In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes enclosed light viewed from a distance as an image of refuge for those who have been travelling. The house on the horizon embodies shelter as well as watchfulness: “the poetry of houses could be studied from the single angle of the lamp that glows in the window…The lamp keeps vigil, therefore it is vigilant.” (1) Bachelard calls his study a valorization of the home; his vigil of enclosed light represents the house as a container of poetic consciousness, a space aligned with solitude, renewed vision, and the processes of the imagination. This valorization, with its key terms of refuge and vigilance, is at the heart of the suburban experience.
Representations of suburban space remain indebted to the iconic images of a post-World War II United States and its idealized havens of privacy, community, and security. John Stilgoe includes fear of the atomic bomb as one of the many anxieties that fuelled these idealizations and prompted flight from urban neighbourhoods, as cities were believed to be more vulnerable to attack: “Given the rudimentary public understanding of atomic horror, parents sincerely believed that being twenty miles away from [the] target might well protect themselves, their children, and their property from a force as satanic as any that charged through the medieval night.” (2) The history of suburbia is in part a history of fear, a history of night, and the edifices society erects to secure its visions of enclosure. A distant light enclosed in a picture window remains one of the most enduring emblems of this dream of shelter, a quality of light that makes suburbia an ideal setting for motifs of transgression. (3)
Cinema often begins with the possibility that Bachelard’s distant light, so strongly associated with refuge, may simultaneously harbour the very qualities it seeks to dispel. The blinking motel sign glimpsed at a distance from a highway exit ramp welcomes the weary traveller. In the cinema, the watchman may wear a wig and carry a kitchen knife. Norman Bates’ house on a hill is based on Edward Hopper’s painting “House by the Railroad.” Critics have described Hopper’s house as both inaccessible and naked. It is both indifferent and exposed to a new landscape created by the railroad. Mark Strand emphasizes its “hierarchical disregard.” (4) Hitchcock extends the house’s hierarchical presence to its limits and yet transforms it by depicting his version almost exclusively at night with its windows brightly lit, filtering light to the outside, as though it were keeping vigil over the motel at its base. Psycho’s house glows with an uncanny combination of presence and absence, refuge and vacantness. The house at a distance illuminated from within is the prototype for horror film establishing shots that demarcate a space of shelter that is transformed into a place of absence and fear.
In Deborah Stratman’s In Order Not To Be Here (2002), the well lit window that once offered refuge is now a hollow figure of shelter, a light that keeps vigil in an empty bank lobby or corporate office. In Stratman’s establishing shots, space becomes a container for space, an acute and anxious sensation. Extended long takes defamiliarize the nighttime landscape: a parking lot, fast-food hut, or convenience store become blank locales charged with an abstract imminence.
These empty places evoke a future arrival or the residue of a narrative within an otherwise formal structure of observation. Whereas Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) foregrounds a camera zoom, In Order Not To Be Here highlights a series of geometrically rigorous establishing shots. In Wavelength, a man appears in the frame and then falls to the ground, a dead body in a loft. Stratman eliminates the dead body altogether and simply documents the spaces from which it was recently removed. Atget’s photographs of deserted Paris streets embody the vacant energy that exists in the type of emptiness that In Order Not To Be Here depicts:
To Walter Benjamin [Atget’s] photographs, evoked, in their vacant stillness, the scene of a crime. Let us say, rather, that they project a sense of imminence, of occurrences past or still to come. In them time is suspended; we are between times. These streets, squares, boulevards, arcades are cleared for the emergence of “le merveilleux”; their emptiness is ecstatic. (5)
Annette Michelson’s description of imminence occurs within her larger discussion of Rene Clair’s Paris qui dort (1924). In Clair’s film, time stops when a scientist’s madcap invention freezes an entire city except for a few select characters. Vacantness makes Paris suddenly unfamiliar, as Clair’s main character wanders the streets of the city, eventually discovering a population in various comatose states: a man asleep on a bench, a street cleaner in the middle of sweeping, a thief in flight from police. Workers frozen in their tasks stand out in relief as representative of the labour that sustains the built environment, a workforce invisible in the bustle of circulation within a moving metropolis. The comedic tone and mood of Clair’s film are far removed from Stratman’s dark vision, but Michelson’s analysis of empty space effectively highlights an important relationship between vacantness and open time.
