Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Millennium Stage: What if... 1971?

Millennium Stage 20th Anniversary Celebration!
On stage: Big Sam's Funky Nation

In 1971, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened with three performance venues off of its Grand Foyer. In March 1997, that number jumped up to five venues, with the creation of Millennium Stage. Originally just a makeshift stage located in the dead-end space at each end of the hall, it eventually grew into a less-makeshift stage structure with a trompe l'oeil fabric-covered facade. In 2012, the stage got a makeover with a permanent structure and what I like to call "light-columns."

To mark Millennium Stage's 20th anniversary this year, I decided to imagine: What would Millennium Stage have looked like if it had been built in 1971 along with the rest of the building?

Parameters of this theoretical: The stage has to live within the as-built version of the Kennedy Center. There are many different versions of the design, but let's go with the one that was settled upon. This project will draw inspiration from the original architecture of the Center's exterior, Grand Foyer, Hall of States/Nations, Eisenhower Theater, Opera House, Concert Hall, and other works by the Center's architect.

Let's start with examining the architect!

The Kennedy Center was designed by prominent 20th century architect Edward Durell Stone. Stone designed many iconic high-profile buildings, including the American Embassy in New Delhi, the General Motors Building & the Gallery of Modern Art in New York, and more.

Stone's style grew and evolved over the decades of his career. Stone was classically trained in the Beaux-Arts style, but took up the contemporary International and Modern styles of the day. Not enjoying the styles' rigid rules, he slowly developed his own aesthetic. This style was later known as New Formalism (also sometimes known as New Romanticism). New Formalism is a modern-age take on classical architecture rules and designs. Stone found he really liked it, and he used it on every building he created henceforth.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Stone's New Formalism went up right against what Modernism had been doing, so his work created many polarizing options. People continue to have polarizing opinions of his work to this day. You either love it or hate it!

Stone borrowed many elements from his previous projects and put them into the Kennedy Center. He did this with many of his projects. The effect is that a lot of his architecture looks the same. "While the increasingly formal, classical elegance of his architecture appealed to the general public, architecture critics progressively considered his work routinized--a prepackaged aesthetic that had become ordinary and uninspired," writes Mary Anne Hunting, author of Edward Durell Stone, Modernism's Populist Architect. "What is more, their critical opinion of his work as stale began to overshadow his former success."

While his replicating might have hurt his successes, it does make his style incredibly easy for others to replicate. Let's look at what pops up in an Edward Durell Stone building/theater:

Patterns, Lines, & Geometry:
Edward Durell Stone decorated in shapes. The Kennedy Center is covered in lines, squares, circles, and hexagons. From the shapes he chose, he created patterns. Shapes would repeat themselves by getting bigger and surrounding the initial shape. Then that whole grouping was repeated further down the wall or ceiling. There is constant repetition throughout the building in many different forms.

Concert Hall Ceiling (note the circles in the corners, those
spots used to house golden spheres)

The building is naturally horizontal, but the design does everything in its power to stress the vertical. Slender columns line the exterior and hallways. Windows are all narrow and tall. Your eyes are drawn up to chandeliers rather than side-to-side.

Stress the vertical
(The chandeliers were originally hung lower 
until Millennium Stage was built)

Nothing interrupts a vertical line. Vertical lines are all straight. Horizontal lines are mostly straight, but some are allowed to curve. The curves are all very drawn out, very romantic.

2nd Tier Balcony of the Opera House

Patterns can also be created through shadows. Stone had to have loved shadows. He was always adding negative space in walls and ceilings so light could shine through and play with his patterns. Much like mobiles created by Alexander Calder (a friend of Stone's (this guy was connected)), Stone created a moving art piece by manipulating the shadows coming into the building. You could spend all day watching how shadows move across the Grand Foyer.

The Grand Foyer has beautiful shadows

Shadows -- in action! From Top Notch 2016
(Tan carpet only present for breakdancing)

There are different patterns and feels expressed throughout the building, but they stay separate. When you are in the Grand Foyer, you are in the Grand Foyer pattern's environment. Once you step into the Opera House, you are now in that pattern's domain.

