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Great Expectations: A Journey Through the History of Visionary Architecture

by Jesper Wachtmeister
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2007
DVD, 52 mins., col.
Sales, DVD: $390

Once Upon a Time . . . Rome, Open City

by Marie Genin and Serge July
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, NY, 2007
DVD, 52 mins., col.
Sales, DVD: $390

Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


These two productions present two very different visions of the city.  The first viewpoint is optimistic, progressive, even utopian.  In the second, a famous city with a long history (sometimes called “The Eternal City”) was depicted in a mid-century moment of oppressive occupation by a foreign army, and that fictional-but-true depiction is the subject of the film.

“Great Expectations” begins with a visit to the great Goethenaeum by Rudolf Steiner, a vast structure in a mountain town that embodies the principles of anthroposophy.  We are shown its earlier version in a photograph superimposed on today’s hills, plus additional buildings nearby in a style that looks like the aesthetic integuements between Art Nouveau and German Expressionist architecture.

The camera wheels around Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia, essentially a synthetic city that still appears to have been created in the 1950s with all the sensitivity to centuries-honed urban subtleties as possessed by the builders of urban freeways and shopping malls.  That is to say, not much. This reviewer has always wondered about Paolo Soleri’s desert city, for a high school friend paid several thousand dollars 35 years ago for a semester of “study” that involved hauling wheelbarrows full of cement.

Fans of fantasist J.G. Ballard might wonder if the mammoth concrete apartments built by LeCourbusier in Marseille inspired Ballard’s novel High Rise
, where residents of different floors go to war with each other.  The world’s fair Expo 67, held in Montreal in 1967, was the site of a grand geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller, and Moshe Safdie’s prefab apartments called Habitat 67.  Their optimistic urban vision of the time is dimmed in this reviewer’s mind by a boyhood memory of the return trip from that fair, when passage through Detroit was upset by construction and detours.  A few hours after my family found our way back on to the freeway home (an hour away), that city experienced a four-day riot or rebellion from which it never recovered.

Several excursions suggest that the wildest ideas are best built on a smaller, domestic scale, like the curvaceous Palais Bulles in France by Antti Lovag, and the Kunsthaus Grasz in Austria by Peter Cook and Colin Fourier.  Current residents of these dwellings are interviewed, and generally cheerful.

A strength of “Great Expectations” is that the architects articulate their visions, and the camera explores at least one of the major built accomplishments of each.  Wachtmeister brings to his documentary a fun and light touch, with little bits of Monty Python-style animation, hand-colored photographs, even flying saucer noises.  Archigram, and its London Pop Art-influenced publications, made him do it!  Sometimes it’s as if the filmmaker really doesn’t put much stock in the promised completion of the Venus Project, but was happy to enjoy the trek in bejungled Florida alongside its talkative old planner Jacques Fresco.

Now, there were problems with two copies of the DVD “Once Upon a Time...Rome, Open City” viewed to inform this review.  The first one was unwatchable, and the second had minor stutter in parts.  For videos that retail for nearly $400, First Run Films should invest in greater quality control. Caveat

That said, the documentary on “Open City” and its director is enjoyable and informative.  It presents segments of1969 and 1970 interviews with Roberto Rosselini in Italian and in English, and also people he worked with or who (like his daughter Isabella) remember him.  Federico Fellini said that Rosselini taught him to make use of the huge machinery of studio filmmaking, but at the same time, to ignore it completely to realize his visions.  Rosselini made films with Assistant Director Carlo Lizzari 1941-43, on military subjects like “A Pilot Returns” and “The White Ship”.  Their producer, Il Duce’s son Vittorio Mussolini, grumbles that Rosselini cared neither for fascist nor anti-fascist politics, only for himself.

“Once Upon a Time...” appreciates the actress who played Pina in “Rome, Open City”, Anna Magnani.  She became so identified with this role of “The Mother Courage of the Resistance” that she became a resonant symbol of the city’s suffering in the fascist and wartime era, tragic Mama Roma.  The documentary opens with the scene where she is killed before the eyes of her horrified child, and its climax of the priest cradling the Pina in his arms fade to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”

Rosselini gave up movies for television in 1962, “a moral position with a lot of pollution”. But not long after that, French New Wave directors who appreciated his films elevated his reputation.  Some find “Paisa”, his film that followed “Rome, Open City”, the superior product.  One interviewee opines that it was Rosselini’s lack of imagination that sealed his genius in straightforward visual narrative.

Outside my window, a small Midwestern US city on the Great Lakes pulses with quotidian activity.  Trucks rumble by, kids holler, dogs bark, a freight train’s whistle and clatter, and even an occasional ship’s horn, are heard.  Your reviewer is a committed urbanist, who personally values cities’ amenities––human diversity, necessities within walking distance, a variety of culture and entertainment––over the countryside and its rural solitude.  May First Run Films continue to provide us with multiple views of city life.









Updated 1st May 2008

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