HC 421H: Shadow America, or the Philosophy of Film Noir

Professor: Casey Shoop

4.00 credits

• CRN 43609: (7/20-8/16) Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday, 10:00-11:20, Remote


Between the end of the Great Depression and the height of the Cold War, a spate of new films gave cinematic form to the dark and seamy underside of American life. French critics coined the term noir to describe these works, but what does it name exactly: a style, a genre, a mood, a form of social critique? Our course will attempt to measure the shifting shapes of this amorphous shadow thrown across the middle of 20th-century America. When we peer together into these shadows, what do they reveal and conceal to our gaze?  From The Big Sleep  (novel 1939, film 1944) through Touch of Evil (1958) and beyond, we will explore the extent to which these films constitute a coherent philosophy of modernity during this period. How do these films and texts articulate a vision of individual agency within the confines of abstract, even fateful, systems of power? What is the comportment of these bodies on the screen and why do they seem so often to live on the very edge of existence?  Is there a phenomenology of film noir? Alongside the films, we’ll consider not only film theory from Bazin through Zizek, but also the ways in which these films constitute a homegrown philosophy in their own right that resonates with thinkers from Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre through Jacques Ranciere and Robert Pippin, among many others. Careful attention to the historical context of these filmic and literary texts will also broach crucial questions about race, class and gender operations at work in film noir and the period more broadly. We will end the course by thinking about the persistence of noir into the present through the neo-noir films of David Lynch, the Coen brothers, and others.