Archive for December, 2008

Mon Oncle

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

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Mon Oncle
1958, 110 minutes
directed by  Jacques Tati

What a beautiful film this is. Last year this film series screened Playtime, Jacques Tati’s later, larger, and more ambitious, though not funnier, film that deals with a similar scenario: the character Monsieur Hulot and his comic interactions with his urban environment of old and Modern Paris. You can’t look up Jacques Tati and not read about his films as a critique of Modern architecture; however, I’m not going to get into that here. My foot is getting tired from incessantly kicking at the dead horse of Modernism.

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What I’ve been thinking about recently are children. The title Mon Oncle means “my uncle” in French, and though there isn’t really anything that resembles a traditional plot in this film, a continuing narrative strand involves Monsieur Hulot and his playful nephew. Monsieur Hulot is himself a large child in these films, dispossessed of the sophistication and suavity to understand how to operate within Modern environments. What’s surprising to me is the poignancy of an architectural critique from the viewpoint of a child (and/or man-child, as the case of Monsieur Hulot may be). In fact, children are constantly poignant to me —be them in the published photos of James Stirling’s buildings or as a political device in the recent film by Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men. What children could then represent is something that is imminently necessary to acknowledge in the study of architecture: that is, the presence of something beyond the reach of intellection.

bacon_study1953Philip Nobel wrote that changes in governmental policy, among other factors, forced architects to compete with engineers in the middle of the 20th century. I agree with him to a certain extent—I think the bigger factor was the dominance of German philosophy that prioritized progress and science in the Modern era. Thus, architects had to sell themselves and their work as scientifically rigorous. But as Alberto Perez-Gomez has written, the way we know that architecture is separate from science is that architects are constantly using scientific metaphors. If architecture and science were really conjoined, there would be no need for architects to reach for flimsy scientific metaphors to justify their designs.

I’ve stated glibly many times before that “logic will break your heart,” which is a phrase partially taken from a mediocre album by The Stills, a rock group from Montreal. But the phrase succinctly (and catchily if not also reductively) sums up the theories of one of my favorite figures of late, Kurt Gödel. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems of 1931 essentially stated that in any closed system of logic there are both true and false statements that cannot be proven from within that system. Therefore, the attempt to create and justify any closed system of logic is fraught with inconsistencies and incompleteness—this is the hole that Derrida fell into in his otherwise brilliant theory of differance. This is also why the charge of arbitrary hurts Eisenman more than any other critique—he wanted his designs to be logically inevitable from within the parameters of architecture that he so painstakingly constructed.

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Lately, Gilles Deleuze has taken the helm of the most inspirational writer for architects of the moment. Everybody is jumping on the Deleuzian bandwagon, and for good reason. His recently translated book, The Logic of Sensation, is amazing. His ideas of “figuration” and “sensation” are explicitly defined as something that passes beyond the brain, an “irreducibly synthetic . . . plurality of constituting domains of sensation.” In essence, the logic of sensation is distinctly different and separate from formal logic. In Deleuze’s theory, though it is ostensibly about painting, he brings into architecture those aspects that Modernism had left out: namely, the other four senses.

In that way, Deleuze is deliriously liberating. He renders null and void the need to endlessly and unyieldingly generate meaningless diagram after diagram, encourages us to break rules, play around, abandon logic, and explains why stunningly, rigorously formal architecture, like that of Ben Van Berkel and Preston Scott Cohen, sometimes ends up feeling soulless and dead. The work of great architecture lies beyond logical coherency—it lies somewhere in the realm of sensation.

(originally written March 6, 2007)

Black Cat

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

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Black Cat
1934, 65 minutes
directed by Edgar Ulmer

Black Cat may be famous to most folks for being the quintessential B-movie horror film (“low-budget and low-brow”), starring both Boris Karloff AND Bela Lugosi, in a sort of 1930s version of seeing both Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in the same movie. But to filmarchitecters, Black Cat is noteworthy because—GASP!—a modern building, replete with ribbon windows, was the setting for an evil character. This is an update on the more traditional haunted Victorian mansion on the hill with creaky doors and cobwebs (think of Hitchcock’s Psycho). And the evil character, played by Boris Karloff, no less, was an architect. And that evil character was named Poelzig, after a real architect, the German Hans Poelzig. And this was in 1934, when all of us should have still regarded Modernism with the invincible promise of utopia. A Modern utopia of regulating lines, grids, and wide-flange beams.

