This is the third documentary I’ve seen by Thom Andersen, and the first not about the architecture of his hometown Los Angeles. The last one I saw was here at VIFF a couple years ago, a shortish look at billboards around town with a spinning radio dial soundtrack called Get Out of the Car, the first was the magisterial Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the depictions of the city through the years in Hollywood films, a slyly witty examination of how film transforms, misrepresents, ignores, violates and masks the city he loves. But this year, Andersen has traveled halfway around the world to examine the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto Moura, who mainly works in the north of the country, in and around the city of Porto.
Unlike Andersen’s other films, this is structured more like a traditional documentary, as he looks at various buildings, one after the other and describes what he thinks is interesting about them, the theory behind them and the artistry that went into their construction or conception. More than once the project never manages to get built as planned: architectural art, though it is necessarily the largest, most monumental art form, may be more ephemeral than any other: more difficult to make than a movie, easier to compromise and harder to maintain in its original state. It’s this last sense that interests Souto Moura and Andersen most: Souto Moura’s most distinctive trait as an architect has to do with his attitude toward ruins: he likes to “reconvert” them into functional spaces (walls especially, Andersen and Souto Moura both lavishly praise the granite walls of Northern Portugal). The film is full of their ruminations on the meaning of ruins, I noted a few quotes, forgive me if the wordings aren’t exact:
“The ruin ceases to be architecture and becomes nature.”
“The city is functional when its objects survive to take on functions beyond that which they were designed for.”
“Ruins are like animals: they move, they resist.”
This is explicitly a rejection of the Romantic idealization of ruins: it’s not about reveling in the glory of the past, or the beautiful decay of all things, Souto Moura finds this attitude itself decadent. His art is about making the past a fundamental, functional part of the present. It’s not hard to see why an Angeleno, a man from a city the most notorious trait of which is that it is almost utterly without a visible past, would be fascinated by the idea.
The most unusual element of the film is its photographic technique, frequently using a series of still frames, shot once or twice per second and then animated, looking like film projected at a single frame per second (or two seconds) rather than the normal film speed of 24 frames per second. According to the VIFF program notes, this results in a higher resolution image. I don’t really know how that’s supposed to work, I mostly just found the technique distracting.