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?

Noir spatiality, at first glimpse, is intrinsically connected with the city. Some analysts go as far as to consider it exclusively a urban spatiality, and, based on the dates of the movie productions, they limit it narrowly to the American WW2 city and its postwar developments. Many of these films do take place within American cities of the period, but many of them, and some of the richest ones in terms of spatial information, are sited outside of North America, whereas others are displaced in terms of period, for example at the turn of the 20th century. Besides, film noir extends itself even into the fictionalised futures. Crucially, many other noirs present extra-urban spaces, as protagonists very often move through small country towns, villages, up to the most faraway places in the wilderness.

All of these seemingly disparate or accidental places are tightly interwoven by something, or, better said, by someone. First of all, by characters' actions, their purposes and intents, by vectors of forces which are not visible on the screen. The specifically noir characteristics of time and space emerge silently and subsequently influence everything that is happening on the screen, spatiotemporalities are characters, acting forces, au pair with protagonists. How is this possible, is it some surreal antropomorphisation or personification of space, such as in early Expressionist films, for example? At the kernel, this is not the case. Noir spaces are dense with flows of transforming and transformative powers, and in this, they can be connected with the microphysics of power in Foucauldian sense. But, not only do these spaces embody Foucault's power/knowledge dialectic, they also are fields of the subjectification process, of the creation of “ways of life” of the character. This can generically apply to many a film, but noir spatiality is shaped by distinctive powers and knowledges, which, in a way, are essentially urban. For example, they perpetuate the modern domination of the city over countryside, and they are representatives of the definitive rise of new urban organisations in the 20th century. And it is this evolving landscape that modern woman or man, a noir protagonist, tries to make sense of. But why? Simply said, because she or he has to. More about this causal bond I will expand later on. For now, I'd say that the driving forces of noir are essentially urban, in terms of desires, aims, means of getting to them, and these forces are both affirmed and contradicted through noir space.

For the start, how does this landscape present itself? In classical film noir, the first thing that catches the attention in mise-en-scene of interiors and exteriors are unnatural shadows which break down the frame in a jigsaw puzzle of diverse surfaces, a formal element of clear European avant-guard derivation, straight from the core of the modernist project. And they do transmit certain significations connected with these antecedents, be them perturbations of mental space in Expressionist jargon, or hierarchical and bureaucratic structures of power in modernist sense. But, at the same time, other architectures are present: soft shadows, sfumatos, fog, clouds of smoke, filtrated lights, areas of semi-darkness. They steep the noir spaces with other layers of signification, visually recalling Pictorialist or Late Romantic photographic styles, but working in other directions. Beside these gaseous environments, liquid ones appear, too. Water is the dominant element in sewers, calm or stormy seascapes, and majestically, it is virtually all-encompassing in the form of rain that soaks deep into protagonists' trench-coats and runs along brims of felt fedoras. The compresence and the compenetration of these diverse spatialities, hard and soft, rigid and malleable, absorbing and reflecting, create complex architectural, urbanistic, spatial configurations, but, at the same time, these material properties are signs, metaphors, allegories, and, sometimes, tautologies and contradictions.

Precisely in these configurations film noir bares its spatial apparatus. Besides the classical filmic connective interface of montage, and narration in wider sense, there are other ways of the production of space that distinguish noir. I will start from the end by saying that in film noir emerge key properties of a spatiality which will come to be the playground, both the support and the agent, of what much later will be denominated as “network society”, the society we all live in (if we are reading this text, no doubt of that). Noir characters are obsessed with the creation of and orientation within social, economic, political, and other networks of power (and sometimes, of affects, too). These networks do not present the topological features of, for example, a classical Western film border town, they are not oriented towards crystallization and definitive conformation. Instead, noir networks are intermittently solid, gaseous and fluid, and they take this shape for a single reason, because the characters themselves are mobile on unprecedented scales, intensities and in novel modalities. If mobility is a distinctive feature of noir spatiality's denizens, preliminarily two basic types of movement can be distinguished: bodily and communicational ones.

