If You Build It, They Will Come

The house that Schindler built: Rodgriguez House (1942), Glendale (Courtesy Amour Fou)

Writing in these pages three years ago, I described the odd sensation of traveling halfway around the world, from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, only to sit down in a movie theater and see projected on the screen the image of a building located within spitting distance of my Miracle Mile apartment. The building was the Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the movie, Goff in the Desert, was a documentary about its architect, Bruce Goff, made by the German experimental filmmaker Heinz Emigholz, whose films were the subject of a retrospective at that year’s Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. Last month, Emigholz returned to the BAFICI — as did I — with a new film that bears an even stronger connection to our fair city, though when, if ever, Angelenos will have a chance to see it is anybody’s guess. More on that in a minute.

Titled Schindler’s Houses, Emigholz’s latest film gives us exactly that: a selection of buildings designed by the Viennese architect Rudolph M. Schindler, who came to Los Angeles in 1920 and did his most important work here. These “houses” are mostly single-family residences located in neighborhoods like Silver Lake and Los Feliz and made famous by Schindler’s pioneering integrations of exterior and interior space. Still, Emigholz also finds room in his film for the odd Schindler-built house of worship (South-Central’s Bethlehem Baptist Church) and of commerce (the Coldwater Curve shopping center in Studio City). The film’s opening image, in fact, is of the familiar West Hollywood intersection of Palm and Holloway as it appeared at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning in May of last year. Somewhere in the frame, a narrator explains — the only time voice-over appears in the film — is a house by Schindler, but to attempt to separate the building from its surroundings (which include the Sunset Towers office complex and garish billboards for Target and the animated movie Over the Hedge) would be pointless, even “criminal.”

Fortunately, that very crime is one Emigholz goes on to commit some 40 times over the course of Schindler’s Houses, as he prowls the Southland from top to bottom, casting his lens upon Schindler-built dwellings as far afield as Pasadena, Glendale and the South Bay. As in the Goff film, each new location is introduced by a title card, followed by several stationary shots of the building as seen from different angles and distances. Some will call those shots “still” or even “static,” though, in fact, they are anything but, for if one looks closely in Schindler’s Houses, one will find that the light is forever shifting, a gentle breeze may sometimes be glimpsed blowing through an open doorway, and, here and there, a fireplace can be seen crackling in the distance — a charming notion, really, given that this is L.A. and Emigholz was shooting in late spring. The buildings are presented chronologically according to the year of their construction, but beyond that, there is no obvious pattern to Emigholz’s approach: Some houses he offers only a cursory glance at; others he seems to commune with, lingering over their every nook and cranny. Finally, one is left with the feeling that each of these buildings harbors its own unique physicality and disposition, and that Emigholz has captured it, along with his own reaction to it.

Somewhat surprisingly, a few human figures also pass fleetingly through Emigholz’s frames: a resident typing away at his computer in one house, his face obscured by the screen; a painter making repairs at Silver Lake’s Bubeshko apartments; and, seated at his writing desk in his own Schindler-renovated abode, the filmmaker Thom Andersen (the closest Emigholz comes to having a bona fide celebrity cameo), whose essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself was criticized by some for failing to include Schindler in its extended discussion of the relationship between Los Angeles architecture and Hollywood movies. I would happily rank Schindler’s Houses alongside Andersen’s film, Michael Mann’s Heat and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep on the short list of essential modern movies about our city’s physical and social geography, but as of this writing, there’s no guarantee that anyone in Los Angeles will have a chance to watch it, at least not anytime soon. Three years on — and despite its own L.A. connection — Goff in the Desert remains unseen in these parts, and Emigholz himself has told me that none of our local screening organizations have approached him about showing it. And it’s a safe bet that the organizers of this month’s Silver Lake Film Festival — which, ironically, includes in its program a panel discussion about architecture and cinema — haven’t even heard of Emigholz’s new film, no matter that much of it was shot right in their own backyard.

This sort of dilemma serves as an instructive reminder that, for all the good that has been accomplished in Los Angeles film culture in the not-too-distant past — from the American Cinematheque’s acquisition of two permanent screening venues to the great strides made by the Los Angeles Film Festival under its new directors — there is still much unfinished work. So, it was oddly fitting that, as the BAFICI wound to a close, I first learned that Nancy Collet, the programming director of our most beleaguered local film event — the American Film Institute’s annual AFI Fest — had decided to vacate her post to “pursue other career opportunities.” Often, such announcements are attended by outpourings of well-wishing and fond remembrances, and to be sure, Collet earned her share, including the obligatory “We’re going to miss her” from AFI Fest director Christian Gaines (as quoted in a March 21 indieWIRE report). But as regular readers of these pages will know, Collet and I were never exactly fond of each other’s work, and while I certainly don’t wish her ill in her future endeavors (no matter that she herself once publicly threatened to use a weapon against me), it is my hope that the road leading away from AFI Fest takes her far from the film-festival circuit.

During Collet’s tenure, I always tried to be as constructive as possible in my assessment of AFI Fest’s annual lineup. Now that she is gone, I will be a bit more blunt: Under Collet, the AFI Fest program was rarely more than an embarrassment — the dubious achievement of someone with either unaccountably poor taste in cinema or such a low opinion of her audience as to categorically deny them access to the most compelling and innovative visions in world cinema. By that, I do not mean the smattering of gala Hollywood premieres and other glamour-heavy events that, for better or worse, always have been and always will be a part of the AFI Fest mandate. Rather, I refer to the Asian, European, Latin American and American independent films that constitute the bulk of the festival’s program, and where Collet’s shortcomings were most painfully evident. My intention in regurgitating all of this now is not to dwell upon the sins of the past, but to point the way toward a brighter future. Like Schindler’s houses — which, at the time they were new, were modestly priced residences the average consumer could afford — a great film festival can at once be completely accessible to the masses and an objet d’art. As AFI Fest prepares to enter its third decade, the festival organizers find themselves sitting on an extraordinary opportunity for reassessment and renovation. Here’s hoping they make the most of it.

Click here to read Su Casa Es Mi Casa Familiar spaces — and faces — at the Buenos Aires Film Festival by Scott Foundas from May 6, 2004

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