Rotterdam 2014. Deep Breaths

Our 3rd Rotterdam dispatch calms things down with architecture docs by Heinz Emigholz, a docu-fantasy by Amit Dutta, and more great shorts.
Daniel Kasman

Above: Two Museums

After war comes peace. It isn't all cinematic onslaught found in the festival's shelter from constantly surprising drizzle. There is a sweet serenity to be found at Rotterdam, if you know where to go looking, or if you are lucky enough to stumble into the darkness and discover it.

Certainly the retrospective on Heinz Emigholz is a continued source of tranquil power—excepting for the moment the horrors of D'Annunzio's Cave and the abbrasive modernist of his lone fiction film here, The Holy Bunch (1991). His curious gaze, absolutely synonymous with that of the camera and thus while cooly analytic, also absolutely personal, investigates modern architecture with a fleet-footed patience that is remarkable to behold.

In such films as Sullivan's Banks (2000), on American architect Louis H. Sullivan's stalwartly solid, guardedly precious Midwestern, early 20th century banks, and Two Museums, a new premiere discovering, among many other things, the tangible tone of ambient light in two private museums, Renzo Piano's Menil Collection in Houston and Mishkan LeOmanut's Samuel Bickels museum in Ein Harod, Israel, Emigholz moves at once swiftly and thoughtfully through spaces collecting details, atmospheres, expanses, unusual angles, spatial arrangements, the sounds of spaces and their surroundings, general splendor, and odd solutions of design and construction.

Yet these surveys, these explorations and revelations of varying scale, are far from comprehensive, and neither are their images pristinely pictorial, prettily framed, or conclusively documenting. Giving a sense of cutting in camera, shooting what he discovers, and discovering ever more as he shoots, this is architecture as a meticulous but nonetheless idiosyncratic journal. As such, Emigholz refuses to contain the work he reveals; indeed, a film like Goff in the Desert (2003), on the unexpectedly shaped, beautifully lit works—mainly houses—of American Bruce Goff, spills over in an ungraspable abundance of buildings, what they are made of and what they contain.

Above: Parabeton - Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete

And it is this, I think, along with the director's subtle but powerfully aggregating sense of editing rhythm which achieves a near hypnotic flow between shots, within structures, and then between the buildings themselves, that creates the profound sense of serenity in the films. I feel this is true even if the architecture is not tranquil, even if it is in fact ungainly, or if the architecture's tone, as in the civil engineering works, mostly bridges, in Maillart's Bridges (2001), is more subtle, more closely nestled to that of the camera, such that the films at moments embody the aspects of their objects of study. (This is taken to horrifying ends in D'Annunzio's Cave.) In fact, Emigholz's documentary cinema is particularly enlightening because it makes radically clear and simple that in the movies you can't separate form from content, one can't react to the director's shot choice or edits without reacting, too, to the buildings that have been shot and edited.

The vast encompassment of Emigholz's study (several different series of films, and each series with multiple parts) and his tone can be found in the epoch-spanning Parabeton - Pier Luigi Nervi and Roman Concrete (2012), which both contrasts and aligns the Italian architect's various mid-20th century buildings, especially stadiums and halls, with Roman public buildings from the 1st century BC through the 4th AD. Here, as in 2012's Perret in France and Algeria, is most immediately foregrounded what is true of all these documentaries: that in tracking the course an architect takes, one also tracks history, society, ideology, and politics through time. Which makes all of these quiet films feel like a most undeclarative but nevertheless firm conversation with civilization itself.

Indian director Amit Dutta's The Seventh Walk may have wildly different mise en scene than Emigholz's documentaries, but their basic principles of decoupage, of the way a scene is broken up into different shots and camera movements, appear similar: observant, possibly discontinuous, contemplation and arrangement of objects in screen space. The trees and forests of the Kangra valley in northern India are Dutta's objects and space in this part documentary, part naturalist fantasia based the Indian artist Paramjit Singh and his paintings. Dutta poses him walking through the thick green landscape around his house, as well as exploring Singh's house and the artist at his table and easel, and the film weaves these oblique, semi-staged records of the artist with a camera separately but interrelatedly exploring the surroundings.

