-definition. a sense of the basic fragility and contingency of human life. Porfirio notes valuably that. Raymond Chandler. and from Ernest Hemingway.” “authenticity. money.48 Andrew Spicer Existentialism and Film Noir e term existentialism was coined toward the end of the Second World War by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel as a label for the emerging ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre. As Porfirio argues. and the fear that any or all activity may be futile and meaningless. as Barrett suggests. it is a philosophy that addresses modern experience and was.5 is. and Cornell Woolrich. loneliness. and there is no evidence that American film noir was directly a ected by the writings of European existentialists. in Sartre’s famous phrase. the noir protagonist’s choice is never a real one. existentialist ideas began to seem relevant in the uncertain cultural climate of postwar America. therefore. one should not ascribe this to the direct influence of Sartre or to an explicit body of philosophical writing. I suggest. In a world where the familiar is fraught with danger and a sense of dread. trying to forge an identity from the confusing assault of experience. reacting to an inchoate.” there are no transcendent values or moral absolutes. except through the hollow freedom represented by sex. although existentialism has its positive aspect—emphasizing “freedom. the impotence of reason confronted with the depths of existence. and the promise of adventure. is entirely typical of the ways in which popular culture assimilates ideas and attitudes that are di cult. the noir hero tries to make . whose Being and Nothingness was first published in 1944. Thus. notably Dashiell Hammett.3 As William Barrett argues.”4 Because. power. one that could “cross the frontier from the Academy into the world at large. contingent world dominated by blind chance that is always threatening. Porfirio contends that film noir’s adoption of existentialism derives much more directly from the work of the “hardboiled” school of writers.” “responsibility”—film noir is much more concerned with its darker side. and the solitary and unsheltered condition of the individual before this threat. film noir exhibits a “generalized adoption” of existentialist ideas rather than adherence to the work of any specific thinkers. The noir antihero often acts from desperation rather than rational choice. the threat of Nothingness. which emphasizes alienation.

Problems of Memory and Identity 49 some order out of what happens. but speak of a radical skepticism about American virtues of ambition. and dream sequences—that are such a striking feature of film noir are attempts to render this discontinuity. John Orr has identified a neo-modernist “movement” in film that emerged at the end of the 1950s in France and Italy and gradually disseminated outward during the 1960s and 1970s. as Alan Woolfolk argues. the noir protagonist is dominated by the past.” which had underpinned the classic Hollywood action genres. of pointlessness and uselessness: stances which are not only interpretable psychologically. vision. the stability of linear chronology is undermined. characterdriven causality of classic Hollywood cinema and develop a modernist American cinema that exhibited the same characteristics as European neomodernism.7 Because. this European neo-modernism encouraged American filmmakers to break with the coherent. depicting unmotivated characters adri in ambiguous situations that are beyond their comprehension and that they are incapable of resolving. omas Elsaesser notes. for a time.” and it is possible to argue that neo-noir has been more powerfully pervaded with existentialist ideas. brought “an almost physical sense of inconsequential action. Existentialism and Modernist Neo-Noir Porfirio’s comments relate to “classic noir. pervaded by a strong sense of absurdity that stems from the seriousness with which the protagonist views his actions and their ultimate insignificance.” who. voice-overs. Neo-modernist films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) exhibit indeterminate narratives and complex. and. enigmatic characterization. and time becomes discontinuous and fragmented.11 In a period of escalating production costs and shrinking audiences.10 e psychologically or emotionally motivated classic hero was replaced by the “unmotivated hero. again derived not from philosophical writings but from European film practice.9 As Robert Kolker argues. particularly what the past holds for the present and the future.8 e narrative devices—flashbacks. a momentary stay against confusion.6 As Steven Sanders suggests. showing a pervasive concern with problems of identity and memory. American cinema entered a period of experimentation in which a new generation of filmmakers—such as Arthur . drive. noir is imbued with a strong fatalism that emphasizes not freedom but constraint and entrapment. studios became willing to look to young talent outside the established system. European neo-modernism is profoundly existentialist.

alienation. American neo-noir directors deliberately showed standard narrative conventions—such as the quest.” the private eye Philip Marlowe.14 In Robert Altman’s remake of the classic noir e Long Goodbye in 1973. within a popular generic tradition but. Chandler’s “modern knight. as Paul Schrader argued in his seminal “Notes on Film Noir” (1972). which Jack Shadoian identifies as “a serious attempt to bring the genre perceptually and aesthetically up-to-date. Whereas European directors tended to abandon genre altogether for a more intellectualized and abstract art cinema. critiquing the cultural myths at the heart of popular genres. “open” endings. rambling narrative.12 Although this revisionism occurred across a range of genres. Boorman sensed the possibilities that were opening up. for the most part. in which the drives of the investigative thriller are replaced by an existential uncertainty about the meaning of events. e confusion. his banal or inconsequential actions of a piece with the film’s episodic. or even destructive. a moment when “there was a complete loss of nerve by the American studios”: “ ey were willing to cede power to the directors. where any action was shown as both pointless and absurd.50 Andrew Spicer Penn and Martin Scorsese—was given the space to make challenging films. investigation.”16 Boorman was helped in . exposing them as defunct. was played by Elliott Gould as a shambling.” and David omson as “the first and maybe still the richest merging of an American genre with European art house aspirations. in the process. a Dream” ese developments in American neo-noir were heralded by John Boorman’s astonishing Point Blank (1967). ambiguous.” Foster Hirsch as “the first truly post-noir noir. e demise of the Production Code allowed a greater degree of latitude in the depiction of the protagonist’s motivations and the possibility of unresolved. American neo-modernists worked. distracted dri er.”15 An inexperienced young director.13 Without abandoning altogether the pulp fiction origins of the crime genre. the antitraditionalism of film noir lent itself particularly well to a critique of American values. and fragmented identity that characterized the classic noir hero became incorporated into a more extreme epistemological confusion. Point Blank: “Did It Happen? A Dream. thereby questioning narrative itself as a meaningful activity. or journey—collapsing. undertook a radical generic revisionism. inadequate. o ering itself as ripe for revaluation and reappropriation to a generation disillusioned by the war in Vietnam.

but his figure is photographed from unusual angles to make it appear grotesque. He seems able to appear and reappear in di erent locations. looks on. As he enters the turbulent waters surrounding the prison. Boorman deliberately makes it unclear whether Walker survived the shooting and. Walker’s actions are not bound by ordinary logic. and identity. Lee Marvin. typical of the film. subject to the dream logic of desire. one should be able to imagine that this whole story of vengeance is taking place inside his head at the moment of his death. who handed over to Boorman virtually total creative control. Boorman commented: “Seeing the film. including Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). But Boorman was primarily influenced by modernist European filmmakers. In an audacious series of discontinuous. a dream. us. Walker (Lee Marvin) is shot at point-blank range by his close friend Mal Reese (John Vernon) in a cell on Alcatraz. fully recovered Walker aboard a tourist boat that circles the Rock. Point Blank is an archetypal revenge thriller. there are echoes of several such films. now Reese’s lover. Narrative Ambiguity In essence.”19 However. as Jack Shadoian argues. carefully set against this is Point Blank’s frequent emphasis on the quotidian banality of modern life.”18 Indeed. In the opening scene. memory. Lynne (Sharon Acker).17 Point Blank is highly conscious of classic noir. 1964) and especially Alain Resnais’ L’année dernière á Marienbad ( e Last Year at Marienbad. the location for their hijack of syndicate money. captured in his mutterings as he collapses: “Did it happen? A dream. and is. so Walker su ers a double betrayal. and in one shot his face is lit from below so that it resembles a primitive mask. leaving Walker for dead.” In an interview. but turned inside out. not of reality: “ e narrative mode is imitative of dream because dream is the only mode in which the hero’s situation can be put. primeval. Reese and Lynne depart. Boorman shows Walker apparently escaping from Alcatraz. Walker’s wife. including Antonioni’s experimentation with color in Il deserto rosso ( e Red Desert. on the gadgets . able to obliterate space and time. elliptical cuts. thus. thus. a voice-over intones the history of this “escape-proof jail” from which no one has got away. as a shock cut shows us a besuited. 1961). with its exploration of the ambiguities of desire. whether the events we witness are actually happening or whether they are Walker’s compensatory hallucination just before he dies. e film is Walker’s dream.Problems of Memory and Identity 51 his negotiations with MGM by the star.

” an antihero who represents old-fashioned human values in a world of nameless corporations and shadowy. thereby achieving the “monochromatic intensity” he wanted. but not too violently. he is a “force. Walker. “distracted” modern viewer. e score was also experimental. slumped on a sofa. the environments distorted. Audiences were able. as established in the opening scene. more tonal than melodic—very unusual at this point—which also creates a distancing e ect. e famous scene in the discotheque.21 He used a subtle but tightly controlled color palette. gradually changing from cold grays and silvers through blue and green to warmer yellows and reds. unsure how to interpret events. Boorman combines the pace and drive of the typical American thriller with a series of distancing devices that encourage critical reflection. Boorman made his audience aware of some background action without it being too distracting. was expressive of all the violence seething in his head. leaving the viewer constantly unsettled. e film’s visual style deliberately hesitates between realism (which Boorman felt was an important element of film noir) and abstraction.” But. channel-hops as he watches television. o en choosing to shoot at night so that the color was drained out.52 Andrew Spicer that dominate interior spaces. On one level.20 Boorman deliberately avoided the “garish” color saturations that were the norm at this point. but without plunging into asynchronous abstraction. on advertising billboards and radio jingles. By choosing to shoot with a new forty-millimeter Panavision lens. in one scene. Characterization and Performance is hesitation also informs the character of Walker himself. he is a supreme individualist. on another. more mythic level. with its lurid psychedelic colors and screaming black vocalist. to accept this device through the fluidity of the editing. like any ordinary. which gave an extreme wide angle but also more depth of field in close-ups. bureaucratic criminal empires where there seems to be no real distinction between legality and . relentlessly pursuing the two people who have betrayed him and demanding the restoration of the money he is “owed. Visual Style It is this hesitation between mundanity and fantasy that makes the film so powerful. to reveal Walker’s state of mind. Boorman thought. the characters’ costumes always reinforcing the dominant color of each scene.

Boorman commented: “I wanted my setting to be hard. with its vast. vertiginous buildings of steel and plate glass. thrashing assorted hoods. Point Blank can be read as part of a representative personal biography of a man who comes back from the dead and tries to find his humanity. thus reinforcing the figure’s mythic status. Boorman replaced conventional character psychology with a blank mask.” He is possessed by all the nausea and alienation that characterize existential man. Walker was “a catalyst who exposes the corruption of their world. expressing. his friendship with Mal Reese. profoundly alienated from everything and everyone. Walker bursts into Lynne’s apartment. pushing her roughly aside and firing repeatedly into the empty bed. Repetitions and Doublings However. indeed. using Marvin’s taught. Despite studio opposition. which his outsider’s eye transformed into the representative city of modernity. thus.” to suggest a walking corpse. for which Los Angeles was absolutely right. in an exaggerated form. to give a human face to corporate America.23 us. what Boorman called his “stony intensity. in the main action. Boorman chose to set Point Blank in Los Angeles. as if attempting to kill her and Reese in flagrante and. cold and in a sense futuristic. noticeably in the flashbacks to his courtship of Lynne. Boorman. felt that Point Blank was also about the actor’s existential estrangement from American society and. anonymous and indi erent. For Boorman. not least from his chilling performance in Don Siegel’s remake of e Killers (1964). sterile world. A er Lynne talks to him—Walker . their desire for direct access to the people in charge. angular frame and expressionless face. In the second scene. it also endows him with a certain humanity. Although Point Blank presents Walker as an indestructible automaton. Marvin’s presence as the antihero is disconcerting because of the menace and violence associated with the actor’s persona. Boorman argued that all Marvin’s performances were underscored by his struggle to recapture the humanity he felt he had lost. the rage and frustration that ordinary citizens feel in the face of the impersonality of modern life dominated by technology. Walker’s fragile humanity is overwhelmed by revenge.”22 As a modernist. eradicate the hideous memory of them together on Alcatraz. and their idyllic if ultimately destructive ménage à trois. humanity. who developed a deep relationship with Marvin. I wanted an empty.Problems of Memory and Identity 53 criminality. consequent on his having been brutalized as a seventeen-year-old boy sent to war in 1943.

and their relationship seems to replay the earlier one between Walker and Lynne. Point Blank consistently collocates sex. making it almost lyrical. only for Walker to find that she is now dead. then Reese and Lynne. when he returns to the bedroom. “I want you this way. he drags him out of bed naked. and falls to the street below. that his life is repeating itself. and. a space now strangely empty. as Walker and Reese are doppelgängers. with Reese dragging Walker to the floor when they meet at a convention. who is captured by Walker when he is in bed with Chris in his penthouse apartment. a venal dark self. Walker takes his wedding ring o and places it tenderly on her hand.25 When he first meets Chris. willing to betray and kill and to take his place in the Organization. In a later scene when Walker finally sleeps with Chris. e impression is that he is caught in a revolving door. . and he slumps into the corner of the room. a er which Walker appears to come to in an empty room. Angie Dickinson was cast in the role of Lynne’s sister. money. as Shadoian points out. with Chris used as the bait for Walker’s revenge on Mal Reese. o en through an innovative deployment of flashbacks that seem more expressive of a character’s feeling or state of mind than an objective rendering of the past. a seemingly endless repetition of interchangeable couplings. but it also exhibits the other key element of Point Blank’s style.26 is homoeroticism is also part of the film’s doubling. pleading with Walker to help as he lies on top of him. Not only does the scene hesitate between dream and reality. there is a slow-motion replay of his entry and the shooting. and death. and finally Reese and Chris. no covers on the bed. as they make love. because of the strong physical resemblance between the two actresses. Boorman cuts to Walker and Lynne in the same position. saying. A latent homosexuality in male relationships is a characteristic of crime films. Boorman observed that he wanted to create a feeling of “déjà vu”: “Everything that happens to Walker has happened to him before. the relationship of Walker and Reese has strong homoerotic undercurrents.54 Andrew Spicer does not react—about her dri toward Mal. Reese representing the conformist side of Walker. its use of repetition. there is no body. loses his footing. Walker has to rouse her from a death-like sleep.”24 Part of this repetition is the curious doubling (typical of dreams) of the characters. Chris. . having taken an overdose. Shortly a er.” only for Reese to die accidentally as he becomes entangled in the sheets. her dress pulled up around her thighs. as if he were back in the cell on Alcatraz. there is an overtly sexual shot of Lynne on the bed. It is Chris who questions Walker’s whole quest of revenge. calling him . As he goes into the bedroom. . When Walker surprises Reese in the penthouse.

revealed as an empty spectacle or a recurring nightmare. the boundary between indies and the majors has become increasingly blurred. even a er the deaths of Lynne and Reese. it remains a form that continues to accommodate complex. “gradually melds back into nothingness. He retreats into the shadows of Alcatraz. e massive home consumption of films on video and now DVD has been an integral part of . Walker clings stubbornly to the task of recovering “his” money. as I have argued elsewhere. At this point. from a radical modernism to a more commodified postmodernism. and his own ultimate powerlessness: he has changed nothing. as the rich orange-brown hues of a new dawn envelop the ruined prison. and the fragility of identity in the face of a contingent and meaningless world. As many commentators have pointed out. is blurring of boundaries is partly dependent on shi s in patterns of consumption. recognizing. and many neo-noirs straddle what is becoming a diminishing divide between art house films and mainstream cinema. the delusion of a man already dead. expressing the blank pointlessness of modern existence.27 Boorman’s “warming” of the film’s colors also delivers another ironic blow.Problems of Memory and Identity 55 a “pathetic sight. how he has been brutalized by his revenge. underscoring the redundancy of Walker’s circular story. the fallibility of memory. is leads to a return to Alcatraz (the only place where actual money is exchanged within the Organization). engaged in using Walker as the means to dispose of his rivals. where the control of the major studios is more strict.28 e development of independent (“indie”) cinema has provided a space that o ers more creative freedom than is possible in mainstream filmmaking. Walker finds that the man who has apparently been helping him (and who seemed to be a policeman) is Fairfax (Keenan Wynn). Existentialism and Postmodern Neo-Noir Although neo-noir has passed. us. in a final savage irony. In the 1990s. chasing shadows. Walker refuses Fairfax’s o er to join him. cine-literate. audiences have become increasingly knowledgeable. and the utter futility of his desire to get his money back. a story of revenge becomes an existentialist narrative about the nature of desire. at long last. generating thought-provoking pictures in the absence of the widespread distribution of European films.” as Boorman puts it. di cult ideas and in which existentialist attitudes continue to flourish. where. capable of accepting and enjoying a degree of uncertainty and an enigmatic quality in characterization and narrative.” but. the head of the Organization.

Following (1998). and has spent time in both England and the United States—was. Memento was a modestly budgeted indie film whose success allowed it to cross over onto the mainstream circuit and achieve widespread distribution and exhibition. with an American mother and English father. In Romeo Is Bleeding (1994). this unreliability is pushed toward a radical indeterminacy that is profoundly existentialist. the confessional flashback narrative of the corrupt New York cop Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman) is both self-serving and deceitful as he rearranges chronology in order to disguise or evade his own motives. Nolan—who is bicultural. and an unreliable narrator whose confusions about memory and identity remain unresolved. which attracted attention a er it won prizes at several festivals. A flashback structure is common.000 using friends and acquaintances from University College London. allowing audiences to inspect films in great detail and enjoy the minutiae of knowing references. and ambiguous than their predecessors. is a thoroughly existentialist film displaying elements that Nolan developed in Memento—a fragmented visual style. having earned a reputation in the United States with his first film. a complex. His recollections are frequently interrupted by dream sequences. but. made for only £7. like Boorman. postmodern flashbacks are more visceral. where Nolan studied. but it also reaches back to classic noir and Point Blank.56 Andrew Spicer this process. o en ba ing narrative with a triple time scheme.30 In some indie noirs. oblique. an inexperienced director making his debut American film. Memento: “Do I Lie to Make Myself Happy?” Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) is highly conscious of these developments. including Performance (1970). as John Orr notes. directed by the Hungarian-born but English-raised Peter Medak.29 Contemporary neo-noir filmmakers have used these conditions to experiment boldly in both narrative and subject matter. Postmodern noirs o en display highly convoluted plots that circle back on themselves and a pervasive uncertainty about the reliability of what is being shown or told and the processes of memory. Hence the growth of cult films. Nolan . which undermine his credibility as a narrator and question the whole basis of his story. which “become the property of any audience’s private space” and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. underscored by an existential fear of meaninglessness. Following.31 Memento also shows the influence of European art cinema and of the complex narrative structures and discontinuous editing of Nicolas Roeg’s films.

. mundane world that was palpably recognizable and contemporary. but because he wanted his setting to have an anonymous familiarity. including John G. e Blue Dahlia (George Marshall. 1946). he cannot recall what he has just done. thus. Somewhere in the Night (Joseph L. for example—Shelby’s condition is di erent because he retains his long-term memory. and the circumstances of his wife’s death but cannot make new memories a er that trauma. Nolan valued. . Memento begins with a murder: Shelby shoots Teddy (Joe . Nolan felt that this gave him the opportunity to explore memory and identity with greater precision: “It’s not like these amnesia movies where there’s no rules. He also has a series of tattoos inscribed on his body to preserve other facts he finds out.”34 In doing so.’s car registration. Deadline at Dawn (Harold Clurman. 1945). he saw its futuristic modernity. an insurance investigator who has lost his short-term memory through a head injury su ered when he tried to rescue his wife from being raped and murdered. renew “the confusion and uncertainty and ambiguity that those types of characters used to have. Memento employs an innovative and complex narrative structure that reinforces the uncertainty and ambiguity the antihero experiences. a certainty about who he is. as did Boorman. is is a knottier—[Shelby] knows who he was but not who he has become. he takes Polaroid snapshots of places and people he encounters. Although a number of films noirs have protagonists who su er from amnesia—Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock. a world of nondescript bars and impersonal motels that was “quintessentially American. Shelby describes his situation as “like you always just woke up.Problems of Memory and Identity 57 set his film in Los Angeles. 1946). he breathes new life into familiar existentialist tropes. where the guy doesn’t know anything so anything can be true.” dependent on being located in a vast country that had a homogeneous culture.32 Reverse Chronology Memento is the story of Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce).” and.”33 It was also the device through which Nolan could “freshen up and re-awaken some of the neuroses behind the familiar elements” and. one “John G. Like many noirs. and High Wall (Curtis Bernhardt. writing captions on those snapshots in order to retain essential information. although he is able to plan ahead. Mankiewicz. the realism of film noir and was anxious to ground his complex story in an everyday.” In order to compensate for his a iction. like Boorman. . not because. Shelby is determined to take revenge on his wife’s killer. 1947). but lost because we’ve come to expect those kind of surprises. 1946).

everything is happening inside his head. as the two color registers have di erent resonances for the audience. used to provide a slightly di erent perspective because of their context. like any conventional hero. showing “how the same situation can be viewed di erently. is constantly undermines the audience’s expectations. instead of a conventional investigative flashback in which the events leading up to the murder are then explained and their motivation revealed. the undercover policeman who has been helping him but who he now feels is his wife’s killer. but gradually. nevertheless. because there is no time-line. despite the odds. If it was a straight-backwards film. But. and his desire for revenge is understandable and even morally justified. the black-and-white sequences—in which Shelby is in telephone dialogue with a confidant (possibly Teddy. the black-and-white sequences are also revealed as subjective. Later on down the line. the audience . he is the distraught victim of a hideous and traumatic crime. but you can’t do that with this film. Initially. a further disorientation. As Nolan comments. Memento constantly shi s from color to black and white. It is impossible. His fevered search for his wife’s killer makes him an empathetic character.” Memento is peppered with flashbacks.58 Andrew Spicer Pantoliano). thus creating the possibility that. you could just take that two-dimensional time-line and flip it over. keeping viewers in the state of heightened attention that Nolan felt was essential to understand the film’s ambiguities and the process of memory itself. . what we learn in each new scene constantly undermining the knowledge that the previous scene seemed to establish as genuine. On one level. each scene depicting events that immediately precede the action we have just watched. quasi-documentary depiction of Shelby’s situation. for the audience to orient itself to the sequence of events as the structure is a hairpin or widening gyre: “You can never find out where you are in the time-line. Characterization and Performance ese structural ambiguities inform our understanding of Shelby himself. . you realize that the film doesn’t run back. but this is never made clear)—seem to provide a more objective. . Memento unfolds in reverse.”35 In addition. as Nolan asserts. depending on what information you already know up to that point. it’s a Möbius strip. direct or indirect repetitions of the same events that are. as in Point Blank. and his problems of memory loss compound our sympathy and our desire that he should succeed. as the pace of the intercutting between the two modes increases. engaged in the search for truth and justice.

Shelby is forever engaged in the act of self-creation but haunted by a fear of meaninglessness and a fall into chaos.37 Guy Pearce manages the di cult feat of being. Shelby is intrigued by the tattoos that cover his torso.Problems of Memory and Identity 59 is drawn inexorably into Shelby’s consciousness. a slick careerist. an attempt that fails because he cannot remember why he asked her there. a icted with a similar short-term memory loss. identifying with him because we never know more than he does as the narrative structure “mirrors the mind-set [he] is trapped in. e ambivalence that the audience feels toward Shelby’s character is crucial to Memento’s structure. and Nolan wanted the sense of a dialogue between Shelby’s past and present selves as he attempts to bridge the indeterminate gap in time between his wife’s murder and his present position. there is increasing evidence not only that Shelby is capable of exploiting his condition but also that he has a suppressed and easily triggered violence that can erupt at any moment. and manipulated by the ostensibly sympathetic but hard and ruthless femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) so that she might benefit from a lucrative drug deal. the flashbacks to Shelby’s time as an insurance salesman reveal a far less engaging figure. or wants to believe.”36 An extreme example of existential man. His condition means that he can be exploited. Nolan was fortunate. when he beats and ties up Dodd (who may be part of the drug deal). as they have become part of his consciousness. that his condition is faked. Shelby rejects Jankis’s claims for support because he suspects. who for . but not shocked by them. in casting an actor who was capable of great subtlety in his performance. Pearce conveys how. bewildered and cunning. sucked into the schemes and counterschemes of Teddy. he admits. And. However. whom he is all too ready to accept as his wife’s murderer. In a beautiful touch. who dies as she attempts to test Sammy through repeated demands that he inject her with insulin. His brutality is displayed when he punches Natalie. at the same time. Pearce was also a star without a clearly defined persona—unlike Brad Pitt. and when he kills Jimmy Grantz. indi erent to the plight of Sammy Jankis. Shelby conveys his suspicions to Jankis’s diabetic wife. a man who has a darker side that may even be capable of murder but that his amnesia has allowed him to forget. e disturbing scene in which Shelby hires a prostitute to restage his recollections of his final night with his wife is tolerable because it is an attempt to shock him into recovering his memory. each time he wakes. bittersweet quality. e flashbacks that show Shelby together with his wife have an engaging. as the events unfurl backward toward the opening shooting of Teddy. projecting a man haunted by the fear that he may have done something wrong.

Shelby replies: “Do I lie to make myself happy?” Shelby. which can be changed or distorted. his whole identity in tatters. manipulative undercover cop under pressure. and. provokes a more profound uncertainty. Distracted. which belong to the gangster Grantz.38 An Unresolved Ending Memento’s backward-spiraling narrative ensures that this existential confusion intensifies rather than settling itself. and he will be able to continue his quest. drives o at high speed in Grantz’s Jaguar. Memento ends on a note of profound existential ambiguity. now dressed in the clothes we have always seen him in. the veracity of Shelby’s long-term memories. who not only had no wife but is a vulgar con man. instead of resolving the issues. the attractive but not heroic ordinary guy caught up in a maelstrom of confused feelings and uncertainty. A er Shelby kills Grantz in a deserted warehouse on the outskirts of the city (another of Memento’s archetypal noir locations). who has orchestrated the killing. But were the dreadful revelations Shelby has just been told true? Or were they the weasel words of a corrupt.”39 is process was encouraged by the film’s detailed Web site. tells Leonard not only that he has used him to kill a series of undesirables but that Shelby’s wife actually survived the attack and died later when Shelby accidentally administered a fatal dose of insulin. stalling for time? Is Teddy another unreliable narrator? Like Point Blank. is disclosure undermines what had seemed to be the only certainty. with that. an action that proves the fallibility of the system that he has prided himself on and that also condemns Teddy to death in the scene that is now about to take place.60 Andrew Spicer a time was interested in playing Shelby—and therefore brought to the role an Everyman quality. Conclusion Chris Darke commented: “ e real pleasure of Memento lies in its openness to re-viewing and hence to interpretation. Teddy’s death will eradicate what Shelby has just been told. Shelby has subsequently fabricated this action into the story of Sammy Jankis. culminating in the chilling final scene that. Teddy. the whole basis of the romantic revenge quest that he has set himself. Teddy tells Shelby (in what is the closest Memento comes to a direct statement) that memories are not records but subjective interpretations. but not before writing “Don’t believe his lies” on Teddy’s photograph. which helped Memento quickly attain .

no. Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1958. 14. ed. but both can justifiably be called meta-noirs. 1996). 9. in time. rough their ambiguous antiheroes. Notes I am grateful to my partner. 36. A Cinema of Loneliness (New York: Oxford University Press. Existentialism. 6 (October 1975): 13–19. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. Mystery. “Film après Noir. 2. Brian McFarlane. Frank Krutnik. 12. “ e Horizon of Disenchantment: Film Noir. reprinted in Film Noir Reader. 1993).” Film Comment 12. Porfirio. New York: Anchor. 227–45. Robert Porfirio. 4 (1976): 212–17. 1976). Dreams and Dead Ends: e American Gangster/Crime . 2nd ed. 13.” Sight and Sound 45. 2 (1976): 44–49. 15.. Dr. In a Lonely Street: Film Noir. 10. 290. 1. ed. 81. Cinema and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity. Jack Shadoian. Alain Silver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight. demonstrating the powerful undercurrent of existentialism that runs throughout the whole development of film noir.Problems of Memory and Identity 61 the cult status it now enjoys. Alan Woolfolk. Mark T. Joyce Woolridge. no. 7. 9. 1 (1972): 8. “ e Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 1970s: Notes on the Unmotivated Hero. 6. Alex Ballinger. 8. 3. 91–92. Paul Schrader. 2004). Adventure. Steven M. 4. 2006). 117–19. “No Way Out: Existentialist Motifs in the Film Noir. no.” in e Philosophy of Film Noir. Ibid. Larry Gross. William Barrett. 11. 99. 1990).” 80–82. and Noel King (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 83. John Cawelti. Cooper. and the Vicissitudes of Descent. both explore the complex and fraught nature of memory and the problems of identity. John Orr. (Oxford: Blackwell.” Film Comment 8. Robert Kolker. 102. Alexander Horwath. 88. “Film Noir and the Meaning of Life. including a three-disc DVD release. reprint. omas Elsaesser. “No Way Out.. Genre. and Mark T. David E. 1999). ed. Sanders. no. Camus.” Monogram. and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. omas Elsaesser. 1. “Notes on Film Noir. Whether it will achieve. Masculinity (London: Routledge. 96–97. reprinted in e Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s. 5. 282. films that radically revise and reconstruct the elements of film noir in order to pose deeper questions about the nature of existence.” in ibid. 1999). 2000). the status that Point Blank now commands is an open question. Conard for their comments on a dra of this essay.

