10/01/2017

Dog Eat Dog - Digital Noir

Thoughts On: Dog Eat Dog

An eccentric trio of ex-cons try to turn their lives around with a high-stake kidnapping and ransom job.


Dog Eat Dog is not a great film. However, it's a hard film to criticise as many of its poorer elements are bound to the story in a manner which is self-justifying. In such, the manic shifts in character, insane plot points, ridiculous sequences and overall nonsense come together to produce a perfectly constructed car crash. This makes the film, to a large extent, polarising. However, I don't think this is an exceptional film, nor a particularly bad one. I can completely understand someone not caring for this movie's eccentricities and so hating it. In the same respect, I can see someone loving this film for its mad-cap nature. I lean towards embracing the eccentricity, but certainly don't find an astounding amount of worth in it. The reason I like this film, however, comes down to Paul Schrader's direction and general design. He has a great control of form with this film and manipulates it to really project characters - Mad Dog especially. (Diesel on the other hand, whilst a key character, is a rather weak one). This control of form produces a few intriguing moments that imbue the film with the right tone, one of flippancy and disregard, which does pull you into the narrative. However, there is a greater, clearly intentional, depth to this design - and this is what I want to talk about today. To do this, we'll be delving into spoilers, so, despite this film not being particularly new, you've been warned.

From the nihilistic ending to the broken anti-heroes to the violence to the sex to Troy's constant references to Bogart and Hollywood golden age period movies, this is a film with roots and interest in the classic noirs...

      

We've touched on film noir quite a lot on the blog, and when its brought up, I usually don't have much that's positive to say. In short, I think the style of noirs are undeniably revolutionary and a quality that makes them deserving of their status. However, I've never liked the narrative approach of noirs. They're mostly stiff, bland, plot-centric and ultimately dull to me. Nonetheless, film noir is an incredibly influential genre or class of cinema. We see this best with the reprisal of the form in neo-noir movies...

      

From the 60s with films like Le Samouraï, made by French auteurs inspired by directors of the previous decades, to today with movies such as The Nice Guys, the noir has remained relevant. This seems to be down to its timeless nature and capacity to be cool, dark, gritty and aphoristic. These elements attract largely disenfranchised demographics. As would be very apparent by doing a quick search on films made beyond the 80s, the majority of big blockbuster movies have changed their sights from the family and adults, to teens and the family. This means, from Star Wars through John Hughes, a large bulk of Spielberg and to The Marvel Cinematic Universe, many movies haven't really considered more mature audiences. Neo-noir, as well as a few other genres, is an escape from this and has been for many decades. This seems to cite its popularity and the perceived significance of films that fall into this neo-noir category. However, beyond theme and a mature nature, the term neo-noir is a strange one.

This is simply because film noir (dark film) refers to the aesthetic of the pictures and how that motivates tone and character.


With the loss of black and white cinematography, the neo-noir is a struggling class of film as it simply lack the atmosphere of films such as The Third Man or Laura or Sunset Boulevard. This has convoluted the term neo-noir, allowing it to branch into the crime drama, the mob movie, anything that has a detective or is highly stylised in a dark fashion.

However, I think this is acceptable for two reasons. The first is that film noir isn't a strict movement in cinema and so the films that 'classify' as such weren't design to be called noir. As a result, there is an incredibly diverse swath of films that can be called film noir. It only makes sense that this be true for neo-noir also. Moreover, and coming to our second accepting reason, neo implies new, which in turn implies change. A great example of the change you may see in neo-noirs is certainly Blade Runner. This is a mesh of science fiction, philosophy, crime drama and noir, and it certainly benefits from this. And without transcending the term noir or neo-noir, Blade Runner is a great movie. This is then what truly defines neo-noir in the broadest sense.

However, despite my acceptance of neo-noir as a term and class of film, it still has flaws. This comes down to aesthetic influencing tone. This is a criticism that varies across films. If you look to Sin City and Blade Runner...



... it'd be very hard to argue that these films do not adhere to the noir aesthetic despite, with Blade Runner, colour cinematography. But, when you look to the likes of Pulp Fiction, Drive or Fargo, alleged neo-noirs...




... it becomes slightly harder to argue the case for these films being solid noirs. As I said before, I think it makes sense to embrace them as such, but I think the noir has nonetheless changed to a point where it need not associate itself so closely to the classics.

This is what brings us back to Dog Eat Dog. With this film Paul Schrader demonstrates an acute understanding that he is constructing a movie that isn't film noir despite being inspired by pictures that fit the label. We see this in the design of the narrative and the overall aesthetic...




As touched on, this narrative is pretty insane, but it maintains a nihilism and pessimism - something that links it to the noir in the most obvious sense. It's with aesthetic, however, that we see a film that is very nearly noir, but so immersed in self-styling that it is hard to call it as such. The urge here would be to slap the film with the label 'neo-noir' and be done with it, but I think we can push a step further and call this style of film Digital Noir.

This term simply distinguishes the kind of cinematographic approach you take with a digital camera vs celluloid or black and white film. Without getting too technical, film noir used low-key lighting...


