Behind the Eight-Ball: Hardboiled Noir and the Existential Chinese Angle

to say goodbye is to die a littleI am really into Film Noir right now, so here are some of my thoughts on this.

If no one reads this, that’s ok; this is just me getting some thoughts out there.

I just finished watching two, very different, films in this genre:

Brick (with Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
The Killing (classic Kubrick film)

It’s amazing to see how the interaction between elements in each one is totally different, yet converges to a similar degree of uncertainty, a sort of ominous feeling that our “hero” has already lost, even before events untangle to their last consequences.

I cannot emphasize how important this last element is to the whole genre:
Our “hero” is already broken, he’s just trying to pick up the pieces of whatever it was that broke him.

I will focus on Brick, only because it struck a different nerve, one not usually stricken, at least not like this.

In the very first scene of Brick our young “detective” Brendan (played by Gordon-Levitt) stares at the dead body of a young dame*; we can only assume our cat* was dizzy with the dame* in question. This is it, there is no way to win here, no way to rate*, but he must get on with the lay* – as Marlowe would put it – and follow the trail, hear what the other cats and dames sing*, until the fat ankle* does what she does, and then, only then, after he crabs* what the pieces tell him, only then might he find rest, a wicked kind of rest, the kind that’s disrupted at night by the nightmares of what was lost and cannot be retrieved. But none of this is in his mind during the lay*. During the job he’s in some sort of limbo that consists of broken memories and a keen sense of the now, this is what allows him to keep going, this is why he won’t drop it: there is no future; he knows it… hell, he can even feel it; what follows is just what follows, and we can’t do a thing about it, but silently root for Brendan to find out who did this to Emily, and why.

What follows is full of what we want – what we need – from this kind of film: kids with decks* wearing iron*, a young canary*, one dish* to die for who knows her worth (as she claims in a song/poem during a fancy party, while playing the piano), a trustful wise head* sidekick/partner, a local kingpin, and a case involving more sharpers* than a pack of mouthpieces* at a convention in Las Vegas.

The twist? All of these guys are high school kids, and, you know what? It works, it totally works.

So yeah, let’s move to a Noir world for a while, and imagine ourselves in a world where we, as main characters, are as doomed as doom can be, but also, a world where we don’t care about it, where we can’t even think about it, let’s taste the flavor of doing something for nothing really, while dreaming of that dame to kill for, while we keep our grit, pushing towards that thing that awaits at the end of the road: our last, long, Big Sleep.

It’s damn worth it.

( Dictionary for *-marked words available at: )


The “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question from another perspective.

I guess it all depends on what “is” is? Doesn’t it?

The Dhalang

Gideon is sitting right next to a friend of his, whom we can call Mitra. We interrupt them in the middle of a conversation; the show had begun some time ago.

“… Arjuna is a prince, one of the Pandava brothers. Krishna, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is his charioteer,” we hear Mitra say.

The epic develops in front of their eyes; the Dhalang sits behind the white kelir, upon which the shadows of the wayangs are projected by means of the light coming from the blencong. 

“See how each has his own movement and way of speaking. This is the work of the Dhalang. Very clever man, very skilled”

“That’s the puppeteer, right?” asked Gideon.

The shadows keep moving, synched to the sounds of the Gamelan. A certain ethereal ambiance surrounds everything.

“Ah, yes, yes,” answered Mitra, “the Dhalang.”

The dream-like atmosphere feels enhanced by soft clouds of smoke.  We hear the metallic sound of the kepyak right before the Gamelan’s pace changes.

“He makes the voices and moves the wayangs,” we hear Mitra say, “He directs the Gamelan musicians. His job is to make us laugh and cry. Very clever man. The Dhalang is more than a puppeteer.”

After a pause, Mitra added “His skill makes us believe that we see a war between two great armies, but there is no war. There is only the Dhalang.”


(With special thanks to Grant Morrison, author of the original dialogue, featured in The Invisibles. January, 1995)

I think I don’t really know what I mean when I say that “Context Matters”…yet.

Context matters sounds like a banal platitude, a cliché, doesn’t it? Well, it might be…. but… as we are reminded by David Foster Wallace in his This is Water speech, sometimes a banal platitude hides the most important truths, truths that become invisible to us. These truths are so present that we forget about them, just like when you’re wearing your  most comfortable clothes.

Daniel Kahneman writes in an article published in December 2003 in the journal The American Economic Review:

Perception is reference-dependent: the perceived attributes of a focal stimulus reflect the contrast between that stimulus and a context of prior and concurrent stimuli.

I stopped reading that article right at that point. A question popped into my mind that I thought required a little bit more than a dictionary-lookup and a Wikipedia search…

What is the difference between reference-dependent and context-dependent?

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