Thom Andersen on Modernist Architecture

Hollywood’s Anti-Modernism: An Update and Reconsideration at the Hollyhock House Barnsdall Gallery Theater

some notes, from memory, since I forgot to take notes:

Andersen begins by showing the architecture section from his 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, then (after noting wryly that he is aware the Chemosphere has eight sides, he’s just not aware of the difference between a hexagon and an octagon), he reads this quote from Gary Indiana’s Artforum review: “Andersen decries the movies’ ‘frequent casting of Los Angeles’s unsurpassed, innovative domestic architecture as the residences of drug dealers, pimps, and other unsavory types, like the Pierce Patchett character in L.A. Confidential. He feels that these locations, thus used, reflect the contempt both the movies and local architecture critics feel for architects like Richard Neutra and John Lautner. There is no mention of R.M. Schindler, whose buildings have appeared in many less ‘negative’ representations than ones Andersen cites; moreover, despite a genuine-feeling riff about LA’s dispossessed — slum dwellers, bus riders, the black family without hope — his architectural survey chooses for especial sarcasm the theme restaurant situated on the grounds of Los Angeles International Airport, virtually the only structure in the film designed by a black architect, Paul Williams.”

So the point of this presentation, Andersen says, is to address whether the claims he made in Los Angeles Plays Itself, the ones that Gary Indiana took exception to, are, in fact, wrong. (As an aside, Andersen first explains that his point about the LAX theme restaurant was that since the rest of the airport was so boring, it occasionally is used as a passenger terminal, as in Why Do Fools Fall in Love? and Smog (1962, which the UCLA Film and Television archive screened in April of this year, and though not mentioned in Andersen’s documentary is certainly worth seeing if you’re into that sort of thing).)

Andersen says he can’t think of the “many” examples of Schindler houses being used in film that Gary Indiana may mean, but he grants that in Impulse (1990) and Fly Paper (? not sure if i got that right) the heroes, or at least the least-bad guys live in Schindler houses.

He also shows clips from several more movies not included in Los Angeles Plays Itself that house the villains in Lautner residences: Less Than Zero (1987, Silvertop), Bandits (2001, Sheats-Goldstein Residence — same as Jackie Treehorn’s house in The Big Lebowski), Southlander (2001, I can’t remember the point of this clip — whether a bad guy did reside in the Lautner house, but it featured the Sheats-Goldstein Residence and Beck).

The timeline Andersen gives is: In the 1930s Hollywood (esp. MGM) helped popularize the Art Deco style. In the 1950s they were fond of Mid-century Modernism, as seen in Kiss Me Deadly, where the protagonist lives in what is now the Wilshire corridor. Then there was a shift in architecture and architecture criticism in the ’70s and ’80s away from Modernism and towards Postmodern styles, and that un-fondness of Modernism is reflected in the movies (and, as is typical, the movies pick up on the trend a little late). But now, he says, thanks to magazines such as Wallpaper (which is “easy to criticize” — a phrase Andersen is fond of), Modernism is back “in” and even more elite.

He uses clips from Charlie’s Angels (2000, where the villain lives in the Chemosphere — actually a studio set rebuild of the Chemosphere that cost more than the actual house to build and had a few adjustments, including in the view of the city (in diorama form)) and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003, where the hero Lucy Liu’s character lives in Sheats-Goldstein Residence) to illustrate that shift.

He shows Neutra houses cast as the protagonists’ homes in The Anniversary Party (2001) and Laurel Canyon (2002).

His point being: If he were to do the documentary now, he might have something different to say, since there seems to have been a shift, but there are still plenty of newer examples of villains living in Modernist houses. He concludes this point with clips from The Glass House (2001), Hostage (2005), and Fracture (2007), but he calls these Modernist mansions, and doesn’t have too much of a problem with villains living in them. It’s the middle class constructions of Lautner, Schindler and Neutra that he’s more defensive of, though admittedly these houses are no longer middle class.

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