I will be traveling over the holidays, then returning to this space after the new year. Happy holidays everyone, and thanks for reading.
After a challenging 2007, 2008 proved to be a year of epic fail. To a certain degree, this was to be expected. The recession was a year old before economists finally declared we weren’t in a mental recession after all. Also, the US presidential election monopolized everyone’s attention, overshadowing everything else that occurred in the culture at large. This year’s list of what I’ll remember in the future is therefore
Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days: This was actually a 2007 release, but it wasn't widely released in the US until 2008, when I saw it. It is, in any case, the best film I've seen this year, and several others as well. The story is harrowing, but in unexpected ways, and Mungiu's visual style, while not terribly innovative, perfectly matches the material. This film has been widely praised, and, for once, actually deserved it.
Barack Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park: Equal measures subdued and triumphant, modest and optimistic. The minimalist stage and the well-mannered crowd offered a pointed contrast to the divisive nastiness of the McCain and (especially) Palin rallies. Some of the post-election glow dimmed a bit when our governor was dragged from his house in handcuffs like a mafia don, reminding us that Illinois produces a lot more grubby little marvels of greed and malfeasance like Blago than transcendent statesmen like Obama.
The National Stadium and Aquatics Center, 2008 Beijing Olympics: Both looked terrific in nighttime helicopter shots, for which they were primarily designed. The structures were all the more remarkable for being commissioned by a gang of Communist Party apparatchiks in bad glasses. I would say the buildings were a complete triumph for serious architecture if any of the television coverage—from what I saw, at any rate—had mentioned the architects responsible. Their names didn’t get mentioned even when the local NBC affiliate called in Ron Krueck to explain why the Bird’s Nest building was so beautiful. Plus, there were some unresolved ethical issues about working for a not very nice government.
Joseph O'Neill, Netherland: This novel has an audacious premise: cricket is the key to understanding the post-9/11 world. The narrator, a Dutchman working in New York, falls in with a crowd of cricketers, who teach him how to prepare a cricket pitch, how to renew his contact with humanity, and other useful skills. The lesson of the novel is an old one: the immigrant working classes retained the values that the bourgeoisie have abandoned.
Charles Lloyd, Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers & Eric Harland, Rabo de Nube: The headliners here are Lloyd and Moran, but this project could have gone completely wrong. Lloyd can sometimes get lost in his Orientalist fog, a tendency that could exacerbate one of Moran’s few flaws: his weakness for tremulous cord clusters, which can sound dramatic or melodramatic, depending on how long he drags them out. But happily, Moran’s intelligence and adventurousness focuses Lloyd on the task at hand, which is to create the most complex and exciting jazz performances in 2008.
Other books I enjoyed this year: Peter Carey, His Illegal Self; Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth; Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema; James Wood, How Fiction Works; Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years; Thomas McNamee, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse.
Here are quick commentaries on three books I read lately:
Marcelo Birmajer, Three Musketeers : Birmajer has been called the Argentinean Woody Allen, and Three Musketeers evinces Allen’s shallow but affectionate treatment of genre fiction. There’s a lot going on in this novel: a kidnapped ex-revolutionary, bad guys lurking around every corner, an over-endowed femme fatale, a labyrinthine urban setting. The plot moves along like a standup comic routine, with all of the crime melodrama’s dread limited only to the antic, anxious hero. Birmajer labors mightily to invoke Buenos Aires during its urban revolutionary heyday in the 1960s, not to mention Woody Allen's nebbishy joke heyday. Your response to this novel will pretty much depend on your feelings about Woody Allen.
