Cathedrals of Culture is a series of six thirty minute films about iconic cultural buildings. I was initially drawn to it because the Berlin Philharmonic and the Oslo Opera House are among the six but, in the end, found much to think about in all six.
First up was the Berlin Philharmonic. The film, by Wim Wenders, was narrated in the first person by the hall itself; a device that would recur in several other films. This hall is proud of itself. Not only is it home to arguably the world’s finest orchestra it’s also symbolic of a new Germany and a new Berlin. The first fruits of the cultural renaissance in Berlin under Willy Brandt it rose on a bomb site in the early 1960s and was to become the centre piece of a triptych of cultural icons staring down the Berlin Wall. It’s beautiful inside and out and its fantastic acoustics showcased the brilliant sound quality of the film and the TIFF Lightbox. Why don’t they show opera broadcasts there? The sound quality is better than anything I’ve heard in cinemas showing operas from the Met or the ROH. Hell, the sound is better than listening live at Roy Thomson Hall. But there’s a little nagging doubt about the Berlin Philharmonic; a worm in the apple. It’s Wenders. There had to be. This hall is the first major concert hall built around the orchestra not facing it. It’s so social democratic. But each site line is focussed on the podium, the home of Nazi megalomaniac Herbert von Karajan. Such is the German paradox I guess.
The film about the National Library of Russia, by Michael Glawoggen, hardly seemed to be about the building at all. At the end I really still had no idea what it looked like but I knew a lot about how it operated. The images of the library in operation were accompanied by an atmospheric but rather elliptical voiceover but what images! This place still runs on card indices and slips of paper. The books, many ancient and priceless, are treated in a quite cavalier fashion by the staff. Rubber stamps are ubiquitous. The overall sense is that the library exists less to serve Russian culture than the bureaucracy that operates it. If Ankh-Morpork has a central library this is what it is like.
The final film in part 1 was about Halden maximum security prison in Norway. A strange choice perhaps but a fascinating film by Michael Madsen. Again told from the prison’s perspective, voiced by the institution’s psychologist. The impression one gets is of very conscientious people trying to do a very difficult job. The place is modern and pleasingly designed. The grounds are beautiful. The staff friendly and caring. And yet it’s a deeply dehumanizing place with strip searches, drug dogs and deeply disturbed people spraying faeces around their isolation cells. One feels that with staff and management just slightly less conscientious and concerned it would descend rapidly into hell on earth. And then one thinks of similar institutions in the US and the UK run for private profit. It’s a very evocative film. It doesn’t preach at all but leaves one deeply disturbed.
Part 2 opens with Robert Redford’s film about the Salk Institute. It’s rather different from any of the others. Somehow rather heroic with Salk and architect Louis Kahn front and centre. The rest of the story is told by scientists at the Institute who are all a bit messianic about their role in “saving humanity”. Still it’s an interesting look at how function and aesthetics can combine to create a harmonious and productive workspace. Whoever designed York University should be forced to watch it over and over again.
With Margret Olin’s film about the Oslo Opera House we are back to first person narration by the building. Here the focus is on the building’s relationship to its surroundings and the people who visit it. It’s an ambivalent portrait because it looks like this was a rather sketchy part of the city before the house was built and now the new visitors are somehow exposed to the old residents in and around a building that is so integrated into the surroundings.
The final film is of the Pompidou Centre and is by Karim Arnouz. It’s the only one of the six I have visited and that shortly after its controversial opening. The building reflects on its transition from enfant terrible to familiar landmark while never really influencing the nature of the growth of the city around it. The sense is, that having lost it’s power to shock, it’s now just a space people, five million of them annually, use; more a warehouse of culture than a temple.
So six films and curiously the four from western Europe are all first person, rather elegiac, narratives while the Russian and American offerings seem respectively very Russian and very American! Also, although my initial interest was in an opera house and a concert hall, it’s the film about a prison that sticks most firmly in my mind.
I should also mention that besides splendid sound these films are all shot in 3D. It’s the best use of 3D I’ve seen. There’s no gimmicky “stuff leaping out of the screen” rather the sense is of looking onto a stage. It’s very interesting and would be a great approach for opera videos.
Cathedrals of Culture is playing twice daily until Christmas Eve at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.