Thursday, November 5, 2009

Experimenting With Form And Function

Anyone who has toured Hoover Dam knows that, during its construction, the artist's touch was applied to the engineer's initial design with a goal of adding form to function. Whether one looks at the Art Deco towers, the inlaid terrazzo designs that reflect the Indian cultures of the Southwest, or the colorful insides of the dam's power plant, there's a lot more to delight the eye than mere cement.

Gordon Kauffman, the architect who helped design the Los Angeles Times Building, replaced some of the initial ornamental designs with an approach that combined Modernism and Art Deco. Inside the power plant, the simple decision to use different colors of paint for various areas helped to bring a stunning aesthetic to the dam's vast interior.

Variations in color, shading, and the use of light can have a profound impact on a structure or a story. Consider the following:

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One of Ira Gershwin's great lyrics reads:
"It's very clear
Our love is here to stay.
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
There're only made of clay.
But our love is here to stay."
With so many buildings being razed to make way for new structures, a new documentary by Eric Bricker has surprising relevance.
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman takes viewers through the life and art of the great architectural photographer who passed away on July 15, 2009 at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 98.

Julius Shulman

Shulman liked to insist that he wasn't just taking pictures, he was selling modernism. "I sell architecture better and more directly and more vividly than the architect does." One of his long-time associates, architect Richard Neutra, stressed that "film is stronger and good glossy prints are easier to ship than brute concrete, stainless steel, or even ideas." The great irony is that more people have come to know and appreciate the architectural strengths of certain buildings through Shulman's photography than by actually seeing the buildings.

His 1960 photograph of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22 (a glass-walled, cantilevered structure hovering above the lights of Los Angeles that is often referred to as the Stahl House) became one of the most famous architectural pictures ever taken in the United States. An online collection of some of Shulman's photographs can be seen in L.A. Obscura: The Architectural Photography of Julius Shulman. In 2005, the Getty Center acquired Shulman’s archive of 260,000 negatives, prints and transparencies.

Robert Sobieszek (who was the photography curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) described Shulman's work as having "a sense of visual bravura of composition so that he can take a rather mundane house and make it look exciting, and take a spectacular house and make it look triply spectacular." In many ways, Shulman's career span exactly paralleled the growth of modern architecture in Los Angeles. According to Wikipedia:
"Some of his architectural photographs, like the iconic shots of Frank Lloyd Wright's or Pierre Koenig's remarkable structures, have been published countless times. The brilliance of buildings like those by Charles Eames, as well as those of his close friend, Richard Neutra, was first brought to light by Shulman's photography. The clarity of his work demanded that architectural photography had to be considered as an independent art form. Each Shulman image unites perception and understanding for the buildings and their place in the landscape. The precise compositions reveal not just the architectural ideas behind a building's surface, but also the visions and hopes of an entire age. A sense of humanity is always present in his work, even when the human figure is absent from the actual photographs."
Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Bricker's film shows how Shulman was first exposed to Modernism, quickly became the favored photographer of many West Coast architects, and went on to document much of the architecture in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. There is a great deal of archival footage showing the young photographer, some delightful footage of him in his early 90s, and explanations of how he learned about not just the use of light, but how to frame a great picture. His gentle charm makes it obvious why Shulman was beloved by so many. Even the footage of him photographing Frank O. Gehry's new Walt Disney Concert Hall with his partner, Juergen Nogal, is surprisingly endearing.

Whether you are an architecture or photography buff, live in Los Angeles or Palm Springs, or are just curious about Modernism and its influences on the world around you, Bricker's film is a visual treat from start to finish. Here's the trailer:

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Over in the Mission District, Shadowlight Productions brought its staging of Ghosts of the River to the Brava Theatre Center. A series of short stories by playwright Octavio Solis that have been adapted for the stage using the techniques of Balinese shadow puppet theatre, Ghosts of the River has an undeniable charm all its own.

The following clip showing some rehearsal footage gives audiences an idea of what the stage technique actually involves.

