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An Architectural Promenade

Alain Masson

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1. This text is based on the interplay of four terms that have no strict, fixed equivalents in English. Espace refers to space in an abstract sense, ‘pure and intelligible continuity’. Étendue refers to the available space defined by the set; it has been translated variously as the 'filmic space' or the 'expanse of space'. Spatialité (or spatialisation) refers to the ordering or arranging of space (by both the set and the camera) in order for it to be perceived in a specific form; it has been rendered variously as 'spatial organisation' or 'vision of space'. Finally, élément refers to set fixtures in the décor and objects such as props.


One stormy night, three friends, who have just hit on an idea which is likely to get them out of a tight spot, keenly exchange greetings in several different languages as they realise that the sun is about to rise. Such is the conceit of ‘Good Mornin'‘, the tremendous intimist song and dance number in the film Singin' in the Rain (1951), both directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. This detail is important because the scene's charm comes from the fact that the set's mise en scène is established through human movement. (1)










2. Hugh Fordin, The World of Entertainment! Hollywood's Greatest Musicals (New York: Doubleday, 1975).


The setting for this scene is the Hollywood villa of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), which is gradually revealed to the audience one step at a time. The outside of the villa is not shown; the camera starts off by moving in through the window. Then, in order of succession, we visit the dining room, the kitchen, the dining room again, then the hallway, a lower entrance hall and a small lounge.

According to the credits, the idea comes from Cedric Gibbons and Randall Duell. Because Gibbons was in charge of MGM's set department, he probably did no more than approve Duell's projects. Duell himself was never considered among the best known of Hollywood craftsmen, nor was he one of Freed's regular team of collaborators. In this capacity, he only worked on Robert Alton's Pagan Love Song (1950) and Rouben Mamoulian's Silk Stockings (1956) in which some of Singin' in the Rain's architectural games are repeated. Duell, nevertheless, did contribute to important and visually interesting films such as Random Harvest (Mervyn LeRoy, 1942), Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946), The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) and Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958). The set decorators were Edwin B. Willis and Jacques Mapes, but the latter is said to have been more closely associated with the choice of furniture and accessories for this sequence. (2)

The mansion can be straightforwardly described. The set décor is a mock-typical 1920s structure, with its azulejos, its Andalusian wrought iron, with the fine columns of the dining room which have cornices like those in the Alhambra and, at the entrance to the lounge room, the short marble columns supporting festooned arches. Within this structure, a subtle gradation of large tiled surfaces contributes to the overall effect of pleasurable space, as do the large expanses of partitioning walls - though the rooms are perhaps even more important in this respect for having mostly been left open.







3. Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (New York: Harper, 1971).


The decoration's historical bias comes out triumphantly in the furniture. The corridor is dominated by an antique suit of armour. The dining room table is preceded by Louis XIV seats, alongside a Roman-style stool. Stripped of the raincoats which once hung upon it, the hat stand looks as exuberant and gilded as a baroque candelabra. And as an even closer reminder of all things Spanish, from the bottom of the staircase (which is itself rather stiffly modernist), three coiled pillars set a neo-Churrigueresque tone.

At first the eclecticism seems believable. References to Hispano-Mauresque traditions are in keeping with Californian custom. After all, film studio country is built on old rancho territory. Indeed, the church of Saint Vincent - whose facade imitates Mexican baroque - was built in Los Angeles in 1923 by Albert C. Martin. More precisely, modern architects such as Irving Gill, compared by Reyner Banham to Frank Lloyd Wright, (3) made liberal use of regionalist connotations, old-fashioned mullions, arcades or colonnades in order to break more sober and systematic structures. In the film, the white arch over the staircase seems to be borrowed from this artist. So, by mixing the traditional and the contemporary, the film decorator has not taken the easy way out; this pre-postmodern style belongs to the spirit of the time.




Hollywood, moreover, is fond of constructions with a dominant theme. Frank Lloyd Wright had just finished building the Ennis house (1924) in Griffith Park, which he dressed up like an Aztec monument. The hat-shaped Brown Derby restaurant opened in 1926. Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont appear triumphantly at the beginning of the film, goes back to 1928. The story takes place at the end of that year, or at the beginning of the next. It therefore makes sense for Don's villa to carry a particular reference (that is, a very melodramatic Hispano-Mauresque motif) which, although unobtrusive and diverse, is nevertheless omnipresent.

