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Australia exhibit, Setting the Scene, photo Nolan Bradbury
Australia exhibit, Setting the Scene, photo Nolan Bradbury

THE AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR THE MOVING IMAGE’S EXHIBITION SETTING THE SCENE: FILM DESIGN FROM METROPOLIS TO AUSTRALIA SHATTERS THE CINEMATIC ILLUSION TO UNCOVER THE IMPACT OF ART DEPARTMENTS, FILM ARCHITECTS AND SET DESIGNERS ON THE HISTORY OF CINEMATIC STYLE. THIS EXHIBITION EXPLORES THE PROCESSES OF CREATION IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF ILLUSORY SPACES AND REVEALS HOW AESTHETICS INFLUENCE TONE, MOOD AND ATMOSPHERE IN THE CINEMA.

Setting the Scene is based on the Deutsche Kinemathek’s Museum für Film und Fernsehen exhibition Moving Spaces: Production Design + Film. The German and Australian curators collaborated to develop a series of diachronic “spatial constellations”, emphasising the evolution of art design and the impact of old and new technologies. ACMI’s exhibition is organised into interrelated zones including: Spaces of Power, Private Spaces, Labyrinth Spaces, Transit Spaces, Stage Spaces, Virtual Spaces and Location Spaces. What emerges is a heterotopia of design with more than 300 exhibits of still and moving images, concept artwork, storyboards, computer visualisations and scale models that coalesce and collide, producing dynamic contrasts and connections by prioritising art design.

The Spaces of Power constellation illustrates the signification of control in the depiction of vast spaces, minimalist design, monumental architecture and access to vision. This area is dominated by a large film still showing the prodigious elevated office designed by Erich Kettelhut for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The graphic symmetry of the gigantic window combined with heavy furniture supporting futuristic communications technology renders Jon Fredersen (Alfred Abel) a God-like figure, able to survey and control the city. Images of the subterranean war room set for Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) display a space filled with screens showing maps the size of walls, extending the connection between power and magnitude into the realm of parody. Both upper and lower spaces are constructed for surveillance and to inspire paranoia through cinematic revisions of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon.

While these images are striking examples of control built from monumental set design, one of the smaller artefacts included in Spaces of Power reveals how illusions of entrapment can be created in miniature. A glass box protects a small set built by the production designer Herman Warm for Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). This model is the location of the prison scene, its black background with parallel white lines descending towards a spot on the floor are used to direct the eye to the hypnotist/murderer and to radiate a sense of his torture. This exhibit also underlines the influence of the German Expressionist visual style with its high contrast, painted light and shadows, absurdly dysfunctional architecture and its cities built on jagged lines.

The first screen of the Private Spaces zone features a scene from Jacques Demme’s recitative musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Demme’s art director Bernard Evein and costume designer Jacqueline Moreau collaborated to develop scenes based on a specific colour palette. The design of wallpapers and fabrics complement costume, resulting in a visual style so inextricably bound to mood and tone that textures become as expressive as characters. In one scene blue floral wallpaper in the bedroom seems to imply that Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) sleeps in a watery interior garden. A scene from Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958) shows a neighbour touring the sterile, empty spaces of the villa Arpel, teetering across the concrete floors on her stilettos, barely able to sit on the furniture which exists for its design, not for comfort. This dysfunctional modernism barely conceals the social critique created by Jacques Lagrange’s spatial design and inherent in Tati’s cinema. The exhibition includes a model of the candy coloured modernist cube house with its obsessively manicured garden surrounding a giant fish water sculpture. The model has buttons that tilt a garage door open and animate a terrier in a tartan coat.

Research photographs, film stills, sequences and a model of the maze from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) are the most compelling aspects of the Labyrinth Spaces constellation. In Kubrick’s film, the Overlook Hotel is transformed into a site of terror with labyrinthine corridors carpeted in alarmingly contrasted colours, elevators filled with gushing blood and hallucinatory images of decay and death behind the doors of hotel rooms. Ray Waller’s production design reveals how cinematography and Steadicam can be used to insert a gliding spectral presence in interior and exterior mazes. Dante Ferretti’s film design, inspired by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, is also exhibited here, with production photographs and a wooden model of his staircase leading in all directions, but ultimately nowhere, from The Name of the Rose (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1986).

Transit Spaces become visual signifiers of Marc Augé’s notion of “non-place.” Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) is filmed on a bespoke, full-sized airport terminal set built by Alex McDowell and including escalators, elevators, furnishings and 35 retail franchises. Spielberg used a periscope camera to check camera angles. The airport terminal set is a heightened non-place, its depersonalised sites of transience and anonymity emphasise movement rather than stillness. Such a transit space becomes a home for the protagonist. A model of the set, sequences from the film and interviews with the production staff reveal the film’s base in the story of the Iranian refugee Merhan Karimi Nasseri (aka Sir Alfred) who was condemned to live in a Parisian airport for 10 years.

Whilst the 1.5 scale model of the Mach 5 car in Speed Racer (Wachowski, 2009) looks like a toy, it represents the zenith of futuristic set design. For this film the Wachowski brothers and their production designer, Owen Patterson, used “virtual cinematography” to create “reality bubbles.” Curator of Setting the Scene, Kate Warren, explains that Speed Racer’s composite spaces were built from digital images of locations including Italy, Morocco, and Death Valley. These panoramas were then stitched together, manipulated and composited resulting in the creation of an artificial global space that is both everywhere and nowhere.

Australian art directors have high profiles in Setting the Scene. The highly stylised visual aesthetic developed with Tracey Moffatt by Stephen Curtis on studio sets for Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) and beDevil (1993) created surrealist inspired hyper-stylised landscapes. But some of the most striking images are shot on location, using few visual effects. A montage of research photos of post-apocalyptic locations shot by Chris Kennedy reveals images of New Orleans post-Katrina, Mount St Helens, mines in Pittsburgh and a deserted theme park in Pennsylvania, all preparation for The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name), a film yet to be released in the cinema.

All paths in Setting the Scene lead to the showcase exhibit, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008). This constellation includes topographic maps and interviews with art director Catherine Martin describing her initial ideas for the design, the impact of the landscape and the ways that design signals a narrative turn and implies cultural change. The most imposing and intriguing exhibit in Setting the Scene is the living room set of Faraway Downs, a key location for Australia. The set has been recreated specifically for ACMI’s exhibition and the visitor can peer into the domestic space and see the combination of European influenced heavy leather furnishings and pristine cut glass decanters sitting alongside woven baskets, boomerangs and bark sculptures. In Australia, visual design enables a subtle shift towards the inclusion of Indigenous cultures.

Setting the Scene provides a heterotopia of visual design constructed from an array of art and artefacts representing disparate times, spaces, ideas and possibilities. This exhibition highlights the visual affect, privileging the pathways, networks and rhizome-like connections between contemporary art direction and visual styles of the past and the future. With Setting the Scene, ACMI has curated a dynamic archive of the work of local and international art directors, revealing film design to be a radically evolving art form.


Setting the Scene: Film Design From Metropolis to Australia, Australian Centre for the Moving Image in collaboration with Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Museum für Film und Fernsehen, Berlin; Melbourne, Dec 4, 2008-April 19, 2009

RealTime issue #89 Feb-March 2009 pg. 19

© Wendy Haslem; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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