Did You Notice That?

When watching a comedy like “The Big Lebowski”, one does not think of it as a particularly noir-type film. The humor and cursing call attention away from the environment and film design. However, once I got into the mindset of thinking like a designer, it was fairly easy to pick out the Los Angeles built environment and how it frames the noir style. After looking at several pieces over the past few weeks in ds106, it is clear that certain design aspects are common throughout the noir style.

Filmed in 1997, “The Big Lebowski” is an ideal film to exemplify the classic built environment in Los Angeles in the 1990’s. Unlike the current portrayal of this big city in film and advertisements as clean and shiny, it is quite the opposite. The Dude’s apartment, in particular, is filled with dirty toilets, half-ripped and old wallpaper, and chipped doorways. This trend is repeated in places like the bowling alley. Another noticeable element of Los Angeles environment is the limited space in between buildings, if there is any space at all, since many stores are connected in a commercial strip. All of the stores have large, bright, rectangular signs above them and bars on the windows, as well. When viewing a line of houses, there is minimal space in between, and the houses tend to be short with flats roofs and a single porch light. These typical L.A. aspects of that time period convey noir style.

Space, a design element that I never really noticed before, is very specific in how it frames the design and style of noir. The closeness between buildings, as described above, creates a continuous and unified feeling of one cityscape, a classic noir trope, and enhances the urban feel. This minimal amount of space, when viewed straight on, also creates dark alley-like spaces in between the houses. These scenes are typical of the noir style. Space also frames noir style in doorways. There is a certain length in between the top of the door and the light on top that creates a typical, triangular shadow enveloping the entire doorway. Space is also obvious within buildings. All of the houses have crowded rooms with a lot of furniture. This spatial design creates an abundance of shadows that fill the room and cover the characters’ faces. Space plays a crucial role in portraying the darkness and eeriness of noir.

Although “The Big Lebowski” is set in Los Angeles in the 1990’s, it is obvious that some noir design elements are common throughout the noir styles regardless of time and place. For example, urban decay buildings cover noir streets, with defined shadows outside of them. Also common on these buildings, are randomly placed neon-light signs. When slightly lit, noir roads are commonly cracked and bumpy. More often, however, the highways are long and dark with no street lights, so one can barely see the road. Another noir design element is single bulb lights placed over signs and doorways. These aspects of film design are common in all noir film.

Film design, including spatiality, use of shadows, and building design, is crucial to the portrayal of a plot. Each of these elements greatly contributes to the overall effect of the movie on the viewer and its noir style.

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