There are two ways the rest of these film notes could proceed. In the first version, I could lambast what is essentially an arch-conservative position on Modernism that probably reaches something of an apotheosis in Jacques Tati’s filmic critique of Modernist architecture, saying that the vilification of said architecture is nothing but a misplaced resistance to change, both social, technological and political. However, that position would be willfully ignoring Modernism and its practitioners’ sub-texted but nevertheless inarguably metaphysically present agenda of quasi-revolution. Plus, I still practically gag whenever I see regulating lines on fellow students’ studio projects. As if lines have anything to do with the contemporary condition.

Or in the second version, I could herald what in Black Cat is essentially a super-forward anticipation of the flaws of Modernist logic which would invariably lead to Post-modernism and the happy debacle of deconstruction, never mind that in 1934 we have yet to let Modernism run its full course and the cynicism towards any what-was-then progressivity positively stinks of knee-jerk pessimism; this is on top of not mentioning the fact that three years earlier Kurt Gödel had published his incompleteness theorems proving the inherent limitations and undecidability of all formal systems of logic, of which the fundamentally technocentric Modernism was undeniably one. I mean, say what you will about the tenets of Modernism, at least it was an ethos.

But instead I think I’ll jump outside of the easy debate on the signification of Modernist architecture, because at this point we all know that the transcendental signified is the Easter Bunny in the egg-hunt of architectural theory. What instead strikes me about such a debate is the value of studying sets in films. And I’m intentionally calling them sets because that’s what they are: they exist conceptually outside of a greater context that architecture must necessarily grapple with, within spatio-temporally narrower confines, and therefore bear more relation to theatre and set-design, than to architecture. Because given all of the previous, isn’t it fairly apparent that the discussion of sets within films therefore necessarily rests on the level of formal signification and thus devolves into a proto-Saussurian game of pin-the-tail-on-the-theory?

The power of film, at least to me, involves the motion picture’s ability to re-conceptualize architecture. Film is essentially a meta-representational technique that incorporated the then-to-fore formally un-drawable aspects of space, time, and the multivalent sensory experience of architecture. Which is why the two-dimensional, drawn plan of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye has more to do with the interference of film and architecture than Edgar Ulmer’s film, Black Cat.

(originally written February 27, 2007)

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Metropolis

Monday, December 29th, 2008

One of the great things about working with Dietrich Neumann from Brown University (click here for a great link about Brown) was that he selected movies that I knew I had to watch but just couldn’t make myself for one reason or another. Well, when film and architecture are mentioned together, this is one of the first movies people think of, so it was overdue.

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Metropolis (1929) 123 minutes, directed by Fritz Lang

Let’s face it: today, technology is no longer an important part of our collective image of the future. Or maybe I should define “technology” as specifically the sort of industrial/machine age concept which is represented by cars, trains, airplanes, and skyscrapers. Today we have technology in the form of cellphones, iPods, laptops, Blackberrys, the internet and Maya, which are a distinctly different beast than cars and airplanes. In fact, stuff like a 3-d modeling program isn’t technology at all. It’s magic.

A week ago or so, the New York Times published an article about how the recent proliferation and popularity of certain “magic-realist” television shows such as “Lost,” “Heroes,” “Medium,” “Ghost Whisperer” and others were indicative of a popular fascination with the supernatural and the unexplainable. The article goes on to say that this is the harbinger of a society’s decline, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that yet. What I will say, however, is that I think what has happened is that technology has come to signify something else to us: it’s complexity, sophistication, ubiquity and incomprehensible power has breached a tipping point and technology has morphed into magic.

