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A Dark Genre’s Enlightening Lessons

Last semester I taught an undergraduate course on crime noir, including films, radio programs, readings, and (of course) writing.

Upon reflection, I think there were five things that the students realized—“lessons” about this genre and perhaps even life—along with what I learned about my students...

First, noir is not a past-tense, old-school, has-been genre. Initially, many students thought noir meant black-and-white gangster movies (not that most of them had watched many such films). But they came to understand that the aesthetics and ethics of crime noir lives on, as in Batman’s stark views in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Second, sex and violence are a (big) part of what it means to be human—and it’s okay for young writers to explore about these topics in a college class when such storylines are integral, rather than gratuitous. We are embodied minds, conscious animals. And much of life in some manner has to do with our bodily passions—the craving for intimacy and pleasure, as well as the desire to avoid death.

Third, noir is timeless insofar as its stories unfold in the shadows of society, the margins where we relegate those who lack wealth and power. Students understand that cultural norms and social stratification shape their world. Noir will die when there are no longer people who are deemed unfit to ramble among decent, normal folks. In other words, noir is immortal.

Fourth, during this cultural period in which blaming others is rampant, the existentialist qualities of noir have genuine appeal. Rather than making excuses, one plays the cards that are dealt and owns the consequences. The world isn’t fair and we should do what we can to foster justice, but in the meantime students seem to be empowered by the challenges of acting with integrity and living authentically.

Finally, students understand that morality is complicated—neither authoritatively absolute nor vacuously relative, as some would have them believe. They grasp that theirs is a privileged and protected existence, but not merely in the way that “privilege” is thrown around as a contemporary epithet. Rather, in the way that George Orwell meant when he wrote, “People sleep peacefully at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Noir takes seriously the harsh reality that sometimes good people must do bad things for good reasons.

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