Body movements range from strolls around city blocks, forays into buildings and their horizontal and vertical scanning on foot, up to rides by means of transportation. This mediated movement is pushed to the limits of physically and technologically possible for a given historical period, as noir protagonists recur to almost every possible way of transportation available: private car is the absolute favourite on urban and interurban scale, taxi is a standard, too, public transportation is used for escapes or chases (subways, overground railways, buses, trams, etc.), train for occasional interurban voyages (trains may exceptionally constitute the entirety of the film's space), boat and ships lead to exotic destinations (luxury is highly appreciated in film noir), airplanes for business trips, especially of government representatives, and so on. The mythical unbounded mobility of the Western's heroes is eclipsed by the combinatorial intelligence of noir characters who with ease jump from one vehicle to another, and by doing so, they weave a unitary plane of mobility (naturally, not lacking in obstacles and frictions, which effectively bring to the fore the system's workings). To be noted in passing is that many a noir character actually does not even possess a firm residence, they live out Deleuze and Guattari's nomadism. One could proceed along this line to follow their reasoning about the intrinsically anarchic nature of this modus vivendi, as counter-posed to sedentary one. What matters is that noir protagonists rarely travel for leisure, adventure or exploration, instead they move along their peculiar “lines of flight”, driven by very personal existential necessities. Basically, they have to travel in order to duel determinate vectors of power.

Communicational movements are parallel to the body ones, and they even more tightly connect various spaces into circuits and networks. Police stations, private suburban houses, criminals' hideouts, they all are connected via very delicate or even invisible threads: telephone, radio, fax, and television. The forces transmitted via these channels are not virtual, they do not vacillate in the sphere of metaphysical possibility, instead they substantial and real, they can actualise themselves in any particular moment almost anywhere. This is why even the most unsuspecting noir space, for example, a well-lit room with no shadows, but provided with a telephone, is prone to rapidly re-organise its power or affective configurations, the ones visible on screen. A sudden call, and a voice from the other extremity of the line, an information thus passed, carries potentially infinite power. Noir spatiality is virtual and actual at the same time, it is a composite of mental and physical space, visible enclosure and infinite connectedness, and for that reason there are many vanishing points on screen, generally masked in the incumbent volumes of shadow (which was a high modernist formal mean of conveying something which definitely escapes its underlying conceptual/visual apparatus). Thus, noir spatiality is historically a harbinger of informational paradigm.

Another powerful metaphor is often used in critical elaboration of film noir's space, a genuinely ancient one, that of the labyrinth [the most fascinating elaboration of this line of thought can be found in Christopher, N. Somewhere in the Night. Emeryville, CA.1997]. It is dear to film analysts because it neatly explains the general disorentiation of noir protagonist, his quest for salvation through desperate search for an exit, and it remarkably well describes the visual appearance of many a built environment in noir, for example, a series of interconnected rooms in a grand residential building or a prison. Some famous sequences in film noir are more than explicitly labyrinthine, for example, man hunts in L.A.'s or Vienna's sewer system, or through Berlin's or London's post-war streets transformed in mazes in the open air, made of heaps of destroyed houses. But, strictly speaking, to what extent does the noir spatiality actually correspond to the dimensions characteristic of the labyrinth?

In its primary definition, labyrinth is a complex of routes with a single center, whereas maze presents multicursal patterns, thus multiple solutions and outcomes. Be it labyrinth or maze, they both are bidimensional, essentially made of passages, corridors, or paths leading forward, backwards, to the left or to the right. Franco Farinelli (Geografia, Torino: Einaudi, 2003) states that the Greek labyrinth corresponds to the “collapse of the palace”, in particular, King Minos's one at Knossos on Crete, the dwelling of Minotaur. The other variation is Herodotus' Egyptian labyrinth which exhibits two levels, one above ground and the other subterrenean, but, apart from the two levels being reciprocally specular in their structure, there is no hint of elaborate interconnectedness between the two levels. Thus, labyrinth is quintessentially a bidimensional structure.

This paradigm does not absolutely embrace all of noir spatiality's dimensions. Besides horizontal wanderings, equally, if not more, significant, are the passages among levels, therefore the supposed noir labyrinth has a vertical dimension, too. Some of noir's most powerful physical structures are, in fact, skyscrapers, through which protagonists run upwards and downwards, as well as leftwards and rightwards. Moreover, a single film's spatiality is rarely confined to a single physical complex, as noir characters effortlessly cross its limits by rooftops, basements or underground channels . Hence the staircases in all their imaginable variations are crucial, they connect different levels, and not only, they themselves are often the place of a chance encounter or a final duel. They constantly remind us that the city is not flat, the noir spatiality is quintessentially undulated, rough, striated. Movement through it demands physical force and dexterity, as it presents diverse grades of friction and resistance. Mechanisms made for the cancelling of the vertical friction, namely elevators, are not gratuitous either, there is more than one character in the noir world that, for example, fatally falls into an empty elevator shaft. This applies to every other means for the surmounting of space, each one of them never is an innocent instrument, instead it is a spatiality unto itself, acting within other spatiality. Nervous dialogue between these spatialities, triangulated by the protagonists, demonstrates that noir spatiality is incessantly negotiated, almost never determined a priori.

