Sunday, July 15, 2012

The philosophy of film noir

If there were ever a genre of film that touches off fundamental philosophical and existential questions it is Film Noir. Always premised upon some central mystery, a protagonist in a Film Noir usually finds himself entangled in a wicked web of murder and double dealings. Rarely do Film Noirs have neat endings, and rarely is our hero left untainted. He is marked by the events that transpire, left with a permanent scar.

The mystery is usually one that the hero stumbles upon. Once stumbled upon, it consumes him, involves him, and implicates him. He cannot remain the passive observer once he engages in the quest to find the answer to the mystery. He is tainted from the outset, and much of his angst and distress throughout the tale centres around this fact. “Why did I have to get messed up in all of this?” he frequently asks himself. Our hero is rarely a pure being to begin with, usually displaying some sort of fundamental flaw that allows him to get sucked into the sordid underworld of the film, and this in turn allows us to believe that he would do so.

Double Indemnity (1940) is a good example of this. In it, the protagonist becomes embroiled in a plot to kill his lover’s husband. Right away we can see what his problem is - women. His voice-over describes the infatuation he felt for the woman when he first met her. Right away, he is throwing innuendoes at her, hinting in a none-too-obvious way at his attraction to her. It is a character trait that we see straight away, within the first ten minutes, and it is one that carries on throughout the film. He similarly ends up spending a lot of time with the woman’s step daughter. He describes her as giving him some measure of peace in the midst of a mystery in which he finds himself deeply involved.

In the end, he is shot in the arm. Sitting in a chair, bleeding to death, he records the sordid tale for his boss on a precursor of the tape recorder. His boss, who has been trying to solve the mystery of the woman’s husband’s death throughout the film, is so close to the truth. Too close. His friendship with our “hero” blinds him to the truth. He is famous for the what he calls the “Little man” inside himself; his intuition, his hunches. But on this occasion he ignores them, because he “knows” our man is a “good man” whom he can vouch for.

Too close, indeed. The answer lay in his gut reaction, with a feeling. But this was shaped into something else. His friendship with the hero, their relationship before the story began, their history together, meant that his intuition could only lead him to say that our hero was a good man who would not get involved in the killing of another man’s wife. It was a fatal supposition that stands in the way of him ever solving the central mystery. 

It was his proximity to the answer, the object of his investigation, coupled with what he understood to be the history of the object, that meant that the object remained ever illusive. His fatal flaw is more primal, more elemental than even our hero’s blind spot for the ladies. It is his very knowledge of the object which means that it slips away from him.

How does this relate to philosophy and existentialism? The object of philosophy is unclear, but it seems to be broadly related to our existence, from which a wealth of questions arise. Thought, consciousness and experience are inevitably tangled up in this. When we turn our thought to our own perception, we seem to hit a blind spot. Can a final answer to the question of consciousness ever be described within the parameters of consciousness itself? Are we too close to it, too embroiled in the messiness of everyday experience to allow for a neat, streamlined, complete answer? To provide an answer would be to create an abstraction, a sign or symbol, an equation, word or picture. But if such things do not spring automatically from our thoughts, then we at least apply thought to shape such things. We work through cultural conventions, but we can create something new, like a painting, a novel or a poem. 

If abstraction requires a conceptual “stepping outside”, a kind of pretension to objectivity, then thought would be the last place for us to tease out its own central mysteries. To step outside of the conscious is to negate it with the un-conscious. That which is unconscious does not speak, or cannot even have a name assigned to it. Our hero’s boss is constantly talking about trusting his instinct, which Freud might have described as bubbling up from the unconscious. There is a kind of letting go that happens here. In its opposition to the intellect, intuition allows itself to be felt, and is under no one's control. This is the polar opposite to the intellect. If there is a violence to the intellect - the attempted seizing and domination over an object - then there is an acceptance at the heart of intuition, allowing for the silence of the unconscious. This in turn allows certain thoughts to spring forth from this nothingness, just like the Big Bang. It is in this acceptance that we find that which opposes philosophy completely. 

The questions that philosophy pose, the big ones, tend not to change radically. They seem to be reformulated and reiterated at least once every generation. This is perhaps the maddening fact of consciousness and the consistent questions of philosophy; they just are, at the end of the day. They cease to go away, cease to die, cease to have a definitive answer. This could be seen as a kind of resignation, or a path to nihilism. Perhaps it is the apparent mundaneness of this answer that leads to such a dark place. But it can also be seen as a kind of wise acceptance that Buddhists strive for. “You can’t win them all,” our hero’s boss laments after he finds out the truth. That the world doesn't end, that we can still find meaning in things and one another, even after the abolition of some idea of eternal truth; some find this shocking. But perhaps it is only shocking when one rests there assumptions on such things. Not that an objective view of all things, where all truths would be truly relative, is possible either. We are only human, after all.

In all ages of Humanity it has agonised over its own existence in one way or another; it's beginnings; it's purpose; it's ultimate end. The investigation gains a tragic character as it is unsolvable. That is not to say it is a fruitless, pointless search. Quite to the contrary. It seems that with each new epoch, we redefine what it means to be the beings that we are. Such questions often serve as a kind of catalyst for this. What could be more important than that?

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