Alice Sinkevitch, ed. AIA Guide to Chicago , 2nd edition: This reference guide, designed for easy stowing in a tourist backpack, covers the entire city, plus Oak Park. You can even start your tour when you land at O’Hare, which has buildings designed by C.F. Murphy, Perkins + Will, Helmut Jahn, and I.M. Pei. The guidebook contributors, thankfully, are not shy about voicing their opinions. In a long entry Lawrence Okrent argues that despite all the praise that Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s 1958 Inland Steel Building has received, the building hasn’t been praised enough. Okrent says its main rival, the Prudential Building, is virtually ignored now, primarily because it looked backwards to the 1920s, while the Inland Steel Building was ahead of its time. Okrent is slightly unfair: I was in the Prudential Building a few weeks ago and it retains some of its Man in the Gray Flannel Suit elegance, now marred by junk space. Even when you disagree with the contributors, you will invariably learn something from each one of them.
NB: The 2nd edition, the latest edition of this guidebook, was published in 2004, so it doesn't include recent buildings such as Ron Krueck and Mark Sexton's Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.
Bengt Ohlsson, Gregorius : This novel is a retelling of Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas (1905) from the point of view of the villianous pastor Gregorius. The premise is the same as Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, which is to tell a well-known story from the point of view of a deranged outsider. However, Gregorius more closely resembles Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert. Nabokov’s wizardry makes us look past the essential creepiness of his hero; Ohlsson is less successful in this trick. Ohlsson’s pastor marries a beautiful young woman he’s been lusting after since she was 12. She spends her days doing whatever a turn-of-the-century Swedish housewife does, while he smolders in desire and paranoia. Since tending to the Swedish god is a part time job, Gregorius has plenty of time to explain his villainy to us, and that’s the problem with this novel. Great villains are essentially mysterious. Ohlsson’s one-sentence paragraphs are a promising device to convey his hero’s enigma; we get the sense that something else is going on between the paragraphs. But Gregorius then fills us in on his troubled childhood and other wearisome disappointments, as if he were trying to explain himself to the much more interesting Dr. Glas. “Life, I do not understand you,” writes Dr. Glas in Söderberg’s novel. Ohlsson’s Gregorius says the same thing, only it takes him 417 pages to say it.
In an hour or so bidding on Marcel Proust's letters to his housekeeper will begin in an auction house in Paris. The lot contains 173 items Proust sent Celeste Albaret, who worked for him during the last nine years of his life. Among the items for sale is a brief poem Proust composed for her. Another piece is a note Proust wrote to her in his final illness, the paper stained with what the action house claims is drippings from the coffee cup of the great writer himself. The coffee stain is expected to fetch 8,000 euros at auction.
Presuming the coffee stain isn't from Celeste's taxi driver husband Odilon, who sounds like the kind of guy that would thoughtlessly set his coffee cup on a note from a dying master of modern literature, the interest in the insignificant traces of Proust's life is understandable. Proust famously spun 80 pages of prose fiction out of the act of dipping a cookie in a cup of coffee. He seemed to be aware that the minutiae of would one day become very valuable. This was the man who once wrote a letter to a friend requesting the return of his cane, which he had left at the friend's house the evening before. The cane turned up in Proust's house, but Proust sent the letter anyway, noting in a post script that the cane had been found after all.
Then again, Celeste toiled for the fussy writer for nine years, yet she appears in his highly autobiographical fiction only once, in the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past. She was, however, the subject of a 1982 film called Celeste, which mostly shows her tiptoeing around the kitchen trying to keep quiet while Proust writes.
Recently Esquire's Scott Raab had a chat with Joshua Prince-Ramus, architecture’s grumpy young man. Raab’s take on Prince-Ramus centers around the obligatory anti-starchitect rant, a standard element of a architect’s profile in the popular press that manages to work in a recognizable name architect to sell the piece. Prince-Ramus himself isn’t above using this gambit: a photo caption quotes his observation about the Seattle Central Library: "The whole skin of that project was designed to keep that building standing, and to build the building for a low cost. It was great engineering." The implication is that the innovation was Prince-Ramus's alone, when in fact the primary designer was starchitect Rem Koolhaas, Prince-Ramus’s boss at OMA when the building was designed. Prince-Ramus ran OMA's US operations during the project.
