Arts of Darkness
From the darkness and into the light
By Steven Martinovich
Film noir has long enjoyed the hostility of cultural conservatives thanks to its perceived nihilism, criticism of the American dream and liberal politics. It is a loosely defined genre which is moral ambiguity defined and intertwines sex, or the risk and danger of it, and violence into every story. Even feminists have a bone to pick with film noir thanks to the femme fatale character type present in virtually every film.
Baylor University professor of ethics and culture and National Review film critic Thomas Hibbs argues in Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption that film noir is far more complex than those criticisms. Although they can be bleak and filled with anti-heroes, he argues, film noir was also a positive movement which featured its protagonists on spiritual quests for redemption. Film noir is actually a conservative-friendly film genre, writes Hibbs.
Film noir, argues Hibbs, is a reflection of the world we live in, a gift from the Enlightenment which made scientific rationalism supreme. Shorn from traditional authority structures like family and religion in favour of bureaucratized institutions, man finds himself bound to little and yet paradoxically less free. The protagonists of noir find themselves adrift but also controlled by scientific rationalism's promise of a society which will meet their every need through social science. Film noir is a reaction against the sunny but groundless optimism of the Enlightenment – that the world still exacted consequences for behavior.
Hibbs builds his case by employing French physicist and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal. Wrote Pascal in Pensees, "Knowledge has two extremes which meet; one is the pure natural ignorance of every man at birth, the other is the extreme reached by great minds who run through the whole range of human knowledge, only to find that they know nothing." It can certainly be argued that many of the protagonists in film noir begin with utter confidence and come to realize that their carefully ordered world is merely an illusion, more binding than liberating. Inquiry and penitence often begins their journey to redemption.
Pascal proved to be ahead of his time, writes Hibbs, when he argued that the human condition itself – faced with the problem of the "hidden God" – when combined with scientific rationalism, would lead to alienation, a facet of modern society that social scientists have been unable to deal with effectively. The characters in many examples of film noir are the personification of alienation, often confident in their strength and abilities but also unable to connect meaningfully with their surroundings and the people who enter their lives.
If a criticism can be made of Arts of Darkness is that Hibbs spends relatively little time discussing film noir itself and too much on its progeny, neo-noir and movies which have elements of film noir and the religious quest for redemption. While it doesn't weaken his arguments, the book would have been more satisfying had he spent more of his time examining both the major and minor classics, and even foreign examples to test the universality of his hypothesis, rather than delve into more modern films like Fight Club.
That is but a minor flaw of Arts of Darkness, which has successfully salvaged what was originally a neo-Marxist art form and turned it into something that most cultural conservatives can philosophically agree with. Infusing God and religion into film noir might strike many film buffs as oxymoronic but Hibbs shows that its leaders either inadvertently or directly argued that human soul is not dead and that redemption is still possible in a world designed to be carefully ordered, catalogued and filed away.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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