Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Other Boleyn Girl (film review)

It’s the tail end of spring break, I should be grading papers, but instead I went to see The Other Boleyn Girl and I don’t regret it. A few months ago a librarian friend recommended Philippa Gregory’s novel to me but I didn’t have time to read it; now I wish I had – though watching Eric Bana on screen in a short skirt is a pleasure I haven’t had since Troy (2004). Who would have thought that King Henry VIII had the same hot bod as Hector, prince of Troy? This is not the overweight monarch of later years, but a young virile man in his early 30s. Unfortunately, though, we don’t get to see much of his flesh in The Other Boleyn Girl, which revels much more in the gorgeous period costumes and sets.

I have no idea why Natalie Portman gets top billing in this film over Scarlett Johansson, who is perhaps the greatest actress of her generation. (Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration – but I enjoy her work a lot.) Johansson is marvelous in the film, as is Kristin Scott Thomas – though in a decidedly more dour role as the mother powerless to prevent her brother and husband from controlling, and ultimately ruining, her children’s lives. Her brother, the Duke of Norfolk, is played by British actor David Morrissey who gives a very strong performance. I’ve never seen his work before, probably because he does mostly television, but I’d like to see more of him. (I notice he played Gordon Brown in a 2003 British made-for-television film called The Deal, it might be interesting to see now that Brown is England’s Prime Minister.) I was, however, chagrined to learn that he is the same age as me!!! He looks so much older in the film.

Despite the painful and stereotypical rivalry between the sisters, Mary and Ann Boleyn, the film is largely concerned with women’s lives, their social roles, and their powerlessness in a patriarchal society. This is not surprising in the story of a king who went through six wives in 34 years –the last five marriages averaged only 2 years each. For all three of the women who bear children to Henry during the film (Catherine of Aragon, Mary, and Ann), childbirth is their central preoccupation. During pregnancy they are confined as virtual prisoners in darkened rooms to protect their health. Their frequent miscarriages and stillbirths are tragic not only because of the obvious pain of grief and loss, but also because of the vulnerability of their own positions at court. When they give birth to girls (Catherine’s daughter Mary and Ann’s daughter Elizabeth are both future English monarchs), the mother’s joy is tempered by the disappointment of the men around her – both Henry’s, who wants a male heir, and the family’s, whose sole concern is ambition. Ann’s onscreen rape by Henry is only a cruder and more physically violent manifestation of the powerlessness that all of the women in the film experience in most aspects of their lives – though men, too, are powerless in the face of Henry’s ruthlessness. My main complaint about the rape scene is that the film doesn’t do enough to avoid the implication that Ann “deserved” this treatment. Throughout the film she is played as the “bad girl” of the two sisters; Henry’s action shifts the power in their relationship from her to himself, putting her “in her place” – though I don’t doubt that Henry expected everyone around him to stay in their places.

Henry VIII is a real jerk. I liked Hector, son of Priam, much better.

Recently when I log onto Netflix I find a new feature: they’ve come up with a kind of profile of me as a consumer of film. They have selected six categories which evidently reflect my interests; and in each of those categories are four recommendations (I’ve actually seen most of them). The categories seem to vary slightly from day to day; today these categories are:

Contemporary Movie Musicals
20th Century Period Pieces
Dramas Based on Classic Literature
Dramas Based on Contemporary Literature
Best of Bollywood
Local Favorites for Columbia, Missouri

(That final category seems a bit absurd, if you ask me; it actually has 5 recommendations instead of the 4 that the other categories get.) I don’t know which of these categories The Other Boleyn Girl would fall under, I imagine it would be “Drama Based on Contemporary Literature;” it’s not a “20th Century Period Piece,” though it is a period piece (it was written in the 21st century). I have to admit I am a real sucker for historical costumes and sets, especially if they are filmed at real historic buildings. (BTW, someone told me recently that 75 percent of Oscar-winning films are based on literature, which doesn't surprise me in the least.)

Evidently Netflix hasn’t noticed that I’m particularly interested in these categories: Artists’ Lives on Film; Biopics; and Architecture on Film. I wonder if they ever will.

