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Tom Conley. Cartographic Cinema.

Tom Conley. Cartographic Cinema. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007. viii + 265 pp.

Following his 1996 study on "cartographic writing," The Self-Made Map, Tom Conley explores the "cartographic impulse" in cinema, a visual and movement-oriented medium that, even more than written texts, is rife with maps and mapping techniques. More like maps than literature, films involve seeing as well as reading--two "modes of intellection" that have tended to go their separate ways since the Renaissance. Conley is particularly drawn to films directed by auteurs (most of them French) who "conceive and execute [their] films as mapped forms" requiring "close and detailed analysis" and "complex modes of decipherment." Being an auteur is less a matter of presenting a unique vision of the world or a unified body of work than of producing films informed by a "cartographic consciousness." Such films beckon attentive viewers to study them as maps which, upon close and patient inspection, lead to a treasure of concealed meanings and cinematic/cartographic references.

The most obvious sign of a cartographic consciousness is the actual presence of maps in films. In "a classic map-film" like Casablanca, or in Raoul Walsh's High Sierra, maps are extrinsic elements that help viewers to get their bearings by identifying the locale or tracing the journey depicted in the film. (Besides the "desperate journeys" depicted in these films, Conley traces the sentimental journeys of Truffaut's Les Mistons and Louis Malle's Les Amants; the latter film's affective landscape is presented as a "Carte du Tendre" harking back to Mademoiselle Scudery's feminine alternative to Cartesian military cartographies.) Maps may also appear as diegetic elements in the film itself, either as plot devices or as part of the mise-en-scene, where they help the characters to orient themselves or illuminate their emotional or psychological states. Some of Conley's most perceptive analyses focus on films that incorporate "map rooms" of various kinds--from the officers' quarters and prison cells of Renoir's La Grande Illusion, to the makeshift office next to a Nazi torture chamber in Rosselini's Roma, cittB aperta, to the classroom of Truffaut's Les 400 coups, to the motel room of Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise, to Marcus Aurelius' tent in Scott's Gladiator. Despite their differences, all these map rooms are sites where the protagonists are shown struggling to get their geographical and moral bearings; one thinks of the amnesiac protagonist in Christopher Nolan's Memento filling his motel room with photos and bodily inscriptions that serve as mnemonic aids.

Besides tracing the various functions that maps play as part of the cinematic mise-en-scene--providing a key or "legend" to the film's meanings--Conley reads some films as maps in their own right, especially films in which the "image-fact requires the shot to be read as might a map." Thus, Rene Clair's first film, Paris qui dort (1924), features vertiginous, "icarian" views of a strangely immobile Paris shot from atop the Eiffel Tower. Montage and editing effects provide striking examples of film's cartographic qualifies, as Conley shows in the transitions between scenes (especially wipes and lap dissolves) in Roma, cittB aperta, High Sierra, and Casablanca where two separate images are simultaneously visible in the frame--often a shot of a map that overlays or blends into a live-action sequence. Such doubled images not only offer a subliminal commentary on the film, but highlight its "map-effect," inviting viewers to decipher its different layers of text and images which form a kind of palimpsest.

Indeed, the most intriguing feature that maps are shown to share with film is their density, their ability to organize a vast quantity of data in a limited space through their conjunction of words and images. In his analysis of Renoir's La Grande Illusion, Conley suggests that the film's deep, cartographic perspectives afford a more complete vision than that provided by the classical, verbal art of literature or the modern, visual technology of photography. More than mere reading matter, films and maps involve their spectators in acts of seeing, and are sometimes even endowed with the power of speech which Conley traces back to their common origin in the theatrum mundi tradition. Maps and films, in short, are marvels of economy that anticipate computer technology in being able to inscribe the effects of depth and density on a two-dimensional surface. Filmmakers who exploit cinema's affinities with cartography are well on the way to becoming auteurs, drawing on the medium's inherent power to offer "a panoramic view of the world."

Acknowledging that some of his close readings of films may border on the "fastidious," Conley considers this "preferable to the incontinence of thematic and narrative summary." Actually, his analyses swing between the extremes of scrupulous scholarship and daring imaginative riffs. From recondite excursions into the history of cartography, he extends his definition of maps (as in the chapter on Matthieu Kassovitz's La Haine) to include graffiti, NASA photographs, and advertising posters, prompting readers to wonder what visual objects in the film's image field might not be considered "maps." Ultimately, films themselves have the map-like function of positioning spectators in specific locations--an effect most apparent when landmarks are featured, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris qui dort. Such films are "diagrams" that locate and fix "the spectator in a world ... under its control," anticipating "the 'global positioning' potential of cinema" so evident today.

Against this negative tendency of cartographic cinema to immobilize viewers and manage perceptions, Conley proposes that maps in films offer viewers the possibility of lines of flight, providing "a point of departure for an interpretive itinerary" that "lifts the viewer from the grip of the moving image and thus allows our gaze to mobilize its faculties." This "mobile geography," as Conley calls it (referencing Christian Metz), is a liberating prospect that stands to enlarge our appreciation of a wide range of films. Yet there's always the risk that amid these shifting geographies, budding and experienced analysts alike may lose their bearings, and that viewers in search of cartographic clues in films may be carried away on interpretive itineraries without limits. Who's to tell such inspired interpreters when a map appearing in a film is simply part of the decor and nothing more?

Joel Black, University of Georgia
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Author:Black, Joel
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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