A cursory description of the architecture films of the German avant-garde filmmaker Heinz Emigholz can make them sound like filmed coffee-table books. In each, the M.O. is identical: Multiple buildings by a given architect are filmed by Emigholz from outside and inside, from various angles and distances, then arranged chronologically by year of construction and separated by individual title cards. But while Emigholz’s camera rarely moves, his shots are far from static. There are subtle shifts in the light and the weather, the occasional human figure may be glimpsed passing through, while on the soundtracks (which benefit from preternaturally clear audio recording), we may hear birds chirping, a stream gurgling in the distance, or a car driving by — and I’ve yet to see a coffee-table book that could do all of that. No wonder Emigholz has grouped these indelibly cinematic films together under the umbrella heading, “Photography and Beyond.”
Regular readers of these pages will be no strangers to Emigholz’s name, though they will almost certainly be strangers to his films, despite the fact that he has worked often in America, and Los Angeles in particular. I first encountered (and wrote about) Emigholz’s work at the 2004 edition of the Buenos Aires Film Festival, where he was premiering the documentary Goff in the Desert, about Kansas-born architect Bruce Goff (whose only extant public building is the Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and I have since written about Emigholz whenever the occasion has permitted. But excepting a one-off screening of Emigholz’s 2007 film Schindler’s Houses (about the emigré Viennese architect Rudolph M. Schindler) last fall at the Los Angeles Goethe-Institut — shown, against Emigholz’s wishes, from an inferior DVD copy rather than a proper 35 mm print — Buenos Aires is about as close as any of his films have gotten to L.A. city limits. Fortunately, that’s about to change, thanks to a weeklong Emigholz retrospective that represents the unprecedented collaboration of five local film and arts organizations: Los Angeles Filmforum, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, LACMA, REDCAT and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. In addition to Goff in the Desert (which will screen, fittingly, at LACMA on Thursday, April 10) and Schindler’s Houses (in 35 mm), the series also includes the Los Angeles premiere of Emigholz’s latest film, Loos Ornamental,featuring works by the Austrian master of spatial partitioning, Adolf Loos.
In Schindler’s Houses, which was filmed entirely on location in Southern California, Emigholz focuses on single-family residences in neighborhoods such as Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Glendale and Pasadena, made famous by Schindler’s pioneering integrations of exterior and interior space. But he also finds room in the 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 opening image, in fact, is of the familiar West Hollywood intersection of Palm and Holloway: Somewhere in the frame, a narrator explains, is a house by Schindler, but to attempt to separate the building from its surroundings (which include the Sunset Towers office complex and several garish billboards) would be pointless, even “criminal.” Indeed, Emigholz does more than just film buildings: He immerses you in entire social and architectural environments — a structure as it relates to its surroundings, and those surroundings as they relate to the larger city beyond.
Aside from his general ordering principle, there is no obvious pattern to Emigholz’s approach. Some structures he offers only a cursory glance at; others he seems to commune with, lingering lovingly over their every nook and cranny. (Something, it’s worth noting, he’s been doing more and more of: In roughly the same running time, he manages to feature 62 buildings by Goff, 40 by Schindler and a mere 27 by Loos.) But wherever — or for however long — Emigholz shoots, he conveys an enveloping sense of place. That is as true of the Goff, Schindler and Loos films, all of which are feature length, as it is of the two medium-length films — Sullivan’s Banks (2000) and Maillart’s Bridges (2001) — in which Emigholz first deployed his now-signature style.
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The first, as its title suggests, is a portrait of the bank buildings designed by Louis Henry Sullivan, which tower over their flat, Midwestern landscapes like eternal, red-brick sentries, many of them decked out in stained glass and religious iconography that would hardly look out of place in a cathedral — a not-accidental reminder of the historical entanglement of money and religion. Maillart’s Bridges focuses on the bridges (in the literal sense, which also includes warehouse floors and aqueducts) engineered by Switzerland’s Robert Maillart, and it may be Emigholz’s most idiosyncratic work in that it shows its subjects almost exclusively from the perspective we would be least likely to see if we were walking or driving over them: from underneath, where the ingenuity of their construction — the thunderous legs and gravity-defying mushroom slabs — can be witnessed to greatest effect.
The beauty of Emigholz’s films, I think, is that they are about as little or as much as you want them to be, or as you’re willing to bring to them. They are not films for the passive spectator. If you want to see them as mere architectural surveys, then that’s what they are. Or you may find that Sullivan’s Banks is something close to a heist picture, in which Emigholz cases each joint like a cat burglar before he moves in for luridly voyeuristic shots of bank employees and customers, all of whom seem unaware that they’re being filmed. And what would Schindler’s Houses — or any movie about L.A. — be without its own deft nods toward the cottage industry of Hollywood?
Concurrent to all of this, Emigholz has worked on another multipart project that falls under the “Photography and Beyond” umbrella. It is called The Basis of Make-Up, and, despite its title, it is not a training video for L’Oréal employees, but rather a series of short films consisting of filmed pages from Emigholz’s diaries and sketch books, as well as footage from his installations. Onscreen, the material flits by so fast that it is impossible to grasp it all on one or even multiple viewings: reams of microscopic text; clippings of print advertisements for tableware, footwear, furniture and military surplus; bits of homoerotica; an autographed copy of Philip K. Dick’s Valis; an original lithograph of three headless rabbits crying; another of a man trapped inside a cage of bones. Somewhere in those cryptic, fascinating pages lies the makeup of a major artist who is, at long last, getting the major survey he deserves.
HEINZ EMIGHOLZ | Los Angeles Filmforum, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, REDCAT and UCLA Film & Television Archive | Through Sun., April 13 | For complete details, visit www.lafilmforum.wordpress.com, www.makcenter.org, www.lacma.org, www.redcat.org and www.cinema.ucla.edu