Nov. 25th, 2016

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So noir is about the different kinds of people in the world, how, seen close up, they're all wrong or otherwise fragile, and just what sort of person (if any) might be capable of learning enough about the others to a) remain unbroken and maybe b) fix whoever's fixable among the rest.

The Western is about becoming the law - or trying to but failing - when you realize that without you there will be no other. It needs fewer characters, technically, but is compatible enough with noir that they can completely merge. The "law" can be Nietzschean, of course - whatever directive you find in your heart or the space where you were supposed to find one.

Are they closer to gnosticism, then? (Coming to know that something you didn't yet know changes everything you've ever known.) Or do all genres approach it by different paths?

A desert too wide for daylight to show you the way; a city where night can hide anything. Both are paradigmatically western in terms of geography, I guess because the American East seems comparatively synonymous with the arranged and revealed. When transplanted eastwards, locations most closely resembling LA in the'30s or stark badlands are sought. Swamps, the Appalachians, cities that have fallen out of arrangement, thus into Chinatown.

Maybe one slight but important difference in emphasis is that the Western seems to call for the creation of an order, the founding of a first town, where noir calls for the realization that the existing one is a jungle, the proof that the last town has fallen. Where the Western project somehow fails it comes to resemble noir, where success is somehow found in a noir-world things converge on a Western scenario (some final duel with a single unmasked final villain, after which sustainable order becomes possible). Each puts the civilizing impulse and the abyss into confrontation, but gives the first move, the element of surprise, to the one that hadn't even seemed to exist in the neighborhood.

This maybe casts a light on that stuff I used to post about - gaining companions vs. attrition as two basic movements in genre. (Wizard of Oz/Fellowship of the Ring vs. The Odyssey/And Then There Were None.) Those are respectively ways to reveal that one is a part of something where there seemed to be nothing, or in fact alone when there seemed to be company.

Interestingly, neither genre necessarily starts as heroic quest: in the western heroism might seem initially impossible, in noir initially unnecessary. The hero either has to realize there's even a need for him, a wilderness to cross, or that heroism's even possible, that there's anything that can be crossed to. Finding out that one's on a quest is thus part of the quest. Just what quest one's on, rather, since the hero tends to already be doing something or other - keeping a farm or town in order, executing revenge, seeing what there is to see, solving a case.

Maybe that entails that in both there's a tendency toward anti-tragedy: finding that there's something about yourself that's much better/ more important than you or anyone else had realized. Adds the changeling fantasy aspect that maybe defines "genre" (pleasure viewing/reading?) in the first place? Though also opening up the possibility of real tragedy, that that special something is not enough to overcome internal limitations and/or external obstacles, that creates the suspense enabling the pleasure consumption to actually continue. And the opening for an unhappy ending that authors who don't want to leave you merely pleased can exploit.

In noir it's often the audience that's disillusioned, not the protagonist, which makes the late-noir move of showing even the most jaded protagonist robbed of illusions he didn't know he had so powerful. Virgil finds out he's been Dante all along. I want to credit Chinatown with that, but Oedipa Maas is presented as very knowing from the start, just not knowing enough. This aspect of her isn't as cleanly presented as it is with Jake, but it's still influential on the effect. Ishmael too, perhaps? Or is that more in the earlier adventure story tradition, even the epic one, where finding out the powers as well as the limitations of the hero is part of the interest, since it's assumed they'll have both. Yes, the adventure story is not so gnostic, at heart. The adventure hero comes pre-blessed, removing him from both the need to seek a blessing and the possibility of finding out he's cursed. He's publicly sponsored throughout by luck or God, thus the author, whereas in noir you're likeliest to find out that (at least in the middle) you're less sponsored by any power than you thought, in western to find out you're more. Which is why Melville has to pretty much kill Ishmael from the book to make it tragic, I guess.

Hamlet is awakened from malaise into a revenge mission, which is sort of Western and noir both: he finds out he can bring order at the same time it's confirmed that the apparent order has never been one. And then as his revenge mission sinks back into malaise (till at the point where he can actually carry it out it's nearly meaningless to him - he's pretty much forced to perform it by circumstances) we find out both that the order he's asked to impose is not a real one, and that the Court is no more a jungle than any other place would be. The forgivability of every character would appear to be the play's message: Gertrude and Claudius seem to lack control over their passions, as does Laertes, as did Polonius etc. The seeming madness of Hamlet reveals the real madness of everybody. Nobody knows what they're doing, which makes for both disorder and a sort of order, a permanent city-wilderness that can neither be quested into nor out of. It's complicated then you die, and if the next world made this one then the next world's complicated too and not the simple answer we desire. The tragedy's that there isn't even tragedy - the genres churn, none wins except in the sense (if it's even true) that we're eventually destroyed. Even comedy's a joke if nothing stays funny (or fun) for long. A story against story, like Don Quixote? Or story's last judgment on life (also like Don Quixote, for all I know)? All-die-at-once is a much different effect than attrition, certainly. Though there's a sort of attrition: Fortinbras is left in charge, presumably showing that people who are simple enough to force life to be one story are exempt. If you can ignore Hamlet, Hamlet isn't true for you, this suggests; but it also suggests that the very notion of life-as-story comes from simpletons or narcissists, thus that the only times when life will seem like any sort of story it will be a stupid, bluntly imposed one. Genre, basically.

So we can maybe see why genre has long been seen as the ultimate weapon against itself, and maybe also as the ideal ground for storytelling to probe storytelling's own potential as well as limits. Why Borges was able to use it to interrogate theology, say.


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