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An era that's meant to wear noir

September 24, 2006|Thomas de Zengotita | THOMAS DE ZENGOTITA, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, is the author of "Mediated," which won the 2006 Marshall McLuhan Award for outstanding work in media ecology.

I CAN'T GET enough of movies like "The Black Dahlia." Even when they are mediocre, I'm still enthralled by the ethnographic details -- the clothes, the cars, the furnishings, the ballet of cigarette behavior. If you grew up in the immediate postwar era, as I did, such details evoke a world that feels more real than our current one. Memory supplies a texture that supplements these movies, lending them an aura of depth unique to the genre.

That's why movies like "The Black Dahlia" gravitate so naturally to noir -- to an atmosphere that hints at unspeakable secrets, hidden in the recesses of time and mind but that continues to shape events. The rituals of disclosure -- a glimpse of a half-completed gesture through a half-opened door, old snapshots in a shoebox, a file of yellowing newspaper clippings in a dusty archive -- simulate an excavation of your own unconscious. It's like an allegory of psychoanalysis -- the old-fashioned, four-days-a-week-on-the-couch kind -- in which situations and sensations that shaped your life are finally brought to light.

That's why sexual shenanigans -- the kinkier the better -- are essential to these postwar period films. They are stand-ins for whatever introduced you to sex back in the day. Even if it was just ordinary stuff -- necking, petting -- that seems so utterly tame by today's standards. Which is precisely the point. Back when sexuality was shrouded in mystery and taboo, the thrills of exposure to it were correspondingly intense. In today's environment, saturated with hard-core porn, on the one hand, and clinical sex-education demos, on the other, a period piece such as "The Black Dahlia" has to reach for extremes to compete in shock value.

Which explains the added intensity of the charge that attaches to women's clothes in these period movies. That's how women looked when you started looking.

But sleaze suffuses these films -- and it's not just the sexual kind. Corruption is everywhere. Even the heroes have to be implicated to be credible. Otherwise, it isn't noir. Otherwise, you couldn't identify your own compromised life with theirs.

What's simulated in these period movies is the way the scales fell from our eyes in the 1960s and 1970s when we looked back at the world of "Leave It to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best" and realized that it had all been a sham, a mask for racism, sexism and homophobia at home and imperial adventures abroad. Those of us who grew up in the postwar era and were transformed by the 1960s felt, above all, profoundly betrayed by that facade.

That's what makes revelations of corruption so especially delicious in these movies. As with the kinky sex, so with the sadistic cop in his sweeping fedora and the scheming mogul with politicians in the pocket of his silken smoking jacket -- the grown-ups being outed all over again.

There are plenty of movies about corruption in business and government set in more recent times, and they offer their particular pleasures as well. But the corruption in them never feels as luridly exposed as it does when the grifters are dressed like your parents and their friends on the first few pages of your family album.

"Chinatown" is the archetype, of course. It will always set the standard. Jack Nicholson, John Huston, Faye Dunaway, the whole supporting cast -- they brought the genre's renaissance to full realization with perfect pitch and nuance, in settings since unmatched for lived-in precision. With "L.A. Confidential" and "Mulholland Drive," a hyper-realism creeps into the genre, the David Lynch "Blue Velvet" touch, as it were. By the time you get to "Hollywoodland," self-consciousness threatens to overwhelm the whole enterprise. Props begin to look like exhibits. Actors with indelibly contemporary manners look like they're playing dress-up or, even more disconcertingly, showing off some newly fashionable retro item they just picked up at a flea market.

But I don't mind. I'm a fan to the end.

I am curious about one thing, though. What do people who didn't live through the late 1940s and the 1950s make of these noir movies?

I have a hypothesis: They make pretty much what I make of them, only at one remove -- a very interesting remove.

They grew up watching "The Donna Reed Show" and "I Love Lucy" on "Nick at Night," after all. And, when you think about it, they've seen all kinds of movies that date from that era, and many of them have some 1950s music on their iPods. Compared to what I know about the 1920s, they know a great deal about the 1950s, enough to have a feel for the decade, a sense of its ethos -- and also for what became of it. In general, they understand that "the '50s" stands for a golden age of national innocence that turned out not to be so golden -- but something you can still be nostalgic about even if you never directly experienced it.

Maybe even more so, because nowadays "the '50s" basically means nostalgia. The more bogus, the better. "The '50s" is a brand, and that's what the brand means.

The noir renaissance and postmodern irony. A perfect fit.

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