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August 18, 2008

Centripetal and Centrifugal Space in Film Noir 1939 – 1959

Centripetal and Centrifugal Space in Film Noir 1939 – 1959: Case Studies Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep


LA City Hall

L.A.s City Hall a signifier of Centripetal Space isn't usually represented in Films Noir


Introduction

Some early 20th film criticism by critics such as Siegfried Kracauer (an architect by training) has considered film in relation to cities and alongside this the growth of modernity in which representations of the city were usually associated with modernity frequently in a very optimistic way. Dziga Vertov's elegy to the city in Man With a Movie Camera is perhaps the best example of this. (Try and avoid the version with the Michael Nyman soundtrack it wrecks the meanings of the film as they might have have been generated by contemporaries).

Film noir as a cinematic category runs counter to the tradition that modernity is progress and focuses upon the seamy undersideside of the city and frequently the spaces in the city which are ignored and which contain currents that continually undermine notions of progress and the city of light and enlightenment understood as the general aims of supporters of modernity. The cinema of Weimar Germany provides some good examples of this and I don't just mean the 'expressionist cinema' which was largely finished by 1923, but rather the German films that took some of the stylistic attitudes  but also explored various aspects of crime in the city. Fritz Lang's 'M' considered from the perspective of reading spaces of the city and also alternative types of surveillance is fascinating in this respect - Lang too was an architect by training. Joe May's 'Asphalt' is another. Then  French 'Poetic Realism' of the 1930s has also had both a stylistic and critical similarities to what became known as film noir. Film Noir's origins are irrevocably a cultural reverbaration of the upheavals of the European 30 Years War 1914-1945 with many of the core directors of 'noir' having had a European if not German background  such  as Lang, Wilder & Siodmak. In the case a of Siodmak and Wilder their noir sensibilities were a million miles away from the optimimistic ethnographis style of film People on Sunday celebrating everyday life in Berlin in 1929 which was released only weeks before the Great Crash which eventually brought Germany into the hands of the Nazis.


Since the 1970s the critical category of film noir has been much debated within film studies circles. The term originated from French film critics in the aftermath of World War II when the French market was flooded with American imports of films which were unavailable under Nazi occupation. Most of these films were originally generically marketed as something else in the United States[1] however, in a post-war mood these thrillers were experienced as doom laden and pessimistic, with resonances of the French poetic-realist cycle as well as the German expressionist cycle. In recent years it seems as though 'Noir' has been overwritten and although it was once a critically developed category neo-noir has become a style / sub-genre that is exploited by the industry with many variants such as 'tech-noir'.

The definition of film noir is highly contested [2], “film noir’ suggests Vernet (1993 p 26) ‘ is a collector’s idea that, for the moment, can only be found in books’ however, for the purpose of this article the aim is to explore the spatial hypothesis proposed by Dimendberg (2004) rather than to examine definitions of ‘noir’ itself and the reader will need to consult some of the well known writings about this. The films I have chosen as case studies are accepted by all critics as central to the group of films that have been constructed as ‘noir’ and therefore provide a good basis to develop debate around Dimendberg's ideas of the representations of space.


Dimendberg argues that film noir between 1939-1959 represented the spatial infrastructure of American cities through highly specific spatial configurations marking the reconstruction of the American city space from an early modern model of centripetal space to a more complex one based upon centrifugal space. Dimendberg defines these spaces in the following way:

Centripetal and centrifugal space, tendencies towards concentration and dispersal, recur and often overlap throughout film noir. (Dimendberg, 2004 p 18).

Two core films from the film noir cycle - Double Indemnity (1944) dir. Billy Wilder and The Big Sleep (1946) dir. Howard Hawks - will be used as case studies using a detailed textual analysis of the representations of space to explore Dimendberg’s hypothesis[3]. Both films are about Los Angeles (L.A.) and both involve the work of Raymond Chandler[4]. L.A. has been the subject of much scrutiny by critics from a range of academic backgrounds such as Frederic Jameson, Mike Davis and Edward Soja and has been seen as the archetypal post-modern city.


Centrifugal and Centripetal Space

Dimendberg locates the growth of centrifugal space as a tendency or process which started in the middle of the 19th century in the United States. This was made possible by new transportation systems that intersected with a desire to live away from the intensities of the centre. Dimendberg identifies centripetal tendencies as

“... a fascination with urban density and the visible – the skyline, monuments, recognisable public spaces, and inner-city neighbourhoods” (Dimendberg 2004 p 177)

whereas centrifugal space is bound up with:

immateriality, invisibility and speed’ (ibid).

The growth of cinema as an institution has been intimately bound up with the growth of modernity and the city as part of the built environment and culturally in terms of mass urban audiences[5].