2003). 73. Timothy Corrigan. John Boorman. DVD commentary. 26. 78. Film Noir (Harlow: Longman/Pearson Education.” in Memento and Following. Dreams and Dead Ends. 254. 6 (June 1998): 17. See Andrew Spicer. 233–34. 16. 79. Making of “Memento. Entertainment in 2005). Nolan quoted in Mottram. Boorman. 1999). DVD commentary. John Boorman. 132–51. Boorman quoted in Peter Biskind. Shadoian. 24. Boorman quoted in Michel Ciment. Boorman quoted in Ciment. 80–85. 22. ed. 19. David omson. 17. by Christopher Nolan (London: Faber & Faber. 35. Making of “Memento. 36.62 Andrew Spicer Film (Cambridge. 28. 20. 254. 34. 1998). Ibid. I am indebted generally to Shadoian’s highly perceptive reading of this film. Cinema without Walls: Movies and Culture a er Vietnam (London: Routledge. John Boorman. 78. Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby (London: British Film Institute. 73. 36. no. See Boorman’s comments included on the DVD of Point Blank (released by Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. “ e Contemporary Cinephile: Film Collecting in the Post-Video Era. Easy Riders. Ibid. . See Nolan’s comments included on the DVD of Memento (released by Pathé Distribution in 2004). Gilbert Adair (London: Faber & Faber.” 40.” 93. 158. 1992). See also Barbara Klinger. 37). 31. “How Memento Began. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (New York: Limelight. See also Boorman’s film Lee Marvin: A Personal Portrait (1999). 2001). trans. 33. 22 October 2000). 25. Boorman quoted in Ciment. 23.. 34. 27. e Art and Politics of Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2002]. 2000). 259–60. e link between the two films was picked up in Philip French’s review of Memento (Observer. 17. 149–55. 32. Boorman quoted in Ciment. Dreams and Dead Ends. Foster Hirsch. 167. MA: MIT Press. but Nolan claims not to have seen Point Blank (see James Mottram. Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. Shadoian. 29. e Making of “Memento” [London: Faber & Faber. Boorman. 2001). 22. See Mottram. Raging Bulls: How the Sex ’n’ Drugs ’n’ Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (London: Bloomsbury. John Orr.” in Hollywood Spectatorship: Changing Perceptions of Cinema Audiences. 30. 18. John Boorman. “As I Lay Dying. 138. 1985). DVD commentary. Boorman. 21. 2002).” Sight and Sound 8.

Memory. It must be acknowledged that some commentators regard Memento as merely showy.” 106–7. e. DVD commentary.” Sight and Sound 10. MD: Scarecrow. 38. no. Making of “Memento. October 4–11. “Mr.. e point is made several times. See. . Tom Charity. Ronald Schwartz. 11 (November 2000): 43. 18. 78–79. 39. Neo-Noir: e New Film Noir Style from “Psycho” to “Collateral” (Lanham. “Who’s at Guy?” Time Out. 2005). For Pitt. Nolan.Problems of Memory and Identity 63 37. see Mottram.g. Chris Darke. 2000.

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and Redemption: Morality in Neo-Noir . Guilt.Part 2 Justice.

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In the director Harold Becker’s 1979 neo-noir rendition of e Onion Field. this thirty-one-year-old mildmannered father of two. his mother and friends noticed that the work undermined his belief that he could improve society and le him with the impression that all he could do as a policeman was “hold the line. 1963. tell the di erence between actions they ought to do and those they ought not to do. On the night of March 9.1 It seems as though. a er Ian joined the force. Karl Hettinger (John Savage). He thought that all rational beings had a deep sense of their moral duty. even if they did not or could not carry out their duty. Ian Campbell was beginning to struggle with this Kantian conviction. In the film. 67 . former LAPD o cer Joseph Wambaugh’s 1973 true-story novel. he believed. Ian was apparently so fascinated by philosophy that his college friends o en found the attachment inexplicable and teased him that it got in the way of both his other studies and his life in general. although his wish to “hold the line” can still be seen as an e ort to preserve this sense of justice and moral duty. Los Angeles. the events of Ian Campbell’s murder and its almost unfathomable a ermath are dramatized with a chillingly realistic accuracy. this Kant bu . and nurtured an interest in the philosopher Immanuel Kant.”2 Kant was a moral idealist.e Murder of Moral Idealism Kant and the Death of Ian Campbell in e Onion Field Douglas L. Berger e Onion Field and Moral Philosophy Before Ian Campbell joined the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and became a plainclothes street felony cop. this reflective. was literally shot to pieces by two petty thieves in the farm country of Bakersfield. bagpipe-playing son of Scottish immigrants had taken college courses as a premed student at the University of California. Campbell (Ted Danson) and his partner of only eight days. people could.

Powell and Smith. the most horrifying thing about e Onion Field seems to be that. wrongly surmising that the kidnapping itself will ensure him a trip to the gas chamber if he is caught. an eerie. Both assailants are caught. however. and both men even feel contented with their prison lives. Supreme Court decisions in 1964 and 1965 regarding Miranda rights as they apply to postcrime police interrogations. on the other hand. prolonged depression. and he becomes burdened by a sense of guilt so overwhelming that it leads him to petty thievery. Kant was convinced that any human being who had any capacity at all for rational decision must be capable of distinguishing right from wrong. One of the incredible ironies of this true story is how stunning an illustration it is of how wrong Kant seems to have been about human nature— and particularly about human moral consciousness. a victim of the mortifying experience who realistically could have done nothing at all to prevent it from happening.S. while Hettinger never really recovers from blaming himself for his partner’s death. Apart from the actual murder. because he surrendered his weapon to the robbers when Powell got the drop on Campbell at the original kidnapping scene. two more or less “rational” criminals. a levelheaded and sensible cop. ey feel no remorse for the slaying. How could a Kantian theory of the inherently moral rational human will possibly explain how the guilty could feel so guiltless and the innocent so responsible? . must be able to judge on his or her own which actions are moral and which immoral. Neither Powell nor Smith ever su ers the death penalty. and sentenced to death by the California Superior Court. convicted of first-degree murder. and a terrified Hettinger flees for his life as one of the two thieves finishes Campbell o . brief stints of child beating. Powell. In the course of these bizarre events. Hettinger.68 Douglas L. presumably both guilty of slaying a man in cold blood for no good reason at all. Powell and Smith. actually feel no sense of guilt whatsoever. is denounced by the police force. Hettinger. But. When they reach a remote onion field o Wheeler Ridge. despite everything Kant says. shoots Campbell. a guilt that overpowers him and robs him of all his strength. a er several U. never betray for a moment any sense that their monstrous killing of Campbell was really very wrong. antimoral tale unfolds. Berger are kidnapped a er pulling over small-time robbers Gregory Powell (James Woods) and Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales) in downtown Los Angeles. Powell and Smith are allowed to appeal their convictions and sentences for seven more years. has his whole life almost totally destroyed by guilt. and at least one attempt at suicide. brought to trial.

East Prussia. and ambitions in order to act according to moral principles. and you certainly won’t be able to become rich if you always spend all the money you have on the most expensive things you can buy. that resistance of reason against the onslaught of the passions and desires.3 e ability of human beings not only to do good deeds but also to figure out for themselves. helping that will get whatever it wants in the moment. Can reason really rise above our passions? A later German philosopher. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). namely. my personal version of happiness. But it is that struggle. a polymath university professor turned seminal philosopher who reportedly never once in his life le his hometown of Königsberg. Every rational being can know the good—and. object that there are such persons as “evil geniuses. doing the right thing is not always easy. at rule or principle that shows all people the basic path . Our ability to be both moral and free is. Let’s say. to make sure that you take in more money than you spend. otherwise a great admirer of Kant. Enjoying a life of wealth is the object of my desires. human reason is more o en than not simply the tool of an insatiable and desiring will. Kant thinks. that I want to be rich. based on the fact that we can and do reason. with the capacity to deduce that knowledge.” people who can use their reason to achieve utterly diabolical ends. wants. in fact. But we might doubt this attractive picture of human reason and moral consciousness as being a rather bold overestimation. that makes it possible for us to choose the right thing over the wrong thing. apart from any overbearing authority or coercion or influence. would. Kant’s picture of reason and willing is certainly less grim. therefore. Of course. as far as Kant is concerned.5 As far as Schopenhauer was concerned. as rational beings. biases.e Murder of Moral Idealism 69 Kant and the Workings of Moral Conscience Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). be born with the knowledge of absolute right and wrong. Kant thought that willing itself was proof that people could control their passions with reason. as rational beings. in fact. what is good is what makes them truly human. wrote at the age of sixty-four at the end of Critique of Practical Reason that thinking about “the moral law within me” was the most elevating of all natural and human wonders. people without the slightest bit of moral conscience. for example. ere is only one basic way to increase your wealth.4 We may not. truly able to transcend the merely animal passions and desires and be free. can know it without great di culty. We are not moral gods. Kant would say that you cannot become rich merely by wanting it. we must constantly struggle against our needs. and. but we are born. for instance.

must. Kant’s two famous immediate examples of how this test works are those of asking to borrow money from someone with no intention of repaying it and not helping a stranger in distress on the street. I can know that making deceitful promises is always morally wrong and that refusing to help others is always morally wrong. to be able to deduce that certain actions are always to be undertaken by everyone. that is. Berger to increasing their wealth is what Kant calls a maxim. Kant wants to go one giant step beyond merely pragmatic considerations and show not only that human beings can figure out through reason how they ought to achieve certain ends in a technical sense but also that they can know for certain which ends they ought to achieve in a moral sense. Kant calls them hypothetical. and it is precisely this same practical reason that is. When we are pondering whether what we intend to do is genuinely moral. you must do y. that human will must be subordinate to reason. that they must make their actions conform to the best possible means for the desired acquisition.7 I could not possibly believe that everyone should ask to borrow money with no intention of repaying it because the society that would result would be one in which no one would believe anyone else’s promise and this would doubtless yield an unsustainable community. and these actions he calls categorical imperatives. For. Kant believes that he has shown that. we are to ask ourselves whether we believe that everyone should do what we intend to do. how what he calls practical reason is fundamentally concerned with how to attain what is desired. moral thing. follow certain methodic principles. should a person want to be rich. thus. and. in order to act morally. erefore. he or she ought to follow a basic principle of wealth building. which means that. A simple test can be run on any action under consideration. if they are to be successful. So far. Maxims of various kinds instruct a person about how to use certain means to achieve certain ends: “If you want x.6 Now. the arbiter of moral judgments. nor does it imply that everyone wants to be rich.” When people want things. To have moral knowledge is. for Kant. no one would help me if I required assistance. in such a society. and he calls the methods of achieving these various goals. they learn very quickly that they cannot just acquire them without using any means whatsoever.70 Douglas L. I must make promises only in good faith and unfailingly . He has shown. Neither could I possibly believe that no one should ever help strangers in need because. in other words. he will claim. hypothetical imperatives. the “oughts” of how to attain things. Because people’s desired goals are di erent. the human pursuits of goals must be rational. as we have seen. it simply means that. this does not entail that being rich is necessarily a good.

What makes actions morally just is that they conform to what Kant alternatively calls the moral law and duty. no matter how much we lie about. or simply the respect that submission to the moral law entails. his or her conscience: With this agree perfectly the judicial sentences of that wonderful faculty in us which we call conscience. merely by virtue of possessing the capacity to reason. Kant says that a person who has done something wrong is like a convicted criminal before the inner judge of his or her own moral reason. A er all. indeed. we are often moved by our intimacy or a ection for others. or the spiritual elevation that can come with the inward conviction that we are. the pains that a duty may require in ignoring our desires or sacrificing our own needs. for example. or obfuscate our transgression. what makes it so unique. as Kant argues in Critique of Practical Reason. We may experience certain emotions as by-products of conforming to our duty. Kant would say that. doing the right thing.8 e test of whether an act is moral is. they do not in and of themselves make our actions right. However. in this case. We can and do have access to such knowledge of universal moral imperatives. or out of a generalized compassion for others. Using a courtroom metaphor. For instance. is that it can be determined by reason absolutely and completely. for.e Murder of Moral Idealism 71 help others to the best of my ability.9 is account leads Kant to some fascinating views about feelings or sentiments frequently associated with morality. to act morally toward them. rationalize. A man may use as much art . Kant says that this kind of moral knowledge is a fact of reason. this moral knowledge can apply to every instance of an action under consideration for everyone. whether it should be incumbent on everyone at all times. What is so special about this kind of certain moral knowledge. even a bunch of conspiring murderers can feel loyalty to and even compassion for one another. A truly morally praiseworthy person is one who helps others or pursues justice not out of some compelling emotion to do so but because he or she judges that the required action is his or her duty and carries it out solely because it is his or her duty. we will always feel the guilt and shame that are the pangs of conscience. all the “oughts” and “ought nots” of life. moral sentiments may be poignantly acute should we fail to do our duty and commit an immoral act. Moral law and duty can be thought of simply as whatever a categorical imperative deduced by reason dictates that we do. therefore. whether its performance ought to be universal. while it is certainly a good thing that such emotions provide us assistance in doing right by others.

But. . the criminal knows very well. ever confronted with charges by lawyers or victims or made to su er punishment. if only he is conscious that at the same time when he did this wrong he was in his senses. Kant insists. that he or she is guilty. is he not sustained by the consciousness that he has maintained humanity in its proper dignity in his own person and honored it. of reason itself. even in the face of the painful sacrifices that such obedience may demand. Regardless of whether he or she is ever caught or convicted. the righteous person will always be comforted by the certainty that his or her actions were right: “When an upright man is in the greatest distress. for example. we would say that anyone who has enough reason to follow hypothetical imperatives also has enough reason to be conscious of categorical imperatives. In Kantian language. as an unintentional error. such as the merely “technical” skills that would best enable him or her to rob a bank. he or she is also rational enough to feel the inner moral guilt that this crime supposedly elicits. and therefore as something in which he was carried away by the stream of physical necessity. . Outside of this. as far as Kant is concerned. in that case. so long as a human being is rational enough to figure out how to perform practical actions. in possession of his freedom. or to dread the inward glance of self-examination?”11 . e flip side of such moral assurance is also available to those who do abide by the moral law. yet he finds that the advocate who speaks in his favour can by no means silence the accuser within. a mere oversight.72 Douglas L. that he has no reason to be ashamed of himself in his own sight. is cannot protect him from the blame and reproach that he casts upon himself. Berger as he likes in order to paint to himself an unlawful act that he remembers. through some horrible disease or trauma. which he might have avoided only if he could have disregarded duty. even to the extent of putting his or her own life at risk. no matter how traumatic the sacrifice. But such a disease would more than likely be utterly incapacitating and would probably result in whoever was a icted with it being placed in an asylum before he or she could do serious harm to others. that a sense of guilt or shame could not befall a person who had done something wrong is if that person was completely dispossessed. and thus to make himself out innocent. A righteous person may have to su er great hardship and loss in fulfilling his or her obligation to the good. .10 e only way. that is. such as one can never altogether avoid.

a police o cer in the first place? Was it precisely this inspiration that friends and family alike noticed was beginning to wane as Ian saw what he saw on the real streets of Los Angeles? If so.38 caliber Smith and Wesson. then. he would not believe that a guilty person could feel innocent and an innocent person guilty. For what happened to Karl Hettinger. and at the same time it will vindicate. and Jimmy Smith seems to fly in the face of all that Kant believed about the human moral conscience. is moral knowledge that is the human birthright is fortified and supported by conscience. a guilty man will feel guilty because his conscience will tell him he is guilty. Each person’s inward sense of duty would either convict her or vindicate her according to her deeds. We do not need to be told what is right or forced to act rightly either by God or by the law of the state. two of whom were making motion picture debuts. Kant would consider it utterly impossible for the reverse to happen. strengthen.e Murder of Moral Idealism 73 To summarize. conscience will inwardly try and convict anyone who is guilty of transgressing the moral law by racking them with feelings of guilt and shame.12 All the movie’s main actors. Ian Campbell to become. Greg Powell. Kant believed that the two things that guarantee the real existence of a distinction between moral and immoral acts are the freedom of the human will to behave independently of the impulsive drives of passion and the fact that this same human will is reasonable. that is. Was it this noble vision of duty that inspired the quiet college student. while an innocent man will never feel guilty because his conscience will bear out for him his blamelessness. a Korean War veteran. and ennoble a person who has lived up to his or her duty. is Kantian moral idealism was shattered just as Ian Campbell’s heart was literally shattered by bullets fired from his own . for we can figure out quite readily of our own powers what the di erences are between morally right and morally wrong acts by mere virtue of possessing the capacity to reason. e Death of Conscience in e Onion Field Harold Becker’s neo-noir or cop-noir film is a mostly accurate rendition of Wambaugh’s literary investigation into the dreadful crime and its demoralizing a ermath as well as his intense character studies. According to this scheme. turned in brilliant performances and even bore more than striking physical resem- . to everyone else’s surprise. that it can deduce di erent levels of obligation in the actions it undertakes. and even partly to his own. the claims of that noble Kantian vision were betrayed by the encounter of four men in March 1963 and what came a er it.

he holds his old partner in robbery. tomatoes are so quiet. somethin’ other folks don’t see. Jimmy meekly tries to cover his alarm. He will soon get his wish.74 Douglas L. . Over the next week Powell and Smith pull a few clumsy armed robberies. Berger blances to the real-life figures they portrayed. Jimmy comes across as quiet. Greg’s seething temper and total lack of self-restraint boil over more than once—most notably when. unassuming. earlier in the evening. who has just been transferred from bluesuit tra c-ticket detail to the felony squad. Greg comes o as controlling and always ready to lash out in unbridled rage at even the slightest annoyance. Hettinger. Karl laments that the tra c-ticket beat is boring. relates his wish to an amused Ian that he always wanted to be a tomato farmer who dwells only with the “smogless sky. On the very same a ernoon in downtown Los Angeles. Later that evening. Hettinger. . who was just released on a the conviction from Folsom Prison the previous day and is looking for money to get him by.” and he adds dryly: “Police work is so noisy.” But. at gunpoint right in front of Jimmy because he suspects that Billy has been stealing from him. the second-generation child of Scottish immigrants. bagpipe-playing Campbell is blowing what he calls the “ancient funeral dirge” “MacCrimmon Will Never Return” in a basement prison cellar as his new partner. despite his seemingly retiring and already mildly depressed personality. wants to see something beyond the pale. When Greg buys Jimmy a gun. clean people.” Campbell retorts ponderingly: “What if it’s something you don’t understand?”13 Hettinger. Jimmy wants to cut Greg loose because he is utterly spooked by Greg’s hair-trigger temper as well as by the fact that Greg is too “touchy”: Greg is always placing his hands on Jimmy’s biceps or around his shoulders. with wide and unblinking eyes and almost blue quivering lips when he flies o the handle. in his apartment. and he thinks that in the felony squad he might run into “somethin’ right around the corner . e contrast between the two is somewhat surreal. in what serves as an eerie prolepsis of coming events. meets Gregory Powell. Billy Small. with Greg doing the gun pointing and Jimmy doing the driving. it is implied. . introduces himself. as Campbell and Hettinger eat and ride their first night together as plainclothes cops on the street. clean earth. even though he unhesitatingly has sex with Greg’s visibly pregnant wife the minute Greg steps out. and harmless. to team up as robbers. they share family histories and childhood dreams. In the film’s opening dialogue. he accepts money from him and agrees to meet him sometime soon. Although Smith is immediately intimidated by Greg’s chilling looks and not at all fooled by his phony manner. Jimmy Smith.

in slow motion. and he drops straight back. when he has to face questioning in front of Hettinger. He desperately and miraculously escapes to a house with the help of Emmanuel McFaddon. Hettinger gets the drop on an unarmed and terrified Smith but hesitates as his partner calmly instructs him: “He’s got a gun in my back.”14 Hettinger surrenders his weapon. a local farmer working the combine late. Hettinger screams and makes a run for it. leaving their abandoned squad car behind with its lights still on. When asked by Campbell to step out of the car. he hastily changes his plans. with Powell in pursuit. and the cops drive o at gunpoint in Powell’s car into the Bakersfield countryside with the thieves. as he briefly turns back. but. a far better con man. Powell raises his gun and shoots him right above his upper lip. onto the ground like a felled tree. when they have to leave Las Vegas for a short stint in Los Angeles to rip o another store for more money. when he deduces wrongly that the “little Lindburgh Law” proscribes capital punishment for kidnapping. e following few days find Greg and Jimmy being interrogated by the homicide detective assigned to the case. Karl. By their eighth night together. is also smarter. Powell assures Campbell and Hettinger that he will release them when he drops them o a long walk away from the highway. making his own longed-for escape. and. though he is tender and cool. Powell asks Campbell and Hettinger if they have ever heard of the law.e Murder of Moral Idealism 75 But Jimmy is unable to sneak o .16 Both Powell and Smith are apprehended in short order. firing four bullets into the chest of his prostrate friend.15 A er letting the o cers out in a farmer’s onion field. are pulled over by Campbell and Hettinger for an illegal U-turn and a broken le taillight that Powell hasn’t had a chance to fix. give him yours.17 He knows at that point that he is destined for the gas chamber but remains defiant and unfazed. Greg at first tries to pawn all the shooting o on Jimmy. When Campbell answers yes. Smith flees in Powell’s car. Powell suddenly and impulsively draws his pistol and takes cover behind the taller policeman with the gun in Campbell’s spine. who has . he sees someone. we already have a sense that Greg.18 Brooks. he can’t tell whom. but. On the night of the murder—and all the scenes were shot by Becker on location—Powell and Smith. is soon going to be foiled by his own incompetence while Jimmy. he is compelled to fess up that he fired first. the experienced and savvy Pierce Brooks (Ronny Cox). but too late. though overtly more ominous. wearing idiotically conspicuous matching leather jackets and caps bought by Powell as disguises. and somehow even more dangerous. Jimmy shows no signs of believing that he fired a single shot.

you can’t bring Ian back. it just might save the lives of some of those boys in there. Berger already been told by Hettinger that Jimmy was the one who most likely finished Campbell o . “Mr. nervously pu ng a cigarette. I honest don’t believe there is such a thing. even for all his own bad luck. he rejects the very idea that the emotion of guilt is anything but a trick of the oppressor—and. you put your trust in God. presumably in his sixties and with the experience of surviving a er having surrendered his own gun to a robber. I believe. it is prompted only by the specter of execution. defending Karl’s decision to give both his partner and himself a chance. Karl Hettinger is on moral trial with the LAPD. is resolved that his plight in life has been determined by white dominance. makes a play a er a drawn-out series of corroboratory questions to break Jimmy’s conscience.” a weeping Smith bawls: “I ain’t no cop killer! ey gas people for that!” All the fear that has poured out of Jimmy since his arrest has nothing to do with a gnawing underground sense of guilt. At that point. and hearing his own screams day and night as he relives the killing while looking into his fallen partner’s open . e word spreads fast that he was responsible for his partner’s death because he surrendered his weapon to the thieves. ‘Guilty?’ at’s just somethin’ a man says in court when his luck runs out. whose mother was black and father white.” Hettinger has to give repeated testimony about the murder during the first criminal trial. I think. in a previous scene depicting his arrest. beyond believing in his own present innocence. and announces: “Anyone who gives up his gun to some punk is a coward. “Jimmy. “have you ever felt bad when you did something wrong” “Like how?” Jimmy retorts. migraine headaches. some of it on location. the captain of the downtown department walks in solemnly. which results in his frequent weeping on the stand. “Has your conscience ever bothered you.” Jimmy.” he asks gently. with one veteran beat cop. I mean. You’re policemen. calling him a “cop killer. like feeling guilty?” Jimmy’s tone suddenly turns serious. if you just tell them all the things you guys did wrong. with a fellow o cer urging him: “If you just tell them how you guys fouled up. all the things you wish you had done. but with complete conviction. Anybody who does it can kiss his badge good-bye if I can help it. He is asked to make debriefing rounds to morning roll calls for several days. and. Indeed. such a feeling. but. Brooks. patrol meetings break out into debates about Hettinger’s conduct. he would never be fool enough to fall for that.76 Douglas L.”19 e same morning. that is something that rich white guys dreamed up to keep guys like me down. when a horde of cops bursts into his room while he sleeps and slams him to the floor. All the while. tempered. with a mean stare.

e first trial finds both Powell and Smith guilty of the shooting and sentences both to death. and other jewelry from store cases. but it is Hettinger’s guilt that is never in doubt to others.” Karl protests: “I deserve to be in jail. whereas Hettinger will be serving a life sentence of his own. ere are reasons people do things. if you’re guilty. but the case is retried based on mid-1960s changes in law. there’s only one thing you can do. he is caught cold one day and faced with the option of either resigning the force or being prosecuted. he hears back: “Well. I don’t know a lot. and Karl stops himself. at Hettinger might feel great sadness and long-term trauma as a result of being a witness to the murder of a partner and friend is understandable. protesting that the baby is still crying. Hettinger is reassigned to a detail that has him looking for pickpockets and small-time thieves in department stores. and Hettinger’s pain only deepens and worsens. his exasperation reaches its nadir when he tries to silence his squealing newborn by hitting her hard in her crib and then slumping down on the couch and putting a long-barreled service revolver in his mouth. But why should he feel all this . he can control his torturous migraines only by himself stealing watchbands. shortly therea er. he tells his wife.” A man whose life has been undermined by thieves can find comfort only in being a petty crook. presumably to atone for his partner’s having met the same fate years earlier because of his supposed failure. o cer. e killers’ guilt is questioned. A er Smith is convinced of a strategy revealed to him by a “death row lawyer” (Christopher Lloyd) that would allow him and Powell to shield one another from execution by getting separate trials. And it starts to become obvious that the perpetrators are going to be spared the death penalty and get o lightly. and a deal is brokered. It’s as if he is on trial instead of the murderers. but. ironically. But. Smith gives Powell a reconciliation blow job in the jailhouse shower. it wasn’t you. but if you stole. As the appeals drag on and Karl becomes a gardener. Another trial follows. Predictably. and then again. as Hettinger is brought back over and over for more testimony in an endless series of increasingly absurd trial motions and further appeals. she tries to reassure him: “You’re the most honest man I’ve ever known. When. His older child interrupts him. . e crux of this dark tale lies here. buckles. When he asks his own interrogator what he should do.e Murder of Moral Idealism 77 eyes and smashed mouth. Are you guilty?” Karl glares at the investigator with a knowing look and immediately signs his resignation. what has happened. Helen. . and then questioned again. his shame at “allowing” Campbell’s death overtakes him. . it wasn’t Karl Hettinger. but his descent into unassuagable guilt has led him to the brink of suicide.

