Film shows path for Christian art

  • September 18, 2007

The 2007 Toronto International Film Festival was a huge, happy party from start to finish. It was a mix of gala screenings, sightings of Brad and Angelina, stylish cocktail parties and non-stop schmoozing and gossiping by people in the movie industry. It was one of those events that makes you feel good about our town, and about our moxie when it comes to hosting big cultural conclaves.

Along with much twittering and chatter, however, the festival also struck a deeper, richer note from time to time. One such moment for me was German director Heinz Emigholz’s film Schindler’s Houses.

In this spare, beautifully made work, Emigholz documents 40 houses and other projects by the Austrian-born architect Rudolph Schindler, a pioneer Modernist active in the Los Angeles area from the 1920s to the early 1950s. The form of the film is very simple. Apart from a brief introduction, it consists entirely of short shots of Schindler’s exteriors and interiors, compiled into a quick-paced sequence of images. The movie camera is always static, sparing us the pseudo-dramatic zooms and pans common in architectural documentaries.

Nor is there any voice-over: Instead of providing a running commentary, the soundtrack merely reproduces the ambient background noises of Los Angeles at the time of filming — traffic, police sirens, phones ringing. Unlike conventional architectural photographers, Emigholz makes no attempt to glamourize the building under scrutiny: Some of Schindler’s houses are dilapidated from long neglect, and Emigholz’s camera reveals them to be the weather-worn things they are. Many of the architect’s projects are now crowded by newer construction, and that fact is also faithfully noted.

The result is a work that allows, as the director intends, Schindler’s architecture to speak for itself, to tell its own story without being drowned out by the cacophony of criticism and controversy that has evolved on its margins.

That story is wonderfully interesting. Schindler came to  Los Angeles in the early 1920s to supervise the building of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Hollyhock House — he was working for Wright at the time — and he stayed on there to establish an independent practice. Residential commissions soon came flowing in, all from enlightened clients taken by Schindler’s stylishly daring Modernism.

As Emigholz’s film reminds us, the houses Schindler created for such customers are small, superb embodiments of the best design ideas abroad in America’s Modern Movement in architecture. They include strong solid geometry, an emphasis on elegant simplicity and clear spatial flow and the use of large glass surfaces to open interiors to sunshine. These notions later declined into clichés of Modern residential design everywhere. But Schindler’s houses are embodiments of such ideas when they were young and vital.

In addition to rekindling my appreciation for Schindler’s architecture, however, this masterful film also set my mind to work again on a question that has long interested me: Is there any contemporary art that suggests what a uniquely Christian artistic practice might look like? The answer is yes — Emigholz’s filmmaking is an example of such art.

There’s no religious imagery in what the director documents, of course. And if he has religious beliefs, I don’t know them.

But never mind: His art itself proposes a creative relationship with the world that is eminently compatible with the Christian ideal of the person in a state of grace and peace. This art is deeply respectful of what it depicts, never invading or disfiguring the topic to score a propaganda point. This manner of filmmaking carefully abstains from manipulating the viewer, opting instead to allow its subject to appear as exactly what it is, warts and all. No sentimentality intrudes on the director’s gradual revelation of Schindler’s beautiful work, and mercifully, Emigholz has strictly excluded any show of artistic ego or wilfulness.

This is an art of great freedom and mercy, and every contemporary artist and writer, every person, has much to learn from it about a right relation with things we have inherited from the past.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)

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