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August 09 2012

January 25 2012

Hollywood's love affair with the skyscraper

Nine of the world's 10 tallest buildings are now in Asia – and Hollywood wants to jump off all of them

Aerial shots over Manhattan's forest of skyscrapers. Yellow cabs crawling like ants through the city grid. The hero stands on a ledge 20 floors up, provoking a street theatre of police cordons, firetrucks, news crews and onlookers. Meanwhile, in a top-floor office, a corporate villain admires an architectural model of another shiny skyscraper. Elsewhere, an acrobatic thief hangs precariously in an elevator shaft, dropping a spanner that goes clanging down innumerable storeys to the ground. The ominous ping of an approaching elevator spells danger. The hero and villain finally meet for a climactic rooftop showdown.

These scenes could be from a hundred Hollywood movies or more, but in fact they're from just one: Man on a Ledge, an enjoyably silly new thriller that at least sets out its stall in the title. You can guess most of its plot from those generic snippets, but Man on a Ledge is just the latest piece of proof that movies love skyscrapers and skyscrapers love movies. They always have. In fact, they're practically twins. The exact date of birth could be disputed, but it's safe to say that while rising land prices and advances in steel were pushing buildings upwards in Chicago and New York at the end of the 19th century, inventors like Edison and the Lumière brothers were realising they might be on to something with their moving-picture machines.

Where would the movies be without the thrilling cinematic images tall buildings provide, both inside and out? The alone is estimated to have featured in more than 250 movies. Then there's their crashingly unsubtle metaphorical value. It doesn't take a genius to fathom the symbolism at work with, say, the diminutive Tom Cruise scaling the world's tallest building in the latest Mission: Impossible, or a rampant King Kong roaring from the top of the Empire State Building; or San Francisco's TransAmerica tower looming priapically in the background of Basic Instinct as Michael Douglas gets into a lather over Sharon Stone. For most of the 20th century, it was simple: the home of the movies and the home of the skyscraper were the same place. These two distinctly masculine enterprises worked together to broadcast America's virility to the world. But the marriage now has complications. In metaphorical terms, the attacks of 9/11 hit the US where it hurt, and the current financial crisis hasn't helped.

Where the skyscrapers have gone, the movies have had to follow – and nine of the world's 10 tallest buildings are now in Asia. That recent Mission: Impossible benefited greatly from the use of Dubai's 163-storey Burj Khalifa (over $500m at the box office and counting). Dubai hasn't done badly out of it either. When the Burj Khalifa opened two years ago, the emirate had an image problem, what with its economic and architectural bubble bursting. But Mission: Impossible seems to have fixed that. According to the movie's producers, the first time they visited Dubai, they said: "We have to come back here and shoot a movie." But Dubai was also a hefty financial backer of the film, and using the Burj as a major location appears to have been a condition. So the building, designed by US architects SOM, not only featured in loving closeups, inside and out, but Dubai also got to hold the world premiere of this "local" film – bringing Cruise, celebrity special guests and the world's media to the Dubai film festival last month.

Whenever a new Asian skyscraper is completed, it seems, Hollywood rushes to get there and jump off it. In the preceding Mission: Impossible, Cruise also leapt off a tall building, this time in Shanghai. Before that, in an indication of how quickly the gimmick can date, we had Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in 1999's Entrapment, dangling off Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers, then enjoying a brief reign as the world's tallest buildings. You could say the process of America's corporate emasculation began as far back as 1988, with Die Hard (surely a high-point in skyscraper movies): although set in Los Angeles, the film decided to rename its hijacked building the Nakatomi Plaza and make it Japanese-owned (in fact, it was the city's Fox Plaza).

