Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bangkok Eyes piece on the Bangkok Noir Movement

Bangkok Noir - Not so Black and White
Noir - as applied to the arts - is a word, a genre, a movement that even many of the purveyors of same find hard to define.   And when it is applied to our local version, "Bangkok Noir", it sometimes becomes impossible to get a clear answer as to what the term encompasses.   However, the one universal, inescapable element is it's link (to whatever greater or lesser degree) to the "Bangkok Night Scene"... 

Noir is simply "black" in French and is as old as the Modern French language.   However "Noir" as applicable to an art genre, a school of Expressionism or, say, a "movement", goes back to exactly 1946 when French critic Nino Frank first coined the term "Film Noir".   He used the term to describe certain Hollywood films of that era that, generally, were typified by stark cinematic production, a harsh realism -often with bleak "Gothic" backdrops- whose cynical, jaded characters were caught up in edgy, often sinister plots. 

Chris Coles - seemingly channeling the German Expressionists, yet all the while capturing the realities of Bangkok's neon and black light Night scene.
In the decades since Frank coined the term, the 'intellectual' debate has continued to boil over as to whether Film Noir is a true genre, or is it, perhaps, a mere meld of earlier German Expressionist cinematography and "Gothic Fiction?  Or is it just a twist on the old fashioned "melodrama"?   Or is it some other derivative or hybrid?   Nevertheless, in spite of it's myriad detractors, Film Noir has survived not only the onslaught of criticism, but the test of time - not even those holdout cinematic / literary Luddites are able to ignore, or pretend they do not understand what is meant by "Film Noir".

20-20 night vision :   Ralf Tooten - photographer, chronicler, capturing Bangkok's midnite-till-dawn denizens...
It is relevant to note that early 20th Century Film Noir cinematic productions were, almost exclusively, deemed to be "noir" long after their appearance in theaters - those producing these films did not consider themselves Film Noir directors, producers, etc.   This includes many films that were made prior to Nin Frank's coining of the phrase.   Some examples of those very early black and white films now considered to be classic Film Noir are Private Detective (1933), and the erstwhile "horror classics" Dracula (1931) and The Mummy (1932) whose "noir" production values and command of "mood" are worshiped to a greater extent than the tales of fright themselves.   It follows, and comes as no big surprise that the "hard-boiled" detective fiction of Raymond Chandler (Phillip Marlowe stories) and Daschell Hammet (Sam Spade) were made into movies - and that these films have been, in turn, and in due time, referred to as Film Noir

Frank Miller's superb modern day Film Noir classic Sin City - spawned from his Dark Horse Books graphic novels.   
And there is valid reason for not rushing forward to dub a film with the label "Film Noir".   A motion picture was, is, and always will be judged by how we 'see' it in the morning, and what we think of it next week, or watching it again years from now. It is not just a simple sum of it's parts.   It is not enough to make a film in harshly lit black and white, with borderline characters entangled in a story of intrigue and hardship and deception with a less than 'happy ending' and then say, "This is Noir".   While Film Noir is not a "psychological drama" per se, it shall behoove the director to create the psychological backdrop which, in turn, must create the dark "mood" in the viewer / reviewer.   Film Noir therefore exists in the viewer, not on the screen.   This being said, it would be presumptuous in the extreme for a creator of such works to self-proclaim, "I have produced Noir". 

As if to validate it's own raison d'etre, "noir-ness" (if I can invent a new word) has not stayed in film - in the example of Chandler, Hammett and other "hard-boiled" authors, works which spawned several Films Noir are often in turn categorized as "noir" themselves.   Again, in retrospect, another such example is the dark, dime novels of the 1930's whose fringe-sociopath protagonists (as typified by The Shadow and it's several imitators), have since come to be classified as a part of the "noir" genre.   As have many of their (natural) successors; today's Graphic Novels (Sin City comes to mind most handily). 

The Shadow, Walter B Gibson's prototype pulp fiction series was also a forerunner of today's Graphic Novel.   It was widely read in the 1930's, and was to influence many others' writings.   It has been recognized, in hindsight, as one of the early American 'noir' writings.
While all "noir" is derivative - and has grown out of, and from, Film Noir, it seems this concept - this genre - has far outgrown it's film origins.   This "philosophy of mood" has been employed not only to categorize film and graphic / printed literature but has more recently been applied to the arts of photography and painting.   The works of a given photographer are "noir".   The paintings of a given painter are "noir"

Which brings us back to the heart of the matter; today's Bangkok Noir "movement".   In that today's vision of "Noir" as expressed in the Bangkok Noir movement and the Bangkok Night Scene are invariably intertwined to a greater or lesser extent, Midnight Hor has been, and remains a keen observer.   One of our primary, and inescapable, observations is that this relatively recent movement is a coordinated effort by several of it's proponent 'authors' to create public awareness and a certain "mystique" about several of their works, paintings and photography. 

Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon introduced Sam Spade, the prototype 'hard-boiled' detective, to American literature.   He was to influence many other writers, up to and including today's.   His book -and others that followed, like Raymond Chandler's (Phillip Marlowe) stories- have been made into movies.   These films are viewed today as prime examples of Film Noir.
But putting aside any presumptuousness on the part of the current Bangkok Noir advocates, it appears that a select number of these pretenders to the "noir" throne will in fact "make it to the future" - at least with respect to their works being accepted as having contributed to the Noir genre.   And it can be said that there are others who appear to be along for the ride, hoping the Noir wave will take them all the way to shore.   And in fairness, it can also be said that the jury is still out on one or two others. 

We caveat that we have no special foreknowledge (our crystal ball being broken), and that our opinions are just that: opinions.   Nevertheless, in our view, we see three individuals who stand apart from the rest of the Bangkok Noir pack.   The most important shared attribute : they produce original works on Bangkok, and secondarily, they also maintain a realistic view of Bangkok's "other side" (rather than the all-too-common, all-too-cliched blanket-cynicism seen elsewhere in the marketplace). 

The aforementioned three are listed herein: 
One is an author : Christopher G.Moore
One is an artist : Chris Coles
One is a photographer : Ralf Tooten

We see these three individuals, and their disparate works 'holding up' - withstanding the test of time (without prejudice to other aspects of their works), and likely -sooner or later- to be viewed as Noir

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