The scene of the crime is the suspension of time or the evocation of several tenses within a single image. Atget’s deserted streets and Stratman’s empty parking lots are open forms of temporality. In Order Not To Be Here represents a suburban landscape where images are not defined within a clear temporal progression. Are these the locations from which a suspect has recently fled? A cut to a toppled shopping cart in an empty parking lot, with car alarms piercing offscreen space, exemplifies the sense of arriving at a scene moments after an event has occurred or moments before one is about to erupt. Although a car alarm resonates in the background, it could have recently been set off by yet another event taking place in offscreen space in the same location where the cart was earlier toppled. A later shot of an empty parking lot may document the scene of a crime after the suspect’s apprehension and yet it simultaneously evokes a location within which a crime may eventually take place. Of course, perhaps there are no suspects, but only a relentless surveillance that criminalizes any possible future of suburban space. The example of the fallen shopping cart is representative of the manner in which sound, image, and temporality function throughout the film. Offscreen sound reinforces the content of many of the images, while it is also part of a larger soundscape that is not synchronous with the image.
In the second half of the film, a frantic search for a suspect erupts over a police scanner, reintroducing a chase narrative in the context of everyday settings, such as parking lots, that represent the built environment as a paranoid mind. The voice of the scanner is ubiquitous, we do not see its source, it is heard everywhere, and in this sense it obtains certain qualities of Michel Chion’s “acousmatic sound.” (6) Chion’s primary examples of acousmatic sound – what he calls “the acousmêtre” – involve unseen figures of power and discarnate voices that evoke omniscience. This form of unseen power pervades the ambience of In Order Not To Be Here’s everyday locales and receives its fullest expression in scenes where the voice of law enforcement overdetermines the meaning of boundaries and enclosures. In the final sequence before the closing credits, long take helicopter footage of a human figure in flight echoes the opening scene with which the film began. Perhaps this is the suspect from the opening before his apprehension, or perhaps it is another suspect altogether. Found audio from a live television broadcast of breaking news becomes an extension of the authority of the police scanner in its construction of a narrative of panic. The landscape is full of people fleeing from police. Every space, no matter how mundane, is the potential scene of a crime.
In Order Not To Be Here represents anxiety as highly regulated space in neighbourhoods where citizens are suspects in subdivisions of paranoia. Dolores Hayden argues that “[u]nlike every other affluent civilization, Americans have idealized the house and yard rather than the model neighbourhood or the ideal town.” (7) Suburbia’s picture window embodies this idealization, with its tableau of the well trimmed lawn, while gated communities are logical constructions of the fears that sustain it. Streets and sidewalks in a gated community become contested spaces that must be protected, as conventional public areas become privatized. An ideology of exclusion is present even if there are no walls or guards.
The film’s title, which appears in the form of a statement – it is not necessary to be someplace else in order not to be here – is followed by an empty street lit by a lamp at night with a brick wall in the background. Motifs of boundaries and thresholds, such as fences, walls, gates, or development entrance monuments repeat throughout the film. These motifs suggest a built environment in which a large-scale network of security has been created to forbid trespassing. In Order Not To Be Here’s exploration of suburban panic provides a cinematic equivalent to Mike Davis’s “Fortress L.A.” essay on urban development, where Davis repeatedly demonstrates how the “social perception of threat becomes a function of the security mobilization itself, not crime rates.” (8) Motifs of surveillance are present not only through In Order Not To Be Here’s representation of the tools and technology of law enforcement, such as security cameras or watchdogs, but are mirrored in the very structure of the film itself. Bookended by surveillance chase scene footage, the repetition of long take fixed camera images shot from the same camera distance evokes an omniscient vigilance. In effect, the living rooms, car washes, fast-food playgrounds, and parking lots of Stratman’s suburbia appear part of a dystopian landscape that is owned, monitored, and protected by an abstract, unseen, source of power.
