Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Geographies of Noir Vol. 3. Landscape (Cityscape) vs. Map.


Manhattan from the air opening The Naked City.
In its classical period, during the 1940s and 1950s, film noir has activated the traditional representations of space – landscapes and maps – as critical mediums for perception as well as practice of space, used by a whole set of actors, individual and collective ones. Generally, on one side stand the forces of law and order, and on the other – the outlaws. But, there is a series of grey figures, typical noir individuals 'somewhere in the night', who devise their specific spatial practices. The iconography of the city which noir directors employ has previously been firmly established by the artistic avant-gardes, thus, on that front, film noir merely consolidates the already existing representations. Where, instead, many noir films contribute, is how they 'mobilise' these standardised representations of space. What is subsequently to become an important field of study in cultural geography as well as critical cartography, namely, the intimate link between, respectively, landscape and map with power, is the spatial onus of many a film noir. Landscapes and maps are dispositifs employed and exercised for diverse purposes, strategic and tactical ones. Finally, what is peculiar to film noir is the tension between these two closely associated ways of representation – landscape and map – and we shall see what way.

Landscape in this article is employed in its meaning of a point of view from which a subject is able to “command a view of the country stretching out beneath him and thereby exert control over” [Fabricant, C., cit. in Wallach, A. (2008) Between Subject and Object. In DeLue, R. Z., and Elkins, J., Landscape Theory. London: Routledge. pp. 317-8]. But, this precise understanding of landscape gravitates towards the cityscape, as the centre of power, and, in noir, landscape starts from it. Cityscape present itself on different scales, framing only a single building or a street intersection, up to the entire city horizon seen from a hill or surveyed from an airplane. The aerial views were introduced to a wider public during the war, through the newsreels which used shots of destroyed cities seen from above. On the other hand, during the postwar period, aerial photography becomes one of the key instruments in the city planning. A couple of decades later, aerial surveillance via helicopters becomes a key instrument of the Los Angeles Police Department as well [Davis, M. (1990) City of Quartz. London, New York: Verso. pp. 265-322], and correspondingly, an important formal element in a number of police films from the 1970s on. In film noir, instead, the aerial vision of the city is never perfectly correlated with the total command of the space below. The view is never entirely perpendicular to the soil, satellite-like, instead the viewing angle allows for perception of volumes to some extent, thus, people are not just moving dots, and cars are not abstract rectangles. This kind of image is apt for the intricate play of shadows which are used to convey the drama of modern city life, and, more importantly to our context, the angle of view and the shadows do not allow for everything to be scanned, thus, mapped. But this is not a given, as vectors of mapping are operating, too, and they put in question this romanticised vision of the city and attempt to reduce it to the grid. This relationship is the leitmotif of what follows.

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