For these artificial devices connote the cinema itself. The set represents nothing but a set, in a city which is nothing but a set. Is not the California of old also that of Zorro? And is not Lockwood the rival, or the replica, of Douglas Fairbanks who played the famous avenger in Niblo's 1920s film? Fordin mentions that Duell and Mapes retrieved from the accessories department the seats from Flesh and the Devil (1926); and it indeed looks as if Don Lockwood has borrowed his own furnishings from the film sets he works on. Besides, these solemn armchairs are no less anachronistic in Brown's film than they are in Kelly and Donen's, for both tell a story about the beginning of the 20th century. There we have, precisely, the kind of fantasy which Los Angeles newcomer, Richard Neutra, used to hate to the point of sickness (he built Dr Lovell's stark private hospital there in 1927). In rejecting ‘the jumble of French chateaux, Tudor, Spanish or Moorish manors’ which lined ‘Hollywood streets with no consideration for their original contexts or the craftsmanship of the time’, Neutra, the strict rationalist, simply forgets that imitation is the actor's raison d'être. Being so in love with make-believe, he could never openly accept the technical facticity of modern buildings. Composite architecture breaches good taste, to be sure; but, at the same time, it expresses Hollywood's irreality. We should not be surprised, then, if someone who lives in such a house cannot woo his girlfriend without using the studio's facilities.

Characters and historical circumstances, however, do not exhaust the cinematic meaning of this style. For, at this point, the film's décor becomes quite revealing. Its gates are reminiscent of The Devil is a Woman (1935); its historical and geometrical influences reflect Van Nest Polglase's Venice in Top Hat (1935); while its staircases are evocative of musical comedies.

The point of a film set is probably to conjure up a site, to give credibility to a mere appearance through the sheer particularity of its features. The originality of Lockwood's house comes from the fact that the more Hollywood-like a set is, the more fictitious it becomes. We accept its reality of make-believe. 'This is it', we think, for it has no substance and is no more than a game of clichés.

The villa's modern organisation is reflected in the kitchen's practical look, the simple tiling, its generosity and, above all, in the importance given to the different ways the levels are articulated. Loos developed the Raumplan in order to substitute more appropriate divisions for the conventional use of storeys. Le Corbusier attempted a fluid distribution of space between rooms. Balconies, steps, a double staircase (with flights of unequal width): everything here seems to be designed in order to avoid partitioning. When Le Corbusier elaborated on his artistic project for the Villa Savoye, built in 1931, he could have been describing Kelly and Donen's film sequence:



4. Leonardo Benevolo, History of Modern Architecture (London: RKP, 1971).

  It's all to do with taking an architectural stroll [promenade] which presents us with constantly changing, unexpected and sometimes surprising sights. To be able to get such diversity is interesting when the principle behind the construction is, for instance, a strict shell of pillars and rafters. (4)  



The variations offered by the different levels and the diversity of the interconnections between the rooms deserve more than just a stroll. The place provides an appropriate context for the three friends' whimsical exploits. There are no doors to open. Nothing is more conducive to dancing than stairways. Staircases are the traditional and ideal space where bodies are put on show. The theatrical aspect of balconies is well known; their balustrades, moreover, allow various acrobatic displays. On the other hand, and although it is never flaunted, the rigorous thought behind the architectural design is ever-present in the all-pervading vertical divisions. The mantelpiece divides the back of the dining room into two parts, ostensibly at the same height as the kitchen furnishings and the hallway mezzanine, a feature which is also to be found in the small lounge. Meanwhile, the bar in the entrance hall divides a wall in similar proportions. Low accessories often segment the rooms' lower levels: a seat, a stool, a bench or a couch. Any cross-section of the set will therefore tend to show a division into three levels, all of which may be negotiated: the key moment of the song routine takes place at the bottom of the staircase with two landings. This triple rhythm corresponds to the number of participants.

Form, here, shows how the villa lends itself to dancing, multiplying opportunities which are not always taken up by the heroes, but everywhere attesting to its own penetrability. The characteristic feature of the set in a musical routine is to present itself as the very element of and for dancing.