Update, May 23, 2008:
Tonight I discovered that Netflix HAS refined its category recommendations; I now have a new category called "Painting." I also notice Netflix picks up on a particular director (e.g., Hitchcock) or a particular actor (right now it's Jack Nicholson).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Why I Like Columbia, Missouri

Many academics do not live in the town of their choosing; those who do are extremely lucky. My husband and I ended up in Columbia, Missouri, quite by accident: this is where he landed a job right out of grad school, and I eventually followed. This story is typical for most of our academic friends here, but from that point the stories diverge, generally falling into two categories: those who like it here (a little or a lot, depending) and those who do not, and who complain about it loudly and/or frequently.

Me, I fall into the first category. My affection for Columbia has grown over the years, but I have always liked it. Among the cynics who dis Columbia, there’s an implication that if you like Columbia, it could only be because you’ve never lived anyplace good and therefore you can’t be expected to have a reliable or accurate opinion. You must be hopelessly Midwestern, hopelessly whitebread, or hopelessly uncultured. Although I don’t believe that I fall into any of those categories, I will try to explain why I like Columbia.

Maybe it has something to do with that widely suspect term “authenticity.” What I mean is that it’s not imitative. Columbia is its own place, it doesn’t try to be like any other place. It hasn’t been coopted by corporations and chain stores, at least not downtown (unlike Ann Arbor, Michigan, another notable college town – more on that in another blog entry). Columbia has a real grass-roots peace movement; one of the coolest storefronts in town belongs to the Peace Nook. Being in the middle of an agricultural state, we have at hand lots of small farmers who offer local, organically grown produce, both at our farmers' market (8 months out of the year) and local health food stores. It’s not a small town, but if you live here long enough it starts to feel like you know everyone. (And yes, I’m arguing that that’s a good thing.) It’s small enough that one can avoid having a long commute to work and there’s not much of a traffic problem or parking shortage. There are lots of wilderness areas where one can go hiking or even camping without having to drive too far. Affordable houses. Good schools.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Columbia’s the greatest place on earth, or that it’s better than living in a big city. It does not have all the amenities of a larger city, but neither does it have all the problems. I speak from the experience of having lived in Los Angeles County for 14 years (1988 to 2002). When I met my husband I was living in Santa Monica, in a one-bedroom rent-control apartment two blocks from the beach, in an unbelievably charming courtyard complex straight out of a 1940s Hollywood movie. I could pick lemons from our three lemon trees, dry my laundry outdoors on the clothesline year round, go to the beach any time without worrying about where to park, have access to literally thousands of restaurants, great music, theater, opera, film, etc. etc. etc. I had not one favorite sushi restaurant but four (though there were sushi restaurants practically on every other block, just like yoga studios). I had access to fantastic farmers' markets 3 days a week, year-round. I miss all that, but I don’t spend my days in Columbia bemoaning the fact that it’s not Santa Monica.

In the beginning there were only two things I didn’t like about Columbia: the distance from the airport (100 miles to the St. Louis airport, even further to the Kansas City airport) and the lack of any decent movie theaters. (When I started coming to Columbia there were two movie theaters, and they both showed the same movies!) Then the Ragtag Cinemacafe opened in 2000, solving the second problem.

I have to confess, I’m very catholic when it comes to places. I like a lot of them, too many to have a single favorite (though admittedly if I could live anywhere in the world I would go back to Santa Monica). My experiences of cities are like love affairs – I remember the heady excitement I felt in Chicago, my first experience of living in a city; my first visit to Los Angeles, which inspired my leap of faith; my first visit to Rome, which made me want to move there (I didn’t); my year in the Detroit area (2002-2003), which was full of unexpected adventures. Columbia is the smallest city I’ve ever lived in, and I like the sense of community here, both for myself and for my son.

Maybe it’s because I don’t feel especially attached to my hometown that I am open to new places. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, but only after a wrenching divorce took me away from the place of my earliest memories (Beaumont, Texas). Instead of a nostalgic longing for my hometown, I have a sentimental attachment to my grandmother’s hometown: Woodstock, New York. She lives in the house that her father built in 1954, where my great-grandmother died at the age of 103, just a few minutes’ walk from the town center. When I’m in Woodstock I believe passionately that if I could live anywhere in the world it would be there. I got married there in 2003. I’ll probably never have the opportunity to live there.

Columbia isn’t close either to Santa Monica or to Woodstock; in fact it’s equally inaccessible to both places. Bummer. But maybe since it’s right in between my two favorite places in the world, I can see that as a good thing too.

