By Robert Koehler

I came to BAFICI with many expectations, including what may be turning out to be a hope-against-hope of seeing at least a handful of good Argentine films. (More on that, most likely, tomorrow.) There was the additional expectation of catching up with some interesting titles from Rotterdam; again, the jury’s out, but if Vignatti’s La Marea (to name one–Pia Marais’ befuddled Tiger-winning The Unpolished is another) is everyone’s idea of a good Rotterdam film, then we’re all in trouble.

You don’t get what you want, but maybe what you need. The last thing I expected in BAFICI was to see the most authentic and direct depiction on film of what it is to actually live in Los Angeles. As usual when it comes to art and observation about my city, it comes from an outsider: German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz, whose past work includes a study of architect Bruce Goff (Goff in the Desert in 2003), who built the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA, and the previous Photography and Beyond. Emigholz’ Schindler’s Houses–Photography and Beyond, Part 12, continues that 2001 film’s project, but also marries it with the Goff project.

In May of last year, Emigholz filmed 40 buildings by Austrian architect Rudolph Schindler from 1931-1952, most of them (like his contemporary and fellow exile Richard Neutra) private residences in the Los Angeles area, particularly in Silver Lake, Echo Park, the Hollywood Hills and Studio City. The film’s subtitle screws with those rather stupid critics whom, according to my colleague Mark Peranson (who saw it in the Berlin festival and devoted lavish space to it in his Berlin-Sundance overview essay in the current issue of Cinema Scope), dismissed Schindler’s Houses as photography. They must have missed the “beyond” part in the subtitle, because Emigholz’ entire point is to begin from the point of portraying Schindler’s buildings as if we were watching a still photograph; his camera is absolutely still and, characteristically–except for the hilariously droll opening shot with the filmmaker offering some comments–only natural sound is permitted (though refined slightly through editing) on the soundtrack. He then holds the shot just long enough for a kind of micro-longeur, enough time to allow for the visible flicker of tree leaves in the breeze, or a dappled shadow to stir, or the rare car to roll past. He doesn’t position his camera in such a way to match the professional architectural photographer’s standard for absolute objectivity and straight, right-angle alignment. Rather, Emigholz will tilt his camera to and fro, as if in sympathy with the steep slope of the land on which the home sits (many are built into the sides of the hills, either above the Silver Lake reservoir, or some perched above Coldwater or Laurel Canyon, or just above Ventura, others near Sunset).

He then cuts, in a varying, faintly unpredictable but undeniable rhythm, from one shot of a given building to another, sometimes building great drama by moving closer and closer to the front door, and then finally entering (sometimes involving a cut from an exterior shot of a closed, potentially forbidding front door to an interior reverse angle shot of the same door, now amusingly open). He continues cutting, as he explores every nook and cranny of many of the interiors, pondering the custom-built dark-wood fixtures, tables, and seats that Schindler favored (including a sweet American trope involving several cases of naugahyde coffee shop-style breakfast nooks). Even better, Emigholz never seems to miss a house’s best angles, such as the most interesting positions of windows strategically placed to capture a maximum of outdoor light and landscape exposures. He’s like a roving, ever-curious animal, prowling around the house not in steady forward motion but in a montage of moments and angles as he makes progress from the outside in.

Emigholz explained after the screening that each building’s natural sound was recorded and then edited for a consistent sequence of sound. That the sound is dominated by birds and the ruffling of trees apparently throws some non-Angeleno viewers into a state of denial that they’re even watching Los Angeles at all. But, as anyone who has truly lived in the city and closely watches the film will attest, Schindler’s Houses is arguably the first film to ever grasp the essence and feeling of what it is to live at home in Los Angeles, where birds and trees and sun and breeze are far more ever-present than the movies that “play Los Angeles” (after Thom Andersen) would ever allow, and would ever permit the viewer to imagine. Andersen, incidentally, appears in one shot, sitting in near foreground at a desk in a study, and the insertion appears quite pointed to underline that the movies can lie to an outrageous extent, and turn a known place (like Los Angeles) into an unrecognizable monstrosity; the movies, as with Emigholz, can also tell the truth.

(Day 7 entry.)

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