Fellini's film La Dolce Vita is a story of a soulless journalist (played by Marcello Mastroianni) in search of meaning. But at his talk 'Concrete and Cinema' at the RIBA, Adrian Forty - architectural theorist and professor at the Bartlett - described it as 'all about concrete'. It was as if all the glamour and pathos of this great masterpiece of Italian cinema was being reduced to a homage to a constructional material.
Forty's self-confidence in placing his field - architecture - at the centre of this film was matched only by his over-arching thesis that concrete had changed the history of cinema itself. He elaborated that the great directors of the 1950s and '60s had a 'passionate love affair' with the larva-like material rather than, say, Brigitte Bardot. Apparently, film-makers found the new emotions of modern life mostly in concrete's screen-like plainness and in its blank emptiness.
Concrete, it seemed, was the cause of French New Wave, Italian Neorealism and the New Hollywood, rather than being just one element of the changing world that these movements set out to document.
Putting aside these larger issues, it might have been expected that Forty - a writer of a seminal book on design history - would have some interesting smaller thoughts on film. Yet even his oft-repeated insight that concrete in film often had contradictory meanings - rough and smooth alien and beautiful, fluid and solid - was boringly banal. Surely almost everything depicted at the movies - from motorbikes (malevolent or lovely) to nature (welcoming or scary) - provokes multifaceted responses.
The trouble was that for all Forty's scholarship about the aggregate composite and its siblings, he did not seem to know much about cinema Indeed, his research mostly consisted of remembering the films that he liked in his youth. Even then we were only treated to clips of five of them the most recent being more than 30 years old.
A more up to date and comprehensive series o film stills would have given a better understanding of the material's changing iconography. But instead, the larger history of cinema and concrete - how film-makers varied the representation of it over time, how it differed from cool Europe to bruta America - was not touched upon. By contrast, Mike Davis' book City of Quartz, about Los Angeles, creates a much stronger understanding of the detailed relationship between movies and architecture.
At times it seemed as if Forty was wandering lost in a world he knew little about, trying to find a subject, much like Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita.At the end of the film, the failed novelist meets a girl whom he has met before. And to remind him of his unfinished novel, she jus makes a typing gesture. Maybe someone should have done something similar at the end of Forty's talk, to remind him to return to his forte, architecture, and to leave cinema to those who adore it.
Adrian Forty's talk, 'Concrete and Cinema', was held at the RIBA on Tuesday 7 May