The Poetry of Space

By Janet Harbord

code-unknown-michael-haneke-1.jpgCode Unknown, 2000

The geography of uncertainty: thoughts on cities and cinema

Film has consistently been thought of as a time-based medium. In relation to many other art forms, the material of film is duration, an ephemeral substance we experience through time. This emphasis on the temporal might in part be attributed to the birth of cinema in the age of modernism, characterised by a fascination with time’s differently textured moments. Cinema has in many ways been read as a monument to the psychic experience of modernity, the tendency towards absence (the screen rather than the object), and ellipsis and disjunction (montage). Yet more recently film’s relation to space has become a focus of interest and debate, for filmmakers and critics alike. This subtle shift of emphasis has everything to do with the current context, an age of globalisation, which has radically reconditioned our relationship to space.

At its most general level, globalisation eliminates the specific histories of place and operates through a connection across space. The global pretends to a culture of homogeneity, yet is characterised by a profound unevenness of its operations, producing places that become networked and those that become obscured. And even within the emerging centres of a new network (global cities), the experience of place is radically marked by difference, inequality and dissidence. This dynamic of globalisation, of a culture of homogeneity and power versus heterogeneity and oppression, describes the relation of mainstream cinema to its others. Hollywood product holds a monopoly on the super-highways of film dissemination, whilst the independent/alternative cinemas are forced into smaller channels of production and distribution.

This much describes an over-familiar situation. But a further consequence of this global disparity re-emerges in the film cultures themselves and their differential relation to time and space. Hollywood’s main preoccupations with large-budget, high concept films work through a time line, the restaging of past events or the projection of futurist fantasies. Whether looking back or forwards, Hollywood’s mastery is of the temporal, epic in scale and mythic in tone. In response, alternative cinemas are increasingly presenting us with a sense of the striated, uneven texture of space, and in so doing, rewriting the experience of globalisation from a position of alterity. Yet this is not simply an issue of representation, of how space appears; the spatial ‘turn’ in film is more ambitiously rewriting the rules of story structure.

code-unknown-michael-haneke-2.jpg Code Unknown, 2000

Colliding tales

Alternative cinemas have various ways of engaging with the spatial, too numerous to document here. Of particular note is an engagement with the global city; not that there is ‘a’ global city, but rather symmetries and connections with the experience of living in these iconic centres. From a distance (a satellite perspective) these nodes light up like a string of fairy lights across the globe, set aglow by the energy of finance, information and population flows. In proximity, at street level, the energy is far more chaotic, dispersed and colliding. In Amores Perros the global city is Mexico City, in Code Unknown a less than glamorous Paris, and in Ten the constantly moving backdrop to the taxi’s window is Tehran.

These are films that shift the conventional terms of story towards their opposite: narrative progression and unity gives way to a co-existence of stories, the purposeful development of plot gives way to a randomness of connections, the poetry of chance. The temporal of course plays its part as the emphasis rests with the simultaneous occurrence of events rather than a sequential unravelling over time. Yet it is the limited pathways of lives, and stories, that navigate a chaotic, disconnected route through the city that confer a special status on space.

The city in the era of globalisation is a different imaginary space to the rationalized efficient organism of modernity’s dream. It is an eclectic space yet such eclecticism is played out as lives striated, lived proximately yet distanced by social inequality. Amores Perros is a film divided into three parts, and located in three social enclaves. It is the story of a young man struggling with an impoverished life of hardship and survival, a successful model and her married lover, a former guerrilla socialist turned tramp.

ten-abbas-kiarostami.jpgTen, 2002

Each story is a thread within the dense fabric of the city, overlapping with others coincidently as characters witness each other unknowingly. The only real connection takes place through collision, a car crash that acts as a point of convergence repeated in the film. We return to this event not as a decisive moment of enlightenment but as the nightmare of an eternally recurring loop. The boy is hurt and his friend killed, the model incurs injuries leading to the amputation of a leg and the end of her career, the tramp steals the human artefact of a wallet and takes the boy’s dog to nurse back to health.

If we are used to coincidence as in Hollywood comic capers of chance meetings, mis-timed events and misunderstandings, Amores Perros works through a more darkly rendered sense of contingency and violent encounter. The violence of such collisions is not contained by a narrative structure leading towards an explicable resolution, but continues to flare out into separate journeys once again: the boy leaves the city for a life elsewhere, the relationship of the model and her lover is fundamentally challenged and potentially damaged, it is only the tramp who is transformed for ‘the better’. His story is one of reparation with his daughter and an implied return to a visible social role.