who blasted a man to pieces. feel such an utter lack of guilt? Has not what happened to the Kant enthusiast Ian Campbell in e Onion Field le Kantian moral idealism utterly defenseless? Kant’s Dreams and Hettinger’s Nightmares What we seem to have in Kantian moral philosophy is a very skillful articulation of a very ancient article of philosophical faith. Berger guilt and shame? A er all. not just of this infantile conclusion. and Campbell himself told Hettinger to give up his weapon. that dream of the unity of truth and goodness. . his pistol in Campbell’s back. frightening conclusion that we appear to be presented with in e Onion Field is that such a dream really is only a dream. at vision. even when they are doing wrong. that no one would willingly commit an injustice if he knew it was an injustice. even though he knows he did the right thing. the only thing that gave him and his partner at least a chance to live. the same result. and that they can carry out the most self-evidently horrifying of crimes against one another with no checks. as if an alternative solution would have had a di erent outcome. were we merely to focus on the circumstances of the kidnapping and murder. a faith that stretches back to the Greek martyr Socrates. in fact. and perhaps worse. we should expect Hettinger’s inner knowledge that he did the right thing. had Hettinger tried to force a resolution. we would see that he had no realistic options. What are we to make. have no inbuilt or inherent moral conscience. at article of faith pledges that the good person is the rational person. at the same time.78 Douglas L. however. to bolster him. no trepidations. if human beings are essentially rational. And. e LAPD. e stifling. takes the result to indicate that the surrender of a weapon in such a situation will lead only to loss of life. how can two overwhelmingly guilty thugs. and if rationality is good. are somehow aware that they are in the wrong. Powell was hiding behind Campbell during the initial encounter.” Instead. and no regrets. depriving his wife and children of him for all time. that. that human beings may. but especially of Hettinger’s submission to it and the manner in which his entire life is le in shambles more by his self-mortification than anything else? How can an obviously innocent man feel so guilty? If Kant were right. he still succumbs to shame. that all human beings. then human beings are essentially good. make him “fearless before his inner judge. might have ensued. served as practically the entire justification for dedicating one’s life to philosophy for century a er century in Western culture and impelled generation a er generation to strive for social justice and progress.

then sociopathy is not necessarily a moral disease. it would demonstrate only what means were necessary to compel someone to accept those rules. and they can make plans and carry them out. What was all Hettinger’s self-imposed guilt and seemingly incomprehensible thievery about? What was it meant to accomplish? Beyond the dimension of his seeming acceptance of the responsibility assigned to him for Campbell’s death. then she possesses reason. and. even were this alternative view about the merely social nature of moral conscience in the end actually correct. another reason that Hettinger takes on the burden of shame is that. But. certainly not. Neither would this say anything about whether the rules of society were actually moral. expiating or atoning for the lack of guilt exhibited by the perpetrators. so Kant would pronounce them quite rational. If I can call a sociopath anyone who does not abide by the norms or agree with the values of a society. in a moral sense. If a person has enough cognitive capacity to make calculated and planned decisions in any arena of her practical conduct.”20 But we must remember first of all that Kant would have considered a condition like sociopathy impossible. Second. simply invoking a theory of sociopathy to explain the cases of Powell and Smith would seem to concede that the existence of a moral conscience within any person depends not on nature but on the success or failure of socialization. she can distinguish between right and wrong acts. having been the Kantian that he was. Smith and Powell do possess reason. put his life on the line and eventually gave it away to justify a moral idealism that enthroned sacred duty as its commander. would a man like Ian Campbell have volunteered to fight first in the Korean War and then again on the front lines of the LAPD to defend just that? No. a decency grounded in his Kantian convictions. if she possesses reason. then again. despite all Campbell’s basic decency.e Murder of Moral Idealism 79 Wambaugh’s narrative account tries to ward o this ominous implication. Powell and Smith are so busy trying to save themselves from . explaining away Smith’s and Powell’s denials of guilt as clear cases of “sociopathy. Merely saying that Smith and Powell had some kind of disease that destined them for social maladjustment really ends up dissolving Ian Campbell’s murder in a way that someone with Campbell’s Kantian preferences could not accept. the falsity of which was proved by Ian Campbell’s death and Karl Hettinger’s descent into a living nightmare. perhaps we should take another look at that nightmare. the nightmare in which Ian Campbell’s death haunted Karl Hettinger. the su ering that it entails has a certain purifying value. Sadly. A er all. the old philosophers’ dream was really an illusion. Ian Campbell. just a failure of adjustment to social rules.

assume the role and identity of a real lawbreaker so that the sense of assumed guilt.22 e dream that Karl insists on having is a dream about moral conscience.. trans. Immanuel Kant. Kant did not believe that we should push ourselves to accomplish the impossible. F. he must continue to bear it so that Campbell’s death will have some sort of expiation. that they are so busy denying their guilt—that Karl. Notes 1. trans. In other words. decided. Kant. J. 88–91. 3. 84–85. e World as Will and Representation (1819).21 He keeps saying. See Arthur Schopenhauer. Ibid. omas Kingsmill Abbot (New York: Barnes & Noble. 6. Immanuel Kant. 1:514–28. Critique of Practical Reason (1788). whenever a new trial begins.80 Douglas L. 1964). enlisted by categorical imperatives to do . it was a shattered dream somehow still worth having. so in need of being atoned for and redeemed. We are. even though that dream became Karl Hettinger’s constant nightmare. 1969). 2004). trans. and punished. And. he will release himself from the feelings of shame that he has agreed to carry with him. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). 1973). 2. as long as guilt is not being assumed and proper punishment has not been meted out. obviously we cannot help all human beings at all times. carries the guilt on his own quite literally slumped shoulders. a lease on life that Karl borrowed from Ian and desperately wanted to pay back. when the actual guilt of the real killers is finally determined. and. a way he could go on helping his distressed partner. He was very careful to point out that the command “ought” assumes that the commanded action “can” be done. 8. Paton (New York: Harper & Row. Berger the death penalty—which means. of course. 2 vols. 81. thus. that his malady will subside once the trial is finally over. Joseph Wambaugh. so that some sense of what he has internalized as justice can be acknowledged. J. Groundwork. 4. who has to watch the trials and their utter failure to administer justice. If Ian Campbell’s faith in Kant’s moral dreams was an illusion. in its own thoroughly creepy way. 24–25. 7. Payne. can be further justified. (New York: Dover. 154. is also explains the other facet of why Karl turns to thievery: it helps him. H. E.. e Onion Field (New York: Dell. it was an illusion that he tried mightily to salvage until the pitch-black and chilly night his life was taken from him in the onion field. 5. about the preservation of a sense of justice. but. almost like a mantra throughout the film. 25. Ibid. therefore. 232.

thereby.. 217). Powell took the Fi h at Smith’s retrial and. it was never determined precisely whether Powell or Smith fired the shots that actually killed Campbell. took special note in his initial questioning of Jimmy that he did not even recount four shots being fired a er . 87. where they spent the rest of their lives. But the darkness prevented him from being able to tell for certain. in return for sexual favors in prison. at the conclusion of the first trial in November 1963. sent to death row along with Powell on one count of first-degree murder ( e Onion Field. but the penalty was never carried out because the California Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment in the state in 1972 (ibid. before Hettinger ever sees him (ibid. 14.. indeed. 9. It wasn’t a capital crime until then.. Ibid. 434). convicted and. whose transcripts by 1970 exceeded forty-five thousand pages (ibid.” Powell’s witless bungling has resulted in an unnecessary death and assured. rough more than seven years of criminal trials and investigations. 13. 427–28). “ e Lindburgh Law. 18. a number of important dialogic and dramatic departures from Wambaugh’s novel. in the novel. 17. It is interesting that. e Onion Field. 17. who was. Hettinger consistently testified that he thought it must have been Smith since it was Powell who began chasing him when he fled. these words about running into something right around the corner are put into Ian’s mouth. e novel’s version of events has Campbell telling this to Hettinger twice before Karl surrenders the weapon (ibid. 11). 327).e Murder of Moral Idealism 81 whatever lies in our ability and are not held responsible for whatever may be beyond it. ere are. some of which will be mentioned here. Powell and Smith were both released in March 1983. Kant.. Wambaugh tells us in the novel. 16. the Lindburgh Law didn’t apply. 375).” homicide detective Pierce Brooks tells him contemptuously. pertains only “to cases of kidnapping for ransom with bodily harm. Up until the first shot was fired. in Wambaugh’s account. 11. 76. Brooks. Greg is corrected about his knowledge of the Lindburgh Law when he confesses to shooting Campbell in the face first. Ibid. 12. as is always to be expected. Wambaugh has Greg admit to shooting Campbell when he is first confronted with Jimmy during the interrogation. not Karl’s (see Wambaugh. Critique. 15. It is interesting that.. Powell’s death sentence was upheld in 1970. his own execution. it would seem. but both soon returned to prison. 153).. An entire separate volume could conceivably be written on the absurd permutations of the legal proceedings. practically obviated the records of past investigations (ibid. He was convicted again in 1969 at the close of an absurdly prolonged second trial but received only a life sentence when. Wambaugh’s novel recounts how all the available physical and psychological evidence pointed to Smith. 10..

146). Hettinger finds a certain kind of comfort in the crimes he has committed a er he is expelled from the police force and has become a gardener. Ibid. Wambaugh notes—basing this very odd part of the story on real records of annual physicals—that Hettinger actually lost an entire inch of height (ibid. 19..82 Douglas L. which depicts Hettinger as tiring of telling the story over and over to individual cops on his first day back to work. Berger Campbell initially fell.32 he admitted he was holding.. Brooks concluded almost immediately that he was either intentionally or unintentionally blocking his own actions out of his mind but that he had definitely fired the four bullets into Campbell’s chest and perhaps let o another blind shot at the fleeing Hettinger (ibid. 20... 215–16). Once again. 21. 339–40). 22. nor did he recall a stray shot being fired from the . . 227–28. volunteering to speak to the roll calls himself to get it over with (ibid. In the novel. there is here an interesting divergence from the novel.. namely. 211. 217). that the memory of his own stealing makes memories and fear of the murder fade away (ibid.

Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan Aeon J. Many so-called neo-noirs are in color. when bad consequences follow from bad behavior? Isn’t noir really about moral ambiguity or nihilism? First of all. when one or another of the passions dominates. I have found few films that dramatize this theme as e ectively as A Simple Plan. Let us see how looking at the film and the Republic together enhances our appreciation of both. which they think will increase their happiness. Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) has a good life and is happy and well-adjusted. his brother. and injustice is psychological disharmony. Jacob (Billy Bob ornton). of course. it isn’t obvious how to categorize a film as film noir to begin with. when self-control is lacking. they hatch a “simple plan” that will enable them to keep it and enrich themselves. follows Plato’s analysis of justice and corruption in his Republic almost exactly. e devastation that ensues. But is this really a neo-noir film. It’s the “darkness” of the situations or characters that is the true referent of the word noir. When he. For Plato. especially his understanding of justice as a kind of psychological harmony in books 2–4 and his analysis of moral decay in books 8–9. people who allow themselves to become unjust in this way will become miserable. not just in terms of body count. but also in terms of moral and psychological decay. On Plato’s theory. and many color films are dark in this way. and their friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) find a large bag of cash from what they deduce was a criminal enterprise.1 and the category neo-noir seems even more slippery. a rational self-control of emotions and appetites. but being filmed in black and white isn’t really the essential defining characteristic of film noir. literally incapable of happiness. Skoble e American Dream in a Gym Bag At the start of the neo-noir film A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi. 1998). justice is internal peace or harmony. A Simple Plan is dark in precisely this way: it is a 83 .

By showing an otherwise good man driven to lie. But no one can really stick to the plan. How does he let himself depart from this attitude in so radical a way? We can approach this question by way of considering some of Plato’s theories about justice and self-interest. if it remains unclaimed. told by one of the characters in the Republic. A Simple Plan also shares many other commonly accepted stylistic conventions of film noir. it might be argued. Why does the simple plan turn out to be not so simple a er all? Largely because the characters underestimate the ramifications of their actions. Skoble portrait of moral corruption. Jacob wants to renovate the family farm. this results in their killing a witness to their actions. returning to the scene of the crime. And. Hank and Jacob are obliged to accompany (what turn out to be imposter) FBI agents to the plane wreck. for example. which means that Hank and Sarah can’t even spend it. Gyges. ey modify the plan by putting some of the money back.2 In the film. I would argue that there is nothing morally ambiguous about the story: it’s quite plain that Hank destroys himself through his choices. is decision commits them to that classic blunder. however. Just to add insult to injury. he commits all manner of unjust . and Hank’s wife. it isn’t obvious that moral ambiguity is a hallmark of film noir at all—many classic noirs turn out to present clear visions of right and wrong and demonstrate the self-destructive e ects of vice. Hank ends up burning it in his fireplace. sure enough. and ultimately commit murder. to see whether anyone claims it. the plan is supposed to be simple: hang on to the illicit money rather than spend it right away. and then end up killing him. e killings. Sarah (Bridget Fonda). which they think will free them up to spend at least some of what’s le . who finds a magic ring that renders the wearer invisible. and the lies and deaths that ensue. the deceptions. Hank’s first reaction is the ethical one: this isn’t our money. and. and rationalize those actions in myopic ways. On this point. persuades him that they need the money for their new baby. the unsettling camera angles and the settings that emphasize or suggest isolation and loneliness. steal. and the distrust continue to build: Hank and Jacob first try to blackmail Lou. the film. which results in more killings—including the tragic killing of Jacob by Hank. liberated from the constraints of his fear of getting caught.3 Eventually. then begin spending it.84 Aeon J. of a shepherd. One device that Plato uses to motivate this issue is a story. which some take to be a hallmark of film noir. they reveal that the serial numbers of the money have been recorded. and. contains implicit moral ambiguity. indeed. we ought to turn it in. when the real FBI agents arrive. Lou needs the money to pay o some debts.

Hank. As Jacob notes: “Hell.Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan 85 acts. I’ve never even kissed a girl. what he desires is another injection of heroin. who thinks that talking about “being virtuous” is a waste of time. and that what most consider injustice would. we must note that for a moral realist—one who thinks that morality is objective—self-interest is not identical to subjective desire. You know. there is no dichotomy between being just and being self-interested. that “it is never just to harm anyone. while advancing one’s own self-interest as much as possible. Socrates has claimed that justice is more profitable than injustice. since I would have the satisfaction that comes from driving one without having had to spend the money it ordinarily takes to get one. One can be mistaken. that would suggest that justice is not intrinsically valuable and. Plato has the character Socrates discuss the nature of both justice and self-interest with some earnest young philosophers. about what constitutes self-interest.”4 rasymachus thinks that this is almost self-evidently absurd. I’d be better o . that shrewdness is more valuable than virtue. Why Be Moral? Plato’s Republic is. as well as the more blustery and intimidating rasymachus. For instance. If this were the case. I’m all for it. . but this is not actually in Smith’s best interests. among other thing. toward the end of the Republic. e point of this device is to raise the question of whether you would commit unjust acts if you knew you would not get caught. and one would do better by oneself to care only to seem to be just. as long as I perceive a positive change. Glaucon and Adeimantus. not of practicing but of su ering injustice. On this view. since being just is in one’s self-interest. To see why this is so. if I successfully stole a Lincoln Town Car. in fact.”5 e implication is that moral rules are just an artifice to keep people from predatory pursuit of self-interest. For instance. if Smith is a heroin addict. be the more profitable course of action. a lengthy discussion of this very issue. indeed.” rasymachus argues that “those who give injustice a bad name do so because they are afraid. A Simple Plan dramatizes this e ectively by using Hank’s ultimately tragic mistake about the nature of his own self-interest. and being unjust is contrary to one’s self-interest. you know. What this turns out to mean is that. If the fear of getting caught is the only reason to avoid injustice. I’m better o . in other words. Socrates notes that he and rasymachus didn’t really disagree. But. then cultivating justice for its own sake would be foolish. on Plato’s analysis. if me becoming rich is gonna change all that. why one should be moral.

thus. . they are not constitutive of happiness and will not bring happiness by themselves. (“You work for the American dream. he argues. his embrace of the idea that if only he had more money. Skoble Hank tells us in voice-over that his father taught him that what a man needs to be happy is “a wife he loves. he would have a happier life). courage. at worst. facilitate the acquisition of wealth. but in the way he acts within himself. e just man “orders what are in the true sense of the word his own a airs well. one free of inner turmoil. this turns out to be a mistake: Hank ends up making himself far more miserable. Plato notes that while things like money and fame may be pleasing.)6 When his friend Lou characterizes finding someone else’s lost (and almost certainly ill-gotten) money as realizing the American dream. but the vicious man will not be made happy by wealth. Hank has thus made a calculation about how best to achieve his own interests. where all the aspects of the psyche are coordinated toward well-being:7 “It does not lie in a man’s external actions.”) But. he comes to think that he could make a better life with the found money than he could by working at his job. will be more conducive to psychological harmony than its alternatives—a life dominated by desires for money or fame. Rational self-control. a decent job. is more explicitly covetous of a more a uent lifestyle. Sarah. you don’t steal it. indeed. concluding that the unjust thing would be the self-interested thing to do. As Plato might have predicted.” As we see him at the outset of the narrative. e virtuous man who acquires wealth might be happy. On Plato’s view. the wealth itself will not facilitate the acquisition of virtue and.86 Aeon J. that will be su cient for pursuing happiness. in very short order. but. justice is a kind of internal harmony. so if we can figure out what is entailed by pursuing justice. and it will result in a happier life. and moderation in order to bring our passions under the regulating influence of reason. Plato says. of happiness. It requires wisdom. and friends and neighbors who like and respect him. Hank protests. Virtue may. in fact. Hank seems to endorse his father’s claims about the seemingly simple components of the good life and. is a icted with small doses of resentment or covetousness. however: the miscalculation is the product of his failing to understand the nature of his own happiness (specifically. or one dominated by fear and hate. (His wife. really concerned with himself and his inner parts. championing the value of work. the happy life.” By “parts” of the psyche. but the life of rational moderation of the passions so achieved is justice. It’s not merely a calculative failure. But why is it a mistake? Could the tragedy have been prevented? Plato argues that the just life is. Plato is referring to our various passions and appetites as well as our rational faculties.

One consequence of letting one’s passions grow unmoderated by reason is that one might come to think one’s good life isn’t really so good.” and injustice is “that which always destroys it. Hank tells us in voice-over that he realizes now that he was. whereas reason is that part of our psyche that can adjudicate between conflicting emotions. this analysis would quickly reveal such a course of action to be self-destructive: is it even plausible to think that by pursuing ignorance.Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan 87 he is master of himself. I can also be “enslaved” by my passions: fear. only he didn’t realize it. . .”8 Virtue Is Its Own Reward e dichotomy between justice and self-interest evaporates on this view. For example. rational self-control is the only sort of self-control that is worthy of the name. If I thought I would serve my own interests better by being unjust. is essentially for me to lack autonomy. we can be mistaken about our own happiness because we can be mistaken about what constitutes our own happiness. to eat a doughnut even when this isn’t in my best interests. puts things in order. Reason can result in my not acting on these desires—and even. it is one’s unmoderated desire for acquisition that leads to permanent discontentedness. is “that which preserves this inner harmony and indeed helps to achieve it. and its most tangible reward. More broadly. is is because desires are directed solely at their object. from a plurality becomes a unity. People with overprioritized passions for material gain are precisely those who will not be content with what might otherwise seem to be a good life. To be “controlled” by one’s passions is really to no longer have self-control at all. just as I can be enslaved by another person. For me to be dominated by my desires. happy prior to the events related in the film. will be my own happiness. yet when faced with the prospect of a vast accumulation of material wealth. then. us. the reason for my cultivating justice. or balance short-term and long-term interests. and intemperance I should bring about my long-term well-being? In one sense. in fact. at is. in my having them less frequently. unchecked desires.” Justice. Hank and Sarah did have a good life prior to the events related in the film. is his own friend. optimally. my desire for a doughnut won’t be satisfied by anything except eating a doughnut. they became dissatisfied. on the other hand. On Plato’s theory. . greed. this new dissatisfaction is actually a mistake. . cowardice. While others will surely benefit from my being a just person.

. become a prisoner. since genuine friendship is possible only among good people. Plato suggests that evil is ignorance: we are always trying to do what is best for us. Hank clearly does. nevertheless. he cannot truly have any friends. in another sense. perhaps an unwillingness . But his understanding of what constitutes being better o may well be mistaken. Jacob. . for instance. indeed. since all others will be regarded either as “flatterers or those in need of flattery”. All of Plato’s predictions apply to Hank. he takes refuge in his house. having rational control of the passions implies having su cient wisdom to see that cultivating vicious lifestyles will. To Know the Good Is to Do the Good It is a lack of foresight combined with self-deception that facilitates the characters’ descent into corruption. it’s certainly the case that the rational thief will be happier and more prosperous than the irrational one. first of his own greed. ultimately. and he doesn’t like it. he himself becomes a “flatterer of the most wicked men. He cannot have a trusting relationship with anyone. better o as he understands it. Despite what Hank and his conspirators tell themselves about the simplicity of the plan. . On this view. Jacob had earlier asked Hank. for it raises questions about the nature of culpability and about weakness of will. either through complete ignorance or through a kind of self-deception. be self-destructive—precisely the sort of foresight that Hank lacks. is it even remotely likely that such a plan would not engender an ever-increasing network of deception and mistrust? Plato explains that it is entirely predictable that the vicious person will make himself su er by his injustice. a “rational thief. Skoble An easy and common misinterpretation of the Platonic theory is to characterize the role of reason as purely instrumental. full of many fears . But. it is unobjectionable and illuminative. e bank robber isn’t trying to make himself worse o .” ose closest to him become the greatest threats to him. but we might be wrong. this claim is the subject of some philosophical controversy.88 Aeon J. and Sarah: “Is this not the kind of prison in which [the unjust man] is held? His nature is . and then of the consequences of his actions. In one sense. Why do I want lots of money? Because that will make me happy. Why am I robbing the bank? Because I want lots of money. further eroding any chance of tranquility. referring to their scheme: “Do you ever feel evil?” Eventually.” Well. he is trying to make himself better o —or. . but this misses Plato’s larger point.”9 Hank avoids being sent to prison. but he has. For example. assuming that one could be. more accurately. Lou.

deception. deceiving himself about his need for the money. e. Notes I am grateful to Mark T. and even remarks: “I wish somebody else had found that money. Hank’s error is twofold. ed. Conard. Since he has characterized justice as a state of internal peace and harmony. Mark T. punished. by acquiescing in his desire for money and choosing to value it more highly than virtue. as Hank does. he has created a situation that will lead to distrust.. Conard for his patience with and helpful comments on this essay. First.” in e Philosophy of Film Noir. thus. even if one were to get away with it in the sense of avoiding capture and punishment. owing to intemperate acquisitiveness and a fundamental misjudgment of the nature of happiness.” Hank loses friends. When the narrative centers on someone who is seeking the good but who fails. and. . 2006). and violence. Hank rationalizes his lies and criminal actions. Like Plato’s archetypal unjust man. he has produced an imbalance in his psyche. by acting on this desire. Second. See. loses the respect of his wife and brother. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. incapable of attaining happiness.g. “Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir. furthermore. Plato anticipates both dimensions of this self-deception in his depiction of the self-inflicted su ering of the unjust. doesn’t get away with it. is would be less dramatically interesting and less edifying if the “criminal” were a thoroughly despicable character. 1. about the circumstances of finding it.” Plenty of films dramatize the theme that crime doesn’t pay. In many films. Jacob comes to regret what they have done. it follows that the unjust person will be psychologically conflicted. but there’s more to Plato’s theory of justice than that. e days when he isn’t tormented by memories of what he has done are “few and far between. one that will necessarily lead to inner conflict as reason can no longer be a moderating influence. will make himself the enemy of others. loses self-respect. the reason crime doesn’t pay is that the criminal is unsuccessful. Hank has by his own actions rendered himself entirely unhappy. as he is obliged to kill his own brother. Mark T. as is the case with Hank. and is.Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan 89 to acknowledge or act on di cult realities. 7–22. Plato’s point is that. for which he loathes himself. about killing people. ultimately. that is the stu of tragedy. one would nevertheless su er as a result of one’s own corrupted character. and.

John Pappas. not only modern notions of justice’s being related to fairness. and Crimes and Misdemeanors.” in ibid. 335e. M. She is a woman of corrupting influence who induces Hank to get in deeper. 579c. Republic. G. 4. 203–17. but also ideas common in Plato’s time. Grube and C. 444.. IL: Open Court. the character of Sarah is an interesting twist on the canonical femme fatale of film noir. C. 579e. Plato. 2004)..” in Woody Allen and Philosophy. the Ring of Gyges. 7. unlike Hank. 5. 1974). 3.90 Aeon J. ed. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett. “It’s All Darkness: Plato. e. Skoble (Peru. Republic. 41–48. 8.g. D. 9. she has hitherto paid only lip service to the morals she claims. trans.. Her immediate change of heart upon seeing the money demonstrates that. Mark T. 344c. 6. yet she’s also his pregnant wife. Ibid. 443d. Ibid. see. such as the idea that justice entails benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies. is contrast highlights the fact that she is even less in control of her appetites (to use the Platonic framework) than Hank is of his.. A. Conard and Aeon J. Indeed. For further discussion of the ring of Gyges story. Skoble 2. . Plato. 443d–e. is conception of justice di ers from many ordinary conceptions of justice. See my “Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir.

1949). rigorous character study as well as a provocative reexamination of some of noir’s central philosophical. one-dimensional figure of corruption and vice.“Saint” Sydney Atonement and Moral Inversion in Hard Eight Donald R. Sydney. Image he lives and it’s thirty. A character like John in traditional noir would be lured into some sort of dubious criminal activ91 . is a mysterious criminal with a dark and guilty past that he intends to keep secret. he rescues John (the irrepressibly sheepish John C. 1947) or James Cagney in White Heat (Raoul Walsh. In his contemporary rendering. In Anderson’s challenge to genre tradition. the film investigates the possibilities of salvation within a traditionally treacherous cinematic realm. and visual motifs. Confronting universal moral issues—guilt and innocence. In classic noir. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch Imagine James Cagney doesn’t die at the end of White Heat. forty years later and he’s got to pay for what he’s done. —Paul omas Anderson In Hard Eight (1996). Sydney would most likely be an opaque. which is neither reverential homage nor postmodern deconstruction. the first-time writer-director Paul omas Anderson o ers a distinctly modern interpretation of a character type familiar from the original era of noir. Anderson o ers an elegant. Sydney is tempted to perform a series of benevolent acts in order to unburden his conscience. down-on-his-luck young man. Reilly). the film’s generous protagonist (played with magnificent gravity by Philip Baker Hall). however. thematic. crime and punishment—raised by earlier crime dramas. Succumbing fully to the opportunity to play savior and saint. like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway. a witless.

e composition of the shot clearly establishes Sydney as the dominant force. having lost all his money trying to win enough cash to bury his recently deceased mother.” He promises to teach John some gambling secrets that might reverse his luck. 1950). Sydney o ers the young man the chance to return to Las Vegas. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch ity. John. accepts Sydney’s kindness. who is still a knotty catalyst for trouble. befriends John. we can work it out. a sleazy casino security guard and generic thug who. Robinson in Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang. and Edward G. Sydney’s dark reflection looms in the glass door next to where John is huddled in a corner. Finding John broke and alone. As Sydney says: “I know John. and cynical and sarcastic besides. and I love him like he was my own child. Hard Eight reinterprets the figure of the femme fatale. and it is Sydney who is catapulted into atypical action. and Jimmy (Samuel L. however.92 Donald R. 1945). and Sydney’s flapping black coattails lead us into the scene. the mysterious figure who will guide us through the narrative. ink of initially “innocent” characters like those played by William Holden in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder. John accepts Sydney’s invitation. seen from behind.” and there is no doubt that their relationship has evolved from one of mentor and student to that of surrogate father and son. John and Sydney are in Reno. Sydney. Two years later. 1944). Essentially. much to Sydney’s chagrin. Here. John’s overwhelming defenselessness is a catalyst for Sydney’s charity. with forthright generosity. though skeptical. approaching John outside a roadside co ee shop somewhere along a bleak Nevada highway. Hard Eight’s Reassessment of Noir Taking its neo label seriously. Sydney refers to John as an “old friend. a bargain basement femme fatale who becomes John’s love interest. complicate Sydney’s plan of redemption: Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). Jackson). o ers him a cigarette and a cup of co ee. He says: “I think if you need help paying for your mother’s funeral. but far from the . ough still wary. only this: I’d hope that you would do the same for me. close friends and doing rather well for themselves.” Two problematic characters. the film is a sentimental tale of an aging career criminal who seeks to repent for his mortal sins by engaging in a loving relationship. A er learning that John is without family or friends and in a financial bind. a casino cocktail waitress and part-time prostitute. however. e film begins with Sydney. Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder. I want you to see that my reasons for doing this are not selfish.

