CIFF Reviews: The New Bauhaus, Frank Gehry: Building Justice, Forman v. Forman

Earlier this week, the 55th annual Chicago International Film Festival (2019) kicked-off. It’s my second year covering, and this time around I was lucky to find three intriguing documentaries about notable creatives. I’m a sucker for any film that follows a famous designer, artist, or writer to discover their approach. To these ends, I watched The New Bauhaus (László Moholy-Nagy), Frank Gehry: Building Justice, and Forman v. Forman (Miloš Forman).

“He constantly reinvented himself out of sheer necessity,” as described by one of the many luminous voices of what made László Moholy-Nagy special. The famed Chicago-based Hungarian artist and founder of the Institute of Design serves as the subject of Alysa Nahmias’ impressive documentary The New Bauhaus—playing at the Chicago International Film Festival.

Over the course of 88 minutes, viewers witness the varied ways Moholy-Nagy reinvented, adapted, and creatively pushed his craft(s). Nahmias exhibits the change by having Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist—artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London—read transcripts in Moholy-Nagy’s voice of an interview the Bauhaus artist once gave. The Hungarian creator’s daughter Hattula Moholy-Nagy also appears in the film to share stories and perspectives of her father’s working habits, his techniques, and his personal idiosyncrasies.

Nahmias throughout The New Bauhaus understands the art and the humanity of the subject are not separated, they inform each other. And while such revelations shouldn’t come as a surprise, with Moholy-Nagy the divide between both certainly appeared minimal. To him, art wasn’t a profession, rather a discipline and self-experimentation that enriched the individual more than the pocketbook. Viewers witness his lessons not just through his work in painting, graphic arts, photography, and film but through interviews with his students like Blanche Gildin, Sumner Fineberg, and Beatrice Takeuchi as well. All were forever changed through his instructions.

A through line, from his humble beginnings in a nothing small town in Hungary, now left abandoned, to his tenure at the Bauhaus school run by Walter Gropius, to his pioneering work founding the Institute of Design in 1939 (now IIT)—speaks to the ingenuity of Moholy-Nagy’s will to rise from a broken provincial family to his vaulted place in art history. Nevertheless, his name today is rarely tossed around as reverently as say Picasso or Monet. Instead, his story remains an unique and partly exposed gem of Chicago. And while his legacy extends to his students becoming exceptional teachers and creators in their own right, spreading the word and style of the New Bauhaus to newer generations in varying cities and countries, he mostly remains a ballyhooed figure known for his reach more than expansive work.

Nevertheless, by Nahmias so wonderfully linking the two together: the man and the work—viewers can only hope but aspire to the creed by which Moholy-Nagy lived his life. And if you’re like me, and am fascinated by watching how highly successful figures approach their craft, if their fervent belief in their life’s vision inspires you as it does me, then The New Bauhaus can only spur you to reinvent yourself with the same dexterity used by Moholy-Nagy himself.

Frank Gehry is the most famous and lauded architect of his generation. Known for creating concert halls and large public space. The very idea of designing the “perfect” jail hits at the antithesis of his previous projects. Nevertheless, in Ultan Guilfoyle’s Frank Gehry: Building Justice, with the help of Yale’s architecture students, Guilfoyle composes the inequities of the American justice system down to the brick. 

Much of Building Justice discusses how space psychologically affects humans: how ethereal open areas free us, and why claustrophobic confinement stokes our worst demons. Prisons have often relied on space as a form of punishment, as a method for dehumanizing which runs counter to the goal of rehabilitation. To these ends, Gehry enlists the help of Susan Burton. Burton, a formerly incarcerated woman, now dedicates her life to activism and prison reform. She provides a steady grounding for the architecture students’ loftier ambitions. 

The documentary’s most poignant scenes arrive through the students, Burton, and Gehry interviewing former inmates who share their disparaging experiences in jail. Equally as eye opening, the students and Gehry visit Norway to use their prisons as case studies of successful jail designs. To witness the gulfs separating the American prison system and Norway’s, which relies on teaching trades, focusing on the arts, and allowing open spaces for prisoners to congregate, is a sobering wake-up call. However, ultimately, the students and Gehry are designing prisons for the future, when the expansive population housed within prisons falls to lower levels. The whole expedition feels far fetched and idealized, more Utopian than practical. Or maybe we’ve been conditioned to believe that the human treatment of criminals should fall under the category of pipe dream. Either way, Frank Gehry: Building Justice should serve as a startling shock for America.   

In 2018, the famed Czech film director Miloš Forman passed away. A leading vanguard of Czechoslovak New Wave, he directed classics of the movement like Peter Black (1964), Loves of a Blonde (1965), and The Fireman’s Ball (1967). Later on, he would conquer Hollywood and win Best Director for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). In between and early on, he would experience tragedy and solitude that ultimately shaped his worldview. Jakub Hejna and Helena Trestíková’s tidy 77-minute documentary Forman v. Forman follows the director on his journey to creating his career defining works.

Forman came from the unlikeliest and sobering of backgrounds to venerated Hollywood creator, mostly born from solitude. Born in Czechoslovakia at the turn of World War II, he grew up an orphan after his parents were sent and died in concentration camps. He later made his own family, with his wife Věra Křesadlová and their twin sons, only to be exiled from his country away from them because of his subversive filmmaking. Those events formed two constants through Forman’s life: the pursuit of creative freedom and the search for a family.

Decorated with interviews from the director, he describes the thinking and stories behind his most famous films. In several instances, he details the censorship within Czechoslovakia at the height of communism: How he needed his scripts approved by the government and then would later film what he wanted independent of screenplay, like with The Fireman’s Ball. In another, we witness the surveillance cast and crew were submitted to while filming Amadeus in Forman’s home country. An independent maverick, that spirit holds the documentary together, though it travels in standard linear fashion. One of the great treats of Forman v. Forman is seeing the director talk to his younger twin sons: born from his third marriage with Martina Zbořilová, about why he’s just so-so on The Last Samurai (2003). Surely, another reason to be his fan.

Forman v. Forman, much like the director’s life, seems short, even in its thoughtful tribute. As if it’s missing another 5 minutes to discuss an incredible work like Man on the Moon (1999). Instead, it ends with The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), which fits with Forman’s search for creative freedom, but leaves the last two decades of his life untouched. The lack of footage serves as another reason to mourn that Forman didn’t live longer, and didn’t produce one more film with his unique brand of humor and empathy.

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