Mining the Interminable: Noir’s Place in Film History and an Examination of CHINATOWN and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT
“Ideology follows the route of the popular.”
Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema: 1930-1980
Film history, however adaptive and transformative, isn’t without identifiable patterns. Millions of Hollywood deals have been made over the years with profit in mind, elites often stiff to understand certain appeal. One sure-fire way to profit is to work off the backs of established success, whether that be in the form of a sequel or even a continued venture in a particular genre. In the years following World War II, film noir was that genre, whether America knew it or not. It would eventually fall off in popularity with the rest of movies’ commercial-viability, seeing a resurgence in the form of neo-noir, not least launched by 1974’s Chinatown. Inspired by its technique and storytelling, a script for Who Framed Roger Rabbit would come to fruition in 1981, finding troubled studio development as it proved to be an ambitious live-action-animation and neo-noir romp. What will later be referred to as noir’s “nostalgic mode” has continued ever since. Noir, just as film history, demonstrates an impeccable flexibility and longevity that ultimately serves to meet consumer demand.
The mid-twentieth century had Hollywood bending to the will of changing times. There was a steady decline in consumer-interest after WWII, brought on by “government antitrust suits, federal tax laws to new forms of entertainment, and massive changes in American lifestyle,” the latter causing studios to invest in television (Schatz 4). Famed Hollywood honcho Ben Hecht delivered a eulogy for the film industry as its value progressively waned, claiming “Hollywood’s ‘big companies’ were staying alive only through the momentum and the motion pictures created in earlier years” (Schatz 4). MGM and Disney only produced a few “high-cost, high-yield pictures annually” (Schatz 11), not unlike their contemporary practices – in 2017, Disney released five films and only three came out of MGM. Leading studios have their own distinct styles they can fall back on and retread, as they’re “closely-related with market stew” (Schatz 11). A distinguished aesthetic or technique is seen as “no more than an inflection” on past studio style (Schatz 6); filmmakers either comply with the establishment or counter it, they’re always reactive. Any notable pattern within the industry developed over time and in direct compliance with the consumer (Ray 5).
Author Robert Ray regards “artistic conventions as the formal equivalents of myth … another embodiment and conveyor of ideology” (17). The pillars of cultural society can be accredited to myth. Myths denote similar flexibility as film and genre, adapted and deployed under aging circumstances. Movies are myths whose individual shapes arise from the “rules of transformation … a system that enables a message to cross a boundary and enter a new domain” (Ray 11). Film noir was very much a new domain, able to contextualize messages and stories baked in post-war anxiety.
French critic Nino Frank coined the term film noir, directly translated to “dark movie,” referring to the darkness of themes and visuals of American films in the mid-1940s (Luhr 21). Europe didn’t have access to films from the U.S. during WWII, so when post-war films were distributed overseas, they noticed a major shift in tone – particularly French critics. America wasn’t immediately hip to the term or as aware of the tonal shift because it was a gradual development. They saw it simply as an influx of “dark, hard-boiled” movies (Luhr 26), while the French described “a new, unexpected maturity in Hollywood films” (Luhr 14). The term film noir became widely-known and established in the 1950s. Repeated elements pervaded the genre, such as morally-ambiguous central characters, flashbacks, and subplots. Film noirs countered Hollywood norms of “narration, content, character construction, tone, representation, cinematography, and moral accountability” (Luhr 8). They reimagined “human psychology, gender relations, and social dynamics” (Luhr 21), subverting any viewer’s expectation and frequently violating the PCA’s Production Code. The genre is not a single entity, rather “a cluster of intersecting but often diverse styles, themes, ideologies, and practices” (Luhr 11). Subsequently, misconceptions about noir have formed over the years as the genre has expanded and transformed. For instance, jazz is commonly-associated with noir, despite its primary usage of orchestral music. Crime films are usually lumped into the genre without meeting the criteria as well, confining noir to hard-boiled detective films in spite of its vast array of key elements and characteristics that bleed into other genres. In the twentieth-century’s fourth quarter, these distorted memories were incorporated into film noir’s revival, neo-noir.