Sydney saves the hapless newlyweds by covering up their crime and urging them to leave town. Sydney has a conscience and a code of honor. is a lubricious lowlife who embodies the return of Sydney’s repressed criminal past. A lost soul not unlike Sydney.“Saint” Sydney 93 devious. is witless neo–femme fatale is a damaged yet sympathetic character who does whatever it takes simply to get by within a world of limited possibilities. however. With Sydney’s guiding hand. Yes. is remorseful and repentant when confronted with her attraction to decadent behavior. He is a familiar. e film protects Sydney. alluding only briefly to his criminal past. e film makes a distinction between two kinds of immoral characters. a heinous . Clementine. Confronted with Jimmy’s capacity to destroy his identity as a caring patriarch. she and John. Jimmy. but Jimmy is worse. during their first day together. rapacious sexpot of classic noir. character type—a traditional hood of a kind that remains an unaltered element of crime dramas. e character’s callous. Sydney feels that there is only one answer to this problem: Jimmy must go.” Uncontrollable and di cult to understand. shocked by her own actions. He’s been around and knows about Sydney’s days as a high-rolling gangster in Atlantic City. while Jimmy is rotten through and through. Events may not transpire according to Sydney’s plan. Jimmy presents a potentially mortal threat to the mobster’s treasured secrecy and his newfound family. the other blocking character. He also knows Sydney’s secret: Sydney killed John’s father. and subsequently Sydney. While the film solicits empathy and understanding for Sydney. and little is to be gained from her misguided actions other than the undermining of her own well-being. misogynistic outbursts and his attempt to extort money from Sydney hinder our sympathy. She is neither fatalistic nor castrating like her classic era counterparts. fall in love and get married. but he is not deterred from making sure his “children” are safe. it presents Jimmy as unredeemable. His death is presented not as a tragic loss of life but as a form of rough vigilante justice. Although we are never told why he killed John’s father. she stands as a potential threat to them all. A low-class opportunist who never has his own cigarettes (a telltale breach of noir etiquette). a shameful weakness that threatens the possibility of a better life. rather than reconfigured. Sydney may be a killer. is not so eager to change her ways and soon involves John. in a botched hostage situation with one of her “clients. Clementine becomes another provocation to Sydney’s awakened conscience. with Sydney’s integrity contrasted to Jimmy’s selfishness. the detail of his having shot the man in the face is enough to tell us that it was a brutal murder. Clementine.

” a virtually impossible declaration from the dark heart of traditional noir. tucks the cu of his shirt. he remains where we found him at the beginning. the film in a parallel move plays with customary designations of good and evil. kindhearted killer? Classic noir o en uncovers a dark side buried within bourgeois characters. Sydney compounds his relegation to a realm of immorality. which is presented as an acceptable form of self-defense and as a “sacrifice” that must be made in order to ensure his safety and that of his dependents—Sydney’s violence is contained within a backstory that is kept intentionally murky. except for one visible murderous act—removing Jimmy. John’s innocence and devotion pierce Sydney’s plate-glass armor to the point where. But Jimmy is the one who will lose his life. stone-faced killer. a reversal of the earlier cycle’s entrenched pessimism.94 Donald R. forgive his moral trespass. At the same time. and Jimmy’s condemnation of Sydney’s past may give him a comforting moral edge. a killer proves capable of charity and emotional awakening. But I’m not a killer like you”—may be accurate in defining a level of distinction between two immoral characters. Crime and Punishment in Hard Eight In the way that it portrays the criminal’s destiny. and. once again. Significantly. the stains on his sleeve will linger with him always. Hard Eight interrogates the concept of punishment as it was conventionally depicted in classic noir. he returns to the scene of his first meeting with John and. what happens to this fatherly. In this ambitious replay. a er a moment of mild contemplation. he is able to announce. at least provisionally. If Jimmy is punished for being the rat that he is. thereby. in Anderson’s neo-noir revision. At the very least. Fleeing town. A er having killed Jimmy in not quite cold blood. locked within a moral and . Jimmy’s statement to Sydney while holding him hostage at gunpoint—“You probably think I’m some kind of asshole or something. a fate that the film seems to endorse. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch act that contradicts Sydney’s bittersweet amiability. Nevertheless. under his coat sleeve. Sydney is a rational man who knows that. to some extent. e gesture seems to put to rest his latest evil deed. stained with Jimmy’s blood. a capacity for good is revealed within a hard-boiled. like the tarnished patina of his conscience. In the end. “I love you. at the end. Sydney cannot—and must not if the film is to avoid a plunge into moral anarchy—achieve complete transcendence over his criminal past. in encouraging us to understand Sydney’s turmoil and. Sydney remains seemingly unpunished and on the lam. however.

Part of Sydney’s punishment is his always-to-be-frustrated search for atonement. No police are in sight. e cool.“Saint” Sydney 95 existential prison. contemplative sound track envelops the film in a sleek twilight mood. indulgence. to placate his guilty conscience. his quest is to regain his humanity through selfless loving acts and. e inclusion of Christmas music. Self-reflective moral anguish is both his penalty and his fate. e fluid rhythm of organs and xylophones—sounds as dreamy and ethereal as the smoke-filled atmosphere—mimics the sultry jazz of classic noir. which is not religious penance or a desire to be absolved of his crimes by becoming a target of vengeance. Sydney notices the small stain of Jimmy’s blood on his sleeve with a contemplative grimace—is the uniquely modern moral reprimand that constitutes Hard Eight’s conception of justice and punishment. e film was shot on location in Reno. and there is no visual allusion to any conventional form of legal or moral authority. gamblers play games of chance and tempt fate in ways that reflect the protagonist’s high-risk spiritual odyssey. for Sydney himself. In the hermetic casino suites. In the casinos. and desire. He is both saint and sinner. an analogue to the classic noir urban landscape. Mired in moral conflict. being unable fully to evade his deviant past as well as his criminal psyche. ripe with bittersweet melancholy. a setting filled with shadows. thereby. Sydney is also. within the enclosed world of Hard Eight. Rather. Nonetheless. beyond reach. his moral sensibility is the ethical compass of the film and its solitary guiding light. sleazy motel rooms. Instances of anger and arrogance cut into scenes and interrupt discussions in order to keep us aware that we are in an antagonistic environment that is ever threatened by risk. However dim it may be. under the eternal illumination of gaudy chandeliers and bright neon. he is not senselessly unleashing bloodshed on the general public—his crimes are strictly confined to the removal of criminals from depths even lower than his. both judge and executioner. and anonymous gambling floors are the beginnings and endings of many wicked goings-on. Sydney is damned.1 Redemption and transcendence—the gi s that his beneficence bestows on his wards—are. and his road toward satisfaction is more like a river of blood. However. tending to those he has chosen to protect with as much money and as much might as he has to give. And this self-realization—in the final shot. a world of perpetual gambling and perpetual night where the law simply does not exist. which plays so ly in the background while Sydney has co ee with . His pilgrimage is set within a sumptuous hotbed of sin. his own salvation is destined to remain problematic.

e unsteady. do the recipients of his generosity have a chance? Tentatively. perhaps they can escape the tentacles of the underworld. he has done the right and only thing he could do in order to protect his surrogate children. the tarnished angel.96 Donald R. in the absence of any visible authority. John and Clementine appear to have been rescued. . emphasizes the film’s aura of selfless giving and its underlying theme of familial reunion. e external sensation is very much like the fate or destiny that watches over and bedevils the hapless characters in classic noir. With Sydney’s assistance. in its restricted night world there is no possibility of a champion of the law coming forward to administer an ethical reprimand. no longer desperate. perspective. e fact that this story takes place during the Christmas season further evokes. Although Sydney dominates every scene and is clearly placed as our guide through the film’s narrative and moral maze. no longer self-destructive. In contrast to the milieu of classic noir that the film evokes. suspended in a neonoir limbo. there is a subtle yet palpable sense throughout that he is being followed. Instead. an invisible power or force that judges Sydney as we do. John’s and Clementine’s lives have been enriched to a degree as plausible and pleasant as any that could be hoped for. If Sydney’s redemption is contaminated. whirling. the characters must fend for themselves. Anderson implies that they do. Given a second chance. however fleetingly. handheld camera that gazes at Sydney with voyeuristic intensity suggests an outside observer. monitored. and. if his good deeds cannot fully atone for his crimes. if Sydney cannot escape the consequences of his misdeeds. John is no longer poor and alone. must negotiate the moral balance. Sydney. It is this “second author” who compensates for the film’s absence of authority figures and restrains Sydney from claiming complete power over a scenario and a setting spinning fearfully out of control. given the sordid context of their union. and even blasphemous. tending to those he has chosen to protect and dispensing with intruders. are his compromised actions able to save John and Clementine? Despite his criminal solution. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch Clementine and reveals that he once had a family of his own. Sydney in a certain sense is a purist and an idealist who kills with the best of intentions and in the belief that his actions are labors of love. From his own limited. and Clementine is now a loving wife. this theological presence. While their savior is doomed to remain a perpetual wanderer in a shadowy realm. His soured blessings seem capable of altering the destinies of two seemingly hard-luck cases like John and Clementine. However. by a presence just beyond his view.

Melville contemplates his protagonist’s search for altruistic love amid moral impoverishment. for his world is devoid of the moral framework necessary to produce the traditional hero. legend of a recent past. Anderson has cited his indebtedness to Bob le flambeur (1955). Paolo and Anne. Paolo. Bob dresses in formal black suits and has a “fine hoodlum face. is a traditional femme fatale. as Robert Porfirio points out in his classic essay on noir: “ e word ‘hero’ never seems to fit the noir protagonist. Anne. Bob’s protégé and companion. like Sydney. Like Hard Eight. Bob Montagné (played by the a able yet grim Roger Duchesne) is a well-dressed. from Melville’s crime drama. is a den of sin. Paolo.” is also a generous patriarch who has a fatal weakness for high-risk gambles and playing savior to a pair of misanthropic losers. a French noir directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. but he arrives at far more pessimistic conclusions. is a place where “people pass one another. “an old.” as he describes himself while peering into the rusted mirror of a parked car. well-respected gentleman gambler in the notoriously sleazy Pigalle district of Paris. like Sydney. Specifically.” and victims of chance idle on every corner.“Saint” Sydney 97 Sydney and Bob le flambeur: Contemporary and Classic Although Anderson has presented his archetypal character in distinctly neo-noir terms.” the characters are limited by their criminal education and can never fully succeed as conven- . is a generous. a killer. a place “that is both heaven and hell. young man. forever strangers. Bob. unlike John. would-be saint who cannot resist the challenge of protecting his damaged children. smoke. irreversibly immersed in the illicit way of life Bob has taught him. and jazz—the mise-en-scène of high-classic noir that was the filmmaker’s inspiration and his point of departure. with respect. Pigalle. Yet. eternal night. a conniving narcissist incapable of loving Paolo. Sydney returns at the end to the world of guns. He has become a criminal in his own right. Bob’s world.” as the narrator tells us while we watch a cable car descend from the regal Sacré Coeur cathedral into the depths of Pigalle’s gambling quarter below. like Anderson’s Reno.”3 Despite their “sacrifices. never passes up a chance for risky opportunity.2 All Anderson’s cues are taken. Unexpectedly gracious. unlike Clementine. As Anderson does. Following Bob’s every command and accepting his fatherly advice with the enthusiasm of a young student. whom he has groomed into a savvy denizen of the Pigalle underworld. gambling. Bob. has become completely. Bob le flambeur uncovers the humanity lurking within the heart of a compulsive gambler and criminal. like Sydney’s.

Irrepressibly corrupt. Rewriting the terms and the results of Bob’s sought-for sainthood. Anderson clearly was seduced by the challenge of humanizing a criminal and. his only friend. never ashamed. and makes his living accepting assassination jobs o ered by Tony. the protagonist. “a cleaner” who rids the world of those he is hired to dispose of (when asked whether he “cleans” anyone. a young girl who is le alone and in danger a er her family . his “children. unloved and unchanged. that’s the rules”). thereby. He is arrested by the police. Hard Eight and e Professional In this regard. nor is he le unpunished.” unlike Sydney’s brood. the lure of crime is greater than that o ered by Anne. Léon is a man with an ambiguous past who goes to see children’s films. he must su er the consequences—during a casino heist. right and wrong. Léon (Jean Reno. Léon is calculating and cold. And Anne herself. a tale of yet another criminal attacked by conscience. Bob. e dramatic allure of the good/bad guy as a character type has become a current motif in neo-noir—it’s one of the ways in which the genre has continued to renew itself. Further complicating Bob’s scenario. who is similarly benevolent. is far more deeply entrenched in a moral void than is either Bob or Sydney. thus standing as dubious. is an irretrievably lost soul who returns to a life on the street. subverting old-fashioned notions of a clear-cut division between good and evil.98 Donald R. Although Melville locates a human core in his criminal protagonist. he is killed in a shoot-out with police. Like Melville. ruminative. he’s a crack assassin. and selfless. redemption is beyond the reach of characters who inhabit a smoky noir underground. it is instructive to consider the writer-director Luc Besson’s e Professional (1994). However. no kids. his moralistic conclusions adhere to convention: punishment matches crime. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch tional patriarchal heroes. who have been trailing him from the beginning (and who have a moral and legalistic presence that Anderson removes from Hard Eight). and he suppresses any emotions except those for Mathilda (Natalie Portman). caring. and. who has a severe yet boyish charm). Anderson’s project in Hard Eight is to discover the possibility of salvation and transcendence in a kind of story world from which it is customarily banished. To Paolo. are beyond reclamation. In contrast to Anderson’s criminal patriarch. in the film’s traditional dispensation of punishment. Léon replies: “No women. never remorseful. does not become a successful liberator. lives on a diet entirely composed of milk.

and. so Léon is contrasted. Léon is presented as a transgressive character. Stansfield (Gary Oldman) is a charismatic demon. Léon is so damaged that he corrupts even the object of his salvation quest—his protectiveness is mixed with sexual perversity. just as Sydney’s degree of corruption is alleviated by comparing him to the unregenerate Jimmy. Léon’s atonement for his life and his sacrificial act of protection for Mathilda. however. He’s a man of enigmatic charm who is without any conscience and who commits acts far worse than those of the professional assassin.“Saint” Sydney 99 is ruthlessly gunned down by narcotics agents. both Bob le flambeur and Léon the professional are punished in accord with the codes of conventional justice. like the other patriarchs. Obsessed with Beethoven and pills. Paul omas Anderson proposes a more subtle retribution. Neo-Noir and Social Responsibility Because of the social threats that they embody. Léon is posthumously redeemed: the explosion that consumes both villains is. Like Bob and Sydney. Although many revisions have been made in the contemporary continuation of noir. (He tells Mathilda: “I take no pleasure in taking life if it’s from a person who doesn’t care about it. He’s my lover. in the final act.”) Even so. Hard Eight is unusual in its ability to both limit and imprison its protagonist while still allowing him to roam “free”: Sydney’s is a prison without bars and without . Yet there is far less chance for him than for either of the other saviors. she becomes the agent of the assassin’s moral awakening.” Mathilda replies: “He’s not my father. favorably. to maintain its moral accountability. Léon is a killing machine. And. and. (When asked by a receptionist about her “father. the purest of these benighted patriarchs. the film must annihilate him. When Mathilda arrives at his apartment in total desperation. he kills himself and Stansfield with a grenade. a bad man who is capable of love and sacrifice and lives by a moral code of sorts. When. there are few films that allow the criminal to go entirely unpunished. in contrast to the father-child pairings in Hard Eight and Bob le flambeur. to a crooked DEA agent responsible for the death of Mathilda’s family. a lethal weapon who mows down scores of adversaries. For Sydney. Where Bob’s and Sydney’s crimes are for the most part confined to the past or to o screen space. Léon is depraved beyond any possible recuperation.”) Léon. is romanticized in a way that eludes total condemnation. simultaneously. the specter of incest taints that in e Professional.

1. 1994)? In Hard Eight. see Aeon J. produced under the constraints of the Production Code and of a di erent cultural and historical context. Paul omas Anderson presents a straight-faced. Ultimately. an extension of the black-and-white heavy who lived to see the noir credits roll. 83.”4 e film is a modern-day continuation of the classic criminal archetype. See Paul omas Anderson’s commentary included on the DVD of Hard Eight (released by Sony Pictures in 1999). and largely overlooked neo-noir that enlarges the discussion of crime and morality in ways that earlier psychological thrillers. ed. 2 below). e film’s existential punishment for its protagonist—unmasking the character’s self-loathing—is morally more provocative than any expected form of admonition. Sydney is the result of Anderson’s theoretical rumination: “Imagine James Cagney doesn’t die at the end of White Heat. in seeking partial absolution for their criminal protagonists. 2. e Professional and Hard Eight are representative of a moral and philosophical perspective found in many neo-noir revisions of the code of ethics that underwrote classic noir. Robert Porfirio. 1999) or Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone. Skoble. D’Aries and Foster Hirsch escape. Alain Sliver and James Ursini (New York: Limelight. would be irresponsible. For more on the concept of justice in neo-noir. all three films solicit partial forgiveness from the audience in attempting to humanize and to express compassion for their antiheroes. DVD commentary. 3. But is it possible that their demonstrations of sympathy for the devil. in Film Noir Reader. “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” (1976). beautifully cra ed. 4. “Justice and Moral Corruption in A Simple Plan” (in this volume). and their moral inversions. Notes e epigraph to this essay is taken from Paul omas Anderson’s DVD commentary (see n. Anderson’s debut film is a subtle. could not. .100 Donald R. deadpan character study that expands the emotional as well as the moral and philosophical parameters of historical crime dramas. the films honor the social contract—they recognize that to present crime without punishment. could lead to more films like the virulently antisocial e Minus Man (Hampton Fancher. 1996). the films engage in a kind of moral relativism that is potentially nihilistic. Symptomatic of a current turn in noir scenarios. And. or sin without atonement. Anderson.

I argue here that this postmodern sensibility undermines the characters’ attempts at redemption in the films. 2004) are arguably the most successful (and I would say important) of the four full-length feature films that Quentin Tarantino has directed. Conard M M M M . and Kill Bill (both volumes: 2003.Reservoir Dogs Redemption in a Postmodern World Mark T. in a postmodern world.2 His films are postmodern in the artistic sense. what is redemption? In a strict religious sense. Redemption First.1 Further. for example. 1992) Reservoir Dogs (1992). such as the one depicted in Tarantino’s films. at is. : No real people? : Just cops.P . —Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino. And each is more or less explicitly about redemption. at is to say.W : Did you kill anybody? : A few cops. Pulp Fiction (1994). they reflect a postmodern sensibility about our ability (or lack thereof) to know and understand the world and about the value and significance (or lack thereof) that our lives and actions have. there can be no such thing as redemption. But they’re also postmodern in terms of the underlying epistemology and the position on morality and values that they take. blends of genres and highly allusive. Tarantino is widely recognized as a quintessentially postmodern neo-noir filmmaker.W . the arguments below focus primarily on Reservoir Dogs. redemption refers to 101 . While I include discussions of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.P . insofar as they are.

at close range and misses. Mr. this is a very traditional and religious view of the matter: that it’s through Christ’s su ering and death that mankind is saved. More colloquially. Pulp Fiction. rough a series of coincidences. is a boxer and double-crosses the head gangster. People find salvation and redemption from sin. As noted above. is actually an undercover cop who has infiltrated the organization in order to bust its head. sit around a table in a diner talking about the meaning of pop songs and the pros and cons of tipping waitresses. She regains that innocence through pain and su ering. Vincent (John Travolta). then. Mr. Having thus been saved. Joe . It’s a reasonable enough conclusion to say that this is how we’re to interpret the rest of the film: that it’s about redemption through pain and su ering. redemption can refer to any attempt by a person to change his way of living (from something bad or ignoble to something better and more worthwhile) or to make up for past wrongdoings. an obvious reference to Butch’s salvation. but God sacrificed his son (and/or himself. Butch’s supposed redemption occurs when he is about to escape while the gangsters work over Marcellus and. which occurs prior to the heist. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) argues that Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is about a woman who is sexually very experienced and who meets a particularly well-endowed man. Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. if you believe in the Holy Trinity) for the guilt and sin of mankind. Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).102 Mark T. One of the gangsters. all using color code names. humans are born into original sin. the most important and fascinating part of the film is the remarkable opening breakfast scene. however. when they accept Jesus as their lord and savior and admit their guilt. by not throwing a fight when he’s supposed to. Orange (Tim Roth). Jackson) and Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis). Philosophically. in which the gangsters. instead. then. is incident compels him to want to quit being a gangster and get in touch with his spiritual self (he says that he wants to wander the earth “like Caine on Kung Fu”). then. decides to return and save his former boss. Conard Christians’ salvation through Christ’s su ering and death on the cross. and apparently escaping the criminal world. Reservoir Dogs is about the bloody a ermath of a botched jewel heist. Butch. it’s painful for her. When they have sex. thus reminding her of the first time she had intercourse. Butch and Marcellus end up as prisoners in the hands of sexual perverts who are intent on raping them. Butch rides out of town with his girlfriend on a chopper named Grace. according to orthodoxy.3 Jules believes that he witnesses a miracle when someone shoots at him and his partner. is primarily about the redemption of two characters. at is. on the other hand.

given that the color white is typically associated with innocence. Pink (Steve Buscemi) refers to civilians (i. White. Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn). Orange against (as it turns out correct) accusations that he. who plays Mr. Cops are dressed in typical blue uniforms.5 is is not a hard-and-fast rule. I’ll suggest here that Mr. Concluding that the police had to have known about the heist ahead of time. Mr. of course. Orange is wounded and spends the rest of the film lying on the floor of the warehouse. White.Reservoir Dogs 103 Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). in Tarantino’s films. while defending Mr. and his son. Orange. In the course of his escape from the robbery. Mr. Mr. who the “rat” in the group is. and there are some important exceptions. Joe. Mr. white shirt. and he’s Christ insofar as it’s through his bloody su ering that the gangsters are ostensibly redeemed. and given that Harvey Keitel. Orange being wounded and has had to take care of him. White. and holds the key to.” e implication here is that cops and gangsters are not “real” people. Mr. Orange plays the dual role of Judas and Christ in this tale of redemption. is the rat since the two of them have formed a bond in escaping together and since Mr. the other gangsters speculate on who betrayed them. regular folks) as “real people. portrayed Judas in Martin Scorsese’s e Last Temptation of Christ (1988). they desire to be redeemed from the life of the gangster. It’s interesting to note that. Orange’s true identity. bleeding profusely. Mr. thin black tie combination (this is true in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs as well as Kill Bill).e.4 “Real People” and Uniforms So what are Jules and Butch and the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs being redeemed from? And in what does their second innocence consist? Clearly. however. he’s Judas insofar as he’s the betrayer. To be redeemed. Orange throughout the film against the rat accusations. For example. both cops and gangsters have uniforms that distinguish them from real people. as Jules and Butch ostensibly did. those who are neither cops nor gangsters. White (Harvey Keitel) staunchly defends Mr. to become a real person. is is ironically a rmed by his bond with Mr. to the point of killing the gangster boss. then. to get out of the life. an undercover cop trying to bust the gang. neither of the head gangsters in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. then. In discussing the botched heist. In the morally upside-down gangster world. where most of the action takes place.. Marcellus Wallace and Joe Cabor—or . unknowingly reflects. White witnessed Mr. is. and robbers wear the classic black suit.

Orange seems to revel in his role as a detective while in the guise of a gangster. in Kill Bill. it’s the Crazy 88 (part of the Yakuza.8 Like Vincent in Pulp Fiction. She is prevented from leaving the life and becoming a real person when the remaining DiVAS. and. Vincent of course has no desire to become a real person. and taking on the role of mother. uniforms (e.104 Mark T. at the behest of Bill (David Carradine). which is the second vignette shown. or Japanese mafia) who wear it. his sacrifice. the two of them get rid of their gangster uniforms and put on Jimmie’s (Quentin Tarantino) clothes. it’s through Mr. symbolized by the shedding of the uniform and the donning of everyday clothes. for example. wearing a skirt. White’s devotion to him as a result.9 As I said. Orange’s su ering. he’s back in uniform and is killed by Butch. never succeed in becoming real people. and Mr. for that matter—wears the gangster uniform. in Kill Bill. subsequent to their supposed experience of a miracle. which . In the process of cleaning up the mess and disposing of the evidence. the Bride first attempts to shed her various cool assassin uniforms to put on a wedding dress. the transformation from gangster to real person (or at least the desire therefor) is. whose fate we don’t know) is killed. di erent. By the end of the film. Pink. identifies two distinct periods of neo-noir films: the modernist era. the uniformed cop whom Mr. then.7 Further. as assassins. that every one of them (with the possible exception of Mr. Modernist Neo-Noir Critics generally categorize neo-noir films as either modernist (sometimes called neo-modernist) or postmodernist. Whether Jules succeeds in reforming and becoming a real person. Conard Nice Guy Eddie. we don’t know. while the DiVAS have. Marvin Nash.g. the slick yellow leather outfit worn by the Bride [Uma urman] in volume 1). Recall that. Andrew Spicer. she succeeds in becoming a real person. in the narrative ending of the film. Jules and Vincent are splattered with the blood of Marvin (Phil LaMarr). But they are redeemed from being gangsters. though just as cool. and. Likewise. is redeemed through death in the same way. e characters never shed the uniform. albeit through death. T-shirts and short pants. the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs do not desire to be real people. a er she’s found her redemption through violence and revenge. whom Vincent accidentally shoots.. nearly kill her.6 In Pulp Fiction. and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) kidnaps and tortures.

oblique camera angles. says Spicer. is skepticism is reflected in a dissolution of narrative construction. Hopper. which began in 1981 with Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and in which we still find ourselves today. and the postmodernist period. embody this same outlook or sensibility. videos. and DVDs of course. they express an even greater “epistemological confusion” or skepticism. but also simply because there are so many more films made each year than there were in the past. alienation and fragmented identity that characterized the classical noir hero. a response to similarly disruptive and disillusioning events in later decades. but in a more self-conscious and deliberate way. e misplaced erotic instincts. the cold war.Reservoir Dogs 105 ran from roughly 1967 to 1976. such as the Vietnam War. Before discussing Tarantino’s role as a postmodern filmmaker. they overcome the obstacle and live happily ever a er) are abandoned in favor of more and more complex and confusing story constructions. meaning that they question deeply our ability as subjects to know and understand the world and ourselves. knew both American and European film history well and were conscious of where their work fit into that history. at is. through TV. largely through lighting. in part. these movies had the e ect of disorienting the spectator. further. and. I want to talk briefly about his modernist predecessors. Just as neo-noir filmmakers are more explicitly conscious of their place in the history of filmmaking than were their classic noir predecessors. viewers today have the ability to see a great many more films than people did fi y years ago. straightforward narrative lines (e. boy meets girl. so modernist films were.g. there’s some sort of obstacle to their being together. so too contemporary audiences are more cine-literate than earlier moviegoers. and moral ambivalence. are incorporated into a more extreme epistemological confusion. Modernist noirs. pessimism.12 Consequently. Further. editing. at is. which emphasizes the conventions in order to demonstrate their inevitable dissolution. now-classic neo-noir filmmakers. and the dawning of the atomic age.. Spicer says: “[ ere is] in these modernist neo-noirs a self-reflexive investigation of narrative construction. today’s audiences are much more savvy about the history . like Scorsese. expressed through violence which is shown as both pointless and absurd. etc. Just as classic noir films were influenced by or were a reaction to World War II.”11 Part of the outlook or sensibility of classic noir films was paranoia.10 In terms of the form and content of modernist noirs. the Kennedy and King assassinations. Further. leading to an ambivalence about narrative itself as a meaningful activity. and Coppola. both in the United States and abroad. alienation. and Watergate.

but also to the myths that underpinned their generic conventions. filmmakers wouldn’t allow audiences to forget that they were watching a movie: “ e modernist film emphasizes the film’s formal exploration of its own medium. at is. though his comments about posthistorical art certainly apply to postmodernism as well. rather than postmodern. etc. Modernist noir filmmakers. In Danto’s view. believing that postmodernism is but one movement or style in the posthistorical period. episodic and inconclusive stories.) were governed by an overarching “narrative. a new story. in e ect writing a new narrative. Neo-modernist noirs demanded a great deal from their audiences. who were challenged rather than consoled. (For example. circling back on themselves. in the nineteenth century. paranoia. Above all modernist noir was self-reflexive. challenged these cine-literate audiences in a way that they’d not been challenged before: “Modernist neo-noirs abandoned the crisp fast-paced trajectory of their predecessors in favour of meandering. then what you were doing wasn’t art. the escape of being sucked into a seamless story. But what does that mean.”13 So. Postmodern Art Tarantino is known as a postmodern filmmaker. and how are postmodern noirs di erent from their modernist predecessors? Arthur Danto famously proclaimed that we’ve come to the “end of art.) However. about what art was supposed . while disorienting the audience and expressing alienation. drawing an audience’s attention to its own processes and self-consciously referring not only to earlier films noirs. revolutionary artists who created new movements in art were able to break (some of) the old rules and create new ones. previous periods in art (Renaissance art. impressionism. is narrative then formed the constraints and rules according to which artists had to work.”14 Consequently. pessimism. Conard of cinema and the techniques involved in filmmaking than earlier moviegoers were. modernist noirs gave the audiences no neat resolutions and no comforting escape.” a story about what art should and must be in order to be art. expressionism. and epistemological skepticism. modernist noirs refused to allow audiences one of the great pleasures of earlier moviegoing experiences (and of entertainment generally). in addition to abandoning neatly framed and quick-paced narratives. says Spicer.106 Mark T. If you didn’t follow the rules. and they did this by continually reminding viewers of the techniques and artifices of filmmaking. you’d be laughed at for painting Campbell’s soup cans or hanging a urinal on the wall.” He prefers to use the expression posthistorical (or contemporary).