As Die Hard reminds us, skyscrapers are movie shorthand for "faceless corporation", usually going hand in hand with overbearing evil and phallic overcompensation. Man on a Ledge is no different: predictably, the ledge he's on is owned by the chief baddie, the one with a model of a skyscraper (his next one). For good symbolic measure, he also smokes a huge cigar. Yet, for all that they celebrate the manly tumescence of tall architecture, such movies are invariably on the side of the little man (and we're not just talking about Cruise here). The juxtaposition of a lone individual and a gigantic edifice often tells you all you need to know about a movie's intentions.

In the silent era, skyscrapers were something of a fad. There's the much-imitated image of Harold Lloyd hanging off that clock 10 storeys up in 1923's Safety Last! Lloyd made a string of high-rise movies, such as High and Dizzy, Look Out Below and Never Weaken. In most, his little man rises to the summit, overcoming the emasculating forces of urban life. His myriad successors have done the same. In 2008's Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, in which French tightrope walker Philippe Petit conquers the Twin Towers, the little-man thrill is the same, albeit enhanced by such an emotionally loaded location.

Which brings us to the other thing that's changed about skyscrapers. The destruction of the Twin Towers was the final nail in the coffin for America's skyscraper-and-movie marriage. In the immediate aftermath, the towers were digitally removed from up-and-coming movies like Spider-Man, whose scenes of the superhero swinging between skyscrapers suddenly looked very out of date; and now they have to be digitally reinserted into New York movies that are set in the past.

In 2004, the architect Rem Koolhaas wrote: "The skyscraper has become less interesting in inverse proportion to its success. It has not been refined, but corrupted; the promise it once held … has been negated by repetitive banality." You could say the same thing about Hollywood. Just as the high-rise has nowhere to go except upwards, so movies like Man on a Ledge find themselves stuck on a familiar narrative track, running from street level up to the inevitable rooftop showdown.

In the 1960s and 70s, architectural groups like the metabolists and Archigram proposed alternatives to the boom in towers, while Britain's Leslie Martin and Lionel March argued that they don't solve urban density problems. Koolhaas, who was a screenwriter before becoming an architect, presented his own anti-skyscraper in the form of Beijing's CCTV television headquarters, which effectively folds a tower in half and brings it back down to the ground.

If there is a crisis, both industries are in denial. The genre-movie production line churns on, and the skyscrapers keep going up. There are a few more security measures beneath the skin of the Freedom Tower, which stands where the Twin Towers once stood, but externally its generic-looking design says: "Nothing's changed." Upcoming movies like the rebooted Spider-Man also seek to reassert the primacy of the New York skyline in the face of all this competition: Norman Foster's Hearst Tower is a key location in the movie.

And some of that competition is now coming from London, thanks to its belated stab at high-rise kudos with the Shard. Looming large over the city, Renzo Piano's 87-storey tower seems destined to figure in the new era of "more commercial" British movies the government is calling for. According to the Shard's marketing agent, they've been receiving filming requests at the rate of about one a week. So far they've turned them all down, they say, but you can just picture Colin Firth struggling to express himself to Keira Knightley in its lift, or Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise fighting it out on the rooftop to see who gets to use it first, James Bond or Mission: Impossible. Meanwhile, back in real life, details of the next 007 novel have just been released. It's set in Dubai.


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December 21 2011

Sherlock Holmes is still a man for today

Conan Doyle's detective was born in an age of empire and intrigue, much like our own. That's why Sherlock is still relevant

Sherlock Holmes is back. As usual. This Christmas holiday, the engaging modern-times Sherlock returns to the BBC while a second Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film tops the UK box office. But these are just the latest in an inexhaustible sequence of Holmes adaptations.

It is no secret that Sherlock Holmes is one of the world's best-loved fictional characters (and the one people find hardest to accept as fiction rather than fact). But why was late-Victorian Britain so good at inventing timeless heroes and villains?

Holmes, who first appeared in 1887 in Arthur Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet, is the contemporary of some other extraordinary gentlemen. In 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; in 1897, Bram Stoker was to give the world Dracula. Other famous fictions of the age include H Rider Haggard's She and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Modern horror, crime fiction, adventure stories and science fiction all originate in Britain in the period 1880-1914. In fact, this is Britain's greatest contribution to modern culture. While the French gave birth to the avant garde, we were seeding the 20th-century popular imagination. But what set off these rich fantasies?