(Update posted April 3, 2008:)
On March 19, 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Columbia, Missouri, as number 4 in its list of "Best Small Cities for Business and Careers." (In the top 3 spots are Sioux Falls, SD, Iowa City, IA, and Bloomington, IN.) The rankings are based on nine criteria: Colleges, Cost of Doing Business, Cost of Living, Crime Rate, Culture & Leisure, Educational Attainment, Income Growth, Job Growth, and Net Migration.

On February 7, 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Columbia, Missouri, as number 11 in its list of "America's Smartest Cities." With a population of 153,706, 40.81 percent of people aged 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or higher; 4.16 percent have a Ph.D.; 3.86 percent have a professional degree; and 88.83 percent have graduated high school.

On December 12, 2007, Forbes magazine listed Columbia, Missouri, as one of the "Top 20 Places to Educate Your Child." The rankings are based on five criteria: School Support (Columbia got a B+), Private School Options (C+), Library Popularity (A+), College Town (A+), and College Options (A). Columbia is one of the smaller cities on the list. If you want to know how popular the library is, ask my 3-year-old son, he gets excited every time we drive past it, and it's his most requested place to go -- even more than the carousel!

The September/October 2003 issue of Organic Style Magazine listed Columbia as one of the top "Healthy Cities" in the nation.

The September/October 1998 issue of Consumer's Digest Magazine listed Columbia as "one of the best and most affordable retirement sites in the country" (according to the Columbia Chamber of Commerce).

November 1999, Money magazine ranked Columbia, Missouri, as one of its six "best places to live" in the United States. Also in 1999, Columbia was voted runner-up for Best Small City in America. In fact, Money magazine had its eye on Columbia as far back as September 1990, when it ranked Columbia number 5 in the nation's "best places to live" -- even more surprising given that the other 4 cities were all on the West Coast, 3 of them in Washington State. The suspicious thing about Money's lists, though, is that they issue these lists every year, but the cities on those lists are different every time. For 2006, Columbia made the Top 90 Best Places list, but falls somewhere around 76 on that list.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Atonement, a Novel, by Ian McKewan

A month or so after teaching Adam style architecture (18th-century Neoclassical English manor houses) and English picturesque gardens – and 8 months after visiting Stowe Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire and the Chiswick House and Gardens in London – I began reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement for my monthly book group. Those who have read the novel know that one’s interest is quickly absorbed by its sensational plot, and eventually by the troubling ambiguity of the narrative voice; but my own interest hovered around McKewan’s early discussions of the English manor house and its picturesque garden, complete with architectural follies like the ones I’d been talking to my students about just a short time before. In Chapter 2 McKewan gives us an overview of the house and grounds (which he locates in Surrey) that are the setting for the first half of the novel, which takes place in 1935:

Morning sunlight, or any light, could not conceal the ugliness of the Tallis home – barely forty years old, bright orange brick, squat, lead-paned baronial Gothic, to be condemned one day in an article by Pevsner, or one of his team, as a tragedy of wasted chances, and by a younger writer of the modern school as ‘charmless to a fault.’ An Adam-style house had stood here until destroyed by fire in the late 1880s. What remained was the artificial lake and island with its two stone bridges supporting the driveway, and, by the water’s edge, a crumbling stuccoed temple.” (Ian McKewan, Atonement, p. 18)

McKewan returns to his description of the grounds in Chapter 7, which starts like this:

The island temple, built in the style of Nicholas Revett in the late 1780s, was intended as a point of interest, an eye-catching feature to enhance the pastoral ideal, and had of course no religious purpose at all. It was near enough to the water’s edge, raised upon a projecting bank, to cast an interesting reflection in the lake, and from most perspectives the row of pillars and the pediment above them were charmingly half obscured by the elms and oaks that had grown up around. Closer to, the temple had sorrier look: moisture rising through a damaged damp course had caused chunks of stucco to fall away. Sometime in the late nineteenth century clumsy repairs were made with unpainted cement which had turned brown and gave the building a mottled, diseased appearance. Elsewhere, the exposed laths, themselves rotting away, showed through like the ribs of a starving animal. The double doors that opened onto a circular chamber with a domed roof had long ago been removed, and the stone floor was thickly covered in leaves and leaf mold and the droppings of various birds and animals that wandered in and out. All the panes were gone from the pretty, Georgian windows, smashed by Leon and his friends in the late twenties. The tall niches that had once contained statuary were empty but for the filthy ruins of spiderwebs. The only furniture was a bench carried in from the village cricket pitch – again, the youthful Leon and his terrible friends from school. The legs had been kicked away and used to break the windows, and were lying outside, softly crumbling into the earth among the nettles and the incorruptible shards of glass.