The ‘film noir’ cycle is commonly thought to have started in 1941 with the Maltese Falcon many of the core films noir emerged in the years following Double Indemnity in the late 1940s such as Mildred Pierce (1945) Michael Curtiz (Austro-Hungarian), The Big Sleep, Sunset Boulevard (1950) Wilder (Austrian). Joan Copjec, it is worth noting,  is scathing about what she describes as the

“pop-psychological diagnosis of pot-war male malaise” (Copjec 1993b)

which many argue motivated the ‘film noir’ cycle. [6]

Developments in the American city since the 1940s have combined both centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. Los Angeles is particularly interesting for film noir primarily represented Los Angeles and to a lesser extent New York notes Dimendberg. The work of Mike Davies (City of Quartz) and the geographer Edward Soja during the 1990s examined the spatial reconfigurations occurring in Los Angeles. The core of the post-industrial city for Davis was a centripetal fortress of hi-tech offices with shopping and other recreational facilities entirely spatially separated from the surrounding areas of extreme urban deprivation. The workers in the shiny quartz offices travelled either from the centrifugal periphery where gated communities were designed in an authoritarian atmosphere to control the inhabitants, in places like Orange County or, from gated / securitised higher density communities in the city (Soja, 1993). Both at work and in private time the spatial reconfiguration of Los Angeles has been marked by the reduction of public space and the increase in fortified privatised space, as privatised mall culture replaces the American ‘Mainstreet’ of modernity[7].

LA 2005

LA downtown: A centripetal fortress in the City of Quartz



For Dimendberg the representations of the city in ‘film noir’ express the changing configurations very effectively, because many of these films relied upon location shooting. It was this relationship to realism first noted by the French critic Nino Frank which makes film noir so important in relation to the representation of urban space:

Today’s spectator is sensitive to nothing more than this impression of real life, of lived experience… (Dimendberg 2004,p 5)

The Representation of Space in Double Indemnity

In Double Indemnity the film opens with a sense of the modern as a car races through the streets to a modern office building with a night-porter and lifts. The car goes past workers repairing the tram system, a reflection on both the capabilities of the modern car and a reminder of how the public transport system had been undermined by vested interests several years previously. As a figure enters the building the viewer sees a huge empty hall where the administration of modern society is carried out as the character makes his way to an office and starts to record his confession on the latest recording technology.

Double Indemnity spanish House interior

Neff & Phyllis in the Spanish Interior: Double Indemnity

This space signifies a huge engine of centripetal economic forces. In a flashback narrative structure typical of film noir we are taken to a suburb of Los Angeles on the edge of the city. The house that Walter Neff is visiting is commented upon in both its style and price as a voice-over. It is in the popular Spanish colonial style which is very expensive, retro and tasteless redolent of ‘new money’. The difficulties of transportation to the ‘downtown’ are strongly signified as the daughter gets a lift from Walter Neff to go to meet her boyfriend in downtown LA. This provides clear evidence of the centrifugal nature of the place and the need to rely on private transportation.

Boss office Double Indemnity

Keys and Neff in the Boss's well upholstered office in Double Indemnity

Another core space of the film takes place in the modern office building of the insurance company that employs Neff. The space is strongly hierarchical ranging from the porters on the door to ways in which the internal space is divided to represent the power relations. Looking down on the main hall which is full of serried rows of typists the engine of repetitive monotonous capitalism is represented. Neff who is further up the pecking order shares an office space with another salesman. Neff’s line manager (Keys) has his own office from which he is responsible for checking the deals made and assessing any claims many of which are fraudulent. The chief executive of the company has a very large office and attention is drawn to this visually and in the dialogue. This is the architecture of centripetal capitalism, an intense hub of activity, yet its location is represented only indirectly by a brief view of the City Hall through the window of the Chief Executive’s office after Phyllis has been made an offer to settle her claim. This provides only tangential reference to the metropolis.

Double Indemnity Neff and Phyllis in the supermarket

Double Indemnity: Neff meets Phyllis in the supermarket in the anonimity of no-place



Other spaces represented in the film include the supermarket where Neff arranges to meet Phyllis. This is a space created by centrifugal forces for it isn’t a localised ‘Mainstreet’ it is a space full of strangers who are unlikely to recognise either Phyllis or Neff, otherwise it would be unsafe for them. It isn’t part of a city of ‘community’ or ‘collective memory’.

Neff’s own bachelor flat is an undistinguished dormitory area of the city. It has its own underground garage for residents with a supervisor who cleans the cars as well. This signifies the type of space best described as ‘mid-town’ for the aspirant social status of the occupants.

