Film Noir Series: Brick (2005) and Conclusion

by tigermanifesto

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One of the more memorable characters from Rian Johnson’s film Brick is Kara, played by Meagan Good. She is an actress with her high school’s theatre company, and as such is always seen under a layer of makeup and costume. Each time she wears a different costume, from a cabaret outfit to kabuki getup. What’s remarkable, however, is that the film takes place over several days, making it truly absurd to think that she is going to perform in that many productions. Her presence is not only somewhat ridiculous, but also a sign of how arch we have gotten in the latter days of noir. Where Body Heat and Blade Runner took noir to more decadent and dystopian areas, respectively, Brick feels like a highly elaborate high school theatre production of a noir, possibly directed by Max Fischer.

The central conceit of Brick, as you might have guessed, is that it takes a noir hardboiled detective story and transplants it into a high school setting. Our private eye is a jilted teenager named Brendan Fry (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), eternally truant and prone to spout torrents of 30s-esque slang. When his former girlfriend is killed, he plunges into the world of underage drug trafficking, sniffing the trail until it leads him to the Kingpin–just “the Pin” for short–who lives with his mother in a somewhat grungy 1960s-era suburban house but manages to run an elaborate, militant drug ring from the basement. His various affectations, including a suave coat, walking cane, and a desk with an ugly fishbowl perched on it, are rendered ridiculous the moment we see his mother serve him a freshly baked cookie or hear him rave about how great Tolkien’s descriptions are. He is played by Lukas Haas, who along with Gordon-Levitt is one of the few actors to come off as both absurd and strangely natural. Many of the other characters are merely the former, which makes the film feel more like a training exercise than a real film.

At the same time, I don’t want to denigrate it too much. There are some genuinely exciting scenes and Johnson’s low-budget style, which recalls the zoom-heavy 1970s, charges the film with enough energy to stop it from grinding to a halt. While I don’t think its archness benefits the story, it has strong enough stakes to keep the audience engaged. Its somewhat uncritical absorption of film noir tropes, however, makes it oddly retrogressive when it comes to politics, especially gender politics. It truly does come off like a story that should have been told several decades ago, and its failure to adequately question the genre’s traditional relegation of women to supportive good girls and black widows is a painful drawback–one it seems to share with the other two postmodern noirs we’ve seen.

Of course, it is obviously self-conscious of the tropes it is employing. Its female characters are pushed into the static categories of film noir not because of some malice or reactionary politics–one would hope–but because it is hewing faithfully to a certain narrative pattern. Why is it doing this? My guess is that the director genuinely likes noir and wanted to make a contribution to the genre, but used the high school angle to add a new twist to the hoary narrative skeleton he is using. This kind of uncritical appropriation, in which the past becomes an undifferentiated mass that can be “sampled” in order to arouse emotional responses in cine-literate audiences, is typical of postmodern filmmaking and not particularly progressive. The results can be outright reactionary, and at times one wonders whether this layer of nostalgic Vaseline filmmakers smear over old stock stories is present because of a lack of historical understanding. Noir just becomes another signifier, another old box of symbols we can drag out of the attic and air out time and again, mixing and matching eclectically to make it “new” each time. The problem is that the ideology and politics (especially sexual politics) of noir are rarely interrogated to their core. Of the films we’ve seen up to this point, Chinatown is the only one that manages to scrape the surface of this problem, and considering that its director is a statutory rapist on the run from the law, I don’t know if we should turn to it for any kind of insights into how noir can be freed from its dependence on patriarchy.

In many ways, noir has the potential to unleash progressive aesthetic and political energies from filmmakers who work with it. Its traditional suspicion of American capitalism, its abrasive cynicism about the bourgeois “American Dream,” and its grim picture of how society has ossified and degraded under the cannibalistic control of the ruling class are all noble and could be channeled into truly revolutionary art. Because the genre is unrelenting in its male-centredness and, to a lesser but surprising extent, Orientalism, it exhibits a contradictory character that only makes sense when you consider it within the broader context of American bourgeois society. Being films made by men and about men, the male experience defines the horizon of most noir pictures, thus limiting the expressive potential of an “orthodox” retelling of the same old theft, sex, and murder stories.

These films are diagnostic, not curative, showing us the underworld as both entrancing and morally reprehensible, ultimately destined for exposure and destruction. Or, as the later films seem to say, maybe not. But I believe that these films fall on one wrong side of the equation or another. With noir, either corruption will be checked and gradually fought by the noble ones or there is no hope and the forces of evil will overwhelm. Far better, I think, to say that we need to understand where these oppressions and paranoias originate– certainly not from blonde sirens–and how they might be ended. If there is a truly Communist film noir, I have not yet seen it. That said, this remains one of the more exciting and aesthetically developed Hollywood styles, and is worthy of study if only for its unusually clear-eyed assessment of how bleak and bankrupt the bourgeois male world is.

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