Just as the swimming pool pavilion behind the stable block imitated features of the temple, so the temple was supposed to embody references to the original Adam house, though nobody in the Tallis family knew what they were. Perhaps it was the style of column, or the pediment, or the proportions of the windows. At different times, but most often at Christmas, when moods were expansive, family members strolling over the bridges promised to research the matter, but no one cared to set aside the time when the busy new year began. More than the dilapidation, it was this connection, this lost memory of the temple’s grander relation, which gave the useless little building its sorry air. The temple was the orphan of a grand society lady, and now with no one to care for it, no one to look up to, the child had grown old before its time, and let itself go. There was a tapering soot stain as high as a man on an outside wall where two tramps had once, outrageously, lit a bonfire to roast a carp that was not theirs. For a long time there had been a shriveled boot lying exposed on grass kept trim by rabbits. But when Briony looked today, the boot had vanished, as everything would in the end. The idea that the temple, wearing its own black band, grieved for the burned-down mansion, that it yearned for a grand and invisible presence, bestowed a faintly religious ambience. Tragedy had rescued the temple from being entirely fake.” (pp. 68-69)

Through his elaborate description of the island temple, McKewan advances his work in many ways: A, he describes the scene where the novel’s central crime(s) will take place on the night that the twins run away (and he even manages in passing to associate it with delinquent behavior); B, he uses architectural history to position the Tallis family within the landed aristocracy who were the patrons for these Adam style houses in the 18th century (though only one half of the family is aristocratic; the other belongs to the nouveau riche, descended from a grandfather “who made the family fortune with a series of patents on padlocks, bolts, latches and hasps”); C, McKewan creates a metaphor for the Tallis family’s descent (continuing a time-honored theme in British literature, the degeneracy of Britain’s aristocracy); D, he alludes to the situation of the children in the novel, who suffer because of the adults’ neglect, much like this temple has been abandoned by its parent, the vanished Adam house.

When I read about the McKewan’s island temple I couldn’t help thinking of the so-called “Temple of Love” on the grounds of the Chiswick House, a garden folly built to imitate the Roman Pantheon but on a much smaller scale. During the 18th century, Englishmen who went on the Grand Tour brought back with them an interest in ancient Roman and Italian Renaissance architecture, and garden follies such as this one were their attempt to show off their continental knowledge and taste. (In Atonement, the Tallis property also boasts of a half-scale reproduction of Bernini's Triton Fountain in the Piazza Barberini in Rome.) I saw many such follies at Stowe Gardens, too, and it’s clear that McKewan has as well, for his description of the crumbling stucco, broken glass, and rotting leaves and animal droppings capture the experience of visiting some of these structures. The Pantheon, built out of Roman brick-faced concrete, has lasted almost 1900 years, but follies like the ones at Stowe and Chiswick House, many of which were made out of wood and stucco, would surely be gone by now if it weren’t for rigorous preservation and restoration work. (The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture defines a folly as "an eyecatcher, usually a building in a contrived landscape, often otherwise useless.")

The Tallises’ new house, a Gothic Revival structure dating from c. 1895, is considered tasteless, gauche, and quite inferior stylistically by comparison with the Adam house. Plus it’s badly designed. (McKewan refers to a fireplace that has been “unlit since its construction – a fault in the architectural drawings had left no provision for a flue or chimney,” pp. 117-118). The irony is that today almost anything that old is considered architecturally interesting. By 1999, the year of the novel’s postscript-like final chapter, the house has been sold and turned into an inn called Tilney’s Hotel. The artificial lake no longer exists, and the island temple has also disappeared. Part of the grounds have been converted into a golf course, another accurate detail if Stowe Gardens are any indication. When we visited Stowe last summer (July 2007), some of the grounds had been turned over to a golf course, and we had to compete with the golfers in order to walk over to the so-called Temple of Venus. (I should add that the golfers were quite courteous in deferring to the tourists.)

