Film Review: ‘City Visions’ #6

the_airstrip3Matthew Bloomfield | 7 January 2015

The Airstrip: Decampment of Modernism, Part III. Dir. Heinz Emigholz, 2014

Heinz Emigholz’s ongoing meditation on architecture continues in this feature length piece, composed around the metaphor of a falling bomb. Between the time that the bomb is released and the time that it explodes, there exists a duality where the target remains intact but is doomed to destruction. What the audience could expect then, from this introductory narration and from the subtitle of the film, is an investigation into the evolution of architecture away from the certainty of modernism. Perhaps exhibiting key works that show the shift from one style to another, frozen in built form, perpetually stuck in the limbo between the fall of one philosophy and the landing of another.

As such, this is all set up to be a very interesting film; a complex undertaking weaving together a narrative of iconic and unknown buildings from around the world. What Emigholz actually made, however, was an hour and 48 minutes of formulaic and mundane imagery. At the screening I attended, at least 20 people walked out during, leaving what had been a half full cinema looking decidedly forlorn.

Emigholz, who trained first as a draftsman before studying philosophy and literature, has prescribed for himself the same template that he has used on several other features and shorts. It is incredibly simple. A static camera shoots a scene, typically a building interior or exterior. This shot is edited together with others of the same scene, making a glorified slideshow of five second shots documenting a building. This scene will then be followed by another which documents a different, supposedly thematically connected building.

Minimal narration accompanies ambient sound recordings. At times these noises are incredibly immersive, the roar of thunder above a tropical football stadium or the drone of traffic either side of Luis Barragan’s Torres de Satélite. For the most part though, the sound is poor, just the white noise of microphone static, wind and distant cars.

At one point the narrator, who reads Emigholz’s own words, decries the use of music in documentary in an outburst which appears to be entirely off-topic to the film. The following scene then depicts travellers passing through an airport with surreally imposed images of meat amongst them, all set to music with apparently ironic intention.

When approaching the closest thing the film has to a climax, a soundtrack is used once again, but seemingly with no awareness that the director is breaking his own rules. This passage is actually one of the most engaging in the film. While it is true that only using diegetic sound can lend an authenticity to footage, it is vain to do so if it is at the expense of the attention of your audience.

Given this production belongs to a series which Emigholz refers to as ‘Photography and Beyond’, the title forces us to ask ourselves about the way in which the film exceeds photography. Unfortunately the answers are not forthcoming.

Photography, as a discipline, has an assurance to it.  The photographer chooses just a few images with which to convey their intentions. This conviction lends credence to their work and is made all the more convincing for the expertise with which an image is composed, focussed and exposed. The Airstrip lacks in these qualitative measures. Emigholz’s images are not particularly well shot, the focus is broad and static which is not how the human eye sees things. The images are washed out with no drama in them. And the use of moving images rather than static photos means that the compositions are detracted from by minor movements in the background.

Again, you could claim that these production choices portray a greater authenticity but filming an empty art gallery or a market hall without the market does not communicate the way in which architecture is experienced. On the basis that all images are the subjective renderings of the artist I would always choose the seductive photography on display at the Barbican’s ‘Constructing Worlds’ exhibition, or the apparent honesty of Edwin Smith’s ‘Ordinary Beauty’, over the jaded imagery of Emigholz.

The few times that the director does film inhabited scenes, he does so with great success, such as in the vibrancy of a funfair built inside the Mercado de Abasto in Buenos Aires, or the sparseness of local people on the windswept Normandy Beaches. All of which makes it more frustrating that 90% of the film is devoid of human life.

When the film eventually returns to the theme of a falling bomb, it does so with the director travelling to Saipan, one of the group of Pacific islands from which B-29 bombers the Enola Gay and the Bockscar departed to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At this point Emigholz makes the unjustified assertion that “I owe my life to the first two atom bombs and, as a German, to the Japanese fanaticism that led to their being dropped on Japan.” He then proceeds to document the airstrip including the bomb bays which have become a shrine to the two bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, and the plaques that memorialise the success of the attack. It is at this point that a poorly conceived film becomes a seriously misguided one.

The format that Emigholz uses, and his execution of it, does not result in a film which is remotely engaging, while his intellectual justification for making it seems tenuous at best. The cinematic documentary can be hugely successful as with Ron Fricke’s Baraka, Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes or even Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day. Emigholz’s Airstrip falls seriously short of these examples.

Matthew Bloomfield is an architecture student struggling to get by in London.

The Airstrip: Decampment of Modernism, Part III was part of the series City Visions shown at the Barbican.  For a synopsis and additional information, see here

‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’; Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, UK.  25 September 2014 – 11 January 2015

‘Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith’; RIBA, 66 Portland Place, 10 September to 6 December 2014

View the Q&A between ‘The Airstrip’ director Heinz Emigholz and Kodwo Eshun, writer, theorist and co-founder of artist group the Otolith Group


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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