This follows what is sometimes commonly referred to as Clarke’s Third Law (after Arthur C. Clarke): Any sufficiently complex technology is indistinguishable from magic. Don’t think that’s true? Try explaining to me how a television works, on a subatomic level. What about a microprocessor? Still don’t think technology is magic? Did you know that even common household electric wiring systems can only be predictably accounted for using quantum mechanics? And do you know what the single most important principle of quantum mechanics is? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: that at a certain scale it is impossible to know what is going on. Which is why string theory is simultaneously both extremely exciting and extremely disappointing: it can never be scientifically proven or disproven because it theorizes phenomena at a scale that we simply cannot test for. Somebody explain to me quantum mechanics. I don’t care if you’re Michelle Addington (more Michelle). You can’t. Because it’s magic. iPods and cellphones and Blackberrys and laptops run on magic.

The film Metropolis is the godfather of all filmic images of the Modern conception of the city. In this film the city under the influence of Modern technology was imagined to its logical extreme: layers upon layers of traffic all flowing in orderly grids between behemoth sized skyscrapers with Babel-esque proportioned hubris. In a sense, all films dealing with the city have been a response to Metropolis. But the age where Metropolis represents our image of the future may be closed, along with our faith in the promise of skyscrapers (except in Asia, but more on that later): prominent architects have all said or proposed as such: Rem called his CCTV (known in China affectionately as “Big Shorts”) loop a death knell to the age of the skyscraper, Eisenman’s Max Reinhardt building was also theorized as such, and Thom Mayne even said in spoken lectures that skyscrapers make no sense for cities today. Metropolis, with its grand skyscrapers, is the image of the city under the spell of technology.

As an element of urban planning, the Grid may be the most conspicuous example of an obsolete machine-age emphasis on the vehicle. How pernicious the grid has been to cities in the Twentieth century! It’s no wonder that today we care most about the cities and spaces that were developed before the car and hence, before the grid: lower Manhattan, parts of Boston, parts of San Francisco, and of course, old Europe.

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Another holdover from Modernist urban planning is the vertical stratification of traffic: designers since the Modern era have always attempted to create vertically layered levels of traffic: clover freeways, elevated railways, pedestrian skybridges, etc., all in alignment with the image that Metropolis helped propagate. But in every instance the attempt to create just one more level of streetlife has failed miserably (save for in Asia, but again, more on that later). Wherever pedestrian skybridges have been built they’ve managed to kill the street life both on them and below them, and the images of clover freeways are somehow always juxtaposed next to images of suburban angst: be it Columbine High School or Insane Clown Posse. The reason why layering pedestrian traffic doesn’t work may be most simply explained using a concept Molly Steenson introduced to me: FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out). It may be hard to reside in any one place when you can see a more activated streetscape one level above or below. The next test of this idea will be seen in New York’s High Line, a competition won by Diller, Scofidio+Renfro in collaboration with Field Operations, which faces the unenviable task of trying to design an artificial environment to compete with the bustling, organic streetlife of Manhattan.

(originally written 2/20/2007)

The Man with the Movie Camera

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

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The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) 67 minutes

Nearly as soon as cinema was invented were there theoreticians who wrote about the expansive possibilities of film to change the way we document and understand architecture. In fact, Modern architecture can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the possibilities of technology with the way we build. Walter “the J is like a Y” Benjamin, Le “Little Devil” Corbusier, Aldo “Crayola” Rossi, Bernard “Ah-” Tschumi, and Rem “Cool-Hizzy” Koolhaas, just to name a few, have all famously used film to advance ideas about architecture and urbanism.

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Cinema is the dominant medium of today (though that may be changing), and this is no small potatoes. There have only been a few changes in dominant media since the dawn of history; first was language and oration, the Renaissance gave birth to perspective and thus monocularcentric text and image, and then the twentieth century gave us relativity and motion. Eisenman would call these moments of change shifts: from theocentric to anthropocentric to technocentric; Marshall McLuhan would say they were sensual-spatial: from aural to visual to electro-acoustic.

Dziga Vertov was one of the first to experiment with the extreme technical possibilities of film. Vertov uses slow-motion, fast-motion, jump-cuts, extreme close-ups, double-exposure, freeze-frames, Dutch-angles and tracking shots to document the day in the life of a Russian city. This film is unabashedly ambitious in its attempt to document space and urbanity free from the tethers of literature.

