This is the first post written and illustrated by Ida Grujić, and she will be a contributing author to the Geographies of Noir series. Ida is a set designer, with a strong interest in theory and history of cinema. She graduated with a thesis on spatiality in film noir and Roman Polanski's cinema.
As mentioned in the previous post, space in noir is what under surface is. As in other sorts of movies, representations of space in noir influence quintessentially the way of understanding them. But what is the nature of this space? In my previous work I attempted to identify the right methodology for analyzing it, so to speak, a more objective type of analysis for the specific cinematographic space I have in front, if eventually there is one that is applicable. Film noir is extremely demanding from this point of view. I'm looking here to introduce what might be considered the problem of the definition of this space. What is behind dark shadows, strong contrasts, nocturnal settings, and how does it work in noir's literal context? Is it just a narrative method or is it possible to speak about a deeper extension throughout spatio-temporal dimensions? Is this space just a black imagery? And what is a structure through which this black materializes in an image, in a sequence, in an entire film, in a series of films, in a period in Hollywood production of almost twenty years?
Manifestation of the space in noir is based on interaction of a huge range of different elements, so let's start from a simple observation – in each noir there is always a plot, a tale. There is a concrete and precise content that acts as the basis of the film. A story put down in that way functions as a basic support in a process of establishing the level of empathetic involvement in the film. It happens contemporarily through the presence of a wide spectrum of figures. Thus, space in noir is deeply dominated by its story-like character and by relations of diverse, more formal elements that give an emotional value to this space. Reading of this space can’t be separated from its fictional attribute. On the other hand, what would be a social component in noir films? And how it concretely acts in the formation of its structure?
Films produced in the period ranging from 1940s to 1960s and connected with this term are so diverse among them that systematic examination is almost impossible. In that sense, the idea of noir as a genre is reasonable, but only if it circumscribes these films within the term. Than it would imply that “genre” works as a container (holder), as a fixed memory open to its manifestations but in continuous relationship with elements external to the system, which in part have function of regulators. It could be then possible to valuate each author's sensibility, and diverse thematics, as much as the analogical structures acting as the film's basis. But it is more significant to analyse the tendency to establish a structure that provides certain functionality, structure which is also a model that allows variations and substitutions, combinations and contradictions. What I am trying to make clear is that the problem of film noir's definition is already a problem of the reading its space. As always when attempting to frame a metaphysical concept, the problem of finding the origin of the underpinning idea and understanding of how the convention arises.
James Naremore once affirmed that noir belongs to the history of ideas as much as to the history of cinema, and as such regards important cinematographic heritage as much as the origin of the underpinning idea. To expand the scope of the idea is to enlarge the border of noir in many directions, in chronological terms first, then narrative stylistic and thematic variations, reflecting in this way also the vagueness of the term. Already the first essays about noir, written by Nino Franc and Jean Pierre Chartier in the mid-fifties, are based on the same intuition: the importance of a realistic affinity with the hard-boiled literature, which as an objective has both the description of the ambient and the characterization of the protagonists. In this perspective, spatiality cannot be separated from visual attributes and epical manifestations: films noir tend to narrate the story by exposing the facts, filtered through the stylistic neutrality of surroundings.