Other spaces which are represented is the cafe in which Neff meets Lola and also the view over the Hollywood Bowl which represents a centrifugal tendency in that the centre doesn’t have the ability to provide this entertainment. This kind of space would appear to require a car to access it.

There are several off-screen places referred to which are clearly thought of as provincial compared to the importance of L.A. itself. The passenger on the train comments that Palo Alto is a ‘nice little town’. The passenger himself comes from Medford, Oregon a town of perhaps 50,000 in those days. Trains and trams represent centrifugal forces for they were designed to serve centres either of the city itself in the case of the tram or in terms of travel from one central hub to another on the train.

Phyllis on the railway Tracks

Phyllis on the railway tracks in Double Indemnity

Lola the step-daughter of Phyllis Dietrichson has also moved to Hollywood and there is precise reference made to the type of housing and thus the type of people who live there: it is a space of constrained circumstances for young hopefuls. This is also a centrifugal reference.

Los Angeles as represented by Double Indemnity is constructed as a space in which the individual to successfully negotiate the newly developing urban space must drive. That Neff’s flat has an underground garage shows that this is a modern residence built for a city which requires the car. The car itself symbolises the decentralisation of place.

Throughout the film there is recognition that space is becoming more abstract. The insurance industry is an example of a layer of abstract capitalism which creates ‘products’ out of nothing but the fear of the future. Neff knows the double indemnity clause included in expensive insurance policies is a cynical marketing tool which  for all statistical purposes is never going to happen.

Double Indemnity is a film which could have been scripted by Foucault. Keyes’ dismissing his superior’s argument relies upon the use of actuarial tables that cover every eventuality is an aspect of the new scientific methods of control which Foucault discusses[8]. Surveillance is a central theme throughout the film and the seemingly panoptic gaze -driven by statistics- which Keyes manages is seemingly far more effective than the surveillance system of the police who bought into the accidental death story. Capitalism is clearly more thorough ans scinetific in its investigations.

What makes Double Indemnity a film which is rooted in the representation of centripetal space is the marked lack of a significant centre. The downtown is only briefly seen through a car window and there is no significant landmark. This fits with Dimendberg’s comments on Crossfire (1949) and The Big Combo (1955) in which they are presented

‘…without the clearly delineated plaza, piazza, place, or Platz that traditionally provided a focal point for collective life in the large city… (Dimendberg 2004, p 89).

The most significant place in terms of monumentality is the Hollywood Bowl which is far from the centre and is only seen at a distance.

The Representation of Space in ‘The Big Sleep

In similar ways to Double Indemnity, the Big Sleep also represents the centripetal nature of contemporary LA. Whilst the spaces represented are different to those of Double Indemnity the lack of a defining central space means that this film too is focused upon the negotiation of spaces which are far from the centre. for example one shoot-out takes place in a country retreat as a signifier of space which is outside of the surveillance systems of the city.

There are several key spaces in which the action takes place. The house of the General signifies old money rather than the new money of Double Indemnity. Central places for the action are the out of town gambling club[9] and Geiger’s rented house which is used as a site of blackmail. Its exact location in the city remains obscure but it is not fully urbanised central space. Other places used are the two shops, the flat in older apartment building and run down office spaces, both Sam Spade’s and another one where a minor criminal is poisoned.

Outside Geigers Rented House

Outside of Geiger's house which was rented out.
Located in a non-specific suburb this is an example of centrifugal space


In both films cars function as significant spatial markers. Significant actions take place in them in both films. In Double Indemnity Neff develops a link with the daughter and in another car the murder takes place. In The Big Sleep the General’s chauffeur has been killed in his car, and Sam Spade falls in love with the General’s daughter in a car. The car then is a signifier of a space which is no-place. Notably some space is not represented in either film such as industrial space or working class or ethnically based places.

LA Gasholders undated

Above: an undated image of gasholders and an industrial scene in Los Angeles of the 1940s. This represents the industrialised aspects of LA not represented in the case study films

Space as Nodal

In both the films analysed space is represented as increasingly amorphous and abstract, lives appeared to be increasingly the negotiation of the space between a range of discrete nodes. Shopping space was represented as a modern node in Double Indemnity but we are never familiarised with its location, essentially the location is irrelevant. The shops represented in The Big Sleep are like the offices  inhabiting slightly run down marginalised areas - they sell second-hand and pornographic books – they aren’t the spaces of modernity like department stores. To some extent these are sites of nostalgia for Raymond Chandler, who was involved in the screenplays for both these films later moved away from LA itself. Chandler had sarcastically slighted it as a city which was losing its structure:

“Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck”. (Chandler cited Dimendberg, 2004 p 170.)

