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Modern Noir and the Fluidity of Genre

At work last week, during one of the rambling intellectual discussions that tend to come up in our office, one of my coworkers dropped a bomb and said that “there’s no such thing as modern noir.” Said person then followed up with “I might go so far as to say that noir isn’t a genre, but rather an aesthetic” before walking out of the room, leaving me flabbergasted. In this person’s defense, there was a great follow-up conversation (mostly involving me and Russell explaining why this is quite wrong), but it’s not the first time I’ve heard this.

First, let’s get the second question cleared up: noir is a genre. Specifically, it is a genre of crime dramas, primarily in the 40s and 50s. Hollywood crime dramas from the time are more formally “films noir,” and literature in the genre is more often called either “hardboiled fiction” or “American detective fiction,” but such movies and literature can be correctly categorized as noir.

The first question, the existence of modern noir, is a bit trickier. In poking around, it seems the generally accepted term is actually neo-noir, and it’s loosely applied. Basically, if a movie or piece of literature has a detective, moral ambiguity, or even a dash of the stylistic tropes of noir, people try to classify it as neo-noir. This extends to, essentially, most fiction ever.1 I would personally require that a piece of fiction be a crime drama at core before there can even be a consideration of whether it qualifies as neo-noir or not (which is why I still think that Inception qualifies, although perhaps just barely), but the value of the label has certainly been diluted.

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  1. To be fair, I’ve been guilty of this as well, so I’m certainly not pointing fingers. Or rather, I am pointing fingers, but at one is pointed at me. Which is pretty painful, since my hand doesn’t bend that way.