Positive space

Pub date March 25, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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In 2003, filmmaker and CalArts professor Thom Andersen completed Los Angeles Plays Itself, an ambitious and inventive undertaking that combines clips from a library’s worth of different movies set in Los Angeles into a long, discursive, highly opinionated film. Divided into three parts, this treatise presents an intriguing account of the numerous ways Los Angeles has been cinematically conceived, represented, and perceived. Through the cameras of thousands of filmmakers, Hollywood’s neighbor has been viewed either in accordance with or (more often) at odds with its particular geography and range of architectural styles.

The German artist-filmmaker Heinz Emigholz is attempting a similar spatial exploration — one that started long before Andersen’s, in 1993, and one that continues today. The five films in the Pacific Film Archive’s Heinz Emigholz: Architecture as Autobiography are part of a larger "Photography and Beyond" project Emigholz has been working on for the last 24 years. This handful of works captures constructions by important but somewhat neglected architects of the 20th century. One aim of Emigholz’s endeavor is to provide an alternative kind of biography: a biography in which knowledge about the architect is derived directly from his or her creations.

All five of the cinematic explorations of space in "Architecture as Autobiography" are presented starkly, so that, as Emigholz explained to Siegfried Zelinski in an interview, "The eye reverts back to what it always was: an extension and interface to the brain, and one that needs no codes. It thinks and feels at the same time."

In Emigholz’s movies, there is no voice-over narration to share background facts about architects, their aesthetics, and the reasons for their historical importance. Instead, intertitles on the screen inform the viewer about the names of the buildings, their locations, when they were built, and when they were photographed. This information is juxtaposed with long, medium, and close static shots of the buildings, accompanied by sound from the locations.

Described this plainly, Emigholz’s films might sound boring. But watching them proves to be a surprising and fascinating experience. In Sullivan’s Banks (1993-2000), the long succession of shots depicting banks that the American architect Louis H. Sullivan was commissioned to build from 1906 to 1920 slowly allows us, the viewers, to make certain connections. Through observing Sullivan’s banks in their surroundings (from various exterior angles) and in the context of their use, we come to understand his intention of harmoniously uniting function and form. Upon entering one of Sullivan’s imposing, cathedral-like buildings, you feel like you’re in a serious institution — one where your finances are absolutely secure.

Similarly, in Maillart’s Bridges (2001), the quiet repetition of photographs featuring bridges designed and built between 1910 and 1935 by the Swiss civil engineer Robert Maillart points to his obsessive experimentation with arches. In looking at Maillart’s curved constructions, one can’t help but marvel at their flowing shapes and forms, and also at the discrete ways in which they mingle with their natural environs.

This concern is even more evident in Goff in the Desert (2002-2003), where the filmmaker unobtrusively records — repeatedly — buildings that American architect Bruce Goff created from the 1920s through the 1970s. Goff’s attempts at simuutf8g the environments around his buildings yield imaginative constructions. Multilevel room divisions and novel uses of circle formations are two characteristics of his unique approach to spatial perception.

The residences in Schindler’s Houses (2007) — including one owned and occupied by none other than Los Angeles Plays Itself filmmaker Thom Andersen — are less preoccupied with fitting within a broader physical environment and more concerned with the harmony of their interiors. In the process of observing the ornament-free constructions that the Austrian American architect Rudolph Schindler built in Los Angeles from 1921 to 1952, Emigholz reveals the architect’s insistence on creating spacious, breezy, and minimal interiors for outwardly bulky houses.

The relative freedom Emigholz allows the viewer in terms of contemplation is one major reason among many that give his unusual films intrigue. Emigholz’s filmmaking technique moves several steps beyond — or in a different direction from — Los Angeles Plays Itself‘s concerns regarding spatial conception, representation, and perception. It does so while remaining true to one filmmaker’s particular perspective of how we experience and understand space.

"I believe that everyone perceives space differently, and that art and structure arise out of the perception of these nuances," Emigholz has said. In his films, this idea takes a number of different forms. Through his own understanding of space, Emigholz interacts with and presents other people’s conceptions and perceptions of it. In the process, he also creates his own artful cinematic structures — films that stimulate our understanding of space while in a sense simultaneously creating and navigating a visual maze. Mind boggling, isn’t it?


Through April 17


Pacific Film Archive Theater

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

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