It was an interesting sensation to be in the Cinematheque theatre. I don't go that often anymore, due to distance, but it was once my habit to go there several times a week (their Powell/Pressburger and Fassbinder series were among the best movie-going experiences of my life, so far). I'm struggling, as ever, to understand the decisions I make. Living at a remove from major cities makes it difficult to see films or visit museums and art galleries, ostensibly my favourite activities and the foundations of my work. Sometimes it feels like I cut off my own hands. Before moving to the country, we planned to travel to cities for cultural outings, but have too little money for frequent jaunts. Also, I'm so absorbed by doubt and worry, that the capacity I once possessed to follow my curiosity feels like it's all but vanished. I can do little now, without worrying about how much it'll cost and determining if it's justifiable. As recently as 2006, when Emigholz shot Loos Ornamental and Sean and I were living in Oakland, we bought a pamphlet published by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Society. We routinely went on self-guided walks past local buildings that define Northern California. We discovered Bernard Maybeck, and visiting his beautiful Christian Science church was a highlight, not least because I was reading Willa Cather's ghost-written biography of Mary Baker Eddy at the time. Back then, it was o.k. just to learn about something new. Now, I can talk myself out of activities almost as soon as I've conceived of them. My most recent encounter with architecture was the new, Gehry-devised Art Gallery of Ontario. The building's front looks impenetrable, which is in keeping with Gehry's style. It also suited my blocked state of mind.
Being part of the Cinematheque also audience reminded me how important it is that they show hard-to-see films and revivals (Loos Ornamental has never been distributed commercially and the screening was free!). I don't always know why I moved away from being part of something so contributive - either as an active journalist or a non-profit arts staffer. I think it's because I want my work to be independent, and to originate organically from pure motivations. But when you pull yourself away from colleagues and organized objectives, you lose an external system against which to measure your progress. On my own, it's hard to tell if I'm getting anywhere or to even remember why I insist on solitude at all. Lately, I'm concerned I engage too readily in acts of self-sabotage... too little confidence to stake my claim. I'm saddened to think that instead of taking risks and building a life out of the ordinary, I've gone off into a corner to war with myself over ambitions I can barely state.
This is why I gravitate towards people like Emigholz, who look at art in its context and over time. We inhabit a society of our own devising, and its structures embody ideas about living that must constantly respond to change. My dreams for myself differ from what they were ten years ago, but certain influences and passions remain. When I got home from Toronto, I realized I'd been following Emigholz's work since 2002 when I first wrote about it as part of my New York Film Festival coverage. My interest in film, architecture, and hand-made art continues but, frustratingly, I still haven't fully arrived at the most appropriate form and style of its expression. Nevertheless, I include my previous writing on Emigholz out of a sheer need to show myself that I haven't abandoned everything I hold dear. Staying the course is a hard-won victory, especially when you've set yourself the added task of laying the path before you can actually walk it. The paragraphs below are excerpted from longer pieces.
Inspired by film's capacity to record and preserve, German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz traveled around Switzerland and the Midwest to complete Maillart's Bridges and Sullivan's Banks. Both are biographical portraits of twentieth century architects (Rene Maillart and Louis Sullivan) as represented by the bridges and banks they designed, presented as they exist today in order of creation. Emigholz's stationary shots capture the manner in which these artists expressed themselves personally within the perameters of engineering. Grouping structures that would otherwise require weeks of travel to view, he condenses the partial biographies of his respective subjects in these compact films, which run to 24 and 38 minutes. In so doing, he's created the cinematic equivalent of an idea expressed by Sullivan in his lectures, when he speaks of our potential capacity to intuit life through the man-made forms around us.
Emigholz's The Basis of Make-Up (II) adopts a different approach to biography. Again working from sync-sound footage shot with a fixed camera in multiple locations, the filmmaker meticulously records the contents of 69 notebooks compiled over 16 years - one part of the director's own creative output. We're shown every page in every book, in shots each lasting a few seconds at the most. The handwritten texts are impossible to read, but we glimpse hundreds of image clipped from magazines and newspapers, representing years of pop cultural detritus that Emigholz pasted onto virtually every page. Like the monuments in his architectural films, this collection of writing and collage effectively turns The Basis of Make-Up (II) into a profile of a man in dialogue with his own culture. Emigholz has taken Sullivan's message to heart, ensuring his own ideas will endure because they've been given material form, catalogued on paper and recorded definitively on film.
In Schindler's Houses, Heinz Emigholz attempts to show how Austrian architect Rudolf Schindler envisioned an ideal for living through the physical organization of space. His mature work, done in Los Angeles during its emergence as a major urban area from the Twenties to the Forties, tried to compliment the idealism of the nascent city by designing low-cost houses out of modest materials for bohemian clients. Maintaining that structures evolve and must be evaluated in the context of their surroundings, Emigholz counters the tendency in architectural photography to portray buildings in their entirety, in isolation. Schindler's Houses presents 40 buildings, filmed as they are, crowded by looming billboards, roadways, and draping power lines, and accompanied by each site's ambient sounds - wind in the trees, distant voices, occasionally the ocean, but mainly traffic. He shoots the grounds and interiors of residences in sections in accordance with the way we perceive space cumulatively and by physical orientation. In so doing, he captures Schindler's signature characteristics - the delineation of three-dimensional space and incorporation of the outdoors - as they're affected by weather and light conditions.
But by spotlighting them, Emigholz has in a sense rescued Schindler's houses from the city's cacophony of voices and notoriously haphazard development. But the regrettable deterioration of some of them can't be blamed on the city. Schindler used concrete in his early work and it hasn't aged well. Does this bad choice diminish his artistry?