November 14, 2010


Dark Ride: Thomas S. Hibbs on Film Noir and the Quest for Redemption: Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption by Thomas S. Hibbs (Thomas F. Bertonneau, The University Bookman)

Thomas Hibbs, author of The Arts of Darkness, stands somewhat apart from the French interpreters of noir, even as he liberally adjusts a strict and more or less canonical definition of the generic term to suit his own purposes. Far more sympathetic to social norms than previous commentators, Hibbs makes a case, sometimes persuasive in context, that noir can encompass Technicolor production, teen-oriented television serials, and science fiction thrillers, and that it need not endorse the positions of Sartre-like hopelessness and cynicism. For Hibbs, Noir indeed gives voice to an anguished religious need that reflects Blaise Pascal’s Christian anthropology, than which none could be more appropriate to the distorted age of which modern people are the heirs and in the labyrinth of which they exist. According to Hibbs, following Lucien Goldmann and Sarah Melzer, Pascal presciently diagnosed the ills of modernity, such as the reduction of life to market activity, the loss of self in diversion, and the dissolution of a moral framework rooted in faith even while a need to believe in something persists. Pascal sees in man the creature “doomed to seek with groans,” as many noir characters do even without fully grasping that their lives have become so many keening quests. “Of course, Pascal’s goal,” Hibbs writes, “is to exhibit the fit between that dark conception of the human condition and the Christian doctrine of redemption.” For Hibbs, noir, while displaying the surface features of a prevalent atheism, nevertheless takes life from a deeply seated and essentially religious faith in the reality of transcendence. It is enough, in Hibbs’ analysis, for a noir character simply to become aware of his perdition to tilt the genre in the direction of affirming actual morality. [...]

In The Arts of Darkness, the one case that a reader would expect to call for the greatest pleading turns out to be among the most convincing of candidates for election to the noir canon—Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For non-cognoscenti, Buffy concerns a high school cheerleader who, having none but the usual ultra-banal adolescent ambitions, suddenly and unwillingly finds herself selected to be a vampire-slayer in the eternal metaphysical war between the powers of good and evil. Like The X-Files, Buffy ran for too many seasons to sustain its often darkly comic and sometimes genuinely tragic Gothic vision of contemporary life as taking place on a Manichaean battlefield of the terrible existence of which ninety-nine per cent of people have no inkling. In its first three seasons, however, the series kept up its underlying seriousness even while its creators indulged in deliberate camp and self-mockery. (A measure of self-directed humor also surfaced healthily in The X-Files.) For some episodes of The Vampire Slayer one might even be willing to risk the description “the passion of Buffy,” as the serial protagonist must endure the excruciating burden of her unbidden moral responsibility.

Like Sam Spade or Mike Hammer, Buffy knows that sometimes, for moral reasons, one must meet violence with violence. She must inure herself to the cost of fighting for the good. Hibbs comments: “For Buffy, the lesson of Faith is that the slayer must resist the temptations to power, lust, and jealousy in herself... Buffy’s realization of her destiny is not a matter of conformity to an abstract and impersonal code of duty; rather it is for the personal good of others, indeed for her own good,” using the phrase in the moral sense.

Hibbs knows that filmmakers might adopt aspects of the noir esthetic because to do so has become chic. The noir vocabulary, plagiarized for a superficial appeal, is vulnerable to such debasement. “Abandoning the task of communication,” writes Hibbs, “many neo-noir films are simply decadent, conveying the aristocratic nihilism of the amoral superhero or wallowing in a surrealist dream world.” At its best, noir represents film in a serious engagement with moral issues in a distorted modern context. Arts of Darkness is a “must” for any serious student of film, but it will also have much to teach the curious amateur.

Perhaps we ought not blame the modern practitioners too much for sinking into the nihilism that has always haunted the genre, after all, the original artists were protected from this failing by the movie code, which forbade having criminals ultimately benefit from their crimes and thus forced the structure of a morality play on them whether they wanted it or not.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 14, 2010 5:20 AM
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