It surely has something to do with the British empire. The heyday of Holmes is the era of imperial zenith. Britain was the centre of the biggest empire in history, and troubling shadows of this power permeated the domestic imagination. Readers at home in gaslit parlours turned from newspaper reports on the latest colonial war to fantastic stories in which poisonous snakes obtained overseas invade the quiet of English life. The exotic is eerie and uncanny in these stories. The web of world trade and structure of military might on which the wealth of Britain rests brings with it hidden networks of crime and intrigue.

Just as the Danish TV crime serial The Killing 2 unravels a plot in which the war in Afghanistan has uncanny effects deep in Danish minds, so Sherlock Holmes detects the buried truths of the British empire. We still live in the world that empire shaped. This is why Sherlock is our contemporary.


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May 25 2011

Culture Flash: volcanoes

This week's news in the arts

With 700 flights grounded in Britain thanks to Icelandic ash, you might be forgiven for thinking that volcanos are only ever bad news. But that's not always the case: look at their rich showing in the arts.

Between 1852 and 1858, Japanese artist Ando Hiroshige made a series of influential woodblock prints of his local volcano, 36 Views of Mount Fuji. The snow-capped peak looms in the background of all 36, sometimes grey, sometimes pink-lit, always ravishing – but then it was dormant.

It's a long way from Siouxsie and the Banshees' brilliant 1985 track Cities in Dust. Here, with unsparing if overwrought imagery, the singer remembers the thousands who perished at Pompeii: "Hot and burning in your nostrils/ Pouring down your gaping mouth/ Your molten bodies blankets of cinders". The accompanying video is equally unnerving, featuring dancing skeletons, lava, and a worrying amount of (highly flammable) hairspray.

Volcanos wreak similar havoc in the films Dante's Peak and Volcano, both, coincidentally, released in 1997. In the former, Pierce Brosnan plays a volcanologist who has days to convince the inhabitants of a small US town that their charming neighbourhood volcano is about to blow. The latter stars Tommy Lee Jones as an "emergency management director", whose department is thrown into chaos when a volcano pops up in the middle of LA. Both are heavy on the pre-CGI pyrotechnics, but Dante's Peak edges it for a disturbing scene in which Brosnan attempts to cross a lake of acid in a very thin boat.

Susan Sontag's 1992 novel The Volcano Lover takes the more considered approach. The narrative centres on William Hamilton, English ambassador to Naples in the 1700s, and part of one of the most notorious love triangles in history: his wife Emma became Nelson's mistress. The presence of Vesuvius, to which Hamilton dedicates years of study, becomes a metaphor for his frustrated desires. So take note, Grimsvötn in Iceland – you're nothing until you're a metaphor.


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May 03 2011

The west goes wild as Obama and the Democrats ride again

With one cool shot, the US president brought down both Osama bin Laden and Republican claims to the mantle of western hero

Westerns have never been seen as Democrat movies. But this is based on a misunderstanding. The western genre of American film is generally thought of as morally crude, politically reactionary and so on, but in reality it was always more complex. From Fort Apache with its depiction of military folly to The Searchers, a dark tale of racism and otherness, the master of the western film, John Ford, always explored ambiguous themes and invested his films with deep intelligence.

Many other classic westerns portray characters who abhor violence – although they always use it in the end: Destry Rides Again and Shane both have heroes who are reluctant to take up arms. In these and other westerns it is only the bad guys who shoot for the sake of it and relish the wild side of the law. Yet somehow, in myth and political symbolism the bad guys are remembered as the good guys, the films of the wild west associated with the law of the gun. And it is Republican America, most successfully in the persona of Ronald Reagan and most dangerously in the would-be heroism of George W Bush, that has claimed the heritage of the mythic west.

