2/23/2006: Meier-dom?: An American in Rome

More film notes that I wrote almost three years ago.


Belly of an Architect (1987), 118 minutes

“Cinema doesn’t connect with the body as artists have in two thousand years of painting, using the nude as the central figure which the ideas seem to circulate around. I think it is important to somehow push or stretch or emphasize, in as many ways as I can, the sheer bulk, shape, heaviness, the juices, the actual structure of the body. Cinema basically examines a personality first and the body afterward.” –Peter Greenaway

“I don’t think we’ve seen any cinema yet. I think we’ve seen 100 years of illustrated text. If you want to tell stories, be a writer, not a filmmaker.” –Peter Greenaway

As far choosing movies for an architecture film series goes, this one was fairly easy. It has the word “architect” in the title, and is actually about an architect and his artistic trials. It is shot entirely in Rome, which some people believe is a city of continuing architectural significance (though Le Corbusier said in Vers Une Architecture: “To send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life.”) As it happens, the architect is an American working in Rome who encounters some difficulties, so it also fits within the semester’s theme of “Cultural Invasions.” And tangentially, it could be extrapolated to serve as sort of shallow (and more probably, meaningless) analogy of the work that Richard Meier did to get his Jubilee Church built in Rome (a competition that Meier won over Tadao Ando, Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry and Peter Eisenman, and which is now the subject of its own documentary).

But if the selection of this movie for this series was so easy for me, it then begs the question, what makes a movie have architectural significance? What can students of architecture glean from a medium that is two dimensional and which relies most heavily on cinematographers, actors and writers—none of whom work directly on architecture?

I can tell you that I was loathe to screen this film for those reasons, plus a few others. First of all, I am not a fan of the director, Peter Greenaway, a filmmaker from Britain. Peter Greenaway is maybe one of the most ambitious filmmakers in regards to pushing the boundaries of film; he was trained as a painter, then worked as a film editor before making his own films; he has also written books, essays, and curated shows at international museums. And I am amenable to his ambition to free movies from their traditional bond to storytelling. The problem is his films are often unwatchable (full disclosure: I’ve only seen two of his films).

But the biggest reason I didn’t want to put this film on the series was that the link between architecture and film in the case may be too obvious on a very superficial level. Sure, it’s ostensibly about an architect, but that is not where the value of a film to the defensive field of architecture should remain. Greenaway has exhaustively documented artistic ambitions (I would hope architects have artistic ambitions, also), one of which is the relation of the body to his chosen medium. Could we not learn something from how he treats his subject, which is also the subject of our medium? He also has written about film’s dependence on the idea of “text,” which is something that has been known betwixt certain architects (ahem, Peter). So let’s try to get past the title and find something that inspires us architecturally.

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