Dimendberg cites a response by Foucault to Rabinow who had noted that architects were no longer the ‘masters of space they once were or thought themselves to be’ (Rabinow cited Dimendberg 2004 p 174).The response which Foucault gave seems to fit perfectly with the above analysis of the representations of space within Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep. Foucault identified three ‘great variables’ which are territory, communication and speed all imbricated with each other in complex ways: “that exceed received understandings of the architectural and usefully define centrifugal space”. (Dimendberg 2004,157).

Given that films noir represent a dis-ease within society it is worth trying to situate the representation of L. A. within a broader framework of models of representation of the city itself. Boyer (1996) identifies three broad models of the city:

These representations of the city can be equated to the traditional, modern and contemporary periods. In many respects Los Angeles has largely missed out on the longer organic growth of this process model of city development.  In the 1870s L.A. was still a small town of little more than 5,000 people. The discovery of oil in 1892 turned L.A. into a boom town and by the middle of the 1920s it was producing nearly a quarter of the world’s oil. As well as this is was associated with the massive boom in film production as Hollywood became the world’s leading film-making place. Both of these industries are referenced in Double Indemnity. Oil is also the basis of General Sternwood’s fortune in The Big Sleep. The massive growth of industry in L.A. during the war meant it was the largest producers of cars outside of Detroit by 1950. It was also a huge centre of migrant labour, yet neither of these films make the slightest verbal or visual reference to these aspects of L.A. therefore the representations of urban space are very selective [10].

. Bunker Hill 1900

Bunker Hill 1900


L.A. is being represented as a city with little collective memory, and Chandler himself was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the city[11]. There is a hint of nostalgia in Double Indemnity when the man from Medford, Oregon says that they take their time to make sure up in Medford, when Keys is questioning him. Keys makes it very clear there is no time in L.A., underpinning Foucault's arguments, and indicative of notions of speed as one vital parameter of emerging city-space. While the city hasn’t existed as a city in the model suggested by Boyer, it seems to have entered the stage associated with the 'City of Panorama', yet only one panoramic view of the Hollywood Bowl was provided in Double Indemnity. The Hollywood Bowl itself shades into the next model of 'City as Spectacle', it appears as though the representations of the city are in transition between the two later types of city suggested by Boyer. Neither industry nor the diverse racial population are represented. In fact the city was founded by Afro-Americans. That was news to me and certainly doesn't appear in films noir as a part of the collective memory!


The City of Panorama

The city of panorama is described by Boyer as:

…the city of soaring skyscrapers and metropolitan extension, a spatial order that when seen from a birds-eye perspective that requested deciphering and reordering.” (p 41)

But this developmental process didn’t happen in Los Angeles in the way it had happened in other cities. The city hall completed in 1928 remained the tallest building in Los Angeles until 1964; height limitations were imposed because of the fear of earthquakes. At the time of the making of these case study films the City Hall was physically prominent and not ‘dwarfed’[12] by its surroundings. Yet this public monument, which was clearly centripetal in design, was specifically denied by the films  underscoring their centrifugal mode of the representation of space.

LA dowtown 2005

Above LA Downtown 2005

Los Angeles was never subjected to the disciplined vision of Le Corbusier; geology had contributed to its specific development because it has been built near a significant fault-line making earthquakes an ever-present danger. LA then is “celebrated as the prototypical contemporary place”. (Boyer p47):

Los Angeles fails to offer the traveller a series of city tableaux, framed sites ruled by the lines of perspectival space. A non-place, existing in a state of constant flux and interfaces becomes a new synthetic time-space…


City of Spectacle

The city of spectacle, argues Boyer, is a city of appropriations of historic styles, bounded by nodes within ‘an urban composition criss-crossed by highways and invisible electronic circuitry.’ (Boyer p 47). Spectacle here is linked to the work of Guy Debord and is related to the notion that vision is elevated in order to deceive[13]. By comparison Foucault, writing polemically against Debord, argued that contemporary society was based upon technologies of surveillance[14].

But Foucault’s opposition of surveillance and spectacle seems to overlook how the effects of these two regimes can coincide’. Crary (1994 p18)

Dimendberg’s arguments about the representations of urban space in films noir can’t really be fully justified on the basis of case studies of just these two films. It is also problematic that these films were both strongly influenced by Raymond Chandler who had his own particular perspectives on the nature of Los Angeles and the rapid urban changes it was undergoing. Some historical aspects of Los Angeles have been used as it is clear that its growth and the way urban space developed has been different to cities such as New York or Chicago and of course major European capitals.


