Today, I went to the exhibit “Modernism: Designing a New World, 1914-1939” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It’s open until July 29, so hurry and check it out. So many recognizable artists and architects appeared, it was like a roll call for early century iconoclasm and influence; I learned a lot. The exhibit launched with the nascent ideals of Utopia, innovations of Cubism, and radical concepts of Futurism (Giacomo Balla is my favorite). I first learned about the Futurists went I went to London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in 1998 shortly after it opened. Today, I was again intrigued by their efforts to devise a comprehensive theory, juevenile antics, and ill-advised ties with fascism.
In the Corcoran’s “Promoting Modernism” and “Performing Modernism” rooms, I saw film clips from some of the big names in early cinema: Walther Ruttman’s Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1924), Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), and Joris Ivens’ Philips Radio (1931). Ruttman’s ode to Berlin is urban and upbeat. It established the benchmark for all documentaries about cities to come. In the “Aetheticized Machine and Transportation” room, film clips included Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927); Abel Gance’s La Roue (1923); and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) . A few years ago, I rented this one and watched it three times in a week. Vertov’s film did more for point-of-view in documentary filmmaking than any work that generation. It was good to see it included, among the architecture, industrial design, and plastic arts.
Above the entrway to the exhibit is a quote by Corbusier : “A great epoch has begun: there exists a new spirit.” If that’s the core of Modernism, then we’re still smack dab in the middle of a Modernistic age.
“What’s African about this volcano summit?” I was asking myself in a sound-design session today for my documentary film, Volcanic Sprint. Our footage was extreme up on the summit of Mt. Cameroon (the halfway point of the race). But it was so freezing that the camera intermittently failed to capture audio. When a female leader summits, race staff shout encouragement in a sing-songy chorus of English and Bakweri dialect. It’s a joyous barrage, carving out space from the wind and cold and expanse.
When the men leaders summit, however, the audio cuts off. You can’t even hear the 50 mile-per-hour winds. In the silence, my thoughts go tangential and I imagine the racers talking in German. Who knows why. But if World War I had gone differently, Cameroon might still be German Kamerun. In fact, three other African states share similar histories of German colonization: Togo, Namibia (South-West Africa), and Tanzania (Tanganyika). Racers would be clad in lederhausen.
During our session, the music composed by Asparagus Media ultimately carried the drama, and when we needed wind, our sound designer, Howard at TEAM, made it happen. Then I remembered something I learned during production in Cameroon. When the town of Buea erected a statue for perennial winner, the Queen of the Mountain, her son Pierrot told me, clearly proud, that it was the second statue in the entire province. “What’s the other one?” I asked. Without hesitation he answered: “Bismarck.”
I was in a color-correction session today for my first documentary feature, Volcanic Sprint, about Africa’s most grueling mountain race. And I noticed something. Before the race begins, the “Queen of the Mountain,” who is the defending female champion, is at risk of being disqualified. Amid rumors of a conspiracy, the Mayor of Buea speaks up: “Her supporters may interpret it as a kind of injustice done to her.” His words are calculated, yet visceral, and it’s clear he’s a fan as well. The scene helps establish the Queen as more than a sports star. An entire town is leaning on her. Then I noticed the Mayor’s baseball cap, which read: “Bank of Scotland.”
Why Scotland in Africa? Forest Whitaker truly deserved his Oscar for The Last King of Scotland, a rough-hewn, focused story infused with documentary style. It is more enduring than the entertaining Blood Diamond. But why did Whitaker’s character, dictator Idi Amin grant himself the title “King of Scotland?” I thought I knew part of the answer. Colonized by the Brits, Uganda and Scotland share a common history. Then I encountered My Brutal Muse, a fascinating article by novelist Giles Foden who wrote the book upon which the movie was based. Foden called the mental roots of Amin’s behavior, “the psychological byproduct of his Oedipal relationship with the former colonial power.” When the Brits turned their backs on Amin, he “could sing Scotland’s praises and support its self-determination, while hating and hoping to split the UK.” So in quirky, and sometimes entertaining fashion, Amin was simply following the old adage of realpolitik: “My Enemy’s Enemy is My Friend” (which also happens to be the name of a forthcoming documentary film by the The Last King of Scotland’s director, Kevin MacDonald.
Now, back to Volcanic Sprint and the Mayor of Buea (located in the Southwest Province of Cameroon, also colonized by the British.) His “Bank of Scotland” hat. Was it an accident of overlapping cultures or political commentary? Or simply a stylish protection from the equatorial sun? I think not: in singing Scotland’s praises, one African mayor is doing more than just associating himself with a prosperous foreign bank. After a fashion, like Whitaker’s Amin, he’s invoking the swagger of Braveheart.