by Ben Sachs
It’s common knowledge that digital technology has rendered moviemaking cheaper and easier than ever before. The downside of this development is that more people with no apparent interest in movies are now making them—and more often than not, it’s the documentary form that suffers from their public indifference. Every month (if not more frequently), I’m assigned to review a work of nonfiction that’s so narrow in its focus that I wonder if it will appeal to anyone without prior interest in the subject. In my short tenure with the Reader, I’ve reviewed documentaries about vegan eating, teenagers doing magic tricks, and (I kid you not) Jews talking about how much they love baseball.
I don’t want to dismiss these movies on the basis of their subject matter—I believe that good, even great art can be made about anything, provided there’s something in the making that suggests a compelling perspective on it. But simply presenting a subject and having the requisite talking heads tell you about its importance amounts to nothing more than an illustrated magazine article. I’d say that this approach is one of the most destructive forces currently ravaging the cinema, as it reduces the art to yet another blip on the endless information feed of daily life—the very banality from which movies once promised an escape.
It’s especially despairing to see such formlessness in movies about architecture, whose art is predicated on the interaction of function and form. One could easily program a festival of great films that respond to the art of architecture in distinctly cinematic ways. Off the top of my head, I’d list the German expressionist classics The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Murnau’s Faust; Jacques Tati’s Playtime; the film noir curiosity The Big Clock; Orson Welles's F for Fake, which contains a great scene at Chartres; Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s recent Don’t Go Breaking My Heart; and Tom Tykwer’s underrated action movie The International, which makes imaginative use of the Guggenheim Museum. And then there are the musicals of Busby Berkeley (currently the subject of a Sunday night series at Doc Films), which arrange groups of people into commanding architectural forms; Alain Resnais’s masterpieces Last Year at Marienbad, Stavisky..., and Melo, which see in older interior design the ghosts of vanished eras; and, of course, the dramas of Michelangelo Antonioni, who probably understood better than any other filmmaker how architecture impacts the spirit of public life.
Alas, I didn’t encounter any such artistry in my exposure to the Architecture & Design Film Festival, which espouses function over form with the dispiriting insistence of a Stalin-era civic engineer.