” says Richard Martin. and hybridization where elements of noir are reconfigured in a complex generic mix. We can easily see now why Tarantino is considered a postmodern filmmaker. His movies are peppered with allusions to popular culture. what do contemporary. since there is no such ideal. at is. that there is no longer any overarching narrative or story to tell us what art is. without a sense of what an artist is supposed to do to create art. and they hybridize these past forms and genres into a complex mix. then. in part.”18 In postmodern neo-noirs. given this loss of a narrative to guide artistic practice. or postmodern. is not that there is no more art. postmodern cultural practices characteristically employ la mode retro. Spicer says: “As an aesthetic style that derives from this radical relativism. but. What Danto means by the end of art.”15 Further. and there is in consequence no possibility of a narrative direction. anything can be art. the noir sensibility is revived or retained.” no story to guide us and tell us how we’re supposed to make art. by their self-referentiality. the fact that they refer to the history of filmmaking and to the techniques of filmmaking.” ere is no longer any criterion by which we can recognize what is or isn’t art.”16 Postmodern artworks aren’t striving for some telos or ideal and improving on past movements. given a lack of constraints. ere’s no “narrative direction. “ ere is no a priori constraint on how works of art must look—they can look like anything at all. So.17 Spicer goes on to say: “Two basic tendencies are at work in postmodern noir. a lack of a story to tell them what to do. modernist films are defined. there’s no possible criterion to say that he or she is getting better at it.19 . which attempts to retain the mood and atmosphere (stimmung) of classical noir. there is also a loss of any notion of progress and improvement. revivalism. or at least the kind of stylistic unity which can be elevated into a criterion and used as a basis for developing a recognitional capacity. And this kind of historical referentiality is carried on in postmodern art as well. And this is true of postmodern neo-noirs: “ e postmodern neo-noirs of the nineties are more overtly allusive and more playful in their intertextual references than the films of the eighties. Rather. more closely approximating the artistic ideal. artists do? What guides their work? As I discussed earlier. rather.Reservoir Dogs 107 to be. that artists can no longer produce art. where di erent styles are used together in a new mixture. they reappropriate past forms by reviving or alluding to them. which appropriates past forms through direct revival. In e ect. He says: “[Contemporary art] is defined by the lack of a stylistic unity. allusion and hybridity. and the noir style of filmmaking is hybridized with other genres.

at is. the Get Christie Love! TV show. and the Joel Schumacher film e Lost Boys (1987). and they frequently blend genres in the way described above. O en. the Silver Surfer comic books. or the unequal distribution of wealth. Further. Conard Reservoir Dogs. but it has some western elements and an extended Japanese anime segment showing the childhood formation of one of the DiVAS. for example.20 James Naremore says: “Reservoir Dogs bristles with allusions to Godard. and references that those of us who aren’t as schooled as Tarantino is in the history of pop culture and movies can recognize. O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). “ e Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia. and both volumes have other genres mixed in with the main themes. sexism.” a reference to Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders. artworks that reference popular culture do so for the purpose of criticism. and. he gives us Coca-Cola without Marx. Big Macs and Quarter Pounders. 1964). His attitude toward mass culture is also much less ironic than that of a director like Godard. of course. for example. claims that Tarantino’s references don’t work this way: “For all his talent. contains references to Madonna. artists reflect on contemporary culture in order to expose inequalities or injustices inherent in that culture. Volume 2 is mainly a western with samurai and kung fu elements. the jewelry store in Reservoir Dogs is named “Karina’s” a er Bande à part’s star. Anna Karina. gangster. Kubrick. themes. and action movies. and Uma urman’s hairdo in Pulp Fiction is reminiscent of Karina’s. homophobia. Flock of Seagulls. the ing from the Fantastic Four comic books.”21 Perhaps the most dramatic and extreme example of Tarantino’s allusions to other films and his hybridization of genres is Kill Bill. particularly noir.”22 at is. made up largely of testosterone-driven action movies. and others.108 Mark T. For example. Volume 1 is mainly a samurai revenge story. to the point where Tarantino named his production company “A Band Apart. for one. Marilyn Monroe. Pepsi. whereas a filmmaker like Godard might make ironic . his work is highly influenced by French new wave directors such as François Tru aut and Jean-Luc Godard. and the 1970s TV series Kung Fu.” Beretta. Travolta’s dancing is reminiscent of his role in John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977). and Buddy Holly. And these are just the broader allusions. including those to Fonzie. hard-boiled novels. blaxploitation. racism. Green Acres. and pop-art comic strips like Modesty Blaise. Pulp Fiction has even more pop culture references. Tarantino’s movies very o en reference earlier films. Naremore. the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene is full of icons like Ed Sullivan. In e ect. Tarantino’s ‘hypertext’ is relatively narrow.

and the abandonment of the notion of progress sketched above applies more generally to the whole postmodern era and particularly to its knowledge and truth claims. indeed. however. cataloged. Descartes believed that human beings were essentially rational minds attached somehow to bodies and that these minds were capable of figuring out completely how the world works.”23 at is to say. And this was the story that drove scientific and philosophical practices during the Enlightenment. and communicated. In a very influential work. for example. the characterization of postmodern art in terms of narratives. so anyone who cares about such things will be disappointed that Tarantino’s movies at best leave social inequalities and injustices in place and untouched. in the Enlightenment. in earlier periods. is . says Lyotard. or an incredulity about. these scenes and references lack any kind of critical element. at is. we had the story about a Cartesian rationality that people possessed and an external world with a comprehensible and logical structure that could be discovered. one of those overarching stories that gave sense and structure to our practices and made knowledge claims possible. I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. thus throwing doubt on our ability to know and understand the world and human existence. its science and philosophy. thrown in because they’re amusing and cool. our attempts to know things about the world and human existence within science and philosophy were guided (as in art) by a metanarrative. We’ll see below why this is necessarily the case. is characterized by a rejection of.Reservoir Dogs 109 references to Coke products for the purposes of a Marxist critique of capitalist society. Postmodern Skepticism But postmodernism doesn’t apply just to art. ideals. So. ey’re straightforward. understood. e scenes and the dialogue are. Jean-François Lyotard says: “Simplifying to the extreme. at least the way Tarantino treats them? But. alas. Tarantino’s attitude toward popular culture really does seem to be loving and a ectionate. given the postmodernist attitude about ethics and values implied in his films. indeed. e postmodern era. any metanarrative. It told scientists and philosophers how to go about learning about the world and human existence. And. no doubt. brilliant and unforgettable—how could you not be mesmerized by the spectacle of gangsters sitting around a breakfast table discussing the meaning of a Madonna song or driving in a car talking about what fast-food items are called in Europe. Tarantino doesn’t mean his references to be ironic.

scientists. just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of it for other purposes. is often reflected in postmodern art and films. great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens. e movie shi s back and forth from present to past. But he’s also a relativist: just because they’re useful doesn’t mean they’re accurate or true since we have no criteria by which to judge such a thing. in order to make it impossible for the viewer to know with certainty what’s going on in the narrative. as we find out at the end of the film.”25 at is. sitting in a police detective’s o ce. postmodern films o en blur or erase the boundaries between reality and fiction.. e Usual Suspects is a excellent neo-noir example of this. constantly fragmenting the boundaries between past and present. fantasy and reality. and much of the story is told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). Richard Rorty is a contemporary philosopher who accepts this relativism. fiction and history. Conard leads to a radical relativism about knowledge. thus reflecting postmodern skepticism about knowledge. We’re reduced to individual perspectives about things. Martin says: “Postmodern esthetic constructs promote epistemological failure. etc. us. we can no longer really claim to know anything objectively about the world. philosophers. as poets. but there are no criteria (no metanarratives) by which to claim that one perspective is better or more accurate than another. all possible ways of judging and feeling. However. by which he means ways of talking about things: “ e contingency of language is the fact that there is no way to step outside the various vocabularies we have employed and find a metavocabulary which somehow takes account of all possible vocabularies. etc. Consequently. Verbal has been spinning a yarn (the story that we’ve just been watching) made up of elements that he took from around the o ce—signs. there are no criteria or objective standards by which to show or prove that the way a scientist or philosopher talks about the world is any more accurate or true than the way anyone else talks about it: “On this view. Instead of talking about narratives or stories. he uses the term vocabularies. But there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself.”24 Rorty is a pragmatist: di erent vocabularies are useful for di erent pursuits and practices. is postmodernist relativism. In a discussion of Bryan Singer’s e Usual Suspects (1995). past and present. its skepticism about knowledge.110 Mark T. . politicians. posters.” ere’s no overarching vocabulary that takes into account our different ways of talking about things in our di erent pursuits.

Reservoir Dogs 111 and even the detective’s co ee mug. Consequently, we the viewers have no way of knowing whether anything we’ve been watching is true, including the suggestion at the end that Verbal is really Keyser Soze (or whether there really is any such person), given that most of what we learn about Soze is presented to us by Verbal himself in his made-up tale. is postmodern skepticism is reflected in Tarantino’s films in a variety of ways. For example, he has a penchant for rearranging the chronological order of his narratives. ey bounce back and forth in time. is happens in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill. He also o en fudges the line between reality and fiction, for example, by presenting a realistic narrative but throwing in surrealistic or cartoonish elements, as when in Pulp Fiction Butch takes a cab ride and the background images, what’s supposed to be happening outside the cab, are obviously fake, from a di erent movie, or when in Kill Bill the Bride is able to perform samurai acrobatics that are physically impossible, as when she deals with the Crazy 88. Tarantino even has the real-life bank robber Eddie Bunker play one of the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs. Further, he sometimes has the story told from several di erent perspectives. Woods says: “[In Reservoir Dogs] cameras pan, perspectives shi —what’s out of view is just as important as what’s in shot. Reality is a subjective, ever-changing chimera.”26 And about Reservoir Dogs Tarantino says: “Part of the excitement of the movie comes from the fact you don’t quite know exactly what happened, it’s just everyone’s interpretation.” Dawson goes on to elaborate: “ us, by not actually showing the robbery, the viewer’s only take on reality is through having each character recount his own separate version of events. Our perspective is their perspective. And each perspective is a little di erent.”27

Postmodern Ethics and Values
Postmodern skepticism or relativism also extends to the realm of ethics and values and, hence, to the meaning and value of our lives and actions. at is to say, previously, we had an overarching narrative, or metanarrative, to tell us the meaning and value of our lives and our choices. For most people throughout human history, this story has included the idea of a god or gods. Christianity, for example, includes the story of an allpowerful creator God, who made the universe and determined the value of things, handing down commandments to Moses, directions on what to do and what not to do in order to find salvation. Within that story, then, Christians understood what was the right way to live, what was good, what

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ought to be done. And, again, this story includes an explanation of how to be redeemed, how to leave a life of sin and find grace. With its rejection of all metanarratives, then, postmodernism embraces a relativism about values and morality. at is to say, there’s no longer any overarching story to tell us what’s right and wrong, good and bad, how we ought to live our lives. us, any action, any way of living your life, is morally equivalent to any other. ere’s no god’s-eye perspective or absolute commandment to say, for example, that you shouldn’t murder people or that you should tell the truth. ere are only individual perspectives about these things, and there’s no way to argue or prove that one perspective is more correct than another. As mentioned above, Tarantino’s films are ostensibly about redemption, so they suggest that some ways of living (e.g., as a real person) are objectively better in a moral sense than other ways (e.g., as a gangster). However, because the universe that these characters inhabit is a postmodern one, their attempts at redemption are bound to fail, one way of living being, according to postmodernism, morally equal to any other way. I’d argue that this failure is interestingly suggested (again) in the opening breakfast scene in Reservoir Dogs. e head gangster, Joe, is picking up the tab for breakfast, and he tells the others to put in for the tip. “Should be about a buck apiece,” he says. While the others o er up the cash, Mr. Pink sits there passively. Nice Guy Eddie calls him on it, insisting that he chip in. Mr. Pink refuses. He says that he doesn’t tip because he doesn’t believe in it: “I don’t tip because society says I have to. All right, if someone deserves a tip, if they really put forth an e ort, I’ll give them a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their job.” He says that he too worked minimum wage gigs, but, when he did, he didn’t have a job that society deemed “tipworthy.” e other gangsters are shocked at his seeming callousness (which is interesting enough in its own right, given that they think nothing of shooting people), but Mr. Pink’s refusal reveals the conventionality of our forms of life, our ways of living. Tipping is just something we take for granted. We accept it as natural, as the way things are and have to be. It’s the right thing to do. But, by pointing out the conventionality of this institution, Mr. Pink shows its arbitrariness. It’s not objectively the right thing to do. It’s simply something that we’ve decided is right, and it’s right only because most of us consider it to be so: M .W : You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. ese people bust their ass. is is a hard job.

Reservoir Dogs 113 M . P : So’s working at McDonald’s, but you don’t feel the need to tip them. ey’re serving you food, you should tip ’em. But no, society says tip these guys over here, but not those guys over there. at’s bullshit. If tipping were somehow objectively right, if we had some sort of metanarrative to explain its objective goodness, we’d be able to explain why we tip diner waitresses and not the people who work at McDonald’s. It’s an arbitrary convention, such that, objectively speaking, tipping a hardworking waitress isn’t any more right or good than sti ng her. As I argued above, part of the symbolism of redemption in Tarantino’s films, part of leaving the life and becoming a real person, is the shedding of the uniform of either cop or gangster and donning the clothes of everyday folks. In Pulp Fiction, Jules’s friend Jimmie is a real person: he’s married, brews gourmet co ee in his kitchen, is worried about his wife catching him with gangsters in the house, and appreciates oak bedroom furniture. A er disposing of their bloody clothes, then, Jules and Vincent put on Jimmie’s clothes, short pants and T-shirts, outfits that you might wear to play beach volleyball. us, symbolically, they’re on their way to becoming real people. But, when the Wolf (Harvey Keitel) asks Jimmie what they look like wearing those clothes, Jimmie quips that they look like “dorks.” (“Ha ha ha, motherfucker; they’re your clothes,” says Jules.) us, symbolically, the value and meaning of living a real life is undermined. Just as tipping a waitress is objectively no di erent from or better than not tipping her, so too the only real di erence between being a gangster and being a real person is that real people are dorks and gangsters are cool. One way of life is not morally superior to the other. Tarantino says: “When you first see Vincent and Jules, their suits are cut and crisp, they look like real bad-asses. . . . But as the movie goes on, their suits get more and more fucked up until they’re stripped o and the two are dressed in the exact antithesis—volleyball wear, which is not cool.”28 Indeed, in Tarantino’s postmodern world, where violence is eroticized and stylized, and where one way of life cannot be morally superior to another, if it’s a choice between being a cool gangster and being a dorky real person, who wouldn’t choose to be cool? Nobody wants to be a dork.

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Notes
I’d like to thank J. J. Abrams and Bill Irwin for helpful comments on earlier dra s of this essay. 1. Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) is well made and contains many of the postmodern elements discussed below, but, on the one hand, it’s not as original or brilliant as the other three, and, on the other hand, it’s not about redemption. 2. In an interview, Tarantino denies that his films are neo-noir: “‘It’s not noir. I don’t do neo-noir,’ insists Tarantino” (Paul A. Woods, King Pulp: e Wild World of Quentin Tarantino [London: Plexus, 1998], 103). 3. In my “Symbolism, Meaning, and Nihilism in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction,” in e Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 125–35, I talk about the “transformation” of these two characters. at essay is about their attempts to see beyond postmodern nihilism. e present essay is something of a continuation of that idea, though it concludes that, in fact, they don’t (or, more accurately, can’t) succeed in escaping that nihilism. 4. Keitel believes that it’s really Mr. Orange who is seeking redemption for his betrayal of Mr. White and the other gangsters when he confesses at the end: “And Mr. Orange, who represents the law, has to seek redemption for carrying out what the law demands of him” (Woods, King Pulp, 33). I don’t think this contradicts what I’m arguing here: both cops and gangsters could need redemption from their way of life, while, at the same time, Mr. Orange might need to be redeemed from an individual act of betrayal (though, if a cop needs to be redeemed for attempting to infiltrate a gang in order to arrest the leader, this might be further evidence of the nihilism inherent in the film, as I argue below). However, since my larger argument is that there’s no possibility of redemption in a postmodern world, in the end it doesn’t matter who’s seeking redemption. 5. About Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino says: “You know, you can’t put a guy in a black suit without him looking a little cooler than he already looks. It’s a stylistic stroke. It looks like I’m doing a genre movie and my genre character’s in uniform, like Jean-Pierre Melville’s trenchcoats, or Sergio Leone’s dusters that he’d have his characters wearing. So it does have that cool jazzy thing” (Je Dawson, Quentin Tarantino: e Cinema of Cool [New York: Applause, 1995], 78). In his discussion of Pulp Fiction, Woods claims that it’s Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s e Killers (1964) specifically who is “Vincent and Jules’ prototype in Pulp Fiction: the classic emotionless hitman in thin-lapelled suit and skinny tie” (King Pulp, 78). 6. It’s interesting to note that the people working at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction wear a sort of uniform as well, dressed as they are as famous pop icons. And there’s something decidedly unreal about them: they’re hollow representations of real, famous people. Vincent understands this when he refers to the restaurant as a “wax museum with a pulse.” e people working there are wax figures,

Film Noir. e Inquisition typically burned heretics. Not an uncommon notion of redemption. And Vincent knows this because he can identify with them as not being real. e increasingly influential notion of the auteur-director as the key creative force in film-making gave them the confidence to experiment and to see their films as vehicles for their own artistic self-expression” (Film Noir [Harlow: Longman. 74). King Pulp. a er having tortured them into confessing their supposed guilt.. 10. historically. 1997]. 9. J. Andrew Spicer says: “All these film-makers [Hopper. but now. he sees himself in them. Spicer. Arthur C. 1993). 8. Vernita is a wife and mother living in suburban Los Angeles. eir past catches up with them. Tarantino says: “ ere were always movie bu s who understood film and film convention. 14. with the advent of video. Coppola. which is why these films are labeled modernist or neomodernist. alternatively. 7). thus ultimately thwarting their attempts at redemption (or. while modernist films are those we’ve been discussing.g. they’re redeemed through death. 148. Scorsese. of course. films that consciously reflect on the history and techniques of filmmaking. and even Bill also seem to have at least attempted to become real people in the four years since their attack on the Bride. 11. With modernism. and Bill is playing father to his and Beatrix’s daughter. as the Bride takes her revenge. An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism (Athens: University of Georgia Press. is is why he’s able to correct Mia when she mistakes Mamie Van Doren for Marilyn Monroe. Vernita Green (Vivica A.Reservoir Dogs 115 not real at all. Budd (Michael Madsen). as are the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs). e. Fox). almost everybody has become a film expert even though they don’t know it” (Woods. Ibid. 12. believing that they’d be better o dead than living as sinners. Danto says: “Modernism in art marks a point before which painters set about representing the world the way it presented itself.. the conditions of representation themselves become central. 135). Recall that the movie forms a complete and coherent narrative but is chopped into vignettes and rearranged so that the end of the narrative comes in the middle of the movie.) 7. 2002]. Abrams for pointing this out to me. painting people and landscapes and historical events just as they would present themselves to the eye. Budd is an alcoholic bouncer and janitor at a “tittie” bar. 13. (My thanks to J. Such an awareness of the art object as an art object is an important element of modern art generally. So premodernist films are those from the golden age of Hollywood that seek to mimic real life (however faithfully). 136. so that art in a way becomes its own subject” (A er the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History [Princeton. Schrader] were steeped in film history and their films reflect a critical consciousness of both European and American film traditions. NJ: Princeton University Press. 175. Madan Sarup. .

Spicer. with Anna Karina. 23. 12. 22. Richard Martin. 20. Dawson. verbally and visually. 105. 1998). More an Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. but because the characters simply enjoyed doing it” (ibid. King Pulp. and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Martin. Danto. e Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: e Legacy of Film Noir in Contemporary American Cinema (Lanham. 19. 18. 66. 150. King Pulp. 88.urman dance scene in Pulp Fiction. 26. Woods. 28. Irony. Spicer. 1984). 16. 17. Film Noir. to an eclectic range of popular culture” (ibid. 218. Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur doing a little synchronized jig to the juke box in a French café. 27. Mean Streets and Raging Bulls. 150.116 Mark T. Quentin Tarantino. 165. Woods. 37. 124. Tarantino simply took her and Travolta to a trailer and showed them a video of Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part. Quentin Tarantino.. 25. About the Travolta. xxiv. 187). Ibid. 1989). Contingency. xvi. 1997). 24. “ e most obvious element of Tarantino’s films is their obsessive allusions.. 16. Richard Rorty. Jean-François Lyotard. Tarantino liked that scene. Geo Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 171). Film Noir. Conard 15. James Naremore. A er the End of Art. .. not because of how well they danced. trans. 21. Dawson reports: “To allay [ urman’s] fears. Dawson. MD: Scarecrow. 4. 117.

Part 3 Elements of Neo-Noir .

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education. all seemed to promise a utopian future for human beings. is detour sets up an experience of detachment. but only that. a detour that did not occur when one recognized a film as a western.e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown Richard Gilmore American film noir was always neo-noir. especially through France and Germany. e nineteenth-century continuation of the Enlightenment project looked to the future with a kind of shadowless hope. that recognition included a detour through Europe. Dostoyevsky. that engages the concepts of re-vision and neo-noir. noir was experienced from this perspective. technological progress. a rubric even more argued over than that of film noir. if genre is too strong). e United States in the 1940s had 119 . a certain level of detachment. in 1946 and in France. at means that the first experiences of film noir as a genre. is detour also engages the concept of philosophy. colonization. social oppression. and Sartre tracked the burgeoning recognition of the inescapable shadows that humanity casts—greed. racial oppression. Kierkegaard. Heidegger. a certain re-visionary artfulness. Science. political oppression. It was first seen as a genre. when films began to be recognized as noir. and anxiety along with the oppression of workers.1 at is five years a er the generally accepted year of the first instances of pure film noir and in another country. first recognized for its genuinely surprising darkness. violence. or even that. e dark existentialisms of Nietzsche. world war. already included a certain distance. before it was identified as a genre. or as a melodrama. Existentialism was a philosophy that sought to confront the darkest aspects of the human condition. I am not saying that the early noir films were made from this perspective. and then the threat of nuclear war. or even as a simple detective story. a moment of recognition. e dominant postEnlightenment philosophy of both France and Germany in the early twentieth century was existentialism. crime. if it can be called a genre (as a phenomenon.

to see in a group of particulars some general pattern. e narratives of film noir were identifying phenomena that were emerging in society at the time. which may be the first authentic neo-noir. A central feature of philosophy is the move to abstract.3 A return is still a singular event. To talk about film noir or neonoir is to have already begun to do philosophy. of oppression and resistance to oppression. unique both for the protagonists and . Freud would say. the return. To be able to see the patterns means being able to see the opportunities that a situation o ers as well as being able to see the dangers that one might want to avoid. is is also what is involved in identifying or discussing a genre. the genre of noir. Neo-noir functions in a similar way. to name just a few of its sources. more detached. 1974). ere is the sense in a classic noir of the narrative being unique. is more concerned with the problem of repetition. in addition. Neo-noir. and the threat of nuclear destruction. tracking emergent social patterns of its times. It is frequently only by some deviation in an established pattern that the pattern itself becomes visible. ose who cannot see the patterns will feel like they are in the grip of fate. to generalize. So neo-noir is also something somewhat di erent from classic noir. at least in the movie Chinatown (Roman Polanski. It is more general. the French were struck by the darkness and strangeness of many of the films they were now seeing coming out of Hollywood. It is a reflection on.2 For Americans. of greed. of the repressed. e past returns to haunt the protagonist or the protagonist (and antagonistic) couple. new forms of anxiety.120 Richard Gilmore plenty of darkness to confront—the devastation of the Depression. classic noir tends to be obsessed with the problem of the return. as well as a re-creation of. It involves a level of self-reflexivity that classic noir lacked. functions as a kind of philosophy of noir. e value of philosophy is the power that is granted to those who can identify the operative patterns that obtain in a given situation. helpless against the forces that seem to conspire against them. Neo-noir. It is worth pointing out that general patterns can be extremely di cult to see. Why were the French able to see something that Americans could not see in their own films? e French recognized the emergent character of noir in Hollywood movies because they had not been able to see Hollywood movies for five years during World War II. e genre of film noir itself was doing a kind of philosophy. more ironic. world war. To use Freudian vocabulary. of violence. When Hollywood movies became available once again in France. the continuity in the gradual darkening of certain American films occluded the pattern. more philosophical than classic noir.

e feeling of not being where one belongs is the feeling of alienation. then a third and a fourth. Nostalgia is about the hope of recovery of the lost thing. the intrusion of ambiguity into the apparent promise of the predictable and straightforward. More generally. ere is the disjunction between the nostalgia of the opening credits and the raw. I take it that the desperate attempts to achieve some object. when one simply had a home. some romanticized idea of what would constitute a sense of finally being home.4 Nostalgia: the word itself invokes the idea of a return. a er the wistful nostalgia evoked by the opening credits and haunting music. One longs for this precisely because one feels its absence. e idea of home is the desire for a return of something from one’s childhood. From the Greek nostos meaning “return home. Alienation is the great theme of existentialism. It is a feeling that seems to have become pervasive . e “thing” in the idea of nostos is home or. a sign for a repetition. e nostalgia of the opening sequence invokes a time of black-and-white film that seems to be reinforced by the black-and-white images. A repetition. inexorable fate. Wild risks are taken because of a desperate faith that the game can be won. however. Nostalgia pervades film noir because it underlies the desperation and violence that pervade film noir. more accurately for film noir. It is the hidden romanticism in film noir. e sequence is disorienting on several levels. commit some crime. to feel like one is where one belongs. that home that one had is lost. one can characterize the disjunction in terms of the intrusion of the raw into the apparent promise of the sweetly nostalgic. similar image. Chinatown.” nostalgia is a word for the sense that something important that one once possessed has been lost. I am using home now as a word for feeling like you are where you belong. I take the word Chinatown to be. A repetition undoes this uniqueness. the repetition of a particular tragedy. an unevadable fatality. Noir. e threat of the return still holds out the possibility of an evasion. that the lost thing can be recovered. but then that expectation is immediately undone when the recognition occurs that these are just blackand-white photographs appearing in a color film. suggests an inevitable. at image is replaced by a second. the inevitability of death in a particular kind of situation.e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 121 for the spectators. explicit sex of the photographs. with a black-and-white image of a man and a woman having outdoor clothed sex. are all attempts to achieve some sense of finally returning home. win some impossible love. At some point. and Nostalgia Chinatown begins. in part.

however.” Venetian Blinds. 1945). as well as of aspirations to that class. e narrative that emerges is that Curly (Burt Young) has hired Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to spy on his wife to determine whether she is having an affair. An interesting attending philosophical development is the rise of what Paul Ricoeur describes as the hermeneutics of suspicion. venetian blinds. and Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur. frequently.6 A hermeneutics is just a way of looking at and interpreting some text or phenomenon. flattens himself against them. is notoriously hard to achieve in the narratives of film noir. I just had them installed on Wednesday. e hermeneutics of suspicion will involve looking at some of the things that are most sacred to the bourgeoisie—God. he tosses the photographs against the wall.5 For one thing. are a sign. the director and writer. blinds.” It is an odd gesture. Home. morality. 1947). . He may have had suspicions. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder. trying to eat the blinds. You can’t eat the venetian blinds. 1941). and then begins to take a bunch of them into his mouth. of Chinatown. 1944). Shadows cast by light through blinds haunt many of the classic films noirs. ose narratives are pretty consistently lessons on the moral “Beware of what you wish for. and Suspicion e photographs in the opening scenes of Chinatown turn out to be of Curly’s wife (Elizabeth Harding) having sex with another man. especially in the 1940s. It is in the odd. that will be found the signs pointing to the previously unseen patterns that obtain. such as e Maltese Falcon (John Huston. is to try to be sensitive and responsive to the oddness of things. e rise of the bourgeoisie is one of the most salient features of modernity. just to name a few. goes over to the blinds.122 Richard Gilmore with the rise of modernity. Detour (Edgar G. It was the oddness in the post-1946 Hollywood movies that got the French thinking about a new genre that they would call noir. want Curly to eat the blinds? Blinds are a very significant visual and metaphoric trope in classic film noir. Part of what it means to do philosophy. 1946). love. Why does Curly want to eat the blinds? What does this gesture signify? Why do Roman Polanski and Robert Towne. to be philosophical. In evident torment. e Big Sleep (Howard Hawks. respectively. of a certain social class. but Curly still seems quite surprised and upset by the fact of the matter. Jake says: “All right. Curly. e photographs are proof that his worst suspicions are true. Noir. the bourgeois class. Ulmer. Enough’s enough.

