Dark and, at times, amusing fiction from award-winning author Dave Zeltserman

Monday, August 6, 2007

Defining Psycho Noir

Since I've been using the term psycho noir a lot lately in interviews I think I should offer a definition for it, especially since psycho noir is a relatively new term that's been popping up mostly to describe movies like Blue Velvet, Fight Club and Memento where the protagonist is somewhat out of touch with reality.

As far as how it pertains to literature, especially for Jim Thompson's great noir books (Hell of a Woman, Savage Night, Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, etc.) I posted the following definition on my Hardluck Stories web-site when I was requesting submissions for my psycho noir issue:

"...where the protagonists perceptions and rationalizations are just off center enough to send them to hell."

The esteemable James Winter posted the following definition on his Northcoast Exhile blog, which I think spells it out pretty well:

"In psycho noir, the protagonist is, quite frankly, a scumbag, knows he's a scumbag, yet deludes himself that he is not."

My own first novel, Fast Lane, fits both of these definitions, and I think sits squarely in the psycho noir category.

As far as standard noir goes, I look at books like James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity" and "Postman Always Rings Twice" where the protagonist crosses a line and there's no turning--basically the equally esteemable Jack Bludis's definition of noir==screwed.

Anyone who has a different definition for psycho noir, I'd like to hear it. Also, let me know your favorite examples of it.


Anonymous said...

The Vengeance Trilogy:
Sympathy for My. Vengeance
Sympathy for Lady Vengeance
Old Boy

Also Memento is great
and Hard Candy

CYNEMA said...

I think you have the definition wrong. At least, not fleshed out enough. You are correct in saying PSYCHO-NOIR often includes a pretty nasty protagonist but this is not a sufficient distinction and it overlooks the primary reason for it's classification. PSYCHO-NOIR is primarily distinguished by presenting a story through the eyes of a protagonist who is out of touch with reality and/or cannot distinguish reality from a real/supernatural or psychotic experience. In fact, PSYCHO-NOIR is as influenced by HORROR (THE TENANT, CARNIVAL OF SOULS) as it is by NEO-NOIR (SEVEN, BLUE VELET). It would be a mistake to misinterpret the stuff as simply DARKER FILM NOIR.
Instead think of the difference between BLUE VELVET and MULLHOLLAND DRIVE/LOST HIGHWAY, both by DAVID LYNCH. The former is NEO NOIR, the latter are prime examples of PYCHO-NOIR. Another good distinction can be made b/w DAVID FINCHER's SEVEN, which is classic NEO-NOIR and FIGT CLUB which is certainly PSYCHO-NOIR.
Other noteworthy examples include, MEMENTO, THE VENGENCE TRILOGY, BLACK SWAN, IDENTITY, THE MACHINIST, LOST HIGHWAY, SECRET WINDOW and proto-types like VIDEODROME and JACOB'S LADDER. While it is true alot opf those films include a protagonit that has rationalized psychotic behavior to themselves, what is actually key is the way the film presents this behavior. The complex psychological puzzle is presented to the audience who can tell someting is very wrong as the protagonist tries to piece it together.
Until very very recently this is how the genre was defined n wikipedia as well, but it has suddenly dissappeared. Everyone I speak to about the genre seems to understand its implications as Ive listed them as well. It is very strange to find this definition.
The recent-ness of this terms useage is quite simply because it took many films within many genre to produce something like this. We had horror films like CARNIVAL OF SOULS and REPULSION and THE TENANT and then NEO NOIRS and ART HOUSE stuff mixed with some of the sexy thrillers of people like ADRIAN LYNE, who made JACOB'S LADDER (a key entry in the development of this genre) and that type of stuff mixed in with the LYNCHIAN universe and the PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS of the early 90's and then the indie movement and eventually the PSYCHO-NOIR became an Identifiabe genre.