Why such Pessimism about Los Angeles? Subjectivity & the Category of 'Noir'

There is an enigma of why there a pessimistic vision of LA created in these two films. Perhaps it is the critical construction of these films originally started by French critics -coming from a radically destabilised position- discussing them as 'noir' rather than as straightforward crime thrillers which has created a problem of analysis by distorting the field of vision?

Importantly both the films have redemptive aspects to them refuting accusations of ‘pessimism’. In The Big Sleep Sam Spade seems to have got his girl. another aspect of Sam spade is that he is honest at heart, he is trustworthy but he is also anti-bureaucratic. The audience can identify with him because the ends justify the means which sometimes means being unconventional to get to 'the truth'.  In Double Indemnity Neff recognises the power of true love and enables Zachette to reunite with Lola. Neff has failed to kill his substitute father figure Keys who forgives him in the closing scene. If a critical analysis can ignore for a moment the title of “film noir” and see these films as thrillers with specific target audiences the representation of Walter and Phyllis becomes one of two aspirants desperately trying to make it by taking short cuts rather than following the protestant ethic: lured by spectacle they become victims of surveillance technologies in the Foucaultian sense. The world of the Big Sleep is a different class world in which there are still people still trying to ‘make it by short cuts’ who all lose in the end. The world of the gambling club bears an indirect witness to the rapidly growing economy of LA. This is where the new money is being spent and the new upper-middle classes are emerging. Both films represent Los Angeles in a way that privileges the centrifugal over the centripetal and arguably represents spatially the roots of the postmodern city avant la lettre.


Webliography

Catapano, Peter Film Philosophy December 2006: Review of Dimendberg, Edward. 2004. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge (Mass) Harvard

Downey, Dara. Film Philosophy December 2006: Dimendberg, Edward. 2004. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge (Mass) Harvard


Bibliography.

Boyer, Christine. 1996. The City of Collective Memory. Cambridge (Mass): MIT

Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell

Clarke, David B. Ed. 1997.The Cinematic City. London: Routledge

Copjec, Joan.Ed.1993.Shades of Noir. London: Verso

Copjec, Joan. 1993. The Phenomenal Nonphenomenal. Copjec, Joan.Ed.1993.Shades of Noir. London: Verso

Crary, Jonathan. 1994. Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge (Mass): MIT

Dimendberg, Edward. 2004. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Cambridge (Mass) Harvard

Jameson, Frederic. 1993. The Synoptic Chandler. Copjec, Joan.Ed.1993.Shades of Noir. London: Verso

Rykwert, Joseph. 2000. The Seduction of Place. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson

Vernet, Marc. 1993. ‘Film Noir on the Edge of Doom’. Copjec, Joan.Ed.1993.Shades of Noir. London: Verso

TV Documentaries

City of Quartz: by Mike Davis. Channel 4 TV documentary 1991.

Los Angeles the Postmodern City: by Edward Soja. Open University: Department of Geography. 1993.



[1] Vernet 1993 p 2 points out that ‘…recall that, by those in charge of publicity at the time of its release, Gilda and films like it at the time were presented as ‘romantic melodrama’.

[2] Vernet (1993, p 14) points to 5 problematic areas in the construction of film noir as a critical category. Elsewhere in the article he challenges the cinematic techniques used such as ‘expressionist lighting’. Vernet also points out that the original list of films noir by Borde & Chaumeton only had 22 films on it. Silver & Ward writing several years later had several hundred.

[3] Wilder was an Austrian émigré who was involved in making an ethnographically based film of the city People on a Sunday made in Berlin in the summer of 1929 when optimism abounded and the industrial economy in Germany (not the rural) was still expanding. Only a few weeks later the German economy entered into a dramatic downward cycle emanating from the Wall Street Crash of October 1929. Howard Hawks was an all- American established director and had made Scarface a key film in the 1930s American gangster cycle which represented the city very differently.


[4] There is not the space here to compare representations in film noir of L. A. and New York. Each city has its own specificities.

[5] It was in post-war Germany and Soviet Russia where representations of the city in relation to the underlying tensions and hopes for modernity were first explored. Metropolis (1926 released 1927) from Fritz Lang marked a transition from the anti-modern expressionist cycle representing the literal layering of city-spaces from the Elysian heights of the elites to the catacombs of the ancient city. Lang’s representation ended in a populist appeal for a more understanding society with mediators. Walter Ruttman an avant-garde artist brought out Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). This represented the city as a space of rhythms in a documentary form but avoided social issues. Dziga Vertov’s far more political film Man With a Movie Camera (1929) celebrated the city space of modernity and identified it as a space of progress building a better future.


