HL90 EK: American Noir

Some more returning HL90s this semester! Angela Allan told us about American Noir, which meets Thursdays, 9:45-12:45. Read on to find out more about the class and what other movies Angela watches.

What inspired you to teach this class?

I spent a lot of time early in the pandemic watching movies as an alternative to doomscrolling (although I did plenty of that too), and realized that a lot of the films I turned to were not exactly “feel good” movies. While there’s a lot to love about noir—snappy dialogue, great clothes, amazing cinematography—it’s also incredibly unsettling stuff. But audiences in the 1940s and 50s loved it (and given the number of neo-noirs, audiences still do)! Life called it “Hollywood’s profound postwar affection for morbid drama.” In the haze of popular narratives about the postwar period, we so often think about the end of World War II as this quick pivot to the nuclear family in the suburbs but the end of the war also marked a kind of social and psychological reckoning with what the national identity would be. So we’ll be talking about noir as the cultural counterpart to these conversations.

What’s something you’re excited to share with students?

I’m so excited to talk about…everything! But one of the things we’ll be doing as an activity on the first day of class is looking at some true crime magazines from the 1940s and 1950s. I’m not a podcast person, but I find it super interesting that things like Serial have been so popular in the last couple of years. The magazines we’re looking at show that this public appetite for true crime is nothing new. It’s amazing how many different magazines existed: True Detective, Front Page Detective, Uncensored Detective, Inside Detective, and so on. They also have these totally salacious headlines, photos, and illustrations, so I’m looking forward to our discussion about who the audience for them was and what purpose they served.

Do you have any interesting assignments planned?

I like to give a bunch of options for final papers and projects. So while there are options to “remix” the syllabus, do a research paper, and write a “Week 15” of the syllabus using texts of your choice, there’s also a creative option where students can write their own short noir, supported by the historical context we cover in class and placed in conversation with some of the other texts we’ve analyzed.

What do you want students to take away from the class?

One of my informal policies for the classroom is banning the word “problematic” from discussion. The texts in this class have many, many, many flaws but I think that’s why they’re also so interesting and important to study. What’s more, so many of the novels and films are about the problematic. Noir is all about individuals who break norms or rebel. These characters don’t “fit” into an idealized model of society that is largely built by and for cis-heterosexual white men. Some of our texts are invested in the restoration or affirmation of this society by purging the “bad” individual, while others are invested in critiquing the harm that society inflicts upon individuals who don’t conform. I’m hoping we’ll have a lot of great conversations about how popular culture participates in navigating these ideas.

So is noir your favorite genre?

I love all kinds of movies! I’ll always be excited to watch a noir or neo-noir, but my Netflix suggestions are all over the place. I’m really interested in genre fiction and film more generally, so I also like action and crime movies, rom-coms, animated movies, comedies, and sometimes horror (I’ll read horror novels, but am not cut out for most of the movies!). I admit I haven’t been keeping up with too many Oscar movies lately, although I thought Parasite was amazing. I could also talk about the Marvel Cinematic Universe for ages, and don’t even get me started on a certain blockbuster franchise set in a galaxy far, far away which I could discuss/rant about forever…

How can students learn more?

You can check out the syllabus on Canvas, sign up for my office hours (link is on Canvas!), or shoot me an email (allan@fas.harvard.edu)! I’ll also be at the HL90 Course Preview on Monday, August 23 if you want to talk to me while you’re shopping all of the great 90s Hist & Lit has this semester.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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