Posts Tagged ‘antonioni’

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.


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.


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)

The Seventh Seal

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009


The Seventh Seal
1957, 96 minutes
directed by Ingmar Bergman

The image of a man playing chess with Death, from this movie by Ingmar Bergman, is one of the most lasting and poignant images in cinematic history. The story is about a 14th century Crusader knight who returns to his homeland only to find it ravaged by the plague. Death, played by Bengt Ekerot, appears to the knight, played by Max Von Sydow, and informs him that it is his time. The knight then challenges Death to a game of chess for time and his life. Throughout the ensuing journeys of the knight and his squire, his discussions with Death and his meetings of countrymen, Bergman questions the nature of God and existence.

This movie is essentially about doubt—in many ways, the mother of intelligence. But the difference between the way Antonioni and Bergman go about interrogating doubt has proven to be an interesting contrast. Bergman questions doubt through an essentially theatric method—existential doubt is fore-grounded through a combination of character development, plot events, and symbolic imagery. We know the characters doubt, and by implication, the film director, because the characters themselves say so. In an Antonioni film, in contrast, the doubt is expressed through a renegotiation of the conventions of filmmaking.

In an interview with Beatriz Colomina, Rem Koolhaas said that his entire career is founded on the idea that architecture is in doubt, and each of his project aims to reassert the validity of architecture. In a way, Rem’s meta-architectural practice is a paragon of doubt and an example of a productive assertion of that questioning.

Originally written November 13, 2007

Wild Strawberries

Friday, January 23rd, 2009


Wild Strawberries
1957, 91 minutes
directed by Ingmar Bergman

I’m not sure if this is obvious, but I did select the theme for this semester’s film series with a large amount of trepidation—there are no safer, more obvious, and less objectionable subjects for a film series than the films of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. They are, without doubt, some of the most studied and written about films since the invention of cinema, and therefore their artistic merits might actually start to veer towards a level of cliché.

And so it is with equivalent parts relief and sadness that we are not going to be screening any more Antonioni films and are now going to be watching the work of that Nordic master, Ingmar Bergman, beginning with this one, Wild Strawberries. On the one hand, I am going to miss those sullen, beautiful and well-dressed actors and actresses elegantly lounge about the Mediterranean landscape and the quiet, rhythmic syncopation of their Italian. On the other hand, those Antonioni films were just so hard to watch sometimes, and it’s not really going to get any easier with Bergman. Let me explain further.

The issue of difficulty is something that we’ve been exploring a bit in the Eisenman studio—in fact, it could be seen as a key driving force to the entire oeuvre of Peter Eisenman—his theory, his writings, his pedagogy, and lastly, his architecture. Eisenman has always wanted a difficult architecture, one that initially began by an elaborately documented process of formal moves to one interested in partial figures or post-indexicality. In either case, his work has always been concerned with something other than the “easy” part of architecture concerned with opticality, which is why for his entire life he has constantly refused to talk about anything in visual terms. Though Peter’s attempt to erase opticality or visuality from architecture is as self-contradicting and as impossible a project as any other attempt to create to a closed system of logic (see Incompleteness Theorem, Kurt Godel), it nevertheless makes for some fairly entertaining discussions whenever Luis Fernandez-Galliano or Jeffrey Kipnis are around.

It is in this sense that the films of Bergman and Antonioni are germane to this discussion of difficulty. When I say that their films are hard to watch, it’s not because the images are disturbing, or because the sequence of events is ghastly. Instead, it is because the films never let you relax into a state of conditioned expectation of what will occur next. They were challenging assumptions about being, time, and existence. They were, in short, difficult. You aren’t sure why events occur or what they mean; the narrative structures and devices that have governed and organized other films are simply not present in these films. So you are kind of on edge during the entire viewing—there is, in essence, no easiness. There is no cliché.

This is why we still deride certain films as formulaic, and why you’d have to be a fairly cynical and detached hipster to find these films without value. It is in those terms that these films are valuable as studies in architecture—it is that same difficulty and challenge to assumption that charges any good architectural project with electricity. It is why practitioners as vastly different as Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman are so highly vaunted within our field.

Gilles Deleuze spends the first couple of chapters in his book on Francis Bacon talking about the blank canvas as being precisely the opposite—it’s not that the canvas is empty but instead is already filled with expectation and cliché that is imperative to avoid. Bergman’s project is vastly different from Antonioni’s, but it’s not something that you can necessarily see. It has to do with the specific ways they don’t do certain things. It is their affront to cliché.

originally written October 30, 2007


Tuesday, January 13th, 2009


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


La Notte

Monday, January 12th, 2009

La Notte
1961, 122 minutes
directed by  Michelangelo Antonioni

Walking around Rome with the Eisenman studio, one strand of thought kept popping up, and that was the issue of voice. As in, how does a student find his own architectural voice in a studio environment populated with professors as strong and sometimes as fundamentally opposed as Eisenman and Krier? If you do any searching at all, you will find somebody somewhere who will tell you that the point of an architectural education is to help you find your own voice. Help us find our voice. It sounds almost dubiously altruistic, especially surrounded by anxious and aggressive classmates and equally-so professors. But what if, for a moment, we take this as true?