The camera enters the villa through a window, thus proclaiming the wall's penetrability. But why enter this way? In fact, where is the door? Apparently, nothing could be simpler: for at the end of the hallway, behind Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), one can make out a double door. The only problem is that when the actors cross the few stairs between the dining room and this room, we certainly recognise the hallway but, where the door previously was, there is now a lot of room to dance, between these stairs and the magnificent chest, which was barely visible behind Kathy. The double door is nowhere in sight. Where we expected a way out, there is now the outline of a kind of alcove. But it hardly seems to matter. The three accomplices go down a few steps and we see them in the lower entrance hall. There's no door here either. Where there should be one, to the left of the bar, in front of the staircase, there is now a further extension: the small lounge room.

The rooms' distribution lacks logic and makes it difficult to conceive of any relationship with the outside world. From room to room, the house seems to be forever growing. As Aristotle once observed, but not about this passage:


5. J-P Dumont (trans.), Les Présocratiques (Bibliothèque de la Pléïade).

  What is limited is always limited in relation to something in such a way that it becomes necessary for no limit to exist if it is necessary for something to be always limited by something other than itself. (5)  



Now, the fact of forever finding another room beyond a room is enough to give the feeling of an expanse of space unrestricted by any exterior boundary.

To confirm all of this: when the characters take their dishes to the kitchen (these familiar activities increasing, by contrast, the size of the place), the camera follows them to the doorway; a new shot then welcomes them near the fridge. There is no reason for their way back to be shot any differently from their way in; nevertheless it is done in one continuous take: the camera goes through the wall, briefly showing it in cross-section and, as part of the same camera movement, it follows the dancers' momentum, as their dance routine starts. This also underlines, however, the theatrical characteristics of the space: there are three walls to this set, with the camera occupying the space of the fourth. The visibility of the house itself is constituted by its external wall becoming the point of visibility. The exposure of the wall's cross-section is not supposed to shatter our belief. On the contrary, it implies that, in a choice between the reality of the set and our appreciation of human movement, the latter is the most important.

Throughout the film, the camera makes use of its privileged position. When entering the hallway, the dancers should go through the somewhat solemn doorway we could previously see behind Kathy; the tracking shot, however, goes straight through the side-jambs which earlier formed part of the doorway. On the way, we vaguely notice an absurd Andalusian gate which might as well remain open as it does not actually close on anything: a seat now partially replaces the door frame. In the hallway, the camera runs its course unhindered where, a few seconds later, a hat stand can be found. In the entrance hall and the small lounge room, the position of the bar and, later on, that of the two facing couches (the closest one with its back to the lens) indicate that shooting takes place from the wall.

Space, pure and intelligible continuity, expands to the left off-stage: we can use this expression as it pertains to theatrical structure. Its transparency is established by a removable façade which can become either footlights or screen.

Alterations to the set do not stop here. As with the replacement of the wall by an alcove, the backwards movement of the camera in the hallway increases the feeling of depth which has previously been marked by the three friends' routine on the staircase. Since the stage already has a backstage, it may also expand into a proscenium: this is realised when the hat stand is unexpectedly revealed. The set cannot be dissociated from the mise en scène or from the choreographic treatment of the filmic space. This is because, at this point, the rule according to which the camera may appropriate space, by extending in a straight line along a non-existent wall, yields to human movement.

From then on, the house becomes scenically impossible to fathom. It extends beyond the stage, becoming architecturally intangible. The entrance hall threatens to reach beyond the dining room window, while the angle between this room (the hall) and the small lounge remains unspecified. Other modifications are less obvious. For instance, the dining room deepens between when we first enter it and when we come back to it. Initially, there was no space for the stool on which Kathy later climbs.

These phenomena are in no way subliminal: we see them without noticing them. Their function is to create a difference. As cinema, however, does not allow the viewer to backtrack, this difference cannot be defined by its terms of reference. One simply cannot have both the initial situation and the later, changed, situation. How splendid is the novelty of the hat stand - so that when the three dancers are suddenly drawn to it they actually point it out in quite eloquent terms! How astonishing is the unfolding of the hallway: to the front, to the back, sideways! The space is transparent, the filmic area unlimited.

