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Neon-noir cinema is a contemporary rendering of the film noir. A subset of the neo-noir genre, both take their name from the films noir: the highly stylised Hollywood crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s. The term film noir when translated to English reads "dark film", alluding to the genre's dark or sinister sensibilities. This shaded undertone is highly characteristic of films noir, also marked by their dramatic use of lighting and shadow play, hard-boiled and often complex plot lines, reversed stereotypes, the presence of crime and violence, off-centre and tilted camera angles, cityscape shots or montages, and dreamlike aesthetic, to name but a few.
Neon-noir, like the neo-noir, adopts many of the same sensibilities as the noirs they hark back to. What distinguishes the neon-noir from the larger bracket of neo-noir, is primarily its recollection of the genre's highly stylised use of light. Neon-noir films are characterised by their hyper visual nature; utilising vibrant colours, dynamic (man made) lighting, and highly designed cinematic style to underpin the more seedy elements of the films noir, especially heightening their dream-like aesthetic.
The term film noir was originally coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, though wasn’t popularised in the cinematic vocabulary or used in film criticism until much later. Due to the term’s retroactive[clarification needed] up-take, contemporary films of the neo, and more specifically, neon-noir genre, are endowed with a heightened self-awareness of their borrowings from the era of film noir. The presence of crime and violence, hyper-stylised aesthetic, moral ambiguity, and complex narratives continue to permeate the contemporary genre, but with updated themes, and use of technology and media that were absent from the noir films of the 40’s and 50’s. These characteristics permeate the films of the contemporary genre with their thematic content, aesthetic and sensibility as harking back to the film noir period.
Neon-noir film borrows from and reflects many of the characteristics of the film noir: a presence of crime, violence, complex characters and plot-lines, mystery, ambiguity and moral ambivalence, all come into play in the neon-noir genre. But more so than the superficial traits of the genre, neon noir emphasises the socio-critique of film noir, recalling the specific socio-cultural dimensions of the interwar years when noirs first became prominent; a time of global existential crisis, depression and the mass movement of rural persons towards the cities. Long shots or montages of cityscapes, often portrayed as dark and menacing were suggestive of what Dueck referred to as a ‘bleak societal perspective’, providing a critique on global capitalism and consumerism. Other tactics also made use of heavily stylised lighting techniques such the chiaroscuro juxtaposition of light and dark, with neon signs and brightly lit buildings providing a sense of alienation and entrapment.
Accentuating the already present use of artificial or neon lighting in the noir films of the 40’s and 50’s, neon-noir films imbue this aesthetic style with electrifying colour and manipulated light to accentuate their socio-cultural critique as backdrop to thematic references to contemporary and pop culture. In doing so, films of the neon-noir genre orbit the themes of urban decay, consumerist decadence and capitalism, existentialism, sexuality and issues of race and violence in the contemporary cultural landscape, not only of America, but the globalised world at large.
Neon-noirs seek to bring the contemporary noir, somewhat diluted under the umbrella of neo-noir, back into the exploration of culture: class, race, gender, patriarchy, capitalism are key thematic references and departures for the neon-noir; an existential confrontation of society in a hyper technological and golbalised world. Illustrating society as decadent and consumerist, and identity as confused and anxious, neon-noirs reposition the contemporary noir in urban decay, often setting their scenes in the underground city-haunts; brothels, nightclubs, casinos, strip bars, pawnshops, Laundromats, etc.
Neon noirs were popularised in the 70’s and 80’s by films like Taxi Driver (1976), Blade Runner (1982), and David Lynch films such as Blue Velvet (1986) and later, Lost Highway (1997). In the more current cinematic landscape, films like Harmony Korine’s highly provocative Spring Breakers, and Danny Boyle’s Trance (2013) have been especially recognised for their neon-infused rendering of the noir genre; While Trance was celebrated for ‘shak(ing) the ingredients (of the noir) like coloured sand in a jar’, Spring Breakers notoriously produced a slew of criticism referring to its ‘fever-dream’ aesthetic and ‘neon-caked explosion of excess’ (Kohn). Another neon-noir endowed with the 'fever-dream' aesthetic is The Persian Connection, expressly linked to Lynchian aesthetics as a neon-drenched contemporary noir.
Neon-noir can be seen as a response to the over-use of the term neo-noir. While the contemporary term neo-noir functions to bring the noir into the contemporary landscape, it has been often criticised for its dilution of the noir genre, Arnett commenting on its ‘amorphous’ reach: ‘any film featuring a detective or crime qualifies’, and Cawelti recognising its ‘generic exhaustion’. The neon-noir, more specifically, seeks to revive the noir sensibilities in a more targeted manner of reference, focalising especially its socio-cultural commentary and hyper-stylised aesthetic.
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