Geographies of Noir Vol 2. Tale-Telling Within The Night.

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.

Nocturnal imagery is to be understood here more as a condition, important not only from the symbolic point of view but as a real factor that gives place to real situations. Night functions more as an effect. Anonymous neutral setting appears to be expressed more through visual effects that were added (lighting for example) than through the scenic iconography in itself. Sophisticated in its logic, this sort of cinematic realism sort of makes out a glimpse of desire for an orderly state of things, but at the same time it provides a powerful approach to sensations and affections of the character's state. What are characters going to DO is to become the main aspect of the film: psychology in noir does not necessarily reside only in the narrative model, but is reflected in all the elements that form the film, such as style or atmosphere. Classification under this fundamental structure is the only one that can guide us to the understanding of its spatiality, strongly connected to its social, political, and sociological background.

Dictation of narration underpins the realism of content, and not only that, it also contains other types of elements, which are, in a more Charter’s sense, produced as ambiguous, dreamlike treatments that seem opposite to realism but in deeper reading are just its manifestations at fullest. I refer here to the atmosphere of numerous expressionistic shots, for example the interiors in Anthony Man's Desperate, or the corridor of the building in Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor. Essential expressionistic style in this kind of shots is more a methodological question of the atmospheric construction than a quote ideally pointing to expressionism. To avoid any misunderstanding, I am not judging the historical cinematic influences in noir, but instead just trying to pen them under the right parameters. This kind of, let us say, noir moments, should be observed working as elements within a context, and in this way their expressionistic value is not only a visual quality of a shot, but a rising tendency of the narrative entity, of what is about to be exposed in a series of events. In the process of production, these kinds of images act as phrases, and sequences of them, and it is possible to identify particular typologies of repetitions, and analogies that determine their space. There is also a circular formula that can be observed unfurling from the beginning to the end of a film, where emotional value is strictly connected to the level of a character's transformation following a rhythm of the extension of noir space within the film's space.

To give a visual explanation to this idea, I'll try to illustrate a noir space drawn as a vertical parameter of a linear story. Upon this basis, a story stands as a proportion, giving physical proportion to the space as much as to the psychological context and the literal background. (Proportion is already psychological!) As the start-point for the graph I have used Chris’s Vogler draft The Hero’s inner journey, whose narrative points I assumed as the temporal dimension of the graph, constructing on it a vertical space which illustrates the change of the psychological proportion in a noir film. As it can be seen on the draft, the rhythm is accelerating, the time of every subsequent action is shorter, but emotionally more intense, outlining in that way a solid vertical structure of dense space that keeps the rhythm steady up to the end of the film. Back to narrativity, the action is strongly conected to it, and the story line is the prerequisite for the increase in rhythm. But the focus is on itself, the story acts more internally, as a constructor. This aspect is to be connected to a mythological background which melts together with a culture, and it is noticeable in the characterization of protagonists and in the settings, and maybe most importantly in the films' structure. 

Drawing based on Chris Vogler's draft The Hero's Inner Journey.
 Many film noir authors share a common approach derived from the classical mythology, and adopt symbolism in the narrative as the bearer of sense. Chris Vogler's research is to be considered from this point of view. It runs back to the mythical origins, which are accumulated in the idea of the character-researcher, and the so well-known myth of the hero’s journey. From this perspective, the Hero’s journey is a metaphorical platform, like a tempo effect, on which it is possible to construct a variation, or regulate a level of transformation of the character or the success of his attempt. Since essentially this basis in a film is always manifested in form of a journey, it can ideally function as a labyrinth. The labyrinth that is lived by the character through his capacity and courage to commence an adventure outside of the ordinary world (which in noir is represented in strong contrast with the noir world). Transformation of a main protagonist, occurring within the conditions of the special world, eventually brings to a different than expected paradigm (from the one that would take place in an „ordinary“ world). And a significance of a film depends on how this variation is credible in the context of a myth, and, after all, how big this transformation is. What I intend here is that, even a weak story, which often in films noir is the case, can reflect this kind of originality and function. A weak story doesn’t mean a weak allegory. Film noir is a pure example of how simplicity in epic can at the same time act as a strong fantasy.

Drawing inspired by the previous illustration.

The basis of the narrative content is related to a life of a person and it is related to a life of a nation. Reading of the noir fiction confirms this hypothesis: a typical noir protagonist is an individual tormented by guilt, often for reasons going over the borders of law, and he hardly accepts his responsibilities. Anti-hero is negative down to the bottom, but there is something tragic in his life, as though at the same time he were somehow victimized by some stronger force, and he is not reasoning entirely freely. His function is determined and he, as a model, functions within certain perimeter. In a more Jungian interpretation, these are the two basic archetypes that as a model alter various temperaments of a character but that basically descend from the ancient man's common heritage.

This appeals for audience's emotions and causes not merely an answer but an identification with the protagonist's point of view in a rhetoric and imaginary way. In noir, the technique of pathos is often used, enlarging thus the quality of the narrative content. Pathos defines the space in an anthropological perspective, it emerges from the myth belonging to the past, but at the same time it takes distance from the very same myth. Pathos is multi-dimensional, it goes over spatial frames and varies in proportion with the temporal dimension, thus it does not appear directly, but in a mediated, more abstract manner.

It is impressive how excessively often noir film exploits the characteristic of pathos, and it is often actually in this use that resides the ethics of surroundings. Pathos manifests itself in the production of symbolical space at an inherent level, connected to the building of a character. In this mode, as an internal range of action, where characters are dominated by their nature, and in this way it supports the connection of the myth with the present. In this context, psychology manifests itself in space, which, the other way around, determines different degrees of its manifestation, and is in close relationship with the concept of humanity in noir. (This aspect most interestingly should be analysed in the context of domestic space in noir, and that will be my next challenge.)

I tried here to lay out an idea of what is the area through which noir space manifests in noir films, by relating formal to symbolic, passing through the domain of narration. Finally, I would point out that the conceiving of space in noir is sensitized to the interactions that occur in the making of its structure both on ideological and formal level.

Text and illustrations by Ida Grujić.


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