PRINT March 1970


Space in Film

Space is the most dramatic stylistic entity—from Giotto to Noland, from Intolerance to Weekend. How an artist deploys his space, seldom discussed in film criticism but already a tiresome word of the moment in other art, is anathema to newspaper editors, who believe readers die like flies at the sight of esthetic terminology.

If there were a textbook on film space, it would read: “There are several types of movie space, the three most important being (1) the field of the screen, (2) the psycho logical space of the actor, (3) the area of experience and geography that the film covers.” Bresson deals in shallow composition as predictable as a monk’s tonsure while Godard is a stunning de Stijl-ist using cutout figures of American flag colors asymmetrically placed against a flat white background. The frame of The Wild Bunch is a window into deep, wide, rolling, Baroque space; almost every shot is a long horizontal crowded with garrulous animality.

Jeanne Moreau, always a resentful wailing wall, works in a large space which becomes empty as she devastates it with scorn. Ida Lupino, an unforgettable drifter in a likeable antique, High Sierra (1941), works close and guardedly to the camera, her early existentialist-heroine role held down to size: she’s very unglorious, has her place and, retracting into herself, steals scenes from Bogart at his most touching. While Moreau is a sensibility ember burning from beginning to movie’s end—there’s no specific woman inside all the emotion—and Lupino is a specific woman in a cliché pushed-around-gal role, Laurence Olivier’s Archie Rice is a specific man as well as a flamboyant type. In an Entertainer role that is part burlesque and then pathos, he works from small nuances of exchange with his daughter to broad gestures, while brazening his way through cheap, humiliating skirmishes with his creditors.

Since it’s the uniting style plus the basic look of a film, the third kind of space controls everything else—acting, pace; costume. In La Femme Infidèle, Chabrol’s completely controlled horizontal moves, arch and languorous, picking up an insurance exec’s paralyzed existence of posh domesticity, set the tone, almost blueprint the way actors eat, like a paper cutout family, the distanced politeness of their talk. Virginia Woolf, an American marriage, 1960, seen for all its vicious, despairing, negating features, is middle-aged Academe flagellating in a big, hollow, theatrical space. The George-Martha shenanigans, hokey and virulent, are designed grand opera style as though the curtain were going up or down on every declamation. In a Lonely Place, a 1950 Nick Ray, is a Hollywood scene at its most lackluster, toned down, limpid, with Ray’s keynote strangeness: a sprawling, unbent composition with some what dwarfed characters, each going his own way. A conventional studio movie but very nice: Ray stages everything, in scenes heavily involved with rules of behavior, like a bridge game amongst good friends, no apparent sweat. A piece of puff pastry, Demy’s Model Shop (1969) comes together in a lazy open space: overblown, no proportions, skittering, indulgent. The scene is an absolutely transient one—drive-in bank, rock-roll group, J. C. Penney houses—that saunters lackadaisically in the most formless imagery. The Round Up (1966), stark overhead lighting from beginning to end, geometric shadows, hard peasant faces, stiff coats, big sculpture hats, is a movie of hieratic, stylized movement in a Kafka space that is mostly sinister flatness and bald verticals. Sometimes there is violent action, but Jancso’s fascinating but too insistent style is based on a taut balance between a harsh, stark, imagery and a desolate pessimism. Of all the movies mentioned here, the space here is most absolutely controlled, given over to rigidly patterned male groups.

The emphasis being given to space by today’s leading directors forces a backwards look at what has been done in movie space. In What Price Glory (1926), space is used innocently for illustrational purposes, which is not to say that it isn’t used well. Walsh’s film is still an air-filled, lyrical masterpiece: the haphazard, unprecious careers of two blustery rivals who swagger around trench and village exquisitely scaled in human terms to the frame of the screen, suggesting in their unhesitating grace the sweet-tough-earthy feeling that is a Walsh trademark. This is a very early example of Walsh’s special aptitude, getting people from place to place gracefully, giving an enchantment to bistro or barracks through repetitions in which the engineering slightly alters each trip, jump-cutting his movie into and out of events with unabashed shorthand and beautiful detail.

Where Walsh bends atmosphere, changes camera, singles out changes in viewpoint to give a deeper reaction to specific places, The Big Sleep (1948) ignores all the conventions of a gangster film to feast on meaningless business and witty asides. Walsh keeps re-establishing the same cabin retreat; Hawks, in another purely spatial gem, gives the spectator just enough to make the scene work. One of the fine moments in forties film is no longer than a blink: Bogart, as he crosses the street from one book store to another, looks up at a sign. There is as much charm here as Walsh manages with fifteen different positioning setups between Lupino and Arthur Kennedy in a motel cabin. All the unbelievable events in The Big Sleep are tied together by miserable time jumps, but, within each skit, there is a logic of space, a great idea of personality, gesture, where each person is. Bogart’s sticking shirt and brain-twisting in front of a princely colonel, which seems to have present tense quality, is typically out of touch with other events and probably dropped into its slot from a facetious memory of Faulkner.

