Spin

Channel 4 has just finished airing the first season of French political drama Spin (Original title: Les Hommes De l’Ombre, 2012). The plot of the first season hinges on the killing of the French president by a suicide bomber, and the subsequent frantic presidential election. Although the presidential candidates are significant characters, the real protagonists are the two spin doctors working on either side of the political divide. Simon Kapita, who got the murdered president in power, comes back to France to help Centrist candidate Anne Visage. Simon’s former business partner but now rival, Ludo Desmeuze, works for the right-wing Prime Minister Phillipe Deleuvre.
Although Spin has been compared to West Wing,[1] a series which consciously draws attention to its use of space, the French drama has none of the ‘walk and talk’ scenes that make the Aaron Sorkin vehicle so instantly recognisable.[2] Indeed, on the face of it, Spin does not use the spaces it is set in very imaginatively. Most of the action is set in Paris, and when a location is used that the viewer may recognise it is signposted with text on screen. However, the series does make interesting use of one particular space: the HQ of Anne Visage’s campaign.
At the start of the season, Anne is not intending to run for president. However, Kapita manages to convince her that she should give it a try. The urgency of the election means that a campaign has to be started very quickly. As part of a swift montage in episode 2, in which Kapita, Anne, and her advisor find financial backing, they also visit an empty space in a ‘working class district’ which will act as the physical centre of their campaign (Fig 1). Political ideals are mirrored in the buildings in which their candidates work: Anne is in a dynamic, popular district whereas her rival Deleuvre exclusively resides in Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the French Prime Minister. Anne’s building is run down and full of rubbish, but when we see it again later in the same episode, people are busily cleaning, painting, and putting up large photographs of Anne (Fig 2).
It is never specified who these people are or where they come from – as soon as the space is found, the volunteer team appears seemingly automatically. The course of the entire campaign is said to only take a few weeks, yet near the end of it, in episode 5, the HQ is transformed almost beyond recognition (Fig 3), with confetti to boot. Here, Anne greets a mass of volunteers who are all emotionally invested in her success.
The key members of staff, such as Anne’s speech writer Valentine and Kapita’s daughter Juliette who is in charge of the internet campaign, are never shown to be either working on doing up the HQ building, or even talking to the volunteers. The show gives the viewer a sense that as soon as the physical space is found to launch the campaign, it automatically attracts people that can also assist in the refurbishment. Spin in this way subtly uses the space of Anne’s HQ to create shortcuts in the narrative. By showing space = volunteers = success, it is able to cut out any thorough explanation of how Anne’s campaign builds momentum, and can instead focus on the intrigue of the spin doctors.

Spin_FR3Fig 1: Arriving at HQ (Episode 2)

Spin_FR1Fig 2: Refurbishments at HQ (Episode 2)

Spin_FR2Fig 3: Electoral success at HQ (Episode 5)

[1] Mark Lawson, ‘Spin – it’s the West Wing, with added sex,’ The Guardian, 10 February 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2016/feb/10/spin-its-the-west-wing-with-added-sex accessed 10 February 2016
[2] See ‘The Corridors of Power’, Empire Magazine, http://www.empireonline.com/west-wing/walkandtalk2.html accessed 10 February 2016

