Destabilization: Noir and Deleuze

In an interview, Deleuze states his belief in the need for a separation between the commercial and truly creative cinema.   “Bad cinema always travels through circuits created by the lower brain: violence and sexuality in what is represented—a mix of gratuitous cruelty and organized ineptitude.  Real cinema achieves another violence, another sexuality, molecular rather than localized” (“The Brain is the Screen” 367).  Although classic noir undoubtedly fits into the ‘bad cinema’ category for Deleuze, the unnerving psychological states depicted on screen as well as the ones instilled in the viewer seem characteristic of the task of creative cinema.  “A work should bring forth the problems and questions that concern us rather than provide answers.  A work of art is a new syntax, one that is much more important the vocabulary and that excavates a foreign language in language” (370).  Obviously, noir does nothing to subvert the narrative arc of classic cinema, but it would still seems to be capable of achieving this ‘other violence’ that Deleuze requires of creative cinema, in that the viewer’s “psychological reference points are removed” (Borde and Chaumeton, “Toward a Definition of Film Noir”).

The protagonists in noir are usually involved in uncovering unknown aspects of their personality.  Think of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, who is an honest man all his life, then after meeting Phyllis, becomes capable of murder.  Characters get dragged into a seedy underworld in which the most shocking secrets they uncover are within themselves.  In outlining the difference between morality and ethics in Spinoza, Deleuze explains, “…you do not know beforehand what a body or mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement, a given combination” (Spinoza: Practical Philosophy 125).  In a state of becoming rather than being, an identity does not define action, by actions form identities.  Where as morality is predetermined and is merely followed through, an ethics unfold differently depending on the situation.

Of course, in mainstream movies, whether noir or thrillers, the objective of shock should be examined.  Deleuze explains that  “…No real art tries to create or exhibit a product in order to correspond to the public’s expectations.  Advertising can shock or try to shock because it responds to an alleged expectation.  The opposite of this is an art produced from the unexpected, the unrecognized, the unrecognizable” (369).  Where classic noir may fall short of a Deleuzian concept of creative cinema, Lynch seems to provide an example of the ‘unrecognizable’ in his neo-noir Lost Highway (1997), especially in his communication of time.  Although classical noir may subvert the expectation of more traditional film, it still does not escape the movement-image and retains a mostly strait-forward narrative arc.  Lost Highway, on the other hand, especially the first forty minutes, depicts the ‘new image’, which emphasized optics and sound over action.  “…[I]f everyday banality is so important, it is because, being subject to sensory-motor schemata which are automatic and pre-established, it is all the more liable, on the least disturbance of equilibrium between stimulus and response…suddenly to free itself from the laws of this schema and reveal itself in a visual and sound nakedness, crudeness and brutality which make it unbearable, giving it the pace of a dream or a nightmare” (Cinema 2 3).  This for me exactly describes the first section of Lost Highway, in which Fred and Renee navigate the interior of their house.  Although there is violence, the unsettling mood is established more through the tension between violent action and Lynch’s meditative camera work.

Hilary Price


One Response to “Destabilization: Noir and Deleuze”

  1. Saishigo Says:

    Hilary, your remarks on the ethics of noir are interesting and might be developed further in future work. I’m not sure though about your claim that classical film noir generally or totally falls into the “bad cinema” that Deleuze refers to. One aspect of film noir that interests me is the way the influence of German expressionism results in an exteriorization of interior states and how this transforms, from within, the qualities of cinematic space; producing a type of warped space if you will. In this way at least – as well as in terms of ethics as you’ve mentioned – we find film noir developing along a somewhat different path from traditional mainstream cinema. Having said this, there is little doubt that Lynch’s work takes this aspect of noir much further. I agree here too that the first 45 minutes or so work the best.


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