In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« DVD Journal: "5x2" | Main | Dangnabit »

April 06, 2007

Landscape, Movies & Modernism

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

Does it ever strike you as odd that movies focus so little on landscape? I know, some films engage landscape extensively, but by and large it seems kind of used as little more than a backdrop, or as symbolism.

I wonder if that is at least partially because conventional movie language prefers to fragment space (to say nothing of time). Think how rare it is in a movie that the action takes place in any truly coherent space. By coherent space I mean, a situation in which it actually matters in what precise spatial relation people are to one another, or to things. Of the basic w-type questions, movies are big on who, what, why and how; not so much on when or where.


I wonder if that's one reason I like Buster Keaton movies. Slapstick comedy definitely requires spatial coherence, and he takes this to a very high level in many of his films. His movies are among the few in which spatial coherence really counts for something.

Of course, that may also explain something profound about modernism in art generally, for as we know, movies are the modernist art form par excellence. To wit, modernism claims to be rational (truth of materials, form follows function, no shenanigans about ornament) and yet modern art forces you to interact with it in a fragmented, chopped up way, forcing you to make it all add up in your head. Modern architecture notoriously photographs better than it feels in person, a very "cubistic" quality if you think about it; whereas walking through classical buildings makes sense in person, and requires very little conceptual fancy-dancing.

Hmmmm. Any thoughts on this?



posted by Friedrich at April 6, 2007


What a good set of questions. Hmm. I wonder if it might be worth teasing apart the ideas of "locale" and "spatial coherence." Does one necessarily imply the other? Maybe a film could really reek of its setting (Hawaii! Florence!) but still be a mess in terms of situating you GPS-style in a particular space in that location ...

But who would be the great masters of spatial coherence? Wyler? Renoir? There are those Euro-arty directors who make films that are all long, grand, elaborate 8 minute shots ... You certainly know where you are, but does it come from an interest in space per se? And I wonder how various cultures differ in how they sense the whole "where you are in space" thing ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 6, 2007 2:37 PM

This question always reminds me of "The French Connection". The movie is shot in Manhattan, but it is the most unglamorous Manhattan in any movie ever. The REAL Manhattan really comes though. One of my favorites.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 6, 2007 2:52 PM

I have wondered about this, but from a different perspective. Because, fo a while, it seemed the standard opening of a Hollywood movie was long gliding shot from a plane or a helicopter above a city, often at night, zooming in eventually on one point important for the main character[s]. As if to say: this is all you viewers need to know about where all this takes place. From space to face in one minute flat.

Posted by: ijsbrand on April 6, 2007 3:24 PM

Not sure I understand what coherent space is. But if what is meant by that phrase is a strong sense of place and its impact on the humans who occupy it, Elia Kazan's films have it.

On The Waterfront was filmed almost entirely in Hoboken, New Jersey, when that place was gritty, industrial, working class; before gentrification had set in. The film was shot in black & white and in overcast dank winter weather. It's almost as though the characters in the film are stained with the darkness of the place.

Wild River was shot in the Tennessee countryside outside Knoxville. It was shot in the springtime and in color. No other film I've seen has come halfway near capturing the heartbreaking beauty of the Appalachian spring. The casting brilliantly fits the landscape. Lee Remick, though in real life coming from great wealth, had the special fine boned beauty sometimes seen in backwoods women. At the end of the film, the actress who plays the matriarch of the family, Jo Van Fleet, is relocated by the TVA from her condemned hill home to some clean but characterless house next to a highway. The last scene of the film, showing her sitting in front of the place, expressionless, with trucks crossing the screen in front of her, is one of the most desolate scenes in American film. She has been deprived of her "coherent space."

America, America also comes to mind. Shot in black and white in Anatolia (that part of Turkey which was once largely Greek, before the Turks "solved" the Greek problem). The incredibly harsh, rocky landscape acts, in the film, almost as an antagonist of the young Greek wannabe emigrant as he stumbles across it trying to escape to the promised land, America.

