22 July 2014

In Search of Noir

I like a lot of things. Beer, for example. Whiskey, too. Giants baseball. Snow-covered mountains. The seashore. People who are funny. That sort of stuff. I also like noir. What is noir, you ask? Here's a definition I like:
Noir tells the stories of tortured souls—losers, psychopaths, loners, obsessives—driven down deadly paths, following desperate plans that are doomed to failure.
Film noir is perhaps what most folks think of as the noir ideal. Cheaply made and poorly lit, Hollywood churned out dozens of B-movies in the 40s and 50s that embody the essence of noir. Watching Burt Lancaster lust after Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross, you knew he couldn't help himself. You knew it was going to end horribly, and it wasn't going to matter how hard anyone tried to stop things from spiraling out of control. When Robert Mitchum laid eyes on Jane Greer in Out of the Past you knew he was a dead man walking, and that everything in between would mean nothing in the end.

But noir is everywhere. Tell me Hamlet is not a loser. An obsessive. Tell me Iago is not a psychopath, and that Macbeth and his Lady are not on a deadly and desperate path. Genesis 4--Cain & Abel--is the first noir tale. Kinsmen, brothers in fact, locked in mortal conflict with the one cursed, the other doomed, their fates decided by envy, that basest of emotions.

Noir is about entropy. Entropy is the greatest, most powerful force in the universe. Things fall apart, man. And when things fall apart, people do crazy shit. Over at my favorite noir site Out of the Gutter, fiction editors Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford have a simple formula:
I wanted this, so I did that, and here's how it all went to hell.
Yep. That's it. A lot of the great noir literature, from James M. Cain to David Goodis to Charles Willeford is about stuff going all to hell. That's the kind of thing I like.

This fall, October in fact, my lovely bride is taking a cross-country journey with me and we will be on a search for noir. Our destination? Philadelphia and NoirCon 2014. Our means of transport? The train. Our starting point? Union Station, Los Angeles. There are about 700 road miles between here and there, so we'll be smack dab in the middle of that other great noir landscape, the highways of the American West. Interstate 5 may be a little too crowded these days for Route 66 flashbacks--no hitchhikers or radiator boil-overs in the lonely desert spaces--but blacktop, chrome, and meth-addled truckers are their own special noir sauce.

Our very dear friend Betty Rosen Ziff will be hosting us during our arrival and departure stays in the City of Angels. (Thanks, B. We love you. You too, Stuart.)

From Siskiyou County to the seamy and seedy sides of the SoCal scene, so let the search begin!

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