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
January 24th, 2016
When I was six years old, my father sat me down to watch the short 1956 film The Red Balloon directed by Frenchman Albert Lamorisse about the unconventional tale of friendship between a young boy and a large, red balloon. In the same way that Toy Story would anthropomorphize gangly cowboy dolls and slinky dogs some 40 years later, Lamorisse’s film succeeded in imbuing an inanimate object with emotional resonance – eliciting in the viewer the same sense of crushing sadness and heartening elation normally reserved for the likes of a Gone with the Wind or a Casablanca. I returned to the film recently as both a nostalgic trip down memory lane and to introduce it to my own children, curious to see whether it would have the same effect on them.
I’m pleased to say that it did.
‘No ideas but in things’ said the American poet William Carlos Williams, and it’s clear to see how film-makers have exploited the evocative power of objects ever since the Lumière brothers used an oncoming train to make audiences jump out of their seats in 1895.
As a primarily visual medium, film uses sequential still imagery to evoke emotional responses to a given narrative. Key to this emotional connection is the use of objects to support character development and help drive a story.
Some objects are richly symbolic, others are purely entertaining and yet others have transcended the boundaries of the screen; acting as shorthand for an entire film and often becoming themselves icons of popular culture. Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Marilyn Monroe’s billowing white dress in The Seven Year Itch, Harry Callahan’s .44 Magnum in Dirty Harry – all can stake a claim as cultural artifacts that help to define character and narrative.
Film posters, tasked with grabbing attention while attempting to make clear both the story and genre often use objects as an abbreviated language. Would Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket poster work with anything other that the darkly ironic soldier’s helmet, or the poster for Rosemary’s Baby be as effective without the ominous silhouetted pram in the foreground? Quite possibly, but would they be as memorable? Probably not.
Since its inception, film has often relied on objects to create lasting and indelible impressions on audiences. The silent era of film was marked by distinctive characters that were defined in part by objects, such as Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat, cane and oversized shoes or Harold Lloyd’s round spectacles. Props too would be used by these same characters to create some of the most memorable scenes in movie history, such as the clock from which Harold Lloyd dangles in Safety Last! or the floating globe that Charlie Chaplin teasingly plays with in The Great Dictator.
The presence of a simple, tangible object can also often lend a film gravitas, as is the case with Metropolis’s Maria the robot or Back to the Future’s DeLorean shaped time machine, and – in keeping with the literary plot device of a MacGuffin – provide the driving motivations for an entire story (think the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction [itself heavily inspired by the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly] or the Maltese Falcon from the film of the same name). These objects act as characters in themselves – magnetic ‘totems’ that are as integral to a film as setting or sound.
The visual iconography of objects also contribute to their film’s respective legacies and fan followings, often providing myriad commercial opportunities for people able to harness their pulling power. The web is littered with fan sites selling all manner of merchandise adorned with images of The Terminator’s T-1000, The Lord of the Rings ‘One Ring’ or Lolita’s heart shaped sunglasses. The online gadget and game retailer Firebox even sells Cast Away inspired ‘Wilson’ volleyballs, which – while seeming like an odd choice of object to extol, makes total sense when you consider the emotional resonance of the ball to the film’s central character and to the audience’s sense of empathy. What images of Che Guevara or Bob Marley plastered on posters have done to popularize revolutionary ideals, so too have images of Jason Vorhees’ hockey mask (Friday the 13th) or Freddy Kruger’s bladed glove done for fear of the bogeyman.
Artists too have immense fun with film objects such as New York based Ji Li whose online game ‘Famous Objects from Classic Movies’ requires players to guess the name of films from a single silhouetted image. Highly sophisticated fan art in the form of collectible prints and other published ephemera further demonstrate the marketing potential of cinematic objects, as can be seen in limited edition posters sold by the likes of US based Mondo and Dark Hall Mansions or Belgium’s Nautilus Art Prints, whose founding partner Laurent Durieux is fast becoming the most celebrated artist on the alternative movie poster scene.
Naturally this fascination with screen objects has attracted the attention of more ‘serious’ collectors and, ever since the seminal MGM Studios auction in 1970 – in which the studio created a three day film memorabilia auction to clear seven soundstages in an effort to consolidate space – a whole new collectors market has emerged that previously only existed for a few film enthusiasts. Among the vast array of over 350,000 costumes, film props and related property that went under the hammer at MGM were a pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz that sold for $15,000. To give a sense of how this particular area of collectibles has grown, consider that a second pair of the ruby slippers sold at auction in the 1980s for $165,000 and the final pair available (of four known to exist) sold in 2012 for $2 million.
This transition of objects from the films in which they appear into the ‘real world’ as coveted collectibles and auction house treasures, reveal new meanings of ownership, identification and value. Films are suspended in a timeless realm of magic and wonder, and thus owning a piece of them makes us in some way immortal by association. Similar to the ways in which objects like the Batmobile or Darth Vader’s helmet are extensions of the characters which own them, collectors are looking for the closest and most intimate form of emotional connection to a film, and thus – paying such enormous sums for them seems oddly justifiable. The objects are often also direct links to childhood; times in most people’s lives less burdened by responsibility and more fuelled by active and fertile imaginations – an idea that was mined for full effect by Orson Welles’ use of the ‘Rosebud’ sled in Citizen Kane (1931) or Alfie’s coveted Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983).
It seems that Albert Lamorisse too was fully aware of the power that objects can have on us when, in 1956, he dreamed up the idea of an unconventional but lasting friendship between a young boy and a red balloon.
Visit my new Facebook page ‘Seeing Things’ which is solely dedicated to objects onscreen and Read more about film objects in Rosebud Sleds and Horses’ Heads: 50 of Film’s Most Evocative Objects, a book developed by yours truly and authored by Scott Jordan Harris.
Categories: Film Uncategorized
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