Setting the Stage for the Home: 500 Days of Summer, 1 Day in the Furniture Store

In an earlier blog post, I explored the representation of an individual junk shop. I look this week at the opposite end of the spectrum, which is the corporate furniture store. And what epitomises this space better than Swedish furniture giant IKEA? The American film 500 Days of Summer (2009) explores the interior of an IKEA store, raising questions about the connection of space to reality and about the visualisation of past and present values.
The visit to IKEA in 500 Days illustrates how the furniture shop operates as a Foucauldian heterotopia, a site that has the qualities of a real space and yet remains always different from it.[1] IKEA is a space that features all furnishing of a home; yet the building never functions as a real living space. While a poster in the filmic store promises “true everyday quality”, protagonists Tom and Summer joke about the television and sink that are not working – and never will. Tom’s ironic exclamation “Home! Sweet home!” harks back to John Howard Payne’s eponymous 1823 song that proclaims “there’s no place like home.”[2] Indeed, IKEA as that Foucauldian “Other Space[]” is no home.[3] This holds true even if the corporation promotes “the right to belong” that is characteristic of the modern Swedish welfare state, as design historian Sara Kristoffersson explains.[4] In the furniture store, ideas of belonging are tangible and yet slipping through your fingers.
500 Days demonstrates the workings of the furniture store most illustratively by highlighting the shop’s kinship to filmic space. The film, reflecting on its own spatial but also narrative and technological workings, explains the mechanisms of the film-like space of IKEA. Both film theorist Giuliana Bruno and cultural historian Jann Matlock have advanced how cinematic space, too, is a heterotopia, linked to the real world and yet set apart.[5] 500 Days as a heterotopia integrates the heterotopic furniture store to similarly revelatory effect as the films that, in Matlock’s study, double the heterotopic spaces of hotels.[6] The dating protagonists in 500 Days navigate through IKEA’s different show areas – from the living room to the bedroom – just as cinema audiences, according to Bruno, navigate through the three-dimensional space of the film world.[7] Rather than plan a home on two-dimensional paper at the “Plan Here” desk in the aisle, the lovers act out a home life in three-dimensional space, pretending to live together as “Honey” and “Darling.” Their overstated performance emphasizes their fictional relationship to the space in which they perform. Summer’s stagy choreography as she throws herself into Tom’s arms in one of the kitchens recalls the dramatic love scenes of classical Hollywood films. The bedside lamp in the bedroom is, as is so often the case in the cinema too, not the main light source in the furniture store. The bright room lighting off-camera ensures the visibility of the intimate scene on the IKEA bed. The on-looking family in the adjacent bathroom provides the apex of the IKEA-as-cinema sequence, acting as the personification of the much-cited voyeuristic film gaze.[8] By showing a quasi-film within a film, 500 Days demonstrates the otherness of the furniture store. IKEA has more in common with cinematic space than with the real space of the home due to its spatiality and the evocation of fiction, the technology, and the spectatorship that come with it.
The film does not fail to stress the cinema’s ultimate superiority over the furniture store: In the protagonists’ fiction of living, IKEA functions as a stage set that looks like a home. The fiction performed by the two actors playing those protagonists takes place, not on a film set, but on location in the actual IKEA in Burbank, California. The cinema’s mobility surpasses the capacities of the stationary spatiality of the furniture shop.
The film produces a clash between the meanings that the characters’ performances evoke and those meanings with which IKEA endows its furniture design. The clash engenders a palimpsest of meanings in the film narrative. Tom and Summer’s performance conjures up the gendered domesticity of post-war America. He puts his feet up on the coffee table and waits to be served in the kitchen, speaking in an exaggeratedly masculine voice. She serves him an imaginary dish that she cheerfully claims to have prepared herself. The woman among modern kitchen appliances is, according to Ruth Oldenziel, a common image in 1940s and 1950s media promoting American designs.[9] The lovers’ evocation of this iconography is expressively ironic, stressing it to be a thing of the past that today serves as nothing more than a joke. Yet when Summer ends the sequence by announcing she does not want “anything serious”, Tom’s disappointment betrays his underlying hopes. His look reveals that all he wished for was a monogamous relationship that involves exactly such intimacies as choosing your shared home and even traditional gender roles. His first sight of Summer in the film had sparked a black-and-white sequence picturing her in Fifties’ clothes and riding a bike through a suburban street. This earlier sequence corroborates Tom’s dream of a traditional relationship.
Unlike the patriarchal values of American post-war media, IKEA’s self-image mirrors the idea of equality in Swedish society, as Kristoffersson points out.[10] According to law scholars Eva-Maria Svensson and Åsa Gunnarsson, the Swedish notion of equality includes that women are not bound to the domestic sphere but frequent the workspace.[11] These ideas do not fit the fictional narrative of domesticity that the characters layer over the furniture design but it relates to Summer’s actual attitude. Whether or not customers really attribute the notion of equality to the IKEA store, Summer chooses exactly this space to convey to Tom that she is an independent woman and wishes to remain so. The fiction of her as a homemaker will not become reality; and anyway she is visiting IKEA to buy nothing more than trivets.
With this sequence, 500 Days relates cinematic to furniture-store space, and seemingly obsolete American post-war values to materially present Swedish values. The film negotiates the relationship between the real and the heterotopic, and between the now and then. In the cinematic furniture store, the values of both IKEA and Summer eventually prevail.

