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Responding to Evan Cameron's response to my notes on film noir (with some
editing)--
 
>Don Larsson:
 
>I appreciate the game you're playing with the term 'film noir', and much
>that you say.  Permit me one last time to clarify what we now know about
>the scope and limits of defining terms (coincident with much that you
>say), and hence to reaffirm the unique achievement (to date) of Damico's
>specification.
 
I hope I haven't seemed too glib in my posts.  I wasn't intentionally
playing "a game" except to the extent that all such matters of definition
are rather gamelike (which I take to be Wittgenstein's point, cited below):
 
>Strictly speaking, a definition of term must give both the necessary and
>sufficient conditions of its application.  As we now know, however, from
>the work of Quine and Wittgenstein in particular, no useful listing of
>necessary conditions can be given for any empirical predicate (i.e.,
>things found in the world have no essences; as Wittgenstein put, any two
>things falling under an empirical term must bear a 'family resemblance' to
>one another, but that does not entail that all things falling under it
>have anything in common).
 
<It follows, therefore, that no definitions of empirically useful terms can
<be given, for no exhaustive listing of necessary conditions is possible.
<We are left then with the task of specifying SUFFICIENT conditions for
<their use as means toward whatever ends we can clearly foresee, and that
<implies that the conditions be TESTABLE as means to those ends.
 
One question we might ask, then, is what use our definitions will be put to.
My notion is that if we need to define "film noir" as people who talk about
film, then we are trying to identify what it is we are talking about.  (If
we can't identify it, then--to paraphrase Wittgenstein--we must, perforce,
be silent.)
 
<Damico, however unintentionally, got it right: his specification is
<listing of conditions which he believes to be SUFFICIENT to ensure the
<construction of a movie which would be 'film noir'; it is not, and is not
<meant to be, what can never be given, namely a listing of necessary
<conditions for a movie being 'film noir'.
 
Then, it seems, his definition is meant to serve *filmmakers* and not film
critics or historians?  What use does it have for the latter?
 
>He has no interested therefore (and quite properly so) in ensuring that
>every movie which is 'film noir' conforms to his specification.  Rather,
>he is concerned with exactly the opposite, namely to ensure that every
>movie which conforms to his specifications is 'film noir'!  If he has
>managed to achieve that end, then he has provided something valuable,
>namely a tool for use by filmmakers who wish to construct films which are
>'film noir'.
 
This, it seems, is precisely the point of our difference.  D'Amico, if I
take your remarks correctly, is being *prescriptive* (but not to the point
of eliminating other possible formulae).  In other words, by your
interpretation, he is telling writers and directors "how to" make a
"film noir."  As such--and as I tried to suggest before--it's not a bad
formula.  Certainly, Kasden seemed to follow something like it in making
BODY HEAT.
 
But what *was* film noir in the first place?  It did not exist until the
French gave it a name.  As critics from Schrader on have said, no one set
out to make a "film noir."  They were making films in various genres that
had certain themes, styles, narrative patterns and characters that often
seemed to have something in common.  It was that commonality that attracted
the first French critics and others that came later.  For the last two
decades, though, people *have* set out to make "films noirs," which means
that they have set out to make films that they think have something in
common with at least some of those films that people have called "film
noir."
 
 
>It is therefore no counterexample to Damico's work to list movies which
>you or anyone else agree to be 'film noir' which do not conform to his
>specification. . . .
 
Since his definition is descriptive only of particular features of particular
films, counterexamples would by necessity be pointless.  It would be like
complaining that the tangerine in question is does not have white flesh and
smooth skin.  But that would apply only if one were to say that "If you wish
to know that your trees are producing fruit, you should see if the objects
hanging from the branches have white flesh and smooth skins that are
usually red but may be green or yellow."
 