[6]This was the period when America underwent a period of rapid change. There were many tensions to overcome, the demobilisation of millions of service personnel and their re-employment, the re-settling of women who had been providing the industrial labour needed to run the war and as well as this the reconstruction of American cities which had an infrastructure that had been deteriorating rapidly because there had been a lack of investment because of war and the preceding depression. Nevertheless LA at this time was a boomtown which had done extremely well out of the war and it became a major beneficiary of the long post-war economic boom.

[7] Later the planner and geographer Manuel Castells would identify the construction of these cities as a fundamental aspect of Informational Society summed up in his ideas of ‘the space of flows’ and ‘timeless time’.

[8] Crary (1994) notes that Foucault as well as writing about new disciplinary regimes to create a modern subject coincide with the development of industrialisation he also describes the role of the newly constituted sciences in regulating the behaviour of subjects “crucial to the development of these new disciplinary techniques of the subject was the fixing of quantitative and statistical norms of behaviour”. (Crary 1994, p 15). Copjec (1993 b pp167-172) spends some time discussing the reference to actuarial tables in relation to Foucault

[9] Frederic Jameson (1993 p43) points out that Chandler frequently represents gambling clubs in his novels. These function as a subcategory of “ the gradual enlargement of the private club or casino into the whole closed enclave of the private development with its gates and private police”.

[10] Copjec (1993 b p 185) draws attention to the range of ‘social’ policies encouraging suburban expansion and ethnic and racial segregation which was mainly mandated by the Federal Housing Administration founded in 1934. The representations in the two case studies create a spatial absence perhaps linked to these policies.

[11] Jameson (1993 p 37) argues that Chandler is ‘the least politically correct of our modern writers’ and ‘faithfully gives vent to everything racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise socially resentful and reactionary in the American collective unconscious…”

[12] Rykwert (2000 p 132) makes similar points to Boyer in his chapter “Flight From the City: Lived Space and Virtual Space” although he doesn’t differentiate so precisely between the historical characteristics of each phase.

[13] “since the spectacle’s job is to cause a world that is no longer directly perceptible to be seen via different specialised mediations, it is inevitable that it should elevate the human sense of sight to the special place once occupied by touch; the most abstract of the senses, and the most easily deceived, sight is naturally the most readily adaptable to present day society’s generalised abstraction”. (Debord, cited Crary 1994 p 19)

[14] Our society is not one of spectacle but of surveillance… we are neither in the amphitheatre nor on stage but in the Panoptic machine.” (Foucault cited Crary 1994 p 17)


September 06, 2007

Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City

Italian Neorealism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. 2006. Mark Shiel. Wallflower Press Short Cuts Series Paperback

Italian Neorealism Rebuilding the Cinematic City

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In all of this, the notion of representing ‘the real’ – real society, real cities, real people – has become more and more compromised and indeed commodified. In this cultural climate, perhaps the time is right to reclaim the real for its radical potential. (Shiel p 127)



ossessione_1a.jpg

Visconti's Ossessione



Introduction

I still think that Italian Cinema from 1943 to approximately 1980 is the most productive and interesting one of any national cinema. Sadly it is becoming less well known as this period disappears into history. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly any  serious study of the period is embedded in Italian departments and knowledge is thus limited to a few cognoscenti. Neorealism is one of the few aspects of Italian cinema taught more generally on film studies courses however this is often restricted to a brief chapter in a more general film history book. Yet ,as Shiel’s last paragraph cited above notes, rather than the solidarity of early neorealism being an historical occurrence perhaps the sentiments and general approach of neorealism are due a revival. As globalisation runs its course leaving pockets of bitter poverty in even the richest countries and in countries like Brazil leading to bullet proof cars and helicopters for the upper classes representing the real seems to be becoming a priority.

Shiel’s recent book on neorealism is therefore more than welcome because it allows the interested follower of Italian cinema and also students an accessible but authoritative route into this fascinating period of European and Italian history in greater depth. The reader won't put of by the intensely theoretical work which is aimed at a very small target audience of those already in the know which is in part unfortunate outcome of the pressure of the research assessment exercise in Universities.

I strongly recommend this to colleagues in the tertiary sector who teach courses such as the neorealism option on the World Cinema unit for the WJEC A level. It may also be useful for student supervisors of the OCR critical research project area for those taking the World Cinema option. Whilst the book will be too difficult for most sixth formers it will prove a remarkable useful resource which is very well informed indeed as well as original and imaginative and well written as one would expect from somebody who is teaching on the recently upgraded film studies depart at Kings College London.