Posted by: ricpic on April 6, 2007 3:48 PM

Modernism idealized physicality a lot like Mondrian, is who I think of when I read chopped up. Movies historically are modern also.

The Hood Company

Posted by: Brian Hadd on April 6, 2007 4:38 PM

Friedrich – A provocative post that touches on a number of my favorite ways of thinking about movies. However, I think you might be conflating or confusing “landscape” and “space,” and do not think that any notions of modernism has much to do with how space is handled in films.

I agree with you about Buster Keaton, whose background was in vaudeville and yet who used space and movement through space in ways that still seem adventurous today. But you can see some of this same stuff in early French and German films, many of whose creators were deeply immersed in various modernist movements.

Oddly enough, you can find an analog to Keaton’s use of space in some Asian action films. Jackie Chan was not only inspired by Keaton, but actually recreates some of Keaton’s set pieces in his own work. And, ironically enough, Chan’s background was in the Peking Opera, a more rigid but still rough analog to vaudeville. Some vaudeville and Peking Opera made use of unexpected entrances and exits and the upper and lower areas of the stage, and even popping out of curtains, etc, in order to surprise the audience, and some of this sensibility informs the visual style of Keaton, Chan and others. I strongly recommend almost any number of Chan films, but especially Police Story 3 (aka Supercop) with Michelle Yeoh. I also recommend other Hong Kong films, such as “Peking Opera Blues,” “Iron Monkey,” “Once Upon A Time In China,” and John Woo’s “Hard Boiled.” All these films are easily available as DVDs in the US. Although it is not a great film, John Woo’s early American film with Jean Claude van Damme, “Hard Target,” also makes for interesting viewing. There is also the 1950s French film, “The Wages of Fear.”

One quality that these films share is the following: often an action sequence deliberately moves vertically upwards or downwards, or moves “deeper” into the frame, or into an unexpected direction. By contrast, in too many American films, the action is centered in the middle of the screen or there is a relatively static sequence in which stuff just blows up in front of the audience. These films also exhibit a sure sense of territory, and the viewer always knows exactly where something takes place. By contrast, one of my complaints about Michael Bay’s 1996 film, “The Rock,” is that even though much of the action took place at a single location, Alcatraz, the film’s sense of geography was garbled, and you did not always know where the bad guys and good guys were or where they were headed, which (for me) dissipated the action.

For my money, directors as diverse as Hitchcock, Truffaut and Bergman, handle space beautifully (check out Bergman’s perversely open use of the stage in his version of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”). British director Michael Powell makes wonderful use of landscapes, space and movement in “I Know Where I’m Going,” as does John Boorman in “Point Blank” (San Francisco and Alcatraz, again) and “Excalibur.”

One IMDB user review of Henri-George Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” notes: Clouzet's direction is characterized by a vivid depiction of things that we can feel: the mud and filth in the streets, the desperation and the boredom, the cruelty and meanness of men, the oil on their bodies, the singular fact of a ton of nitro in the back seat so that every move is a neuron-exposing adventure.

In short, I think that you have to look at the work of specific filmmakers and their specific inspirations rather than fallback on a general notion of how “modernism,” however you want to define it, may have influenced movies.

Posted by: Alec on April 6, 2007 4:52 PM

People either seem to be bothered by the lack of attention to physical space in films or to never notice it at all. This post immediately made me think of reviewer Danny Peary's complaint about the fitfully amusing 1980s mess "Buckaroo Banzai":

The story gets lost because of the chaotic pacing and lack of continuity, the overabundance of characters who run around in fancy outfits with no place to go, and the fact that first-time director W. D. Richter never bothers to establish where anyone is relation to anyone else."

I think that's the first time I noticed the problem, but since then I can't miss it.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 6, 2007 5:53 PM

I've wondered how much movie makers have small screen in mind rather than large screen, knowing that the movie will be seen by many on a television screen or a computer screen.

I was astonished when I saw "Unforgiven". The landscape was huge and made the tensions in that landscape seem small, even though they were huge to the participants.