Neo-noir or retro-noir entered a “nostalgic mode.” “Canonical” noir – from the mid-40s to about 1960 – was set in contemporary times. Neo-noir films replicated the canonical by not only borrowing its style, but sometimes setting their stories in the past. “They employ technologies [e.g. live-action-animation] and representational strategies largely alien to canonical film noir, such as color cinematography, graphic violence, profanity, nudity, explicit sexuality, and nostalgia” (Luhr 12). The stylized color differentiated itself from the canonical era and matched brightly-colored magazine advertisements and photography of the time (Luhr 46). Neo-noir films’ stance on race, gender, and patriotism also differed. Canonical noir centered around privileged white culture and associated other nations with evil. This practice is typically inverted with neo-noir, as seen in Chinatown, a hallmark of the updated genre, which holds a mirror to corrupt white elites and political deception. Its commercial success made it a transitional film with regards to onsetting neo-noir, carrying many influences from the canonical era but “invigorating and transforming” the genre into something entirely new (Luhr 46). Released only two years after the Watergate scandal, viewers were increasingly-interested in seeing other backdoor shady deals uncovered. Set in the 1930s, Chinatown investigates an ongoing “water scandal,” in which the Los Angeles Water and Power Department mismanages the city’s water supply during a severe drought. Although it was a period piece, its themes tackled concerns of the day, the same way canonical noir dealt with post-war anxieties. The box office gross of The Godfather (1972) revitalized the gangster film, and Chinatown gave new life to noir, both majorly influencing films that followed such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).
The industry solution to satisfy “ironic and naive” filmgoers in the late 1960s and onwards was the “corrected genre movie” (Ray 327), the kind of film that could be multifaceted in order to have wider audience appeal. Roger Rabbit is a prime example of a genre correction. Its animation catches the attention of younger audiences, while its mystery and noir elements invite older audiences. Not to mention its story framework and aesthetic takes quite a few pages out of Chinatown’s book. Both are set in Los Angeles (’30s and ’40s), each lead detective is tormented by a past event somewhere in the city and returns there in the climax, the inciting incidents involve photographing an affair, the “femme fatale” expresses anger at but later hires the detective, and both plots feature corrupt land development – Chinatown’s Noah Cross owns the police, Roger Rabbit’s Justice Doom is the police. The similarities go on, but this is just one example of studios retreading former glory. “Hollywood repeatedly appropriates, defuses, and deploys thematic elements for entirely different ends” (Ray 15) … “[and consistently assimilates] formal devices initially conceived as critical departures” (Ray 17). Noir was once considered a major departure, but became successful enough to see an eventual revival after its rise and fall in popularity. The animation integrated into Roger Rabbit’s live-action required filmmakers to reconsider their technique, its ambition and rising cost worrying producers, but CGI in the twenty-first century has become commonplace.
During Roger Rabbit’s seven-year development, Steven Spielberg’s continued support helped move things along, co-producing it under his company Amblin Entertainment with Touchstone Pictures, a distribution label under Disney. Spielberg also helped acquire licensing for competing cartoon characters to appear together. Warner Brothers’ Daffy Duck and Disney’s Donald Duck, for example, could share the screen. It seems all too familiar, déjà vu of sorts, with Spielberg’s 2018 release Ready Player One that saw intellectual property from almost every major studio involved – another licensing nightmare. Another example of the past repeating itself is Kathleen Kennedy’s executive producer credit on Roger Rabbit, of which Kennedy is the co-founder of Amblin and current president of Lucasfilm, producing the recently-throned highest-grossing summer movie ever, Avengers: Infinity War (2018), garnering $600M domestically as of May 20, 2018 with no sign of dwindling soon. Avengers is one of the aforementioned “high-cost, high-yield” productions out of Disney this year, with the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story sure to keep the ball rolling on May 25. All of this contributes to the staggering trend of abundant franchises conquering the film market, and of course allows history to repeat itself thirty years after Roger Rabbit released. Figures like Kennedy and Spielberg existed in the earliest days of film, directors like Chaplin, Wilder, and Hitchcock in such high demand that studios could hardly hold authority. These industry moguls shape studio style, often peddling risk-free financial ventures in the form of franchise-milking, developing a consistency of content and quality in tune with consumer demand.
“Film history,” wrote Robert Ray, “is by definition interminable” (7). Like all that “Chinatown” entails for the detectives, “[c]inema, or any individual film, is massively overdetermined” (6). No film results from a single cause, there are always an array of factors to consider. Historians and analytical essays like this can nail down noticeable industry patterns, and finding commonalities between films can be an amusing pastime, but the fact of the matter is that there isn’t a single masterplot, no blueprint outlining every filmic transaction or artistic decision that is made. The evolution of film noir, to neo-noir with films like Chinatown, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s evident amalgamation of these influences is only one interesting development that transpired over half a century. Of utmost importance to the studios, there is a great deal of money at stake, and there’s no harm in keeping a few winning cards up your sleeve, ready to be deployed under any given circumstance, while the money train keeps on rolling.
Luhr, William. Film Noir. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Ray, Robert. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema: 1930-1980. Princeton Univ. 1985.
Schatz, Thomas, and Steven Bach. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
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