Yet the act of reparation is itself telling: the tramp breaks into the daughter’s apartment to explore and inhabit her space whilst she is absent. In another twist of the spatial relations of the city, the character can inhabit the same space as his daughter yet have no contact. Just as proximity in city life is not equal to intimacy, so intimacy does not depend on the synchronous sharing of space. And just as a face to face encounter does not result in communication, human connection increasingly occurs through mediated forms. If human encounters have become impossible, characterised by brutality (the dog fights, the car crash), human connection is realisable only in the absence of the other.

amores-perros-alejandro-gonzalez-inarritu-1.jpgAmores Perros, 2000

If there is a symmetry between the spatial segregation of the city and the fragmentation of narrative form, this is pushed further in Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys. As the subtitle suggests, the form of the film enacts the fracturing of narrative coherence. The film effectively stages the alienation of city life for the audience through its refusal to make connections, interpret events as meaningful, to effectively decipher a code for us. Yet the spatial relations of the film are not simply reproducing alienation but presenting the imaginary impossibility of a shared social space, the failure of the city as an emblem of unity.

Furthermore, the city is seen to be constituted through its relations with ‘elsewhere’. The film opens on a Paris street, the centre of cosmopolitan life, yet immediately the integrity of that is questioned. A woman is met by her partner’s young brother who has deserted rural life with his father for the dream of the city. Their meeting is then complicated by the boy dropping rubbish into the lap of a woman begging. The boy is then held to account by a man witness to this who attempts to force an apology, which ends in a tussle. The police arrive and swiftly arrest the other young man whose ‘guilt’ is read by the colour of his skin.

Code Unknown brings together stories from different places which converge in Paris. Here, the emphasis is not on collision but the failure of communication. The city is a site of provisional linkages in an increasingly mobile world. But the experience of other spaces is carried over, inscribed in each character. The photojournalist who has been in the war zone of the former Yugoslavia is compelled to return there (the experience of elsewhere conditions the experience of the ‘here’), the economic migrant who begs on the streets of Paris and is deported makes a journey back to Paris, the boy who lives on a farm with his father cannot exist there knowing the life of the city, and the African-born father leaves Paris to visit his homeland.

amores-perros-alejandro-gonzalez-inarritu-2.jpgAmores Perros, 2000

Mobility transforms our relationship to space; travel is not the unproblematic opening of new horizons, but a psychic marking, more often a scarring. We are the product of where we have been. And with this accumulated spatial baggage, the possibility of any homecoming is eliminated. The idea of a shared space being the locus of a common social experience is shattered as the film frays into separate stories and the impossible telling of those tales.

If the incompleteness of the title of the film warns us against the expectation of a central unifying story, this is a trope reiterated by editing. Scenes begin in the middle of a conversation and cut out before the resolution of an ending. Such radical cutting mitigates against our full understanding of a scene, our ability to connect stories. It re-enacts the impossibility of communication between characters, finding a filmic language that reproduces the experience of social fragmentation. And it is a language whose rules appear as arbitrary as the human encounters manufactured by the city. Code Unknown does not simply ‘represent’ the dissipated condition of city life but allows the language of film (of editing and story structure) to be rewritten in the process.

These films foreground the paradoxes of globalisation: proximity without intimacy, exchange without understanding, spatial clustering without sociality. It is a type of filmmaking that undoes the global myths of spatio-temporal compression and connection, of world solutions to world problems, of global communities. There is no stabilising shot of the city, but as in Ten, a view from a taxi window of a fleeting cityscape, a view never quite pulled into focus. We are inside a moving car whose direction is subject to the control of the paying passenger. We witness the stories of those who we do not even face and these may be moments of a provisional intimacy or a banal exchange. We share space in an arbitrary way as we attempt clumsily to navigate our individual paths through it. This is the underbelly of the global beast, below the networks of corporate control and secure routes of commodity exchange, an experience of chaotic pathways and random collisions.

Janet Harbord is a lecturer in Film Studies at Goldsmiths and the author of Film Cultures (Sage, 2002).