I would say. Bad conscience is the state one is in when one continues to act according to the norms and values of the bourgeoisie. to the acceptance of some level of blindness. and fear. cannot bear too much light. can bear more reality than others—or. Visually. Marx will raise questions about some of our deepest assumptions about justice. and Marx are real snoops. he presses her for the name that goes with her middle initial. what constitutes social fairness. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) with questions while sitting at a table in a restaurant. In particular. at least partially. His question is one that appears to be at once banal and intrusive. inauthenticity. He will conclude that God is dead and that morality is just the will to power in disguise. Eliot put it: “Human kind / Cannot bear very much reality. a refusal to see that becomes a blind spot that we are no longer aware of but that haunts us with vague feelings of hypocrisy. to cut o the light because we do not like too much light. brighter realm. and what money is.” She asks him why he wants to know. ey darken our vision. “C. too much reality. and the answer to it will turn out to be at the very center of the mystery of the plot. democratic culture is what Sartre called bad faith and bad conscience. blinds cut and fragment an image. Evelyn Mulwray is clearly discomfited by it. . our desire to use blinds. at least. e great masters of this hermeneutics of suspicion are Nietzsche.e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 123 the family. has always been a bit unclear. Freud. S. ey suggest an inner. Freud will expose our romanticized notions about love and family. ey hide things in the image. are willing to try to. and alienation. then blinds are metaphorically in the service of protecting us from too much truth. self-inflicted. Part of the paradox of the pain of the bourgeois reality is that it is. e word signifies their function—blinds.” Nietzsche. Freud. It is our very cooperation with the questionable bourgeois norms. darker realm in contrast to an outer. capitalist. Bad faith is a kind of refusal to see. and Marx. He says: “I’m just a snoop. suspecting that they may not really be what they are presented as and taken to be. creating a mood of uncertainty.”8 Some people. anxiety. ey suggest the presence of obscurities. eir function is to blind. money—with suspicion. If we take light to be a trope for something like truth or reality. As T. asking the most uncomfortable questions and discovering extremely disconcerting answers.7 ere is a scene in Chinatown where Jake is pressing Mrs. even though one’s suspicions about the validity of those norms have been awakened. that causes our disease. Nietzsche will ask about God and morality. e result of these philosophical articulations of the dark side of Western. although what alternatives there are to cooperation.

It is o en confusing whom Jake is working for at any given moment in the movie. but he also seems to be pursuing his own line of inquiry solely for knowledge’s sake. Jake Gittes. and the revelation of each counternarrative works to destabilize the larger. a desire to return to his prefallen home. He is hired by Noah Cross (John Huston) to try to find the young woman. the movie . and Hubris e plot of Chinatown is convoluted and labyrinthine. having an a air. Each case contains a counternarrative. Katherine Cross (Belinda Palmer). maybe even for goodness’s sake. He has within the context of the movie been explicitly hired by three di erent people for three di erent cases. whether or not they really are pointing in that direction. overarching narrative of the movie itself. Scotomas. with whom Hollis Mulwray was. Curly has become what. but a good step behind the unfolding clues of the case. Roman Polanski and Robert Towne want Curly to eat the blinds not just for these reasons but also because they want to invoke this classic image from traditional film noir. the search for knowledge and the costs of knowledge.9 Labyrinths. by eating. Mulwray to investigate the death of Hollis Mulwray. to spy on her putative husband Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) to see whether he is having an extramarital affair. Mulwray. He also has his own interests in the case. in a sense. neo-noir twist. He is hired by the real Mrs. knowledge and the evasion of knowledge. He has been hired by the faux Mrs. Interestingly. Jake thinks that he is investigating a case of an extramarital a air.124 Richard Gilmore Given this background. always seems to be several steps ahead of us. He is invested in protecting his reputation. who is really Ida Sessions (Diane Ladd). e downside to this familiarity is that he tends to find the signs pointing in the direction he expects. ey want to announce the themes of the movie. He knows how to discover the signs that will reveal this pattern in people’s behaviors. is is very familiar terrain for him. with his prefallen wife there. these physical blinds in order to recover a more symbolic blindness so that his pain will be less. He wants to incorporate. but with an ironic. we have all become—a man who knows too much. the audience. apparently. that the movie will be about light and darkness. is is an expression of a kind of nostalgia.10 e protagonist. e first case starts out seeming to be fairly straightforward. an interpretation of the oddness of Curly’s attempting to eat the blinds is that he does so because he has had a little too much reality and wants to recover his condition of less painful blind-ness.

11 ere are. with the same seduction. as kisses are. in considering some peculiar features of the mind. for example.e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 125 presents us. He is constantly being surprised by things he failed to see or. Why is that? It is because the mind fills in the scotoma on the basis of information. If we are looking at a tree with a pattern of leaves. when Jake is spying from a roo op on Hollis Mulwray with the young woman. the audience. We see it in his investigations throughout the movie until the final revelation of his final scotoma in Chinatown itself. or some other type of kiss. We see this in his initial investigation of Hollis Mulwray’s supposed a air. signs. We see it in his attitude toward the information given him by the Chinese gardener about the water. at is. we see it as an erotic kiss even though. e philosopher Daniel Dennett. the basic pattern of the leaves gets reproduced by our mind to cover the scotoma. e scotoma is the blind spot that occurs in our vision because of the way the optic nerve interrupts the field of cones and rods at the back of our eye. even when there are counterindications to the pattern that we are expecting to find. For all that. or just a friendly kiss. better than . We “see” no blind spot. is deeply ambiguous. it is not. however. ere are situations in which our mind completes the pattern according to our expectations even when the pattern is not complete. What is most interesting about the scotoma is that we are not aware that it is there. Mulwray kisses her. It could be an erotic kiss. I want to say. We. rather. We see it in the situation of the “Chinaman” joke. as Jake will eventually discover. things for which he saw the signs but failed to read them properly because of his own preconceived ideas about what the signs must mean. take it to be a definitive sign that this is an a air. Jake is an excellent investigator. discusses the phenomenon of the scotoma. or a paternal kiss. conceptual as well as perceptual scotomas. e danger in reading signs is having a particular expectation of what the sign must mean that occludes its real meaning. We see it in his attitude toward Evelyn Mulwray. e counternarrative is that the woman who hired Jake is not really Mrs. roughout the movie Chinatown Jake Gittes is continually being confronted with the fact of his own conceptual scotomas. from the area surrounding the scotoma. a moment that Jake gets on film as decisive evidence of the a air. with the result that the visual field seems to be full and complete. too. Mulwray and that the whole case is really about not infidelity but water and power. especially with the photographs of Hollis Mulwray and Noah Cross arguing. ere is a moment. even when there may be insu cient information to complete the pattern. as it will turn out. He. e kiss itself.

an overarching arrogance that does not have the proper respect for human ignorance.13 Oedipus Rex begins with the city of ebes experiencing a terrible plague. an overconfidence in their own abilities that makes them fail to respect the overwhelming ambiguities that. e Greek word for the source of Jake’s scotoma is hubris. is somehow tied to the tragedy gripping his city. e hamartia. It is this overconfidence that leads them to their doom. Greek Tragedy. so he has begun to believe that he sees all there is to see. a situation not unlike the drought in Los Angeles at the beginning of Chinatown. He understands that he sees more than most people. from even imagining. His culpability. but his cynicism will look naive when it comes to the truth of the matter. His expectations have so frequently been found to be justified that he has come to trust his expectations too much. Hubris describes an unwarranted confidence.14 Oedipus will discover himself to be involved. the real lineaments of the case. In many ways.” It is the underlying subject of all the great ancient Greek tragedies. It is given as an admonition on the wall of the Oracle of Delphi: “Avoid hubris. Jake is investigating the death of Hollis Mulwray. of the heroic protagonists can always be framed in terms of a certain rashness. and crime behind facades of respectability. Jake is much more peripheral to the major events occurring in Chinatown than Oedipus is to the events occurring in Oedipus Rex. is is precisely his problem. and Guilt Oedipus is an appropriate figure from ancient Greek tragedy to invoke when thinking about Chinatown because the parallels between the two stories are quite striking. the water king (as it were) of Los Angeles. Oedipus will discover that he himself is implicated in the crime he is investigating.126 Richard Gilmore almost anyone else. his guilt. in fact. understands how appearances can be deceiving.12 Oedipus was the first “detective” in Western literature. His failure of imagination will lead to the tragedy that occurs in Chinatown.15 . He expects deviance. investigating the murder of the previous king of ebes. Oedipus. in some fairly complicated family dynamics. ey will create the scotoma that will prevent him from seeing. unwittingly but somehow culpably. His expectations circumscribe the possible patterns that he will be able to see. infidelity. surround them. especially one’s own. Laius. What he has seen has made him pretty cynical about people’s motives. the fatal flaw. e resolution of the mystery behind the crime that he is investigating is connected to the recovery of the health of his city. perversity.

of course. the narrative that human beings will never figure out the narrative soon enough or completely enough to avoid the inevitability of tragedy. it makes sense to ask whether Jake is somehow. More directly. another counternarrative emerges that undoes the narrative that seemed to tie everything together. is return takes the form for Jake. e new venetian blinds are a sign. they keep. the convertible car. Yet. leaving him once again adri . innocence and guilt. to be respected. at gives way to a narrative about a very complicated. He did not kill Hollis Mulwray. at shi s the narrative to questions about good and evil. clearly. there is the narrative of the suspicious wife who wants to know about her husband’s infidelity. Nor is Jake a direct player in the events that have occurred. like Oedipus. Jake’s guilt. All these narratives seem to lead inexorably to Chinatown. returning. in the drought that has gripped the city. if only very tangentially. nor can he save the city. Every time Jake begins to think that he is getting a handle on what is really going on. It is the place that suggests a narrative of its own.e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 127 Los Angeles is not Jake’s city the way ebes is Oedipus’s (since Oedipus was the king). it makes sense to ask whether there is some way in which Jake is culpable. First. the classy secretary. What are they signs of? A counternarrative in Jake’s own consciousness. a counternarrative to that of his down-to-earth. Teiresias is the seer who is physi- . and. as it does for Oedipus. to wealth and power. very particular family sexual dynamic. presumably. e new Florsheim shoes are a sign. In Oedipus Rex. at gives way to a narrative about the city water supply and the building of a new dam. freedom and compulsion. given the striking parallels between the two stories. culpable in the death of Hollis Mulwray and thus is. at is what we think wealth and power can do for us—eliminate the ambiguities and uncertainties of life. is guilt is signaled in Chinatown with a trope that is quite similar to a trope from Oedipus Rex. at gives way to a narrative about money and land. truthsearching character. of the emergence of one counternarrative a er another. as it were. has some social aspirations. at gives way to a narrative about the endlessness of the desire for power. if somewhat unknowingly. e problem. and the well-appointed o ce. is tied to his refusal to acknowledge certain ambiguities in time. Jake. ultimately investigating issues that go to the very core of his own identity. to leave Chinatown behind him. Nor is it Jake’s family that is at the center of the plot the way it most definitely is Oedipus’s family. one might say. like Oedipus’s. is that the ambiguities and uncertainties will not go away. He aspires. Chinatown is the place where all the narratives are undone. as are the tailored suits.

that will result in terrible things happening. is a recurring trope in Chinatown.” ese are flaws in vision. from the Latin for “on the le . Oedipus can physically see but is. the le eye. spiritually blind: he cannot see who he himself is or what he has done.19 It was just a er the Vietnam War and during the height of the Watergate scandal. In Chinatown. ey did this by showing how counternarratives can emerge. Borde and Chaumeton conclude: “All the films of this cycle [of film noir] create a similar emotional e ect: that state of tension instilled in the spectator when the psychological reference points are removed. Noir films worked to destabilize the overly cheerful narratives of the typical Hollywood film as well as the overly optimistic narratives that we construct for our own lives. Evelyn has a flaw in her le eye. and family. e aim of film noir was to create a specific alienation. by raising questions. and work. about our bourgeois narratives of love. “ e bloody paths down which we drive logic into dread. the reference to flawed vision is aimed at only one eye. and incommensurate narratives. we will learn. Jake knocks the le taillight out on Evelyn’s car so that he will be able to recognize it driving at night. e anxieties are di erent because the historical consciousness is di erent and the philosophy of the time is di erent. A similar play on seeing. Jake loses the le lens of his sunglasses at the orange ranch in the northwest valley. e one character who consistently wears glasses—but without a reference to a flawed vision in his le eye in particular—is Hollis Mulwray. contradictory. e same could be said of those of Nietzsche. in films. is yes. e eyeglasses found in the pond at the Mulwray house have a cracked le lens and. and the Hitchcockian Blot is is getting at the dark truth of film noir in general. I believe. e year 1974 was already well into what would be called postmodernity.128 Richard Gilmore cally blind. Freud. Guilt. at makes him a kind of Teiresias. and money.16 I take the fact that it is always the le eye as a reference to sinister. It was a time when a considerable amount of anxiety was being created for people simply by an overabundance of competing.”17 is is a beautiful description of the investigations of Jake Gittes as well as of those of Oedipus. Somebody had to be . but most frequently via glasses. and Marx.”18 Are the tension and alienation of neo-noir somehow di erent from those of classic noir? e answer. belong to Noah Cross. the one who could see the dark events portended from the beginning. Alienation. as it were. signs of conceptual scotomas. however. making the damaged car a kind of iconic sign of Evelyn herself.

and what would it mean for the future of our country? Philosophy was undergoing twin disruptions. postmodern kind of thinker if ever there was one—has identified what he calls the Hitchcockian blot. is disconnect undoes the possibility of any absolute truth and allows for the “deconstruction” of any text. the blinds in Jake’s o ce are a metablot. e photo of Noah Cross and Hollis Mulwray arguing is another one. of course. like Chinatown. e fish in the o ce of Mr. neo-noirs. the quintessential blot. finds himself in the Dutch countryside surrounded by windmills. Richard Rorty published the edited collection e Linguistic Turn. bucolic beauty to the sense of the dark. played by Joel McCrea. the blot that suggests that there is no consistent narrative other than the repeated undoing of every narrative.21 It is the signifier in a scene in a movie that suggests a counternarrative. Michel Foucault. What Jake is striving for. Žižek gives as an example the scene from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) in which the protagonist. the blot that exists for all of us. attempting a new decoding of modern values but. a signifier. paying especially close attention to the properties of language and the disconnect between language and the world. like the Americans and Brits. one on the British and American side. e countryside seems bucolic and beautiful—until he notices that one of the windmills is rotating in the wrong direction. In France. Suddenly. . not for Jake to pick up on. to a concern with language. It must be a nefarious signal system. ere are many Hitchcockian blots in Chinatown. all the values in the scene are transformed from quiet. is to achieve a consistent narrative of what is going on. signs of a counternarrative pop up. and another on the Continental (mostly French) side. e flaw in Evelyn’s eye is. a concern that regarded truth as just another property of sentences. e concept of “Chinatown” itself is the blot of all blots. In 1967.e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 129 lying. And. Hollis Mulwray’s obviously principled stand against building the new dam is a blot that Jake all but ignores in his pursuit of lurid photographs of Hollis and his supposed mistress. raise doubts about getting to the bottom of any narrative. pervasive presence of Nazi evil. to recognize. Roland Barthes.20 e “linguistic turn” marked a shi from the high. e object in the pond at the Mulwray house that Jake notices but cannot identify is a blot. and Jacques Derrida were the new hermeneuts of suspicion. of any narrative. but for us. Slavoj Žižek—a slippery. Noirs raised doubts about specific narratives. Yelburton (John Hillerman) and the sign of the Albacore are blots. the audience. Each time a consistent narrative begins to form. old way of metaphysical philosophy. but who and why. in which the question of “truth” was central. among other things. perhaps.

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Alienation, the Uncanny, and Freud
I associate the sense of a “specific alienation” with the experience of the uncanny. e sense of the uncanny is a sense that there is something more going on, something of which one cannot quite get a glimpse. It is the sense of the pervasive ambiguities that have not yet made themselves explicit. It emerges with the burgeoning sense of a counternarrative to the narrative that one has been assuming obtains. Freud o ers a fascinating analysis of the uncanny, an analysis that provides some useful tools for unpacking the emotional power delivered by Chinatown. Freud’s analysis is complicated and largely linguistic, but his surprising conclusion is: “ e uncanny is in some way a species of the familiar.”22 e “species of the familiar” with which the uncanny is associated by Freud is our infantile fears and desires. e primary fears are the fear of death and the fear of castration. e fear of castration is, itself, a complex fear because it is a fear associated with the fulfillment of one’s desire. at is, what the infant desires is the complete possession of the love object, the mother. e obstacles and prohibitions to that desire get experienced in the psyche of the infant, according to Freud, as the threat of castration. e uncanniness of Oedipus, says Freud, lies for us in the subconscious recognition of the appropriateness of his self-blinding when he discovers that he has had sex with his mother. Freud reads the destruction of the organs of his eyes as a “mitigated” substitute for the destruction of another organ, his penis. e psychological tension created by this infantile dynamic is that we desire what we fear and fear what we desire. We want what we desire, and we are terrified of actually possessing the object of our desire. Freud also analyzes the uncanniness of the doppelgänger, the double, in terms of primitive and infantile fears and desires. A psychological response to the fears of death and of castration, according to Freud, is the imaginative act of doubling. As Freud says: “ e double was originally an insurance against the extinction of the self, or, as [Otto] Rank puts it, ‘an energetic denial of the power of death.’ . . . e invention of such doubling as a defense against annihilation has a counterpart in the language of dreams, which is fond of expressing the idea of castration by duplicating or multiplying the genital symbol.”23 Let us consider these ideas from Freud about the uncanny in relation to Chinatown. I am assuming that, as it does for me, the movie creates in others the sense of something uncanny. First of all, the idea of the destruction of one organ as a symbolic stand-in for castration certainly seems

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relevant to Chinatown. Jake, himself, frames the point of his ongoing investigation as an attempt to recover the health of his slashed nose. is is in the scene outside the restaurant where he has explained to Evelyn Mulwray that he is “just a snoop.” His nose was slashed for, as it were, putting it where it did not belong, at least according to the ideas of some. e other prominent repetition of the genital symbol in the movie is the long-lensed cameras that Jake uses to do his snooping. His strength (the intelligence that informs his snooping, the tools he uses) will also be his weakness. His considerable power to come up with the question that will reveal what is hidden will lead him to answers to questions he would rather not ask. ere are at least two doppelgänger relationships suggested in the movie. e first is the doubling between Jake and Hollis Mulwray. Jake seems to be Hollis’s double, following him wherever he goes, lurking in the shadows as Hollis conducts his own investigations. is doubling is most strikingly suggested by the identical loss of each’s le shoe, which may also serve as an additional reference to Oedipus. Oedipus’s name, in Greek, means “swollen foot.” is name has the literal significance of referring to a wound that Oedipus received when he was abandoned as an infant and, in the process, his feet were bound. e name may also have a more symbolic significance in relation to his foot—as a stand-in for an organ that will be the source of some trouble for Oedipus (and, in a way, for Jake). Although the second doppelgänger relationship in the movie is more ambiguous, I take it that Noah Cross serves as another kind of double for Jake. Jake’s aspirations to move up in social class, his evident hunger for more money, his impassioned commitment to appear more respectable, represent a theme emphasized throughout the movie. ese aspirations are most tellingly revealed in Jake’s speech. He seems most awkward when he tries to use words (like métier) that he seems to associate with wealth, power, and respectability and most himself when he describes something moving as fast as “the wind from a duck’s ass,” a comment for which he apologizes, as he always does when his real self emerges through the veneer that he is trying to construct. Noah Cross, not to mention his daughter Evelyn, represents an extreme form of these very things to which Jake aspires. Hollis Mulwray, then, would be a kind of best-self version of Jake, and Noah Cross a worst-self one. Jake is caught in the middle, aspiring to some kind of moral goodness and, simultaneously, to greater wealth and power. He occupies a kind of nether region between the two, desiring both and neither. Interestingly, Evelyn Mulwray is trapped in the same gray region between Hollis and her father, Noah Cross. Jake and Evelyn, no doubt, are

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attracted to one another because of the recognition of this shared condition and, thus, serve each other as doubles. e desire each has for the other must include the desire to find in the other some way out of the terrible prison of these ambiguities. To find in the other, to find with the other, some way “home.” ese ambiguities are based on mutually exclusive desires. It seems clear that it is Jake’s perception that his desire for goodness can come only at the price of giving up his desire for wealth and power, and vice versa. e fear of castration that Freud emphasizes is really just the fear of a loss of one’s power, a fear that will be realized if Jake achieves either desire. Evelyn loves the goodness of her husband, Hollis, but clearly has contempt for his lack of passion. She seems genuinely, weirdly, to feel a passion for her father even as she is horrified by his evil. Can one be good and have social power? Can one find a love that is both good and passionate? ese are the questions that Jake and Evelyn want answered in the a rmative by the other. ese are questions that most of us want answered in the a rmative. e uncanniness of Chinatown derives from our more or less dim sense of these doublings, these desires and fears, these questions lurking in the background of the story of the movie as it unfolds.

Aristotle, Tragedy, and the Sublime
e first, and best, analysis of Oedipus Rex is by Aristotle in the Poetics. Aristotle’s Poetics, it can be argued, has as its central theme the problem of the sublime. e sublime is an aesthetic category that refers to an experience that begins with the experience of fear or terror but ends with the experience of joy or awe. e central theme of the Poetics is explaining the power of, and our love for, dramatic tragedies. A paradox of dramatic tragedy is that what we enjoy watching as theater, as a fiction, we would be horrified to see in real life, things like murder, death, and incest. At the theater, we do feel horror while watching these things, but we also love watching them and feel a kind of joy and awe a erward. is is precisely the trajectory of the experience of the sublime.24 Aristotle intends to explain why we have this experience when we watch a dramatic tragedy. Aristotle’s explanation of this phenomenon depends on his analysis of catharsis. A catharsis is a purging, a release. In a somewhat ambiguous description of how tragedy works, Aristotle says: “By means of pity and terror we experience a catharsis of such emotions.”25 e idea is that, through experiencing a surfeit of fear and pity in the controlled context

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of a dramatic narrative, we are freed of a certain amount of fear and pity that we ordinarily carry around with us, and we experience this release with something like joy. How does an increase in fear and pity free us of fear and pity? e answer must be that there are di erent kinds of fear and pity. I take our ordinary fear and pity to be of one order, generated by the self-preoccupied anxieties that develop in our regular lives. And I take the fear and pity that we experience in a dramatic tragedy to be of a di erent order, getting us to see, by comparison, the triviality of our daily concerns. A peek into the abyss makes worrying about having too small of an o ce or about how to a ord a big-screen television seem pretty trivial. To be able to see the triviality of some of our daily anxieties because we are able to see them in the context of a larger picture, a larger narrative, is, I take it, a sign of wisdom.

e Way to Wisdom
“Chinatown” is the abyss. It is the postmodern abyss of the endless repetition of narratives. We will die before we get to the bottom of the narratives because there is no bottom. at is the tragic wisdom. It is a wisdom to make us not just more sympathetic toward the futile strivings a er a coherent narrative of our fellow human beings, but more understanding toward our own futile strivings for this. e tragic wisdom is the awareness of this futility. e only truth is this truth, that every truth is pregnant with the alien body of its own counternarrative. e scotoma is structural and inherent in the fact of sight itself. is is a sad truth, but even sadness can be a basis for human companionship, for shared understanding, for the possibility of love. Chinatown has a structure that is very similar to that of an ancient Greek tragedy. It begins with a man who is essentially good, but flawed, who is in a position of some power and authority, but who is forced to learn the limits of his authority and power in this world, and it ends with terrible revelations and death. Several critics complained on the film’s release about its ending, its darkness.26 As a matter of fact, it was originally meant to have a happier ending, with Evelyn killing Noah Cross and Jake, Evelyn, and Katherine escaping to Mexico. Polanski changed the ending to the much darker one that the movie actually has. He said that the movie would have been “meaningless” with the happier ending.27 Why meaningless? Aristotle’s suggestion is that meaning emerges only when we are confronted with radical ambiguities in our accepted narratives. Meaning

e first articles in French identifying noir as something like a genre were Nino Frank’s “Un nouveau genre ‘policier’: L’aventure criminelle” (L’ecran français 61 [1946]: 8–9. 279–96. Notes I would like to thank Mark Conard for many helpful suggestions on the original and subsequent dra s of this essay. 1983–1998 (New York: Verso.” in e Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern. We can get a sense of that dark wisdom. not. but to a somewhat di erent end. To begin to see a counternarrative. or. 3. More an Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. See his “Postmodernism and Consumer Society. in the dark sublimity of Chinatown. Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: Henry Holt. . is always to enter a realm of darkness. See the discussion in James Naremore. 8–9. 4. at Chinatown is the first authentic neo-noir is a claim made in Nicholas Christopher. Seeing more. 2. it was more a “hallucinatory” parody of noir than a real return to something profoundly noir. 1998). Naremore (More an Night. eds. is the way of wisdom. It is a di cult way. perhaps. Jameson also talks about nostalgia and film in “Film: Nostalgia for the Present. to begin to see that there is more going on. We can get a glimpse of that way through great art and great movies. 206–7) argues a similar case in his contrast of Chinatown with e Long Goodbye (Robert Altman. e Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham. 2001).” all of which are included in Alain Silver and James Ursini. even if there is a dark side to this wisdom. and experience some of the power of that wisdom. 1997). where all one’s previous guideposts will now serve only to heighten the ambiguity. when we begin to be aware that there are larger narratives. 15.134 Richard Gilmore begins to emerge when we are able to begin to see counternarratives. Fredric Jameson also makes the connection between Chinatown and nostalgia. however. as Chinatown was. but it is important for us all that there are some willing to take it. 1. the way for everyone. larger issues at stake. 1998). and also including Raymond Durgnat’s “Paint It Black: e Family Tree of the Film Noir” (1970) and Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir.” in Postmodernism. 14) and Jean-Pierre Chartier’s “Les Américains aussi font des films ‘noirs’” (Revue du cinema 2 [1946]: 67). narratives that put our own overinvested narrative into perspective. NC: Duke University Press. 241. 1996).. Film Noir Reader (New York: Limelight. Nietzsche. 1973)—that. Freud. starting with Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton’s “Towards a Definition of Film Noir” (1955). and Marx are saying something similar. is point is made in several of the seminal essays on film noir. although e Long Goodbye was made a year earlier.

