April 13th, 2016
I can’t confess to being a huge Kafka Fan, having only read Metamorphosis 20 odd years ago and letting most of his other celebrated books such as The Trial and The Castle pass me by. But such is the iconic nature of the man – the term Kafka-esque is now part of common parlance – it often feels like I know far more about him than is actually the case.
What I did know about him was that he was deeply troubled and conflicted; a tortured soul who threw his lot into writing at a young age with an unflailing compulsion to let his thoughts spill onto the empty page, often as diatribes against a society increasingly governed by de-humanizing bureaucracy and mechanization. This and his own sense of isolation and feelings of inferiority – due in part to a fractious relationship with his overbearing father – would become consistent themes in his work, as would his relationship to Prague as both an intellectual and a Jew.
His was a light that burned fierce but brief as he died of Tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40, and his work – while lauded and celebrated today – was often reviled or simply ignored when originally published.
In an effort to find out more about the man, I visited the Kafka museum in Prague which sits beside the Vltava riverbank not too far from the Charles Bridge.
The exhibition designers have succeeded in creating a disorienting and slightly unnerving experience; using sound, lighting, visuals and props in imaginitive ways to tell, first, the story of Kafka’s formative years as a youngster growing up in Prague that later led him into literary circles and, second, more thematic content tied closely to his most famous novels.
I’m not sure if it was their intent, but the whole thing – set over two floors – feels like a journey through the man’s psyche – as if we’ve entered through a tiny hatch directly into Kafka’s head, quietly creeping around a dimly-lit ‘innerscape’ uncovering clues to Kafka’s enigmatic imagination.
The sound of bleating crows pierces the general stillness and a constant brooding drone can be heard as you navigate your way around the oddly shaped rooms with their skewed walls and low ceilings. A series of exhibition cases on the top floor contain book extracts, photographs and letters while more general information and intermittent quotes – in both Czech and English – are found dotted about on wall panels. Video screens show abstract short films more as atmospheric filler than to inform, but are effective in contextualizing Kafka’s thought process – particularly his love/hate relationship to Prague and how he saw the city as both an oppressive prison and the place that gifted him the many opportunities he had as a writer. As a direct reference to the time spent by Kafka in his administrative role for an insurance company, two rows of large black filing cabinets take up an entire room upstairs and a maze-like corridor on the ground floor. These black caskets strongly embody the stranglehold that this job would have on Kafka’s life and which forced him to relegate writing to his spare time.
An ominously lit wood paneled staircase leads down to the ground floor which includes – amongst other things – a model of the elaborate torture and execution device featured in the 1918 story In the Penal Colony, a selection of book covers and more lengthy analysis of the author’s key works.
Non Czech readers are at a definite disadvantage with this exhibition as so much of the original material is only partially translated. Kafka’s letters and diaries hold the key to so much of his pain, frustration and creative process – so not being able to read them in their entirety means that I was only getting glimpses of a picture rather than the picture as a whole. Space obviously limits the application of too much wordy captioning and signage, so it’s best for any English visitors to buy the exhibition catalogue for a fuller insight.
Categories: Architecture Design Film Photography
March 10th, 2015
In October last year I was invited to deliver a paper at The Mediated City conference at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. The paper was titled: ‘Hollywood Menace – Los Angeles Mid-Century Modern Dens of Vice’ and continues my fascination with cinetourism which I’ve been exploring through the World Film Locations book series for Intellect. The conference brought together academics, arts practitioners, architects and film-makers who’s work is related to media and place in some way. Partly a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s seminal book on the subject, the conference also highlighted the vast amount of work being done in this area of cross disciplinary practice – the place where film, architecture, media, travel, politics and other forms of art all converge to help us make more sense of how we live in cities today.
It was great to meet so many interesting people doing some wonderful work. A few highlights were meeting Alice Arnold who’s film ‘Electric Signs’ is a brilliant visual essay on neon signage used for advertising in key cities around the world. Much of the film focuses on the massive electric billboards which are a blight around the streets of Los Angeles and the grassroots fight that is currently going on to prevent these signs from dominating the cityscape.
I also met the cultural geographer, lecturer and author Demetrios Eames, who alongside running the Charles and Ray Eames foundation that protects their iconic case study house #8 (more commonly known as simply the ‘Eames House’) produces books and installations under the banner Kcymaerxthaere – a fascinating ongoing project that explores narrative through interactive, temporary installations around the world. Demetrios is a polymath in every sense of the word as his mind-bogglingly diverse cv shows, but he is humble and full of enthusiasm for meeting new people and experiencing new things.
I came away from the conference inspired and creatively rejuvenated – seeing where the work I’m doing connects with projects and initiatives being done by others all over the place.
One contact made at the conference has led to a nice little writing ‘gig’ for the revamped Interiors journal. The journal, which initially focused its efforts on producing architectural flat plans for chosen film scenes, has developed its remit – now functioning more like a traditional online film journal although the focus continues to be on ‘place’ and environment. My monthly feature is called ‘Screengrab’ which sees me analyze one shot from a film semi-exhaustively. The first piece was on a fairly pivotal shot from John Carpenter’s aliens-are-among-us romp They Live, that offered me the opportunity to discuss typography, advertising and contemporary art all in one go.
