Posts Tagged ‘frank gehry’

Memories of Murder

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

memories2

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.

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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.

The Man with the Movie Camera

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

vertov

The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) 67 minutes

Nearly as soon as cinema was invented were there theoreticians who wrote about the expansive possibilities of film to change the way we document and understand architecture. In fact, Modern architecture can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the possibilities of technology with the way we build. Walter “the J is like a Y” Benjamin, Le “Little Devil” Corbusier, Aldo “Crayola” Rossi, Bernard “Ah-” Tschumi, and Rem “Cool-Hizzy” Koolhaas, just to name a few, have all famously used film to advance ideas about architecture and urbanism.

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Cinema is the dominant medium of today (though that may be changing), and this is no small potatoes. There have only been a few changes in dominant media since the dawn of history; first was language and oration, the Renaissance gave birth to perspective and thus monocularcentric text and image, and then the twentieth century gave us relativity and motion. Eisenman would call these moments of change shifts: from theocentric to anthropocentric to technocentric; Marshall McLuhan would say they were sensual-spatial: from aural to visual to electro-acoustic.

Dziga Vertov was one of the first to experiment with the extreme technical possibilities of film. Vertov uses slow-motion, fast-motion, jump-cuts, extreme close-ups, double-exposure, freeze-frames, Dutch-angles and tracking shots to document the day in the life of a Russian city. This film is unabashedly ambitious in its attempt to document space and urbanity free from the tethers of literature.

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Rem Koolhaas as the l’homme d’architecture par example du jour (that’s French for “dude be the man right now”) presents an interesting case for a study of the intersection between film and architecture. Though his contemporary Bernard Tschumi more explicitly draws on film as a possible source of architectural inspiration (see The Manhattan Transcripts, Architecture & Disjunction), Remment Koolhaas actually was a screenwriter before he became an architect (he wrote, among other things, soft-core porn scripts for Russ Meyer–which explains some of the pages in his book, Content).  Though it’s hard to say anything specific about Rem, which has a lot to do with the way OMA runs, it nevertheless may be interesting to use him to understand the contemporary condition. For if we are to assume the canon of critical architecture, then we could use Rem to theorize a paradigmatic shift from criticality to post. The moment that this occurred, if I were to try and pin it down Charles Jencks-style, would have to be around 1997 with the appearance of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao. But Gehry himself, who was born Ephraim Owen Goldstein in Toronto, Canada, never was a player in architecture beforehand—he was building parking garages in California before Bilbao. Rem, then, could be the architect that represents the shift from a critical paradigm to a projective or post-critical paradigm (see Jussieu vs. Porto). And if we grant him that, then he is in rare company indeed. For before Rem, James Stirling was the man sitting on top of the fulcrum that swung from Modern to Post-Modern (see Leicester vs. Stuttgart), and before him Le Corbusier was the man that spanned pre-Modern to Modern.

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But of course, this is all predicated on the idea that we accept criticality as a continually valid project for architecture, and not a distinctly Modern-with-a-capital M and Western invention. For criticality may be fatally linked to Hegel and the distinctly twentieth century notion of a canon, to say nothing of the contemporary challenge that Asia presents to criticality (more on that later). It also may be interesting to note that those three Fulcrum Men: Corb, Stirling, and Rem, came to architecture after initial careers in other fields. Le Corbusier was a painter and never had a formal architectural education, James Stirling went to art school and served in the military before attending Liverpool University (as someone who was trained as a painter myself, I love pointing out other architects who were also painters), and Rem wrote porno screenplays before going to the AA in London. However, this makes sense if we understand that any creative act is as equally destructive as it is creative (one could use the laws of thermodynamics as an analogy). It seems to point to the idea that there is nothing so dangerous to the status-quo as an artist bent on destruction. Which is why I’m a lifetime member of the NRA.

Just kidding. Or am I?

(originally written 2/13/2007)

Fortune Favors the Bold

Friday, December 26th, 2008

As the film notes get more and more recent (I wrote this almost three years ago), the less I feel like I have to apologize for them. However, one thing that still strikes me about this film is how disastrous the casting choice of Colin Farrell was for Alexander. I mean, look at this publicity photo.

alexander

Alexander (2004), 175 minutes

I’ve often wondered about the relationship between arrogance and architecture (the Ego and the Architect); to what degree is a certain amount of stubbornness and self-aggrandizement necessary to successfully maneuver the complicated and messy business of building buildings and winning clients? When does confidence become arrogance? At the root of all of this speculation is the simple question: how does the architect see himself in relation to others?

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the role of architect is most closely related to the role of the film director. Both films and buildings are dependant on business, yet strive for artistic ambitions. Architects and directors are responsible for the coordination of people in multifarious fields and trades in which they are not experts. They are servants to a client. And films and buildings are both huge financial risks. In each field, there are the safe bets; hiring Ron Howard to direct your film would be like hiring SOM. The populist Frank Gehry to Steven Spielberg; the quiet craftsmanship of Renzo Piano to Michael Mann; the hip Koolhaas to Quentin Tarantino.

It may be said that no director today is more often accused of arrogance, yet lauded as brilliant, than Oliver Stone. In that way, maybe Oliver Stone is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of film. Alexander was Stone’s biggest project up to that point. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times put it, “There comes the moment in the career of many directors when they are compelled to tell the story of a great man in whose life they seem to see a glimmer of their own image.”

Oliver Stone, a Yale graduate (he shared the New Haven campus with John Kerry and George W. Bush), came to film directing late in life, at the age of 29 after two tours of duty in Vietnam. In this way he is similar to many successful architects who came to the profession after first careers in other fields: Le Corbusier and James Stirling from painting, Rem Koolhaas from journalism, Rick Joy from music, Tadao Ando from boxing, etc. He then set up the most impressive cinematic resume of anybody working today, directing a series of cultural milestone films including Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, but also writing Midnight Express, Conan the Barbarian, Scarface, and Evita. Like Wright, Stone is responsible for some of the most recognizable works of his generation.

But most of you may remember that Alexander was Oliver Stone’s biggest box office flop. It was critically reviled. That, in itself, is revealing of the nature of Oliver Stone. If the biggest artistic successes are necessarily the product of the biggest risks, and if an artist is risking anything valuable at all, shouldn’t his or her career be littered with the detritus of failed experiments? But we should be able to see within those works a great ambition, and learn from where and why they fell short. As the tired old adage goes, you learn more from failure than from success—our attitude towards those failures, and our resilience from the inevitable stings of critics (hello jury system), may define our ability to continue working towards our own risky goals. But arrogance will make us blind, and you may end up arguing that Alexander was a flop only because America is homophobic (as Oliver Stone did publicly for quite a while). Arrogance closes doors—to people, perception, and opportunities—and arguably opens none that wouldn’t be otherwise.

And will somebody stop giving Colin Farrell work? He has presided as the lead over the biggest disappointments of the past several years, taking the mojo out of some of the most talented directors working today (most recently Michael Mann in Miami Vice); he is like a director’s succubus.

(originally written 9/26/2006)