Review: Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan

Manfred Kirchheimer, USA (2004)

This dreadful documentary about Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) isn’t artsy enough to be sheer visual poetry nor is it informative enough to be a good, straightforward documentary.

I had a feeling this movie wasn’t bound for glory during the opening montage. There was an extremely long segment of a horse tied up in front of a warehouse. Why, I have no idea. There wasn’t any narration to explain what we were looking at, and why a horse had anything to do with anything. Next shot was a couple of 1950s-looking construction workers just hanging out on a girder. Just sittin’ there, not building anything. And then another seemingly endless series of shots of glass office building doors opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing, and close up shots of the door handles, labeled “pull.” All of this was accompanied by the disjointed sound of building construction and people talking and walking. This went on for so long that I seriously began to think I’d stumbled into the wrong movie.

Just when I thought this was going to continue as an artsy poem to Sullivan and the skyscraper, the pretentious narration of the”traditional” documentary began, but it didn’t get any better. I didn’t learn a darn thing outside of the obvious. I would have killed for just one “talking head” giving us some actual fact or insight into Sullivan and his work. And judging from this documentary, after Frank Lloyd Wright died (who carried on Sullivan’s aesthetic after he died), I’d gather that architecture pretty much withered in Chicago after WWII (absolutely no mention was made of a couple of little buildings known as the Hancock and Sears Tower,) nor did he mention any influence Sullivan might have on contemporary architecture.

For some unexplained reason, director Manfred Kirchheimer chose to use decades-old footage. Buildings were rarely identified and because it jumped between New York and Chicago, you couldn’t tell what city a building was in, or if it even still exists. It almost seemed Kirchheimer went out of his way to get the dullest, drabbest shots of buildings and architectural details that he could. I wanted to reach out to the screen and blow the grunge and cobwebs off the intricate detail work.

The narration was convoluted and reeked of pretension. Images were repetitive to the point of boredom. Case in point: Tall took one of my favorite buildings on the planet, the Flat Iron Building in New York, and bored me to death with it! I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but he showed so many shots of it, the same shots over and over, that I actually closed my eyes and NEARLY FELL ASLEEP!!!  (zero stars)

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3 Responses

  1. Karen

    Oh, man, I forgot about the horse at the beginning…. Many of my brain cells got erased during another opening scene, where we saw the smokestacks of the Queen Mary for far too long, and far from any purpose.
    My favorite “quote” from the moving was the phrase
    “Sullivanesque underpinnings.” Bonk!

  2. Zach

    The head of programming at the Film Center was interviewed on NPR this morning. She said she loved this movie and called it “poetic,” that the filmmaker was sensitive to the beauty of Sullivan’s work and that his blend of personal essay and straight documentary captured Sullivan’s vision like no other filmmaker had.

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