I liked the way that movie sometimes treated human characters, relative to the landscape, in a way similar to how Chinese landscapists create huge natural scenes with human figure the size of ants, as if to put the place of humans in the world into a different perspective.

Posted by: raymond pert on April 6, 2007 7:50 PM

FVB wrote:

"By coherent space I mean, a situation in which it actually matters in what precise spatial relation people are to one another, or to things."

Benjamin Hemric writes:

I'm so glad you wrote about this as I've been intrigued by this idea for quite a while over the years but don't ever recall having run across a discussion of it until now.

If I remember correctly, most of my thoughts about this concept have been along the lines of how "neat" it would be if film makers actually utilized this idea more often. (In other words, I've noticed more missed opportunities, than realized ones.)

A few films that immediately come to mind with regard to "coherent space":

1) "On the Waterfront"

When I think of "coherent space," this may be "the" film that comes quickest to mind -- in both a positive and a negative way. "Positive" for two reasons: 1) because the film has an incredibly strong "sense of place" to begin with; 2) because I got the strong impression when I first saw the movie on TV that the director was actually conscious of using "coherent space" when he made the movie.

"Negative" for two reasons: 1) Although I admired the sense of place when I first saw the movie on TV (when I was a still and kid and hadn't been around NYC that much), nevertheless something about this movie, which was "supposedly" set in Brooklyn, struck me as being seriously "off." At first I couldn't put my finger on it, and then I realized that the buildings were "backwards" -- e.g., if this was really supposed to be Brooklyn, the Empire State Building would be to the right of Lower Manhattan, not to the left!

Negative reason "two": when I finally visited Hoboken, it seemed to me (and I could be wrong) that the actual settings used bore a relationship to each other that would make certain actions of the characters in the film somewhat illogical (e.g., going out of their way to be in this or that spot).

2) "Moonstruck"

I actually had trouble following the plot line of this film because I thought (perhaps erroneously?) that the locations were used "illogically." (I could be wrong about this though as I may have misplaced where something was shot.) Plus, while some of the location shots were obviously NYC, some of them were also obviously not really NYC (and indeed, for economic reasons, some of the location shooting was done in, I believe, Toronto).

3) "Tales from the Crypt"

If I remember correctly, the opening segment of this TV show was an animated "fly through" of a haunted house that was "spatially" quite impressive.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 6, 2007 9:43 PM


Excellent question. I was thinking about a related question today. I am rereading Thoreau's Walden. I remember thinking the first time I read it almost forty years ago that I can easily imagine this book being made into a movie. It would be an artfilm, more like a documentary than a conventional narrative. A lot of nature-photos. Imagine the bravura sequence, the battle between the red ants and the black ants. I would give it a strong music track (by John Adams maybe). This of course has never been done, and probably never will be, even though it could be done with a great deal of artistic value. Why not? The answer of is not the limitations of the medium (considered merely as the technology of filmic presentation).

The answer is that movies as they exist are dramas. Dramas are about conflict. And except in the cases where the conflict is "man against nature" a drama will only ever use landscape as backdrop, just as opera and stage drama does. End of story.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 7, 2007 1:22 AM

Benjamin Hemric,

About the Empire State Building being "backwards" in On The Waterfront: I can assure you it is not. The reason I say this with such assurance: I became something of a nut regarding On The Waterfront in my youth. It was my Sorrows of Young Werther, as it were. The film was not "supposedly" set in Brooklyn. How do I know this? Early in the film there is a scene in which the union goons gather in the back room of a bar to be payed off. It has been discovered that one of them collected protection money, but then shortchanged the head goon, John Friendly. Friendly grabs him by the labels and shouts: "Ya come from Brooklyn? Go back ta Brooklyn. Ya don' woik here no more." The film was shot in Hoboken and was meant to be seen as taking place on the Joisey side of the old North River.

About the locations used in the film not making sense from the standpoint of the actual distances between them? On that point you're absolutely right. Artistic license.

