Moving Spaces

Production design for Mon Oncle (1958)

Occasionally, I’ll check out the revolving exhibitions at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences here in Los Angeles, which often amount to a one-room setup on their fourth floor. Invariably, I’m the only person around whenever I attend, but the exhibitions do tend to run for weeks. So I visited their current exhibition, “Moving Spaces: Production Design + Film,” this weekend with modest expectations–which were wonderfully surpassed. The expo was originally curated by the Berlin Filmmuseum, whose official website is a treasure trove of information. (Including 48 pages of illustrated, free PDFs.)

The exhibition is divided up into five categories that highlight the work of a couple dozen production designers; the films are represented by sketches, designs, photographs, video clips, and scale models. (Particularly impressive on the cinephile geek scale is Andrei Tarkovsky’s miniature replica–#3–of the house used in The Sacrifice.)

“Spaces of Power” highlights the paradoxical elements of isolation and exposure relished by meglomaniacs; the skyscraper office of Metropolis‘s dictator, or the cave-like, world-monitoring depicted in Dr. Strangelove’s war room. (“Demonic meglomaniacs, Machiavellian extremists, and all of them with a doctorate,” the witty exhibition copy reads. “Dr. No, Dr. Mabuse, Dr. Caligari. But there is more: Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Evil, Dr. Otto Octavius or Dr. Fu-Man-Chu–although the latter only got his title from German distributors.”)

“Private Spaces” explains how interior sets reveal the personalities of their inhabitants. Jacques Lagrange not only designed Tati’s films for more than three decades, but also co-wrote them, and his conception of the modernist nightmare, Villa Arpel, in Mon Oncle (seen above) is a perfect example: every single element of the house is representational rather than functional, conceived as an environment completely hostile to visitors. From impossible-to-sit-on furniture to a miniature stove shoved into a corner that also houses a miniature clothes dryer, every facet of Villa Arpel emphasizes trendy aesthetics over comfort.

“Labyrinths” highlights films where the bewildered perspective of their protagonists are captured through fluid tracking shots and unending spaces–the elaborate mansions of Last Year at Marienbad and The Shining, or the intricately cluttered passageways in Alien. Though Resnais’ film is the archetype here, it’s telling how much Kubrick and Scott’s films rely on then-newly developed steadicam technology to envelop the viewer in long, limitless spaces.

Public spaces such as streets, arcades, department stores, trains, and airports prove especially difficult locations to shoot in, so “Transit Spaces” identifies sets for characters in physical transition. From Ufa’s gargantuan street sets (such as those seen in Joe May’s Asphault) to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, public spaces are often functional backdrops for narrative, but crucial and carefully-designed studio arenas used to intensify themes. As Peter M‰ns writes, “In the first part of Playtime, the actors move in straight lines or at right angles, while in the second anarchical part–for example in the chaotic, boozy restaurant Royal Garden–they tend to move in circles.”

Finally, “Stage” sets recreate theatre on film, portraying exterior scenes through interior spaces (Resnais’ twin films Smoking and No Smoking), or interior scenes revealed through exterior spaces (Von Trier’s Dogville). “Peter Grant’s designs do not count on the image of American small towns familiar to us from innumerable films,” Gerhard Middling writes. “The bareness of the stage becomes an imposed element in the characters’ lives. It frustrates their secretiveness, their strategies of suppression and concealment, bringing to light what has not been admitted.”

Judging from the photos at the Filmmuseum website, the AMPAS exhibit is a reduced portion of the full program, but even in its truncated state, it offers a rich overview of film design. Invariably, each category provokes more examples than one exhibit could possibly handle (where are Polanski’s private spaces or Perceval‘s theatrical design?), but there is more than enough here to provoke and fascinate. The AMPAS exhibition ends April 16.

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