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Rem Koolhaas as the l’homme d’architecture par example du jour (that’s French for “dude be the man right now”) presents an interesting case for a study of the intersection between film and architecture. Though his contemporary Bernard Tschumi more explicitly draws on film as a possible source of architectural inspiration (see The Manhattan Transcripts, Architecture & Disjunction), Remment Koolhaas actually was a screenwriter before he became an architect (he wrote, among other things, soft-core porn scripts for Russ Meyer–which explains some of the pages in his book, Content).  Though it’s hard to say anything specific about Rem, which has a lot to do with the way OMA runs, it nevertheless may be interesting to use him to understand the contemporary condition. For if we are to assume the canon of critical architecture, then we could use Rem to theorize a paradigmatic shift from criticality to post. The moment that this occurred, if I were to try and pin it down Charles Jencks-style, would have to be around 1997 with the appearance of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao. But Gehry himself, who was born Ephraim Owen Goldstein in Toronto, Canada, never was a player in architecture beforehand—he was building parking garages in California before Bilbao. Rem, then, could be the architect that represents the shift from a critical paradigm to a projective or post-critical paradigm (see Jussieu vs. Porto). And if we grant him that, then he is in rare company indeed. For before Rem, James Stirling was the man sitting on top of the fulcrum that swung from Modern to Post-Modern (see Leicester vs. Stuttgart), and before him Le Corbusier was the man that spanned pre-Modern to Modern.

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But of course, this is all predicated on the idea that we accept criticality as a continually valid project for architecture, and not a distinctly Modern-with-a-capital M and Western invention. For criticality may be fatally linked to Hegel and the distinctly twentieth century notion of a canon, to say nothing of the contemporary challenge that Asia presents to criticality (more on that later). It also may be interesting to note that those three Fulcrum Men: Corb, Stirling, and Rem, came to architecture after initial careers in other fields. Le Corbusier was a painter and never had a formal architectural education, James Stirling went to art school and served in the military before attending Liverpool University (as someone who was trained as a painter myself, I love pointing out other architects who were also painters), and Rem wrote porno screenplays before going to the AA in London. However, this makes sense if we understand that any creative act is as equally destructive as it is creative (one could use the laws of thermodynamics as an analogy). It seems to point to the idea that there is nothing so dangerous to the status-quo as an artist bent on destruction. Which is why I’m a lifetime member of the NRA.

Just kidding. Or am I?

(originally written 2/13/2007)

Sunrise

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

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Sunrise (1927) 95 minutes

The German director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is probably most famous for his proto-horror film, Nosferatu, starring Max Shreck in his famously deranged portrayal of Count Orlock. But Sunrise is usually regarded as his more polished and finer film. It won an Oscar at the first year of the Academy Awards for the “Best Unique and Artistic Picture” award.

Among the technical innovations that Murnau introduced to the medium of filmmaking with this movie was the tracking, or moving, camera that moved through space to give an illusion of space and depth that heretofore wasn’t possible. And though it is a silent film, or more accurately, a film with no spoken dialogue, Sunrise was also the first film to use a new technology that synced the soundtrack by Hugo Riesenfeld to the film stock. This, however, was massively dwarfed by the fact that a few days later the first “talkie” film, a film with actors reciting dialogue, was released and obscured Sunrise at the box office.

This film, I feel compelled to tell you, has also been called “one of the greatest films ever made” by numerous critics and polls. But I feel like I’ve repeated that phrase many times in these film notes, and it is certainly obvious that many, many films have been called “the Greatest” (the last time I remember invoking that magnitude of superlative was for last semester’s screening of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. There are even several Wikipedia entries for “Films Considered the Greatest Ever.” So maybe I should start referencing exactly where these claims are coming from. I guess I’ll start doing that now, by telling you that Sight & Sound magazine has this film as the 7th greatest film of all time, (behind Citizen Kane by Welles, Vertigo by Hitchcock, Rules of the Game by Renoir, The Godfather by Coppola, Tokyo Story by Ozu, 2001 by Kubrick, and Battleship Potemkin by Eisensteing), and the American Film Institute has Sunrise in its 100 Greatest Ever collection.

