Sunshine Noir—A Genre Dedicated to the Madness of Los Angeles

'Mulholland Drive'Credit: Universal Pictures
When the heat rises, so does the tension. Here's what you need to write a sunshine noir.

Film noir is all about showcasing the underbelly of the modern world. The genre has a special place in the heart of cinema. Influenced by the highly stylized set pieces and chiaroscuro lighting, the morally ambiguous anti-heroes must find their own humanity through their rejection of the absurd reality of the film. 

Film noir is constantly updating itself to comment on the underbelly of the current world. As new generations rise to power, new conflicts and social issues become relevant to these hard-boiled protagonists. While neo-noir is still prevalent in cinema today, “new dark films” fail to comment on the absurd realities of our day-to-day lives. Enter "sunshine noir."

While noir has its place in Hollywood, this specific subgenre’s heart belongs to Los Angeles and its history with crime, politics, and social and economic status. Films like They Live, Pulp Fiction, Mulholland Drive, and L.A. Confidential can all be defined as sunshine noir.

Let’s break down what makes a film a sunshine noir. 

"L.A. Confidential'Credit: Warner Bros.

What Is Sunshine Noir? 

Unlike the Technicolor palette of neo-noir that moved a bit further away from the shadows of film noir, sunshine noir brings the tensions and paranoia of the night into the blistering heat and sweltering humidity of sunny Los Angeles. Focusing on the sinister and foreboding realism of urban life in California, the persistent sunshine shines a light on the inescapable history of the city and its effect on modern life. 

Sunshine noir films are created by worlds that are both bright and guilty. While the sunshine noir films follow the classic story elements of film noir and neo-noir, such as violence, sex, criminal activity, and moral ambiguity, there are no true heroes or glaringly obvious bad guys. Instead, there is a persistent, antagonistic force that hunts down our protagonists as they try to escape from the chaos they’ve helped create.

Like most of the film noir genre and subgenres, there are no strict distinctions that a film is "noir," but there are visual elements that help disguise a film as noir. Sunshine noir incorporates moody high-noon surrealism that mimics the delirium of a heat stroke.

What defines a sunshine noir are these three elements: 

  • Los Angeles is a central character 
  • Brightly light scenes that emphasize the satirical and surrealist nature of the setting
  • Reality and representation are muddled

'Citizen Kane'Credit: RKO Radio Pictures

Defined by Citizen Kanes fake newsreels, haunted mansion, and influences of real-life celebrities of Los Angeles, sunshine noir films create a hyper-reality that reaches just beyond the veil of reality to make sense of the deteriorating state of mind of an Angeleno. Other examples of sunshine noir include Sunset Boulevard and Puce Moment, which both feature protagonists either metaphorically or literally chasing the ghost of Hollywood’s past. 

The City of Angels becomes a living and breathing character in these sunshine noirs. Film historian Thom Andersen notes in his 2003 essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, that this is a city where motels or McDonald’s could be used as sets in a production and become a historic landmark in society because the location was once featured in a beloved movie or TV show. The city is haunted by an imaginary past that society has made real. 

Sunset Boulevard’s screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett exercise the gothic neorealism of Hollywood through their screenplay. Their ability to satirize classically dark noir stories influenced the sunshine noir films to follow along in their footsteps.

By balancing harsh critiques about Los Angeles and its infectious nature with comedy, sunshine noir films border a delicate line that keeps an audience entertained while still showing the underbelly of Los Angeles and Hollywood. 

Like movies and the illusion surrounding Hollywood, these sunshine noir stories are dreamlike and fantastic, and the camera works to capture the spectacle of events that are unfolding. Mulholland Drive plays with the delusion that Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) finds herself living in as she tries to make a name for herself in Hollywood, eventually finding herself unable to live in her escapist fantasy as the reality of her life consumes her.

The blending of surrealism and fractured storytelling leaves the audience wondering what was real and what wasn’t, but that is the illusion of Los Angeles. Everything could be real if you believe it to be. 

'They Live'Credit: Universal Pictures

Sunshine noir is a portrayal of Los Angeles’ history. Modern crises do not disappear as the sun rises. They Live focuses heavily on the consumer society in the Reagan Era. Characters use glasses to see the world underneath our world that barely makes sense. The threat of They Live is all around us. It colors our world. We cannot see it unless we disconnect ourselves from society. 

Many sunshine noir films are surreal and off-kilter, which often makes the mystery that the story revolves around seem pointless—but that’s the point. The mystery of Los Angeles and the lives in the city will never be uncovered and understood. The reality of Los Angeles is almost fake, yet you can touch it, feel it, and surround yourself with looming buildings and people who won’t notice you exist. Sunshine noirs allow filmmakers who've experienced this bizarre world to tell their stories through a mystery that comments on the dread of the city. These noir films are about a feeling rather than an answer or a satisfactory conclusion. 

It’s dreadful, bizarre, and just absurd enough to feel real.

Do you have a film that you’d consider sunshine noir? Let us know what it is in the comments below!      

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