Postmodernism, neo-noir and Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

   Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a 2005 film directed and written by Shane Black. The film is a murder mystery set in Hollywood and it follows a man called Harry, a career criminal, as he meets private eye Gay Perry and is embroiled in a murder of a rich socialite. The film is an archetypal example of postmodernist film and shows this through its use of noir themes and devices.

One of the first things that alert us to the film as a postmodern neo-noir film is the fact that the film is based on the hardboiled crime novel; ‘Bodies Are Where You Find Them’ by Brett Halliday (pen name of American mystery writer Davis Dresser). Automatically, the fact that the film is based on a hard-boiled crime novel lends its self to being labelled a postmodernist film and it is also the first example of the film being a pastiche of noir fiction. Not only that, but the film takes more than just the story elements from the book; Brett Halliday was a pseudonym of Davis Dresser, an American mystery writer, and the film incorporates this aspect into a character called Johnny Gossemer, a supposed real detective character in the hardboiled crime stories that the characters read. The character ‘Jonny Gossemer’ turns out to be a pseudonym for another character called Joe Davies, similarly to how the book the film was based on was written by an author using a pseudonym. This shows the films self-referential nature, an aspect of postmodernism when it comes to noir.

kkbb 2

The film also uses voice over, a device intrinsically linked to the noir film, in a postmodernist way again showing the genre of neo-noir to be a postmodern one. Harry, the film’s protagonist, references films throughout the voice over and uses it to communicate with the audience on multiple occasions. These intertextual references and moments of meta-textuality are key aspects of postmodernist films, and it shows us that the genre of neo-noir is a postmodern one. Another example of intertextuality within Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the early shot of Harry from beneath the water. This shot is a reference to the classic 1950 noir film Sunset Boulevard (fig 1). Cultural critic Frederic Jameson said that postmodernist texts; ‘leant from other texts but without the meaning that the other texts had.[1] This is true of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as the references from other noir films texts that it lends from are often there for simply a joke for the movie aware audience. Such as the homage to Sunset Boulevard, where only the audience members who had seen the film it was referencing would understand the reference. But, as Theo d’Haen writes ‘Postmodern works do not offer, ‘univalent’ meanings.’[2] This is true of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang as what one person might interpret as simply an intertextual reference to another film, it could also be argued that this was put in with a meaning. For example, the underwater shot and the distorted way that this shot represents Harry could be interpreted as simply a reference to another noir film, but it could also be seen as showing us that Harry isn’t everything he appears to be, that he is different from everyone else. This polysemic aspect to the films intertextual references shows it to be postmodern in the sense defined by d’Haen, in that it doesn’t have ‘univalent’, or singular, meanings.

Neo noir
fig 1 

The films knowing use of noir devices and tropes makes it postmodern as the pastiche of a genre is an important trait of postmodernism. Booker writes; ‘this practice of generic pastiche is part of a much broader postmodern phenomenon in which films increasingly take both their style and their subject matter from other films.’[3] Firstly, the plot of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang makes reference to noir films as it involves a detective investigating multiple crimes which contain typical aspects of noir fiction such as dangerous femme fatales and villains with hidden motives. These crimes eventually link together and turn out to be part of the same case, as can be seen in other noir fiction such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), where two seemingly unconnected crimes of the main character being killed, and a rare ornament being stolen, crossover.  These elements are either subverted, such as the hard-boiled detective being gay in the case of Perry, or parodied. For example, the film references films such as L.A. Confidential (1997) in the scene when Harry is playing Russian roulette with a suspect. His actions mirror a scene in L.A. Confidential when Bud White (Russell Crowe) does the same, only to Harry’s surprise it doesn’t turn out the same way. Not only does Kiss Kiss Bang Bang take certain elements from other noir films it also takes from written noir fiction; the title cards in the movie are chapters from noir writer Raymond Chandler’s books. A Raymond Chandler type figure exists in the film as well, with the character of Harmony reading similar pulp crime novels.

kkbb 3.jpg

In conclusion, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang uses devices originally used in classic noir fiction, such as a use of voice over and the use of a noir character archetype; the tough, hardboiled detective. These elements are given a postmodern subversion, the hardboiled detective being gay or the narrator breaking the fourth wall for example. The films use of noir intertextuality and self-referentiality as well show how Kiss Kiss Bang Bang uses the genre and ideas of neo-noir and noir in a postmodern way.

by Tom

References

  1. Jameson, F, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991)
  2. Theo d’Haen in Postmodern Hollywood: What’s New in Film and why it Makes Us Feel So Strange, Booker.    M.K, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007)
  3. Booker M.K, Postmodern Hollywood: What’s New in Film and why it Makes Us Feel So Strange, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007)
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