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  • Revolting Yet Conserved: Family Noir in Blue Velvet and Terminator 2
  • Fred Pfeil

When we think about film noir in the present, it is well to remember the categorical instability that has dogged its tracks from the moment French critics coined the term in the mid-1950s as a retrospective tag for a bunch of previously withheld American films which now, upon their foreign release, all looked and felt sort of alike. Ever since, critics and theorists have been arguing over what noir is and which films are examples of it, over what social processes and psychic processes it speaks of and to, and what might constitute its own social effects. Does film noir constitute its own genre; a style which can be deployed across generic boundaries; a movement within Hollywood cinema, limited to its place in space and time? These, the intrinsic questions and debates, have their own momentum and energy, but derive extra charge from an associated set of extrinsic questions regarding noir’s relationships to other, non-cinematic social trans- formations, especially shifts in gender identities and relationships in the post-WWII U.S. Did the spider-women of so many films noir, despite their emphatically evil coding and self-destructive defeats, nonetheless constitute a challenge to the restoration and extension of a patriarchal- capitalist gender economy under whose terms men controlled and ran the public sphere while women, desexualized and maternalized, were relegated to hearth and home? Does the aggressive sexuality, power and plot controlling/generating/ deranging force, of, say, a Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, together with noir’s characteristically deviant visuality—its cramped asymmetrical framings, its expressionistically harsh lighting contrasts and lurid shadows, the whole twisted and uncertain spatiality of it matching the male protagonist’s lack of control over the breakneck deviousness of its plot—constitute a real and potentially effective subversion of the dominant order, as Christine Gledhill suggests?1 Or is it simply, as neoformalist film historian David Bordwell asserts, that “These films blend causal unity with a new realistic and generic motivation, and the result no more subverts the classical film”—or, we may presume, anything else—“than crime fiction undercuts the orthodox novel” (77)?

Noir, then, as coded alternative or as alternate flavor of the month, something to put alongside vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and The Best Years of Our Lives? The debate smolders on unresolved, and perhaps irresolvably, depending as it does on some broader knowledge or agreement as to what indeed constitutes subversive or progressive work within a pre- or non-revolutionary cultural moment and social formation. More directly, the question is how any capital-intensive work, such as film or mainstream television production, which is produced for a mass audience, can be progressive, and how we can tell insofar as it is. How (and how well) would such work work? What (and how much) would it do? More crudely still, how far can a work go and still get made and distributed within a system whose various structures are all overdetermined by capitalism and patriarchy (not to mention racism and homophobia)? What’s the most, and the best, we can demand and/or expect?

It is, as Marxists used to say perhaps too often, no accident that such messy questions press themselves on us today so insistently and distinctly that a whole new interdisciplinary protodiscipline, “cultural studies,” now constitutes itself just to deal with them. Their emergence and urgency for us is, after all, inevitably consequent upon the dimming of the revolutionary horizon, and the loss or confusion of revolutionary faith, not only within the socialist Left but throughout all the other feminist and “minority” movements in the ‘70s and ‘80s, condemned as each has been to its own version of the excruciating declension from essentialist-nationalist unity to division Fanon outlined in The Wretched of the Earth for a post-colonial subject on the other side of a war of national liberation for which there was finally, in the U.S. anyway, never a credible or even distinct equivalent anyway. Here the revolution, if there was anything like one, came from the Right...

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