Posts Tagged ‘aldo rossi’

Chungking Express

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Chungking Express

Chungking Express
1994, 98 minutes
directed by:  Wong Kar-wai

Hong Kong is a small region that produces a disproportionately large share of movies. For the remaining two films of the The Future is Asian series, I’ve chosen to discuss two films by one Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-wai. This is a testament to either Wong Kar-wai’s importance and relevance as a director, or to my stubbornness and arrogance in selecting films that I believe are relevant.

Chungking Express

Wong Kar-wai is one of those consummate indie film auteurs: the kind black-skinny-pants-wearing hipster film majors love to love. Chungking Express was the first movie distributed by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures movie company, and Wong has continued to produce highly anticipated and highly debated films—his latest, My Blueberry Nights, starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, and Rachel Weisz, made its American theatrical debut in 2007 (it received tepid reviews).

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

However, it’s not hard to see why Chungking Express made such a splash when it was first released in the US in 1994. It’s fast, stylishly oblique, cooly violent, and full of alienated beautiful people, the kind that have occupied hipster films since Antonioni. Though infused with a distinctively Asian vibe, it nonetheless effuses a thoroughly international sensibility. Wong Kar-Wai layered and mixed the music to compete with (and at times drown out) the dialogue–this was a fairly radical idea, and his use of music throughout his later films seems to have been a result of the success of that experiment in this film. As the theme song (in this case, “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and the Papas–see the clip below) weaves in and out or abruptly starts and stops throughout the film, it sets up a rhythm that organizes the narrative structure and establishes a spatial atmosphere.

But a funny thing happens when after you finish watching Chungking Express, or for that matter, other Wong Kar-Wai films: afterwards, you don’t necessarily remember the plot, or what happened, at least not in the traditional sense of who did what to whom, which then precipitated certain events, and so on and so on. In other words, you don’t exactly remember the chain of causal events that normally propel stories from beginning, middle, to end. This is not to say that Wong Kar-Wai’s films are forgettable—in fact, just the opposite. You distinctly remember the neon rush of the cosmopolitan streets of Hong Kong, the worn and tired texture of the old-city walls in that cramped, dark alley where two old friends said goodbye, the tight space of the lovers’ apartment, or the rhythm of the music that weaves its way through the images. Some images, like the food stall girl (the adorable Chinese pop-star Faye Wong) absent-mindedly bopping along to “California Dreaming” by the Mamas & the Papas (see the clip above), or the woman gently leaning her head on her lover in the back of a taxi, never leave you. Indeed, you are left with something else. We could try and call this something else visual impressions, or moods, or atmosphere, but I think it may be something which is the culmination of all of those things, yet somehow more: you are left with a sense of urbanity.

in-the-mood-for-love

Chungking Express takes its name from a bewildering, crowded mess of stores, shops, and eateries in one building in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong–it is essentially a vertical souq populated and staffed predominantly by immigrants and foreigners. To anyone who has ever been to this building/place/phenomenon, it is in and of itself an urban idea.

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Urbanity, as a broad concept, is inseparable from a conception of time. As our understanding and perception of time has changes, so does our understanding of cities. The most important urban theorists and architects all have differentiated themselves with a specific temporal conceptualization: from Alberti and Nolli all the way through Le Corbusier, Rossi, and Koolhaas. Wong Kar-Wai presents an essential understanding and documentation of contemporary urbanity due to his subtle, sophisticated, and irreducibly contemporary ability to play with time—most predominantly through his phrasing of visual sequences, his unique use of music, and to a lesser extent, his working method and the interconnectedness of his filmic oeuvre. Wong Kar-wai’s subject is exactly the relation between two things, time and urbanity, and in this way, proves that there are no more analogous artistic endeavors than film and architecture.

-    quang truong (originally written April 2008)

L’Avventura

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

lavventura2

L’Avventura
1960, 145 minutes
directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

L’Avventura is really Antonioni’s most important film. Some of his most famous images and scenes are in here, as well as some of his most shocking narrative devices—they’re not shocking like an instantaneous, loud, surprising cut in a teenage slasher-flick, but shocking more like the way a finger run slowly over the rim of fine glassware slowly sets the entire glass into reverberation. Monica Vitti, the beautiful actress who stars in all three of his trilogy films, though she plays slightly different characters in all three, is the singular constancy throughout the trilogy, imbuing the three films with the existential dissonance for which Antonioni became famous and from which this semester’s theme takes it title, “Identity & Fragility.”