Prince-Ramus’s rant against Frank Gehry and other starchitects is familiar and boring, but the younger architect does have a point: “When Calatrava and Gehry die, it's done--no one's gonna pay us to [create trademark scribble buildings]. So it's terrifying for me to look at schools trying to bring out your personal vision.” Looking at the experience of literary studies, it’s unlikely that a new breed of starchitects will replace the current crop. The profession needs its star system too much, and it will overproduce edgy geniuses and therefore dilute the value of the star system as a whole.
“I've never seen a client give a shit about my personal vision,” Prince-Ramus sneers. Instead, Prince-Ramus advocates a kind of collaborative rationality. In this talk about designing the Seattle Central Library Prince-Ramus takes great pains to demonstrate the essential rationality behind all the crazy box spaces he creates. For Prince-Ramus, architecture isn’t about an idiosyncratic artistic vision—the architect alone with his sketchpad—but a supremely rational enterprise. Prince-Ramus’s accounts of three projects—the Seattle Library, the Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas, and the Museum Plaza in Louisville—share the same theme: clients are blind to their own processes and cities are irrational accretions of unstable elements. The architect’s team swoops in and feeds everything into an Excel spreadsheet and—voilà!—a building emerges. The genuis’s moment of inspiration has been replaced by the obscure magic of technology. The architect is less Frank Gehry doodling on a scrap of paper than Ludwig Wittgenstein bringing clarity and order to discursive practices.
Prince-Ramus achieves a rational design process by obscuring the hand of the artist. As a result, his designs are both irrational and hyper-rational. The Wyly Theater in Dallas (image above) perfectly reproduces the theatergoer’s voyeuristic experience. The building’s street-level windows and curtains gradually peel back to reveal a void. The striptease is complete when the stage has disappeared all together, with the theater company’s repressed unconscious—the administrative offices—looming heavily above. Prince-Ramus even chortles proudly that the denuded space can host a monster truck exhibition. The Museum Plaza in Louisville, on the other hand, looks like an Excel spreadsheet graph rendered in steel. Two banal towers rise like bar charts from a base consisting of more bar charts rotated so that they look less like what they really are: a literal depiction of data sets. The building is awkward and static, in sharp contrast to OMA’s Seattle Library, which is enlivened by the paralogical genius of Rem Koolhaas.
Over the past few months the New York Times has run a series of reconsiderations of past films that comment on our current troubles. Most recently, for instance, A.O. Scott looks at the dark side of It’s a Wonderful Life, just in time for this gloomy holiday season. The other day my wife and I watched Metropolitan, Whit Stillman's 1990 film about young socialites in New York debutante society at the twilight of the Reagan years. Interest in the film was briefly revived in 2006 by conservatives enamored by Stillman’s tone of wistful longing for a vanished era. However, the film’s contradictory depiction of what one character calls the “urban haute bourgeoisie”—both eternal and doomed to imminent extinction—eluded simple polemics, so cultural conservatives dropped the New York preppies and moved on to penguins. However, the film’s elegiac tone and white-tie despair are newly relevant in this time when Best Buy’s doors dolefully urge us to have “A Happier Holiday.” The characters in Metropolitan thrive in a sociability bubble that soon bursts, leaving them walking penniless on a Long Island roadside.
The film begins with a scene that can only happen in Manhattan: A crowd of preppies in evening wear tumble out of a cab and land at the feet of young Tom Townsend, an Upper West Side Fourierist shivering in a London Fog raincoat on a cold night during Christmas break. The preppies, who call themselves the Sally Fowler Rat Pack (SFRP), immediately adopt Tom as one of their own. He just as promptly denounces them and their entire value system. Tom’s class animus runs smack into Sally, an earnest Janite in a pink dress and pearls. She chides him in a primly Jane Austen way: "I can't stand snobbery or snobbish behavior of any kind." Nick, the clique’s historian and expert on the minutiae of urban haute bourgeois life, informs Tom: "Deb parties are a way of getting invited to all of the best places and being supplied with food, drink and companionship at very little cost to yourself. What could possibly be the matter with that?"
