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Denis Johnson & the expectations of noir


Since June, Jacket Copy has been hosting an ongoing conversation about Denis Johnson's noir serial "Nobody Move," which is being published in four parts in Playboy magazine. Part 3 has just hit the stands, and once again, we pick up where we left off.

Although the movie "L.A. Confidential" was entirely noir in subject and time period, it upset expectations for noir, particularly in how it looked. Compare the high-contrast black and white of Veronica Lake's publicity still with the soft golds and blues of Kim Basinger as a Veronica Lake look-alike in "L.A. Confidential." Traditional noir films filled much of the screen with blackness (hence "noir"), but "L.A. Confidential" dragged its seedy doings out into daylight, in full, saturated color. The film honored and reenergized the noir genre by subverting one of its essential elements — its darkness.

David Ulin writes about Denis Johnson's noir "Nobody Move":

we can also see where this is going, see how all the various plot lines will converge as the novel narrows to its inexorable end.

That, too, is one of the pleasures of noir, the way it is a fiction not so much of choices but of the lack of choices, in which the challenge for a writer is to gradually close down possibilities and channel everything into a single narrative chute.

I'd like to think that the rules of genre can be bent and retooled, as they were in "L.A. Confidential."  If there once was a dictate to shrink characters' choices, is it still the rule? I wonder where it comes from: Tradition? Readers' expectations? Is there a Noir Writers' Playbook? Are there Noir Police — or, more likely, Noir Thugs — deployed to keep writers in line?

But I don't have to just wonder. I can ask. Richard Rayner, Susan Straight and Tod Goldberg have all written noir. So, what are the rules? Can any be ignored? Does beginning a novel or story as noir mean that you must narrow it to an inexorable end?

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credits: Veronica Lake / Associated Press; Kim Basinger in "L.A. Confidential" / Warner Bros. Inc.

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Noir isn't a template or a format or a formula. There are no absolute rules to it. (and if there were "noir" writers would break them absolutely) I think of it more as an aesthetic. The jaundiced eye of the narrator, the amoral morality of the protagonist, and the atmosphere the narrative unfolds in are what makes a story "noir". It's wide ranging enough to include Batman, Camus, Izzo, Murakami, and the vocal stylings of Nick Cave.

The phrase was coined by French filmmakers who, lacking budgets for big lights and fancy camerawork, made films that were grittier and darker than Hollywood movies of the time. Hence: noir.

If we take that as read and whip in the idea that, when it comes to noir literature, we credit Hammett, Chandler and a few others with the development of what we understand as the written style, we come away with the idea that we’re talking about something sparse and spare and inherently elegant where the words that are not spoken or written are often as important as the ones that are and the journey is almost always at least as important as the final destination.


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