For the next month or so I will focus on a specific area of film studies so that I can delve a little deeper into films instead of attempting to cover huge areas in one post. I will be looking at the Film Noir movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Some may say, "Hold up! Isn't Film Noir a genre?" To this I disagree and to understand why we must first look at the difference between a movement and a genre.
To accompany this post I pulled out some old photos that my husband took back in undergrad. In his photography class he did a Film Noir series and, yes, that is me posing in the photos many years ago. And that cigarette is just a prop.
Let's look at genre first. To simplify a genre is a way of categorizing films; yet if a film is a genre film it usually upholds certain stylistic/narrative/form rules. An easily identifiable genre is the romantic comedy or as some like to call it the romcom (isn't that cute?). To begin with I can think of many romcoms from many different decades (When Harry Met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Miss Congeniality, etc.). Plot points in all of these films are strikingly similar: a man and a woman are introduced in the beginning, we want them to be together throughout, but, alas, the film keeps them apart until the very end when they realize that they are meant to be together. And we all rejoice when they kiss and breath a collective sigh of relief and a smile as we leave the theater. If this does not happen in the film then said film is not a romantic comedy. It may be a comedy or a perhaps a romance, but it's not a romantic comedy. There are a few other elements such as a big female star in the film (Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, usually the ones who are not great actresses, but big stars) and a somewhat unbelievable or whimsical plot.
Another easily recognizable genre is the western. Westerns have to take place, well, in the West, the American West that is. There is a battle of good vs bad with the good guy winning. The thing about genre films is that all you have to do is watch the film and you know that it belongs to that genre. You don't need to know anything about the director or when it was made or why it was made. The genre film stands alone.
So what is a movement then? Well, a movement is regulated to a specific time in history and is often reacting to an historic event or to a creatively stagnant film industry. While there are common elements in a movement not all the films necessarily adhere to the standards. Often the common elements have to do with the production of the films and not the finished product.
Since I have previously written about the French New Wave let's start with it. This movement really began with an article by Francois Truffaut titled "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," basically condoning the French Cinema at the time and throughout history to be fairly bland, boring, uninspired (with a few exceptions). The French New Wave constituted an immense amount of young, new, French filmmakers in the late 50s, early 60s. In a way they sort of woke up the French cinema. These filmmakers abandoned the idea of perfection and grandiose filmmaking. Instead they opted for small cameras, stylistic pieces, location shoots, and personal stories. To me there is real honesty in their films, which is magnified by how they really worked from the gut and took chances, embraced mistakes.
From my previous post there are two films that are synonymous of the New Wave: Breathless and The 400 Blows. If you were to casually watch these two films you would be hard pressed to find similarities that would put them into the same genre. Other than they are both French, take place in Paris, and shot in black and white. These similarities would include many, many films including the films that the French New Wave was rebelling against.
Breathless is very fast paced and stylistic. The characters are hip, the scene is hip. Danger becomes fun. Godard experiments with cutting and with improvisation. On the other hand, The 400 Blows is more evenly paced and examines a rebellious childhood. It's an incredibly personal film that explores the filmmakers own childhood. So here are two very different films comprising one cinematic movement. An era that moved cinema forward a step or two. To understand how the films are connected and why they are part of the same movement you need some outside information. You need to know about the directors and about what was going on in the world. You need to know about the state of French cinema, etc, etc.
There is no seminal moment that I know of that inspired the romcoms. Other than some executives in an office realizing that a large group of people will pay money to see films were two people who are meant to be together are kept apart for an entire film before finally getting together in the end. Some would say that the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s were the beginning of the romcoms, but I think there are even early films. Sherlock Jr. for instance is a perfect romcom. So as with westerns the romcom genre may have just appeared out of nowhere and always existed.
Finally, let's look at Film Noir. There is a fairly well agreed upon time period when Film Noirs were made. It's often cited that Noir films began with The Maltese Falcon and ended with Touch of Evil. These films were made in response to two major happenings in the world and Hollywood. In the early 1940s America was dragged into WWII, a place we didn't want to be until of course we were attacked and had to defend our honor. This attack and our subsequent use of the atomic bomb scarred the American psyche and the art being made had to somehow reflect this change. Fred and Ginger needed to be balanced by something a little darker, something unknown. Therefore, noir films tend to examine the seedy underbelly of the world. The characters are far from perfect; they're drifters, murderers, detectives, criminals.
Secondly, the Hollywood production houses, most notoriously Warner Brothers, needed to save a little money. They realized that they could reuse sets if they lit the sets with a lot of shadows using low key lighting. So the style was created due to a specific need. Though, it was also greatly influenced by German Expressionism of the 1920s; in these films areas of light and shadow were often painted onto the sets. Film Noir just used shadows to create intensity on the sets and mask that the same set was being used over and over again.
While there are many characteristics of a Noir film they by no means apply to every Noir film (other than Noir films always being shot in black and white). Color was very expensive at that time and, thus, would have negated the cheap feel of Noir. They may also include some of the following elements: a voice over, a femme fatale (a woman whom brings down the male lead), the main character dying at the end, Humphrey Bogart (not really, but he does seem to show up in a lot of Noir films).
Now, some of you may have heard of the term Neo-Noir. These are films made after the initial Film Noir time period and they are often shot in color. This alone is a fairly significant departure from the original style. Yet, though these later films take a lot from the stylistic/narrative form of Film Noir they are often missing the paranoia and even the melodrama associated with the original movement. While these new films are clearly influenced by the original films they are not similar in the same way every western is clearly a western.
Movements are also continually influencing films, filmmakers, and, even, other movements. For instance Italian Neo-Realism influenced the French New Wave. German Expressionism influenced Film Noir and so on.
Of course in the coming weeks we will look more in depth at Film Noir by actually looking at some films. In the meantime I hope this helps to allow you to think about movement vs genre. If you still think that Film Noir is a genre, I would love to hear your argument. I am always open to a well supported opinion. Also, remember that not all films have to belong to a movement or a genre, plenty of films exist outside of any type of box. So don't try to stick them in one. For instance just because a film has a female lead that does not automatically make it a romcom (for the record I consider romcoms and chick flicks to be the same thing, but that is an entirely new post).