Category Archives: film

Images of Dying and Dead Children

This piece is too heavily indebted to Susan Sontag, but then it’s almost impossible when you write about photography and atrocity not to end up parroting Sontag. No matter how far you think you’ve moved your argument away from the lucid clarity of Sontag’s observations, you end up right back at the beginning, with the alpha and omega of Sontag’s On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others. I thought of writing the piece in the first person, so I could say one thing: That never have we so desperately needed the clarity of Sontag’s thought as now. Because, as I argue in today’s Outlook section:

We have arrived at a double crisis: a dissolution of agreement about what is civilized behavior and a dissolution of faith in the meaning of images — a crisis of politics and a crisis of representation. Given how closely photography and video have been linked to defining those international norms, this is a frightening moment.

This is not a piece about going to war in Syria.

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At the Aspen Ideas Festival

Last week, I spent two and a half very pleasant days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual meeting of intellectual leaders from around the planet, with a focus this year on China. I moderated two panels, one on telling stories through film, another on re-imagining public space. I wrote up a few thoughts  I brought home from my time there at the Post’s The Style Blog.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture, Documentary, film, Museums, urban design

Opera and “Der Blaue Engel”

Joseph von Sternberg’s “Der Blaue Engel” is generally acknowledged the first great German sound film, and no surprise then that it is remembered primarily as a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, who sings up a storm of desire and despair. But while the film made Dietrich a star, the real genius of the film is Emil Jannings, as the bourgeois professor Rath who is seduced into Lola Lola’s lair at the cost of all his middle-class, fatuous respectability. And it is the music associated with Rath that makes this film impressive as an early (and amazingly confident) exploration of the power of sound in film.

Of course, Sternberg borrows heavily from precedents. Visually, the film is almost old-fashioned in its devotion to expressionist design. Its narrative is taken from Heinrich Mann, who in turn borrowed from a long line of stories about the downfall of respectable people. The tone of the film, the emotional extremity of Rath’s humiliation and jealousy, will seem operatic to most viewers, and recall very specific operas to opera lovers, especially “Pagliacci” (and the whole superheated, degenerate milieu of the verismo tradition).

The film’s score, and a musical clock which chimes the hours, associates a song, “Ub’ immer Treu und Redlichkeit,” based on a ballad by Ludwig Christoph Holty with the character of Professor Rath. Curiously, Siegfried Kracauer notes the song in his discussion of the film in “From Caligari to Hitler,” calling it “a popular German tune devote to the praise of loyalty and honesty–a tune expressive of Jannings’ inherited beliefs.”

But Kracauer fails to note the most important thing: That the song appears as Papageno’s “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The reference to Mozart’s famous bird catcher helps explain why the film opens with Rath calling to his bird, why birds flutter about as the musical clock intones the melody, and it gives extra force to the screenplay’s harrowing use of bird imagery–at his nadir, Rath appears on stage dressed as a clown, crowing like a cock.

“The Magic Flute” is, among other things, a tale of two marriages, a high-class marriage of a prince to a well-born young woman, and a lower-class marriage of Papageno to his perfect soul mate, Papagena. The bird catcher and his gal are mostly a comic foil to the tale of trial and tribulation faced by Tamino, the high-born hero. The reference to Mozart’s beloved comic character underscores what is often forgotten about “Der Blaue Engel”–its substantial comic element. Mozart adds irony.

It is a stunning film, so much more interesting and complex than the posters of Dietrich suggest. And it’s fascinating to see how much opera offered a template for thinking about music in this earliest of German talkie masterpieces.

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War in Lebanon, and a museum in Qatar

Catching up on a few recent Washington Post stories.  Last Sunday I wrote about a new exhibition of art from Lebanon, art which is sadly but understandably preoccupied with war, sectarian division and the political future of one of the world’s most beautiful and volatile countries. I also took on a new documentary about I.M. Pei and the museum he designed for Islamic Art in Qatar. It may be his late great masterpiece. But how can a respectable film festival screen a film that was commissioned by the subject of the film? If I’m interested in one thing when writing about documentary, it’s the contract of trust–or lack of one–between film makers and the public.

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Filed under Architecture, Art, Culture, Documentary, film, Museums, Uncategorized

Detroit on PBS

For a few months shy of a year, I called Detroit home in 1995. I loved the city and the people I met there. I loved its architecture and its sadness, its empty streets and surreal highways. It was an endless phantasmagoria, and I barely scratched the surface of its richness. Detroit is the jumping off point for a PBS documentary, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, that looks into the public transit mess that afflicts so much of the United States. I reviewed the film in today’s Post.

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Watching Latrobe

WETA will premiere a new documentary about the great, but often neglected architect Benjamin Latrobe, tomorrow evening. I wrote about Latrobe’s masterpiece, the Baltimore Basilica, after it was renovated in 2006. The film is a good primer on what the producers call “America’s First Architect.”

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Visual Acoustics

The title, which I don’t much like, strikes me as one of those clever mixing of ideas and media that doesn’t yield anything meaningful. But the film Visual Acoustics is great fun for people who love architecture, especially those who already know the huge role that photographer Julius Shulman played in promoting the mid-century modern architecture that defined an era and an ethos. I reviewed it in Friday’s Post.

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