Posted by: ricpic on April 7, 2007 9:29 AM

The second half of Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," where the soldiers come under sniper attack in a city apartment block, is completely coherent topographically. I could almost diagram the setting today. The angles of danger from sniper fire and safety caused by corners of the building are delineated out with geometric care.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 7, 2007 2:59 PM

Now, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was shot on a movie studio lot in England, not in anything like the original location, so perhaps there is a contradiction between having a coherent space as in FMJ and having a realistic one.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 7, 2007 3:01 PM

Steve Sailer – RE: Now, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was shot on a movie studio lot in England, not in anything like the original location, so perhaps there is a contradiction between having a coherent space as in FMJ and having a realistic one.

Not at all. One of the oddest, yet most persistent false claims on the part of many movie-goers is the strong demand or preference for “realism.” I call this the naturalistic fallacy, since most people have no idea that a supposedly “real” location or landscape might be a model, a substitute location, a soundstage or even a matte painting. But as long as the viewer’s eye is suitably deceived, he or she will accept the illusion as real.

The wonderful African landscapes inhabited by the proto-humans in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odysses” are all front-projected matte paintings, and are just as impressive as the equally “realistic,” but obviously un-real, space footage. Kubrick’s imagined space footage, in turn, has influenced what we expect being in outer space to look and feel like.

Sean Connery never set foot in the United States during the filming of “Goldfinger.” All his American scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios in London, both none of this affected a viewer’s sense of exotic locales being used in a Bond film. Also, Gert “Goldfinger” Frobe’s dialog was dubbed by actor Michael Collins, still another example of movie magic trumping “realism.”

Derek Lowe: Re - "Buckaroo Banzai." Interesting stuff about director W.D. Richter. Oddly enough, the shambling, shaggy Banzai is one of my favorite films. In some ways, the visual ineptness adds to the drugged out genial sensibility of the film.

Raymond Pert – RE: I've wondered how much movie makers have small screen in mind rather than large screen, knowing that the movie will be seen by many on a television screen or a computer screen.

Some filmmakers have been known to deliberately frame some of their shots with the ultimate video market in mind. Other directors, especially some whose background is music videos, fall back on TV-style framing as a crutch because they don’t know their craft well enough to exploit the visual opportunities of the movie screen, even though many of these people are film school graduates. Ironically enough, some of the “framed for video” works look anemic on big screen home-theater systems. Another bit of irony, perhaps, is to realize that a number of 50s and 60s directors whose background was the stage or series TV felt challenged and liberated when they finally were able to make feature films. Robert Altman and Sam Pekinpah, for example, directed a lot of episodic TV before graduating to the movies.

By the way, even though Altman’s “Gosford Park” is a multi-character chamber piece with almost all the action taking place inside a manor house, Altman takes pains to make sure that the viewer has a sense of the upstairs and downstairs the house, and exactly where and how far various characters have to travel in order to navigate both the physical and the emotional landscape of the film. A lesser director would simply have presented a number of flat shots talking heads and room interiors.

Lester Hunt – RE: The answer is that movies as they exist are dramas. Dramas are about conflict. And except in the cases where the conflict is "man against nature" a drama will only ever use landscape as backdrop, just as opera and stage drama does. End of story.

I don’t quite agree. Landscapes are sometimes a character in a film (e.g., the bleak and almost entirely empty vistas in “The Seventh Seal” or “The Duellists).” And how characters move within a landscape can also be evocative. In the “Lord of the Rings” films, per IMDB, when the hobbits are on screen, they always walk from the left of the screen to the right, never the other way around (because of the movie convention that West-East travel is represented by left-right movement)

Posted by: Alec on April 7, 2007 4:24 PM

Alec, I haven't seen "Seventh Seal" or "Duellists" recently enough to comment on them. An interesting coincidence: I have always imagined my hypothetical Walden-film as directed by Ingmar Bergman. I guess I should say not that such films are impossible but that they are fated to be at best extremely rare. On my view, the reason Walden can exist as a book and not as a film is just that a book is cheap to produce and need not find a huge audience to pay for itself. So the fact that its man-with-nature (as opposed to man-against-nature) theme is profoundly undramatic, and therefor boring to most people, will not bar it from the marketplace.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 8, 2007 11:21 AM

Alec, I guess I should say, not that my hypothetical filmic Walden is impossible, but that it is doomed to be extremely rare. Books are much cheaper to produce than movies, so Walden's profoundly undramatic "man with nature" theme will not bar it from the marketplace. Books don't need the support of a huge audience, as films do. (Interesting coincidence -- I have always imagined the movie version of Walden as being made by the director of "The Seventh Seal.")

