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Noir AnxietyReview - Noir Anxiety
by Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo
University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Review by Irene E. Harvey, Ph.D.
Mar 8th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 10)

Using the grid of Freudian psychoanalysis, Oliver and Trigo examine a wide array of films within the genre of 'film noir.' In particular, the notions of condensation and displacement are used throughout the text in order to suggest that the logic of identity formation in virtually all of 'noir' is based on a process of exclusion, repression and the return of the repressed oftentimes in the form of violence, suicide or murder of the other. The work of Kristeva is brought into the mix through the notion of the 'abject' which is both prior to subject formation as the process of creating an identity (by exclusion) as a particular race, sex, gender, ethnicity and also as the never totally repressed otherness which always returns in one form or another.

The text is rich in detail as it offers up each film to the psychoanalytic sacrifice when it is dissected according to the grids and tools as named above and in turn demystified insofar as all mysteries, ambiguities and ambivalences and particularly anxieties are explained, so it is claimed.

The traditional techniques of film noir such as voice-over narration, flashbacks in time and out of narrative sequence, the props of the femme fatale and the wily detective, and the plethora of murders all fall into the condensation and displacement traps of analysis. This procedure is applied to such varied themes as east vs. west, north vs. south, the topography of space applied to that of the psyche such as rooms, cities, and transportation vehicles and modes, accents of the stranger or foreigner, bad jokes or jokes that fail in their structural mode pf presentation. In addition, the mother as missing and indeed as the missing piece which sets the violence of most of these films in motion is also analyzed along these same psychoanalytic lines.

What is not clear in these analyses however is just whose psyche is being analyzed or which level of production of these images is truly their origin. At times it is the protagonists that are trapped in these Freudian maneuvers, at other times it is the director or producer of the film and in yet others the writer. In all cases, however, it is claimed that the issues of race, sex, gender and ethnicity are played out as representations of these same societal issues. Exactly how the psyche and the social are linked is not thematized here and would add richly to the text if it had been. Instead this connection is simply assumed and yet this would make the unconscious a non-individualized phenomenon and this too is not addressed here. One of the few references to social context is made in the introduction where it is mentioned in passing that film noir was developed near the end of WW II and hence focused on certain issues such as 'the Negro problem' which were concerns of the day in the United States principally. Again it would seem that a social and political theory of the unconscious is required in order to have the individual and collective psyches meet or at least intersect.

Further, the grid of psychoanalysis itself is never questioned or challenged in this analysis. Instead we have a series of applications of structures to films that then are found to fall within these structures. However elucidating some of this depiction and unraveling of film noir is here nonetheless there is no film discussed which does not depict the theory. Thus are we to conclude that film noir is simply using psychoanalytic motifs as its modus operendi or that other films which do not fit this mold were not included. One could use the same identity formation logic of exclusion here on the subject formation of this text, perhaps.

Secondly, there is nothing discussed concerning the films which might be called an overdetermination of the theory presented. There seems to be no excess here where the film would extend in complexity or finesse beyond the structures of displacement, condensation, return of the repressed and the abject. This seems suspicious at best and an unnecessary censoring of aspects of the film noir productions such that other perhaps even competing structures or explanations are not presented.

The most troubling issue might be the assumption of the social context of social problems which is assumed within the psyche of the protagonist, film maker and writer all at once. This certainly seems a condensation of a number of contexts into one and perhaps a displacement of the abject -- those issues that are truly borderline and do not fit snugly within the categories used in this study.

These objections or concerns notwithstanding the portrayal of film noir through the psychoanalytic lens here is incredibly illuminating and suggestive and certainly does offer explanatory structures for what are often seen as uncanny or simply grotesque or sublime elements which are left nameless and intellectually homeless. Trigo and Oliver have certainly found homes for them but the fit may be a bit snug.


© 2005 Irene E. Harvey


Irene E. Harvey, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy at Penn State University


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