[1] Michel Foucault. “Des Espace Autres.” Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, March 1984. Translated by Jay Miskowiec as “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” 3-4. Accessed May 27, 2014. web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/foucault1.pdf.
[2] Scott R. MacKenzie, Be It Ever So Humble: Poverty, Fiction, and the Invention of the Middle-Class Home (University of Virginia Press, 2013), 22, n. 6.
[3] Foucault, “Des Espace Autres.”
[4] Sara Kristoffersson, Design by IKEA: A Cultural History (Bloomsbury, 2014), 58.
[5] Jann Matlock, “Vacancies: Hotels, Reception Desks, and Identity in American Cinema, 1929-1964,” in Moving Pictures/Stopping Places : Hotels and Motels on Film, ed. David B. Clarke, Valerie Crawford Pfannhauser, and Marcus A. Doel (Lanham ; Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009), 78; Giuliana Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 57, referred to in Matlock, “Vacancies,” 78.
[6] Matlock investigates the heterotopic hotel as an architecture that is also just not a home and that raises intricate questions about (fictions) of identity. She demonstrates how the heterotopic film space doubling the spatiality of hotels teaches us in complex ways about the workings of these hotels. Significant to the experience of both the cinema and the hotel is the movement with which we pass through those spaces. Matlock, “Vacancies,” 77-79, 100, 107-115, 119-121.
[7] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York ; London: Verso, 2002), 15-16.
[8] See especially Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
[9] Ruth Oldenziel, “Exporting the American Cold War Kitchen: Challenging Americanization, Technological Transfer, and Domestication,” in Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users, ed. Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2011), 315.
[10] Kristoffersson, Design by IKEA, 57-58.
[11] Eva-Maria Svensson and Åsa Gunnarsson, “Gender Equality in the Swedish Welfare State,” Feminists@Law 2, no. 1 (2012), 1.  

Plausible Spatiality: Interior Layouts and ‘Scandal’ (S4E10)*

* This blog post contains spoilers!
Film and television ask the spectator to suspend disbelief. This is true not only regarding narrative or character construction but also in terms of the cinematic world. Fragmentary space is stitched together to form a unified whole. Moving images, whether set in the past, present, future, or even outer space, aspire to invent a verisimilar world by assembling unconnected spaces into a coherent, integrated place. This illusion of the wholeness of space on-screen is created by the interplay of cinematography, editing (or lack thereof in tracking shots), and set design. Art directors plan the construction of logical spatial relationships even before the shooting of the film begins.[1] Production design plays a crucial part in the construction of cinematic worlds. Yet spatial continuity vs. discontinuity is an understudied subject in film and television, which instead tends to focus on editing techniques or the mise-en-scène in connection with thinking about set design.[2]
In most American productions that use the continuity editing system (unobtrusive cuts), fragmentary imagery is perceived as a verisimilar place and is thus not usually questioned. Rarely is there a noticeable glitch in the cinematic layout. Perhaps when this does occur, it is noticeable because one has grown familiar with a particular spatial imaginary that is now breached. An example of such spatial discontinuity recently materialized in the American television show Scandal. The political drama, currently in its fourth season, centers around Kerry Washington’s character, Olivia Pope, who is a former White House Communications Director now running her own crisis management firm. In episode 10 of season 4, “Run,” Olivia Pope is abducted from her apartment and taken to an undisclosed location. In the following brief discussion of the opening sequence, I pay particular attention to the plausibility of the layout of Olivia’s apartment and the floor it is on.
In over 60 episodes throughout 4 seasons, the viewer has never seen a particular corner of the entrance hall to the two apartments on Olivia’s floor. Only three out of four sides that make up the square of this space are known: (1) the elevator, (2) Olivia’s apartment entrance door, and (3) her neighbor’s apartment entrance door. Number (4) is presumably a wall between this entrance hall and Olivia’s hallway to her bedroom.
Scandal_S4E10_Hallway

