New Year Noir.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how polite and cheerful everyone is to one another at the beginning of the new year. There’s a general sense of goodwill in the air. Cheerful greetings and good wishes for a happy new year are freely exchanged between strangers. People are even polite to people who work in the service industry. Maybe it’s the surplus of good cheer and glad tidings that gets built up over the holidays spilling over – or maybe it’s that collective ambition to have the new year produce a new, and better, you.
It’s a fresh start. This will not just be another year, this will be your year. You’ll start that diet. You’ll lose that weight. You’ll get that new job. You’ll finish that painting. You’ll learn how to foxtrot. You’ll quit smoking. You’ll go into therapy. You’ll get that boob job. You’ll find romance. So you can afford to be generous with your good will; you can magnanimously bestow glad tidings upon your fellow man, because this is not the old, crappy, neurotic, unambitious you, it’s the new, improved, driven, indefatigable you, standing at the dawn of a new era of personal growth and fulfillment, ready to step into a world of infinite possibilities and unlimited achievement.
I mean, look at me! I haven’t really so much as looked at this blog for over two years, and here I am writing a post as if this year I’ll faithfully and routinely update this space on a regular schedule, instead of whenever the mood strikes me and I’m not being strangled by depression and I can actually squeeze some words out about something that I find interesting, let alone something that all of you might possibly find interesting. As if I’ll take one of the 12 unfinished drafts that I’ve been fiddling with over the last year and finally get it ready to publish. As if.
It’s the as if that’s so brutal, you know. This was intended to be a blog about movies, but it’s also a blog about depression, and maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to avoid that part of it. I’m disgusted by the world and I hate myself and I find myself slowly shutting myself off from anyone I used to call a friend, and more, not really caring. People I used to think I’d die for just don’t matter to me anymore. That was my mistake. I’d have died for them. But I wouldn’t live for myself. So when I say these things (and think of this as a shift in perspective, I guess) I don’t see them as a negative. I see them as evidence of growth.
Yes, I’m actively trying to care about other people less. Giving a shit hasn’t really worked out for me long-term. Strange as it sounds, I’m trying to care less so I can be better myself. Exercise in futility? Misguided logic? Maybe. Maybe any logic that says we’re anything other than callous self-centered beings is misguided. Doesn’t stop us from trying, though, and that’s the great virtue and the great tragedy of the human race.
If anything drives the human race forward, it’s the unquenchable idea that we actually can be our better selves, the one that we return to at the start of the new year every new year, the one that sends us to gym memberships we’ll abandon in a couple of months and smoking resolutions that we’ll abandon in a couple of weeks. We try. We see the goal just there, so close that it seems that if we only reach out a little further, try just a little harder, by whatever means necessary, we can be our better selves. We need that. It’s good for us. One of the many things that Tyler Durden was wrong about is that self-improvement is masturbation. In fact, quote the opposite is true – it’s wallowing about in the comfortable lie of the inescapability of your neuroses that is the true act of existential masturbation. Striving to be your better self is a boon to everyone around you. You’re the only one who thinks your crappy self is anything other than crappy.
But you’ve got to be realistic about it. Rocky Balboa didn’t go into the ring thinking that he’d win against Apollo Creed and take the championship belt from him. His ambition was a little more grounded and achievable: He just wanted to not get knocked on his ass and embarrass himself on TV. Rocky’s real victory was making it to the top of the stairs. At that moment, he had nothing left to prove. He knew everything he needed to about himself. He wasn’t just a low-level criminal and a washout. He found his better self. Of course, Hollywood can never just let a good ending stand for itself, so we had to get a sequel that actually diminishes the message of the first film with the fantasy wish fulfillment ending that was originally denied the audience. But that first film, taken on its own, actually is quite inspirational.
And I say that even though I don’t really tend to find sports films very inspiring. Winning the State Championship or the gold medal or the bowling trophy is such a fleeting moment of victory. Self-improvement is so much more work than that. Work that you fail at. A lot. You don’t get a shiny medal and then stop – and you wouldn’t want to be that guy, anyway, the one who has a high-school All-State trophy on his mantle that he thinks makes up somehow for the downward slide he’s had since then, as if one moment of glory and achievement can justify a lifetime of slack and indolence. No, it doesn’t work like that. You keep trying, day after day, week after week, struggling with your crappy self, hoping that you’re better than you think you are, striving to find out. It’s not an end goal, it’s a continuing process.
No, I don’t care for most sports films, and I absolutely hate most of the films that people think of when they think of inspirational films, those idiotic stories that try to convince you that if you squint hard enough and think of God, everything will turn out okay in the end. But maybe I’ll approach this new year as if I’m in a noir.
I actually do find a lot of noir films inspiring. Some people think that noir is a celebration of darkness, but it isn’t. Not really. The best noirs are about people who are surrounded by darkness and fighting to get out of it. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they trust the wrong people. I did that a lot, still do, but I’m working on trusting people less. The less you trust, the less you get hurt. And in a noir, putting your trust in someone who doesn’t deserve it can get you killed.
Sometimes they they bad choices and do things for the wrong reasons and get trapped. But they try. If you stay grounded, you just might come through okay. You gotta avoid the classic pitfalls:
Give in to pie-in-the-sky ideas and you’ll get trapped.
Trust the wrong person and you get hurt.
And wallowing in your darker nature will get you killed.
Just like in real life.
The cinematic graveyards are full of noir characters who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, try to be better than they were. Bad people, and stupid people, and people who trust the wrong people meet a bad end in the world of noir.
But as unforgiving as noir can be to the unredeemable guilty, it can show great favor to those sincere about their self-improvement. Noir films go to great lengths to illustrate that the path to surviving life is trying to be better than you are. You certainly can’t just go around indulging every dark, nasty little whim that pops into your head:
Like life, it’s not about whether or not you get there. It’s about making the honest effort. It’s not even about crime and punishment, like in one of those corny square crime pictures with a message. Noir rewards effort. Noir rewards watching your own back. Noir rewards trusting no one. More importantly, noir understands that we are fallible creatures, that anyone, even the best among us, can make a misstep. It’s what you do after you slip up that defines how you’ll end up – in the gutter riddled with bullets, or walking unsteadily into the light of a new day.
Fight hard enough against the darkness and you can literally get away with murder.
Just ask Tom Ripley.