The theme of identity and fragility was on display last night during the lecture, though only as a subtext. Last night, at the “Writing on Architecture” panel, there was an animated debate about the value of writing to architecture. In short, books and buildings. At one point or another, various assertions were made about the ascendancy of one over the other in terms of the capacity to affect the environment, or the way we live, or our understanding of architecture and architects, living or dead. All of the arguments were made, however, with the unstated, underlying assumption that the capacity to transcend time being the most desired result of either endeavor. If the point of architectural writing is primarily self-promotional, as Dean Stern argued on one end of the panel, or a discipline unto itself which may be a more lasting document of ideas than the buildings themselves, as Peter Eisenman argued on the other end of the panel, then it is our place in time which is the real issue; specifically, the identity of an architect or architecture in relation to his or her milieu and the history of architecture in general. Time was the giant elephant in the room. I should note that the panel was sandwiched in the middle by Kurt Forster, whose wit, verve, and eloquence rendered time null and void, sort of like being absorbed in a great movie or book or under the influence of the best sort of recreational drugs.

In L’Avventura, as it is in the films of Wong Kar-Wai or Sergei Eisenstein, or the architectures of Aldo Rossi, or last night’s panel discussion, the real subject is time. The movie moves ploddingly, sometimes almost disturbingly slow, and the camera lingers as the characters wander seemingly without purpose through the landscape. This, in essence, is the invention of Michelangelo Antonioni. It is the relationship between his framing and pacing of images through time which was so disturbingly unconventional at the time (and still is). As the movie progresses, you are thus made aware of the ideas of distance and proximity– the distance between people, the distance between a person and his/her environment, and the distance between an idea and its realization. It is why it is said that only in an Antonioni film is the architecture a protagonist. I would disagree, and say that the architecture in an Antonioni film is not a protagonist, but an antagonist—it makes you aware of the formal delineations between things and is constantly pushing and pulling on the beautiful, languid characters in ways that subjugate them and belittle them. The architecture, in more ways than one, makes the characters disappear, though we never lose our interest in the pretty things that move about the frame of the camera—they just seem pitiably trivial to the power of the place and the landscape.

originally written October 9, 2007

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Dark City

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

dark-city

Dark City
1998, 100 minutes
directed by Alex Proyas

Well, this is the last film of the semester’s film series. And what a dark one it is. It even has “dark” in the title. It’s kind of sad, not to mention sort of incongruous, to end the series with a dystopia like this on a sunny, beautiful day like today. This feels more like a Will Ferrell movie sort of day. Actually, this feels like a go out and sit on the grass with a lady-friend sort of day. But nevertheless, the show must go on.

Many of you have commented to me before that these film notes bear, at best, a tangential relation to the films being screened. At worst, some of you have said they bear no relation to the films at all. Some of you have even recoiled in horror when you found out that I hadn’t even watched the movie before I wrote the film notes. As in, how could you write about a movie when you hadn’t even seen it?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say why: architecture is about built expression. To that extent, it is fixed in a non-abstract materiality. However, the effects, inspiration, and performance of architecture often exceeds the banality of the mere structured materiality. It may be argued, that in architecture, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This film series, which is about the intersection, interference, and/or engagement between film and architecture, thus must be explicit about the what, exactly, is the nature of the connection between the film being screened and our engagement with the built environment.

Here’s my bias: I’m less interested in what the film looks like than in what assumptions and ideas the filmmaker brought to bear in the film. Film has been able to express ideas through a conflation of moving images and aural experience. The relationship, ergo, is one of an irreducible combination of sight, sound, and time. The design of the set within a film offers no more insight into this relationship than the sketches or photos of the set design. Plot, also, is a mere triviality. You can read a breakdown of the plot of a film in any review you care to look up online, and it won’t necessarily have anything to do with architecture. In fact, I can’t think of a single movie in which the unfolding plot of a film bears any interesting insight into the nature of our creative profession.

In Dark City, which I have seen before, thankyouverymuch, the most striking idea is the way it treats urbanism and memory. In the city in which the movie takes place, certain characters have the ability to alter memories. From this ability to alter memories directly follows the ability to change cities. Buildings are erected and taken down instantaneously in this film. Without memory there is no time, and without time there can be no cities.

When I was an undergrad, majoring in painting, one of my friends at another university told me of her interest in landscape architecture. A professor had told her recently that landscape architecture was the most potent of all the arts because it involved all four dimensions: three dimensional space plus time (the seasons and plant growth). I scoffed at her and told her it was the reverse: the reason why landscape architects are often confused with landscapers, the people who blow leaves and trim hedges, is because of that dimensional promiscuity. Painting was the most pure because it only involved two dimensions, sculpture was compromised because it dealt with three, architecture was beholden to three dimensions plus the vagaries of sociology (I was apparently kind of Clement Greenberg-ian), and landscape architects were for “Anglo-Saxon sissies,” as Adrian Geuze put it last night. The same reasoning has been used to explain why TV, which is multimedia in the sense that it uses sight, sound, and text, has always been marginalized as an art form, unlike the relatively vaunted art form of cinema.

dichiricostreet

Of course, now landscape architecture is, like, the most cool thing in all of the whole planet, and the relation of time to the city is of utmost importance. How do you design for time? Did Aldo Rossi accomplish it? Did Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Field Operations accomplish it? Does Bob Stern do it? Does DiChirico paint it? What does design sensitive to time look like? Enjoy the last film of the semester.

(originally written April 24, 2007)