Reading academic film studies can be frustrating, especially when it tries to reduce the complexity of the human experience mirrored in the movies to some quasi-Marxist dogma or once-fashionable postmodern theory. It can be both irritating and insightful—sometimes in the space of a single verbose paragraph. With that in mind I began reading Merrill Schleier’s Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in AmericanFilm (published by the University of Minnesota Press). The University of the Pacific film studies and architecture professor refers without irony to the 1957 Spencer Tracy comedy Desk Set as a “positive cinematic treatment of cyberspace,” which is like calling The Tempest an exploration of quantum mechanics. And then she makes illuminating remarks about silent comedian Harold Lloyd, whose roles both challenged and buttressed the conformity of regimented modernity represented by the high-rise warrens of white-collar workers.
Which brings us to her book’s central theme. At first (and setting aside the obvious example of the Chrysler Building), I snickered at her claim of skyscrapers as phallic symbols. But yes, she convinced me over the stretch of many pages. We’ve become blasé about tall buildings, but think of the subconscious reverberations of the toppling of the Twin Towers on 911. Those shafts of steel, glass and concrete represent power, and power throughout the world has been manifested phallically.
Schleier shows that the meaning given those structures shifts according to the attention of the author. TheFountainhead (1949), the overwrought Gary Cooper vehicle based on Ayn Rand’s reactionary novel, celebrated the skyscraper as an emblem of cowboy individualism and the triumph of unfettered free enterprise. A year earlier The Big Clock, based on a pulp novel by Communist poet Kenneth Fearing, took the opposite line in depicting the high-rise office as a symbol of dehumanized corporate America. “
The films‚ opposing stances concerning the legitimacy of the International Style in America are indicative of the parallel debates being waged by the architectural profession,” Schleier writes. It’s one point at which her theorizing becomes interesting, shining a light through superficial appearances to get at the conflicts embedded in a movies‚ plot and embodied in the mise-en-scene. Entertainment is never without meaning.