Space is never just space. Sometimes we think of it as the air around us. Sometimes we think of it as a thing in which to find a WiFi signal. Sometimes it’s what we need when we’ve had an argument with someone we love. Perhaps most often potentiality is the value assigned to it: What can be put here? Who can live there? Which plant can grow everywhere? Rarely is space treated as inherently dangerous, villainous (that is in part what makes the films of Fritz Lang or Kira Muratova exceptional), yet that is precisely one of the tectonic shifts wrought by living in the era of Covid-19. It has suddenly unfastened the values that traditionally attach to proximity, particularly regarding human bodies, as vocabulary focusing on the distance between them—social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine—become part of our quotidian language. Questions of what is close, what is far, and what is far too close have become matters of life, death, and illness. The space between bodies is a measure of harm, even violence. The embrace is no longer the signifier of core social values. Standing six feet apart is. Distance has become the sign of intimacy—of respect, care, concern, shared understand of a shared world, a sense of belonging to a form of life.
Within discussions of film aesthetics, cinephiles tout the value of cinema for inviting audiences to attend to bodies in space, referring to the composition recorded by the camera and whose projection is offered up for our pleasure. Adrian Martin provides an account of the traditional view of a film’s “mise en scène as the movement of bodies in space—a space constantly defined and redefined by the camera.”[i] This idea motivates a critical recommendation to see, at least to some degree, beyond characters situated within a narrative to the pleasures of graphic compositions and, perhaps from there, to aesthetic questions of scale, shape, line, and so forth.
But as the perception of space is reconditioned in life under Covid, our encounters with fictional spaces, and with what and how they express, alters. Even when we know stories are not set in the present, the new regimes of bodily organization affect how we might see onscreen space. When watching movies, I have lately found myself wincing ever so slightly at people dancing in clubs or of a friend running up to another in the street for a hug. So-called negative space between characters, traditionally construed as an aesthetic choice, now takes on a biopolitical urgency, a politicized and medical meaning. Space comes to the foreground as negative space, but is it properly called negative if we worry that it is full of contagions? Space remains unsubstantial but no longer quite so inert when the invisible has become urgently visible.
We might of course think about how we receive narratives overall during this new era. (When we are confined to our homes, will we be more sympathetic to Jeff in Rear Window [dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954], who is concerned with the well-being of his infirmed neighbor?) But I suspect that our perception of bodies in space will more subtly restructure, and that the situation of onscreen figures will strike us, not necessarily consciously, but affectively, differently. Consider a few examples.
The opening of The Sound of Music (dir. Robert Wise, 1965) has been a classic image of freedom, of joy. Away from, as we soon learn, the confines of a sexually and vocally repressive convent, the wide open space affords Maria sovereignty of expression. Now, however, that sense of release is bolstered by the perception that she is safe, away from the threat that other bodies bring. Perhaps this was always part of why the image registered as freeing, perhaps others are always a threat to one’s sovereignty. Yet what was once an affordance of nature begins to fade into an affordance structured by the lack of others.
Similarly, in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the very openness of the field seemed to anticipate the possibility of threat coming from all sides. Hitchcock even shows us that there is nothing around our protagonist in shots that cover a full 360-degree range. However, now that field is also reassuringly devoid of people. Openness becomes safety.
But when another character shows up, but does not approach, do we now register this as a sign of tension, of awkwardness, or of propriety, caution, even care? Or the film may become even more Hitchcockian as the Cary Grant character is forced to confront the fact that there is no visible difference between a friend and foe. Is the man the savior he needs or enemy infector? The risk he takes in walking towards the other man is now more suspenseful as he may be thrusting himself upon the knife.
In Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Alain Resnais employed social distancing to solicit contemplation of social alienation, but now this configuration also transforms into an image of social responsibility. Not alienation, but care for others, of self-care and social care. It is an image in which love and duty meet, not a vision of postwar alienation, but a foreshadowing of future forms of being.
In How to Marry a Millionaire (dir. Jean Negulesco, 1958), a framing that emphasized the interval between two people previously suggested remoteness, that they were not destined for coupledom (if not to demonstrate CinemaScope). Now it seems more like a respectable span for two people getting to know one another.
How much more romantic has become a touch, especially a touch of the face? In Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma, 2019) the borders of bodies are blurred such that a hand may belong to either lover, now overlaying our affective swoon with a frisson of anxiety. Perhaps it will no longer seem coincidental that we use falling to name the entry into both love and illness.
In Claire Denis’s Beau Travail (1999), the regimented, equidistant bodies—configurations often seen in musicals, too—suggested rigid conformity, fascism. Now it appears mass ornamental, an ideal arrangement.
For this reason, solitude registers anew. Baxter, in The Apartment (dir. Billy Wilder, 1960), working alone in the office, seems lucky to have gotten out of the house. Loneliness is less available to visual signification as it once was.
As is friendship. In Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker, 2015), the distance with which two friends walk signals a latent hostility in their relationship. Alexandra is frustrated with Sin-Dee’s anger and impulsive behavior. But now it may not read that way. This may simply look like how two friends walk together.
Cultural minorities never needed Immanuel Kant to tell them that space is subjective and “not something objective and real, nor a substance, nor an accident, nor a relation.” The registration of proximity as aggressiveness, menace, is well known to queer subjects who fear detection. It is in fact the default queer mode of inhabiting public spaces. Tea and Sympathy (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1956) understood this. Contrast the proximity of the cishet macho fellows on the beach with the world of women, in which a young, burgeoning homosexual tries to hide himself in plain sight. The women are social distancing, which allows him to, as well. Here, nearness means danger and distance means security. In this context, proximity has not only been a historical marker of intimacy but of privilege, of a confidence in one’s belonging with and around others.
I am reminded, too, of the 1938 jazz standard “The Nearness of You,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington: “It’s not the pale moon that excites me, that thrills and delights me, oh no, it’s just the nearness of you.” Once tender, were this sung to an unrequited love today, these are the words of a psychopath.
Kyle Stevens is a visiting assistant professor of film studies at MIT. He is the author of Mike Nichols: Sex, Language, and the Reinvention of Psychological Realism (2015), coeditor of the two-volume collection Close-Up: Great Screen Performances (2018), and editor of the forthcoming The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory. His essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Cinema Journal,Critical Quarterly, Film Criticism, and World Picture, as well as in several edited collections.
My thanks to Daniel Morgan for helpful feedback on this topic.
[i] Adrian Martin, Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (New York, 2014), p. 45.