(golf course at Stowe Gardens)

The architecture of the home also defines the novel’s hero, Robbie Turner, the son of the Tallises’ cleaning woman. He and his mother, Grace, share a small bungalow on the grounds, a bungalow that was given to Grace by Daddy Tallis, a liberal aristocrat whose generosity is resented by his wife, Emily. Jack has paid Robbie’s tuition at Cambridge, and has offered to pay for the talented young man to go to medical school, too; Robbie insists on making it a loan rather than a gift.

The novel is essentially about class, as suggested by the contrast between bungalow and manor house. What I appreciate most about this novel is McKewan’s subtlety on the subject. While he spills hundreds of pages of ink dwelling on the “crime” of the 13-year-old Briony, and just a few on the complicity of the 15-year-old Lola, he does not dwell at all on the culpability of the real villain, an adult male who is both aristocratic and quite wealthy. The level of authorial attention is inversely proportional to the gravity of the crime, and I think McKewan does this intentionally to make his point about class in England. This man commits a most heinous crime, yet passes entirely without suspicion. The Tallises never suspect him for a minute, both because he is their guest and, more importantly, because of his social class. They believe the criminal must be from the servant class – to believe otherwise is utterly unthinkable. If Robbie Turner were innocent, then the culprit must be another servant, without question – even Robbie (or so the unreliable narrator would have us believe) shares that bias.

The novel also thematizes the tragedy of children who have been neglected or abandoned by their parents, a tragedy that cuts across class lines. Robbie’s father had abandoned him and his mother when the boy was 6 years old; at one point Grace reflects that “his [Ernest’s] lack of curiosity about his son was inhuman” (p. 83). When the novel begins, the Tallis household has been disrupted by the visit of Emily’s sister’s three children – Lola, Jackson and Pierrot – due to their parent’s divorce; Hermione has run off to France with her lover, and their father has retreated to an ivory tower. Reflecting on the nine-year-old twins, Cecelia is struck by “how hopeless and terrifying it was for them to be without love, to construct an existence out of nothing in a strange house” (p. 94). And the three Tallis children – Leon, Cecelia, and Briony – are left largely to their own devices by a father who is more often absent than not, taken away by his career and his lover; and a mother who is incapacitated by migraine headaches and general ineffectuality. On this theme, too, McKewan’s subtlety registers at exactly the right pitch.

I thought a lot about Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things while I was reading Atonement. Both novels focus on children – their perceptions of the adult world, and their later efforts to understand and come to terms with their childhoods. In fact both are told from the perspective of a young adolescent girl and her relationship with siblings and particularly a cousin – a female cousin – who suddenly comes into the picture, to whom tragedy befalls. Those tragedies befall in part because the adults are not paying attention, they are too immersed in their world. And there are lots of tragedies (like the molestation of the brother in The God of Small Things) that are overlooked because of the larger tragedy that claims everyone's attention. The God of Small Things was so powerful and beautifully written! It was painful to read, but I couldn't stop reading it because of the beauty of the prose.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) annual meeting, Philadelphia, March 6-9

I just returned from the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Philadelphia. This was my first Film Studies meeting, and I was attracted by this year’s conference theme, “Architectures of the Moving Image.” There weren’t a whole lot of architectural historians in attendance, as far as I could tell, but one of the two plenary speakers was Tony Vidler, one of the most prominent architectural historians in the country. His talk on Eisenstein and Le Corbusier pointed out a significant connection between Le Corbusier’s idea of the “promenade architecturale,” in which space is structured around framed views, and Eisenstein’s theory of montage – the piecing together of framed views.

On Saturday morning I delivered a paper entitled “The Heterotopia as Analytical Tool for Studying Architecture in Film: A Pedagogical Approach.” This topic comes directly from a course I teach called “Architecture on Film,” which I have offered twice at the University of Missouri. It’s been a pretty successful and popular course, and I have had a lot of fun with it. For those who have never heard the term “heterotopia,” it comes from the late French theorist Michel Foucault’s essay “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” which is a lecture he delivered in 1967. Foucault’s heterotopia is premised on an understanding of architecture as social space, that is, of space being defined socially through its use, rather than being defined physically by its form. Foucault created the term heterotopia to describe arrangements of space that “are endowed with the curious property of being in relation to all the others, but in such a way as to suspend, neutralize or invert the set of relationships designed, reflected or mirrored by themselves.”

