Waste, seedy utopias, decline, and the artificial world of hotels are just some of the themes expressed in the crop of new films at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival that use architecture in interesting and provocative ways.
In Rodney Ascher’s delightful Room 237, film obsessives posit theories about the hidden meanings of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 genre-bending horror film, The Shining. It’s really a film about the Holocaust, the extermination of Native Americans, the number 42, and a faked Apollo moon landing, they say, but it is also about architectural imagination.
Author, playwright, and artist Juli Kearns maps the fictional Overlook Hotel, analyzing how the spaces knit together, including the infamous Room 237, where murders occurred; the red bathroom (reputed to have been designed by Frank Gehry), where Jack Nicholson’s character talks to the ghost of a previous caretaker; and the corridors that young Danny traverses on his tricycle. As the camera tracks through the enormous hotel with its spacious lobby, luxurious ballroom, long corridors, industrial-sized kitchen, and labyrinthine maze outside, it becomes a schematic for the minds of the characters—as Jack (Jack Nicholson) goes mad, as his son, Danny, uncovers the hotel’s secret dark past, and as Wendy (Shelley Duvall) tries to protect her child. “Wendy is as surprised as she is because [a]…hall is out of place, it’s not supposed to be there…these doors don’t exist, instead there is the thickening of wall…the audience is surprised, alarmed, horrified by this red hall, its walls saturated with the supernatural, the hotel—and not just its ghosts—seeming to come to life, threatening to swallow Wendy whole…. We take her…as fleeing from other horrors she’s witnessed, pell-mell wandering like a ball in a pinball machine bounced around by frightening situations, looking for a way out,” says Kearns of the gaming logic Kubrick sets in motion.
The filmmakers graphically composite the inspiration for the Overlook resort from three hotels: the Timberline Lodge in Mount Hood, Oregon, for a modified exterior; the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite for the interior; and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where Stephen King wrote the novel, The Shining, in room 217 (changed to 237 at the request of the Timberline).
A different universe is created by artist Eve Sussman in whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir, named for Malevich’s White on White painting of 1918. Sussman, whose films have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Biennial, presents an American protagonist enmeshed in a suspense story in the former Soviet Union in what was a “closed city,” a location literally off the map—no signs, nonexistent on railroad timetables, with restricted travel and residencies due to sensitive military, industrial, or scientific facilities. Sussman’s idea was to conflate the Soviet-planned living systems with nouveau sci-fi architecture to insinuate a retro-futuristic place. “We set out to unravel the utopian promise. We conducted a search for unobstructed space: geometry, salt, water, oil…. We registered the crumbling concrete towers left by bygone master planners, and the emergent forms conceived by their successors. We came to see these landscapes as the sets for our film. We named our location City A,” said the director. Both oracular and seedy, whiteonwhite was shot largely in Aktau in western Kazakhstan, complete with crazy World’s Fair–like obelisks, buildings shaped liked discs, and Soviet-style apartment blocks. Additional locations were at Norman Foster’s Bayterek monument in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, and SOM’s Burj Dubai while under construction. The director also re-created cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s office in Star City, near Moscow, which she is currently touring as an installation. The trick of the film is that it is edited by an algorithm prompted by key words attached to each film clip. As a result, every screening is different, with much left to chance. Surprisingly, the suspense genre lends itself to this random storytelling, and one is rarely unsure of the basic plotlines.
The three-minute films in the Focus Forward series on innovation featured Newtown Creek Digester Eggs: The Art of Human Waste by David W. Leitner, which lyrically tells the story of the architects and artists behind the giant silver eggs in Queens: Ennead Architects, Acconci Studio (visitor’s center), George Trakas (nature walk), and Hervé Descottes (lighting). Richard Olcott of Ennead spins the tale, and Jim Pynn, the plant superintendant, proudly explains not only how the system works, but also how it supersedes EPA requirements. Gary Hustwit (Helvetica, Objectified, Urbanized) made Landfill in Delaware County in Upstate New York. Another in the series, Meet Mr. Toilet by Academy Award– winner Jessica Yu (Breathing Lessons), echoes the recycling theme.
Detropia by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing focuses on the shrinking, depressed city of Detroit. A few of the characters profiled—president of the local U.A.W., a young female blogger, the owner of a blues bar—are charming, but the only solution that the one-note story offers is one to relocate the existing population to a concentrated area, a move that met with fierce opposition.
It’s encouraging to see films that use architecture as a central (or supporting) character. Some filmmakers explore the built environment as users, while others do so as makers. Whether fact or fiction, both can show us a different perspective on familiar and unfamiliar locales.