Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Spatial Alienation of the Soloist

Warning: I'm going on one of my tangent trips into the meanings of various artform not unlike what I did with Maynard James Keenan aka Puscifer's song Indigo Children, with the hope of deconstructing and translating the meta-narrative told through sound, word, or semiotics as it relates to our urban or cultural condition.

In this case, I'll be looking at the movie The Soloist, which I watched for the first time recently and through the magic of screen capture will be using various imagery the director utilitized as essentially his screen wipes between acts; telling his metanarrative. Hopefully this should provide some insight as well (if you are at all interested) in how I typically watch movies, as the best ones crafted by the most talented directors (at least IMO) are rarely about the details of the movie. Rather, these details (what populates the screen and the script 99% of the time) are really helping to tell the bigger story.

This post will intermittently post the screen shots as captured in order the film presents them.

In the case of The Soloist, starring Terrell, TX's own Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr and directed by Joe Wright, on the surface is about a paranoid schizophrenic AND Juilliard dropout and the real life LA Times columnist who wrote about him. At this level, we see that it is about homelessness, race, class, and music. At first, we assume the "soloist" is the musician. Later, we begin to realize that he who is solo also represents a larger and larger segment of the community, to the point that we begin to see ourselves, as portrayed by our cities, as isolated by our own creations.

Early on in the film, the director sets the stage showing our own constructs as agents of disconnection, of social alienation. Yes, Nathaniel Ayers (the homeless cellist) is disconnected and alienated from society, but he is not looking for social connectivity. He is portrayed as the type of savant that only has (or wants) his connection to his music, and Beethoven.

Because the eye of the camera is always following the columnist, Steve Lopez, we, as the audience, become one with him, and in turn, it is really about us.

Throughout the movie, he (and us) slowly form a bond with another person, a charming, talented, yet occasionally scary fellow. We see a giant scar or gash (as I've often called freeways), which he receives from direct contact with a street, ironically named Riverside Drive slowly heal on his face throughout the film.

Periodically, we see the connection his music forms between performer and audience, weaving the parallel story between performer and audience in the story, as well as inserting us, the audience into this narrative. Music in this case acts as merely one of the many agents of connectivity between people, breaking barriers of race, class, etc. as something being above human differences.

Even in the movie, we wipes convey this message as we see Katrina victims on rooftops, which as the camera pulls back, we see is actually on a screen of an elderly woman's TV as she reads the first article Lopez writes about Ayers. The connection between performers in this case, unfortunately, Katrina victims, and audience, television viewers. Furthermore, in this short scene there are more connections between performers and audience: performer:the writer and audience:the elderly woman reading the papern as well as performer:elderly woman donating her cello and audience:us witnessing the act.

It should also be noted that the director is from London, not LA. A critical point when comparing cities and the comparisons of the two. London, as the far more mature and connected city, whereas LA provides the perfect landscape for illustrating the differences between haves/have nots, the metabolism and inhumanity of the way it churns through talent/people, and the physical nature of the city as we have constructed it, which has had the unintended consequence of further alienating and disconnecting.

The director uses shots from LA to remind us where we are, but also who we are, and the alienating devices between us.

The traditional pattern of urban structure constituted by streets was swept away by a brave new system of vehicular highways separate from buildings and public spaces....as the car and the modern highway took a grip on urban design, city form underwent perhaps its most dramatic transformation in thousands of years.

This is the resultant urbanity...more like deserts, inhabitable:

As Bill Hillier discusses, when designs or constructs affecting urbanity and human interactions adhere strictly and solely to ideology and theory on how things should be, this equates to experimentation. And the thing about experimentation, with zero grounding in empirical form, is that it can be wrong.

This is what I mean when I theorize about the evolution of design and its two possible courses: it either happens slowly and gradually as necessitated by changing circumstances without ever fully disconnecting itself from its previous iterations, which are always always in some way referenced yet adapted to new needs and wants following something similar to Maslow's hierarchy of human needs.

Or, it responds as a completely altered organism due to cataclysmic events. One could say it was the car, but I believe it goes deeper than that. The car was simply an agent. Something deeper was what made the car ubiquitous and attainable for all. No, not debt. Well, sort of...but, what I'm really referring to is industrialism, which eventually led to the assembly line.

It's not hard to see how Le Corbusier, et al, would see these advancements as a positive, as closer steps towards democracy, equality - the printing press brought information to all. The assembly line created the Model T, and its offspring promising universal mobility, allowing all to escape the squalor of, ironically and not coincidentally, the polluted industrial city and its own forms of rampant inequality.

Attaching architectural theory to these progresses seemed like a great idea, certainly at least marketing-wise, which is presumably why they took hold. Democracy always makes for a good sound bite. Jefferson did it with the DC grid, and his personal style referencing Ancient Greeks and Romans through his personal architectural style for their influence on his creation, the American Democratic Republic.

However, these connections are tenuous at best. The modernist movement led by corbu, looked nothing like Jefferson's neo-classical works. Yet both claimed to be the physical embodiment of democracy.

Furthermore, the modernists had a perfect foil for their ideological marketing campaign, the fascists. Hitler was busy planning super cities with classicist architect Albert Speer, while Mussolini was plowing streets through Rome and constructing new buildings with neo-classical forms, yet modernist styling as we know fascist architecture today.

Unfortunately for us, Corbu had a pretty good case when you paint fascists as bad guys. So his line of thinking, of disconnecting, of streamlining the world, in the mold of a machine was the perfect city in this hallucinated utopian vision.

However, this also meant tearing up cities for new highways. Because we had to make room for everybody's new Model T.

The lesson here is that there is nothing democratic about one style of architecture or the other. There is a question of what works and what doesn't, as defined by what the inhabitants find useful. This is called the test of time.

Functioning cities are messy places. They are only moderately controlled, or "nudged", by configuring buildings to frame the public realm and focus the movement within cities, as Hillier suggests, the space is the machine, not the building.

My personal favorite screen shot sequence. The above image shows Ayers and Lopez pushing Ayers' shopping cart up the hill. As the camera pans up, we freeze frame on the image below, with perfect horizontal lines illustrating the disconnect between worlds; the intended separation and isolation of modern American cities, afraid of functional urban messiness.
"Get off my lawn!"

what modern road planning, as well as 20th century architecture and the real estate industry it dutifully served, did was to alter the fundamental relationship between public space and buildings. This is not merely a swan song, but a lesson in creating value. Cities are humanities greatest creations and before our very own eyes are the agents of their destruction.

The cities we look at today as successful, wonderfully livable places have what Hillier deems "regularity" - or predictable patterns that always add something to the collective synergies of functioning urban places.

Modernism not only broke this relationship between movement and urban place: it reversed it. It, as an ideology ignored convergence. The modern city is the anti-city. As Hillier states, it is not merely the symptom of social decay but the catalyst.

The end result is the socio-economic isolation that we see in the modern city, LA (and its little brother, Dallas).

But, back to the movie...towards the end, we are drawn across the American landscape, as if to portray it all...

Until we are shown where the majority of Americans live, bringing the story home.