American Quarterly 56.2 (2004) 471-480
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The Edges of Noir
What can Spam tell us about classical American film noir? According to Paula Rabinowitz, a great deal. In her astute analysis of American Dream (1990), Barbara Kopple's documentary about the failed strike against the meat manufacturer Hormel, Rabinowitz argues that the politics and sentimentality that emerged over Spam in that film illustrate once again the bankruptcy and unsustainability of the traditional American dream. Accompanying the demise of that dream is the insight that classical noir films also operated against a backdrop of "modern economic relations and their melodramatic stagings," in particular the ways in which traditional men's labor and the left's hopes for it were mediated through the conventions of melodrama (141). Serving as "cynical antidotes" to this saccharine presentation, classical film noir nonetheless derived much of its power by playing off these aspects of America's best picture of itself, this dream of what the nation could be if only certain ideals were blended into the so-called melting pot. Thus Spam's salty mystery reveals by contrast the syrupy preconditions of noir's bitterness. This interplay between classical film noir and the politics of U.S. history appears at the heart of Rabinowitz's new book, and she derives insights such as the one just described by [End Page 471] attending closely to comparisons between films in the noir canon and objects that lay at or beyond its edges.
Taking a cue from noir's English-language evolution, its ever-expanding boundaries, and its startling openness, Black & White & Noir argues for what she refers to as a "noir sensibility," a concept she installs as a lens through which to view the politics of American history (xi, 15). Like James Naremore and other critics, she points to the fact that noir discourse may be found anywhere from the New York Times to cosmetic counters to Minnesota Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion (15-16).1 But Rabinowitz proposes that a noir sensibility may be effectively deployed as a political theory that reveals otherwise hidden dimensions of the murky chronicles that make up America's past. By casting noir as a kind of feeling or attitude, she aims to make sense of the "essential trashiness of modern American culture" (xi). Black & White & Noir thus turns out to be not so much about film noir itself as it is about a kind of working-class street modernism that lay embedded in U.S. history. By way of example, Rabinowitz begins her book by describing how Simone de Beauvoir used precisely this strategy in America Day by Day, her memoir of traveling across the post-World War II United States (1-3). Using tropes and themes she absorbed from American films she had recently seen, de Beauvoir depicts the landscape she encounters and the people she meets as if they were part of a classical film noir. Similarly, Rabinowitz takes up noir as a device to decode the confused events of the nation's past, for she argues that noir offers a guide to detecting the "pulp modernism" of U.S. history.
Black & White & Noir clearly operates within an ongoing critical tradition that traces noir's evolving significations, its progression from a term describing a small number of 1940s American movies to its use to characterize entire fields of film and literature. Her analysis of the concept, however, ranges a good deal beyond what most scholars have envisioned, as she argues that noir sensibility is in many ways historically grounded; it is not merely a metaphor or a discourse for understanding the politics of America's past. "I view film noir as the context; its plot structure and visual iconography make sense of America's landscape and history" (14). Rabinowitz contends that the film and literature commonly identified as noir are really symptomatic consequences of a much larger phenomenon, which is the sensibility she outlines...