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AJ Picks: Architecture and Light on Film

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Our top picks of classic film featuring architecture and light, including shorts and feature-length films

1. William Klein, Broadway By Light, 1958

The first film of photographer-turned-filmmaker William Klein, Broadway By Light is a dazzling study of a night-in-the-life of New York’s Great White Way. Orson Wells declared that Broadway by Light was, “the first film I’ve seen in which colour was absolutely necessary.” The camera focuses on the flashing neon bulbs of Times Square’s iconic advertising and the silhouettes of men at work as they re-arrange letters on the cinema lightboxes. These aspects are offset by more impressionistic moments in the film, where riots of pure colour and movement merge in the reflections of car windscreens and puddles on the street.

2. Alfred Hitchock, Rebecca, 1940

Alfred Hitchcock’s first American project Rebecca is a gothic tale. A young woman moves to Cornwall to live with her new husband, Maxim de Winter, on his country estate. The woman, who remains nameless throughout the film, arrives to find the house preserved in the memory of her husband’s ex-wife Rebecca, who was drowned at sea. Hitchcock uses the shadows of architectural elements, thrown against the interior walls and surfaces, to create a sense of entrapment and psychological pressure throughout the film.

3. Jacques Tati, Playtime, 1967

Jacque Tati’s 1967 film Playtime is an almost silent portrait of Modernist Paris. The film follows the misfortunes of the protagonist, Monsieur Hulot, as he navigates the ever-bewildering city. The viewer is offered voyeuristic glimpses into the stark, brightly-lit interiors of streamlined apartments, shops and offices. The familiar landmarks of the old Paris appear only as fleeting reflections in the new buildings of glass and steel.

4. Len Lye, A Colour Box, 1935

Len Lye, originally from New Zealand, was an avant-garde filmmaker in Britain during the inter-war period. He was deeply interested in movement and in portraying kinetic energy within his artistic works. He joined the GPO (General Post Office) film unit and began to experiment with painting directly onto celluloid, a technique that he pioneered. Lye presented a mass of complex and jumbled movements through painting directly onto celluloid. This had the added effect of creating a sense of off-screen space, as if the patterns are streaming in and out of the frame.

5. Stanley Kubrick, Barry Lyndon, 1975

Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed film Barry Lyndon charts the tumultuous life of a young boy in 18th Century Ireland. Kubrick used a minimal level of electric lighting in the filming of Barry Lyndon, achieved through the use of a lens with a huge aperture, allowing even scenes by candlelight to be filmed. The film has a very static and painterly quality, evoking the 18th Century paintings of William Hogarth in its composed interiors, which are bathed in natural light. 

6. Patrick Keiller, Robinson in Space, 1997

Patrick Keiller’s film is an essay-like portrait of England, documenting the historic landmarks and suburban sprawl that dominates the landscape. The droll voice of the narrator (Paul Scofield) unfolds these spaces, travelling alongside his fictional companion Robinson. Keiller’s highly composed fixed-frame shots, present elevation-like views of interiors, facades and landscapes, with natural light flickering across the surface of rough-hewn concrete and foliage alike.

7. Moholy-Nagy, Ein Lichtspiel Schwarz Weiss Grau, 1930

Artist Lazlo Moholy-Nagy was a creator of drawings, paintings, photography, films, stage sets, graphic design and sculpture. Throughout the 1920’s he developed his famous machine, Light-Space Modulator, a kinetic sculpture in which sculptural forms overlapped and rotated, creating pools of light and shifting shadows. In this short film, techniques of montage are used to evoke a space without a tangible scale, reminiscent of the pulsing modernist city.

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