Edward Durell Stone and Frank Lloyd Wright were good friends and loved each other's work (Like I said earlier, this guy was connected). They both desired different choices to the mainstream's Modernism at the time. Stone was very much inspired by Wright's style and had a whole period of his career where he designed buildings very similar to Wright's. One thing he brought out of that period was a love for nature.

While Wright designed buildings that harmonized/interacted with nature and the landscape, I find Stone ultimately designed buildings that showcased nature. He planned huge windows that looked out onto gorgeous landscapes. Inside, there were interior garden spaces which, along with planters, could feature decorative pools and fountains. You are in Stone's meticulously-designed and controlled environment.

Kennedy Center River Terrace

Besides living plants, Stone also incorporated natural materials into his decor. He used marble on the walls and floors (when the budget allowed). Wood paneling was also common.

The Kennedy Center fits well in Stone's naturalism. Short trees and shrubs surrounded the Center on three sides in individual planters. Huge windows look out onto the Potomac River and Theodore Roosevelt Island, framed by willow trees on the River Terrace. Potted trees originally lined the Grand Foyer. Marble and wooden parquet floors took over where red carpet stopped. The original Eisenhower Theater was almost entirely composed of dark wooden paneling.

Winter vista from the Eisenhower Balcony Level

Horror Vacui/Simplicity:
Horror Vacui is a term I just learned, it means a "fear of empty space." This is a feeling I feel a lot of times. I don't think Stone had this fear. He liked the clutter-less look. Many of his designs, even going back to when he was in school, are very austere.

His designs are not completely blank. He does use ornamentation regularly in his work. By leaving everything else blank, it directs your eye to that ornamentation. It heightens its importance. You wouldn't have noticed that particular detail as much if there had been paintings and crown molding and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Lighting fixture in a stairwell. Don't beware the bare.

(Something to learn from Stone: If you are going for the spartan look and make it hard for people to tell the difference between one area and another, you should probably integrate signage into your design.  It's important to remember that while you may view your architecture as  standalone "art" (which it rightfully is), you are also creating a living building. The Center in particular has hundreds of performance and non-performance events a year, and it is visited by thousands of guests every day. Signage is inevitable. People will add it later anyway, and their signage will never fit in as well as you would have liked. Control your design's future by taking preventative steps where and when you can.)

Stone loved theatricality. He regularly used in all of his works the colors of drama and theater: white, gold, and red. "[Stone] insisted on certain traditional symbols of luxury characteristic of theater design or other opulent spaces, including metallic (especially gold) surfaces, white marble, dark wood, and royal-red textiles-- all very seductive and sumptuous," writes Hunting. It's no wonder when he designed the National Cultural Center, the building is composed of white marble walls, gold columns, dark wood paneling, and red carpet.

Eisenhower Theater Box Tier level

Monumentality/Size Matters:
Mainstream Modernism during Stone's time had a problem with monumental architecture. Through taking inspiration from monumental architecture of the past, Stone was able to bring monumental into his work. "This 'new public architecture'" writes Hunting, "...not only demonstrated that monumentality no longer had to be articulated in a specific format but that together with Modernism it could express the American conscience while symbolizing the nation's heritage."

Kennedy Center exterior

Modernists believe that form should follow function on buildings. A form with monumentality was not necessary for the function of most buildings. Of course, as the Kennedy Center's function is to be a monument to the late President John F. Kennedy, it could be argued the building does adhere to form-follows-function Modernism by expressing monumentality.

Let's segue over from monumentality to monumental, as in size. When the project asked for it, Stone knew how to economize size (he was great at organizing a building to make it all fit together). But when he had the means, he made his buildings big. The Kennedy Center is on its own scale. The Grand Foyer is one of the largest rooms ever created. Ceilings loom over guests' heads. The building is over two football field lengths long! Nothing describes it better than monumental.

A tall, tall door into the Bird Room

Don't you hate when doors and unneeded stagelights get in the way of your design? When you're Edward Durell Stone, you say 'Why Should It?' Often, there are hidden compartments or doors that blend into the design. You can never mess up a vertical line in a Stone building.

This also ties in with an effort to keep the behind-the-scenes behind the scenes. The public does not need to see the inner workings of the theater. If it needs to be accessed, it can be opened. But once it's done and is closed, the door disappears like it was never there.

