Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan

Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan (2004) Following Sullivan’s famous credo that “form ever follows function,” Tall creatively employs film form to capture the essence of its engaging subject, the evolution of the skyscraper. The elegance of Sullivan’s architecture is effectively and engrossingly replicated in director Kirchheimer’s editing, composition, camera movement, and soundtrack. The opening sequence, for example, starts with a quiet long shot of a horse on an empty street outside a warehouse and serves as marker of the end of the pre-modern era. Kirchheimer then steadily builds, via montage, a visual and aural tension not unlike what might have been experienced by the citizens of a newly modernizing urban world.

Four minutes later, as the camera closes in on small architectural details and the soundtrack evokes a cacophony of modern factory production, the viewer is left with a panicked sense of the changes rendered in the urban landscape and the lives of those who lived and worked there at the close of the 19th century.

Form again follows function when Kirchheimer evokes the arrival of the skyscraper, in the form of the Woolworth Tower, through the first long panning up shot used in the film. By saving this kind of shot for this part of the story, the viewer is drawn out of our now pedestrian experience with skyscrapers and into a radical sense of the newness and unprecedented immensity of such constructions upon their invention. Throughout the film, even when dealing with static archival photos, Kirchheimer maximizes the ability of image to support and expand narrative by keeping the camera moving and lively and multiplies the effect through an evocatively matched soundtrack.

Though Sullivan’s personality, hard luck, and rivalries are interesting, especially his convoluted relationship with pupil and champion Frank Lloyd Wright, the concluding sections focusing more on the architects and less on the architecture are not as compelling. The cinematic techniques that were so successful in rendering the architecture are less effective when the subject shifts to people. Rather than documenting Sullivan’s decline, these concluding sections would perhaps have had more educational value had there been more exposition of the affects of Sullivan’s architecture on its users.
Michael Mooradian Lupro mlupro@bgsu.edu

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