The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
Revolting Yet Conserved: Family "Noir" in Blue Velvet


[1]       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 noir, we may presume, anything else–"than
     crime fiction undercuts the orthodox novel" (77)?
[2]       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?
[3]       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–New Right maven Paul Weyrich proudly proclaiming in
     the wake of the first Reagan election in the early '80s, "We
     are radicals seeking to overthrow the power structure"–
     against the liberal-corporatist State and the sociopolitical
     good sense that flowed from and supported it, both of which
     had to be, and have been, dismantled and rearticulated in
     quite different ways.  Given this combination, then, of dis-
     integration below and regressive hegemonic re-integration
     from on high, the whole notion of what Gramsci called "war
     of movement," of deep structural and institutional change,
     has come to seem to many once-insurrectionary spirits to be
     inconceivably crackpot or even worse, a grisly ruse of the
     very Power (a la Foucault) it pretends to oppose; so that a
     permanent "war of position," the ever partial and
     provisional detournement of otherwise intractable
     institutional arrangements and practices, becomes literally
     the only game in town.
[4]       I describe this situation here not to deplore or
     criticize it, no more than I would claim to know how to
     resolve the questions of cultural politics that flow from it
     in some new transcendent synthesis of What Is To Be Done; it
     is, for better and for worse, the set of circumstances we in
     the developed West, and the U.S. in particular, are *in*.
     So it will be both the context from which we must think
     about the meaning and direction of the so-called "return" of
     noir during the '70s and '80s just past, and some of the
     newest mutations in the noir sensibility today.
[5]       For starters, moreover, we would do well to resist the
     very notion of straightforward repetition or "return" to
     explain such films as "Body Heat" (1981) and the remakes of
     "Farewell My Lovely" (1975) and "The Postman Always Rings
     Twice" (1981).2  For whatever noir was in the '40s
     and '50s, it will not be again three decades or more later
     by dint of sheer straightforward imitation, if only because
     the meanings and effects of the original %films noir% even
     today must still be experienced and understood in their
     relation to a whole system of film production, distribution,
     and consumption–the Hollywood studio system, in effect–
     which was in its last hour even then and is now gone.  As
     Thomas Schatz has recently reminded us, it was that system
     which most fully standardized and customized the look and
     feel and plotlines of film genres, from MGM classics and
     costume dramas to Warner's gangster pics and Universal's
     specialty in horror: some of them genres from which noir
     had something to steal (e.g., the deep shadows and
     expressionistic framings of the horror film), but each and
     all of them together a system of techniques, conventions
     *and*, not least, audience expectations (e.g., the romantic
     happy ending and/or the satisfying restoration of law and
     order) that noirs first defined themselves by violating.
[6]       Accordingly, when the studio system breaks up into the
     present "package-unit" system in which individual producers
     assemble production groups and materials on a film-by-film
     basis, employing what is left of the studios primarily as a
     distribution arm, and generic production atomizes too as the
     specialized constellations of talents and resources once
     fixed in position to produce it are dispersed, we may expect
     that the working parts of the noir machine of effects and
     responses will also break apart into so many free agents,
     capable of being drafted onto any number of new, provisional
     combinatory teams, all according to the same recombinant
     aesthetic economy which, for example, a decade ago brought
     us the TV series "Hill Street Blues" out of a directive to
     its original writers to knock out a combination of sit-com
     "Barney Miller" and the action-adventure series "Starsky and
     Hutch".3  In this newer Hollywood, quintessential site
     of the intersection between the flexible specialization of
     post-Fordist production and the free-floating ideologemes-
     turned-syntax of postmodernism, the transgressive energies
     and subversive formal practices that first animated and
     defined noir may be most alive and well where they have
     migrated from the now-conventionalized site of their first
     appearance towards some new and even perverse combination
     with other formal and thematic elements in similar drift
     from other ex-genres of film.
[7]       Such, at any rate, is the general hypothesis of the
     present essay, whose specific claim will be that %film noir%
     in particular, homeless now as a genre (or aesthetic
     reaction-formation to genre), nonetheless currently finds
     itself most alive where its former elements and energies
     form part of a new chronotope whose chief difference from
     that non- or even anti-domestic one of "classic" noir lies
     in the extent to which the newer one includes, and indeed is
     centered on, home and family, even as it decenters and
     problematizes both.  Through a look at two successful recent
     films, "Blue Velvet" and "Terminator 2", I mean to show how
     home and family are being destabilized, "noir-ized," in
     both: in which case, the large differences between our two
     films in terms of aesthetic strategies and audiences should
     only make the similarities in the end results of each film's
     processing of the elements of noir it takes up that much
     more striking and significant.  Striking in what way,
     though, how significant and for whom?  Connected to what
     other transformations and praxes, underway or to come?
     Those questions will raise their heads again on the other
     side of the following readings, forcing us again to hedge
     and answer them as best we can in the absence of any clear
     or shared utopian goal.

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© Mike Hartmann