Nothing gets in the way of an Edward Durell
Stone design. Not even an exit door.

Proscenium Arch (Or Lack Thereof):
For those that do not know, the proscenium arch is the border (picture frame) around the stage. It's a physical marker of the invisible 4th wall. Think of it as a portal between the world of the audience and the world happening on stage.

In classic turn-of-the-century theaters, there is much ornamentation and architectural pizzazz around these proscenium arches. So what does Stone do? He ignores it. His walls simply end where the proscenium starts.

Kennedy Center Opera House
(The red covered gangway was temporary)

Stone likes to make you think his buildings can float. The walls on his New Dehli Embassy and the Stuart Building in Pasadena, CA seem to not touch the ground. At the Kennedy Center, Stone takes it up a notch. When viewed from across the Potomac River, the whole building floats, like it is an alien spaceship hovering above the land, imparting the performing arts to the barren performing arts D.C. landscape of the 1970's.

The Kennedy Center floats!

Of course, the floating is an optical illusion. At the Center, the effect is practical. Rock Creek Parkway runs between the Kennedy Center and the Potomac River. A couple floors above, the Center extends over the Parkway so to allow more space on the building's River Terrace.

Rock Creek Parkway going under the
Kennedy Center's River Terrace

Both architectural signatures of Stone's, grillwork and meshwork are missing from the Kennedy Center. They both have a similar effect when used. They diffuse light, create a repetitive pattern, and produce captivating moving shadows.

Grillwork was prominently featured in Stone's New Delhi American Embassy to much success. Then it was used in his U.S. Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Then in a myriad of other Stone buildings. Grillwork became known as a EDS staple. By the time the Kennedy Center was designed, I believe either Stone realized this or the National Cultural Center Advisory Committee did not want their building to be a replication of many others.

Although meshwork is not used here, the shapes Stone created with it are echoed in the Kennedy Center twice. Stone created two kinds of ceilings with mesh, tent and wavy. Tent-style meshwork imitates the inside of a big-top circus tent. An example of this meshwork can be seen in the Beckman Auditorium at Cal Tech in Pasadena, CA. In the Opera House, the walls and ceiling are solid red fabric that billow inwards from their seams, much like a circus tent. 

Opera House and its "Under the Big Top" feel

Stone used his wave-style meshwork more often, as it seems to have fit more room shapes. This style imitates waves, going up and down. The theater in the Gallery of Modern Art (now the Museum of Arts and Design) in New York City features a wavy mesh roof. When visiting the Eisenhower Theater, remember to look up. The solid wavy ceiling is one of the only original features that largely survived the theater's extensive 2008 renovation.

Eisenhower ceiling. This was originally painted red

Overhanging Eaves:
Eaves hang multiple yards over the main building block on Stone buildings. Sometimes, there are cut-outs in the eaves, creating interesting shadow patterns throughout the day. Until the final design, the Kennedy Center was going to have these in its eaves as well.

Cut-outs in overhanging eaves at National Geographic
Building in Washington, D.C. by Edward Durell Stone

Golden Balls:
In every theater in the Kennedy Center, there are golden spheres in the walls and on the ceilings. They are everywhere! This is the subtle ornamentation Stone added to his designs. The Hall of Nations and States also both feature bronze sphere lights.

Balls in the Opera House

As the Kennedy Center has been renovated, these balls have become endangered species. Spheres used to live in every hexagon corner on the Concert Hall ceiling. Now they only dot the edges and surround the chandelier bases. The Eisenhower Theater's balls were completely eradicated. So far, the Opera House and the Concert Hall's walls have been immune to any major loss.

Some of the remaining balls on the Concert Hall Ceiling

There are probably other obvious things Edward Durell Stone did that I am forgetting to write about here, but this has been a good starting place.


The Ideas

So, with all that in mind, it's time to create!

All of the ideas I dreamed up are proscenium stages. With the space afforded, there isn't a better theater arrangement without starting to impact seating and the lobby space for the adjoining venue. While the imagined setup mostly follows the current setup, there are some changes, which I'll talk about further down in the page.