My next piece will be on Charles Laughton’s masterful Night of the Hunter, which aside from being one of the most haunting films of the last century, is also one of the most beautifully told modern fairy tales with big bad wolves, timid grown-ups and courageous children present and correct.
On the books front, Havana Street Style was published last August and so we held the launch event at Bristol’s ‘The Cuban’ on September 11th to celebrate with copious amounts of Mojitos and heaps of authentic snacks. The book was a thoroughly enjoyable collaboration between myself as project manager, photographer Martin Tompkins and author Conner Gorry, but a book isn’t really a book until it arrives back from the printer to be leafed through, passed around (and occasionally smelt).
Following the recent announcement in December by Barack Obama and Raul Castro that the United States and Cuba will restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than fifty years, we’re hoping the book will take on a tad more poignancy as one of the last collective portraits of life in Havana before massive cultural and economic changes change the country forever.
I’ve been working with colleagues at Intellect on a new book series called Crime Uncovered, which explores the ever increasing popularity of crime in all of its manifestations, from literature and film to television and videogames.
Each title is devoted to a particular character type such as ‘The Detective’ or ‘The Anti-Hero’ and contains protagonist case studies, interviews with crime writers and longer essays on the wider background and perception of these fascinating – and much loved – characters in crime.
I opted for a minimalist but playful approach for the covers – using type and monotone only to convey a mood and which can be used for future titles in the series. The challenge here is to modify only one letter on each cover, turning the type into a ‘character’ which alludes to the whole basis of the series. The temptation with these covers was to use imagery, but as there are so many case studies of well known protagonists in each book, choosing one figure to represent the whole bunch just didn’t seem like a good idea. I also wanted to avoid falling into clichéd territory with shadowy (often male) characters donning stereotypical garb, concealed by plumes of smoke ala Raymond Chandler.
We’re hoping the accessible, reader-friendly approach we’ve taken to the books content and layout will connect with general enthusiasts of crime fiction, students and scholars – but as with all publishing ideas, only time will tell.
More about the series and the first two titles scheduled for release (Antihero and Detective) can be found here.
Categories: Architecture Design Education Film
April 19th, 2012
There is a fleeting scene about 8 minutes into Wim Wenders’ heartbreaking but life-affirming film Paris, Texas that has stayed with me ever since I first saw it twenty odd years ago. The scene is of Walt Henderson (Dean Stockwell) parked up at a gas station, checking his map which is propped up on the hood of his car while on the way to pick up his wayward brother Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) deep in the Texas scrubs. I had yet to experience the great American open road even though I was living in Los Angeles at the time, but this one glorious shot encapsulated what I had always imagined a typical Stateside road trip to look, and more importantly, feel like.
The first quarter of Paris, Texas is essentially a road movie which shows just how taken Wenders was, as so many of us are, by a generic roadside Americana that includes fabulously lit-up gas stations, convenience stores and diners bathed in multicolored neon that often transforms them into alluring dreamscapes. The unique ability of a film maker is of course to elevate these ‘non-places’ even more by the use of ambient sound, cinematography and action – something that Wenders has done so well throughout his career. As both a photographer and film maker, Wenders appreciates the power of the still image which may explain why many of his films use an idle camera that allows scenes to unfold within the space of a carefully composed frame. This lingering, elegiacal method fits perfectly with both the mood of Paris, Texas and the measured pace of Travis’ character as he makes slow but steady progress towards his personal redemption – and scenes such as Walt’s gas station pit stop help to establish this tone early on.
I’ve been lucky enough to venture out on a few American road trips since first watching the film in the late 1980s so now have my own experiences to compare to those onscreen, and while I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each journey none have quite lived up to the dreamy promise of Paris, Texas. Understandable I guess as reality very rarely lives up to a fictional account, especially one created by a film maker like Wim Wenders so versed in transforming the everyday into the extraordinary.
In his foreword to the book ‘On Location: Cities of the World in Film‘ Wenders describes this evocative nature of landscape:
‘A street, or a house front, or a mountain, or a bridge, or a river, or whatever, is not just “background”. Each also has a history, a “personality”, an identity that deserves to be taken seriously.’
He reinforces this idea by putting forth the example of how the Aboriginal people of Australia see every landscape formation as embodying some figure from a mythical past – every rock, tree or hill carrying a story that is related to their ‘dreamtime’. I can fully relate to this and remember a time in my own childhood when spaces, landscapes and objects had this kind of resonance, either in how I co-opted them into my own imagined play-space or seeing what they could reveal about my own fears and dreams i.e. that house is haunted or that skyscraper is literally scraping the sky.
These ideas and beliefs must inform the way in which Wenders makes his films and no doubt are one of the reasons why his films–Paris, Texas in particular–have made such an impression on me, essentially because I share the same beliefs. So when I see Walt sipping his coffee beside an ice dispensing machine as the setting sun ignites the sky into a thousand shades of orange, I don’t simply see what is there but what is ‘dreamed’, both by the the film maker and by my own imagination.
Categories: Architecture Design Film Photography