Life As a House By Scott Foundas

in 9th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema

by Scott Foundas

Three years ago, writing in the pages of the L.A. Weekly, I described the odd sensation of traveling halfway around the world, from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, only to sit down in a movie theater and see projected on the screen the image of a building located within spitting distance of my own Los Angeles apartment. The building was the Japanese Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the movie, Goff in the Desert, was a documentary about its architect, Bruce Goff, made by the German experimental filmmaker Heinz Emigholz, whose films were the subject of a retrospective at that year’s Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. This year, Emigholz returned to the BAFICI — as did I — with a new film that bears an even stronger connection to the city I call my adopted home.

Entitled Schindler’s Houses (Schindlers Häuser), Emigholz’s latest film gives us exactly that: a selection of buildings designed by the Viennese architect Rudolph M. Schindler, who came to Los Angeles in 1920 and did his most important work here. These “houses” are mostly single-family residences located in neighborhoods like Silverlake and Los Feliz and made famous by Schindler’s pioneering integrations of exterior and interior space, though Emigholz finds room in his film for the odd Schindler-built house of worship (South Central’s Bethlehem Baptist Church) and of commerce (the Coldwater Curve shopping center in Studio City) too. The film’s opening image, in fact, is of the West Hollywood intersection of Palm and Holloway as it appeared at 7 AM on a Sunday morning in May of last year. Somewhere in the frame, a narrator explains — the only time voiceover appears in the film — is a house by Rudolph Schindler, but to attempt to separate the building from its surroundings (which include the Sunset Towers office complex and garish billboards for Target and the animated movie Over the Hedge ) would be pointless, even “criminal.”

Fortunately, that very crime is one Emigholz goes on to commit some 40 times over the course of Schindler’s Houses, as he prowls Southern California from top to bottom, casting his lens upon Schindler-built dwellings as far afield as Pasadena, Glendale and South Bay. As in the Goff film, each new location is introduced by a title card, followed by several stationary shots of the building as seen from different angles and distances. Some will call those shots “still” or even “static,” though in fact they are anything but, for if one looks closely in Schindler’s Houses , one will find that the light is forever shifting, a gentle breeze may sometimes be glimpsed blowing through an open doorway and, in several locations, a fireplace can be seen crackling in the distance — a charming notion, really, given that this is L.A. and Emigholz was shooting in late spring. The buildings are presented chronologically according to the year of their constructions, but beyond that there is no obvious pattern to Emigholz’s approach: Some houses he offers only a cursory glance; others he seems to commune with, lingering over their every nook and cranny. Finally, one is left with the feeling that each of these buildings harbors its own unique physicality and disposition, and that Emigholz has captured it, along with his own reaction to it.

Architecture also plays a significant, albeit very different role in the most impressive of the new Argentinean films I saw at the BAFICI in 2007. Shortly into co-directors Federico León and Marcos Martinez’s hour-long documentary Stars (Estrellas), there is a set-piece worthy of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, during which several residents from a Buenos Aires slum known as Miseria 21 are shown building from scratch, furnishing and occupying a typical shantytown shack, all in the span of three minutes and 26 seconds. We know this, because a timer on the bottom of the screen keeps track for us as the walls and roof go up and various objects (including a tire) are hurled at the structure to prove its sturdiness. The builders, as it happens, are all members of an acting company organized by Miseria 21 resident Julio Arrieta, who might best be described as the P.T. Barnum or Will Rogers of the B.A. barrio — an infectious huckster with a twinkle in his eye and a sly, self-deprecating wit.

For the members of his troupe, Arrieta is a combination of director, talent manager and paterfamilias, devoting himself to getting himself and his colleagues cast in an array of Argentinean film and television productions — usually as hookers, petty thugs and other undesirables — provided, of course, they pay him his 15 percent. But Arrieta is also a dreamer, who imagines a day when people from the slums will star as the heroes of their own stories. And so we are treated to a trailer for the supposedly forthcoming El Nexeo , about an alien invasion in — where else? — Miseria 21. On its surface, Stars is the latest entry in the burgeoning canon of valentine documentaries to the world’s amateur filmmaking impresarios. (At the BAFICI alone, it was possible to also see VHS-Kahloucha, director Néjib Belkadhi’s portrait of Tunisian house-painter/filmmaker Moncef Kahloucha.) But laughs aside — and they are plentiful — the film is, at its core, a deeply humane portrait of marginalized people striving to see their lives reflected on the movie screen. Indeed, the refusal of Martinez and Léon to present their subjects in a pitying light seemed to make some in the bourgeois BAFICI crowd a tad uncomfortable, which suggests just how good Stars really is.