restricted access Noir et Blanc in Color: Existentialism and Miami Vice
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NOIR ETBLANC IN COLOR: EXISTENTIALISM AND MIAMI VICE Steven M. Sanders Crockett: It's just the waiting, I hate the waiting. I feel like a character in a Beckett play. Tubbs: Since when do you know Beckett? Crockett: Charlie Beckett, down at the corner shoeshine. He writes plays on the side. —Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, Miami Vice The connections between existentialism and TV noir are shown by the way the concepts of alienation, absurdity, existential freedom and choice—expressed with such fluency in novels, short stories, essays, and plays by thinkers associated with the existentialist movement—appear among the central themes of the classics of film noir and their television counterparts .1 Of course, there are disputes about the nature of existentialism that were not resolved by the existentialists themselves in their own time, and I shall not attempt to settle them here. "Sartre resisted identification with existentialism as an intellectual fashion," writes historian George Cotkin in Existential America, "believing that his ideas would be diminished through such commodification." Sartre himself said in 1960, "I do not like to talk about existentialism. To name it and to define it is to wrap it up and tie the knot."2 Indeed, those who read Sartre's popular exposition of existentialist doctrines, "Existentialism Is a Humanism," in the hope that he was going to untie the string on the package of existentialist thought were quick to discover that he had left them with another knot instead. Nevertheless, there is sufficient unity in the existentialist movement to 95 96 Steven M. Sanders permit us to identify its salient themes. Existentialist thought is not limited to the phenomena of alienation, absurdity, dread, and death. It also gives scope to the possibility ofcreative engagement with existential crises. Sartre's idea that we are condemned to be free gives rise not only to anguish over the weight of taking personal responsibility for ourselves and our actions but also to the exhilarating prospect of attaining authentic existence and rising to a higher level of being. "For human reality," Sartre writes in Being and Nothingness, "to be is to choose oneself," thereby expressing an outlook on personal autonomy at odds with that doom-laden determinism so widespread in film noir.3 As we shall see, the alienated protagonists of TV noir take from existentialism this generalized sense of the contingency of things and the ways in which life can go unpredictably off-course, but they also take a sense of engagement in the name of individual freedom. The writing of the existentialists combines philosophical abstraction with an immersion in the immediacies of human experience. This endows their work with a novelistic attention to detail that mitigates the vague, metaphysical detachment. Once one has read them, one never feels the same about the ordinariness of life and commonplace things, in much the way that film noir exploits the dark underside of quotidian life. The work of the existentialists, written out of the depths of their (often conflicted) personalities, gives Miami Vice philosophical significance when we interpret the program against this background. For the way personality is woven into the fabric of existentialist thought is reflected in the master theme of the show itself. Consider the alienation Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) must endure as he lives an undercover existence, with its pressures on personal identity and the unresolved conflicts ofmoral responsibility that arise while he masquerades as a denizen of the criminal demimonde. The undercover cop must negotiate a world of assumed, and therefore precarious, identities and tenuous loyalties, a world where his unmasking is tantamount to his death. Crockett's existential backstory is continuous with that of many of those central characters of film noir who attempt (and often fail) to achieve personal transformation in which their fractured, fragmented identities are rendered whole, their selves unified. Amphetamine Theatre Greater Miami is an unexpected setting for a TV noir series. In the early episodes of Miami Vice, which are shot in a glossy array of pinks, whites, Noir et Blanc in Color 97 turquoises, and mint greens, the stylish location photography reflects a warm, sunny, and opulent atmosphere, hardly what one would expect to find in noir. In fact, Miami Vices use of color is one of the most striking breaks with TV noir of the Dragnet, Naked City, and Fugitive variety. As Nicholas Christopher observes in connection with color films noirs of the classic period, "It is the noir elements... that demand colors: the wild swings in the...


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Subject Headings

  • Detective and mystery television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Film noir -- United States -- History and criticism.
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