The camera’s movements are active, supple and grandiloquent, improbably resembling both Apichatpong Weeresethekul's mystically ambient creeping camera dollies and the flourishing crane movements of Delmer Daves' late 50s and early 60s Westerns and melodramas. In fact, the camera is almost always operating at a Scorsese-level of constant activity, only its motion is tranquil, roving freely without an invasiveness of nature or a film production. It arcs above and around the artist and his walks, freely imagining his dreams—or Dutta's dreams of the painter's dreams—and his small encounters with objects and others. Eventually we see more and more of Singh's abstract paintings—etchings that resemble the density of the jungle, but also stark, fully colored abstract landscapes—that surprisingly seem to have little beyond object-traces to do with Dutta's cinematic vision. Thus each kind of artistry seems a certain kind of imagining, and one that overlaps in the landscape through which the artist moves and works and within which Dutta's dextrous camera-eye roves.

Across the world, a different kind of journey through time and space is discovered and crafted by American filmmaker Joel Wanek in his sweet assembly-travelogue Sun Song. It is a short, softly silent digital montage of over a season's worth of rides on a single bus line in Durham, North Carolina, condensed into a single hyper journey from dawn to dusk, dark to light to encroaching dark, effortlessly edited to seem like the observations of light changes and passenger types across a one trip.

The portraits reminded me of unaltered versions of Chris Marker's PASSENGERS exhibit on riders in the Paris Metro, yet the film for all its gentleness has more perverse suggestions than just records of people and characterization of the streaking luminosity throughout the ride. Only workers and students could possibly be taking a city bus route so early, and so the looks of held anticipation on the people's faces, mostly black, are in unspoken dialogue with the atmospheric prettiness of window light and passing shadows.

The effect of the editing's unification of multiple trips creates a tenor of these people never getting on or off the bus, indeed being sealed or trapped in its journey, and thus its somewhat dreamy vision of busing average people and of being unable to leave called to both Luis Buñuel's Illusion Travels by Streetcar and The Exterminating Angel. There is no end to the trip in Sun Song, but the light's role does eventually have a hand in the conclusion, coming first flickering and then laying upon the seats and a final passenger like a passing revelation of an unspoken blessing.

Finally, a last word about some of the smallest movies here at Rotterdam, tied to the sea as Emigholz's are tied to buildings, Dutta's to the soaring trees, and Wanek's to his ever mobile bus. The latest entries in Canadian experimental filmmaker John Price's Sea Series, numbers 9 and 11-14 showed up in the shorts program "Resonating Spaces"—alongside work by other regulars on the avant-garde festival circuit, including Nick Collins, Robert Beavers, and Laida Lertxundi. Price was not present to explain precisely how they were made, but each appeared a hand-processed miniature epic of seashore photography, using various techniques such as double exposure (including a lovely upside down harbor and right-side-up lighthouse!) and fast and slow motion of the sea's agitation, water based activity (boats, birds), and beachside pleasures (#9 appears as a home movie of children playing) on a uniquely textured film stock to magically play with our sense of the sea's scale, might, swiftness, and motion.

With Price's meticulous handcrafting he grants a pocket-sized majesty and mystery to the vast expanses of water exceeding out from the frameline, both capturing and conjuring the power and suggestion of the sea and the seaside that seems forgotten or overwritten in our expansive vision of a globalized world where natural territories, obstacles, and frontiers seem instantly comprehensible, impersonal, and surmountable. That every film also carries within it a sublime privateness, as a microscopically crafted visual journal entry, gives the individual entries and this nestled gathering of them a hushed sense of wonder, us intruding on a lone shoreman's eye-piece vision of family and the watefront.


International Film Festival RotterdamInternational Film Festival Rotterdam 2014Heinz EmigholzAmit DuttaJohn PriceJoel WanekFestival Coverage
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