(originally written 1/30/2007)

2 down, 3 to go

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

The third semester that I ran the Yale Architecture Film Society, something fairly serendipidous happened: our department hired a visiting professor, Dietrich Neumann from Brown University, to teach a course called specifically, 761b Film Architecture. I corresponded with Professor Neumann before he came, and spoke to him a couple of times about coordinating the class along with the Film Society. We selected the screening list for the semester over lunch one day, and I got to serve as the teaching assistant for the course. Although we have our differences on what are the specific lessons that a study of film can have on the understanding of architecture, it was great to work with someone so accomplished and knowledgable in the (nascent? niche?) study. Not only was he a great source of information, he was a great source of hard to find DVDs. Below is the poster I designed for that semester, and the following posts will be the film notes that I wrote for that semester. Oh, and Professor Neumann’s books can be found here.

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Beautiful Confusion

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

8-1-2

8 ½ (1963) 138 minutes
1963 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign-Language Film

“One of the most written about, talked about, and imitated movies of all time.” –Criterion Collection

“Boy, it’s probably one the most important movies of my life.” –Roberto Rossi, M.Arch I, 2nd year

Why is it that the Italians seem more in touch with sensuality than just about anybody else? One dandy on a Vespa saying, “Ciao,” is enough to make other men seem like eunuchs, and what woman today can compare with self-possessed beauties like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Monica Belluci? Really, self-possession is the sexiest thing of all, and the Italians have it in spades.

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Take this design study, for example. This is the Italian firm Guigiaro’s study for the Ford Mustang. Guigiaro is a design studio that is responsible, along with Pininfarina, for the majority of the supercars past or present, including Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati, along with others cars for various companies (the Lexus GS400 of ’98-’05, for example). The problem of how to update the previous incarnation of the Mustang, an insipid little Po-mo smirk and riff, was how do you improve what is essentially the design equivalent of a smirk? Smirk harder? The car came from the design school of J Mays, also known as the man who designed the new VW Beetle, and who was the fourth recipient of the GSD’s Annual Design Award, after Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Phillip Starck. In his acceptance speech (which I attended in Piper Hall in 2000), J Mays said that he does not differentiate between design and marketing. But what the Italians did here is make the Mustang, a perennially brute, dismissive, incompetent and uncomprehending, a thoroughly American car, into an Italian car. Problem solved.

8 ½ is a film about a filmmaker, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who is struggling to find inspiration and motivation to complete his latest studio project, I mean, film. He is “a man exhausted by his evasions, lies and sensual appetites.” It sounds thoroughly Italian, and the rest of the film deals with his process of artistic struggle, which weaves through his dreams, his sexual life, and his relation to his friends and clients. It is a film that has been the subject of many dissertations.

This is, then, a film about writer’s block. Or, as may be more generally termed to relate to filmmakers and architects, artist’s block. The thing is: I’m less and less tolerant of the idea of artist’s block. I used to think that manifesting struggle, i.e., throwing fits of despair and tantrums of tiredness, were the necessary by-products of any artist engaged with the creative struggle. But inherent in any creative act is the idea of struggle, and to cease production is essentially an outward expression of self-indulgence. This is not to say that inspiration should come at all times, nor is it to say that inspiration is meaningless. It simply is to say that you cannot bank on it, whether it comes or not is beyond control, and to stop working benefits neither self nor others.

(originally written 11/30/2006)

The Talent Question

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

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Andrei Rublev (1969) 165 minutes

“It’s a complex and demanding narrative about the responsibility of the artist to participate in history rather than documenting it from a safe distance. A landmark in Russian cinema, Andrei Rublev is a beautifully lyrical black-and-white film about harmony and soulful expression. As the late filmmaker says in a supplementary interview, each generation must experience life for itself; it cannot simply absorb what has preceded it.” –Bill Desowitz

It’s hard to do any research on this movie without trying to get past the hordes of web reviewers and amateur cinephiles calling Andrei Rublev “the Greatest Movie Ever Made.” The movie is about the little known 15th century Post-Renaissance Russian iconographer, cinematically told in episodic “chapters.” Whatever else is said about it, this much, as far as I can ascertain, is certain: the movie is Russian, the movie is old, it’s in black and white, and (thus?) the movie is bound to make you think.