[I have heard a couple numbers bounced around how long everything is. For simplicity's sake in my designs, I am making the Grand Foyer 40' wide and 60' tall.]

What would an Edward Durell Stone Millennium Stage look like?

Idea A: Continuing Grand Foyer
The main idea here is to harmonize with the Grand Foyer's style. The main pattern in the Grand Foyer is upside-down U's. So that's what I went with!:

Idea A

These would imitate the white of the tiers in every lobby, as well as the spacing between each line.

Opera House Lobby Tiers facing the Grand Foyer

Idea B: Golden Balls
After I had come up with Idea A, I kept getting bothered by the fact that this design didn't have any golden balls. Every other venue had some repeating golden sphere pattern, so these stages should as well! I digitally tested adding spheres to Idea A. That didn't work out well. There was too much going on, and it was cluttering the main design.

Test 1: Circles beween each main pattern.
Test 2: Circles in-between the layers of the main pattern itself.

I then came up with a new proscenium design with a repeating ball pattern. This look was inspired by wall mesh in Edward Durell Stone's custom-designed New York apartment.

I used the Opera House's half-spheres as a model for the Millennium Stage ones. Their diameter is 2 1/2". I decided to add 1/2" of space between each sphere so they weren't completely crowded in. This amounted to 160 balls across by 114 balls tall, or 9,024 balls total covering the whole facade. (If there was 0" of space between each ball, I could fit 192 balls across).

Idea B (I had no desire to draw over 9,000 circles, 
so this was made in Paint with the spray can tool.)

Based off the current stage's light columns, I came up with a future iteration for this facade. When LED technology became readily available, the golden balls would be traded out for translucent ones. Each ball would have an LED that could be individually programmed. It is safe to say this would be very visually overwhelming, but I dare you to find a lighting designer who wouldn't have fun designing a show with those lights.

Idea C: A.J. Freestyles
Taking Edward Durell Stone patterns and such, this is what I would design:

Idea C*

This idea is adding onto Idea A. I do like acknowledging the proscenium, even a little bit. I copied the Grand Foyer chandeliers' circular ceiling base design onto the top of the facade. A star is in the center because it is the symbol of Millennium Stage. The circles would be white, with the star either being gold, or white with the ability to light up from within.

OR, the star could be more abstract, à la sputnik star style. These would be made by Lobmeyr, creators of the Opera House (and Lincoln Center's Met Opera) chandeliers. They would mass together at the center and project outwards. Lights could be embedded into the whole top of the facade. They would be programmed to twinkle and simulate a "Big Bang" explosion at the start every Millennium Stage show.

*When I finally drew this, I realized how much this looks like Captain America's shield. Whoops!

D: Alternate Reality: Grillwork
If Stone had not overused his grill concept, I feel like he could have used it for the Millennium Stage design. My question would be what would be behind the grillwork? Stone usually had glass behind it. For a theater, you want to be able to control light and sightlines, so I feel the grillwork in this instance would be backed by a black wall or curtain. Lights could also be placed in-between the grillwork and its backing for some interesting lighting looks.

Structural Ideas:

Here is a basic overhead drawing of the current Millennium Stage by the Eisenhower Theater:

Here is that same drawing with my changes for a 1971 version of the stage in red:

All the Kennedy Center stages originally curved. So would this stage. The stage would move forward a few feet (maybe more than pictured) to allow more backstage space.

Millennium Stage's backstage currently dead-ends. The only ways onto the stage is via stairs or a ramp on the side of the stage. In older iterations of the stage before accessibility ramp additions, there was a  wheelchair lift hidden behind side curtains. This 1971 stage would not have stairs, a lift, or a ramp, but it would not dead-end either! There would be a door added that would connect the Millennium Stage backstage with the adjoining venue's space. Currently, that would be into a bathroom. I haven't thought theoretically beyond that door, only that there would be a lot of space reorganization happening.

Like Stone's other theaters, the 1971 Millennium Stage would have hidden doors and hatches to get to all the interior mechanisms. This would also include chair storage space. At the current stage, when the chairs aren't set for a performance, they are stored on chair racks under each stage. They are hidden by a simple curtain. For this early stage, the facades would continue down and cover the openings. The designed facade would either be attached to the racks themselves, or lift up and away for chair rack access.