The labyrinth analogy shows its limits along another line, as the noir spatiality features both radical openness and radical closure, and as such, it is shaped and is shaping centralised and decentralised networks, corresponding to centripetal and centrifugal forces which constitute them [this dialectics is analysed in profundity in Dimendberg, E. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge, MA: 2004]. Deep in this spatiality, noir protagonists attempt to extricate themselves from complex entanglements. To accomplish or to fail in that, they act quite differently compared to Theseus' linear measurement of space. The key to noir spatiality lies in the connections. This is what noir characters do, they incessantly try to connect diverse, or otherwise delimited, spaces, as well as bits or pieces of information, which is the same thing, to form their personal line of flight.

The division between private and public, as it was shaped in Western societies in the modern epoch, is radically put in crisis in the noir spatiality. First, all kinds of physical obstacles are ordinarily annulled in the noir, as characters do not hesitate to kick down the doors, to enter or exit through windows (taking more or less care to break it or just to unlatch it). The basic idea of Western housing and existence, that of privacy, insurpassability of domestic walls, is demolished on and on throughout the noir. But, more than conveying the sense of perpetual danger (on behalf of criminal or terrorist forces from without), spatial practices that pass through and rearrange these private spaces act as signals of the fact that the privacy, as it was understood in the modernist era, is sustained with difficulty in the new socioeconomic arrangement. After all, the credo of privacy is extremely doubtful already in high modernism; the apartments are never really isolated or separated, as its dwellers thrive to be in continuous contact with the outside world, for example, via telephone. So, what's the big surprise if they receive guests in blood and flesh at all times of night and day, invited and uninvited ones?

Another very modernist ideology, the obsessive fixation with the functional subdivision of space, is subverted, with nonchalance or explicitly demolished, within the noir spatiality. Hospitals, for example, are not places just for recovery, but for police interrogation, business negotiation, fight, escape etc. Bars are rarely only a place to chit-chat and to relax, they are operational centers for other kinds of businesses, too, just behind that closed door. Every single place we can imagine, in or out of the city, might be a potential meeting spot for management or organisation of flows (most often, criminal ones, which reveal ambiguous opinions film-makers, or producers or censorship committees, in regard to the social transformations they depicted). All this seems very natural to us today, but, back in the 1940s, for example, it probably was not all that common to conclude important affairs in coffee shops, that haven of the creative class of today.

This brings us to the main agent for the shaping of the noir spatiality, the most valuable “element” in film noir, what is truly being sought for, and it is not really green bills or gold bars – it is information. Let's take a closer look to who the usual main characters of noirs are – police detectives, gumshoes or private investigators, journalists, criminal masterminds, spies, lawyers etc. – in some ways, archetypes or prototypes of informational operators of today. These figures are certainly not inventions of film noir, but the procedures they adopt to gather information, elaborate it, sell it, anyway implement it to their interests, are represented iconically in film noir. These informational operations are closely linked with the spaces I listed at the beginning, because these are the spaces of information production. For example, information of higher order is extracted in fancy high-rise salons, than in the Rocky Mountains mines. Subsequently, they are elaborated in offices (insurance companies, lawyer agencies, city administration halls, police stations), or in interstitial spaces of transportation (cars, trains, airplanes), and not in industrial plants. The information is diagrammed and forwarded, thus put in motion, from police headquarters, or from an underworld manager's bedroom via telephone. Finally, it rarely takes shape of a product, but instead that of a service, action, such as a newspaper scoop or a beat-up in the back alley. Film noir reveals the shift from industrial economies to informational economies by making the information (its causes, effects, feed-backs) physical: visible, graspable, audible.