I teach Foucault’s essay in my Architecture on Film course, comparing the films Grand Hotel (1932) and The Shining (1980). Clearly these films don’t belong to the same genre, and the hotels in these two films could not be more different. Rather, the contrast between them is highly effective for my purpose, which is to introduce architectural theory as a tool for film analysis. Both these films demonstrate the basic assumption behind the course on Architecture in Film: in the context of film, architecture does not simply serve as a backdrop or stage for the narrative to take place. Architecture conveys meaning in its own right, reinforcing emotional or psychological aspects of characters and themes, or even serving as a “character” in the narrative. The heterotopia theory explains the mechanism through which this happens.

The model of the heterotopia is in many ways better suited to the analysis of film than of architecture. In film analysis, the model of the heterotopia helps us to understand the transformation of characters, the moving forward of the narrative, and the creation of emotions (suspense etc.) as functions of space. It helps us to understand how a building can function like a character in a film, because of the effects it has upon the narrative, the characterizations, and all other aspects of the film.

Hotels are not the only kinds of spaces that function as heterotopias, either in film or in life. However, they undeniably function as “other” spaces – “other” to the spaces of our normal routine, spaces in which we form temporary, transitory social relationships and networks. Think about the professional organization at a conference hotel: we meet once a year, for a few days, and in that hotel space, the virtual community becomes a real, tangible community that exists in its physical form only away from our homes, away from the usual sites where our membership in that community has meaning (the classroom, the university office, the publications where our academic work is read, etc.).

Monday, March 3, 2008

2008 True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri (Part I)

This weekend was the fifth annual True/False festival of nonfiction films (aka documentaries) and it was an overwhelming success. I was part of a 1200-member audience at Jesse Auditorium on Sunday night that gave festival organizers David Wilson and Paul Sturtz a standing ovation, which they richly deserve for their many years of hard work at creating this amazing event. This year’s festival was much bigger than in the past, but they still kept ticket prices affordable ($55 for the basic festival pass, which got me into over a dozen films). I always thought film festivals were exclusive affairs held in really ritzy places like Cannes, and affordable only to celebrities, that is, until True/False started up in my hometown of the past several years, Columbia, MO. This is one of the things I appreciate about what Paul and David have done – they’ve made it accessible to everyone, and have still kept it intellectually challenging, politically relevant, and artistically intriguing. That, and they’re such modest guys, they would be the first to point out that they’ve had tons of support and involvement from other folks who’ve helped maintain that vision.

I saw so many films, yet missed so many others that people raved about. I will try to share some of my impressions, though I realize this can in no way be a comprehensive overview even of my own limited participation.

The Greening of Southie (dir. Ian Cheney, 82 min.) was the one “architecture” film at the festival so naturally I had to see it. It was about the building of the Macallen Boston building, the first “green” building to be built in South Boston, and a real groundbreaker; a postscript to the film announced that the mayor of Boston has since mandated that all new buildings in Boston must be “green.” (What does that mean, exactly? It seems like a fairly vague mandate.) The filmmakers followed the construction from start to finish, allowing us to see all the stages of a construction site. If that doesn’t sound exciting to you, you don’t know what you’re missing! It was pretty funny to hear everyone, from construction workers to yuppie condo owners, explaining the double-flush toilet in the most euphemistic terms they could muster. (“It has two buttons, the yellow button and the brown button.”) The filmmakers, who were at the screening, admitted that the process got interesting for them (as it does for the audience) when things started to go wrong. An expensive floor material, bamboo, imported from mainland China (environmentally friendly because it’s a rapidly renewable resource) was installed using low-VOC glue (glue that doesn’t give off a lot of toxic chemicals), and a month or so later ALL the floors in the building started buckling and had to be ripped out! Many of these “green” products have been on the market for less than 10 years, so their advantages and disadvantages are not fully known, not to mention that a lot of construction workers have no experience with them. The film touched on the class tensions that are resulting from this luxury condo development ($500,000 to $2 million per unit) being inserted into a very working-class part of the city, and the effects on the local economy. Small mom-and-pop businesses that had been there for decades were being pushed out. The filmmakers really could have explored that issue a bit more, but that’s not the film they were making, and so I don’t fault them for it too much. Another documentary film I saw recently (though it was not at True/False) did a marvelous job at examining the effects of development on an older, poorer neighborhood, and that film was called Greetings from Asbury Park (dir. Christina Eliopoulos, 2007, 93 min.). This was shown at the annual meeting of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History in October 2007, and I was hoping it would come to True/False because I’d love for people to see it. (Asbury Park is really more about eminent domain abuse, but its strength lies in the personal stories it tells.) This is sort of the flip side of The Greening of Southie, though not exactly.