On the 1998 stage, to be able to light the front of the stage, the first electric lighting row had to be placed in front of the trompe l'oeil facade. The 2012's redesign had the proscenium tilt forward to hide this necessary feature. The 1971 stage would have lights built into the ceiling, much like the Concert Hall used to/still partially uses to light its stage.

Okay, this is where we get into higher discussions. On the current Millennium Stage, there is approximately two stories of empty air space above the stage. My idea is to pull the Grand Foyer's back wall right up to behind the proscenium arch for the stage. This way, all that empty space can be utilized productively!

Millennium Stage Air Space

Here is a list of things that could be done in this space:
- Millennium Stage Rehearsal Room. This would have access to the stage via a spiral staircase located behind the stage's back curtain. This stage would definitely need be pushed forward a few feet to be able to fit the stairs along with everything else that is stored backstage.
- Fly system. Does a stage the size of Millennium Stage (24'x24') really need a fly system? That's a terrible attitude, let's add one anyway! The fly system could consist of every electric and curtain being able to move up and down, or there could be one line just for a main curtain. The curtain on each stage, of course, would be a gift from a foreign country.
- Lounge. One can never have too many lounge spaces at the Kennedy Center. Since they would be on the river side of the building, I would love for these lounges to have windows. That all depends if a suitable exterior window pattern could be created to allow such windows.
- Administrative offices. The Kennedy Center lacked/s sufficient office space. There's always a need for more of it.
- Tech space. I don't have a good idea as to how to integrate Millennium Stage's tech booth into the design. If 1971's Millennium Stage broadcasted each of its performances for television, I could see this space being used as the multimedia camera director location. Other than storage, that would be it.
- Organ. The Grand Foyer has unique acoustic qualities. Could you imagine one organ's melody filling that whole space? Or even playing organs on both sides at the same time?
- Another Mosby Hiding Space? Nah, he'd probably still like the unfinished Terrace Theater. Mosby is the legendary Kennedy Center cat. Look him up, he's a true story.


Final Thoughts
Edward Durell Stone's style is not one I would personally want to emulate. It's not my favorite style. I can appreciate pieces of it and certain views. This project definitely helped me appreciate his work more than before. His work is most certainly beautiful, but it can also be a hard pill to swallow.

I felt like the designs I came up with were alright. I think this came from that these weren't very creatively challenging to me. I was replicating the design in ways that I found obvious. I also felt they weren't busy enough, but that goes with my horror vacui tendency. It did fulfill what I wanted it to, which was harmonize with the Grand Foyer and Stone's architectural style.

Where the Center has renovated Stone's work: Stone's work hadn't aged well, but it still made bold statements. The new redesigned theaters and other spaces are fresh and pleasant to look at... but do they have character? Do they say anything? They fit in contemporary styles, but do they fit with the Kennedy Center? Is the Center to become a cacophony of different architectural narratives?

Did you like this project? Do you have your own ideas of what Millennium Stage could have looked like in 1971? Here's a template below, show me what you would design!

Edward Durell Stone, Modernism's Populist Architect by Mary Anne Hunting (A great read, I owe much of this post to this book. Thank you, Ms. Hunting!)
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts by Brendan Gill
Modernist Architecture: A Funny Thing Happened on The Way To The Forum...
Quinn Evans Architects - Eisenhower Theater Renovation
Interview(s) with Garth Ross
Kennedy Center 1971 blueprints
Archival photos of the Center

Thanks To:
The whole Community Engagement team that runs Millennium Stage, it's the best team to work with!
Prof. Wynn/Muncy, for the little drafting skills I still remember from your class. Questions, qualms, queries, quose? Salutations!
Vaughan B, for trying to decipher what my project was while still letting me look at old blueprints. Hope you understand it now!
Lauren H, for all your effort to get me permission to use archival photos, as well as your constant enthusiasm and support, you rock!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

SS United States Small Screen Review: American Gods (2017)

I'm back back back back back again! Our prayers have been answered, and Starz's has brought Neil Gaiman's American Gods to the small screen.