Which makes you wonder: where have all those really ponderous and ruminative thinkers gone? What was the last work that had the scope of emotion, depth, and intellectual weight of those by Pushkin, Doestoyevsky, or Tolstoy? Really, who do we have in the 20th century that matches those guys? If today we have gorillas, back then they had King Kongs.

In 2004, when Jacques Derrida died, some noted that it might have been more than just the passing of an insecure French philosopher. In fact, maybe the idea of theory itself had just died. After a grueling century of artistic and political manifestos that have invariably caused mass-scale suffering, and, most recently, the impotence of ideas and information to avoid the current situation in Iraq, has our contemporary culture lost its faith in theory to explain anything? About the term “deconstruction,” Emily Eakins in 2004 wrote, “Today, the term has become a more or less meaningless artifact of popular culture, more likely to turn up in a description of an untailored suit in the pages of Vogue than in a graduate seminar on James Joyce.” But, boy-oh-boy, I would love a deconstructed suit. Particularly one by Muccia Prada. She is infallible.

Maybe right now, after a period of intellectual, artistic, and scientific process unparalled since the Classical period or the Renaissance, we are entering a new Medieval Age: an age where our own intellectual abilities no longer inspire, but, instead, frighten. The Holocaust proved that genocide was possible in a “First World” civilization, and nuclear weapons don’t seem like they’re going to be forgotten anytime soon (Iran, South Korea). Theodor Adorno wrote that after Auschwitz, poetry is no longer possible, and Al-Qaeda has impressed upon us, along with Bush’s politics of fear, that a bottle of liquid and nail clippers can apparently send a Boeing 747 with hundreds of passengers down in flames. Where’s our technology now? The Medieval Ages, you may remember, was that great expanse of about 1000 years between when those barbaric Asians (my ancestors, thank you very much) sacked Rome and thus ended the Classical period, giving rise to an art and architecture that seemed to be based in fear and suffering, until Brunelleschi figured out single-point perspective in Florence and re-birthed the glory of intellectual pursuits. Really, what good is technology when a guy who looks like me can ride by on his horse and put poison in your precious aquaducts? So here we are, then. At the cusp of the Neo-Medieval Ages, c. 2001 – ?

“Modern world I’m not pleased to meet you/
You just bring me down”
–Wolf Parade

(originally written 11/9/2006)

In-Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

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Towering Inferno (1974) 165 minutes

The story goes like this: Paul Newman plays the architect who builds the World’s tallest skyscraper only to see it completely engulfed in flames on the building’s opening night party. Of course, the fire was due to cost-cutting wiring by a dishonest electrical contractor, and the architect spends the rest of the film with the fire chief, Steve McQueen, rescuing the occupants of the burning building. It seems funny that an architect with a hubris large enough to attempt to build the world’s largest skyscraper in the earthquake-prone Bay Area would escape blame, but I guess architects have enough public good will so that the electrician gets the blame. The idea of a world’s tallest whatever has seemingly been a bottomless source of inspiration for architects since the Tower of Babel; it immediately calls to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile High Building, Mies van der Rohe’s Crystal Towers, and Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center. The World Trade Center was the tallest building at the time it was completed, only to be surpassed by SOM’s Sears Tower (1974), later Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Towers (1998), and most recently Taipei 101 (2004). Of course, in Dubai, SOM is building a skyscraper that will top even that (its exact height at the date of completion in 20?? remains a secret) with promotional brochures indicating that it will be expandable, so that it will always remain “the world’s tallest.” Yippitty-do-da. Only in Dubai.