This produced high contrast imagery where blacks where truly pitch and highlights would accentuate this, chiseling shadows to features and backgrounds. You don't really see this high contrast and play with shadows when colour comes into the picture...




This is simply because a wider spectrum of light (one that isn't just black or white, but containing a plethora of colours) cannot be polarised or starkly juxtaposed as easily. You can understand this by looking at the light spectrum:



There is a gradual shift in colour which blends well together here. The only way to produce great contrast with colours is to appeal to brightness, saturation and complementary couplings...


This approach to your colour pallet will, however, dictate or be dictated by the tone of a movie. A good example of this would be The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is a highly energetic and flippant film and its set design as well as general aesthetic fit this. If you applied this high contrast cinematography to the noir, it certainly wouldn't fit its tone. This is why directors and cinematographers approach the design of colour noirs very carefully. To be traditionally noir, the play with light has to be high contrast, but the use of colour cannot brighten the picture and change its tone. Because there's difficulty in this approach and the crucial element of a frame is story, you often see an aesthetic that is dark, sombre and serious rather than high contrast in neo-noirs...




What we are then seeing is colour force the neo-noir to be warmer, smoother and mono-chromatic. This is something managed well in films such as Le Samouraï and Blade Runner. But, when we come to the likes of Memento, apart from theme, its only really the cuts to black and white that say to the audience that these films are neo-noir.

However, with Dog Eat Dog we see a poignant statement of aesthetic that adheres to the classic noir style on the set, but laces over this great digital cinematography...




What is so distinguished about this film's aesthetic is the way we see colour used as a projection of light. What I mean to suggest with this is that colour doesn't paint the frame, like you may say it does here...


Much rather, colour imbues the frame with light and so illuminates the set. When you look to the shot of Blade Runner above and this shot in Le Samouraï again...


... you see colour dictating tone. It's a blue or grey that is splashed over the frame giving it that sombre aesthetic to match the dark narrative. However, with Dog Eat Dog, particularly the end sequence...




... you see colour splice into shadow like it did in the classical noirs...


The fog really helps this sequence achieve this, but what Schrader has done here is really work the noir into digital cinematography in a highly stylised and notable manner. In such, with Dog Eat Dog, we are seeing the current aesthetic of many films...




... reworked in a fashion that suits the feel of a noir, rather than the plain aesthetic. This is an interesting aspects of Dog Eat Dog as it is so intrinsically linked to its narrative.



Dog Eat Dog really meanders and swerves with its narrative noirisms. This means it doesn't just add extra genres to the classical noir like Blade Runner may, but tonally turns the formula on its elbow. We see this in the convolution of the gangster element given to noirs in their neo-incarnations with films such as Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects and Millers Crossing. Not only are the gangsters in this picture disorganised nit-wits, but they break the skin of anti-hero to delve into pure evil. The subtle implications that they may change throughout the narrative are also laughable - justifiably so with the ending. In such, we see an evolution of the gangster picture from the likes of Public Enemy and Scarface hurtle past The Godfather and Goodfellas and into absurdity in Dog Eat Dog. The ultra-violence and chemical anarchy in this film mixing with the clear references to noir then perfectly articulate how far this film is from Out Of The Past and Double Indemnity or even Le Samouraï, Blade Runner and Pulp Fiction.

All of this brings us back to the term digital noir. This is because the aesthetic derived from this tonal insanity lends to a modern digital style, one that is bright, vibrant and very Spring Breakers-esque...


This suggests that, in this day and age, to produce an atmosphere of luridity, sexuality, violence, threat and existential loss, filmmakers will quickly turn to a saturated neon and vividly luminescent aesthetic...






What we are then seeing is the films that have a noir-esque thematic tone to them embodying a digitally noir aesthetic also. The reflection on the term 'digital noir' really opens it up to the existential essence of the classic noir. Just as Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Sweet Smell Of Success, ect. where supposedly meant to reflect the conflicted zeitgeist of the post-war period, you may argue that the many films depicted, Drive, Irreversible, Pan's Labyrith and maybe even Dog Eat Dog, do the same thing for our current times. They reflect the violence, horror and explicitness of the world as we know it today. Dog Eat Dog even makes subtle hints at this throughout the narrative with its pop-culture references. In such, digital noir seems to be, artistically, somewhat similar to the films of the 30s and 40s. And such is its power as a term. It implies a class of cinema that suits the current era, but is still linked to the classical noir in aesthetic, theme, mood and artistic premise.

But, there must be a huge however placed over this entire subject. This is all because we're dealing with a huge swath of films in an on-going period of cinema. To start labelling films digital noirs now would be redundant. Moreover, there may be a plethora of other classifications you may place onto all of these films. I thus stress a frailty to this term digital noir. I think it has irrefutable weight in respect to Dog Eat Dog, but it may still be argued that its just a mad-cap neo-noir. In the end, I leave this idea of digital noir as a novel identification of a light trend in modern cinema. What are you thoughts on the subject?





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