Posts Tagged ‘Jacques Tati’

Mon Oncle

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

tati1

Mon Oncle
1958, 110 minutes
directed by  Jacques Tati

What a beautiful film this is. Last year this film series screened Playtime, Jacques Tati’s later, larger, and more ambitious, though not funnier, film that deals with a similar scenario: the character Monsieur Hulot and his comic interactions with his urban environment of old and Modern Paris. You can’t look up Jacques Tati and not read about his films as a critique of Modern architecture; however, I’m not going to get into that here. My foot is getting tired from incessantly kicking at the dead horse of Modernism.

jamesstirlingcolinrowep64-2

What I’ve been thinking about recently are children. The title Mon Oncle means “my uncle” in French, and though there isn’t really anything that resembles a traditional plot in this film, a continuing narrative strand involves Monsieur Hulot and his playful nephew. Monsieur Hulot is himself a large child in these films, dispossessed of the sophistication and suavity to understand how to operate within Modern environments. What’s surprising to me is the poignancy of an architectural critique from the viewpoint of a child (and/or man-child, as the case of Monsieur Hulot may be). In fact, children are constantly poignant to me —be them in the published photos of James Stirling’s buildings or as a political device in the recent film by Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men. What children could then represent is something that is imminently necessary to acknowledge in the study of architecture: that is, the presence of something beyond the reach of intellection.

bacon_study1953Philip Nobel wrote that changes in governmental policy, among other factors, forced architects to compete with engineers in the middle of the 20th century. I agree with him to a certain extent—I think the bigger factor was the dominance of German philosophy that prioritized progress and science in the Modern era. Thus, architects had to sell themselves and their work as scientifically rigorous. But as Alberto Perez-Gomez has written, the way we know that architecture is separate from science is that architects are constantly using scientific metaphors. If architecture and science were really conjoined, there would be no need for architects to reach for flimsy scientific metaphors to justify their designs.

I’ve stated glibly many times before that “logic will break your heart,” which is a phrase partially taken from a mediocre album by The Stills, a rock group from Montreal. But the phrase succinctly (and catchily if not also reductively) sums up the theories of one of my favorite figures of late, Kurt Gödel. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems of 1931 essentially stated that in any closed system of logic there are both true and false statements that cannot be proven from within that system. Therefore, the attempt to create and justify any closed system of logic is fraught with inconsistencies and incompleteness—this is the hole that Derrida fell into in his otherwise brilliant theory of differance. This is also why the charge of arbitrary hurts Eisenman more than any other critique—he wanted his designs to be logically inevitable from within the parameters of architecture that he so painstakingly constructed.

preston

Lately, Gilles Deleuze has taken the helm of the most inspirational writer for architects of the moment. Everybody is jumping on the Deleuzian bandwagon, and for good reason. His recently translated book, The Logic of Sensation, is amazing. His ideas of “figuration” and “sensation” are explicitly defined as something that passes beyond the brain, an “irreducibly synthetic . . . plurality of constituting domains of sensation.” In essence, the logic of sensation is distinctly different and separate from formal logic. In Deleuze’s theory, though it is ostensibly about painting, he brings into architecture those aspects that Modernism had left out: namely, the other four senses.

In that way, Deleuze is deliriously liberating. He renders null and void the need to endlessly and unyieldingly generate meaningless diagram after diagram, encourages us to break rules, play around, abandon logic, and explains why stunningly, rigorously formal architecture, like that of Ben Van Berkel and Preston Scott Cohen, sometimes ends up feeling soulless and dead. The work of great architecture lies beyond logical coherency—it lies somewhere in the realm of sensation.

(originally written March 6, 2007)

Black Cat

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

blackcat6

Black Cat
1934, 65 minutes
directed by Edgar Ulmer

Black Cat may be famous to most folks for being the quintessential B-movie horror film (“low-budget and low-brow”), starring both Boris Karloff AND Bela Lugosi, in a sort of 1930s version of seeing both Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in the same movie. But to filmarchitecters, Black Cat is noteworthy because—GASP!—a modern building, replete with ribbon windows, was the setting for an evil character. This is an update on the more traditional haunted Victorian mansion on the hill with creaky doors and cobwebs (think of Hitchcock’s Psycho). And the evil character, played by Boris Karloff, no less, was an architect. And that evil character was named Poelzig, after a real architect, the German Hans Poelzig. And this was in 1934, when all of us should have still regarded Modernism with the invincible promise of utopia. A Modern utopia of regulating lines, grids, and wide-flange beams.

There are two ways the rest of these film notes could proceed. In the first version, I could lambast what is essentially an arch-conservative position on Modernism that probably reaches something of an apotheosis in Jacques Tati’s filmic critique of Modernist architecture, saying that the vilification of said architecture is nothing but a misplaced resistance to change, both social, technological and political. However, that position would be willfully ignoring Modernism and its practitioners’ sub-texted but nevertheless inarguably metaphysically present agenda of quasi-revolution. Plus, I still practically gag whenever I see regulating lines on fellow students’ studio projects. As if lines have anything to do with the contemporary condition.

