Black Cat

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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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