In his review of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Armond White opens by declaring that “Neo-noir must be the worst movie genre. It’s an excuse for juvenile filmmakers to pretend cynicism while their imbecile audiences pretend sophistication.”
I can certainly see where he’s coming from. I haven’t seen A Dame to Kill For yet, but I have seen more than enough attempts at neo-noirs that think all there is to the genre is a femme fatale and an anti-hero in a trenchcoat. I’m talking about mediocre, flailing films like Max Payne—or worse, the attempts to bring noir to hip, younger settings like Assassination of a High School President and Lucky Number Slevin. They’re movies that look at the classics of the genre, fall in love with the aesthetic, but have no idea why or how that aesthetic works as it does. As Armond so aptly points out, Sin City and its ilk are all “pretending that it still means something to call a sexy woman ‘dame.’”
Judging from the original Sin City, and the numerous clips I’ve seen from A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller don’t seem to have much of an understanding of what film noir actually is. Noir, as it is defined, properly began in 1940 when America was still on the brink of entering World War II. It is as much a genre as it was a movement, much like Italian Neo-Realism or the French New Wave. They were grim films that dealt with the darker side of society, a counterpoint to the bright musicals that dominated the box office. But they weren’t made with the intention of being anything bigger than crime films—the term ‘noir’ wasn’t even widely accepted until the 1970s, more than a decade after the last proper noir was made.
It isn’t that Rodriguez and Miller don’t know the elements of noir—they invoke numerous tropes the genre birthed. It’s that they don’t understand that these films are time capsules. Sin City is more infatuated with the idea of a noir film than it is with actually applying the surface elements towards anything meaningful or relevant.
Noir had its time, and that time is gone. It was born out of the Great Depression, and fed off homefront wartime fears. It evolved as the Red Scare did, and then it petered out and gave way, eventually, to something new—neo-noir was born.
Like Armond White, I have no patience for poorly done neo-noir. But, I feel that he is going too far by calling it “the worst genre,” because it is possible to make relevant, effective neo-noirs—they just need to speak to their own era.
Case in point: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye features Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe, the classic character pioneered by Humphrey Bogart. But Gould’s Marlowe is transplanted to the 1970s—he’s the same apathetic, somewhat oafish smart aleck, but he’s in a different world. He exists not in a nostalgic version of the 40s, but in the cynical Nixon years. It’s a film for its own day and age.
Then you have one of Rodriguez’s best friends, Quentin Tarantino: Pulp Fiction created a shockwave, spawning countless knock-offs and wannabes. But Tarantino actually understands genre—in each of the film’s vignettes, he introduces a classic noir set-up, but twists it, modernizes it, chops and blends it. Take for instance, the middle section of the film, “The Gold Watch.” Tarantino opens with a generic story about a boxer refusing to throw a fight, but he transitions that into a bedroom conversation straight out of Godard’s Breathless—a film which was itself an homage to American film noir. He follows that scene with a moment ripped straight from Psycho, where the boxer encounters the mob boss he’s trying to escape from while driving (Psycho, of course, beginning as a noir before ripping the chair out from under the audience and becoming a horror movie). And once we’ve made the transition into horror, Tarantino takes a scene out of the Deliverance playbook—but sets it in the type of grungy basement Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill would feel at home in. In this sense, The Gold Watch represents the story of film—in forty-five minutes we have gone from 1940 right up to 1994, hitting almost every era in between. The genre evolves before our eyes.
Pulp Fiction does noir not by getting dressed up and calling women ‘dames’—It puts on a modern suit and calls them ‘bitches’. It’s the same type of demeaning, dehumanizing language, but it actually resonates with a modern audience.
Sin City, on the other hand, is the movie version of wearing a fedora with a Hawaiian shirt. It thinks that ‘Femme Fatale’ means a stripper with a gun, and boasts private dicks and serial killers and grubby crime bosses simply because they look cool. It paints over everything with computers to emulate a comic book, simply because it can. It’s no surprise that Rodriguez’s best film, From Dusk Till Dawn, is the one written by Quentin Tarantino, because Rodriguez has no sense of restraint—he doesn’t know how to do homage, and ends up making parodies by mistake.
Neo-noir can be a fantastic, innovative genre—just look at Chinatown and Blade Runner. But if your film doesn’t have something relevant to add to the conversation, then it’s all just posturing. I have faith that it can come back, but Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez will not be its savior.