Or in the second version, I could herald what in Black Cat is essentially a super-forward anticipation of the flaws of Modernist logic which would invariably lead to Post-modernism and the happy debacle of deconstruction, never mind that in 1934 we have yet to let Modernism run its full course and the cynicism towards any what-was-then progressivity positively stinks of knee-jerk pessimism; this is on top of not mentioning the fact that three years earlier Kurt Gödel had published his incompleteness theorems proving the inherent limitations and undecidability of all formal systems of logic, of which the fundamentally technocentric Modernism was undeniably one. I mean, say what you will about the tenets of Modernism, at least it was an ethos.

But instead I think I’ll jump outside of the easy debate on the signification of Modernist architecture, because at this point we all know that the transcendental signified is the Easter Bunny in the egg-hunt of architectural theory. What instead strikes me about such a debate is the value of studying sets in films. And I’m intentionally calling them sets because that’s what they are: they exist conceptually outside of a greater context that architecture must necessarily grapple with, within spatio-temporally narrower confines, and therefore bear more relation to theatre and set-design, than to architecture. Because given all of the previous, isn’t it fairly apparent that the discussion of sets within films therefore necessarily rests on the level of formal signification and thus devolves into a proto-Saussurian game of pin-the-tail-on-the-theory?

The power of film, at least to me, involves the motion picture’s ability to re-conceptualize architecture. Film is essentially a meta-representational technique that incorporated the then-to-fore formally un-drawable aspects of space, time, and the multivalent sensory experience of architecture. Which is why the two-dimensional, drawn plan of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye has more to do with the interference of film and architecture than Edgar Ulmer’s film, Black Cat.

(originally written February 27, 2007)

villasavoye05

1/30/2006: Invasion of the Modernists

Friday, December 26th, 2008

To continue with the back-dated Film Society posts, here’s what I wrote about Jacques Tati’s Playtime back in 2006.

playtimePlaytime (1967) 120 mins.

“Perhaps the greatest film ever made. . . It directs us to look around at the world we live in (the one we keep building), then at each other, and to see how funny that relationship is and how many brilliant possibilities we still have in a shopping-mall world that perpetually suggests otherwise; to look and see that there are many possibilities and that the play between them, activated by the dance of our gaze, can become a kind of comic ballet, one that we both observe and perform. .  .” –Jonathan Rosenbaum, the Chicago Reader

“Tati offers a humorous critique on modern architecture. He shows how the monoculture, standardisation, transparency, inflated scale and ‘emptiness’ of this architecture brought about huge change and alienation in people’s daily lives.” –Lotte Haagsma, Netherlands Architecture Institute

Imagine one morning you awake from restless dreams and find that every building of every block of the city you once knew has been transformed into a piece of modernist architecture. That is, essentially, the premise for the French filmmaker Jacques Tati’s Playtime. At the time of filming, Playtime was the most expensive film ever made in France (1967), requiring a huge set outside of Paris that took over a year to build and was infamously dubbed “Tativille.” The set included everything from an airline terminal to entire city blocks replete with traffic circles. In the film, Jacques Tati plays the role of Monsieur Hulot, who Tati had introduced in other films as a sort of French Charlie Chaplin (or British Mr. Bean). Tati’s previous films involving Monsieur Hulot include Mon Oncle, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1958.

The film is shot in 70 mm film stock, which is, in itself, fairly notable. 70 mm film is the largest film stock available, and as such gives a level of detail that surpasses that of any other motion picture medium. It’s like comparing a medium format camera to a standard point and shoot. The jump in detail that 70 mm gives you, however, is prohibitively expensive (even Hollywood stopped using 70 mm film a while ago, preferring to use optically expanded 35 mm film; Apocalypse Now is one of the last notable movies to use 70 mm). Unfortunately, we do not have film projectors; we have to enjoy Playtime in digitally re-mastered DVD. Nevertheless, the film should prove to be beautiful to look at, especially since Tati shot this film entirely in medium or long range distance angles.

Monsieur Hulot wears a raincoat and hat, effected with a long-stemmed pipe, high-water pants and argyle socks. He wanders about and explores his new modernist world. Tati films Monsieur Hulot in medium and long-shots (without one single close-up) giving us the environment of this imagined modernist world with Monsieur Hulot comically exploring his way throughout in beautiful wide angle takes.

Some critics have said that Playtime is about urban angst, alienation, or is an anti-modernist polemic. Either way, it’s a comedy, it’s shot in beautiful film over a once-largest film set in Paris, and should prove to be immensely enjoyable.