Review: Three short films 27.02.09

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words William Wiles

We were fortunate in February to be able to go to see not one but three new short films about architecture. Here's a quick roundup of what we saw.

A Necessary Music, by Beatrice Gibson, describes itself as a "science fiction film about modernist social housing". It is devoted to Roosevelt Island, a strip of land in New York's East River that is covered with a large social housing scheme developed according to a Philip Johnson masterplan. Residents of the island talk to camera about life there, intercut with readings from Adolfo Bioy Casares' science-fiction novel The Invention of Morel, with music by Alex Waterman.

The film effectively plays with ideas of insularity, and the island's role as both a place of isolation (prisons, mental institutions and smallpox hospitals have operated on Roosevelt) and as a world apart that is fit for utopian experimentation. The otherworldliness of the excerpts from Casares, the stillness of many of the film's shots and the measured calmness of the reading voices give the film a similar feeling to Chris Marker's experimental 1963 film La Jetée, although it is considerably less downbeat. Nevertheless, it retains a haunting quality that lingers in the mind and perhaps matches the detachment and strangeness of the island.

Rooms with a View, by Verity-Jane Keefe, makes an interesting counterpoint to A Necessary Music. It is a cinematic tribute to the Lintons estate in Barking, east London, recently demolished in the name of regeneration. The film consists entirely of footage of the Lintons being torn down, mostly a Koyaanisqatsi-style time-lapse view of the block from a distance as it is munched apart by a hydraulic cutter. This is overlaid with the voices of former residents of the estate talking about their memories.

Much of this sort of material has a familiar story-arc drummed in by decades of documentaries, newspaper articles and books from Pruitt Igoe on: estate is symbol of hope when built, times are briefly good, and then rot sets in. But Keefe keeps this fresh; indeed, it's charming and provoking. Even the downsides of the Lintons lifestyle come across, in the warm and witty voices of its former inhabitants, as harmless slices of life. They also offer some minor insights into the workings of estates. For instance, acoustics: a particular part of the lawn outside the Lintons was favoured by residents who wanted to have a row, as they thought it was private. However, it was among the most public places in the grounds, as their voices would echo clearly against the block, audible to people inside. In accenting the positive this way, Keefe suggests that the story of Britain's estates may have another chapter that is still being written: a time in the near future when they are regarded with rose-tinted fondness.

Mr Smith Takes a Trip to Tokyo is a film by Iain Overton, a documentary filmmaker for the BBC and Channel 4. A young woman on the Tokyo subway finds a Blackberry on the seat next to hers. Through this Blackberry, she receives a series of emails, addressed to "Mr Smith", that take her on a tour of the Japanese capital's quirkier architectural highlights. The message of the film is that although we in the West may see the city as a place dominated by glittering corporate skyscrapers, its true spirit can only really be discerned from the oddities that lie away from the bright lights. Now, this is just about true of any major city. International business centres mostly look to each other, rather than to their respective locations, because they are designed for an international business elite that values standardisation. From this confused starting point, Overton further muddles his point by using the towers of Shinjuku to illustrate the culture of the salarymen. The towers stress the importance of conformity, of group effort towards a common goal, the narrator says - well, true enough, but the same towers grids of identical windows, the same anonymous reflective glass, the same monumentality, can be seen in Canary Wharf, lower Manhattan, Pudong and Mumbai. They are not specifically Japanese.

It is, of course, a risky business drawing generalisations about national character from examples of architecture and the rest of the film is only partially successful. The found-Blackberry conceit quickly becomes grating, and it's difficult to see what it was meant to add to the film. On the plus side, the film does introduce many fascinating and unfamiliar buildings from this extraordinary city, but it is chronically short on detail. We are rarely told what a building is, where it is, who designed it or other identifying bits of information, which have presumably been jettisoned to help with the whimsical, fantastical, Alice-in-Wonderland feeling that Overton wants to put across. The unreality is all very well, but it has a saccharine edge, and when far-reaching statements are being made about a national culture a bit of precision does help the viewer trust what he is being told. But Tokyo is an amazing place, and Overton has corralled together a remarkable selection of buildings to illustrate that, which makes the spectacle diverting even if his method of presentation has its faults.

top image The premiere of Rooms with a View, held on the site of the demolished estate

picture Verity-Jane Keefe

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