Review> 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Review> 2014 Sundance Film Festival

“The future never existed, only the present.”—Paolo Soleri in Doug Aitken’s The Source

At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival last month, visitors were constantly reminded of architecture. The introductory bumper played before every single screened film featured a digitally-mapped projection on the facade of the Egyptian Theater, an art deco cinema on Park City, Utah‘s Main Street. Created by Klip Collective and filmed in July 2013, images of signature Sundance movie posters from the last 30 years flash by on vitrines, film titles cycle on the marquee, characters like Jay and Silent Bob step out from the walls, and much of the facade is divided into mini-screens. Architectural elements such as the columns, capitals, and entablature are outlined and patterned in colored lights.

Klip Collective also produced a live projection screened onto the Egyptian facade each night of the 10-day festival to those willing to brave the cold for a narrative called What’s He Projecting In There (The Projectionist) where principal Ricardo Rivera overcame the obstacles of pesky lampposts, equipment shadows, color corrections of projected hues onto the facade’s terra cotta glazes, and his filmed characters walking past real-world pilasters.

These projects were part of the festival’s New Frontier (NF) section, billed as an experiment in “social and creative space that showcases media installations, multimedia performances, and transmedia experiences.” Another NF project was Doug Aitken’s The Source, interviews with creative artists including architects David Adjaye (who also designed The Source’s round building with corrugated glass facade where the films could be glimpsed from outside), Liz Diller, Jacques Herzog, and Paolo Soleri, as well as architecturally inclined artists Theaster Gates, Liz Glynn, Mike Kelley, and Richard Phillips. (These interviews can be seen online.) Also in NF were Miwa Matreyek’s This World Made Itself; Myth and Infrastructure; Dreams of Lucid Living a live performance where she walks between a front- and rear-screen projected cityscape, and James Nares’s The Street projection of a high-speed footage that captured slow-motion movement of people in New York City.

The roster of films was rich with architectural references and allusions. The purpose of higher education in today’s economy and society was eloquently encapsulated by Cooper Union architecture student Bob Estrin during the sit-in protesting the introduction of tuition in Ivory Tower: “What we need to do, quite simply, is realize… with all the models of higher education as a business—is failing. This is a moment for this school to be the vision of what education can be in this country, just as it was the vision 150 years ago.”

The documentary Return to Homs explores the 3rd largest city in Syria, after Damascus and Aleppo, called “Capital of the revolution” where youth rebellion against the Assad regime was centered. Homs is the site of the most deaths in the country, and the violence and destruction is captured and narrated by the filmmaker Talal Derki over time. The film travels through the man-made tunnels created by sledgehammering down the adjoining walls of row houses as the insurgents slowly progress to hoped-for supplies and possible escape. A short film set in nearby Yemen, The Big House, follows a poor child who finds the key to the one mansion in his small town, which he then explores with glee—the expansive rooms, the shower with running hot water, beds he can jump on, and photos of the owner who we understand was taken away in a political scandal.

Another sort of architectural destruction is in Pablo’s Villa seen at the Slamdance Film Festival that takes place alongside Sundance. A lost Atlantis that was flooded under 30 feet of water and has now resurfaced 28 years later, the ruins of this resort spa town on a saltwater lake stick up: crumbled buildings, staircases to nowhere, arches framing nothing, and its sole occupant, 83-year old Pablo Novak, who never left. It’s part of his identity, a notion given a different spin in the Sundance short Butter Lamp which shows a photographer in China who has elaborate theater-like backdrops for the photos he shoots of nomadic family gatherings and weddings. They start predictably with images of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and a temple , but quickly shifts to Disneyland, a pristine beach, and other unlikely, un-Chinese settings. It’s like a 19th century photo studio where you choose your iconographic surroundings.

We also visit different locations in Lock Charmer. Sebastian, a locksmith in Buenos Aires, is called to rescue people out of padlocked apartments and fix stubborn locks. As he works, Sebastian has visions about their lives. It’s a metaphor, much like the very powerful Locke, the surname of the title character, who is the manager of a construction site on the eve of the largest concrete pour in Europe. He abandons the site for honorable, highly personal reasons, and although he is fired by his Chicago-based bosses because of his defection, he is determined to see the pour through to completion. This is accomplished entirely by phone as he drives from Birmingham to London. He coaches his now tipsy underling (drinking to steel his nerves) to ensure the right C6-grade concrete will be delivered, faulty rebars are replaced, and road closures are in place to ensure mixer trucks smooth access. Thank goodness for hands-free Bluetooth dialing! The metaphor extends to Locke constructing a new life. On a fanciful note, in The One I Love a troubled couple goes to a beautiful retreat in Ojai, California where they are the only guests. There is a main house with muted colors, and a more fantastical guest house with brighter hues, where they encounter their identical doubles, their better selves. Footage shot in the guest house used anamorphic lenses, while spherical lenses were employed the main house to establish entirely different tones for each venue.

Another young couple is renovating a secluded estate in The Sleepwalker. The setting (and a main character) is the 1932 landmarked modernist Wells House in Massachusetts, built for the scion of the American Optical Company and grandson of Daniel Burnham who went on to develop Sturbridge Village. Designed by Boston architect Paul Wood of Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott, it is the oldest surviving modernist house in the state, and was inspired by Mies’s Wolf and Lange & Esters houses in Gubin and Krefeld, Germany, which were seen by Wells. (Although commissioned in 1929, the house was completed the same year as the MoMA International Style exhibition, well before the 1938 Gropius house in Lincoln, MA). Built of whitewashed brick with flat roofs and steel-framed floor-to-ceiling window walls, the 9,000 square foot 9-bedroom house on 56 acres is “a modern house which causes the lay person first to gasp at the audacity of its conception and then to revel in the simplicity of line, perfection of detail, and charm of color which characterize it” according to Christine Ferry in the November 1933 issue of House Beautiful. The house is currently on the market and although was built as a single dwelling, could easily be used for a school, artists’ colony, performing arts space, or yoga retreat. What a lovely thought that art and life, film and architecture, could come together here.

Films & Media/Directors
The Big House, Musa Syeed
Butter Lamp, Hu Wei
Ivory Tower, Andrew Rossi
Lock Charmer, Natalia Smirnoff
Locke, Steven Knight
The One I Love, Charlie McDowell
Pablo’s Villa, Matthew Salleh
Return to Homs, Talal Derki
The Sleepwalker, Mona Fastvold
The Source, Doug Aitken
The Street, James Nares
Sundance bumper, Klip Collective
This World Made Itself; Myth and Infrastructure; Dreams of Lucid Living, Miwa Matreyek
What’s He Projecting In There (The Projectionist), Klip Collective