Technical Aspects of the Book

It may seem a little churlish and pedantic to be critical of the book’s organisation but it would have been useful to have had pages references in the index to mentions of specific films, perhaps under the name of the director as Bondanella does in his large general history of Italian cinema. It is very useful to be able to navigate straight to comment upon a particular film without having to trawl through the book. As none of the other books in this series do this perhaps Wallflower will think about doing this should the titles come out in revised editions which many of them deserve to.

What is Neorealism?



roma_1.jpg

The iconic image of Anna Magnani as Pina moments before being gunned down in Rossellini's Roma Citta Aperta  

(Link to BBC interview with Rossellini on this Rossellini page)



Defining Neorealism very precisely is fraught with difficulties. Discourse around Neorealism tends to fall into two schools of thought however Shiel neatly sidesteps this with a convincing argument. Defining any cultural moment is notoriously difficult and the more closely the object of research is gazed upon the more heterogeneous it can seem. Shiel notes that the term Neorealism can be used ‘flexibly’. For some, Neorealism runs from Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) until Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957). Other have preferred a more tightly defined range of films from Rossellini’s Rome Open City to De Sica’s Umberto D (1952). This kind of discussion can quickly fall into point-scoring and it is more useful to see the whole period as being inextricably linked and indeed being strongly influential well beyond 1957. In this sense Raymond Williams’ notion of ‘structures of feeling’ is a useful term to call upon when discussing cultural moments and movements. Shiel chooses the following approach:

Neorealism is also thought of not so much as a particular moment defined by starting and end dates, but as a historically – and culturally – specific manifestation of the general aesthetic quality known as ‘realism’, which is characterised by a disposition to the ontological truth of the physical visible world. From this perspective, the realism of Italian Neorealism manifested itself in a distinctive visual style. (Shiel: 2006 p1).

Importantly Shiel points out that not all neorealist films contain all of the cinematic strategies that neorealism is know for – location shooting, use of non-professional actors etc. There isn’t a precise formulaic set of rules to describe neorealism.




umberto_d_3.jpg

De Sica holds to the notion of having a non-professional actor in the leading role in Umberto D



Neorealism as a Wider Cultural Movement

Neorealism was a much wider cultural movement than just cinema. Many people will be familiar with writers such as Calvino who were strongly associated with neorealism however the movement extended to photographers and painters and interestingly also architects. This link to architecture was something new to me and is dealt with in chapter three of the book called neorealism and the City. Calvino’s book Invisible Cities is of course one link and Deleuze of course wrote about the different city space of post-war cinema because the spaces of the cities were opened up by the devastation of the fighting. Rossellini deal with this in Paisa particularly in the episode based upon Florence, but nowhere is more marked than in his Germany Year Zero where he was specifically invited by the authorities to film in Berlin because of Paisa and of course Rome Open City. Other critics and theorists apart from Deleuze also wrote extensively about the city and cinema especially Kracauer and Bazin.




Germany Year Zero

Rossellini's Germany Year Zero





The Structure of the Book

The book is well structured with an initial chapter describing neorealism, here the importance of the French pre-war directors Renoir, Carne and Clair is emphasised. The chapter also contains some useful synopses of the emergence of neorealist directors under the Fascist regime such as Rossellini and De Sica. The book then moves on to examine the first phase of neorealism as Shiel understands it because he sees work of the 1950s as being part of neorealism which is adapting to changing circumstances rather than being a complete break with what had gone before. In the first phase the dominant feel of the films are built around a notion of solidarity.

I found chapter three perhaps the most interesting because Shiel has applied the growing interest within the fields of film and cultural studies with the city and representations of the city to the realm  of neorealist cinema.

Neoralist images of post-war urban crisis are an especially important legacy because Italy was the only one of the defeated Axis powers whose cinematic representations of the city achieved iconic status internationally so soon after its military defeat. (Shiel p68)

He has also extended the concept of neorealism to movements in architecture allied to notions of building for community. Shiel also draws parallels in the shift from phase one of neorealism (solidarity), to the second phase (focusing more on disaffection and alienation) to shifts in architectural discourse and practices.



Rocco and his Brothers 11   Rooco and his Brothers 12

Modern Northern Milan meets Southern emigrants in Rocco and his Brothers from Visconti.