[Disclaimer: American Gods has explicit sex scenes, full nudity, and graphic violence. It might not be suitable for younger audiences]

American Gods is the story of Shadow Moon. Shadow gets out of prison a few days earlier than expected because his wife is killed in a car accident. With no family ties and no job, Shadow accepts a bodyguard job offer from a man going by the name of Mr. Wednesday. Shadow is thrust into a new world where the impossible is normal, faith is tested, and a sacrifice will have to be made. Americana-supernatural ensues.

There is one reason I am watching this series: Bryan Fuller. Bryan Fuller is one of my favorite writers/producers. He creates these all-around beautiful, quirky, and poignant series. These shows develop cult-like followings, but also have a terrible tendency of getting cancelled too soon. Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal (the TV Series), to name his most well-known works (and some of my favorites thrown in as well). American Gods is currently beating the odds -- before episode 3 aired, Starz announced the series would have a second season!

I read the book American Gods once it was announced Bryan Fuller was creating the adaptation. The book was interesting. I liked the story and mythology created. I loved the idea of what the modern era's religions are, who we "pray" to. That said, looking back I didn't enjoy the journey in-between the story. It would go for long stretches where nothing was really happening, or get side-tracked on a one chapter story. Action was out there, but Shadow was either kept unaware of it, or kept out of it.

The show, so far, has been a fairly faithful adaptation. Maybe because I know the story now, the bumps I had with the book are not bothering me as much as in the series. Although, it still hasn't pulled me in yet. Hannibal also was that way at first, so I'm hoping it's just figuring out its footing right now.

So, where is your ship now?

We're up to Episode Three right now. In one of the one-chapter stories, one guy has an appointment with this businessman that never appears, so he waits there all day. It's really sad (It gets better for him later). Anyway, one of the first shots of the waiting room shows a framed photo of the RMS Queen Elizabeth docking in New York City.

Still from American Gods (2017) S1E3 by Starz

This particular shot is long (and the guy is mainly sitting there), so I had a bit of time to admire the long-lost dame pictured. I also started to look in the background, where I noticed a ship already docked at a pier. Were those tri-colored columns? Are they irregularly shaped? Not wanting to cry wolf, I went off to find the original image. After trying a couple combinations, "queen elizabeth docking new york black and white" brought me to the image. Well what do you know! It is the SS United States! That's probably her tiniest cameo to date. Very tiny, very not-at-all-important-to-the-story, but a cameo's a cameo!


The Series: Series still in progress, but faithful adaptation. 4/4 (tentatively)
SS United States: It's in the background of a picture you can see in one shot. 1/4

Thursday, February 16, 2017

SS United States Silver Screen Review Conclusion (For Now)

When I started this series 2 years ago (!!), I originally had not seen/had no intention of ever seeing most of the movies on this list. It's a very eclectic list of shows, from musicals and comedies, to thrillers and children movies. How do I feel now? Some I'm glad I watched. Others could have stayed unwatched.

What did I learn from it all?

It seems difficult to film on an ocean liner, especially interiors. Interiors can be cramped. Film crews oftentimes need space, in front and behind the camera. Film crews also need time to shoot and re-shoot. Liners cannot justify giving over one of their dining rooms or ballrooms for a film shoot. It's not fair on the ship's passengers. Every space on board is already precious. It's easier for films to build their own ship set on a sound stage.

In movies in general, an ocean liner is a vehicle of transportation. People are getting on board so they can get going to somewhere else. It's the ship's job to advance the plot by advancing the characters to where they want to go. A boat only becomes a main setting when something major happens on board that changes the characters' life in some way. An Affair to Remember. The Poseidon Adventure. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Titanic. Unless that is present, there's no reason to chronicle life aboard a 5-7 day voyage at sea.

Why choose the SS United States? Some of the time, the ship was not even part of the story, just making a cameo because it was in port the time of the shoot. When she was cast as 'the ship' in movies, it was because she was a novelty, or recognizable with her patriotic funnels. Or maybe films shot on whatever ship was available; the Queens both still got plenty of movie work. She disappeared from the spotlight once she was laid up in Hampton Roads. That area of Virginia tends to not be a popular film area. Once the ship moved to Philadelphia, the ship started to appear in movies again, and in new ways. She became an excellent industrial/quasi-abandoned location. Yet what sets her apart from other locations is she can be easily accessed (with the right permissions) and is structurally sound and safe.

