In the first season of HBO's Carnivale, a vagabond, not quite as dirty as the others, sits around a campfire, largely keeping to himself. As the liquor gets passed around, and stories told, the runaway Methodist minister loosens up enough to speak. What has brought him so low, he is asked. Did he lose his girlfriend? His job? After taking a hearty swig, Brother Justin despairingly replies, "I lost my God."
In many ways, Brother Justin's response is vintage noir. As has been well documented, film noir first rose to popularity in the 1940s and '50s, at a time when Europe and America experienced real crises of faith. The wanton destruction of World War II, the unfathomable inhumanity behind the Holocaust, and the ensuing bankruptcy of moral will spurred necessary revolutions in philosophy and art. Traditional Faustian battle lines of good and evil were blurred; real acts of heroism were hard to come by. Instead, a moral malaise seemed to infect everyone, from the highest reaches of academe to the most vibrant churches of Christendom. In philosophy's new field of existentialism, Camus' Plague, and Sartre's Nausea describe the human condition in stark and morose terms. It is perhaps the logical conclusion to Germany's prewar pessimism, a time in the nineteenth century when philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche explained our world as inherently meaningless, aesthetically pallid, and morally weak. Where once religion had filled such gaping voids, now there appeared to be nothing. With our traditional markers blown apart, we were left to our "human, all too human" failings to help us through the night. And if our faith in God were not yet dead, as Nietzsche predicted, Martin Heidegger famously wrote in 1938 that such a spiritual quagmire would at least be the impetus for the gods to flee.
Film noir, then, builds its themes and characters from these existentialist worldviews. As Steven M. Sanders writes: "Noir themes and moods include despair, paranoia, and nihilism; an atmosphere of claustrophobic entrapment; a nightmarish sense of loneliness and alienation; a purposelessness fostered in part by feelings of estrangement from one's own past even as one seems driven to a compulsive confrontation with that past. Film noir presents us with moral ambiguity, shifting identities, and impending doom."1 In 2003, Carnivale first hit the airwaves and invoked all of the above classic noir themes. The two-year series followed a fictional traveling carnival troupe as they meandered through the American Midwest of the dust-bowl 1930s. Though classic noir uses harrowing cityscapes to highlight the suffocating loneliness, Carnivale's use of drab and dreary landscapes created a similar effect. "I think it's about alienation," Carnivale's writer, director, and executive producer Daniel Knauf explains, "what it's like to be alienated from the rest of the species."2 Two separate story lines emerged in the series and had only begun to come together by its abrupt end. On the one side was the aforementioned Brother Justin (Clancy Brown), the old-time preacher who was failing in his attempt to bring the Christian God to his largely Godless community. On the other side were the carnies: Samson (Michael J. Anderson), the dwarfish manager who takes his orders from the invisible management behind the curtain, Sofie (Clea Duvall), the fortuneteller constantly tortured by her mother's telepathic nagging; her admirer, Jonesy (Tim DeKay); and Ben (Nick Stahl), the lead character with mysterious powers, most of which are unknown to him and only vaguely known to others. Ben is somewhat unwillingly picked up by the carnies; given odd jobs; and left to make his way in the small community of snake handlers, magicians, quacks, and geeks. The most intriguing aspect of the critically acclaimed show, however, is that many of the noir themes are explored within a distinctly religious framework. As Brother Justin battles with his identity, he invokes traditional biblical themes in his sermons and his struggles. Knauf himself tells the story of good clashing with evil along the more traditional lines of his heroes J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens, two writers who incorporated religious themes in their writings.
So what is going on here? Is there really such a thing as religious noir? There is, of course, and even though the unbelievers get all the artistic credit, some of the most disturbing, thought-provoking, even frightening noir stories are told through the prism of Judeo-Christian ideas. As noir, though, it cannot be the plastic, smiley, Ned Flanders brand of suburban American religion. When Brother Justin whips his congregation into a rousing rendition of "Give Me That Old Time Religion," he uses the Sunday service to invoke the despair and alienation, the loneliness and exile of the fire-branding, gut-wrenching Old Testament prophets. Any noirish struggle between good and evil must involve some kind of repudiation of the typical prewar smug satisfaction with God's world. But that kind of painful rejection does not need to be blasphemous. From St. Augustine's Confessions to St. John's Dark Night of the Soul, we are reminded that violently clawing against God's will can summon a kind of spiritual grace. When Brother Justin faces his own inner demons and devils, he reinforces old-time religious fervor, while at the same time invoking distinctly modern existential ideals. Carnivale has its roots in a long-standing religious noir tradition, one that includes film and literary noir and dates back to the existentialist philosophies of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and S0ren Kierkegaard.
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