Touch of Evil (1958) is about many things: murder, gang-rape (an American blonde marries a Mexican attorney and all her fears about Mexicans come true), a diabolic sheriff and a dozen other repellent figures. Basically it’s a movie about terrorizing, an evil-smelling good movie in which the wildly Baroque terror and menace is another world from Hawks-Walsh: an aggressive-dynamic-robust-excessive-silly universe with Welles’s career-long theme (the corruption of the not-so-innocent Everyman through wealth and power) and his inevitable efforts with space—to make it prismatic and a quagmire at the same time. Welles’s storm tunnel has always the sense of a black prankster in control of the melodrama, using a low angle camera, quack types as repulsive as Fellini’s, and high contrast night light to create a dank, shadowy, nightmare space.

Basically the best movie of Welles’s cruddy middle peak period, when he created more designed, less dependent on Hollywood films (Arkadin, Shanghai Lady) mostly about perverts, Touch of Evil is a sexual allegory, the haves and have nots, in which the disorienting space is worked for character rather than geography. An amazing film, the endless bits of excruciating black humor are mostly involved with illogical space and movement, pointing up some case of impotence or occasionally its opposite. A young Mexican lawyer jumps around jackrabbit fashion while a toad-like sheriff floats away in grease: a whacky episode has the lawyer stuffing an elevator with old colleagues while he zips up the stairs (“Well Vargas, you’re pretty light on your feet”). The funniest scenes, spatially, revolve around a great comic grotesque played by Dennis Weaver, a motel night man messed up with tics who is last seen clinging to a leafless tree, and, before that, doing woodpecker spastic effects at the sight and thought of Janet Leigh on a motel bed.

His allegorical space is a mixture of tricks, disorientation, falling apart, grotesque portraits. A deaf mute grocery clerk squints in the foreground, while Heston, on the phone, embarrassed over his wife’s eroticism from a motel bed, tries to suggest nonchalance to the store owner. A five minute street panorama develops logically behind the credits, without one cut, just. to arrive at a spectacular reverse zoom away from a bombed Cadillac. Just before the car goes up in fire, the car’s blonde has given a customs agent one of those black speeches that dislocate themselves from the image: “I’ve got this ticking noise in my head.”

Those who blew their cool in the sixties, shipwrecked on spatial problems, among other things. Winning and Polonsky’s Willie Boy seem the perfect examples, the former a race track film with no action but inflated with slow motion, slight and oblique acting, a leaky savvy about marital dalliance, and the latter a racial Western with affected photography and ambiguous motivation. Though there is smugness neither film comes to a head because of the vague, approximate way in which events are shown, the confusion about being spatially sophisticated.

So much is possible or acceptable in camera-acting-writing now that films expand with flashy camera work,jazzy heat flutters, syrupy folk music, different projection speeds, and a laxity about the final form that any scene takes. Gypsy Moths, Goodbye Columbus, Arrangement_, The Swimmer, The Graduate, Pretty Poison are caked with these glamour mechanisms. Polonsky’s invective against the crushing of the Paiutes, a disappointing but hardly loathsome movie, loses itself behind the unwieldiness of the very wide scenes.

There’s a fiesta going on at Willie’s reservation, and the point of any shot is gracefully ignored while a lyrical snowstorm occurs. In a scene of big heads and upper torsos, an interesting crowd of Indians are involved in something interesting, but what is seen is tinted coloring and Willie, a heavy jerky wave moving through a crowd of shoulders and hats. Seen between two of the sententiously parted shoulders is Willie’s Lola, an ambiguous solitary gardenia in an otherwise maidenless tribe. The movie implies no Indians can act: Katharine Ross is the only Paiute maid and the only actual Indians are bit players.

A film cannot exist outside of its spatial form. Everything in a good movie is of a piece: Joe Calleia, scared out of his wits, is a grey little bureaucrat fitted perfectly into Touch of Evil with the sinister lighting and tilted scenes in which he’s found bug-like at the end of hallways and rooms. Godard doesn’t start a project until it is very defined in its use of space: La Chinoise, an indoor picture with primary colors to look like Maoist posters and stilt-like, declamatory actors to go with a didactic message. It seems so dramatic and variable in Weekend (1968); this exciting shake-up movie is made up in progressive segments, each one having a different stylistic format, from the fixed camera close-up of a comic-porno episode (“. . . and then she sat in a saucer of milk . . . ”) through the very Hawks-like eye-level Jollying past a bumper-to-bumper tie-up on the highway, to the Hudson River pastoralism at the end when Godard clinches his idea of a degenerate, cannibalistic society and a formless, falling-apart culture. At least half the moviemakers are oblivious to the space excitement that is front-center in Weekend; the other half are flying off in all directions.

It’s very exciting to see the stylistic unity that goes into Weekend or the new Fellini, where a stubborn artist is totally committed to bringing an idea together with an image. After a whole year of varied films, it’s pertinent that Weekend seems to increase in resonance. These hopped up nuts wandering in an Everglades, drumming along the Mohawk, something about Light in August, a funny section where Anne Wiazemsky is just sitting in grass, thumb in mouth, reading a book. Compared to the podium-locked image of They Shoot Horses, Weekend is a rambling mystery not unlike the long, knotted tail swirling under an old dime-store kite.

Manny Farber