In the twenty-first century, land has increasingly become tied to a form of financial speculation, where property is viewed solely as an asset for a remote investor in a marketplace of planned obsolescence. These are the bare spaces of capital. A dozen donuts baked the day before wait under glass for their final customer, while an empty convenience store hums with fluorescent lights in the middle of the night. The few interiors of In Order Not To Be Here embody an absence and imminence similar to the exteriors. Here, inside the house, expectations of arrival become a point of humour, as the interior mise-en-scène evokes a model living room or kitchen in a department store: an unoccupied arm chair sits in front of a fern and a cookbook remains open on a countertop. Were people to arrive, they would arrive as customers; this demo tableau represents the home not as a space for dwelling but as a container where products are displayed and monitored. In an oft- cited passage, Marx defines a tenant in the industrial property market as someone who continually “finds himself in someone else’s house, in the house of a stranger who always watches him and throws him out if he does not pay his rent.” (9) Is this now the state of all dwelling in an age of foreclosure and mass surveillance? Here in Stratman’s suburbs, even if one owns a home, one cannot be at home. It is not necessary to be someplace else.
In Order Not To Be Here’s vision of the built environment may contain moments of heavy tactics, such as the stylized image of a lunging German Shepard complete with electronic soundtrack, but over subsequent viewings it gains strength and originality as a study of enclosed light, vacantness, time, and the everyday. Beyond the panopticon and the question of surveillance, which anchor the form and content of the film, the distinctiveness of In Order Not To Be Here resides in a peculiar blankness. The blankness is stillness cleared for emergence, or perhaps a form of anonymity particular to suburban parking lots after dark, or the blankness of defamiliarization that reawakens our vision to the intrinsic shapes and colours of a drive-thru bank canopy and other structures of the artificial landscape.
There are undoubtedly other suburbias to depict, other spaces of the imagination that rely less on figures of transgression, environments of unease, or the eruption of the sinister within the mundane. In the form of a repressed violence that rises to the surface, perhaps such eruptions have begun to produce visual clichés. The rich tradition of the suburban uncanny, briefly sketched here in this essay, has yielded unsettling and compelling representations of the home, but there are other qualities of borderland light yet to be captured in hybrid landscapes where vestiges of suburban, rural, and small town structures coexist, forms of time and being between cornfields and convenience stores. The suburban everyday as an undramatic parking lot or lawn, a quotidian temporality without nostalgia, where revelations do not take place, deserves further attention.
The first aerial photographs of the suburbs were images of infinity. In their uniform regularity of rows and rows of potential homes, they evoked a landscape of orderliness and limitless promise. In The Bulldozer in the Countryside, Adam Rome describes how William Garnett’s photographs initially functioned as “symbols of the skill of American business in meeting the demand for affordable housing.” (10) However, as Rome outlines, the promise embodied in the images would not last, and less than a decade later the photographs were reappropriated by environmentalists as symbols of “the environmental devastation wrought by suburban development.” (11) The figure of surveillance that we now associate with aerial photography has its origins in the grid-like mapping of space as private property embodied in Garnett’s images of the first suburban developments. In Stratman’s film, the citizen as suspect is a “running man” unable to escape visibility. Over the film’s final images of aerial photography that chart the progress of the running suspect as he flees, an audio track plays a media report about a man who has locked himself in his house and set his home on fire. The final found footage images of a burning home provide an apt coda for a sense of lost refuge.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 33-34.
- John R. Stilgoe, Landscape and Images (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 212.
- Critiques of suburban domesticity repeatedly depict an underworld that exists beneath a wholesome surface of ornament.
- Mark Strand, Hopper (New York: Knopf, 2001), 20.
- Annette Michelson, “Dr. Crase and Mr. Clair,” October vol. 11 (Winter, 1979), 30-53.
- Michel Chion, Audio-Vision (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 129-130.
- Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 5-6. Of course, behind the network of boundaries depicted in the film, there is a long history of discrimination, based on race and class, inscribed in the very deeds and zoning ordinances of suburban planning.
- Mike Davis, City of Quartz (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 224.
- Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol.3, Marx and Engels, 1843-1844 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), p. 314, quoted in Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 5.
- Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 153