High Museum of Art: Films

Architects on Screen: Linda’s Picks by Linda Dubler

Ever notice how the default profession for artistic, but not completely cuckoo, characters in the movies is architect? As TCM’s Robert Osborne has observed, “With architects, you have an image of someone above reproach and not damaged, the way lawyers and judges and even doctors have been. There are very, very few professions that still have a ring of heroism about them, and architecture is one of the few that does. If an architect is portrayed going off the deep end, it’s always because he is so committed to what he’s doing that it’s an honorable thing. And it’s one of the last manly professions — you’re building something outdoors.”  The High’s current exhibition, John Portman, Art and Architecture, on view through April 18, has us thinking about the way the practice of architecture is shown on screen.  Here are a few noteworthy films to sample.

Strangers When We Meet

Strangers When We Meet

Strangers When We Meet

Made during the era when the Playboy lifestyle defined hip masculinity,  Strangers When We Meet stars Kirk Douglas as Larry, a self-employed architect with a bad case of the My Ways and Kim Novak as Maggie, an affection-starved housewife determined to honor her marriage vows. Larry’s wife thinks he should stick with safe projects sure to pad their bank account; Maggie’s husband is a withholding stick-in-the-mud who makes her feel like a tramp for wanting sex. When Larry spies the platinum-haired goddess disguised as a suburban mom at the school bus stop, he falls hard. Soon he’s inviting Maggie to visit the construction site of a signature house he’s building for a womanizing, best-selling author (Ernie Kovacs), and wooing her in dimly lit cocktail lounges. The film’s sexual politics hint at the feminist revolution to come, as well as the dawning of the Swinging Sixties, while the set design and costumes will delight fans of mid-century Modern style. Not satisfied with constructing a mere set, Columbia Pictures built a house in Bel Air that was renovated in 2003 and stands to this day.

The Black Cat

Apart from its blazing campiness, The Black Cat is worth watching for its stunning Bauhaus-inspired production design (as much a part of the action as the battling protagonists played by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff). Director Edgar Ulmer, affectionately known as the King of the B’s (as in B movies) sets the action in the fortress-like home of a demonic architect (Karloff, in a role inspired by the Satanist Aleister Crowley), who has built his retreat on the graves of thousands of  Hungarian soldiers whose lives he intentionally sacrificed during World War I. The plot owes nothing to Poe, and the acting is absurdly over the top, but oh those chrome railings and shining expanses of curved white wall!

The Fountainhead

Any mention of architects on the screen has to include The Fountainhead (based on Ayn Rand’s novel), and no one has written about it more deliciously than Pauline Kael. In 5001 Nights at the Movies she rhapsodizes, “Can people who see this picture ever forget the sight of the silvery-blonde columnist Dominique (Patricia Neal) galloping up on her black horse and slashing her riding crop across the face of the tall, mocking stranger who has looked at her impertinently while he was using a pneumatic drill in the quarry? He’s the genius architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper). . .  King Vidor directed this paean to the individualism of “superior” people, made in a sleek, hollow, Expressionist style that owes a lot to film noir. It’s an extravaganza of romantic, right-wing camp, with the hyper-articulate Roark standing in the wind on top of a phallic skyscraper, and the fierce, passionate Dominque rising in an open elevator to join him there.”

Is there a genius in the house? by Linda Dubler

Some artists ––– oh, say, Leonardo Da Vinci —— are known for their discipline and concentration. Consider the number of sketches he made for a horse statue that was never completed. Others, however, have taken the tack that to be an artist or an intellectual, you must somehow be undisciplined, clueless, and/or completely self-absorbed. THOSE are the kind Hollywood likes. After you’ve been awed by Leonardo at the High’s Hand of the Genius exhibition at our 12-hour artfest Go All Night, why not visit with some of his lesser brethren?

Eleanor Ringel Cater’s picks:

Barton Fink

Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991)

Leave it to the brothers Coen to come up with something as hilariously berserk and mind-teasingly perverse as this surreal black comedy about (of all things) writer’s block. A High-minded New York playwright, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is lured to 1941 Hollywood to give “that Barton Fink feeling” to a Wallace Beery wrestling movie. On one level, the film is about Fink’s Day-of-the-Locust encounters with moguls, producers and washed-up self-loathing Southern writers who’ve sold out to the flicks. But then there’s also the Earle, the hotel where Barton is holed up to write his masterpiece. A hotel worthy of The Shining, it’s also home to genial traveling salesman, John Goodman, who’s got stories to tell. LOTS of ‘em. The picture is a brainy goof, fleshed out by the brilliant performances, the rich production design and the Coen’s ever-clever camera. It’s as bleakly funny and tantalizingly obtuse as a Beckett on-act. I’ll give you the life of the mind…..

