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Art and the movies

Film poster for “Hands over the City”
Public Domain

Flavorwire, the cultural news site, has linked 15 famous paintings to films, including Edward Hopper’s “House by the Railroad” with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy” with Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” Both directors acknowledged the influence of these paintings.

One could easily add to this list with films that actually portrayed famous artists. Hollywood has long looked to artist for scripts. Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo and Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock come to mind.

But the art of architecture in film merits a list, too. I’m thinking of the modern film version of “Hamlet” set in upscale Manhattan with Ethan Hawke as the brooding prince. The setting - a four-level Rubik’s Cube of glass that scared his cleaning lady for its lack of stair railings – evokes the look of architect Philip Johnson’s New York apartment. Someone on the film must have known that.

A couple of years ago, London’s Guardian Newspaper ran a “10 Best Fictional Architects” list. This included Gary Cooper in “The Fountainhead,” who blew up a housing project he designed because it was messed with, and Woody Harrelson in “Indecent Proposal,” whose wife sells herself for a night to support his architectural dream.

But the Guardian’s left a hole in the architecture story - movies about those who hold sway over the built environment - developers.

I’m thinking of cautionary tales about cities that shouldn’t be built, like the one in “Hands over the City” starring Rod Steiger as a corrupt developer who ruins a town. Or Matt Dillon in “Over the Edge,” which tells the tale of a planned community so isolated, so treeless and so oblivious to its youths that they turn to drink and drugs for something to do.

When you think about Howard Roark blowing up his vulgarized building like some watercolor painter destroying a picture that got rained on, it’s fair to say that architects are as much about sensory reaction as are painters. In contrast, developers are businessmen with priorities beyond aesthetics and too often they run the show.