Sunday, January 19, 2014

this is tomorrow (or could be...)

At the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne on Spike Jonze's Her as a "refreshingly original take on a future L.A.":

"Thanks to the digital revolution of the last two decades, it has become remarkably easy for filmmakers...  to dip into a bottomless back catalog and borrow or remix work from the past....
There have still been movies imagining life 50 or 100 years from now, of course, during this period of wide-ranging cultural nostalgia. But they've tended to portray violent dystopias or post-apocalyptic wastelands....And increasingly they have been pushed aside in the cultural conversation by films and TV series — "Computer Chess," "The Way Way Back," "Downtown Abbey", "Mad Men," "Inside Llewyn Davis" — that either re-create an entire historic era with detailed ease or seem to exist in a nimble time machine, mixing elements of past and present the way a Spotify user can jump from Lorde to KRS-One and back again.

"'Her' bucks the retro moment by jumping enthusiastically, and blindly, into a future that is neither utopian nor dystopian but — like our own era, and like every era —somewhere in the slippery in-between. The film is set in the Los Angeles of two or three decades from now; the year is never specified. The city has dense clusters of tall towers and a mass-transit system to rival London's. Cars seem to have been banished.... The sidewalks and the rail stations are crowded with people. It's as if a benevolent Robert Moses,  a planning dictator with a green agenda, had taken over the political realm in Los Angeles."

Hawthorne explains how this was technically achieved (Jonze and his crew "digitally plumped" the existing LA skyline,  did the futuristic-ization equivalent of collagen injections by weaving in scenes shot in Shanghai's Pudong district, etc), and then widens his lens to the culture as a whole:

"The reason the culture has become creatively stuck, endlessly reusing our own recent past, is not only that it has become so easy for artists and consumers to call up old material. It is also because we are in the midst of a dramatic and profound digital upheaval that is remaking our personal and professional lives... It has been easier to turn our backs and find either comfort and inspiration in the newly accessible past. This retro turn hardly kills creativity; it has produced some energetic and important work, a lot of which seems to fully inhabit and animate past styles rather than simply ape them. This is particularly true of records and novels by artists in their 20s and early 30s, digital natives who effortlessly give fresh energy to discarded or antique genres."

(His musical example here is Haim's Days Are Gone, which is bang on the money, and reminds me that I've meaning to finish a blog post on the "Are-Haim-retro-or-are-they-not?" question that people keep revisiting).

"In architecture, too, the ease of looking backward has made looking forward tougher or simply more rare. Younger architects are relying on historic pastiche to a degree not seen since the heyday of postmodernism in the 1980s."

One of his architectural examples, the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles  -- formerly the 1927 United Artists tower, now with "interiors remade by the Los Angeles design firm Commune as a loving tribute to 1920s architecture, with nods to Rudolph Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Viennese modernist Adolf Loos"-- is also bang on the money. So much so that at some months ago point I was going to write a blog post about going into its foyer (to get my haircut at the branch of  retro-barber Rudy's that lurks there) immediately after going to finally check out the famous foyer of the nearby Bonaventure Hostel. Contrasting the Ace's cute 'n' cosy retro-modernist whimsy  with the still disorientating and dislocating postmodern spatiality of the Bonaventure as written about by Fredric Jameson in that big fat book of his

(One of the things I love about LA is the way the city is a retroscape that promiscuously mixes different moments of modernism from across the last century -  1920s once-tall now-small skycrapers, midcentury, post-and-beam single-storey houses, the stark, bracingly antitraditional looking churches and synagogues as seen in the penultimate scene of The Graduate, flyovers in the spaghetti junction style only made prettier by the un-Birmingham-like sunlight, more recent examples of glass-and-steel corporate neo-modernism, as well as butt-ugly malls and many other examples of vulgar or degraded modernism. Along with the buildings, you get the sedimented and clashing residues of their attendant typographies and signage too.  This effect of accumulated residues of  once-new-now-old, the layering of different eras, goes on in all cities, of course. But in L.A., where there's hardly anything pre-1900 and even less sentimentality about tearing down buildings than elsewhere, there's a greater density of competing modernisms unleavened and unmitiaged by all the old crap that persists in London, Paris or New York.)

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