The other problem with D'Amico's formula is that it is defined only in terms
of a certain *narrative* construction and says nothing about *style* (which
Gene Stavis' post did address).  If one made a film according to D'Amico's
formula but filmed it entirely in high-key lighting with straight-on
camera angles, would it still be "film noir"?  It is interesting to look
at contemporary reviews of some of the films we now call noir.  American
critics on the whole tended to ignore matters of style entirely.  The
British (in SIGHT AND SOUND especially) were somewhat more sensitive to
the apparently unusual stylistics of these films.  (Pinning down those
stylistic aspects, though, can be just as tricky as finding an essential
core of narrative elements.)
 
 
>. . . It is precisely because Damico's specification was intended to encompass
>SUFFICIENT conditions that it is testable, and hence useful.
 
But, again, useful to whom?  If you mean useful to budding writers and
directors looking for a model to work with, then maybe.  But if we're
using that definition as a  way to define what it is we're going to
talk about, then we've placed some very artificial limits on ourselves.
 
Let's take the *slightly* less tricky question of genre.  Westerns can be
filmed in many different styles and have many different patterns of
thematic and narrative organization.  What they have in common is that they
are set in a (large) geographical area and in a (broad) period of American
history.  Now, one can isolate certain narrative and thematic elements
as "essential" components of the Western and extrapolate them into
science fiction films (OUTLAND), contemporary crime films (DIRTY HARRY)
and the like--but that does not make those film "Westerns" as such.  Moving
back to the Western and then defining it in terms such as "The hero, who
is torn between the duty to society demanded by his job and his personal
distaste for that society, must risk his life in answering a threat to
that society from a criminal" (or something like that) addresses very
well HIGH NOON, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and many other films.
But it says nothing about a huge number of films that virtually everyone
would agree are "Westerns."
 
 
>The problem
>with a listing such as your own, which encompass a set of features often
>found in movies we agree to be 'film noir', but which are also found in
>many movies which by common consent are not 'film noir' is that the
>listing is untestable.
 
I don't think the individual elements I proposed (which were not meant to
be an exhaustive list) are untestable.  I certainly agree that any individual
element may be found within any number of other films.  The key problem
in the set of elements I proposed is when does a certain combination of
those elements constitute a "critical mass" that causes us to identify it
as "film noir" (or identify individual scenes within a film as "noir-like")?
That, I admit, is a pretty subjective judgment, though I expect that most
of us would find at least some common core of examples that have that
"critical mass."  But we face similar problems when we try to isolate
"meanings" implied by a film.
 
 
 
>. . . To my knowledge, no film
>conforming to his specifications(!) has failed to be 'film noir'.  His
>proposal therefore remains, for me, a USEFUL contribution to the theory of
>genre design for filmmakers, and, sad to say, almost uniquely so.
 
I'm still unconvinced by D'Amico's silence on style and his definition
seems to me to be another kind of tautology.
Isn't it like saying that no fruit that has white flesh, a smooth skin
and is red, green or yellow in color has failed to be an apple?  From your
comments, D'Amico seems to be saying, "Here is how to make sure that what
you are growing is an apple."  I'm trying to say "Here's what is in this
bowl of fruit."
 
But here's another question about use: Why would even a *filmmaker* want
such a formula in the first place?  Even if we ammend or reverse the
genders, as you propose, we are left with a narrative formula that
already is seeming pretty tired.  What made the idea of "film noir"
so interesting in the first place was that it seemed to be something
different from the mainstream, whether in terms of style, the quasi-
existentialism of the characters and narrative, or the "subversion" of
gender expectations that critics of various stripes have cited at one
time or another.
 
Now I would agree that those claims of the difference of film noir have
been exaggerated but there is still *some* kind of difference from the
mainstream of films that preceded or accompanied it in the late 1940s
and 1950s.  To reduce it to a narrative formula for filmmakers to look
to seems (to me at least) to guarantee precisely a "formula" film.
A formula film may be done well or done badly, but what's the point?
 
 
>Again, thanks for initiating this discussion, and thereafter contributing
>to it, in the open and credible manner the subject deserves.
 
Thanks to you too for taking the time to explain your position so coherently.
I hope the discussion continues and that we haven't clogged up too many
mailboxes with it!
 
 
Don Larsson, Mankato State U (MN)
 
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