A recollection: when I went on the academic job market for the first time, in 1979, I would answer the inevitable interview question about [End Page 110] what I was working on with the reply "film noir," since I had plans to study the American forties through that genre of film. The problem was that a number of cinema jobs were in English departments, where, it seemed, few had ever heard of the genre. Certainly, it was then easy to bring out some hashed-over Borde and Chaumeton or Paul Schrader and explain that noir was a genre of 1940s crime-oriented films that revealed a cynicism about sexual relationships or about the American dream. Still, it was unnerving to have what one considered a compelling, ideologically important domain of critical investigation be simply unfamiliar to people who claimed to know culture.
Today, of course, the situation is quite different. Noir has become part of common parlance to the point of cliché. And with that popular diffusion comes a predictable stretching of the term beyond its initial applications. To take just one example, there is Nature Noir, a 2006 book by a park ranger who describes all the terrible things he sees both natural creatures and humans do to each other and to themselves as he wanders around forest spaces quite removed from the mean streets glistening with rain that we're familiar with from classic film noir.
More than ever, noir has become a marketable style that floats far beyond the films that honed its look and its meanings. And this dissemination, or dispersion even, of the idea of noir has both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it is no doubt salutary when a concept that seemed to belong to specialists and cultists moves out of its rarified confines to become accessible to a more general population. Noir in particular is a publicly important part of the history of U.S. culture insofar as it is so much about the promise and limits of the American dream. As anyone who has taught film noir has undoubtedly experienced, the topic is pedagogically attractive for its blend of ease (it is a genre that wears its stylistic traits and their connections to the times on its sleeve) and relevance (neo-noir is a reminder that we still live under many of the political, cultural, and psycho-social dynamics of the United States of the last half century).
On the other hand, with the diffusion of noir comes also a diffuseness that brings with it a lack of critical rigor. Noir suddenly can seem to be everywhere, inherent in everything, and this means it loses its critical edge as either a cinematic or sociological concept. Think, for instance, of that vast and ever-growing array of coffee table books on film noir that treat it as little more than a fascinating look, a compelling style, a mere ambience, a fashion. Noir becomes noir-chic, one more retro commodity disconnected from everything the genre meant—and fundamentally continues to mean—as part of our contemporaneity.
In this respect, the problem of noir parallels the problem of the DVD as a critical instrument in the study and analysis of films. Beyond its obvious function of materializing a film in a compact and fairly durable format that is amenable to ever more refined methods of restoration and visual/oral polishing, the DVD holds the promise of critical supplementation of the film through background material of a diverse sort: the commentary track but also all sorts of archival material that can be added as special features. Yet it is all too often the case that such DVD extras are inconsistent in quality and in richness and variety of source material, which limits their scholarly usefulness. Just as noir often appears in today's market as a mere hint of an idea without any solidity, so do DVD extras often seem superficial and inconsequential—stock gestures at noir's pertinence rather than evidence of its achievement.