The Eternal Return of the Dark Past

Neo-noir, its downfalls and its triumphs in Rian Johnsons Brick

Neo-noir, its pitfalls and its triumphs in Rian Johnson's "Brick"

American cinema has been going to darker and darker places with the high school institution since the nineteen eighties tried to pass it off as a funland of pretty people and carefree antics. John Duigan’s Flirting (1991) wanted to give the trope of high school romance the proper tragic angle of which Shakespeare found it so deserving. Todd Solondz’ Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) introduced a genuine savagery to the picture that had not really been seen outside of horror films (Brian De Palma’s Carrie trumps all cards in this regard). The Virgin Suicides (2000) upped the ante considerably by portraying High School and the years of adolescence as an oppressive Hell. However, it took until 2005 and an under-experienced independent filmmaker named Rian Johnson for high school to finally undergo marriage to that cinematic pinnacle of bleakness and despair that exploded onto Hollywood in the forties. Brick, the film in question, is exactly what people say it is: a teen film noir.

The film tells the dirty story of Californian teenagers who seem to exist adrift in a sea of guideless tension, completely void of adult involvement or assistance, hardened and wise to even the most vile acts of human nature. Johnson is not pulling any punches with this premise – his kids are all very real, damaged and dangerous people, some of them capable of murder, and one of them (loner anti-hero Joseph Gordon Levitt) capable of intense psychological warfare, the stakes of which are simply deadly.

The tricky thing about contemporary noir is that it can never help but be played for gimmicks. Brick is hardly spare on stylistic clichés – take this piece of expositional dialogue from the high school informant, ‘Brain’, which I assure you is no more or less stylized than any piece of dialogue in the film:

The Pin pipes it from the lowest scraper to Brad Bramish himself, maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin. But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said “Show your hands” if any of them’ve actually seen The Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets.

You see what I mean, I’m sure. In fact, the only dialogue in the entire film that even sounds remotely like high school is the recurring motif of lunch-eating locations. Even this is very knowingly used as a monumental piece of irony. Despite this, the film retains a certain integrity. There are other contemporary noirs that are far worse offenders.

Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City (also released in 2005) is the richest example – it is a piece so saturated in noir style, noir sensibility, noir characters and noir plots that it surpasses even the classic noir films themselves, becoming a heightened postmodern orgasm of homage and cinematic recognition. Its main problem, however, is easily identifiable. It exists in a vacuum, allowing for only the most convoluted and (I say again) postmodern of cultural readings. Sin City was made because noir is cool; it looks cool, it sounds cool, it feels cool and that coolness is the film’s sole driver.

Brick doesn’t crack the code of neo-noir greatness, but it comes pretty close, in much the same way that Chinatown (1974) and Croupier (1998) did. It justifies itself purely on the strength of its conviction that noir remains relevant; that it has something new to say about the sentiments that the noir phenomenon was built on; that something about combining early 21st century high school life with America’s darkest cinematic hour is fundamentally right and fruitful.

And it’s hard to argue against that, because Brick’s visceral impact is somehow untouched by its gimmick and its postmodernity, somehow unfazed by the stylistic collision to which we have born witness. There is something very coherent and very powerful about the gut reaction that I had to the film. The world Johnson shows us is outrageous and implausible, but it’s mesmerizing, and while we realize he is going over the top in his depiction of modern teen life, we also realize he is not really going that far over the top. Today’s kids don’t act, talk or even think like the kids in Brick, but I believe cinema has always been the process of society dreaming, and as many a Freudian will tell you, dreams are full of metaphors and other such associations. To appreciate why this film works, you have to look at what this heavy stylization is getting at. Do the teenagers of post 9/11 America feel a deep, noir-esque sense of disillusionment and shocking worldliness? Do they feel unsafe in their schools, as though they are capable at any second of becoming either a victim or perpetrator of violence? Do they feel as though parents, teachers and police are irrelevant? Yeah, I think they probably do.

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~ by baileysmith on October 23, 2008.

3 Responses to “The Eternal Return of the Dark Past”

  1. And another thing: After proof-reading a draft of this post and giving a wee bit of critical feedback, good friend and fellow Wonderbread editor Martin Kingsley told me that he wanted to hear a little bit more about the post 9/11 teen culture that I flippantly mention in the final paragraph. I pretty much just told him what I thought about this, and he instructed me to copy and paste my comments into the piece, because they were what he wanted to hear. I thought that might interrupt the structure (as loose as it is) of the article though, so I’ve simply put them below, as a post script.

    My prompted thoughts on Sep. 11:

    I think it’s affected youth in the same way that every hostile political climate in American history has…Cold War, Vietnam…only difference is I think today’s youth is just more well-informed and more desensitized, simply because of where they are in history. We’re at a stage where nothing much is taboo or kept from kids…there’s an openness to American culture now that is neither good nor bad…it just is.

    And I think teenagers are generally always the go-to group when you’re after the effects and status of any given culture, because they are both impressionable and impressive and they are the signifier of where the next generation is going.

  2. […] Johnson’s 2005 indie-film Brick, also, is set in ever-sunny early ’90s California, and thus bears almost none of the […]

  3. […] Johnson’s 2005 indie-film Brick, also, is set in ever-sunny early ’90s California, and thus bears almost none of the […]

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