Nick and Tom soon form an uneasy alliance against absent fathers, an aristocratic cad who threatens the virtue of the group’s young women, and the slow slide into barbarism that threatens the preppie class. Tom has an entirely intuitive understanding of the political economy, but, like the film itself, he’s hazy on the details. Walter Benjamin described Fourier’s theory of phalansterie as “the ur-wish symbol of leisure and plenty,” which pretty much sums up the deepest desires of the UHB. If Tom is too abstract—even his expressions seem abstract and vague, as if the SFRP were a pop quiz in Sociology 101—Nick is firmly grounded in details. He knows where to buy tuxedos at a discount, how to wear a detachable collar, and all about the venalities of the class immediately above his. However, Nick’s stores of cultural capital aren’t bottomless. He apes the styles of the aristocracy by sporting a top hat and a cane, but he gets punched out by a baron anyway.
The film plays out its conflict between cultural capital and late adolescent desire with a pleasingly digressive ease. Here dialogue is plot. The characters chatter about the literary virtues of Mansfield Park and the sociological accuracy of the terms used to describe them. They confess romantic yearnings, but demur from directly informing the objects of their desire. They play strip poker. All of the action takes place in dimly-lit Park Avenue apartments and night-for-night exterior shots of venerable—and vulnerable—New York social centers.
In the commentary track Stillman notes that he tried to shoot in places that were doomed: the Plaza Hotel, the 21 Club, Park Avenue without street vendors. The noirish cinematography mirrors the characters’ awareness of the fragility of their world. Nick sighs, "With everything that's going on this is probably the last deb season as we know it." Another morose preppie explains vaguely what’s about to end: “The stock market, the economy, contemporary social attitudes.”
In a way, they’re wrong about the end of something: the exclusionary effects of their cultural capital came to be intensified by the massive shift upwards of economic capital in the post-Reagan years. But in another way the Sally Fowler Rat Pack are right: we can no longer mourn the loss of idealized values when we have the impending loss of very real things looming ahead of us.
In last week’s New Yorker Nick Paumgarten speculated about a “New York that may be frozen in time,” stuck in “a long period in which little to nothing gets built.” In his static city, “The calls go out to the architects: pencils down.”
Something similar may be happening in Chicago. In October construction halted on the Chicago Spire, with only attorneys doing any significant work right now. Spire architect Santiago Calatrava filed a $11.3 million lien on the building, developed by Shelbourne Development Group Inc. Local architects Perkins+Will filed a lien for $4.85 million. The city of Chicago, meanwhile, is stuck with a giant hole on the lakefront, as this image from Blair Kamin's blog attests.
[Side note: I’ve been remodeling our bathrooms lately and the hole looks exactly like the flange when a toilet has been removed. I’m wondering if they shouldn’t stick some rags in the hole to prevent the sewer gas from escaping.]
Architects are also putting their pencils down on the 444 W. Lake St project at Wolf Point, where the Chicago River splits into its North and South branches, and the city was founded in the 1830s. Lenders have demanded that the developer, Hines Interests, raise another $30 million in equity to keep the project alive. Chances are Hines will raise the money somehow because one tenant for the 52-story tower is the giant Chicago-based law firm Baker & McKenzie, which will finally leave its offices at One Prudential Plaza. Getting sued for not delivering the building is the least of Hines’ worries; they should be worried about the historical symbolism if Baker remains stranded where they are now. When it was completed in 1955, the Prudential Building, as it was known then, was the first major construction project in downtown Chicago since the Field Building was completed in 1934—a construction freeze of 21 years.
There are reports tonight that the Tribune Company has retained top dog Chicago lawyers Sidley & Austin to advise the company about avoiding bankruptcy. The Tribune Company owns the Chicago Tribune, the Cubs, and The Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun.
