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
April 5th, 2012
While watching Alan Yentob’s BBC 2 profile of Las Vegas last night (The Lure of Las Vegas, 2009) I got to thinking about the reasons why this ‘city of illusions and ghosts’ is just so damn fascinating to me. In truth I should loathe the place. As a European surrounded by ‘genuine’ culture and history, the mere sight of the faux indulgence that Vegas city planners and architects lavish on the neon-lit landscape like a gaggle of children hopped up on hallucinogens should make me retch. And although wandering on foot up and down the strip with its undulating and disconnected hodge-podge of ‘architainment’ really is unsettling, the sheer magnitude of Vegas’ conviction of its own significance does cast a spell perhaps because, as Yentob suggests ‘it radiates that longing for a world of infinite possibilities’. From its early settler period through to its decadent glory days as a gambling mecca for mobsters and crooners to its current incarnation as the family friendly gaming (not gambling) capital of the world, Vegas is in a constant state of flux – raising, wrecking and transforming it’s topography faster than a card player’s losing streak, endlessly attempting to prefigure the wish fulfillment of those seeking an escape.
I could point to Robert Venturi’s 1972 book ‘Learning from Las Vegas‘ as a primary reason for why the city is now looked at with genuine interest rather than simply derided as a commercialized and tacky roadside attraction, but academic analysis only goes so far in helping us to understand our unique relationship or emotional response to a given place. Granted the more I read about and around the city’s history the more I’m inflating the bubble of mystique and significance of it in my own head, but recent visits to Vegas in support of a book project have helped me to balance out the theoretical with the actual physical experience of being there.
I can’t say that my visits have been pleasant experiences (I’ve either been too ill, too tired or too much of a miserable sod to make the most of what Vegas has to offer) but they have been learning experiences, and ones that seem to make more sense to me when looked at in hindsight and form a distance, which brings to mind Roman Polanski’s oft quoted remark about Los Angeles. As a design lecturer I’m still blown away by the neon signage that radiates across the city at night-time and had the opportunity to visit the phenomenal collection of signs at the neon boneyard, where hundreds of iconic relics whose lights have long since faded still pulsate with historical importance and relevance. I also managed to meet with local Las Vegas residents to chat about what the city has to offer beyond the strip and outside of the escapist transit of tourists, hucksters and players. Photographs I took there of derelict and stalled building sites due to the current economic climate sit uncomfortably alongside shots of recognizable Vegas movie locations, and a folder of reference material collected prior to my trip that includes excerpts from Michael Light’s book ’100 Suns’ about the nuclear tests carried out in the Nevada desert from the mid 1940s to the early 1960s jar when placed beside a $4.99 all-you-can-eat buffet receipt kept and brought back. I’ve realized though that perhaps this odd juxtaposition of artifacts, historical oddities and lived experiences is precisely the reason for my fascination with Las Vegas, in that it throws up more questions than it can ultimately answer – and what enquiring mind doesn’t like questions?
For now I’ll keep sifting through my photographs, read with interest of development plans for the city’s future and look out for the next probing documentary that inevitably searches for some of the answers I seek.
Categories: Architecture Design Photography
March 20th, 2012
I’m currently reading this book as research for a potential project that may or may not ever see the light of day. I’ve been increasingly drawn to the idea of utopia ever since delving deeper into the origins of the kibbutz movement a few years back while on a trip to Israel. While there I visited my family who live on a kibbutz in the north of the country and briefly chatted with my uncle about how things have changed since he first moved there in the late 1960s. Discussions with him led to further talks with my cousins who were both quite outspoken about growing up in a movement often classed as a ‘utopian ideal’ but to them was very often anything other than perfect.
Israel’s first kibbutz, Degania, was founded in 1911 and sparked off a communal enterprise unlike any other in the world which would play an essential role in the creation of the modern state of Israel. As a model for communal living with its emphasis on shared responsibility and shared wealth, kibbutzim were the backbone of a nation that quite literally emerged from the desert – providing a network of essential manufacturing industries that would fuel the growth of the country’s wealth, especially in terms of agriculture.
What I find more fascinating though are the social structures and community ideals that the kibbutz movement once strived for and which subsequently placed them in the ‘utopian communities’ category, but which have ultimately come undone as generations of ‘kibbutzniks’ complain of a dysfunctional upbringing resulting from unorthodox social engineering techniques. This added to other social and economic crises saw a massive decline in membership over the last few decades as people simply left kibbutzes to live in larger cities or saw their beloved social ideology diluted by creeping capitalism as kibbutzes struggled for economic survival. As an imperfect embodiment of the utopian ideal, kibbutzes nevertheless place great importance on morality and social responsibility which is why they still matter and which may explain the reason for their renewed popularity as more young people look to bring up families in a safe, caring and socially cohesive environment.
I’m keen to look back at how the ideal was created, how it developed and how it fell apart but also want to look at it alongside other utopian systems of living and social experiments from the past.
A big undertaking but one I hope to at least develop content for in the coming months.
Categories: Architecture Education