Although The Greening of Southie was the only feature-length film specifically devoted to the architectural profession and its activities, the festival’s grand closing film, Man on Wire, told a story that was inextricably linked to the history of one of the 20th century’s architectural marvels, the World Trade Center. French guerrilla high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked on a wire he and his friends and accomplices had managed to string between the two towers, and he crossed that wire no fewer than 8 times. This feat – his third such stunt – occurred shortly after the twin towers were completed, and in fact it seemed that some of the top floors were still under construction. It was a beautiful, funny, and upbeat note on which to end the festival, despite the haunting knowledge of the WTC’s imminent demise which no one watching the film could ignore. Attendees of last year's True/False festival will remember the documentary film about 9/11 called Falling Man; Petit's potential for disaster reminded us all of images of such images from 2001. The director stated afterwards that it was part of his project to remind us all of the buildings’ more elegiac history, and for that reason the film is profound. This man’s achievement – walking on a high wire across the world’s tallest buildings – had a sublimity about it that is incomparable. It took my breath away to see the photos of him grinning as he achieved a dream that he had formed from the very first moment he learned of the plans for the building. Even the cop who arrested him, who is memorable for such astute comments as “his associates started speaking to him in French, being that he was from France,” recognized how sublime that moment was; “you knew you was never gonna see this again.”

A short film entitled 200,000 Phantoms (dir. Jean-Gabriel Periot, 10 min.) showed the “history of 20th-century Hiroshima as told through 600 photographs of the iconic Gembaku Dome between 1914-2006.” [The Genbaku Dome -- aka the Hiroshima Peace Memorial -- is a World Heritage Site.] The film was so beautiful and poetic, and the archival work of collecting all those photos (mostly postcards) alone is mind-boggling. Then the images were put in chronological order and superimposed on each other in sequence, sometimes traveling around the building to create a sense of a moving camera and of the building in 3 dimensions. This building was one of the few left standing after the A-bomb – standing in a skeletal state, that is — and the city of Hiroshima neither destroyed that skeletal structure, yet never rebuilt the walls to make it a functional building again. Instead this architectural phantom stands as a perpetual memorial to what was destroyed and a perpetual reminder of the senseless destruction and loss, and the stupid brutality (or is it brutal stupidity?), of war.

[Another architecture-themed short, called Under Construction (dir. Zhenchen Liu, 10 min.) played at the festival, but I missed it. My husband saw it and said it was intense. That reminds me of another documentary I missed at last year’s True/False festival on China called Manufactured Landscapes.]

I really enjoy short films and so I went out of my way to see several line-ups of short films. Some of the highlights included:

La Corona (dir. Amanda Micheli & Isabel Vega, 40 min.), about a beauty pageant in a Bogota, Columbia, women’s prison; quite captivating, it was nominated for an Academy Award. You really get to know these 6 women who are competing for a crown that carries with it no real remuneration, just bragging rights, and the opportunity to think about something other than their miserable lives for a while. However, at the end of the film the winner got released on parole, and it was entirely unclear if this had anything to do with the attention she got (in local newspapers) for winning. There was a bit of racism expressed after the queen was chosen, the only black contestant; some of the sore losers claimed it was because the judges were all black (which they weren't, not all of them) and expressed some negative feelings towards black people. Fortunately that kind of ugliness was not the dominant note of the film.

I Met the Walrus (dir. Josh Raskin, 8 min.), wonderful animation in the spirit of Yellow Submarine, illustrating a 1970s-era audiotape of an interview John Lennon gave to a 14-year-old boy. This delightful short is a must-see! (Note: BK just informed me that I Met the Walrus was nominated for an Academy Award in the "Best Animated Short Film" category.)

The Man Who Ate Badgers (dir. Daniel Vernon, 38 min.) had some moments where I had to cover my eyes – gathering roadkill for dinner – but overall I enjoyed its quirky characters. Roadkill man had a wife who stayed in hiding whenever the camera was in the house because she didn’t want to appear on film, but I think that made the director all the more curious about her. He asked Roadkill man lots of questions, like “does your wife eat badgers too?” (answer: “no, she’s a vegetarian” – which got a huge laugh from the audience).