So, what were my Top 3 ranked movies? Combining their movie rating with their SS United State rating, it is as follows:

1. A Series of Unfortunate Events
2. Bon Voyage
3. Dead Man Down

What was the worst ranking movie? The Water Horse. Like there was any contest. I still can't believe I have that DVD laying around my house somewhere.

So, is the Silver Screen Review over? As long as the SS United States is around and popping into movies, the Silver Screen Review will not end!

Monday, February 13, 2017

SS United States Silver Screen Review: Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955)

Let me let you in on a little secret: Gentlemen Marry Brunettes was a pain to find. There is an online video available, but the sound starts speeding up and goes out of sync with the visuals. You can't watch a movie like that. It's available on DVD... internationally. And international DVD's are not compatible with United States' DVD Players. I asked my local library to find one in their InterLibrary Loan system. They replied they exhausted all options and couldn't find it. I did a "Request A Movie" to Turner Classic Movies to play it on their channel (still waiting to hear back on that. Judging by the website's reviews, it was last played in 2010 in a Jane Russell marathon; it's clearly a movie in high demand). I was desperate. Then, out of the blue, another video appeared online, with audio and visuals in sync. It was a miracle. Thank you to the kind soul on the interwebs. Who knew the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would be so unknown and obscure!

Is it actually a sequel? Only in name. It is an entirely new story and set of characters. The only ties between Blondes and Brunettes are the movies' titles and star Jane Russell.

This story - Two brunette sisters, trying to make it big in New York, aren't. They get a letter for an offer to try to make it big in Paris. Musical numbers ensue.

First things first -- there's no way to not compare Brunettes to its superstar predecessor. And it really can't hold a candle to it. This movie gives all it can, but it really doesn't go anywhere.

The characters feel lackluster. They don't have any big personalities. The sisters' agent in Paris is first characterized as a freeloader and thief of sorts, but then these traits don't even amount to anything. He falls in love and does his best to audition the girls around town, like any other agent. Jane Russell's character is supposed to be this dumb showgirl (the picture's answer to not having Marilyn Monroe here), but she only shows that when she can't say no to men proposing to her. Otherwise, she acts fairly normal. It would have been a stronger choice to say she was in love with love, rather than dumb.

Let's talk about a little more about love. The main characters are all thrown together in Paris. After briefly meeting for the first time, everyone is singing love ballads to each other the next time they meet. There isn't any build-up. If there's an instant love connection, the audience needs to see that. The audience saw that moment every time Marilyn heard a man had money in Blondes. If there's a slow build, the characters need to have the beats and moments to show that growth. The audience wants to see those magic moments. That's what they're here for, give them what they want!!

What it boils down to is I don't care about any of these characters. Blonde's characters were big enough and had obvious foils. I felt bad for Marilyn when she got herself stuck in a porthole. I felt bad for Jane when she found out the Olympic Team she had been eyeing had to be in bed by 9pm. Brunette's characters were too vague that they didn't make me care for their struggles.

Who I do feel bad for is Jane Russell. In Blondes, she got to showcase her comedy and talent better. She had a twinkle in her eye and a smirk on her lips. She was more in her element. Brunettes felt more like she was going through the motions.

Not helping any of the characters is the plot. There's not enough drama, and what little there is doesn't have enough gas to go on for long periods of time. These characters aren't put in any truly trying situations. It just feels like a lot of annoying buzz. Why are they going to Monte Carlo? I couldn't be bothered. Who is giving them all these expensive presents? I'm sure it will all be revealed at the end, so can we get there now? Towards the end of the movie, the little bit of conflict created is mostly caused by a diabolus ex machina character entrance. This plot is downright lazy. Most of the drama is in quick shock-value moments and gimmicks. The club owner wants them to be topless/wear almost nothing? Nightmare dream sequences based on ethnic stereotypes? A musical number with actors in blackface portraying an African tribe, and the main singing star is wearing a gorilla costume? (To say the least, this movie didn't age well)

Both me and the person I was watching this with turned to each other halfway through and said we didn't care for this. We both love musicals and we're both brunettes, but we weren't fans.