Naked Lunch (1991)

It will eat you alive if you’re not well-versed in the coded cool of Beat junkie icon, William S. Burroughs, or the insect-infected visions of director David Cronenberg (The Fly). And even if you are, this mercilessly exacting black comedy will leave its teeth marks on you.

Part biography, part literary adaptation, the film is less a literal rendering of the writer’s scandalous 1959 novel than a jazz-riff interpretation. Turning down the role of Robocop 3 (!), Peter Weller is the Burroughs surrogate who travels from 1953 New York to the Interzone — a kind of surreal Tangiers of the mind, populated by sweaty addicts, decadent ex-patriots and typewriters that mutate into giant talking bugs. However, those less than enthralled with Burroughs’ masturbatory self-infatuation may find this daring demanding picture something of a Pyrrhic victory. That is, more worthily done, perhaps, than worth doing.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Too much is never enough for fabled gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and director Terry Gilliam. You could almost say they are a match made in excess heaven (or hell). This is Hollywood’s second attempt to translate Thompson’s 1971 book about his drug-drenched trip to Vegas, the first being the rather abysmal Where the Buffalo Roam, starring a game Bill Murray.

Here, it’s the ever-unpredictable Johnny Depp who takes on the role of Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter-ego) and a chunked-up pre-Oscar Benicio Del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo, Duke’s lawyer/companion-in-chaos. The assignment — as if it matters — is a dirt-bike race. Their true quest is to ingest every kind of “uppers, downers, screamers, laughers” they can find. Plus several oceans of booze. However, like most drug experiences, the film has a downside, too. Barely making it out of Vegas alive the first time, they’re dragged back in (like Pacino in Godfather III) for another round of the same thing.

Still, Depp is astonishing, Joe Coker by way of John Belushi and pure pandemonium on the prowl. The movie isn’t exactly a success, but it’s the most glorious kind of failure: Imaginative, uncompromising and true to itself. A tip: if hearing Debbie Reynolds tell a Vegas crowd, “Let’s rock and roll!” doesn’t crack you up, you don’t want any part of this movie. Not even the good parts.

Linda Dubler’s picks:

A Bucket of Blood

A Bucket of Blood

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

With its lurid title and down at the heels production values, A Bucket of Blood is a sterling example of legendary B-movie producer/director Roger Corman’s talent for entertaining, inspired schlock. The film’s central character, Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), is a bus boy at a beatnik coffee house who is so inept he makes Maynard G. Krebs look like Jackson Pollock.

Poor, talentless Walter longs for the limelight, so when his landlady’s cat dies accidentally, he covers the stiff feline in plaster, a la George Segal, and presents the critter as a work of art. The hipsters are wowed, and soon the would-be-genius is trolling for additional bodies to receive the Paisley treatment. The lively script was written by Charles Griffith, screenwriter for The Little Shop of Horrors. Corman mentored Scorsese, Coppola, and Jonathan Demme among others, so even if you’re not a B-movie fan, consider taking a look.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

The grass is always greener – even for those who’ve successfully made it to the other side. Such is the case for Sullivan, a sought-after Hollywood director known for hits like Ants in Your Pants of 1939. Yearning for the gravity and respect that genius endows, this would be Steinbeck declares he’s finished with fluff and ready to undertake his masterpiece, a gritty, relevant opus called Oh Brother Where Art Thou? But before he can write about the common man, it would help to meet a few.

Sullivan and his fetching, hold-the-hooey secretary (Veronica Lake, famous for her peek-a-boo wave) take to the road in a luxuriously appointed Airstream in search of America. Preston Sturges, a treasure of American cinema and the writer/director behind The Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve, mixes comedy with melodrama in this delicious satire of self-importance and fame.

The Lady Eve (1941) , Ball of Fire (1941) , and Bringing Up Baby (1938)

The movies are full of evil geniuses (Dr. Frankenstein and his many peers), troubled geniuses (viz. any standard issue artist bio pic, from Lust for Life to Basquiat), even idiotic geniuses (e.g. Austin Powers), but my favorite variety are the clueless intellectuals, beloved by the makes of classic screwball comedies. Invariably men, these champions of book learnin’ are short on smarts and easy marks for women who either thing or two about the world, or are so ditzy they defy comprehension.

In The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda is a herpetologist (a snake specialist to be precise) who makes an appetizing victim for slithery card-sharp Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck shows up again in Ball of Fire as Sugarpuss O’Shea, a nightclub singer who knows her way around a colloquialism, who ends up hiding out in a house full of lexographers, among them sexy language specialist Prof. Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper). And in what’s probably my favorite American comedy, Katherine Hepburn is as untamed as the titular leopard Baby, driving poor paleontologist Cary Grant around the bend and into her waiting arms. After a lousy day or a lousy week, any one of these gems will help to chase away the blues.