Posts Tagged ‘film architecture’

To Live, via A. O. Scott

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

The New York Times recently posted its re-review of To Live, which I reviewed in my previous post. I wish I could embed the video here, but I can only post the link; the video is here.

Memories of Murder

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

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Memories of Murder
2003, 130 minutes
directed by:  Bong Joon-ho

A friend and I recently had a conversation about the contemporary artist John Currin. He has had feature articles written about him for several years now, including one in the New Yorker, which is no small feat for an American painter alive and working today. He’s a graduate of Yale’s MFA program (Mafia of Art) and a critical darling. In short, he’s received no small amount of critical and professional success.

john-currin

However, there’s something palpably underwhelming about his work. It sometimes feels like what he’s doing is the art world equivalent of a PhD thesis. It’s intelligent and it represents diligent, hard work, but there’s no energy or fire. There’s no brashness. There’s no urgency. There’s nothing in them that really represents a real risk of failure. I don’t mean to single out John Currin for this, for I certainly like and respect his work. I think what is unsettling is the issue of risk. I think the Spanish have a word for it: cojones.

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In a way, the architects we reference the most were almost unpalatably punk in their youth—the competition-rule-breaking entries of early Rem Koolhaas, the suburban house by Frank Gehry, the distressed drawings of Thom Mayne, the paintings of Zaha Hadid, or the art and dance installations of Diller & Scofidio. They gained attention because they were desperately searching for a way around the established methods to get towards something more honest and expressive. That in the end is what creativity is, and that is why we know them today.

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Several years ago, when Jackie Chan made his first American production movie, several interviewers asked Jackie what the difference was between making a movie in America versus making a movie in Hong Kong. Well, Jackie said, the difference was that in America, the movie-makers actually think about things like safety, preparation, planning, and insurance. There is a whole industry that revolves around making sure people don’t get hurt. Apparently, in contrast, back in Hong Kong, somebody would dream up a stunt, no matter how insane, and whoever had the balls would just get up and try to do it on film. If that person got hurt, they would just get another guy. If, after a few maimed guys, they decided the stunt was probably impossible, they would just think of another stunt. And so a movie got made. In short, that was the path to success for Jackie Chan, who literally started his career as a stuntman, and apparently was the guy who survived all the stunts.

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It seems there is no shortage of Asian people willing to do stupid things at a moment’s notice—which is precisely why it’s so exciting. Asia is producing so much: not only in terms of products, but most importantly, in terms of ideas. As I’ve written before, this is why Asia warrants attention; not only because new stuff is being done in Asia, but also because new ways of interpreting and expressing that stuff are being formulated. Asia is just so punk.

memories

The director Bong Joon-ho became famous most recently for his film, The Host, the highest grossing film of all time in South Korea, which the New York Times called a “feverishly imaginative genre hybrid.” This film, Memories of Murder, is arguably a better, more inventive and surprising film. That’s why, comparatively, the artist John Currin just feels like reading a good academic paper. He just went through all the established, formulaic steps to become a good considerate, professional artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Oldboy

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

oldboy

Oldboy
2003, 120 minutes
directed by: Park Chan-wook

Oldboy, a film from South Korean director Park Chan-wook, was a film powerful enough to generate two immense waves of infamy and notoriety. The first came when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where the jury, chaired by Quentin Tarantino, awarded Oldboy the Grand Prix, which led to a cavalcade of praise for the film as being the preeminent film in a new wave of significant South Korean films. South Korea, as anyone who owns a LG cellphone, Samsung television, or Hyundai car, or has looked around the graduate school studios lately, is well aware of South Korea’s burgeoning economic and cultural development. In a way, the critical reception to Oldboy as a significant film was essentially a ratification of the international importance of South Korea; for we know today that the most important exports of any country are not necessarily its economic products, but its cultural products. The ability of a country to successfully export its ideas and images is essentially what distinguishes First World countries from others.

