Film Noir And Contemporary AmericaThe national identity of a country is based on different myths and ideologies. In the nineteenth century pre-industrialized America, democratic equality was based on the universal ownership of property. At this time America was an agrarian society, and this ideology led-- among other things--to the westward expansion. During the early twentieth century America changed from an agrarian to an industrialized society. In the 1920s, for the first time, more people lived in cities than in the country. Even if the way of living changed and people formerly owned property now received pay-checks, the myths stayed the same. It was only after the Depression that these myths disappeared. Film noir shows a transitional stage in American ideology, when the American identity changes from being pre-industrial to a mass consumer society with an industrialized corporate state. At this point in American history there were no new myths available, and the national identity was in crises. During the war America saw a massive mobilization, and one of the driving powers behind this was the common goal of the nation. The national unity was one of the powers behind this mobilization, the country work as a group instead of as individuals. This prospect of unity disappeared in peacetime, and led to disillusionment in postwar America.
Film noir can be seen as both a screen style, and a perspective
on human existence and society. Its narrative structures incorporate a dark
world view that is the result of a confrontation with nihilism. The cause of
nihilism, in short, appears when peoples ideals are shattered. In the twentieth
century tradition could not cope with the social development, and this causes
a moral problem (which is easy spotted in film noir).
This is what happened to the American population in the 1940s. Earlier the Americans had been free individuals and masters of their own destiny, but in postwar America people became tied up by an economic and political system out of their control. Fortune seemed to control the field. Nietzsche said that, if a world view one has put down effort to preserve and that one has believed in, is falsified, it will give man the suspicion that all perceptions of the world are false. From this it is not short step to take in order to say that the basis of human existence is irrational and order is an illusion, a thought, or truth, most people are not strong enough to handle. A way to fight the anxiety these thoughts, or knowledge, create is to hide oneself in the quest for material wealth or power.
At this point my thoughts go to the affluent mass consuming society of the United States. Another thought is that maybe the country as a whole, not just its bourgeoisie, tried to fight nihilism with materialism, for the willingness to annihilate the world before giving up its political system must be called nihilism. I think it can be safe to say that film noir is an American attempt to engage this phenomenon.
The themes of film noir touch many aspects of life, but they all revolves
around the destined being. The protagonists are hostages of fate and seem partly unfree
and powerless. Fate runs the shop, and the heroes of film noir are willing to buy. They
act as if they are masters of their own lives, but still let it show that they know they
are not. The male hero is disillusioned and alienated from his surroundings.
I think that this is something the audience could relate to in the forties and fifties. The new society of gigantic cooperation's created a feeling of powerlessness among the workers. He who had been his own boss earlier in this own small scale business , now had become one of many pay-check collectors. This alienated mood in film noir can be seen as a reaction to the large, impersonal, dehumanizing cooperation's of the new consumer society. I view the hard-boiled heroes disillusionment as a reaction to contemporary Americas loss of old myths and identity.
The way women are presented in film noir I find rooted in the fact that in America during World War II women had won access to the economic sphere, which field had formerly been exclusively for men. This creates a problem, not only in the noir world, but also in the real one. The females patriotic duty in the work force, led to a redefinition of their place within culture. A consequence of this was a confusion in regard to the traditional conception of sexual roles and sexual identity, an identity that had been non-practicing during the war because of the separation of the sexes. The female entry to the male dominated world made the American male lose track of his position within a society he formerly controlled. The war dislocated men from their former sense of being the prime movers of culture.
The family, or absence of it, in film noir is valuated with negativity. It is possible to view the family as a metaphor for the larger society, and its negative value as social discontent. In film noirs the rebellion against a traditional valued institution like the family often ends with destruction.
Movements within the medium of film--like the German expressionism--occur as an answer
to a national crises. If the noir phenomenon is seen as a movement--and it partly
is--so did film noir. In postwar America there are threats like the Red scare, the
resent emerged from global war, extended borders, widespread crime and violence, and the
possibility of annihilation.
Personally, I would call this a crisis. Film noir tries to deal with this crisis in its own way. It shows the dark and desperate mood of this era, even though some people threw themselves into the materialistic race to forget.
I think the audience of the time were distressed watching noirs, because they could identify with these movies. Still, I do not think that the noirs are not so much rebelling against contemporary America, as trying to get it back together. I do not think that noirs offer alternatives, but that they show what happens if one defies the traditions (i.e. the view of women and family). America at the time was confused and film noirs were merely searching for answers.