The plays of Octavio Solis, which often deal with his memories from growing up along the Rio Grande River, have charmed Bay area audiences at Magic Theatre, San Jose Repertory Theatre, Thick House, Marin Theatre Company, Intersection for the Arts, and American Conservatory Theatre. Listening to the craft with which the playwright has shaped the five short stories featured in Ghosts of the River gives a keen sense of his strengths as a storyteller and dramatist. Solis explains that:
“As a first-generation Mexican-American born in El Paso, Texas, I have sought to define what it means to have another country so close to my consciousness in most of my plays. As a boy, I used to see border crossers pacing past my house at night, moving like ghosts toward their safe havens. All my life, I’ve felt these phantoms of the Rio Bravo circling my imagination. It’s time to give them voice. Larry Reed’s art bridges the gap between cinema and theatre, myth and history, truth and fantasy, so effortlessly with its interplay of light and shadow that makes it attractive to poetic structures such as mine. It works with a huge canvas on which one can draw and swim in a river as vast and ancient as the Rio Grande. Panoramic vistas of history reaching all the way back to the Mexican Revolution can be accommodated in this space.”

The musical accompaniment helps to set the stage for stories about rivalries between drug dealers, border patrol agents who try to stem the tide of illegal immigration, refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution, and families just trying to survive on a day-to-day basis as they struggle to overcome poverty in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso.

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Larry Reed's production benefitted from the use of bilingual Supertitles in English and Spanish. But some things (like an obnoxious little boy who sounds like a Mexican Bart Simpson) needed little, if any translation. Not having had many opportunities to experience Balinese shadowplay theatre, I found the production quite enchanting. It was certainly much more fluid than I expected and a refreshing new cross-cultural experience.

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When I first saw the trailer for Spike Jonze's film of Where the Wild Things Are, I was surprised at how brown the production seemed. My memories of Maurice Sendak's award-winning children's book included luscious blues, greens, and crisp yellows. More than anything else, Sendak's book had a sense of mischief and silliness, of rumpus roomrebellion and abject glee that has charmed millions of children around the world.

Sendak's classic has already been adapted to the operatic stage by composer Oliver Knussen, who wrote a one-act operatic version of Where The Wild Things Are. Back in 1986, when I interviewed Sendak for Opera News magazine, he stressed that children deal with fearful imagery all the time and that it's the adults who have trouble coping.

In addition to his numerous children's books, Sendak has designed sets and costumes for productions of Mozart'sThe Magic Flute, Idomeneo, and L'Oca del Cairo; Knussen's Higglety, Pigglety, Pop!; Prokofiev's The Love For Three Oranges; Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel; Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker; Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen; Krasa'sBrundibar as well as Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges and L'Heure Espagnole. He co-wrote and designed Really Rosie! with Carole King.

Bill Watterson (the famously reclusive creator of Calvin and Hobbes) insists that “the art is all that matters. Who cares what the artist’s story is?” But, while working on the operatic adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are, Sendak gave the monsters the names of his relatives: Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile, and Bernard. In the following two clips you can see how the giant costumes worked onstage and listen to Sendak discuss the artistic process of transforming his book into an opera.

After seeing the new film version of Where The Wild Things Are I find myself less than enthusiastic about Jonze's approach. For all of the filmmaker's inventiveness, I was startled to see how little his film accomplished with so much effort (whereas Sendak's book accomplished so much more with far fewer illustrations). In order to beef up the action quotient in the film, Jonze added a heavy hand of physical violence. The implied action in Sendak's book (that left so much more to the reader's imagination) was infinitely more effective.

The magic of Sendak's color palette is noticeably absent from the film, which seems weighted down by all of Jonze's tangential diversions into darker colors and developmental psychology (things that don't interest children in the least). I had never thought of gender identifications for any of Sendak's beasts -- which Jonze has woven into the story. Nor had any of Sendak's deliciously mischievious beasts ever seemed in need of a back story.

In Jonze's effort to expand Sendak's concise, tautly-written tale into a full-length feature film, perhaps the most shocking loss is the book's magnificent sense of humor, whimsy, and charm (which only goes to show that some things are better dealt with when left to the reader's imagination). Here's the trailer:

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