WHAT IS NOIR?
The information superhighway does its best to run in a straight line. A search for the word "hockey," will yield "puck.com"; searching for "weather" produces copious charts and myriad maps. Predictable. But throw a loaded word like "noir" into the query box, and suddenly this so-called super-highway has more twists and curves than the line for Space Mountain. "Noir" is certainly one of the most frequently used and misused terms in scholastic, artistic, and intellectual circles, and the Web proves no exception; a search turned up 1,664 sites that use the word in one capacity or another. But the diversity of these sites illustrates how ambiguous a concept noir really is. Despite all the explications and corruptions of noir that occur in coffee houses and classrooms around the globe, conceptions of the genre prove more bizarre and unexpected on the World Wide Web than anywhere else.
Before descending into the depths of internet weirdness, it's important to make a couple of distinctions. First off, about half of the responses to the "noir" web search were wine-related sites, dedicated to connoisseurs of the pinot noir vintage. Of the remaining 800 sites, maybe one fourth were French web sites simply using the word in its native context--for example "le rinoceros noir," an informative page dedicated to the black rhino. That leaves approximately 600 sites related to the conventional idea of noir, and of those sites, the majority were fairly ordinary, academically or intellectually-oriented pages, shrines to Bogart or Blade Runner, homages to Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy, comparisons of L.A. Confidential and Sunset Boulevard. Among this type of site there were only a few notable quirks. The "Noir City" chat room devotes itself to "bookselling, crime, guns, mystery, sarcasm, dames, and pez." Another, "Hard Boiled," has a direct link to "The Smoker's Homepage." A third impressively thorough noir site doubles as the homepage for the manager of American Dental Association Online.
After these relatively tame outposts of noir film and literature, things start to get a little bit shady. The music industry seems to have appropriated the noir concept quite vigorously. Carly Simon's album "Film Noir," a tribute to music from the 1940's, boasts an elaborate official homepage, complete with commentary from Billboard magazine. The less-mainstream Oregon group Duoglide offers up a "listening guide" for their "Song Noir" album, which they claim sounds like "cheap hotels, smoke, neon, martinis, and danger"; how they can produce this effect with two people and a banjo is a question for the ages. Another site features musical acts from the Vancouver area; this month keep an ear out for COAL, which claims to be the only "ethereal psychedelic western noir lounge act" around, perhaps because no other bands have any idea what the hell that means. And for the gritty, hard-core beach-boy in all of us, there's the Del-fi Records web page, home of original "spy-and-surf noir" bands like the El Camino's and The Deuce Coupes, and the only label with "slurpy, reverb-drenched" compilation albums, "each one a transgenerational compendium of prime slime teen sleaze." "Fun, Fun, Fun" never sounded so devious.
Of course, no internet search fails to turn up some smut. The "noir" web search lead directly to the "Leather Fetish Consensual SM Magazine"-- boudoirnoir.com--featuring the Boudoir-Noir Online Cafe, where leather fetishists can talk shop to their consensual hearts' delight. This site, which has recorded over 388,000 hits to date, also features a bulletin board advertising important upcoming events; the Leather Leadership Conference next month in New York may be the next big step in the national leather community's fight for freedom.
To contrast this domineering site there is the frilly British "BodyAware" web page, featuring the "Apres Noir" men's lingerie collection. This is a "just plain fun" assortment of "sumptuous panties, basques and stockings in beautiful colours, all designed and made just for men...from bank managers to builders." In the "Apres Noir" showroom, there is even a British to American English glossary to eliminate confusion when mail-ordering; apparently many men, when ordering a black lace merry-widow for that special occasion, do not realize that "gusset" and "crotch" mean the same thing. Despite the goofiness of it all, there is no denying here in these two male-oriented porno/home-shopping sites, we have an essential principle of noir--the conflict between the rough and the pleasant, between grit and gloss. It is a symbolic battle between the seedy underworld and the conventions of society, a clash between the deviant and the traditional. Do real heroes wear leather or lace?
