Nickelodeon Noir

Mixing and reinventing genres is the fuel for some of the best movies, these days. It is a productive way to cope with the postmodern dilemma: combine clichés to formulate new ones. It is also a very delicate process that must be done with care for themes, style, and narrative conventions. Unlike the neo-noirs of the 1970s – The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, Taxi Driver – which preserve the stylistics and themes of Classic Hollywood noir long enough to toy with them and collapse them, Brick borrows the narrative conventions of classic noir without engaging in its discourse. To be fair, Brick is a teen noir, mixing noir with the teenpic genre, and so it ought to be thought of alongside films like River’s Edge and Blue Velvet.

River’s Edge is about what happens when you combine Gen X apathy with a murder plot. What you get is a sinister tone that is ripe with irony, but the effect depends on the film’s insistence on taking itself (relatively) seriously. Brick, on the other hand, can’t decide if it is a serious reinvention of noir or a parody. It’s one thing to mix genres, but mixing drama and comedy in such a way is rather like mixing black and white.

If Brick suffers from an inconsistent tone, it truly fails with regard to theme. Film noir, but especially the detective film (a subgenre), is almost always about seeing: what it means to see things correctly or incorrectly. The detective’s search for clues becomes a metaphor for the film viewer’s search for meaning. Blue Velvet understands and makes use of this theme expertly, choreographing elaborate scenes of Hitchcockian voyeurism, and presenting a protagonist whose drive is to see both the facts of the case and the “facts of life” properly. Not to mention, a villain whose main directive is, “Don’t look at me!” It is as if things, when not looked at, do not exist. And so we must look at them – movies, murder – ugly as they are.

Brick avoids this theme in toto. Rather, it preserves completely classic noir’s myth of the femme fatale and the male gaze. Whereas a movie like Chinatown uses the femme fatale to suggest that women are actually the victims of male fatales, Brick uses the device with no reexamination. Brick’s protagonist is a smart kid who gets involved in a corrupt teen underworld in order to save the girl he loves. To save her from what? Surely, from the same disease that all women eventually fall prey to: vampism. That is, impurity.

But maybe the biggest problem with Brick is that it feels less like an examination of genre and more like the film noir episode of Dawson’s Creek. After all, the most apparent noirish characteristics in the movie are the most shallow elements of the genre: there is a murder, there are clues, a central male protagonist who is sent from one source to another, and worst of all, there is snappy-talk. That is to say, a strange and unsatisfying hybrid between the stylized dialogue in classic noir and Heathers slang, which winds up sounding like beat-speak.

And what of style? From noir, Brick takes some lighting cues. There is one scene in particular with a harsh stream of light that Joseph Gordon-Levitt deflects with a mirror. It is difficult to say what Brick takes from the teenpic since it is difficult to identify if in fact the teenpic has an aesthetic – close-ups and shot-reverse-shot, certainly. Mostly, Brick uses the stylistics of TV. Punches are thrown with MTV-style changes of speed, the sound effects are cartoonishly volumous, and most disturbingly, the narrative is moved along at a pace of unnecessary speed. I am all for the kind of economy and concision that Spielberg and Lucas taught us in their early years, and which the Coen bothers commonly echo (no doubt, in homage to the great master of concise storytelling, Preston Sturges). But not at the expense of moments.

By moments, I mean instances of quiet, often silent revelation, on the part of characters and viewers. TV shows have always shunned such moments because TV is rigidly scheduled, at the mercy of the networks and advertisers. In an age when movies and TV become more and more alike by the minute, it is important that cinema retain one of the last remnants of its medium specificity: its moments. Brick’s plot might have made more sense – that is, if there is sense to be made from it – if we could have watched the characters as they realized each plot point. Even Spielberg recognizes the importance of moments, usually depicted by the zoom in/dolly out trick. Brick has no moments.

I don’t feel it necessary to discuss the film’s plot since the plot seems to exist only to allow the viewer to become sufficiently confused enough to forget the details and enjoy whatever pleasure there is to be found in the (pointless) genre fusion. Besides, as evidenced by Donnie Darko and Napoleon Dynamite, coherent narratives are so yesterday.