One program of shorts called “Working Title” gathered together 5 films on that theme, though it occurred to me as I was watching it that the majority of films at the festival were about work. Man on Wire – I guess tightrope walking was his “work,” though he didn’t seem to be getting paid for it. Salim Baba (dir. Timothy Steinberg, 14 min.), which played as part of the “Oscar Shorts” program, followed the owner of a 100-year-old hand-cranked movie projector who takes his equipment through the slums of Kolkota showing discarded fragments from Bollywood films. His mastery of the equipment reminded me of the amazing ingenuity I’ve seen in places like India and Mexico where things that we in the industrialized world would through in the trash heap are preserved and used and maintained. Speaking of the Indian subcontinent, Flying on One Engine (dir. Joshua Weinberg) told about the work of one Dr. Sharadkumar Dicksheet, a plastic surgeon who performs operations free of charge for children in India with severe facial deformities. For a humanitarian the guy was a total egotist. The Tailor (dir. Oscar Perez, 29 min.) showed an outrageous Pakistani tailor with his Indian assistant(s) working in a closet-sized shop in Barcelona and fighting with his customers. Somehow I think he’s too passive-aggressive to be in that line of work. The film is funny, but what’s even more funny is listening to my friend BP describe it. And my favorite of the “Working Title” shorts was Shika Shika (dir. Stephen Hyde, 10 min.), which “follows one family that for three generations has scaled the Peruvian Andes to ‘harvest’ ice for shika shika, a colorful shaved ice treat they sell in the market.” I guess it was kind of a fluffy film, but it was pretty, and colorful, and fun, with enjoyable Peruvian folk music. Visually it reminded me of the many short films made by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s, who were masters of the form. I will post a separate blog entry about the Eameses soon, I promise!

(Caution: spoiler ahead!)
Freeheld (dir. Cynthia Wade, 40 min.), which won the Academy Award for Best Short Film, was an uplifting story, though sad at the same time as we watched Laurel Hester, a retired police detective, dying of cancer and fighting for the right to leave her police pension to her lesbian domestic partner. The State of New Jersey had passed a law allowing counties to award domestic partners of gay employees the same rights as married, heterosexual partners. However, this particular county had not opted to extend rights to gay couples, hence this legal fight. As I was watching footage of citizens, many of them police officers, going before the Freeholders Board (which is what they call their county government officials), I kept waiting to hear from the people who supported the Freeholders in their ridiculous refusal to give Laurel's pension to her partner, Stacie. Guess what -- there were NO members of the public (citizens or tax-payers or whatever you want to call it) who supported the Freeholders in their decision! This board of 5 middle aged white men seemed completely unconcerned with the viewpoint of the people whom they supposedly represented. (New Jersey is a democracy, isn't it?) In the end, it was the governor of New Jersey who intervened and called the Freeholders personally, asking them to reconsider their positions. Even the Freeholders gave Hester a standing ovation when she won her fight -- all except for the one guy, evidently the main opponent, who did not show up for that meeting! A postscript to the film announced that after the Laurel Hester case, the New Jersey legislature passed a law making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

I have said nothing yet about the spectacular film Gonzo (dir. Alex Gibney, 2007, 118 min.), nor about many of the other films that gave me lots to think about. Those will be the subject of my next blog entry, coming soon.

Check out these links for more on the 2008 True/False Film Festival:
Eugene Hernandez in; Joe Meyer in the Columbia Daily Tribune


Welcome to the Itinerant Professor blog, premiering March 3, 2008. The itinerant professor is me, Elizabeth Hornbeck, because I teach in so many departments and colleges here at the University of Missouri that it's a little hard to find hooks for all those hats. My intention for this blog is to post an eclectic range of information, opinions, photos, etc. -- I guess that's what most blogs do, isn't it? Well, I'm entirely new to this sort of thing so please bear with me.

Currently I teach in the Department of Art History and Archaeology (in the College of Arts and Sciences), the Department of Architectural Studies (in the College of Human Environmental Sciences), the Film Studies Program, and the Honors College.

I live in Columbia, Missouri, with my husband and our son.