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Is it time for a return to noir?

Is it time for a return to noir? (photo)

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Earlier this year there was a spate of trend pieces on what the recession would mean for film. Would Hollywood slim down? Revive lighthearted comedy? The recession’s officially slowing (or over, according to the IMF), but that doesn’t mean predictions have to, and the latest involved more movie doom and gloom for all. So says the Telegraph‘s Matthew Sweet — not the power-pop musician, but rather a polymath British historian who’s also written a few “Doctor Who” radio plays. Sweet has a new BBC documentary coming forth about film noir, and, naturally, he’s like to argue that we’re ripe for a new wave.

Actually, what he’s really like is for Werner Herzog to do the arguing for him, and Herzog is happy to claim his “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” isn’t an exercise in the kind of Herzogian eccentricity his fans love, but “a new step in film noir.” He explains: it’s not a question of “techniques of light or a particular kind of story… it’s a cultural mood.”

If, as Sweet argues, noir incubated itself during the dark days of “blackout conditions and power-rationing imposed after Pearl Harbor” and expanded post-WWII in McCarthy-era paranoia and economic despair, our own hard times seem to demand something similar. And so he believes we’re in for a new era of movies terminating at “the moment when there’s nowhere to run; the moment when the possibility of a happy ending vanishes; the moment when the lights go out.” Or worse, we’re left with a dangerously unhinged Nicolas Cage as our most reliable guide to post-Katrina New Orleans.

Weirdly, the two examples Sweet provides himself are TV shows: “The Wire” and “Battlestar Galactica.” These are shows about societies, not individuals, on the brink. The archetypal noir protagonist is the opposite, a man out of time and place, unable to keep up with a world that’s conspired to leave him behind. The despairing endings wipe out one person but leave society standing, oppressive or otherwise. “The Wire” and “Battlestar Galactica” don’t work that way: they’re about entire worlds this close to absolute entropy and extinction. They don’t start well and end in despair: everything’s screwed-up from the word go.

If by “noir,” Sweet means movies and TV shows that acknowledge the possibility, even the inevitability, that nothing will turn out OK… then for now we’re just left with TV shows. On ones like “The Wire,” you get to have things both ways: characters to survive to become even more cynical than they started, and others to become sacrificial lambs. There’s no market for stylized downfalls of the individual anymore, and certainly the era of the femme fatale seems to be over. The new noirs will let their anti-heroes live, but they’ll never go down in a blaze of glory; like “The Wire”‘s Jimmy McNulty and Cage’s bad lieutenant, they’ll be just as bad as what’s around them. The tragedy of the new noir isn’t that the anti-hero is out of place in society; it’s that he’s exactly in place.

[Photo: “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” Millennium Films, 2009]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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