Filmish #2: Sets and Architecture
Earlier this year I picked up the first of Edward Ross’ Filmish comics (reviewed here) when I spotted it in my home from home, The Filmhouse (long an institution for film and art lovers in Edinburgh not just for showing wonderful world cinema but for linking into other events, exhibitions and festivals in the city to combine the moving image with the rest of the arts world around it). Filmish #1 took three subjects – Monsters, Food on Film and Point-of-View – and tackled them in a short but satisfying manner, laying out some basics quite suitable even for those who love film but have never entered the often mystifying realms of cine-academia. Issue #2 continues to be an easily accessible look into film studies through the comics medium, but this time it concentrates instead on one main topic – sets and architecture – and I think it’s emerged as a stronger and more interesting read as a result.
Sets and architecture are, as Edward notes, two very closely related disciplines. Architecture describes the artificial environment we build around ourselves and the spaces between – or sometimes within – them that we move through and live in. Set designers attempt to create similar effects for an audience, a believable space (even when describing fantastical realms) that the audience can move through with the actors. Architects borrow from artists and film designers to create their desired effects, welding their tricks of perspective and illusion to create a reality to real world engineering, while film set designers employ tricks from stage illusions and magic, combined with engineering and architecture and art. There’s something arguably satisfying about reading about this inter-meshing of two art/science forms via the comics medium: like the best architecture comics often start as rough doodles and outlines sketched on paper, like film comics can suspend time and space to move through those imagined realms in a way not possible in the real world (and in architecture you could argue that in the computer design stage architects also play with bending perspectives, time and space as they hone their vision).
(Edward’s black and white art seemed particularly suited to the delightfully skewed monochrome designs of Doctor Caligari; from Filmish #2 by and (c) Edward Ross)
As with the first Filmish the comic is replete with examples from the screen, drawn from across cinematic history, from the great Georges Melies through to The Matrix and the current resurgence of 3D with Avatar, as before using quotes from various film studies essays to justify a particular point. Ross has fun walking his own virtual comics avatar through a variety of scenes from famous films by way of illustration, from the skewed perspectives of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, German Expressionism and Film Noir to the immersive, virtual sets of Avatar, tying these also to movements in other art forms (Surrealism and Expressionism for example), while also touching on changing ways we interact with architectural spaces like cities in the real world and how this has been reflected in film.
Unsurprisingly he picks on Lang’s Metropolis and Scott’s Blade Runner as two prime examples to use, which is fair enough given how hugely influential both have been, but he also touches on work you might not have thought about for this kind of study, notably McTiernan’s original Die Hard and the way McClane moves through the vast skyscraper tower – ducts, lift shafts, external windows – compared to the ordinary characters who move only through the proscribed, normal channels (doors, corridors) and links this to modern developments like Parkour and the way it creates a new relationship to the architecture of the city as the practitioners moves through, around, over and under it in ways never imagined by designers and as extolled in films like District 13 (and I found it amusing to think of such a straight Hollywood blockbuster type of flick as Die Hard containing such transgressional elements – proof if it be needed that the viewer can interpret what they want from a text).
Once again I found I really enjoyed this comics trip into film studies. I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who is both a lifelong cinephile and someone who has penned more than their fair share of academic film studies essays, but Edward’s created this deliberately so that no formal knowledge of academic film studies is necessary, just a love of cinema and imagery. As with the first book the quotes from various essays used during the comic are all properly referenced so you can follow them up if you want and there is a bibliography and a selected filmography at the end for suggested reading if you want to expand your knowledge and take in some excellent films relevant to this particular theme (again for those new to film studies I highly recommend Pam Cook’s thorough and yet approachable The Cinema Book as a great prime reference text).
(“Painful to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave…”; you can’t discuss set design and architecture in film without referencing Blade Runner. From Filmish #2 by and (c) Edward Ross)
Obviously there are more approaches that could have been included and more relevant films you might think should be in this particular issue (no Dark City?) but there’s only so much space in a mini-comic and I think Edward used it well. On the production side of things the paper stock felt much better than for the first issue and on the art side I like the way Edward uses his cartoon self as a narrator, often altered to fit a particular film he’s describing (notably at one point he’s portrayed as the robot from Metropolis); I strongly suspect he rather enjoys projecting himself into those film scenes (quite rightly). Cinema and comics both largely grew up during the same century and given how much they have fed from one another (think on various film themes borrowed for comics, especially early 2000 AD, or how many films are inspired by comics, or even just on imagery and techniques inspired or borrowed from one medium to the other – Dave Gibbons’ cinematic Watchmen frames for instance) I think it is highly appropriate to be using one of those mediums to study the other. I’ve really enjoyed the first two issues of Filmish and I think concentrating on a particular topic here (as compared to three in the first issue) was a better route to go, offering a more satisfying read. I look forward to more and seeing what areas Edward tackles next – genre theory, maybe (go on, Edward, it will give you an excuse to draw yourself in Mac and Fedora as well as cowboy hat!)? Filmish is available from Edward’s website or if you are in Edinburgh you can pick it up from the Filmhouse box office on Lothian Road.