It is a great film and thoroughly embedded with the concrns of modernisation and modernity. Visconti meets Dickens with politics perhaps. It is a film which seems to be a direct descendent if not a continuation of  neorealism. Its treatment of the city is well worth considering in depth.  However it isn't a film which Shiel mentions, whilst writers like Bondanella rather sweep aside its powerful political insights suggesting it is more operatic and melodramatic than having the spirit of " a naturalist novel or a neorealist film". (Bondanella 2002, p198)



Chapter four is entitled “The Battle for Neorealism”. It focuses upon the rapidly changing circumstances within Italian society as Italian politics consolidated around the Christian Democrats who were victorious in the 1948 general election a time when Hollywood comes to dominate Italian cinema. Shiel also notes the demands from the more hard-line left such as the critic Umberto Barbaro ( http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/cinemaitalia/neorealism.html ) for a move towards an aesthetic based upon Socialist-Realism, which had less to do with reality and more to do with creating mythical heroes. In this chapter Shiel also makes a brief comment upon Visconti’s Bellissima largely following Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s position in which Bellissima carries:

neorealist hallmarks but its light-hearted comedy and melodrama set it somewhat apart from the rest of Visconti’s generally political oeuvre. (Shiel p 93).

As can be seen from my review of the recently released DVD of Bellissima from Eureka Video I have a reading which gives Visconti credence for having a sharp political cutting edge whilst still maintaining the solidarity of neorealism which is hammered home (perhaps unconvincingly but that is an artistic comment not a political one).Hopefully readers won’t be put off Visconti’s excellent film by this comment.



bellissima_7.jpg

A moving moment in Visconti's Bellissima as the built in advantages of the middle classes aremade abundantly clear



Cronaca di’un amore poster

Poster of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore



In chapter five Shiel reviews neorealism’s second phase. In this analysis he is in agreement with Andre Bazin who considers that it was in the closing shot of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria that finally closes the door on neorealism. The chapter opens with an analysis of Antonioni’s Cronaca di’un amore. Sadly I haven’t seen this film which along with I think all of Antonioni’s early work is unavailable in the UK so I’m unable to comment upon Shiel’s analysis beyond noting that there is no reason to think of it as anything but thorough.



voyage_to_italy_5.jpg

Rossellini's Voyage in Italy



In chapter five Shiel also comments upon the films of Rossellini from this period, with some time spent on Voyage in Italy one of several from this time made with Ingrid Bergman. This film at least is available in an excellent BFI version with a very interesting analytical commentary by Laura Mulvey as an extra. Shiel says of Voyage in Italy:

Comprises an expansion of neorealism in the direction of the metaphysical or spiritual concerns and resembles the direction taken by Antonioni. (p 104).

Rossellini had commented as early as 1949 very soon after the Christian Democrats came to power that “ You cannot go on shooting in ruined cities forever”, a clear recognition of the rapid changes and that European reconstruction was beginning to have an effect. Shiel argues that in Francis God’s Jester (available from Eureka video) Rossellini was playing with a metaphor where the relationship with God and other humans was played out in the absence of material. A comment perhaps on the priorities of the CD party and the values being expressed as what became known as the ‘economic miracle’ got under way.

Nights of Cabiria 3

Above from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria

From here Shiel moves to examine the work of Fellini who made six films during this period of the early to mid-fifties. The focus here lies upon Nights of Cabiria. Shiel suggests that Fellini:

Employed realism as a window onto internal character although like the films of Antonioni and Rossellini they never strayed far from social concerns and presented their personal tragedies as narratives with real social implications. (p 113)

Shiel notes that it was this film which initially working within a neorealist framework grows out of it in its final moments. It was Bazin who noted that whilst the film remained largely neorealist he noted that Cabiria was looking at the spectator in a way that changed the relationship of the spectator to the film moving away from the objectivity of the spectator prized by neorealism.

Shiel’s conclusion which I have noted at the beginning of this review notes the legacy of neorealism. Here Shiel claims a wide range of important films on a global scale were influenced by neorealism. Whist I don’t wish to decry these claims I think that the social concern expressed in We are the Lambeth Boys by Karel Reisz (1959) may be underplaying the British documentary connection especially the influence of Humphrey Jennings many of whose films are considerably underestimated. In that sense the notions of realism which Shiel clearly thinks have been seriously downplayed in academia in recent years partially because of the rise of post-modern discourse has a wide and deep roots running through European film culture. Certainly the work of Francesco Rosi and Olmi kept the neorealist flame alive in Italy itself.




Tree of Wooden Clogs 2

From Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs



Conclusion

As an excellent, readable, rigorously researched but accessible book this is the best that I have read on neorealism from the perspective of the more general reader. It would be an excellent book to have as a reference for those new to neorealism as it provides enough contextual information to place this loose movement in a holistic sense, it chooses a good range of films to use as brief case studies and provides an historical scope which includes both the origins of the movement and the long-term influences of this movement which has had a critical success which far outweighs the box-office returns of the time. The book provides a good range of films to be followed up and an excellent range of references which opportunities for the more committed reader to follow up. This book is a must for students, teachers and those interested in Italian and / or European cinema and comes strongly recommended.


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