23 July 2011

America Noir

Academic language is a subset of American English. I'm a Berkeley grad, and deciphering the argot of professors was de rigueur during my time there. I imagine most college students have had similar experiences with scholarly obfuscation. Check this out:
As the dominant strain of modernism increasingly assumed quasi-official status in the postwar period, artists working in popular forms, who were beneath the notice of serious intellectuals (except as they fell under the general heading of mass culture), found themselves freer to maintain a critical stance vis-à-vis the Cold War state. (p221)
I love it! It's from a book called America Noir: underground writers and filmmakers of the Postwar Era, by, you guessed it, a college professor. His name is David Cochran. I realize the above passage isn't too difficult, no big words and only one foreign phrase, but in tone and style it is wholly academic. You certainly couldn't say "popular American artists began to criticize American culture during the Cold War." That would lack the flair and polish the audience for such a book expects. I don't mean to pick on Prof. Cochran, after all, he's a noir-man like me. And it's a good book--the stories of the various artists (from Jim Thompson to Rod Serling) are interesting and enjoyable. And Cochran is capable of some real gems--here's his take on the brilliant Charles Willeford:
In a string of pulp paperbacks published in the fifties and sixties, Willeford created a world in which the predatory cannibalism of American capitalism provides the model for all human relations, in which the American success ethic mercilessly casts aside all who are unable or unwilling to compete, and in which the innate human appreciation of artistic beauty is cruelly distorted by the exigencies of mass culture. (p40)
I like that. Academic study of noir is a little dry for everyday reading, I know, but I've a passion for the subject. Nothing comes close to Eddie Muller's magnificent Dark City: the lost world of film noir, but that's an unfair comparison. Mr. Muller's book is strictly about movies, is for a popular audience, and is filled with vintage photos. And it is as intelligent as it is entertaining. But Prof. Cochran's book has its place on the shelf--I certainly learned a lot and was pointed in some new directions.

No comments: