The Poetics of Cinematic Space

image from daily.greencine.comMany people have mentions parallels between architecture and cinema, often in passing without fully developing the analogies. Architects will refer to their designs as narratives of spacial sequences. For example, judicial architecture conventionally starts with a set of stairs leading to an entrance and concludes with the confrontation with a judge on a raised platform–a steady procession upwards without ever reaching a summit. That place is reserved for the law. There have been many architectural films. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is the most famous; another, less obvious one is Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). 

Like Hawks, director Guy Madden recognizes the power of space to create a mystery and a mood. Madden’s forthcoming film Keyhole, which screened at SXSW this year, is a gangster film based on The Odyssey. As he tells Steve Dollar at GreenCine, Keyhole had another, even more unusual source. 

It all came out of that Gaston Bachelard book The Poetics of Space, written in the ’40s, which is a really wonderful read. It taps into thoughts you always had but didn’t realize you had: That each room in your childhood home would produce feelings, a real palette of feelings. The space under a stairway, the smell of the basement, the privacy of your bedroom, the bathroom, the communal living spaces. They all produce an unbelievably complex array.

No symphony could match the complexity of the feelings these things produce, whether you live under a palm frond or in a mansion. Since we all live in the present and the past simultaneously, every home, the various corners and the nooks and crannies, all store up memories as well. When you tuck yourself into bed at night, you’re actually piling on blankets of memories. The car headlight washes across your ceiling just as you’re going to sleep, and it reveals more memories up there.

The moody atmosherics of film noir, Madden suggests, come from the viewer’s relation to space, domestic space in particular. This idea goes against the painterly, chiaroscuro bias of most discussions of film noir. 

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