Brief Thoughts on Architecture and Cinema and Everything Else
Space has a curious relationship with film criticism. Much has been made of the viewer’s status as ‘voyeur’, but, as Giullana Bruno argues in ‘Site Seeing: The Cine City’, much less is made of our simultaneous status as ‘voyageurs’. For in film we don’t merely look onto scenes, we look through them. The camera, after all, is not static: it moves through space, and with it we do too. But what of cinema’s relationship with that major delineator of space, architecture? Below, I briefly consider two very different cinematic takes on our urban environments.
Man With a Movie Camera, Sergei Eisenstein’s much discussed 1929 film, starts with the titular man and his camera. The very next scene takes us inside a movie theatre. As the projectionist sets up in the projection room, hordes of people enter the space. A live orchestra begin to play as their film, and our film, begin. We see a series of shots of the city awakening: newborns in their cribs, homeless people waking up, empty streets being cleaned. The daily birth of the city is equated with no less than the birth of children. In fact, Eisenstein constructs the city’s rhythm out of the rhythm of the movie theatre that is the beginning of the film’s setting. As Bruno puts it, “the life of architecture is the life of (the city’s) residents”. Distinct parallels are not only being drawn between the city’s architecture and its inhabitants, but between the urban environment and the cinema itself. Eisenstein did say, after all, that the closest form of art to cinema is not theatre or photography, but architecture.
The city space of Man With a Movie Camera is thus constructed out of the intersection of 3 distinct areas, all of equal importance: the camera, the architecture, and the people. But what if you take the latter element out of the equation?
Michelangelo Antonioni does just that in the famed ending to his L’Eclisse (1962). For the vast majority of the film’s running time, we follow a stylishly shot, if somewhat conventional, love story between the ennui-ridden Vittoria and her polar opposite in many ways, Piero. Yet the film’s final sequence is something altogether different: the film stops following the protagonists, replacing their story with various vaguely ominous shots of the fascistic architecture of their Roman suburb. Here the urban environment continues to exist absent of the human agency we have been following. The indifference of the city to its inhabitants is a profoundly disturbing thought.
Not only that, but the indifference to the city from the constant allusions to nuclear catastrophe (the newspaper headline, the mushroom shaped building) is even more so. Antonioni underscores the fragility of Eisenstein’s whole exercise: the camera, the architecture, the inhabitants: none of these things will matter in the face of the catastrophe that will, one day, inevitably befall us all.