Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Minnesotans Sure Know Noir

This weekend Houseboy and I watched "Lucky Number Slevin," recommended to our Netflix queue by Netflix buddy Soda Pop, who has an unhealthy obsession with Minnesota boy Josh Hartnett:

Ok, looking at that now, maybe it's not so unhealthy.  A hometown boy and graduate from South High School in Minneapolis (along with Rachel Leigh Cook and Carl Lumbly!)... I suppose it's ok to make secret plans to leave your high-powered DC lifestyle to cook and clean in the nude.  

Anyway, incitements to infidelity aside, this recommendation was a good one.  It could be described as a kind of "light-hearted noir" if that isn't a total oxymoron.  One of those more modern dark mystery pieces that nods towards its own outlandishness, rather than attempting to bury it in gore.  I'm not a student of the noir genre, exactly, but I've seen and read my fair share, and I'd argue that in the 1950's, when this was particularly popular, there was a certain humor to the situations, but also a certain unselfconsciousness that can only come from not having been done and redone eleventy hundred times.  When moviemakers dip into this pool these days, they're only too aware of the ridiculousness of the situations their characters end up in, and they really have only two choices: 1) distract us with a rising body count, eventually bordering on horror rather than mystery or 2) wink a bit at the camera, as Philip Marlowe might do.  

Lucky Number Slevin chooses the latter route, giving us the Lucy Liu character, who is an amateur detective and professional medical examiner, as well as the off-kilter charm of the Josh Hartnett character, who claims to have a mental disorder that does not allow him to feel fear, and results in him rather calmly making jokes when his life is in danger.  I think this approach is more in keeping with the original noir concept-- one in which we are all alone and the forces we fight can barely be contained, much less defeated, so why not throw in a wry comment between punches to the nose?  We know we cannot win the war, so we fight the battles with a certain freedom, humor and even affection.  By burying our self-awareness in sky-rocketing violence, the other "new noir" movies subvert this paradigm.


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