Archive for December, 2011

Exciting the imagination

24 December 2011

I don’t like the Royal Academy – it’s snooty, uptight, over-sponsored yet still expensive – but despite this I went this week to see their exhibition, Building the Revolution, about the art and buildings of the Russian revolutionary era, and in particular to see the scaled-down version of Tatlin’s Tower in the (sponsored) courtyard. The Tower, famously, was only an idea, and never built, but it was intended to be both a monument to the revolution and also a working building, the home of the Third International, the organisation to promote communism internationally. As a blog at RIBA notes, it would have

had four rotating elements inside (all rotating at different speeds) to house an information centre, meeting rooms, offices and a radio transmitter which all would have served as the headquarters of the Third International.

The scale version built for the Royal Academy is 10 metres high, a 1:40 scale model of a Tower that Tatlin imagined would be 400 metres high, taller than the Eiffel Tower, spanning the river Neva in St. Petersburg, as a picture at the RA conveyed. (The image here is from a 1999 CGI reconstruction by the Japanese artist Takehiko Nagakura.) In a Russia wracked by war and then civil war the chances of securing enough steel to build it were less than zero. The mechanics were complex too; the engineers who made a reconstruction for the Hayward in 1971 had to work them out from first principles, since there are few records of the original design. Indeed, had it been built, it’s likely that the mechanics of the building would have failed – the Russian constructivists quite often found that their ideas outstripped the limits of what was then technically possible.

In Tatlin’s lifetime, his Tower was realised only as a 15 foot high scale model, which was shown in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The picture of this model, and the one above, come from John Coulthart’s { feuilleton } blog. Even so, it fired the enthusiasm of his contemporaries: Viktor Shklovsky, the critic, reported on seeing Tatlin’s model, ‘The monument is made of iron, glass and revolution.’

Indeed, the design was inherently political. As Catherine Merridale writes:

The marvels of technology were one theme, but movement was another … as well as reflecting the dynamism of the dawning age, the building could double as a slow-moving calendar and clock, perhaps even as a means of measuring stars and space. In its restlessness and transparency, the building embodied the democratic challenge to authoritarian power that Tatlin so welcomed.

Tatlin’s unbuilt Monument has fascinated artists, critics, and maybe utopians ever since he designed it: I’m writing about it here more than 90 years after he conceived it, which I wouldn’t be had it actually been built. I was at an exhibition in Estonia earlier this year at which the artist Petko Dourmana had constructed an augmented reality piece in which the Tower was projected onto the cityscape of Tallinn. In some ways, such a virtual representation seems a fittingly democratic way to see Tatlin’s Monument. The purpose of the unbuilt building, after all, is to excite the imagination.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Singin’ and deceivin’

17 December 2011

Singin’ in the Rain may be the best musical ever made – it’s certainly a candidate, and everyone who sees it remembers the (spoiler alert) big reveal in the final scene. Gene Kelly’s big dance sequence with Cyd Charisse – by this stage something of a hallmark of the MGM musical – and is probably better than its equivalent number in An American in Paris – and there are memorable moments throughout, mostly associated with the main supporting actors, Jean Hagen as the monstrous Lena Lamont and Donald O’Connor playing Kelly’s sidekick Cosmo Brown.

I’ve seen the film a few times, and watched it again a few nights ago after taping a re-run on my PVR. And realised two things. The first, to my surprise, was that I’d forgottn the entire opening sequence, with Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lamont turning up for the first night of their latest movie – ‘film’ doesn’t quite seem to cut it – and Lockwood reprising, on the red carpet, the official version of his life story, in the days when the studios’ PR machines were a beast to be feared and admired.

And that was the second realisation: that the sequence – in which the story that Lockwood tells is undercut by the much seedier story we’re seeing onscreen – sets up the theme of Singin’ in the Rain. I hadn’t realised it before, and it seems obvious when you write it down, but Singin’ in the Rain, set in the days of the transition from silent to talking pictures, is a film about deception, or more exactly, deception revealed.

Film is an inherently deceptive medium of course, and this story weaves deception throughout after the opening sequence. To quickly run through the others, Kathy Selden (played by Debbie Reynolds, who the studio were trying to build into a star) pretends to Lockwood, as he falls into her car, that she knows nothing of Hollywood and doesn’t read the fan magazines. As the studio tries to salvage The Duelling Cavalier, working around Lena’s Brooklyn twang by having Kathy re-record, secretly, Lena’s lines, Lena bursts in on the recording session, having been tipped off by another actress: (‘Lena:  “Zelda told me everything.”  Don:  “Thanks, Zelda. You’re a real pal.”‘)

And then of course, the most famous revelation of them (massive spoiler alert) as the studo boss ‘RF’, together with Lockwood and Cosmo  Brown pull back the curtain to reveal that Kathy is Lena’s singing voice, creating a new star as they destroy an old one.

in his essential monograph on the film, Peter Wollen argues that this sequence allows the lies to end; the voice of Kathy is reunited with herr body, while Lockwood can stop pretending, for the benefit of the studio’s PR, that he is in love with Lena, and be united with Kathy.

In telling this film story, though, Wollen lets us in on Singin’ in the Rain‘s last great deception. Debbie Reynolds, for all her star potential, was neither a great dancer, nor a great singer. She mastered her dance numbers through hard work and application, but the version of the song heard at the film’s climax is actually sung (and how good is this?) by Jean Hagen, the actress who played Lena Lamont.

Reynolds spells it out in her autobiography: ‘Jean’s real voice, however, was lovely, and she dubbed herself’. And as Wollen observes, ‘what we see and hear is the unveiling of a mystery that subverts its own appearance of authenticity’.