When Michelangelo Antonioni died earlier this summer and the obituaries rolled out of all the major newspapers, his seventy-some years of age and his thirty-odd films were boiled down to 900 words or less. “The Poet of Ennui,” “A Chronicler of Alienated Europeans in a Flimsy New World,” or “The Father of Modern Angst and Alienation,” were some of the headlines that ran in circulation.

What strikes me is the simultaneous power and insignificance of one idea. One idea, obsessively explored through an unrelenting curiousity, is a force to be reckoned. It is a force for no other reason than its self-propelling conviction. It is, however, only one idea. Like leaves of grass, each one is infinitely miraculous yet, when you scale back, sadly trivial. When history scales back on the giants of our field, like it did upon Antonioni, we’ll remember even the most important and complex and rich architects or artists for only one idea. You will be lucky if you can fight and argue your way through one idea.


It is through this discouraging scale of existence that any ounce of conviction gains its strength. To fully believe in something, in opposition to all of the conflicting evidence, of which there is undoubtedly no lack of surplus for, or the relativistic plurality of nature in general, is a feat indeed. Antonioni, to be necessarily reductive, explored distance: the distance between people, the distance between man and his environment, and the distance between an idea and its realization. Antonioni was originally trained as an architect, and it’s his sensitivity to space and landscape which makes him so resonate with architects.


So as the Eisenman studio wandered around Rome, talking about Deleuze, partial figures, part-whole relationships, and undecideability through the physical examples of Bramante, Borromini, Moretti, Pagano & Piagentini, like less glamourous (but certainly funnier) characters in an Antonioni film, the real discussion was about our ideas, their relation to us in this time and place, and our relations to each other. We were discussing distance and proximity, ideas and things. If we are lucky, we’ll find our ideas and argue for them beautifully.

As a note: the three films by Antonioni generally referred to as his “trilogy” are, in order: L’Avventura is the first film, La Notte is the second, and L’Eclisse is the final installment.

originally written October 2, 2007


Saturday, January 10th, 2009

1962, 118 minutes
directed by  Michelangelo Antonioni

A lot of people, after he died, talked of the first time they had seen an Antonioni film. Martin Scorsese published an article in the New York Times, as did Woody Allen. And I’m tempted to do the same: to tell you of the first time I saw L’Avventura, at the BAM in Brooklyn, in the front row on a date with a beautiful but icy girl and to stumble out of that beautiful theatre into the nightlights of Fort Greene. For it’s something of a shock to see an Antonioni film for the first time. Certainly when the films were new it must have been, but it is now, also. Space and time are played with in a way that nobody, for whatever reason, had done before or has done since. By leaving you with little else to grasp upon in his films, you seize upon what is there: the characters in the landscape, the attenuated and fragile connections between things and people. As his actors moved through the film, beautiful, well-dressed, and glamorously bored, it shocked you into what it meant to occupy space with other people. In a way, Antonioni must have felt much like the way Sartre philosophized, but without the cutting and masochistic decisiveness, or like Camus, but told it through a poetry of images.


Elizabeth Diller once said, when asked about her firm’s work in various disciplines outside of what’s been traditionally architecture with a capital ‘A,’ such as gallery installations and dance troupe sets, that she felt that architecture begins where the skin ends. The mediation of sight, sound, touch and proximity is the real domain of architecture she says, not simply the erection of walls and floors. Her early projects dealt with exactly that: the mediation of sight, the rhythm and pace of movement, the touch of a wall (however you define one), or the proximity of another person. It’s a dangerous, and therefore exciting, way to reconceptualize the domain of architecture. It is that subtle, detailed, and ethereal realm of space and time that film and architecture share. And nothing makes you more aware of that than an Antonioni film.
(originally written September 17, 2007)

Identity & Fragility

Saturday, January 10th, 2009


For this semester’s architecture film series, I had initially planned on screening a selection of Asian films for a theme that I have been thinking about and working on since the inception of this film series back in 2005. But on Monday, July 30th of 2007, in a weird double occurrence, two giants of cinema passed away on the same day: Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman. And so Asia would have to wait, for this semester an homage to the scenescapes and sensibilities of an Italian and a Swede will be featured.

This semester’s series will open with three films by Antonioni followed by four films by Bergman. Antonioni and Bergman both made films during the 1960s, a time of quiet intellectual revolution. The 60s, for better or worse, was the period that forged the rigors of the intellectual inquiries of the generation before ours. Film was a nascent method of sensual inquiry into the profound changes that certain technologies had affected upon the modern world but a generation before them. A New York Times obituary headline read, “Before [Antonioni & Bergman], Films Were Just Movies.”