It may be interesting to note that Towering Inferno the movie was released almost at the same time as when Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center towers in Manhattan opened. Mr. Yamasaki seems to have had some extremely bad luck with architecture: he was the architect of both Pruitt-Igoe, the housing project in St. Louis that supposedly killed Modernism (see Charles Jencks) and began Post-Modernism, and the World Trade Center, the urban skyscraper whose destruction supposedly killed irony and ushered in the Age of Terror. I don’t know if that much can be attributed to either of those specific events, and it would certainly make Mr. Yamasaki (an alum of the University of Washington and New York University) something of an architectural anti-Christ. But just for poignancy’s sake below I’m showing two images: one of how Yamasaki imagined Pruitt-Igoe and one of how it looked before it was demolished. And If you Google “towering inferno,” two sets of images come up: those of this movie, and those of the 9/11 attacks.

(originally written 10/30/2006:)

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The Art of Fame

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

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Basquiat (1996) 108 minutes

Full disclosure: this is my favorite movie of all time, forever and ever. It is on an elevated plane of cinematic glory that it shares with only two other films: Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann and Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis. To me, Moulin Rouge is about love and postmodernism, Groundhog Day is about laughter and existentialism, and Basquiat is about fame and ambition.

Basquiat is a biopic on the life of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a painter from New York in the 1980s, as told through the direction of his friend and fellow painter Julian Schnabel. Julian Schnabel himself leveraged a relatively large degree of art-world success during the 80’s; he was most famous for his broken plates and bondo paintings and then later for simply being savvy about maintaining his fame. This movie is a testament to Schnabel’s media charisma—it may be the most star-studded directorial debut ever. Moreover, it is an incredibly sensitive and poetic filmic rendering of an intensely difficult topic (art about art; try renting other films about painters to see how miserably they fall short, or for that matter, other films by painters). Julian Schnabel’s next film, Before Night Falls, about the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, proved that his touch with the medium of film was no fluke [his most recent film is the similarly heralded The Diving Bell & the Butterfly].

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a painter of inestimable significance, in one flash of a life bookending the Warholian end of art history as theorized by Arthur C. Danto on one side and presaging the New York productionism that would come to define the 90’s on the other (see Damien Hirst, et al). Embodied within any discussion of his work come the first postmodern intimations of meta-art; Basquiat stands as the figurehead for the first generation of artists who were ironically aware of the machinations of the art world. In short, he was a middle-class raised Brooklyn boy who became famous in an instant for his “graffiti art,” playing upon issues of race, class, commerce and urbanity to wrestle his way into the art history books.

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There are many memorable scenes in this movie, and I could talk about it for longer than anyone would have patience. One of them has to do with Benicio Del Toro and the prescription for fame (i.e., four years for fame, six for wealth). Another has to do with Christopher Walken’s eerie and penetrating interview with Basquiat. Or any scene with David Bowie’s preternaturally uncanny portrayal of Andy Warhol. Or when Courtney Love saunters into her cameo appearance to the Rolling Stone’s best song, “Beast of Burden.”

This movie has one of those rare soundtracks that captures the spirit and time of the story exactly (the zeitgeist, if you will), an eclectic mix that offers insights into both the subject (Basquiat was a huge fan of the jazz of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker) and New York in the gritty and urbane 80s. Songs by the Pogues, the Modern Lovers, the Rolling Stones, Joy Division, Grandmaster Flash, Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, John Cale, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen all weave their way in and out of the staccato vignette narrative of the movie about a painter whose work was so often described as musical.

But what makes this movie invaluable is that it is the only film I know of that deals with the issues of ambition and fame in a post-Warholian media milieu. In the movie, the visual leitmotif of a surfer riding the waves intermittently cuts in, a lone surfer riding a gigantic wave collaged over the weary brownstones of downtown Manhattan. The analogy of the arc of our lives being compared to a surfer riding a wave may seem a little tired, but it feels fresh and unexpectedly apt when it is collaged over the decidedly unnatural environment of lower New York and the drug-laden art world. If our time here at Yale is something similar, a large rush of information, experience, and opportunities, I guess I should end this paper with something like: so let us enjoy the ride.

(originally written 10/9/2006)