1997). in Collected Poems. Daniel C. no. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 15. 8. see Jerold J. 13. 2006). More an Night. most strikingly. Abrams. the appearance of the director of e Maltese Falcon. Somewhere in the Night. Some very good essays on the parallels between the two are John Bolton. 242.” in e Philosophy of Film Noir. is idea is explicitly remarked on by Bolton (“Language. 207–8. Some of the neo-noir twists in Chinatown include explicit references to the first classic noir. Dennett. “Language. is line is quoted in one of the earliest and most influential works on film noir. 7. 176. A nice Ozymandias-ish comment on the briefness of our tenure on earth. Martin Winkler [New York: Oxford University Press. Eliot. see Christopher. ere is also. is has frequently been remarked on. A point also made by Eaton (Chinatown. For more on noir. “Incest and Capital in Chinatown. For more on the references to e Maltese Falcon in Chinatown. 10. Mark T. 1955).” MLN 114. I found it in excerpted form in Borde and Chaumeton. etc. 67.. and Naremore. 17. 1909– 1962 (New York: Harcourt. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir. 5 (1999): 1092–1109.” 940). Ibid. 9. Conciousness Explained (Boston: Little. in Chinatown as the antibiblical Noah Cross. It is taken from the presurrealist writer Isidore Ducasse. Oedipus. 69–88. . no. 11. 1970). “From Sherlock Holmes to the Hard-Boiled Detective in Film Noir. Brown.” from Four Quartets. is connection is also made in Michael Eaton. 1991).” 1094). 155). 1970). 16. film-trip. My thanks to Tony McRae for some technical assistance in tracking down the use of blinds in some of the classic films noirs. John Huston. ed. Chinatown (London: British Film Institute. Brace & World. is is a point made by Shetley (“Incest and Capital in Chinatown. 2001]. 67). T. and Chinatown. 14.e Dark Sublimity of Chinatown 135 5. Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton’s Panorama du film noir américain (1941–1956) (Paris: Minuit. 32. and Vernon Shetley. 32–33. 12.com. Oedipus.” in Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema. 6. For more on labyrinths in noir. e whole opening sequence can be read—and has been by several commentators on the film—as a reference to the opening of e Maltese Falcon: a woman comes to a detective’s o ce with a bogus story to get him involved in a very complicated plot for her own personal reasons. Mary-Kay Gamel refers to these as “images of flawed sight” (“An American Tragedy: Chinatown.” MLN 106. and Chinatown. S. 5 (1991): 933–50. e Maltese Falcon. ere is also an explicit reference to the scene of scraping Miles Archer’s name o the door with a similar scene in Chinatown in which Hollis Mulwray’s name is being scraped o a door. ed. “Burnt Norton. 324–25. Paul Ricoeur.” 19. CT: Yale University Press. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven. see http://www. Count Lautréamont.

Richard Rorty. 26. 134.. 1967).” Jump Cut 3 (1974): 1. 23–29. e. 24. 85. Critique of Judgement. Conard. For a more complete explanation. H. naming it. 2003). trans. and describing it—is Jean-François Lyotard. James Kavanagh. MA: MIT Press. Other Times. 25. David McLintock (New York: Penguin. trans. ed. e Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). See. See Roman Polanski’s comments included on the DVD of Chinatown (released by Paramount Pictures in 1999).” Village Voice.. Andrew Sarris.. 2000). 27. “‘Do as Little as Possible’: Polanski’s Message and Manipulation.” 25. I have in mind here Kant’s concept of the sublime. e Uncanny. See also Mark T. Aristotle. 1974. trans. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir. trans. J.” Jump Cut 3 (1974): 9–10. 22. e Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 8. and Murray Sperber.136 Richard Gilmore 18. 1984). 23. “Chinatown and Polanski-Towne: Tilting toward Tragedy. 1987).g. Poetics. 88. Ibid. . 7 (49b25). 20. November 7. 142. 1997). secs. Borde and Chaumeton. see Immanual Kant. Bernard (New York: Prometheus. 21. e classic text on postmodernism—identifying it. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge. “Reservoir Dogs: Redemption in a Postmodern World” (in this volume). Geo Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Richard Janko (Indianapolis: Hackett. Slavoj Žižek. Sigmund Freud. “Chinatown: Other Places. 19.

2 Classic noir has 137 . neo-noir evinces a strong inclination toward pastiche and the satiric. on traditional noir character types and intricate plots whose complexity is bizarre. Classic noir avoids overt moral lessons and leaves little room for well-adjusted. that qualifies all hope and suggests a potentially fatal vulnerability. Because it is so o en characterized by self-conscious deployment of the techniques of classic noir. 1998) From their inaugural film. the Coen brothers have exhibited a preoccupation with the themes. to the 2001 e Man Who Wasn’t ere. is makes comic themes more at home in the world of neo-noir than they were in the founding era of noir. e world of classic noir pro ers a “disturbing vision . virtuous types of Americans. neo-noir was already established as a recognized category of film. By the time they made Blood Simple in 1984. through the film blanc of the 1996 Fargo. happy. : Ah. characters.1 Prior to Quentin Tarantino’s darkly comedic unraveling of noir motifs in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Must be exhausting. instead.” against which no one is adequately protected. — e Big Lebowski (Joel Coen. . the Coens were already making consciously comic use of noir plots and stylistic techniques. . Hibbs B T L D : Ulli doesn’t care about anything. Without Tarantino’s penchant for hyperactive and culturally claustrophobic allusions to pop culture. He’s a nihilist. and stylistic techniques of film noir.e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Neo-Noir omas S. the Coens focus. the 1984 Blood Simple.

”3 Jean-Pierre Chartier’s early and negative reaction to noir seems to apply more aptly to certain neo-noir films. A classic noir film such as Detour (Edgar G. come to seem humorous. In the very act of recognizing the artifice. By contrast with classic noir films. e result is amusement. As Foster Hirsch points out. on the sleight of hand performed by the filmmaker. But the shi to a comic perspective involves more than the mere passage of time. What matters is the passage of time without any prospect of hope or intelligibility. Life in an absurd universe is rife with comic possibilities.”4 . 1950). however. criminals whose evils nothing can excuse. is does not mean. e baroque sensibility of noir has always contained the seeds of stylistic excess. e grim pessimism of classic noir is hardly congenial to the sorts of comic films that flourished in America during the same time period. we are in on the joke. whose actions imply that the only source for the fatality of evil is in themselves. over time. that comedy is utterly alien to classic noir. even laughter. detached irony. the unforgiving laws of the human condition apply universally to every individual. Angst and fear can be sustained for only so long. Ulmer. Similarly. void of even the most “fleeting image of love” or of characters who might “rouse our pity or sympathy. he felt. e depiction of characters as trapped in a labyrinth at the mercy of a hostile fate can transform the tone of the action from the gravely tragic to the absurdly comic. the accentuation of hopelessness and the overtly self-conscious deployment of artistic technique make the turn to dark comedy nearly inevitable. 1945) toys with its main character to such an extent that his continued gravity can come to seem a self-inflicted farce. What initially seems serious and ominous can. the dominant tone in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder. the degradation of a ection—the perverse erotic attractions in which noir o en wallows—lends itself to wry. In neo-noir.” noir. going so far in some cases as to make style itself the subject of the film. comedy is more than tragedy plus time. Chartier lamented noir’s “pessimism and disgust toward humanity”. endless and pointless terror becomes predictable and laughable. neo-noirs almost inevitably draw attention to their style. even of the celebration of style for its own sake. Hibbs deeply democratic instincts: no one wins. whose style is reserved and less self-conscious.138 omas S. presents “monsters. Struggle and striving begin to appear superfluous and foolish. one of the distinguishing features of neo-noir is a “cavalier amorality” that can steep viewers in a “depraved point of view.

nihilism undermines all transcendent claims and standards. Behold. and beauty—that previously gave shape and purpose to human life no longer resonate in the human soul.6 ese are the passive nihilists.”8 Active nihilists see the decline of traditional moral and religious systems as an occasion for the thoroughgoing destruction of desiccated ways of life and the creation of a new order of values.” If. then. Nietzsche thought that nihilism would be the defining characteristic of the twentieth century. petty last men create a society that is ruthlessly homogeneous (“everybody wants the same. in one sense. for the nihilist. e bulk of humanity falls into the category of the last man: “Alas. he holds that the notion of God. the representatives of “the decline and recession of the power of the spirit. All moral codes are seen to be merely conventional and.e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 139 Nietzsche and Nihilism ere are. e earth has become small and on it hops the last man who makes everything small. the pessimists. and despair accompany nihilism. What is love? What is a star? us asks the last man and blinks. clearing a path for “increased power of the spirit.”5 Nietzsche is most famous for proclaiming the death of God.”7 But nihilism is “ambiguous. a project that is an a ront to society’s religious and . For most human beings. But Nietzsche does not limit the e ects of nihilism to religion. justice. nihilism involves the dissolution of standards of judgment. the philosopher-artists of the future. good from evil. important links between neo-noir and nihilism. is becoming increasingly less credible. including those underlying modern science and democratic politics. instead. He certainly does not mean that a previously existing supreme being has suddenly expired. an epoch in which “the highest values” would “devalue themselves” and the “question ‘why?’” would find “no answer.” e contented. or higher from lower ways of life.” ey stand beyond good and evil and engage in aesthetic self-creation.” it is also an opportunity. diminution. one has a regard for health”). nihilism is the “unwelcome guest. optional. the time of the most despicable man is coming. there is no longer any basis for distinguishing truth from falsity. created by humans to serve a variety of needs. he that is no longer able to despise himself. everybody is the same”) and addicted to physical comfort (“one has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night. e great questions and animating visions—those regarding truth. love. will engage in the “transvaluation of values. noble from base action. According to its most trenchant analysts. Active nihilists. decline. hence. I show you the last man.

the development of ever higher. as they are. more comprehensive states . using their cunning and artistry to ensnare others. 1995). Impervious to the laws of the human condition. it turns the most atrocious of human acts—rape and beating in Cape Fear. Neo-noir’s greatest departure from classic noir consists in a turn to aristocratic nihilism. 1981) and Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese. At times. Instead. keeping down and keeping at a distance.10 In these neo-noir films. it constrains only those who lack the willpower. and that needs slavery in some sense or another. his path beyond nihilism. in moral absolutes or democratic consensus. 1992) to e Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer.”9 What Nietzsche calls the pathos of distance is at work in a variety of neonoir dramas. the noir trap is no longer seen as an indelible feature. necessary to rise above. Nihilistic comedy has no limits on the targets of its humor.140 omas S. or will to power. we might call this the nihilistic myth of the American super-antihero. rare. 1991). Were it not so cumbersome. certain characters rise above the noir labyrinth. not by passing through it or learning to navigate its shi ing waters. As he puts it frankly in the chapter “What is Noble?” in Beyond Good and Evil: Every enhancement of the type “man” has so far been the work of an aristocratic society—and so it will be again and again—a society that believes in the long ladder of an order of rank and di erences in value between man and man. 1991) and Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven. and maiming in Reservoir Dogs—into quasi-comic expressions of exuberant amoral energy. and control. . cannibalism in e Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme. . rooted. but by acts of diabolical will. promotes a particularly virulent form of aristocracy. these characters get away with lives of criminality. e most resourceful of these characters are in control of the noir plot. from Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan. . . is shi constitutes a movement in the direction of nihilism and a recoiling from the fundamentally democratic world of classic noir. Nietzsche’s remedy for the nihilistic epoch. further-stretching. With that pathos of distance that grows out of the ingrained di erence between strata . Hibbs democratic conventions. . the continual “self-overcoming of man. conventions. more mysterious pathos could not have grown up either—the craving for an ever new widening of distances within the soul itself. e human condition is no longer universal. that other. more remote.

an opening for a democratic rejoinder to the sort of angst-ridden nihilism that celebrates the tragic heroism of the loner who faces the meaninglessness of life with gravity. in the film’s final frames. ere is. it involves the death of man. then the audience. and for truth and understanding. But thoroughgoing nihilism eviscerates any such standards or. truth. a point driven home with great gusto in such spoofs of the genre as Scream (Wes Craven. the very notion of a critique presupposes that one has.1). Once this nihilistic move has been made. implicitly at least. which repudiates justice. 1996) and Scary Movie (Keenan Ivory Wayans. conventional characters. then entertaining. he responds to a question as to his plans by saying. and love. it is quite natural to repudiate and mock properly human longing for justice. for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the heinous criminal. Gravity cannot be sustained. having become jaded. and complex than the purportedly good characters in a story. as more interesting. even the intelligibility of the quest for such standards. and other ideals are not necessarily nihilistic. thus. Nihilism. so long as we can say ‘this is the worst’” (4. e democratic and comic response is: Why bother? What’s all the fuss about? If there is no meaning. anticipates the aesthetics of evil and sees the whole drama as a farce. and truth in favor of aesthetic self-creation. As Shakespeare writes in King Lear: “ is is not the worst. Audiences are entertained by the demonic superheroes who put on a good show and are much more clever and wittier than other. e comic unraveling of the horror genre from within begins with the celebration of the evil antihero as beyond good and evil. wryly. 2000) and their sequels. entails the diminution of human aspiration to the vanishing point. If the gravity of the quest to understand and fend o evil produces no great insight about good or evil. ese are the consequences of the nihilistic turn in neo-noir. just the surface aesthetics of the evildoer. truth. Criticisms of conventional conceptions of justice. Noir. as Nietzsche saw. A character such as Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in e Silence of the Lambs is at first terrifying. and Comedy in e Big Lebowski e comic denouement of e Silence of the Lambs signals the unraveling of the hero genre from within. .e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 141 It mocks our longing for justice. an awareness that things are not as they should be. that he’ll be having an old friend for dinner. Nihilism. love. attractive. that it would be better for things to be otherwise. and finally humorous as. what is more to the point. Indeed.

” Later that day. but sometimes a man is just right for his time and place. the narrator continues. what the Coens call the anachronism of incompatibility. at the time of our national “conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis. the narrator introduces “the Dude. certainly not the hero of the old westerns.” at man is the Dude. there is the noir staple of the “wrong man.142 omas S. Bush’s speech about the Iraqi threat: “ is aggression will not stand. As we shall see. and demand that he repay the money his wife owes Jackie Treehorn. As a tumbleweed blows down the streets of Los Angeles and over a beach. symbolized in the tumbleweed blown by chance forces beyond its control or comprehension. A television in the store plays President George H. could possibly provide a basis for distinguishing. W. ere is the theme of the loner. A perplexed Dude objects that no one calls him Lebowski and that he’s not married—gesturing to the raised toilet seat as confirming evidence.” a name no one else would “self-apply. between noble and base ways of facing the abyss? is sort of comedy mocks radicals of all sorts. especially in the contrast between the two Lebowskis.” e camera turns to the Dude. I won’t say a hero.” “Our story. the Dude is attacked at home by intruders who call him Lebowski. Hibbs then why get worked up about anything? And what. as Nietzsche wants to. “a man is. wearing shorts and a bathrobe and shopping for groceries. they urinate on the rug—an act of defilement that the Dude regrets because “that rug really tied the room together. voiceover narration. 1998). the film replays 1960s themes of the establishment versus the antiestablishment. e intruders suddenly come to their senses and one of them asks: “Isn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire?” In a parting gesture. e Dude’s social life revolves around bowling with his friends Walter . the “laziest man in LA County. but rather the uprooted dri er.” the chance misidentification of an ordinary man as a culprit or criminal of some sort. Finally.” ese opening scenes introduce readily identifiable neo-noir themes. e Big Lebowski begins and ends with the noir commonplace. en there is the motif of a shallow and artificially constructed political culture.” an achievement that puts him high in the “running for laziest worldwide.” he relates. suggested in the television coverage of the Gulf War. stu his head in the toilet. whether they be nihilists or zealous reformers. a misidentification that sparks a series of trials on the part of the wrongly accused. in a pointless universe. is set in the early 1990s. Such is the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ comic leveling of nihilism in the e Big Lebowski (Joel Coen. Comic incongruity arises from the theme of the wrong man and from the repeated presence of the Dude in settings where he clearly does not belong.” Sometimes.

” they drop a marmot into the tub just between his legs and announce: “We want the money. to define himself in relation to a way of life. the Coens immediately shi to a scene in which a group of Germans break into his apartment and find him in his bath. e Dude decides to visit the Big Lebowski (David Huddleston). e bums lost. a tradition.e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 143 (John Goodman). someone in a blue car follows the Dude. When the Dude accuses him of living in the past. is is. unlike the Dude. this time he is misidentified as a professional. Learning about the intruders.” working on the same case as the one the Dude’s working on. the Dude once again plays the wrong man role. How badly he wants this is clear from his willingness to rate National Socialism above nihilism on the “ethos” scale. As he complains that this is a “private residence. a man confined to a wheelchair as a result of injuries su ered in the Korean War. serves to underscore the absurdity of attempting to . and Donny (Steve Buscemi).” Here. Late in the film. a complete illusion. you’re goddamn right I’m living in the fucking past!” Walter wants to have an identity. a result of his marriage to a Jewish woman from whom he is now divorced. a pleasant. e Dude is o en irked at Walter’s strange Jewish devotion. e Dude takes a drag o his joint and says: “Bummer. “ is aggression will not stand. indicating that his wife. e way you play one side against the other. Bunny. has been kidnapped. An incredulous Dude asks Lebowski’s assistant: “He thinks the carpet pissers did this?” roughout much of the film. Walter responds: “ ree thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax. larger than himself. He “went out and achieved”: “Your revolution is over.” Soon a er this encounter. saying that. Yet his own embrace of Judaism. a Vietnam vet and recent convert to Judaism. who explains that he is a “private dick. We believe in nothing. of course.000 and his own beeper to act as a courier. shy follower. to underscore the Dude’s impotence. when he lost his legs in Korea. he runs up to the car and yanks out the driver.” Lebowski taunts him.” Lebowski o ers the Dude $20. whom the men were a er. If we don’t get the money. When the Dude asks for remuneration for his destroyed rug and proclaims. but he.” Walter shares the Dude’s dislocation. He then admits fawningly: “I admire your work. he did not ask for a handout. Walter insists that the issue is not the rug but the other Je Lebowski. is troubled by his rootlessness. we will come back tomorrow and cut o your johnson. a humbled and weepy Lebowski invites the Dude back to the house and shows him a ransom note. man. a private detective with the knowledge and cleverness to manipulate human character types for his own ends.

Moreover.” When the Dude tells them that Bunny is alive and there will be no financial transaction. Although the Dude is not foolish enough to proclaim himself a nihilist. He is skeptical of large-scale beliefs such as those to which Walter assents. they will kill Bunny. Concerned about the Dude’s preoccupation with the case of the missing wife. ere’s nothing to be afraid of. strictly speaking. Walter exclaims: “We can’t drag this negative energy into the tournament. no matter how debased. Walter ranks bowling on about the same level as his religious devotion. Nihilism cannot. someone who combines elements of 1960s counterculture with degrees of bourgeois conformity and standards of success. torch the Dude’s car and demand money. everyone complains about something. . Donny has a heart attack and dies. who think that Bunny is still missing. But the Dude has beliefs. He does not need an ethos. except insofar as that is mere style. He believes. His Judaism is an incoherent mixture of various elements. a bourgeois bohemian. inversely. a bunch of fucking crybabies?” In the ensuing conflict. Full-blown nihilism cannot be lived. at least for himself.144 omas S. ese men are cowards. however misguided and selfinterested. his life borders on nihilism.” Without any direct contribution from the Dude. He thinks of himself as a respectable citizen. like Walter. . dislocated from contexts in which they originally may have made a kind of sense.11 Brooks’s new social standard-bearers are much more bourgeois than bohemian. it can only be approached asymptotically. An utterly amorphous and completely pointless life would deprive an individual not just of any inspiring sense of purpose but even of the basis for deliberating and pursuing anything whatsoever. A timid Donny asks: “Are these the Nazis?” Walter replies: “No. Hibbs introduce an ethos into a fragmented contemporary culture. be lived. But.” Walter taunts them: “Fair? Who’s the fucking nihilist here? What are you. . It turns out that Bunny was just on an unannounced vacation. the Germans. he is also passionate about bowling . and this is rooted in some sense. for example. of injustice or wrongs su ered. if they are not paid. Outside the bowling alley. the Dude is more bohemian than bourgeois. He is little concerned with societal standards of success and insouciantly repudiates the work ethic. the case wraps up nicely. which is about what the Jewish religion is for Walter. these men are nihilists. in private property. he is a low-class. minimally ambitious version of what the social critic David Brooks has called a Bobo. one of the Germans complains: “It’s not fair. claiming that. Walter here puts his finger on the problem of self-described nihilists and of the incompatibility between nihilism and human life.

I sure hope he makes the finals. but I take comfort in that. down through the generations. Shoosh. takin’ her easy for all us sinners. At one point. he manages to contribute to ongoing natural processes. across the sands a time until—aw. He gets out of bed and notices that Maude remains on her back cradling her legs. westward the wagons. e zenith of his life was organizing campus protests in the 1960s. wraps her all up. she asks a number of questions about his life and his habits of recreation. he has sex with Maude. the Dude emerges from the noir . It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. I’m ramblin’ again. the Dude. she explains that a deadbeat dad is exactly what she wants. A erward. living lightly. “ e Dude abides. look at me. Parts. I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself. e Dude accepts the basic absurdity of the cosmos. e cowboy matter-of-factly reiterates the Dude’s own self-referential proclamation. in spite of the threats to his life. e Dude’s abiding signals an escape. Course—I didn’t like seein’ Donny go. his recreation consists in car cruising and the occasional acid flashback. anyway. of life in the most advanced civilization ever to grace the face of the earth. happen to know that there’s a little Lebowski on the way. But then. e Dude is a kind of comic hero. Wal. When he expresses worries about the responsibilities of fatherhood. at least for our narrator (Sam Elliott). a way of taking it easy. where he and the Dude exchange pleasantries. ings seem to’ve worked out pretty good for the Dude ’n’ Walter. and it was a purt good story. Despite his lack of conscious planning and his absence of ambition. dontcha think? Made me laugh to beat the band. from the world of noir. “What did you think this was all about?” she asks. Welp. but none of this stops him from judging certain things to be unseemly. a strategy designed to increase the chances of conception. concluding observations: e Dude abides. or at least a reprieve. who shows up onscreen in the final scene at the bowling alley. uh hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. I don’t know about you.” and o ers some reflective. His way of life affirms the equal significance or insignificance of all human endeavors. the Big Lebowski’s libidinous and artistically rebellious daughter. that about does her. e Dude has not so much an ethos as a style.e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 145 and is deeply concerned with how his team will perform in the upcoming competition.

the suggestion that the human comedy perpetuates itself through the ongoing birth of new humans.146 omas S. a phrase that the Coens borrowed from Dashiell Hammett. Hibbs plot. a married and pregnant female detective named Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand in an Oscar-winning performance). criminal plans. the consequences of their acts quickly swirl out of control. strikes a comic note di erent from that of mere satire or denunciatory cynicism. radically individualist spirit that infects . they nonetheless act without adequate foresight. 1998). and marriages and the begetting of children provide no way out. e characters are blood simple. Here. and as something worth preserving and handing on to the next generation. In the final scenes of Fargo. as bearing fruit. real families figure prominently in other Coen films. Her domestic life is void of the sort of calculating. from its labyrinth. Fargo. Fargo features criminals undone by their own futile.”13 is strikes a note of comic a rmation absent in even the most complex noir films. Fargo features criminals who su er “snow blindness. Marge’s role as commentator eclipses in significance her role as investigator. inevitably leave incriminating clues behind. the criminals seem destined to destroy themselves.14 As in Blood Simple. Apparently cold and calculating. who borrowed it from police talk to describe the way criminals lose control of full rationality at the moment of committing the crime and. e Big Lebowski is about “friendship and surrogate families. Yet Fargo is a very di erent film from Blood Simple. Called a film blanc because of the near-whiteout conditions that prevail in the film’s setting in the flatlands of North Dakota.”12 Basic Familial Instincts in Coen Comedy As one critic has noted. As Pascal puts it (a sentiment later stolen by Hume): “Nature backs up helpless reason and stops it going so wildly astray. With a plot akin to that of A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi. so too here criminals are subject to a comedy of errors.” the self-deceiving illusion of infallibility. Indeed. e tone of the ending. especially in the brothers’ most critically acclaimed neo-noir. it inscribes the comedy of criminal error within a more traditional structure of the detective who a rms the goodness of conventional mores. Marge’s comments about her expected baby a rm a certain way of life as making sense. the impulses and resources of nature toward reproduction and survival are seen as more powerful than the destructive forces of noir. If surrogate families are at the heart of e Big Lebowski. wherein the family is nearly always a source of the noir trap. thus. unscathed.

Despite its gruesome violence and somber tone. an a rmation of order. the interweaving of comedy and fertility harks back to pagan and Shakespearean comedy. if there are any discernible (greed for a “little bit of money”). suggest the presence of something more than mere banality.e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 147 the families of the criminals in the film and the typical families that inhabit other noir films. where virtue is a kind of ignorance and wickedness a nullity. given the risks.”18 Indeed. No such complete reconciliation is possible in neo-noir.16 If this line of interpretation were correct. the characters who avoid entrapment by the noir vices of lust and greed. ey seem to su er from a sort of Forrest Gump syndrome. Fargo’s conclusion calls to mind certain features of classical comedy. Marge does not seek deeper meaning beneath the surface. She wonders: “In the universe of Fargo.” Laura Miller observes the “dullness of the Midwestern characters” and the essential emptiness of their values. with the celebration of rites of fertility and marriage. she is not on a great quest to discern the nature and causes of evil. especially of the marital bond as the cornerstone of hope in society. for example. e causes. or lack thereof. Yet the Coens’ penchant for presenting fertility and. familial fidelity as ways of avoiding entanglement in the noir traps of lust and greed points in the direction of such comic reconciliation. evil remains inexplicable: “I just don’t understand it. in some films. of an order of nature that overcomes human vice and frailty and reconciles opposing forces and conflicting wills. .” Marge witnesses at close range the noir trap of criminality. describes McDormand’s character as “a cockeyed optimist. which they cannot themselves articulate. in the Coens’ films as a “knowing. and the a ront to natural goodness (“It’s a beautiful day”). but it does not destroy her—or even tempt her. which o en ends with a wedding. a sort of banality of goodness. are readily available on the surface of criminal action. a strange and comic counterpoint to Hannah Arendt’s famous thesis concerning the banality of evil. classical comedy mocks radicals—be they criminals or well-intentioned reformers. not even in the Coens’ comic neo-noir. wide-eyed but hardly stupid. Foster Hirsch.”17 Yet the gentle levity with which the Coens treat these characters and the way the characters embody natural tendencies. A rming the reasonableness of conventions. highly allusive” form of filmmaking that is no more than “pastiche. In a review of Fargo entitled “ e Banality of Virtue. the Coens’ alternatives to nihilists. yet. where do real people fit in?”15 Indeed. seem not so much virtuous as incapable of the complexities of vice. committed to a conventional understanding of justice. the cost. then we might see the substance.

Hi falls in love with Ed. he concedes. a dream of the future in which Nathan Jr. the story of a recidivist petty thief. and a female prison guard. Ed (Holly Hunter). have been just wishful thinking. His conscience exacts revenge in a dream where he is pursued by the “lone biker of the apocalypse. entrapment. a ection. . and procreation. and the spoiling of the future by deeds committed in the past. one in which there is a twisted acknowledgment of the primacy of familial bonds. What the Coen brothers hint at in a number of their noir films they explicitly embrace in Raising Arizona: the resilience of human nature’s basic instincts. Hi appears incapable of learning or altering his behavior. e crimes that Hi and Ed commit are but a perverse pursuit of properly human goods. in spite of the damage done and the detours caused by their calculative misjudgments. is happy and successful and Hi and Ed gather around a dinner table with their numerous o spring.” Seeing the announcement of the birth of the Arizona quints. that familial love is the essence of human life. he comments that he has begun to believe that revenge is the only possibility that makes any sense. Hi and Ed eventually come to their senses and return the baby. Hi (Nicholas Cage).” a vengeful giant of a man sporting a tattoo: “Mama Didn’t Love Me. not the instincts for lust and domination of others. Hi scales a ladder. inscribed within an overarching comic structure that contains both the theme of fertility and that of hopeful reconciliation. Relieved of their burden of conscience. In a surprise twist. Ed suggests that they kidnap one of the boys since the Arizona family has more than it can handle. His marriage to Ed seems to have a salutary e ect. whether it is about rehabilitation or just revenge. a story of fidelity and the hope for fertility. born to the wealthy Nathan Arizona and his wife. Over a number of years and many return trips to prison. but those for love. repetition. Hi has another dream. e few noir elements in the film are subordinate to a larger narrative. instincts that steer human beings toward a happy ending. and takes Nathan Jr. Hibbs e themes of family and procreation are the preeminent issues in the Coens’ early pure comedy. Raising Arizona (1987). ultimately. at least until Ed is diagnosed as barren. roughout much of the film. enters the boys’ bedroom. and she accepts his proposal of marriage. He admits in a voice-over that he is not sure where folks stand on the incarceration issue. which may. e film includes a number of noir themes—crime. As we watch him being arrested yet again. Hi comments that her “insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.148 omas S. Hi is the one who cannot live with the thought of their deed.” e tattoo is a whimsical statement of the core theme of the film. Yet here those noir themes are.

