The Process Involves Walking

This means walking city streets, alone. Nature is lovely of course but I don’t find enough there to look at that inspires me, and it is too still to promote the right flow of thoughts—no people. In a city the slow, steady movement around me, and of my own limbs, releases my mind to wander through its own territory, setting me loose to daydream, sort through things, generate ideas. Also it uplifts, eases the tension that comes with the tendency to brood. And it provides the chance to look at things, outside the insulated bubble of my car, level with the world itself and beholden to it fully. Not focusing much on any one thing but just wandering, taking it in. Noticing and experiencing the people and their movements, the social fabric that I spend my life trying to somehow capture, represent, express in words.

Of course, not every city is good for this kind of walking. In the BBC documentary series The Story of Film, the director Mark Cousins argues that it’s no accident that Los Angeles was the birthplace of film noir. It’s not obvious why this would be until you begin to think like a filmmaker, and see that the streets of Los Angeles contain few walkers, are not friendly to walkers, are not built for human interaction. Are a perfect visual expression of modern isolation.

Los Angeles, Cousins says in a voiceover, is a city that becomes deserted at night. Over shots of bare strips of concrete, he goes on to say that since nearly everyone drives, the sidewalks empty at night. For the same reason, streetlights are few and far between, so the streetscape is unusually dark for a large city. The majority of the light often comes from large display windows backlit by cold fluorescent bulbs left on in shops that front the street—strikingly similar, he points out, to the streaming, shadow-casting lighting of classic noir. The mood of L.A. at night, we see, is quite creepy and very lonely. So film noir, inspired by these visuals, was born like a love child in that city resembling no other. This is how you have Bogart waiting by a curb with the shadow of a pole cast across his face like a gash. But what a price to pay for inspiration.

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