Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Schindler’s Houses (Heinz Emigholz, 2007)

A filmic study of Rudolf M. Schindler’s Modern American architecture, Heinz Emigholz’s Schindler’s Houses delivers exactly what the title promises. Filmed in 2006, the work looks at a series of 40 houses built in during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Although the buildings themselves are generally well-preserved, it’s apparent that the environments in which they were built have radically changed. The visual representation of this reality is one of the film’s prime pleasures. In many cases, Schindler’s clean designs and minimalist aesthetics have been plunged into the chaos of modern life. This is made most apparent in the establishing shots that introduce each house. As the camera cuts and delves inward with each subsequent shot, the viewer is made to understand the homes as a sanctuary from the busy exterior world.

After a brief opening voiceover, in which the director opines on the merits of ascribing ownership to a piece of art that has to also function in the real world, the film's soundtrack is comprised only of the ambient noises of the environments in which the houses are found. Emigholz’s editing strategy is snappier than one might expect to find in a landscape film. The images flit by relatively quickly, usually spending between five and ten seconds on the screen before giving way to the next. While the steady rhythm that Emigholz sets rarely changes, it provides less than adequate time to appreciate many of the details of these structures. Perhaps the director’s approach is necessary, since 40 houses are looked at in a period just under two hours long, but it makes the film less contemplative than intellectually stimulating. With each new shot, angles and perspectives are shifted, requiring viewers to reorient themselves. The movement of the camera from one setup to the next conspires to give the viewer a sense of the flow of the surveyed spaces, even though the camera itself remains static while filming.

Avant-garde filmmaking at its best provides viewers with new ways of seeing the world around them. When a camera lingers on an object that our eyes might normally flit past, it has the effect of focusing our attention and encouraging meditation. Emigholz’s spotlight on Schindler’s work in this film (the 12th in the director's twenty-five chapter Photography and Beyond series) continually questions the relationship of functional art to the environment in which it is used, while paying due respect to Schindler’s achievements. Although sightings of humans are rare in this piece, they haven’t been banished from the screen. At one point, we see a repairman repainting a doorway in one of Emigholz’s creations. At another we see none other than filmmaker Thom Andersen working at a desk. The reference is not exactly flattering to Andersen, whose own landscape documentary, 2003’s Los Angeles Plays Itself was a far more ingratiating and pandering examination of the Los Angeles landscape than Emigholz’s latest.

Rating: 55/100

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