Friday, August 3, 2012

Geographies of Noir Vol. 1. Into the Noir Spatiality.

Los Angeles by night in the first sequence of Criss Cross (1948).

During the 1940s and 1950s major economical, political, social shifts radically changed the ways in which space was perceived, lived and produced in the U.S.A., and, correspondingly, one of the country's principal cultural products, film, echoed these changes and/or projected the ones to come. In this period, modernity's ways of thinking and acting were reaching its peak, and, in parallel, seeds of very different paradigms were being planted and nourished. “American dream” seemed to realize itself to an extent never seen before, and series of new dreams were being churned out tirelessly. At the same time, the overwhelming menace of Cold War cast its shadows upon the society. In terms of spatiality, the push towards massive centralisation of power, especially political and financial, through infrastructural and technological developments, was countered by decentralising vectors mediated by the very same technologies and infrastructures. This applies to telecommunications equally as to superhighways. Whereas the state believed that in the new techno-industrial complex it has found the key to its elevation on n-th degree, other management groups were using and producing very similar technologies, and these groups sometimes aligned themselves with governmental policies, and sometimes did not. The scissor between public and private sector, public and corporate, was widening and deepening. In the middle ground between these vectors, the modern man was caught, be him white-collar or blue-collar, but unconsciously, gently lulled by the showiness of the prospering new economy. Upon this apparently mild but shaky ground, film noir pushed this man into unpredicted sets of circumstances which profoundly diverged from the postcard picture of the America in progress, from the proverbial projection of Californian sunshine ideology to which Hollywood obviously contributed greatly.

Protagonists of film noir found themselves vis-à-vis with conformations of power, which as one of their primary operational tools employ space. This central struggle, thus, unravels over a terrain, made of places and ambients which look familiar, but, instead, are charged with peculiar intensities (nodes of percepts and affects, concentrations of power) and extensities (depths and superficialities, scales, connectivities). This special elaboration of space is the fundamental trait of film noir (and is followed by a similar treatment of time, which is warped, folded, stretched, compressed in similar fashion). This representational apparatus was elaborated film by film, author by author, into a coherent yet fractalised universe of spaces, which I will call the noir spatiality. To be noted from the start is that this spatiality is not an exclusive product of the American film noir, it is a landscape created by a spread of antecedents and hosts of descendents, and is still in way of formation and reshaping. Still, its first comprehensive elaboration is to be found in the so-called film noir, produced in Hollywood in the 1940-1970 period. Lastly, noir spatiality is by no means confined to cinematic experience, silver screen is here an iridescent surface which commingles bits of real places with fictional ones and then reflects these topographies onto our side of the screen, where they already are, or are coming into being.

What are the principal traits of the noir spatiality? Where are them to be found? In the ill-lit boarding house rooms where villains gather and conspire, and occasionally fist fight the good guys; or blank police station interiors; or hazy bars with counters against which patrons lean, enveloped in cigarette smoke; or nightclubs glittering with shining gowns and translucent tuxedos; or anonymous motel rooms permeated by horizontal stripes of light let through Venetian blinds; or wooden shacks sitting alone deep in the remote woods; or fishing huts isolated on ocean beaches; or the luxurious hill-slopes mansions overlooking Buenos Aires or L.A.; or the coldest of prison blocks in concrete and steel; or the abandoned industrial yards in desertic stripes of land; or high-tech military laboratories developing the most secret weapons for mass extermination; or either packed-up with passengers or almost devoid wagons of overground or underground urban railways; or the amusement parks with pyschedelic plays of bright neon lights and puzzling mirrors; and so on and so on. These are some places noir, at the same time realistic and fantastic, familiar and odd, common and exceptional. So, what is to them that bears distinctive noir semblances? Is it the atmosphere they are imbued with, created by the succession of events or maybe the lighting masteries of directors of photography? This thread does not lead faraway, since the filmic treatment of these lieus refers to something we already know and perceive, so what is this else that they add to this experience?

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