This different ontology of information implies a major shift in working methods. Informational operators, some of which I cited above, as long as they act as modernist detectives, and try to “solve” the puzzle by logical procedures of deduction and induction, thus, in Sherlock Holmes style, they inevitably fail. That is because the mechanisms or organisations which they confront now possess and employ grander, and often more complex, resources (ranging from, say, muscle force, machine guns, cars, up to the valuable documents, scientific diagrams, etc.). Only when noir protagonists contrive alternative and innovative tactics they manage to counter these big power's strategies. The scale element, a modernist individual versus a post-modernist flexible organisation, is essential in the noir conflict. This is also the message of many films noir, that it is truly hard to win, or simply survive, for an individual, at least the one adopting modernist modus operandi. On the other hand, some of them, the most flexible ones, do succeed in that effort.


In these informational procedures, what is required is relational thinking and acting. It manifests in different ways, physical and communicational once again. The first modality is the discovery and use of connectivities of spaces, as we already exposed, the idea of making jumps from one scale to the other, from one geographical point to the other. The other, more complex, modality, is the creation of social relationships, or connects, because the most important ways of the extraction and the use of information are through social relations.

Let me focus for a moment on the first category of relational thinking, the one connected with spatial practice. In order to oppose the powers which are upon him, noir nomad explores where the power's crucial nodes are and where possible “lines of flight” open. The greatest power's spatial instrument of all, maps, or simply views from above, aerial viewpoints, characteristic of big power, is rivalled by tactical means. Noir protagonists know that they can't limit their vision to the surface view, that of the maps for example, instead they are in quest of deep knowledge, as they enter the bowels of buildings or mountain canyons. This dialectic corresponds to the opposition of light and darkness, which is so glaringly obvious in film noir that it derives its name from it. But, the belief in vision as the single most important epistemological instrument is continuously put in question, and limits to it become obvious. This applies also to the question of scale, as noir protagonists find themselves operating in the range of single rooms or corridors, up to entire building complexes, city blocks, urban zones or entire towns or cities, and even on interurban and sometimes international scale. This inter-scalar and cross-scalar movements are not something extra-narrative, they are performed by characters physically and informationally, they transform themselves into flows, in sense in which Manuel Castells uses the term to illustrate the way of living of the global ruling class of our time. On the other hand, the power of the maps, and cartographic representation in general, is not simply inverted by spatial practices, it is rather highlighted as a critical moment in some occasions, as the mapping forces (mostly, the ones of law and order) do indeed most often win, but often only after their dispositives have been seriously challenged by counter-mapping movements of noir nomads. Their movement is never linear, it replenishes with direction changes, each of them a question or an answer, a new information to be taken into consideration, one which can possibly re-arrange the entire conceptual (or physical) apparatus etc. Intervalled to this state of movement is also the capacity to stand still, to make an intermezzo, to wait, to re-elaborate, but these moments of apparent calm are also parts of the flow inasmuch the vector's arrow is still ticking or beating.

Back in the realm of vision, let us not be deceived by formal binary oppositions, such as that of light and darkness, of black and white. As a matter of fact, in noir, there is no all-encompassing sunshine nor pitch dark. There are as many well-lit or open-air spaces that are all but unsecure ground for the characters. Noir spatiality is all in gradients, roughly said, it presenst an infinite gamma of grays that envelop persons and objects, layers to be decoded and recoded. Noir's principal instruments are opacities, transparencies, reflectivities, absorbencies, material and conceptual states to be approached and examined. The noir gradient could be defined as the level of knowledge available to the protagonists about their actual connectivities and power formations within a determinate space or set of spaces.

That is how noir spatiality works, it spurs the spectator to try to make sense of these unstable spatiotemporal manifestations, more precisely, of the information of which these phenomena are manifestations, carriers, or blocks. In this sense, the concept of noir spatiality can be transposed into the general field of critical spatial analysis. So, when we walk into a bank branch, we could think of levels of noirness around us, naturally not intending to create a plan of the bank in order to rob it, but trying to understand what are the hypothetical nodes of flows in which we participate, too. The same experiment can be applied easily to our apartments, as every Western residential house has its blind spots, elements symptomatic of noir, and these are not (always) the ones which lie in shadow, but might as well be covered with the shiniest plastic surfaces.


Manifestations of noirness, or noir spatiality, will be further examined on PointLineFlow.Net. In this, we will have a travel companion, a guest blogger joining very soon. Stay tuned!

No comments:

Post a Comment