As annoyed as I've been with the Tribune over the years--the Bush endorsements, the "if it bleeds it leads" style of journalism--the Trib is a fixture in the city and the employer of some very fine critics, including Blair Kamin, its architecture critic. It would be terrible for anyone interested in a vibrant press to lose any of the company's papers. Everybody jumps on print newspapers as dinosaurs in the Internet age, but there's no way any existing Internet news outlet can make up the difference for the loss of the Chicago Tribune or the LA Times.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who has lived his or her life so completely subsumed by the cinema as Jean-Luc Godard. After reading Richard Brody’s excellent Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, we discover that Godard was unfit for respectable work. He was simply too weird to be anything else but a filmmaker.
Godard began his career in the cinema by writing articles praising American movies and stealing books to fund other people’s films. When he finally got the chance to direct his first feature-length film, he nearly botched it. In Brody’s account it’s a wonder Breathless was ever completed. Part of the popular legend about the film was that its innovative style was the result of Godard’s inexperience, but he was almost criminally inept. Although the script had been in development for years, Godard trashed it, feverishly re-writing the script each morning before shooting. The cast and crew were baffled by his methods. Jean Seberg wanted to quit. Jean-Paul Belmondo had similar misgivings before deciding that Godard would never pull it together enough to produce a theatrically-viable film, so no one would ever see it. Godard’s producer, Georges de Beauregard, was less passive: he punched out Godard when he found his director lounging in a café when he was supposed to be shooting.
Breathless went on to become a huge critical and popular hit, in no small part because of Beauregard's skilled publicity management surrounding the film. Declared a genius after 90 minutes of film time, Godard’s was free to indulge in his twin obsessions: the nature of the cinema and vulnerable young women who didn't speak French very well. For instance, Godard conceived Band of Outsiders as an American-style “simple, perfectly legible film.” The film starred his most enduring object of obsessive desire, the Danish-born Anna Karina, fresh from a miscarriage and a suicide attempt. Greeted with mixed reviews and anemic box office when it was released in 1964, Band of Outsiders is among Godard’s most straightforward and accessible films. No one would claim it’s a great film, but it does have its charms. Brody, a film critic for The New Yorker, is reticent about the film’s qualities. This reticence carries throughout the book, as Brody boxes himself into the role of biographer. One of the best set pieces in Band is the odd and appealing dance Karina and her male co-stars perform in a café. Brody informs us that the dance was called the Madison, but other than describing it as “snazzily foot-stomping,” he barely remarks on it. Which is too bad: Brody is a terrific critic and a fine writer. It would have been nice to hear some of Brody's critical voice.
Everything Is Cinema began as a profile in The New Yorker, and the book retains the flat reportorial style of the magazine’s articles. The book is crammed full of information, not all of which is fully integrated. Brody suggestions a connection between Godard’s film Helas pour moi and the centennial of Walter Benjamin’s birth in 1992, but the causality is tenuous. There are plenty of gossipy details, too, like Godard’s pathetic pursuit of Bérangère Allaux, an actress 45 years younger than him. (It was Allaux who acidly remarks that Godard “likes vulnerable young girls.”) We even get a glimpse of his laziness. Commissioned to create a short film on the sin of sloth, Godard originally planned to shoot a man sitting on a beach for ten minutes. Arranging a single ten-minute shot turned out to be a lot of work, so Godard shot a conventionally edited film about an actor who refuses to do anything. In this side project and his major films, each of which is granted its own chpater, Godard comes alive in Brody’s narrative—all the director's weird, at times creepy, brilliance.
As Brody admits, Godard is no longer at the center of the cinematic world, and his filmmaking practice long ago left most of his audience behind. So why read a 629-page account of the director’s still incomplete working life? Because Jean-Luc Godard is still Jean-Luc Godard, now more than ever.
One-Way Street [Einbahnstrasse, 1928] was Walter Benjamin's first effort to break out of the narrow confines of the academy and apply the techniques of literary studies to life as it is currently lived. For Benjamin criticism encompasses the ordinary objects of life, the literary texts of the time, films in current release, and the fleeting concerns of the public sphere. Following Benjamin's lead, this blog is concerned with the political content of the aesthetic and representations of the political in the media. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent."