Shiralkar: A brief mystery of noir

Columnist Parth Shiralkar discusses the beauty of noir films. 

Parth Shiralkar

A little birdie once told me that French accents sound cool — the language itself is also soothing in a curious way. With the weather in Ames slowly gliding into the gloomier adjectives, the vibes have also gotten murkier, darker. Though it is meant to be springtime, it has been proven time and again that the clouds over Story County have a mind of their own. After 9 p.m. local Central Daylight Time, it’s all very noir-like.

I love writing about darker themes with an underlying existentialist idea of meaninglessness. It’s all very bleak, but it has a niche market that can be tapped into. In the early 1940s, French audiences took to this idea rather swiftly. The word “noir” translates literally to “black” or synonyms of “dark.” After WWII, for the first time after American films could be played in French theaters, people were surprised to view the darker, more disturbing side of American cinema. Critics called it “film noir” — the kind of mysterious, hardboiled American crime fiction that was popularized by Hollywood blockbusters like “The Maltese Falcon.”

James M. Cain’s short novel “Double Indemnity” tackles similar venomous views of living in a postmodern world. As finals season draws nearer, I see similar outlooks developing within my peers — why, even myself. It’s important to enjoy these things as they come along, I think. Like the trenchcoat-sporting private eye with an affinity for first-hand cigarette smoke and sketchy downtown characters, there’s a certain allure to the dangers of group-presenting a set of slides that each group member has glimpsed only once.

Some of the best noir films manage to mix the loss of innocence, less-than-heroic central characters, a moral ambiguity that portrayed the disconnect of the individual from society — more modern movies like “Drive” (2011) and “L.A. Confidential” (1997) use modern stylistic elements to showcase themes in a similar vein. Even neon- and synth-heavy science fiction like “Blade Runner” can be classified under some sort of neo-noir filmmaking.

It does appear, however, that “noir” by itself has no concrete definition in terms of aesthetic aspects. The ability of noir cinema to invoke feelings of thrilled discomfort is perhaps only one of its essential qualities. According to esteemed film critic Roger Ebert, there are many elements that are integral to noir — black and white lighting, shady taxi drivers whose presence only helps carry the impending feeling of doom and so on.

But maybe noir doesn’t have to be all Gauloises and guns. In fact, here in downtown Ames, a new bar opened just this month — Noir is a club with a jazzy feel and a penchant for bourbon with cool names. Maybe “noir” has to do with the low-key tones of a tired night, unwinding with a glass after class. Maybe the antihero is, after all, life itself. Stay hydrated.