The process of our introduction to the set may transgress the rule it made of discovering the house through a linear right-to-left movement. The first example involves revealing the lower entrance hall as a proscenium and then filming it in a shot at right angles to the previous one. The bar on the left side of the stage moves to the background, with the effect of interrupting a continuous perception of the stage and disorienting the audience. This process of discovery does, however, follow a pattern. As usual, the camera passes from the entrance hall to the lounge room in a leftwards movement. More importantly, however, each of the five rooms is shot in the same way, with the camera focusing on the mid point of whichever wall is in shot. The symmetry between Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) and Don around Kathy underlines this spatial arrangement. The tiling shows it even better. Indeed, the grooves dividing the square tiles are always more visible when oriented towards the background, thus forming a set of perspectival lines. This rule of spatial organisation demands that these lines turn at right angles in time with the camera. The lines in the lower entrance hall start off parallel to the bar wall. So if the bar is now in the background, then the lines must end up at right angles to it - which they do!

This way of seeing, where everything becomes an open depth, creates a sense of theatrical space. But it also inaugurates an abstract vision of space defined only according to its own rule, as if it were independent of any position. Wherever it looks from, the audience is placed in a rectangle split rhythmically by perspectival lines and filmed with respect to the mid line of the back wall. These lines divide the vertical faces of the stairs. Although an alcove opens to its left, the area left open for the staircase is also filmed as a rectangle. The proscenium acts as an extension of the hallway rectangle before becoming a rectangle in its own right, at right angles to the previous one.

Because of this rule, the sequence appears somewhat symmetrical: at each end, the kitchen and the small lounge (the only rooms with windows); then the intermediate elements: the dining room and the lower entrance hall - with the bar rhyming with the table - both of these being a few steps lower than the hallway. This hallway then provides the centre point of movement: here everything opens up! Now, the parallelism of these five rooms, their balance even, is only possible if they are defined by a rule allowing the same floor to appear twice in the inventory according to the direction of its perspectival lines. (Whether this change can be physically explained by the lighting process or by a more tangible transformation is of little importance. It seems, nevertheless, that the lines pointing towards the background are actually larger.)

The decision to use depth as a spatial form generates an incompatibility between (a) the impetus which expands the discovery of the filmic area towards the left and (b) the architectural ordering of space. No matter how much one strips the house of its exterior shell, it cannot be made intelligible if, at the same time, it is filmed as a succession of rectangular niches. It is in order to avoid this feeling (of a stable with its row of stalls) and to balance the whole thing, by an ending without a closure as such, that the camera and the perspectival lines are swung around, followed by a quick recentring of the three accomplices as they escape into the lounge room, thus making it impossible to situate this room in relation to the rest. This makes it possible to show the room as neither a recess nor an aisle. Hence both spatial continuity and the opening up of the filmic area can be maintained at the same time.

A site has been conjured up, but through its very irreality. The construction thus created cannot be reconstituted: here, the film set itself becomes one of the factors preventing any reconstruction of the building it stands for. It is a theatrical set, a dance set. In a musical comedy, however, we would not expect anything else. More interestingly, it is alterable and extensible. Randall Duell makes a similar and even more obvious use of the set in Silk Stockings and a survey of this feature in musicals needs to be undertaken. Busby Berkeley based his musicals on the instability of what is visible. Might he not have left some hidden traces here and there? In spite of its reality, Don Lockwood's house thus becomes penetrable and transparent: it is historical; it does not belong to a dream but yields, in an ideal way, to choreography and cinematography and doesn't make any bones of it. Other instances of the genre hide it even less: the Greek-vase-like setting of the swimming pool - where Jane Russell tests the athletes' muscles in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) - tends to blend with the athletes themselves. In the same film, clothing is used first as a mediator between bodies and the set itself, collapsing them together into a flickering of tinsel (‘Two Little Girls from Little Rock’). The stage is then emptied and both the dancers and the accessories are used as a mechanical and movable frame for Marilyn Monroe (‘Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend’). In other words, the fact that, in such costly films, the set tends to be immaterial is not a rare event. It may be because, as should already be clear, rather than being too simply copied - either from real life or from illusion - it is systematic.



  Originally published in Positif, no. 331 (1988); and then in English in Continuum, Vol 5 No 2 (1992). Translated from the French by Anne-Marie Medcalf and Alec McHoul.  

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© Alain Masson 1988. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and the editors.
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