Susan Morris | Reviews

2023 New York Film Festival: Buildings

At the 2023 New York Film Festival (NYFF) there were films that featured significant buildings used in unexpected ways.  

The poignant film Perfect Days, Wim Wenders wistful film about aging, daily routines, and appreciating life, centers on a toilet cleaner in Tokyo. Although an educated and sophisticated man who reads extensively and enjoys music (he listens to cassettes of classic rock in his van), Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes) enjoys the task of keeping these architectural treasures for the daily excretions we humans produce an honorable one. It helps that the structures are part of the Tokyo Toilet project, initiated by Yanai Kōji, chairman of Uniqlo and supported by the Nippon Foundation which commissioned such architecture luminaries as Toyo Ito (Yoyogi Hachiman: three round mushroom-hued pavilions with bands of color), Shigeru Ban (Haru no Ogawa Community Park: blue and green sheet glass that becomes opaque when doors lock), Tadao Ando (Jingū-dōri Park: named “Amayadori,” meaning “rain shelter,” a round structure with overhanging roof), Maki Fumihiko (Ebisu East Park: elegantly curved roofline atop round structure) and thirteen others with designs ranging from labyrinth-like walls of pressed timber, red walls folded like origami, a cedar plank forest-like structure, a pure white suspended cube, a white dome with voice commands for opening doors, and a swooping structure with a tree planted inside featuring faucets at different heights.  Hirayama wears the actual uniform worn by cleaners by fashion designer Nigo (Kenzo, Babe). And he likes to drive past SkytreeTower, the broadcast tower that is the tallest building in Tokyo, designed by architect Nikken Sekkei.  

Another tranquil tale that belies a strange history is Allensworth. Founded in 1908 by clergyman Colonel Allen Allensworth, the town was the first in California to be founded, financed, and governed by African-Americans.  However a series of incidents caused its demise:  the Santa Fe Railroad moved its Allensworth station 5 miles away to a white town, water was drained from their Artesian wells by white farmers, and town leader Colonel Allensworth was struck by a motorcycle in 1914 and died.  By the start of WWI, the town was nearly abandoned.  In the 1970s, the forsaken buildings and surrounding area was designated the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. Filmmaker James Benning, who teaches at CalArts, “master of structuralist landscape cinema,” who lives nearby, has made an elegiac film of 12 shots, one for each month, of the structures captured in lockdown for five solid minutes. Benning says this film is one of his Two Cabins project, the other being Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in Montana, which he rebuilt and filmed (he also rebuilt Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond).

Artist Man Ray’s restored films were shown with soundtrack by Jim Jarmusch & Carter Logan’s band SQÜRL.  One film, The Mysteries of the Château de Dé (The Mysteries of the Chateau of Dice) was set at Clos Saint-Bernard, today known as the Villa Noailles (1923-27), an early modernist house, designed by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886 - 1945), reputed to be one of the first architects to show an interest in cinema for which he designed sets).  Built for art patrons Charles (1892-1981) and Marie-Laure Bischoffshei de Noailles (1902-1970), the latter of whom the film is dedicated with the words “To the Viscountess of Noailles. I dedicate these pictures which can never reveal the extent of her kindness and charm. How two travelers arrived at the ruins of a 9th-century Cistercian monastery on top of which a modernist home stands. The travellers: MAN RAY, J.-A. Boiffard.”  In fact, the couple rejected both Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier as their architects for the house.  The two travelers set off from Paris and go to Hyères in the south of France (Edith Wharton lived down the hill), where they encounter an old castle (actually the ruins of a 9th-century Cistercian monastery on which the house was built) and new 15-bedroom “castle.”  As assortment of characters are at the house including Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin). The film shows sculptures by Pablo Picasso (who also painted a portrait of Marie-Laure, as did Balthus) and Joan Miró, as well as exploring the unique Cubist garden designed by Gabriel Guevrekian which features walls with rectangular cutouts framing the landscape, Jacques Lipchitz sculptures featured in the film, geometric plantings, gravel and plant beds, one of which was stylized sunbursts and checkerboards; and an astonishing indoor swimming pool by Georges Bourgeois (under the sobriquet Djo-Bourgeois) with a ziggurat design on the perforated ceiling, metal and canvas deck chairs by the building’s architect, a wall clock by Francis Jourdain (connected to a central system that operated all clocks of the same design placed throughout the house), and a swing suspended over the pool.  Nearby is a gymnasium with jungle gym and wheels. The skylit stairwell forms a dramatic passageway for our travelers to descend, and the house featured retractable bays and mirrored windows, geometric stained glass windows by Louis Barillet, furniture by Pierre Chareau, Eileen Gray and others, foldaway ironworks designed by Jean Prouvé for the open-air bedroom, furniture constructed of metallic tubes designed by Marcel Breuer, fabrics by Sonia Delaunay, and art by Piet Mondrian, Henri Laurens, Jacques Lipchitz, Constantin Brancusi, Théo van Doesburg and Alberto Giacometti on the walls.  One of the charming filmic elements is of shirt collars dancing.  Jarmusch has noted that Man Ray’s parents were in the rag trade, so tools and elements from clothing industries appear in his work.

Films mentioned:
Perfect Days, directed by Wim Wenders
Allensworth, directed by James Benning
The Mysteries of the Château de Dé, directed by Man Ray

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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