From The New Yorker

From The New Yorker

The second wave of publicity for Oldboy came in the spring of 2007, when someone drew parallels between the violence in this South Korean film to the South Korean background of the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech shooting. The idea that media is responsible for violence seemingly has its own specific historiography, from Mark David Chapman’s Catcher in the Rye, John Hinckley’s Taxi Driver, Charles Manson and the Beatles, to the Columbine killers and the music of Marilyn Manson. Nevertheless, Oldboy is certainly spectacularly violent, to a level literally unacceptable in America, as evidenced in one of the tamer scenes where the main actor, Choi Min-sik, eats a live octopus on camera.

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There is one thing I wanted to note about this movie, and it relates to the previous post about Grand Theft Auto. In one scene, the way the camera and the actors move through space, as far as I’m aware,  is fairly original. Or, I should say, fairly original for a movie. A clip of the scene is embedded below, and as the scene unfolds, the camera scrolls across the space horizontally. This may feel uncanny to some of you, and if it does, it may be because this type of tracking shot and space is very distinctly the space of video games from the 1990s (Double Dragon for the NES is a good example of this type of side-scrolling video game space). Space is practically two-dimensional, and it was a result of the limitations of the computer science at the time. It was space as a result of a technological handicap. However, to create this kind of space cinematographically requires an incredible amount of planning, building, and executing. Imagine the set that was built for this scene!

There have been other movies since that used a similar style of ‘side scrolling’ cinematography, most notably Zack Snyder in 300. It’s odd, because in the past, video game designers have always imitated film directors. The first video games to attempt cinematographical space and movement stole directly from Akira Kurosawa’s films (I’m thinking of the Final Fantasy games here in particular). But as video games have expanded their abilities to describe and conceptualize space, it seems like film directors have started imitating video games.

For many reasons, Oldboy is a film that has generated a lot of dialogue, and serves as a great introduction to this film architecture series and the cinema of South Korea.

The Future is Asian

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Poster_Spring2008

This next theme for this blog’s Film Architecture series is “The Future is Asian,” and will review a selection of films from various East Asian countries in an exploration of the cinematic products of a region of the world experiencing rapid economic and cultural change. Cities are being designed, developed and built at a heretofore unprecedented size and scale in Asia; it is a scale of architecture and planning for which we have as yet no theories. It is the missing XXL in Rem’s compendium of scales; it is the asymptotic limit to which no European dogma has a response. Right now, we have no criteria or ideas by which to judge, critique, or evaluate what is going on in the East. To put it academically, nobody knows what to say about Asia.

This selection of films, then, will attempt to survey the culture-scape of certain East Asia countries through their films—a contemporary medium which traffics their images, projections, fears, ideas, and narratives. Certain cinematic themes and tendencies are starting to emerge from Asian films which are having a broader impact upon the world than the previous generation of Asian films. Akira Kurosawa, for instance, was critically canonized but never really broadly imitated here in America; whereas 2007’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to an Asian film remade by Martin Scorsese (The Departed was a direct remake of Hong Kong filmmaker Andy Lau’s Infernal Affairs), and the current spate of horror and suspense films such as The Ring, The Grudge, One Missed Call, the Saw or the Hostel series are all either directly influenced by or literal remakes of Asian films. Accordingly, one focus of this semester’s theme will be on what has been loosely dubbed “Asian Extreme” films. These are films that have a level of violence—emotional, physical, sexual, or otherwise—which has surpassed anything imagined anywhere else. To anyone who has experienced the machinic orderliness of Tokyo to the “anything-goes” atmosphere of Seoul, these are the cultures which have been exporting the ideas and imagination that shapes the way the cities of tomorrow will be materialized. As architects, our responsibility is to shape the future of the built environment with our ideas, our skills, and our judgment. As such, it’s important that we give more than a passing glance towards Asia. The past is European. The future is Asian.

The Lives of Others

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

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The Lives of Others

(Das Leben der Anderen)
2006, 137 minutes
directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

You may or may not notice that this film is being screened in place of what was scheduled, that being Fanny & Alexander, a late film by Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, Fanny & Alexander would have made a great contrast to the earlier films in the series, being a study in the late style of an established and accomplished career of an international moviemaker. Not only did Fanny & Alexander win four Academy Awards in 1984, including Best Foreign Picture, but the movie was also one that Bergman himself was especially proud—enough to make him consider quitting filmmaking altogether, as he tells in this amusing anecdote:

“Making ‘Fanny and Alexander’ was such a joy that I thought that feeling will never come back. I will try to explain: When I was at university many years ago, we were all in love with this extremely beautiful girl. She said no to all of us, and we didn’t understand. She had had a love affair with a prince from Egypt and, for her, everything after this love affair had to be a failure. So she rejected all our proposals. I would like to say the same thing. The time with ‘Fanny and Alexander’ was so wonderful that I decided it was time to stop. I have had my prince of Egypt.”

I think that’s a fairly amazing idea to have at so late a stage in life, as Ingmar Bergman was when he said that, that you only have one love in your life and that once you’ve had it, it’s hard to continue. It’s a powerful idea, and one that has certainly propelled many an artist towards whatever pursuits they’ve endeavored towards. The idea that there is one perfect love that may be attained is certainly a potent idea, but maybe also fairly dangerous.

However, we’re not going to be watching Fanny & Alexander. The film is over 3 hours long and I know nobody has that kind of time in this kind of place. Instead, we’re going to watch a newer film, a film that potentially has more relevance towards architecture.

Towards the beginning of the semester I wrote about the relationship between film and architecture, and the nature of the cinematic apparatus as an implicit subject with political and therefore organizational implications. This film, a German film which won this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, is about surveillance in mid-century Germany. Surveillance has lately been, in conjunction with the ubiquity and incomprehensible power of common electronics, taking on the presence of another metaphysical subject.

panopticon_large

Michel Foucault wrote about a certain physical manifestation of this idea when he popularized Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison in his book, Discipline and Punish. The panopticon and what, for lack of a better term, we’ll call the idea of surveillance, both share the idea of the political power of vision. And they both assert the power of a presence of absence. But they way that surveillance is different from the panopticon is in the ubiquity of surveillance; it is, in effect, a new omnipresence distinct from theocentricism. What this heralds is uncertain. Even politically it is uncharted legal territory, as anybody who’s been paying attention to the national currents events is aware. Politics and architecture have always been connected, though, so it is no doubt worthwhile to spend some time pondering the culture into which we’re entering.

The next film architecture theme I will be writing about is “The Future is Asian.”

Originally written November 27, 2007

Speed, Space, Structure, and Sounds

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

planvoisin

Sometimes I think it’s easy to imagine the enthusiasm that Le Corbusier must have had when he began to imagine the city under the influence of those two technologies of the early 20th century–the car and cinema. His Plan Voisin for Paris was named for the automobile company that bankrolled that project, after all. And his most famous residence, the Villa Savoye, was designed with both the automobile and the movie camera in mind, as Le Corbusier showed in his film, L’architecture d’aujourd’hui. And many of you know that in plan, the radius of that curve on the ground floor was exactly the radius of the turning circle of a Citroen car. It was a very precise and deliberate architectural gesture towards the impact of technology and media on a building in particular, and to urbanism in general.

411px-lallement-bicycle-patent-1866

It’s funny to think that the automobile and the bicycle were invented around the same time–I tend to think that an invention like the bicycle has been around since the dawn of time. But it hasn’t, and it’s sort of exciting to think of the way cities were experienced differently with that technology. A city biked is vastly different than a city walked, which is different than a city driven through, which is different than a city subway-ed.

For a time, my brother was a serious skateboarder, and he used to watch skateboarding videos in lieu of doing almost everything else (studying, eating, sleeping). And it was amazing to see the particular way cities were represented in those skater videos–through the fisheye lens,gliding across pavement (and only pavement) with considerable velocity, using the structure and space in a way that was probably more vibrant and energetic than what the architecture was originally designed for in the first place. In fact, skateboarding was how my brother saw cities. To my chagrin, in every city we visited on our cross country road trips, he knew of only the spots featured in those videos. You’ve never seen somebody so excited to see a certain flight of stairs and handrails. He avoided the museums and the usual spots, asking only to see the public schools or the under-bridge concrete parks. More recently, at the Richard Meier office, one of my coworkers recently put together a video of himself and his brother in Tennessee (spliced with my favorite song of right now, MGMT’s “Kids”). In the not-too-distant future, I can’t imagine a more fitting urban document of these times than these skateboarding videos.



In a way, it’s a creative and spatially pure way to experience a city. It’s outside of the proscribed “program” of a city, using your own locomotion and senses. It’s purely speed, space, and structure. One of my first architectural projects tried to wrestle with the way “neglected” areas of New Haven eventually found their own uses. I studied the graffiti of the area as well as watched some parkour videos (there is an amazing parkour video below). In all of these cases, the best environments seemed to happen by chance, or through a fortuitous combination of cirumstances. Rarely was a vibrant, energetic spot designed to be that way–it was more like the users made it that way through their own improvisation. In the life of the city, the buildings and structures recede, foregrounding the people and the activities. It impressed upon me how difficult it is for architecture to intentionally improve the environment–sometimes it seems as if the best architecture simply disappears.


field-section-detail



The Seventh Seal

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

seventh_seal

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

Virgin Spring

Monday, January 26th, 2009

virginspring

Virgin Spring
1960, 89 minutes
directed by Ingmar Bergman

Quite frankly, at this point I’m not sure if Ingmar Bergman, who, according to Woody Allen, is “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera,” is actually that great of a study for the relationship between film and architecture. Thus, it may be helpful to discuss the idea of a project as it relates to both film and architecture.

This movie, Jungfrukällan, as it was called in its native Swedish, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a story about the rape of a young girl in medieval Scandinavia and its repercussions. It is one of Bergman’s most important films in his oeuvre of 50-some films over 40-odd years and sealed his status as one of the world’s most important directors when it was released in 1960, on the heels of Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries.

Bergman’s films are about the issues of love, death, religion and God. They are movies about morality and existence; and they are profound, beautiful meditations upon those subjects. The problem is: I’m not sure that architecture can be about those things, and therefore I’m not sure whether or not Bergman belongs in any study of the intersection between architecture and film.

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Though the relationship between film and architecture has been made implicit since at least as far back as Le Corbusier’s film, L’architecture d’Aujourd’hui, in 1927 (bear in mind that the motion picture was invented around 1895 by the Lumiere brothers), it maybe worth positing that the fundamental point of intersection between these two fields is upon the meta-representational idea of media. Insofar as film can be conceived of and interpreted as an examination and rumination upon the very nature of perception, thus it can be extrapolated to also relate to an architecture that is also concerned with the project of perception.

Thus, it is worth noting at this point that the idea of an architecture concerned with perception may be inextricably linked to the idea of criticality. Of course, now we’re going to have to define what I mean when I say perception, but to exhaust my quota for the usage of a particular prefix, I would say that we are interested in the mechanics of perception, or the apparatus of perception, i.e., meta-perception. This is specifically different from a phenomological or performative definition of perception, which is not to say that either is invalid.

At the moment that cinema was invented it was part of a wave of technological innovation at the beginning of the 20th century that changed the way we conceive of space—the airplane, automobile, Einstein’s general and special theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, even the bicycle, were all invented nearly coincidentally. This superceded the single-point perspective conception of space as inherited since the Renaissance, and certain architects, most notably Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, and Diller & Scofidio made a number of important investigative projects into the nature of perception using the idea of cinema as medium as a part of their work.

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Things may be changing, however, and certain filmmakers like Michael Haneke (the image above is the opening shot to his movie Caché) are starting to posit a new conceptual viewpoint—that of surveillance, or a collective, anonymous presence (here is a great article about Haneke). This is radically different from the idea of singularity inherent to both the Renaissance idea of perspective and the modern, cinematic one—and like any important innovation in regards to perception, it carries huge political ramifications. With political ideas comes ideas of organization, and with organization comes architecture.

Originally written November 6, 2007

Wild Strawberries

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

wildstrawberries

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

Una Giornata Particolare

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

One of the things I hoped would occur more often in my film series were guest lecturers and guest writers. It’s a bit of a shame that only once did it happen. Britt Eversole, a friend and lecturer at Yale, was teaching a course in pre-war Italian Modern architecture, selected this film to screen and wrote these film notes for Una Giornata Particolare.

Una Giornata Particolare
1977, 110 minutes
directed by Ettore Scola, starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni

After reading so many Yale Architecture Film Society movie synopses – usually equal parts stolen IMDB information, theory talk and cynical empiricism (think of the writing style of the love child of Jean Baudrilliard and Michael Sorkin, adopted and raised by William F Buckley and Maureen Dowd) – it was an honor to be invited to pen one.  I can only hope to be half as erudite as Quang Truong, the Prince of Prolix, the Lord of Logorrhea, the Jester of Jargon, the Signore of Circumlocution, the Bishop of Babble, the Viscount of Verbosity, and the Executor of the Exchequer of Effusion.

Una Giornata Particolare
is Ettore Scola’s masterpiece of minimalism and dualism, illustrating the penetration of Fascist ideology into the private lives of Italians.  The film is shot in a Mario de Renzi designed 1930s apartment block; aside from giving a good impression of interwar urban residential space, it provides the setting for narrating totalitarianism’s domestic manifestations.  Totalitarianism was a term that Mussolini defined as a guiding principle of his revolutionary movement.  It meant that every action, public display, and artistic endeavor, as well as personal conduct, was to be dedicated to the glorification and advancement of the State.  Control, legislation and surveillance were integral; but it was also driven by historical identity and by individual faith, hope, and honor.  As historian Emilio Gentile notes, the socialization and sacralization of Fascist politics were grounded in the particulars of quotidian existence, cultural interaction and Italian identity.

Una Giornata Particolare is usually translated ‘A Special Day’: a double reference to the unique day shared by the movie’s protagonists and to the historical event around which it is structured – 6 May 1938, Hitler’s official visit to Rome.  Throughout the film, a radio blares through the apartment windows, announcing the parade occurring in the Eternal City’s streets.  But instead of inundating us with a visual and political spectacle, Scola takes a reductive approach: the entire film transpires in four interconnected ‘spaces’ and has only two characters. Sophia Loren is Antonietta, the good homemaker who cooks and cleans her cluttered apartment, spending her remaining time procreating for the Fascist future (note the names of her youngest boys, Benito and Adolfo) and working on a scrapbook dedicated to Mussolini (whom she met once in a quasi Mary Magdalene moment).  Marcello Mastroianni plays Gabrielle, a literate and sophisticated radio personality who embraces contemporary culture while refusing to accede to the Party’s constant stream of behavioral edicts.  Their diametrical lifestyles are embodied in their apartments – hers is an undisciplined jumble of furniture decorated with religious and political icons; his is a composed setting filled with books and modern art.  As the film progresses, each character explores the other’s spatial, socio-political and gender identity.  Their apartments are separated (and linked) by a courtyard representing Fascist public space: it is under constant surveillance and filled with the amplified voice of the State.  The final space (which I’ll leave for you to discover) is a fleeting other space beyond the domestic environs that define/protect Gabrielle and Antonietta.

“Fascism is a glass house into which everyone should be able to look,” Mussolini once said.  It was a metaphor for the crystalline hierarchy and mandated conduct of Fascist life: every person in his or her place, working toward the betterment of the State, with no corruption and no secrets.  Always linked by the glazed courtyard, Scola’s two characters play out a fantastical narrative that ends ambiguously but realistically.  What Scola’s film suggests is that the one thing insulated from Fascism was that aspect of identity that arises from deep within, characterized by secrets and emotions which are internalized until you find that one person with whom you can share them.  The most implausible moment (made implausible because of Gabrielle’s identity) is the dénouement, an anticlimax that arrives after their secrets have been laid bare.  But it is precisely in the impossibility of their relationship that they find – or make – space in which to construct a non-Fascist identity.  For Scola, there was no physical space that was outside of Fascism – only a temporary, fictional space grounded in difference that allowed only for a moment an escape, but nothing more.

-    britt eversole

originally written October 23, 2007