This is why cool-talking, straight-shooting President Barack Obama has just changed history. He has overturned more than three decades in which the Democrats looked through the lens of the western like wimps from back east, and Republicans posed as tough sheriffs. Now there is a new sheriff in town and a new message: if you want years of bumbling, messy, murderous war, a Republican is best, but if you actually want a president who gets his man like a real US marshal of legend ... vote Democrat in 2012.

For a long time, Republicans have cast themselves as brave gunfighters. But President Obama actually measures up much more closely to those heroes of movie history. Shane and Destry were as measured and calm as he is, upholders of law who had no time for martial bluster. Being a true gunslinger hero in American myth does not mean making a lot of noise and it does not mean being a tinpot patriot. It means talking soft and when you go after the real bad guy, getting him right between the eyes.

Short of actually pulling the trigger himself, the president could scarcely have got more personal credit from the killing of this outlaw. It may seem trite to reduce it all to a western. But in the political imagination, where elections are won and lost, this is a game-changer. The bad guys have been chased out of town in more ways than one. A clear mind and eye outshot the blusterers. The myth of superior Republican patriotism is headed for Boot Hill – and Destry Rides Again.


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February 01 2011

The Mechanic's poster: garage wall or Turbine Hall?

The flyer for Jason Statham's hitman thriller is fittingly terse and drenched in gun oil. But what does it mean?

The humble film poster is not just an ad, it is an A1-sized opportunity for LA's Photoshop wizards to dazzle us with their magic. Monet had his waterlilies, Van Gogh had his sunflowers. But neither had a muse to rival gruff British bruiser Jason Statham and his new movie The Mechanic. The result is a work of genius: daubed in pure testosterone, it deserves far better than to hang in a darkened corner of your local Cineplex. So join me as I crank up the Vision On music and put it in the spotlight it deserves.

What's going on 'ere, then?

Gun oil is invariably the lubricant of choice for marketeers attempting to prise cash from the palms of violence-keen teens. In fact, the only way they could possibly make this poster more appealing to The Mechanic's target audience is by chucking in a free guide to removing bras, a bottle of cider and the answers to this year's GCSE trigonometry paper. You'd be forgiven for thinking The Mechanic was a film in which many firearms and a handful of knives team up to make a giant supergun. It sounds dumb, but ignore the supergun bit and it's an unerringly accurate reflection of the actual plot.

Lay off the Stath will ya?

Criticising the content of Statham's films as implausibly rufty-tufty is like tutting at Super Mario Bros for its failure to accurately represent the lives of Italian-American plumbers. So perhaps a spot of praise is in order. There are few more bankable British faces than Statham, after all, star of more than 25 films over the last decade alone; putting him up there with coal, pharmaceuticals and reality TV formats on the list of Britain's biggest exports.

"Someone has to fix the problems"

Let's take a moment to slow clap the poster's strapline, which sounds like the type of boast you'd expect to hear on an episode of The Apprentice. What are these problems exactly? Electoral reform? Global warming? The seagulls on my roof? It's left unspecified. And it's worth remembering not all problems can be "fixed" by firearms (my seagulls excepted). Minimalism is all very well, but a few more hard facts wouldn't go amiss. It's taken as read we know "mechanic" is slang for "hitman" and that these mysterious "problems" might well be "people" and that "fixing" could be "offing". I'm not asking for a plot synopsis, but for those of us not versed in the lingo of contract killing, a few clues would help.

Are there any redeeming features?

This at least deserves a pat on the back for attempting something different in an effort to stand out from the crowd. And apparently if you snap a picture of it with your smartphone there's a QR code that automatically takes you to the movie's website. A trick that's about 10 times smarter than the movie it's promoting.

The verdict

More garage calendar than Tate Modern. But what do you think? And could you do any better? Let us know in the comments below, or break open your Photoshop toolbox and send us your own efforts.


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