From "Catwoman's Window Sill," we can catch a glimpse of yet another application of the noir label. Catwoman presents to the public, for the first time, her "Poem Noir" collection; it is her "darkest poetry ever! Enter at your own risk." In this verse which has "escaped the confines of [her] muse," we catch sullen moments such as the opening stanza of "Poem Noir I": "I'm in a bad mood/Fit to kill/One might say/Not that I would/Just don't give me a weapon." Perhaps not quite as arresting as Raymond Chandler, but at least killing things is a reasonably noir concept. Daring browsers can unmask this dark poet brash enough to call herself Catwoman simply by clicking on the little kitty, with anticlimactic results--Catwoman's portrait displays a homely sixteen-year old posing in front of a couple of butterfly stickers. Her frumpy red dress doesn't do much to complete the Cat motif either; a visit to boudoir-noir.com might be in order.
The award for the most bizarre response to the search for "noir" has to belong to "The Penmaster's Place." The eponymous Penmaster, who appears at the top of the page in his "human disguise," claims to be the self-appointed commander of a master-race of evil penguins who are in a constant guerrilla struggle to take over the universe. At first glance, this seems to be an elaborate front for a psychotic Pittsburgh Penguins fan, but in fact there are far more devious forces at work here. The Penmaster heralds the imminent reign of penguins, which he insists "do terrible, terrible things like fry people alive, and explode when you least expect it."
His credo celebrates the "Blanc et Noir" of the penguin; for the Penmaster, the coloring of this seabird potently symbolizes the noir struggle between good and evil. However, as interesting a symbolic figure as the penguin is, the Penmaster pushes the idea quite a bit further than a simple intellectual statement. He presents an annotated list of the "most evil penguins" on the planet; a "Penguin Update" for up-to-the- minute information on the penguin revolution; and a link to a "corporation" called "Penco," which offers "the best in penguin care products and penguin accessories." This company even has a very noir vision statement--"A penguin on every desktop, monitoring your every movement"--a definite allusion to the concept of surveillance, which is a fundamental tenet of the noir genre. Still, it's fair to say that at "The Penmaster's Place," the line between noir and nuts is seriously blurred.
If the World Wide Web is to be believed, anything can be noir: surf music, undies, poetry, even penguins. Maybe flexibility is the true magic of the noir genre. It is indeed hard to imagine a character more seedy, suspicious, dangerous, or elusive than the Penmaster.
noir (nwar), a. [F. noir.] 1. Heraldry. Black. rare.
1871 TENNYSON Last Tourn. 433 A shield Showing a shower of blood in a field noir.
2. a. The black numbers in the game of roulette.
1850 Bohn's Hand-bk. Games 348 The other chances are also designated on the green cloth.., 'le pair, le passe, et le noir'. 1928 M. CAROL How to play Roulette ii. 21 Among other divisions, or spaces for the stakes, you will find Passe, Pair, Manque, Impair, Noir, Rouge. 1939 T. KING Twenty-one Games to play for Money 31 Even chances are given when a stake is placed on:.. Noir, meaning any black number that turns up. 1964 A. WYKES Gambling ix. 215 The European betting table is divided into six areas labelled pair, impair, passe, manque, rouge, and noir (even, odd, high, low, red black). 1971 P. O'NEIL-DUNNE Roulette for Millions iv. 36 You may be regarded as socially inferior in French casinos, if you do not understand the following French expressions: Rouge: Red Noir: Black Impair: Odds [etc.].
b. The black colour in the game of rouge et noir (cf. rouge et noir s.v. ROUGE sb. 1 4).
1850 Bohn's Hand-bk. Games 343 The first parcel of cards played, is usually for noir, the second for rouge. 1850 [see INVERSE sb. 3]. 1928 M. CAROL How to play Roulette iv. 56 The even money chances are Rouge or Red, Noir or Black, Coleur [sic] and Inverse. 1964 A. WYKES Gambling vii. 171 (caption) The dealer lays out two rows of cards (le noir and le rouge) until each total 31 or more. Players bet that one or the other row will be nearer to 31 by placing chips on rouge or on noir.
noise, obs. Sc. form of NOSE sb.
The Oxford English Dictionary's definition leaves a little to be desired