Olivia dances in her living room next to the entrance door and the hallway to her bedroom.

In the episode under consideration, Olivia is snatched from her living room in a matter of seconds and disappears. Jake, a trusted friend and recurring lover, soon discovers that he is left alone in the apartment. He proceeds to run after Olivia and turns his attention to the hitherto unknown fourth wall, which is revealed to offer a door to a fire escape stairwell, and starts what will be a futile pursuit to street level. Meanwhile, it is subsequently revealed, Olivia is actually hidden in her neighbor’s apartment. The kidnappers (and scriptwriters) have thus concocted an ingenious plan that aligns the spectators with Jake as well as anticipating his fruitless actions and leaving the viewers feeling deceived, frustrated, and astonished. The sequence first builds suspense through the abrupt change in tone from careless ease to life-threatening situation, and then by proceeding to withhold information and unraveling the actual events in well-timed stages. At first, the spectators are aware of what Jake seems to know and are encouraged to fear for Olivia’s wellbeing. Only when Jake returns to the apartment and takes immediate action to find her, the viewer learns how the events have really been coordinated, finding out about Olivia’s surprising whereabouts.
The sequence seamlessly sutures together unconnected spaces through unobtrusive cuts and a soundtrack fusing all fragments to create a wholeness of this specific place. Thus the spatial discontinuity is masked through the urgency of the situation created by this key plot event (narrative development), Olivia and Jake’s reactions (performance), and musical motifs signaling danger (sound). In this sequence, the question of spatial verisimilitude is moved to the background to create viewing pleasure. Spectators are encouraged to feel emotional involvement towards their heroine’s predicament rather than question the invented physical world.
If one does consider the layout of Olivia’s apartment, one realizes that the fire-escape door is impossibly placed: the door would in reality lead straight into her hallway. If one were to further question the spatial layout of the entire floor, it would become clear that the neighbor’s living room also overlaps with Olivia’s bedroom. Nevertheless, this sequence entertains by creating an imaginary wholeness the spectator is discouraged to assess. Instead, the narrative is foregrounded to disregard spatial coherence. This brief example shows that the perception of space in film and television requires the suspension of disbelief not merely regarding plot or characters but also in terms of spatial integration in the construction of its physical world.
Scandal_S4E10_Outside Apartment

The kidnappers peak through the neighbor’s door viewer: elevator (right); Olivia’s open apartment door (opposite); open fire escape door a.k.a. wall of Olivia’s hallway (left).

Scandal_S4E10_Fire Escape

Jake runs down the fire escape stairwell a.k.a. a different set location.

Scandal_S4E10_Windows

The neighbor’s apartment invaded by the kidnappers: Windows where logically there is (a) Olivia’s bedroom or (b) the fire escape stairwell.

Scandal_Layout

Physical layout of Olivia’s floor showing the impossibility of spatial continuity nevertheless created through editing techniques.

 

[1] For a discussion of set design in film, particularly 1930s European cinema, see: Sue Harris, Tim Bergfelder, and Sarah Street, eds., Film Architecture and the Transnational Imagination: Set Design in 1930s European Cinema, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014).

[2] See, for example, John Gibbs, Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation (London: Columbia University Press, 2002); or David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 10th ed. (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2012).