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 8, 2007 11:56 AM

Alec, I guess I should say, not that my hypothetical filmic Walden is impossible, but that it is doomed to be extremely rare. Books are much cheaper to produce than movies, so Walden's profoundly undramatic "man with nature" theme will not bar it from the marketplace. Books don't need the support of a huge audience, as films do. (Interesting coincidence: I have always imagined my hypothetical filmic Walden as being made by the director of "The Seventh Seal".)

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 8, 2007 1:34 PM

I would add Brian DePalma's Untouchables. The scene with the baby carriage, besides referencing Potemkin, is a brilliant exploration of space to create tension before the big shootout. There's another one in Carlito's Way, when Pacino has to sneak down an escalator on his back. They both take place in train stations, which are always fun.

Posted by: nushustu on April 8, 2007 3:46 PM

One movie I remember that had fairly strong spatial coherence was The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (remember that one?). I think it was all filmed inside, so obviously there were no landscapes.

Another movie, which I haven't seen, that apparently uses this same idea is the Russian film Russian Ark, filmed I believe in a single cut completely in the Hermitage.

As you can see, spatial coherence in these two films is established through the lack of cuts, with the camera moving through space in continuous time. But editing is a major part of cinema, and the juxtaposition of different scenes was discovered early on to be the source of cinema's power and meaning, as you can read in a basic textbook on filmmaking. Visual metaphor, metonymy, and all that.

So I think coherent space is going to be a somewhat rare in film, especially at the full length scale.

I guess the films I mentioned are the "euro arty" ones referred to by MB, and it brings up the valid question as to whether their coherence serves any purpose. I've only seen the first, and it was years ago, but I think the idea is that it created a closed environment, its characters trapped in a social hell, and that intensified the awfulness of their relations.

At the scene level, I see a number examples where physics is important: shootouts, battles, slapstick, car crashes. Space is represented coherently, often with multiple camera POVs, which is effective for people with good ability to visualize in 3D.

Posted by: nathaniel on April 8, 2007 5:38 PM


Thanks for the correction regarding the setting of the movie "On the Waterfront."

If the film was actually set in Hoboken (and Hoboken was not just a convenient or inexpensive stand-in for Brooklyn), it certainly turns that particular "negative" regarding "coherent space" (i.e., a "careless" shot of the Manhattan skyline from Hoboken) into a "positive" (a very nice, understated statement of place).

By the way, according to Wikipedia (accurate?), the main character of the film is actually based on someone who was a longshoreman in Hoboken -- although the character of the priest is based on a Manhattan priest and the Pulitzer Prize series of stories that inspired the film were (according to Wikipedia) about organized crime in Manhattan and Brooklyn. So the Hoboken connection was apparently real and not just an expedient.

Thanks also for verifying the "arbitrariness" of the locations chosen as backdrops. (It was probably a good number of years between when I saw the film and when I finally visited Hoboken.) But while film makers certainly have an "artistic" license not to be logical about their use of locations, this is indeed a negative, in my opinion, with regard to the utilization of "coherent space" in film (and particularly noticeable in this movie because of the other things they do right).

While I realize that communicating "coherent space" is a very low priority with film makers -- the main focus is understandably on telling a story -- it seems to me that film has a possibly unique ability to communicate spatial relationships and movement through space (e.g., buildings, cities, etc.). So it seems a shame to me (especially as a student of cities) that more of this hasn't been done (e.g., making a film that, in addition to telling an important story, also shows the spatial realtionships of a place like Hoboken in 1950s, etc.).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 8, 2007 8:00 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?