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03.19.08

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Phaedra

Antonio Gaudi

Two discs; Criterion; $39.95

By Michael S. Gant


No one built like the Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi. Sinuous, organic, decorated on every surface, his buildings pretty much defy the whole history of modern architecture. Gaudi used his skills as a mathematician to create complex curvilinear shapes that he saw as tributes to his very conservative Catholic theology. One building is an allegory of the story of St. George and the Dragon, complete with roof tiles like reptile scales and stair railings like a monster's bare backbone. Japanese experimental filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman in the Dunes) was particularly drawn to Gaudi's natural, flowing forms and leaning columns in the shape of tree trunks; the style resonated with the sculptures of Teshigahara's father, Sofu, who worked in massive abstract forms of wood and stone. Hiroshi Teshigahara's 72-minute documentary about Gaudi, made in 1984, starts with some general views of Barcelona but quickly focuses on Gaudi's famous structures, from the tile-encrusted Casa Vicens to the astonishing Parc GŁell, with its serpentine bench overlooking the city, to the never-to-be completed Sagrada Familia with its four perforated spires rising over the Barcelona skyline. Some historical photos and one interview are intercut with many wordless rhapsodic tracking shots of the buildings in close-up to show their eccentric details of wrought iron and stained glass, and in long shot to show their unique shapes. Without some prior knowledge of Gaudi, however, the film might seem unmoored—a hymn in Latin for the uninitiated. Luckily, this Criterion set also includes a BBC documentary about Gaudi, hosted by art critic Robert Hughes, who provides the historical context and even offers a contrary opinion about some of the "banal" sculptures at the Sagrada Familia. Almost as good (although it's in black-and-white) is a 15-minute documentary from the early 1960s, directed by a young Ken Russell; this short film makes a salient point by juxtaposing Gaudi to some stultifying examples of the glass-and-concrete tissue boxes that dominated most of the 20th century's architecture. The set also includes a wonderful look at Sofu's sculptures by Hiroshi; this short documentary uses some frenetic, strobe-light editing and clangorous, ominous music to animate Sofu's knotty, dynamic artworks.


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