7–22. no. See David Brooks. 3. Jean-Pierre Chartier. “ e Banality of Virtue. nihilism. http://archive. 17. On the banality of evil. Walter Kaufmann (Harmondsworth. and James Naremore. Nietzsche. Also indispensable is Foster Hirsch. p. Ibid. 10. “Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir. Friedrich Nietzsche. 2000). bk. For a nice discussion of neo-noir and a division of it into modernist and postmodernist stages. 16. and enlarged ed.com. 1989). 2006). trans. Hirsch. 214–15. UK: Penguin. 131. 9. Bobos in Paradise: e Upper Class and How ey Got ere (New York: Simon & Schuster. no. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage. 22. 13. Detours and Lost Highways. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (New York: Limelight. 2002). 124. Laura Miller. VA: Brassey’s. 1998). see Hannah Arendt. Conard. 1999). Detours and Lost Highways. More an Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 245. nihilism. 218. 130–74. no. “Les Americains aussi font des films ‘noirs. 11. Friedrich Nietzsche. J. See Spicer. Hirsch. 1968). “European Nihilism.” Salon. p.’” Revue du cinema 2 (1946): 67. Film Noir (Harlow: Longman. 1. e Coen Brothers: e Life of the Mind (Dulles. 1966). p. James Mottram. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963. com/09/reviews/fargo1. 149. see Mark T.e Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself 149 Notes 1. 6. P. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics. in e Portable Nietzsche.html.. p. see Andrew Spicer. 2000). Blaise Pascal. 14. Film Noir. 5. and comedy in great detail in Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from e Exorcist to Seinfeld (Dallas: Spence. 201. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage. 15. trans. and noir. I have discussed Gump. Friedrich Nietzsche. 17. For further discussion of the relation between Nietzsche. 7. us Spoke Zarathustra. Mark T. 1999). e Will to Power.” in e Philosophy of Film Noir. trans. Pensées. trans. 64. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin. e Will to Power.” no. J. 9. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. Voices in the Dark: e Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. rev. 129. 2. Ibid. 1994). 10. 1965. Beyond Good and Evil. A. 8. Telotte. 4. 1968). reprint. 257. 12. 18. 1966). ed..salon. . 2.

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in complex senses. recycles key narrative and thematic elements of classic film noir (and the série noire fiction that. A correlative of this truth is that. Here is a film that reflects not only larger trends within contemporary culture (particularly postmodernism) but also the develop151 . even with its emphasis on package production (with each film in some sense a unique entity unto itself). provided the cinematic series with material). as it self-reflexively explores the concept of that era that has developed during the last half century in a film culture that has become fascinated by noir. it is that the writing of American film history must avoid the essentialist trap of considering the so-called classic text of that era as an undi erentiated flow of product whose watchwords were sameness and conformity. the two distinct periods of Hollywood history are characterized by complex forms of continuity and discontinuity.e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir e Example of e Man Who Wasn’t ere R. An obsession with returning to. But the film also breaks decisively from the models of the Hollywood past by probing deeply the social history of the early postwar years. New Hollywood filmmaking still o ers regular forms of textuality that di er from those of the studio era only in subtle rather than fundamental ways. as exemplified by the film noir phenomenon. in ways that have come to be accepted as typically postmodern. the studio past deeply marks neo-noir films such as e Man Who Wasn’t ere. us. which. whose two periods (classic and neo-noir) mirror larger changes in the industry. yet also remaking. Barton Palmer Old Noir and New Noir If one truth has emerged from the intense scholarly debate during the last two decades over the nature of Old Hollywood. An exemplary neo-noir film is Joel and Ethan Coen’s e Man Who Wasn’t ere (2001).

in terms of specific appeals to the audience. As Murray Smith points out. as Michael Storper has convincingly shown. . Old Hollywood and New Hollywood e functionalist analysis o ered in the much-cited and controversial study e Classical Hollywood Cinema o ers powerful evidence and compelling argument supporting the emergence of a group style in the American film industry during the first half of the twentieth century. an aesthetic that developed inevitably from standardized modes of production at all levels within Hollywood and served well the assembly-line aspects of studio work. the individual film is distinctive to a degree that most massproduced commodities are not.. catering in terms of product. is was. moreover. filmgoers needed to be encouraged in their attendance habit not so much by singular as by multiple (and constantly shi ing) appeals to their interests of the moment: “ e variety of genres and the range of stars testified to and catered for a range of di erent audience tastes. commercial filmmaking before the end of vertical integration) was essentially Fordist. and service to a mass public largely conceived . In Old Hollywood. in sum. pricing. . but each time with a never-before-seen film. It is to that development that I turn first. rapid manufacture of a product that needed to fit the stabilized needs of the exhibition sector) were from the outset necessarily balanced by an equally strong commitment to di erence and diversification.e. and . consumption was modulated by a dialectic of identity and nonidentity. Hollywood’s releases had to be seen as interestingly and significantly distinct from one another. Barton Palmer ment of Hollywood as the purveyor of those evolving forms of textuality. Yet. needed at a fairly general level to be as interchangeable as practically possible (in order to take advantage of economies of scale and to keep the exhibition sector running smoothly). to put it simply.”2 Forces of convergence were matched by equally powerful forces of divergence during the studio era. Studio-era productions. is fact o ers one explanation for the emergence of film noir. that is. but. a series that exhibits a strong sense of di erence from other studio varieties produced under identical conditions for the same market. the pre-1948 Hollywood industry (i. Audiences went to theaters week in and week out to have essentially the same experience (popularly conceived as going to the movies).1 Yet such centripetal tendencies toward identity and regularity (natural enough forces in a business based on the e cient.152 R.

which o ered versions of the contemporary national experience that challenged the optimism that was then more generally a feature of Hollywood films. whose emergence and (always limited and minoritarian) success with audiences of the time had its sources in the “irregular” or “creative” permeability of Hollywood to an unlimited number of literary. as Smith puts it. but—and this was crucial—every genre was thought to have some appeal to all filmgoers. and narrative di erence that so marks these films for scholars today should.4 Whether the New Hollywood of the last three decades is thoroughly post-Fordist is currently much debated. be understood as a predictably unpredictable divergence from the template that was the “classic text. “a return to genre filmmaking” a er the brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when an American art . now seeks to develop and control profitable niches in the exhibition sector through the production of radically di erent kinds of films. were simultaneously compromised as those same conventions were referenced and perpetuated by the very act of redefinition. A singular quality of New Hollywood production is that there has been. is not “for everyone. cinematic. and so forth) might be more attractive to some (theoretically) identifiable element of the mass audience. thus. mass audiences.” even if these dark tales of urban malaise. at least in part. detective stories. or discursive formation) that we retrospectively identify as film noir. or series. thematic. film noir was “for everyone. usually referred to as neonoir. an essential element of classic Hollywood filmmaking that provided producers and filmgoers alike with one way to negotiate the dialectic of similarity and di erence e ectively. e stylistic. women’s pictures.” Never produced for or marketed to an identified niche. did not suit every taste every time. film noir’s contemporary reflex. and cultural influences. Yet it is undeniable that the American industry. individual genres (musicals.e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 153 as undi erentiated. is was. genre films were defined by a shared identity. established by the fashion in which they inevitably modified the conventions of the genre.3 Classic Hollywood was certainly not post-Fordist in the sense of providing specialized products for a cluster of divergent markets. a central element of New Hollywood textuality.” and this change in the nature of the noir phenomenon has everything to do with the conditions now prevailing in the American industry. In the studio era. perhaps. During the studio period. most visible in the New Hollywood treatment of what might be called the film genre system.5 is postclassic strategy is. In contrast. that is. their claims to uniqueness. Blockbusters. true also for the film type (or genre. are arguably Fordist in their calculated appeal to huge. of course.

on the one hand. Barton Palmer cinema held sway. including generic conventions. put together on a modest budget and marketed to a relatively small coterie of cognoscenti and film bu s whose expected pleasures are more dependent on notions of artistry. and designed to hasten the flow of adrenaline for huge audiences of largely youthful filmgoers. this assimilation is thoroughly self-conscious. those that not only recycle studio-era conventions but take the idea of classic film noir (as inferred from valued texts and critical works) as their subject matter. Instead of simply informing and shaping the viewer’s experience. something like a worldview that we might call noirness). Richard Martin has aptly characterized this central aspect of the transition to neo-noir: “ e industrial assimilation of the term film noir . built on special e ects.154 R.”7 I would add only that. self-consciousness today manifests itself also in product di erentiation. that is such an attractive feature in current commercial/independent productions such as Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (2002).”6 In part. sexual. e event film finds its other in the commercial/independent (or “Indiewood”) production. like many of the texts it generates. Today’s “event” franchises are also connected to readily identifiable genres (among other aspects of popular culture such as comic books and graphic novels). a studied and deliberate . ese tastes are especially catered to by many neo-noir productions. this self-consciousness manifests itself in a rhetoric of metagenericism. in the deliberate playfulness and “knowing” escapism of such Bmovie extravaganzas as the Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones franchises and. is return to genre establishes a continuity with the studio past. New Hollywood metagenericism becomes a key element. thus solidifying the claims of those films to be of a genre (and. in other words. in the intellectually compelling contemplation of the workings of intertextuality. more broadly speaking. on the other. and racial politics. but with the crucial di erence that this production strategy. which resuscitates in an exaggerated yet “realistic” fashion the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk in order to dissect and correct their gender. is “now marked by greater self-consciousness. . as Smith observes. genre is referenced in these films so as to comment pleasurably on genre. . has contributed to its establishment as a contemporary Hollywood genre irrespective of how one is inclined to define the generic status of the classic films of the forties and fi ies. More important. however. and intellectually engaging themes. wit. genre is foregrounded as theme and as textuality. in gestures of self-reflexivity not unknown to classic Hollywood films. style. us. genre is inflected diversely in the films designed for separate niche markets. though much more common and forcefully present now.

the self-conscious and critical return to the cinematic past. like Je Bailey in Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur. are recalled from their plans to make a new life and forced to relive who they once were. revise. neo-noir films draw representational and thematic strength from cinematic and literary history. in the spirit of a creative archaeology. But. in one way or another. to put it a bit di erently. Noting the growing popularity of neo-noir in the early 1990s. or between Fordist and post-Fordist senses of product. if for di erent reasons than their Old Hollywood predecessors. as the “meaning” that they intend to express and deconstruct for a narrowly defined audience knowledgeable about. which. “neo” phase as well). and fascinated by. more o en than not.e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 155 return to a classic type that. su ering disappointment and destruction as a result. for it connects complexly to particular forms of viewer taste that we can legitimately label highbrow. neo-noirs of the Indiewood variety self-consciously reflect a central thematic preoccupation of the genre: the domination of the present by the past (put another way.”8 Or. given the general appeal to cinematic “knowingness” of the contemporary commercial/independent film. e New Sincerity e cultural critic Jim Collins has interestingly pointed out that contempo- . celebrate. ese earlier films exist within the boundaries of an emerging. they reconstruct. James Naremore opines that “the dark past keeps returning. if unorganized.9 As one might expect. and always. Noir is an element of contemporary filmmaking and consumption comparable in some ways to auteurism (now said by many to have entered a self-conscious. New Hollywood filmmakers keep returning to the dark past. which such filmgoers are eager to see recognized and commented on. the failure of a future for the characters to emerge from the machinations of the plot). even contradictory cultural currents. is is one of the di erences between modernist and postmodernist versions of cultural production. Metagenericism. and it marks this stage of the phenomenon as radically di erent from its classic phase. neo-noir films. is one of the most important of the features of contemporary noir. if noir heroes. group practice. it reflects complex. 1947). Hollywood history. has become much valued in the more sophisticated areas of contemporary film culture. through the attention paid to it by French new wave and Hollywood renaissance directors. Such metagenericism demands to be carefully anatomized. take that practice as their subject matter.

self-sustaining. imagined as distinct from the flat and unsignifying present. as the director Kevin Costner has shown in Dances with Wolves (1990). antirealist) invocation of many Ford movies. G. the advent and flourishing of teen culture in the 1950s). and a new sincerity that seeks to escape it through a fantasy technophobia.” and it is usefully exemplified in Back to the Future Part III by the sequence in which Marty (Michael J. eclectic irony and the new sincerity are both deployed with a view toward recovering valued pasts (the end of the frontier. 1990). Barton Palmer rary Hollywood production emphasizes two distinct kinds of genre films that hardly fit into the category blank parody. genre hybrids such as Back to the Future Part III (Robert Zemeckis. an incongruous (and. most notably Stagecoach (John Ford. 1939). not to the Old West. which are drawn not from the real but from the ready-mades of the cultural past. who. can be reshaped through an engagement with real as opposed to cinematic American history. Wells.10 At one point. at least in his two examples. irreconcilable elements.” some transcendent significance that the celebrated exemplars of the genre allude to but never fully express or properly configure. has hitherto been confined to its margins or simply unexpressed. Collins concludes that these two types of genre film “represent contradictory perspectives on ‘media culture’: an ironic eclecticism that attempts to master the array through techno-sophistication. eir “eclectic irony” exploits the “dissonance” produced by the unpredictable yoking together of disparate. in fact. and peaceful society. e new western can occupy itself with the struggle for control over the land between native peoples. as. revealing what. the western. Opposed to them are the rapacious white settlers bent on extracting wealth from the land through its mindless destruction.” play their knowingness of forms like the western and the science fiction film for laughs. On the other hand. but to the Old West of Hollywood film. emerge as representatives of a natural. no longer demonized as Indians. On the one hand. of course. us. vanished realms of plentitude (however problematic that richness might eventually be seen to be as it su ers the fall into being narrativized and . “new sincere” explorations of classic genres aim at conveying some kind of “missing harmony. which are “hyperconsciously intertextual.156 R. for either ideological or institutional reasons. Fox) and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) find themselves transported back. their DeLorean “time machine” is hauled across Monument Valley like a buckboard. Fredric Jameson’s dismissive description of the postmodern resuscitation of once-vital but now exhausted cultural forms.”11 We might add to his analysis that. is is the e ect that Collins describes as “John Ford meets Jules Vernes and H.

which is resurrected with both wit and reverence in key new wave films such as Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de sou e (Breathless. is “a manifestation of renewed cinematic interest in a popular narrative pattern that had temporarily [in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s] been relegated to the small screen and other art forms.”12 is series represents a continuation of classic film noir more or less as such. . postwar culture. 1995). and numerous other classic/neo-noir pairings. use of generic . o en. Perhaps the unrealizable aims of recovering the unmediated truth of history and defying the omnipresent regime of representations through an ironic probing of their depth in time. Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway. what with its connection to bygone forms of both representation (cinematic. that is.13 For Martin. in contrast. if strategies opposed in their stance toward media culture. Richard Martin observes: “By the early seventies . or noir visual style. the revisionist and the formulaic. as impossibly beyond the irresistible urge toward its reconstitution. Here is a form of pleasure that neo-noir is ideally positioned to engage. “eschew postmodern pastiche for a more integrated. . occasionally even provided with a contemporary twist. which now seems to many a kind of golden age of the national experience). 1992). revisionist neo-noirs are. Irwin Winkler. and literary) and culture (the fashions and mores of wartime and early postwar America.e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 157 represented). e category noir redivivus even includes remakes of well-known noir releases that avoid any reference to the original film. Barbet Schroeder. 1984). e American revisionist neo-noir films “self-consciously investigate the generic traditions [they] invoke” and. unself-consciously. equally reflect what many have identified as a central theme of postmodernism: its archaeological fascination with resurrecting a past that is always already seen nostalgically. “inspired by the nouvelle vague’s experimental/investigative approach to film. 1947. 1959). as customary narrative patterns and themes are updated.” an aesthetic energized by a pronounced nostalgie for the recent Hollywood past. that is. there was in coexistence two distinctive neo-noir traditions. which I would term noir redivivus. costuming. Out of the Past (1947)/Against All Odds (Taylor Hackford. but not connected to the understanding of noirness that has been emerging in American film culture since the 1960s. if no less self-conscious.” e latter. and art design. televisual. e Man Who Wasn’t ere: Filling in the Blanks In his history of postclassic noir filmmaking. the trend is exemplified by Night and the City (Jules Dassin. 1950.

which. Barton Palmer convention.14 Martin finds in neo-noir a somewhat di erent contrast than does Collins between two types of New Hollywood genre productions: not the eclectic irony of postmodern pastiche. ough the revisionist recyclings are not defined by the new sincerity in the same sense that Dances with Wolves can be said to be. Instead. e end result is that the revisionist neo-noir o ers the nostalgic spectator something along the lines of what Collins calls missing harmony. has no world as such to demystify and authenticate. with noir conventions (and. Joel and Ethan: Blood Simple (1984) and e Man Who Wasn’t ere (2001). the novels Double Indemnity (1936) and. Cain. e Postman Always Rings Twice (1934). they are. that cluster around a modern idée fixe: the dark. however.158 R. invoking the real of postwar culture through a reembodying and historicizing of noir conventions.15 Like most of the films of the early stages of the noir revival in the 1980s. betrayal. and not an attempted escape from generic boundaries in the spirit of the new sincerity but an integrated investigation of those traditions. Blood Simple updates classic conventions but does not attempt to identify the truth of the genre by giving expression to what it should have said but never could. primarily literary and cinematic. exactly what we should expect in the particular case of neo-noir. integration creates textual depth through the self-conscious turn of investigative gestures. with its contemporary setting. which are deliberately invoked not just to further what . with a return to textual depth instead of just a play of surfaces” (emphasis added). the film also o ers little more than superficial references to the cultural and representational past. then. neo-noir’s restorative objective is a complex nexus of representations. threatening city. provided with contextual depth. whose truths are deepened rather than discarded. but a straightforward refitting of classic conventions. e di erence between what Martin calls formulaic and revisionist neonoir can be readily seen in two Indiewood productions of the Coen brothers. a founding influence on classic film noir. unlike the western (which aims in some sense to signify the American West). especially the sordid world of plotting. which are not discarded but rather fulfilled. especially. especially. and ironic reversal limned in the fiction of James M. But e Man Who Wasn’t ere does something quite di erent with Cain’s most noteworthy tales of sexual mischief and murderous plotting. that is. intertextual references) now thoroughly naturalized and authenticated through their deep grounding in cultural themes. In the revisionist neo-noir tradition.

especially marriage and social class. they reconstruct the noir universe—or.16 Instead. without pattern or reason. in Graebner’s formulation. the Coens use these quotations as a framework on which. all the characters in e Man Who Wasn’t ere su er from a vaguer but perhaps deadlier malaise. to which the characters react in various ways. in contrast.”17 is anomie produces a strong sense of disconnection. as described in Graebner’s apt account. seeking either to “make it big” in the tradition of the American dream or to withdraw from the struggle by numbing themselves with alcohol or music. making present the cultural history hitherto mostly unexpressed in the genre. with textual depth created by pervasive and connected thematic references. a barber malgré lui who is frustrated in his plans to make it big . was strongly colored by “the anxiety of the lonely. e Man Who Wasn’t ere. But the original Hollywood versions (Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity [1944] and Tay Garnett’s e Postman Always Rings Twice [1946]) are set in a vaguely contemporary America. in the spirit of the new sincerity. ey settle in the end for neither success nor escape. values seemed to come and go. including and especially the profound changes being brought about by the war. “like life itself. Unlike Cain’s scheming adulterers. Neo-Noir Uncertainty e main character of e Man Who Wasn’t ere is Ed Crane (Billy Bob ornton). even absence. as the historian William Graebner terms it. is was a time that. e Man Who Wasn’t ere is set in 1949. perhaps more accurately. thus. closely linking a resurrected noir narrative à la Cain to the era that shaped it and. Cain’s two novels unfold in the early years of the Depression and reflect that era of social breakdown and economic scarcity.e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 159 the postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard terms the recycling of the cultural remains of a discarded and discredited earlier epoch.” of which the Coens’ protagonist is a striking example. neither film attempts to update Cain’s narratives in order to explore deeper currents within contemporary culture. o ers a deeply particularized context. the deep feeling of the age that. who are trapped by limited economic horizons and oppressive institutions. which haunts and frustrates all their aspirations yet paradoxically o ers as well the opportunity for transcendence. but for death. attempt to produce for the first time its true version. when the revelation that the Russians now possessed the atomic bomb began to mark profoundly what in retrospect seems truly the age of doubt. fragmented individual.

and horror of the abject that haunts everyday experience. pronounced chiaroscuro e ects.160 R. only to be persecuted. its fascination with the loathing. the discontents of violation. a mise-en-scène as well as camera framings that suggest entrapment. In fact. and irretrievable losses. Cain’s materials are deliberately existentialized. his thoughts haunted by the memory of the thousands of “Nips vaporized at Nagasaki. In a Cainian tangle of illegitimate motives and ironic misconnections. horrifying ends toward which criminality relentlessly drives the characters yield a meaning that is perhaps closer to the everyday truth of noirness. including. in a thematic move that reflects the way in which scholarly discussions of film noir have intellectualized the phenomenon by providing it with philosophical underpinnings. and so forth). e Man Who Wasn’t ere o ers itself more as a rich period piece. inexplicable. the film does not focus on the identification of. he escapes the . unlike classic noir.” her belief that she and her husband were briefly abducted by aliens. at least for the most part. Barton Palmer in the dry-cleaning business and comes to see life as a series of sudden. and the ironic. disgust. Ed in self-defense kills Big Dave (James Gandolfini)—the employer and lover of Ed’s wife. and then a bare escape from. one might add. is also yet another way to deepen the context of the story by locating it within forms of thought popular in the postwar era. an incident that they report to the proper authorities. the stylings that have been in the last four decades codified as noir (including low-key lighting. Printed (but not filmed) in a flat black and white that avoids all forms of glamorizing. which began in 1949 and extended throughout the next decade. this weltanschauung’s evocation of the uncertainty of human life. disjointed editing. accommodated to Camusian absurdism and Sartrean nausea. Doris—whom he had blackmailed in order to get the money necessary to get started in the dry-cleaning business.” His boss’s wife is haunted by an even more bizarre and gloomier “metaphysics. the leap of faith made possible by the embrace of meaninglessness. Here is a new sincere version of film noir in which Cain’s explorations of lust and greed. is existentializing. by the government. which for reasons unknown is reluctant to admit the truth—all this an evocation of the mass paranoia that gripped America in the course of the great UFO panic. the threat to orders both sexual and cultural posed by an underworld of temptation and rapacious criminality. she thinks. a concept for which the Coens also discover a historical explanation in the spirit of the new sincerity. e Man Who Wasn’t ere is actually more about the hope for spiritual growth.

” Applied to human a airs. the less you know. the lawyer’s profession. Viewed from the perspective of universal and inescapable uncertainty. it is really concerned only with credibility. know what happened. in fact.e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 161 scene undetected. as Riedenschneider explains. us. occupies itself with the serial demonstration of a central epistemological axiom. the issue at the thematic center of the film. however.” and the ironic correlative of this postulate is that. the provisional certainty needed to convict is easily undermined by the demonstration that there is a plausible alternative. In the courtroom. in fact. does not require absolute and detailed proof. it does not require. provisional certainty. As the lawyer explains it. . “there is no what happened. “ ere’s a guy in Germany. Doris (Frances McDormand) is mistakenly put on trial for the crime (which she had plausible reasons to commit). rather. us. you have to look at it. is plausible alternative. It also reveals an unknowability that deepens as the desire to know and. some other way of construing the facts. and Ed halfheartedly confesses his culpability to her hotshot attorney. master experience grows stronger. thereby. is uncertainty. Riedenschneider places his concern about alibis and workable defenses (a motif derived directly from e Postman Always Rings Twice) within a broader context of ideas through these meditations on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (which is never named as such). the “only fact. For it no longer seems the case that lawyers like Riedenschneider are simply being cynical when they ignore getting at the truth of the case as they search for an explanation that will work rhetorically.” An inescapable paradox rules human a airs. to convince jurors that they do not.” the only certainty. though the legal system is o cially committed with its seemingly forensic proceedings to the discovery of the truth. when you want to understand something scientifically. who does not think that the jury will believe him. Not only does uncertainty undermine the all-too-human search a er determinate knowledge. “the more you look.” the lawyer says. who maintains that. It must point only toward the improbability of knowing for sure. As he puts it. what they can be persuaded not to believe through the evocation of reasonable doubt. but “your looking changes it. reasonable doubt is no more than the admission that provisional certainty (a certainty subject to only minimal doubt) is o en a mirage. Doris’s fate hangs on what the jurors and judge can be made to believe or. of whose ineluctability he must persuade jurors. this means that you can never truly know “the reality of what happened” as you explore actions and motivations. as it were. Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub).

“the more you look. as Ed had earlier surmised. us. his own certainty about uncertainty. And this is because he falls victim to another paradox. Riedenscheider never takes the trouble to determine whether Doris and Dave were actually having an a air. though dra ed. the less you see.” Big Dave’s continual self-revelation. of course. Big Dave. was not the war hero he always bragged of being. in short. it being to identify a provisional form of certainty. first. his incessant bragging. e knowledge that the lawyer thought would assure his client’s deliverance actually drives her to suicide. hasn’t even learned all there is to know about Dave. Doris will. who . unassuming. if in a partial and self-serving fashion. Big Dave would have been easy prey to anyone who learned the truth of his service record. Barton Palmer e lawyer understands. he was never stationed anywhere but stateside. Riedenschneider’s detective has discovered what the lawyer thinks is the key to the successful defense of Doris. which Doris never disputes. some of the larger implications of Heisenberg’s theorizing (whose ultimate point is quite the opposite of what Riedenschneider maintains. as it turns out. Doris’s attraction to her lover was. as Riedenscheider points out. But Riedenschneider deceives himself that the uncertainty principle o ers him mastery over Doris’s plight. there are no surprises in store. which would not have been hard to do. is of dubious value. thus. Ed) with an exploitable weakness. And. it turns out. But knowledge. the fact that Big Dave had lied to the very people sitting on the hometown jury means that they would be more likely to see such a blackmailer as a real possibility. most important. that Dave has been unmasked does not mean that either Doris or Ed is now knowable. His fabrications provide the blackmailer that Doris said approached Dave (it was. But the exposure of these lies o ers only a slim point of certainty with regard to him. the mistaken notion that the chain of “unknowing” must end somewhere in an unshakable predictability of which he may take advantage. that. based on. Yet it is not to be. the he-man image that he presented to the world (so much of a contrast to the slightly built. He exults that the jurors will feel reasonable doubt about the state’s version of Dave’s death.162 R. We should not forget that. be acquitted. making any question of legal proceedings irrelevant. the relative probabilities in the tracking of the position and momentum of subatomic particles). actually concealed unexpected secrets. Riedenschneider. and depressive Ed. And. the revelation about Big Dave’s past has an e ect on Doris that Riedenschneider in no way foresees. even the immediate kind that flows from one’s own experience. even though Ed’s confession o ers his jealousy about their relationship as his motive.

Dave was going to expand his department store operation by building an “annex” where Doris would be comptroller. and misconnection. What animates the characters’ experience with uncertainty and (un)knowing is a vague. She commits suicide in her cell the night before the trial is scheduled to begin. who likewise experiences a profound preexecution éclarcissement. the less you know”) and the discontents of knowing (“sometimes knowledge is a curse”). second. but for killing his erstwhile business partner (whom. a truism that echoes interestingly throughout the remainder of a narrative built on misunderstanding. the promise that Dave o ered her of a deliverance from economic marginality and sexual boredom. and Big Dave all regret their too easily granted acquiescence to mediocrity and ordinariness. misdirection. e blackmailer deprived them of this hope by taking the money Dave needed for the new enterprise and put them in jeopardy by forcing Doris.” o ering yet another parallel to Camus’ stranger. Sometimes knowledge is. in yet another ironic turning. finally. numbing dissatisfaction with the absurdity of things that gives rise to an inchoate malaise and. to betray her profession and embezzle money (“My books were always perfect”).e New Sincerity of Neo-Noir 163 proved unfit for war service because of fallen arches) and. stands accused of his murder. Shocked. misreading. in an ironic turning borrowed straight from Cain. true to the noir vision of human experience. as. e Man Who Wasn’t ere o ers a series of variations on the uncertainty principle (“there is no what happened”) and its twin. the lawyer never thinks that getting o mig