Talking Pictures

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Cathedrals of Culture, Denmark 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on November 30, 2014

The Salk Institute one of the impressive shots that recur in this film.

The Salk Institute one of the impressive shots that recur in this film.

This is a portmanteau documentary comprising six films that offer a study of a classic modern buildings.

If buildings could talk, what would they say about us?

This appears to be the brief given to the directors. What they have produced are six films that offer a portrait of a building and to a degree a study of the place of the human users within them. I found the films interesting but there was a lack of variety in the different works. The brief did seem to encourage a very similar approach even though the buildings are fairly different.

Some of them use a voice over that offers a possible impersonation of the ‘soul’ of the building. There seem to be only limited variations available for this approach. This also applied to the style – all the films rely to a degree on the moving camera, using a Steadicam. The cinematography though is frequently impressive. And the music in four of them also lacked variation. Several films used older archive footage. This was cropped to the 1.85:1 format of the film. This seems to be an unfortunate standard approach in contemporary documentary. It was less noticeable here because of the techniques employed – even so, given that architecture is about space, the cropping seemed misconstrued. The film was made for 3D but I saw it in a 2D digital version: it appears from IMDB that the project started as a sequence of short film for television. I am not sure how much difference the 2D format may make: the film was designed, at least in part, for the 3D format.

The ones I enjoyed most were art buildings – a concert hall and an opera house – the aspect of performance provided greater variation and the music was also more varied. The prison film was in some ways the most interesting, but I found the voice-over less than compelling.

The Berlin Philharmonic – directed and written by Wim Wenders [also Executive Producer for the whole film].                                                       This is the film I enjoyed most, perhaps because it was first and therefore had a sense of freshness. The film presented the modern concert hall built in the early 1960s in Berlin: close for a time to the separation wall erected by the DDR. The building is impressive and when built was a new style of concert auditorium. There were both rehearsals and performances. The film also used archive footage and interviews which provided variety and it took in the care and maintenance of the building. The theme was the relationship between architecture and culture: there were also comments relating the film to the social – less convincing.

The National Library of Russia – written and directed by Michael Glawogger.                                                                                                  This film took a rather different approach: a voice in Russian, which for the most of the film was replaced by dubbed English, read a selection of extracts from writers whose books are housed in the library. Meanwhile the camera prowled round the building from morning to dusk, picking out the staff and occasionally the users. The camera work was fine but I found the commentary rather uniform. This seemed to be the case for both the Russian and English voices: rather ironic. The range of authors whose work we heard seemed fairly varied and the unchanging tone of the reader really obscured this.

Halden Prison – written and directed by Michael Madsen.                       This modern and carefully designed prison was presented set in the snowy wastes of Norway. The film opened with a quotation from Michael Foucault where he drew the parallels between prisons and schools. Disappointingly the commentary did not really develop this angle. The film did show the situation and treatment of the prisoners, and there were some stark shots which offered an unsettlingly contrast between the consciously liberal regime and the fact of removal from society. The film did achieve a certain haunting ambience, but the commentary [spoken by the prison psychotherapist] was quite pat at times.

Salk Institute, San Diego – directed by Robert Redford, written by Anthony Lappé.                                                                                         This was one of only two films with discrete direction and writing and it had the most distinctive form among the films. Rather than a voice over commentary we had archive material interspersed with interviews of the workers at this prestigious scientific institution. The early part of the film presented the buildings, standing out in the somewhat desolate landscape. The archive material took us back to pioneering work of the founder and media responses at that time. The interviewees included two scientists and a maintenance worker. The archive material broke up the film of the building itself, though in the latter stages it did tend to the moving camera treatment seen in every one of these films.

The Oslo Opera House, written and directed by Margreth Oil.               This was the only film in which the writer/director also read out the commentary. The Opera House was an imposing building all in white. Olin commenced with shot which counterposed the celebrated structure with some of the derelict people and places found nearby. But the film failed to return to these. We still saw the familiar moving camera: and there were sequences of rehearsal for both opera and ballet. Some of the counterposing of shots suggested wry humour: something in short supply in the portmanteau film overall. And the film closed with some whimsical overlapping shots.

Céntre Pompidou, directed by Karim Ainouz and written by Deyan Sudjit.                                                                                                          This was the other film with discrete direction and writing. It also used the steadicam shots but these were more frequently cut to standing shots. We saw various aspects of the Céntre over a day, from dawn till late evening. There were performances, cinemas, concerts, exhibitions and a library. This is the only one of the buildings that I have actually visited, so I was intrigued to see parts that I recognised and parts that I had missed.

Overall I found the film somewhat repetitions: especially the recurring sequence shots and the personalised voice over. It held my interest and did provide a sense of the buildings. Not all the films provided a focus on the history of a building: something that I thought added interest. And in fact I had little sense of the Russian Library’s provenance.

One aspect that was almost completely absent was the economic. The closest we came was when Dr Salk, in an interview, replied to a question that the vaccine he developed ‘belonged to the people’.

As the film progressed I longed for a completely different and less reverent approach. I wondered what for example, we might have seen and heard if Jean-Luc Godard or in a different manner, John Akomfrah, had been included in the commission.

One moment I did enjoy was when I discovered that it appears possible to take a dog [not apparently accompanying a blind person] into the Céntre Pompidou – something the British ‘dog loving’ culture fails to allow.



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