This movie felt like a quick cash grab. Because it is a watered-down version of the first movie, it was never going to be as huge a success.

Okay, let's flip this discussion. Does Brunettes do anything better than Blondes? Well, they had a bigger budget. Blondes went to "Paris," but their Paris was limited to interior locations that were on sound stages. Brunettes made sure you knew they were shooting outside, inside, on location in France. They shoot at a museum, they shoot by the Seine, they even have a scene on the Eiffel Tower!

Another thing Brunettes did better than Blondes? They used an actual ocean liner for their shots... the SS United States!

This is the second film the SS United States ever appeared in, but the first one on the list in color! GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR AND CINEMASCOPE!!

The ship is mentioned early-on in the movie as the liner the sisters take from New York to France. At the end of the film, the girls are sailing back on, what else? The SS United States. Their lovers run aboard before it leaves port to proclaim their love to the sisters, or something.

The path the gentlemen take to find the ladies doesn't make sense ship-wise. They get on the ship midway down the port side. They then come out on the starboard aft side of the Sun Deck and head forward.

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955).
A silver stern cargo davit can be seen on the far left.
Pretty cloudy day.

In their next shot, they are mid-ship on the starboard side coming downstairs to the Sun Deck again and find the girls.

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955).
Going down to the Sun Deck... again? Aft funnel cameo.

Then, there's the case of the mystery stairs. The men come down the stairs after the sisters. They pass a smaller staircase, which is facing the longer stairs they just came down from.

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955).
Oh look, the sun came out!

To the right of these two stairs is a vent, where the main confrontation takes place:

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955)

So far, everything is fine and dandy. Mimi, their sisters' mother, is also there. She has a separate shot from her daughters:

Still from Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955)
Awkward shot to try to get most of the architectural details.

Mimi is situated between two staircases; one long, one short, both going down the same direction. These staircases are not near the sisters' shot. I have been looking at aerial/drone videos of the ship, and I cannot find where these stairs could be. It is possible one of these stairs were removed at some point. I have ruled out the shot was flipped to reuse the gentlemen's previously-passed stairs; the shorter staircase is facing the other way.

Finally, the movie ends with a beautiful shot that pans up from the water to the stern sailing away. I wish this movie was more accessible just for this shot to be seen by more people.

SS United States' stern in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955)
And it's completely cloudy again. Weird weather we're having.

So let's tally it up. We have establishing shots of the ship at the pier, shots of actors running towards her at the pier, a shot of her leaving said pier, shots of actors running around the Sun Deck, and a beautiful panning shot of the stern sailing away. There was a lot of filming going on!


Gentlemen Prefer Blondes mostly takes place on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. In the 1920's book which the movie is based off of, their ship is the RMS Majestic. By the 1950's, the Majestic was long gone. Although all the scenes were filmed on sound stages, a ship still had to be cast as the 'only way to cross.' Which one would they choose? Depends where you stop the movie.

The first ship you see is a model of the RMS Queen Mary, but look closely:

Model of the RMS Queen Mary in Gentlemen
Prefer Blondes

The ship is outfitted with the Mary's name, stacks, vents, and other details. But her body is unmistakably the RMS Titanic. It's a nice money-saving idea to reuse a model, and creates a very... interesting ship.

When they dock in France, the following shot is briefly shown:

SS Conte Di Savoia in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The SS Conte di Savoia, back from the grave?! This ocean liner was bombed in 1943 and sank in shallow waters. In 1945, her burned hull was raised in the hopes of restoring her to some sailing use. When repairs were deemed too costly, she was scrapped in 1950 (source). How is she here then? Probably some stock footage from the late 30's/early 40's was used. Still, weird.

In the next shot, the movie fades to a black-topped smokestack whistling its steam horns. Didn't we just see the funnels were red on top?? Later, when the the ladies sail back to the States, a shot of the RMS Titan Mary appears again. These shots are shown very briefly and [mostly] spaced far apart from each other, which helps to overlook their inconsistencies while watching the movie.


The Movie: I still prefer blondes. 1.5/4
SS United States: Great technicolor shots and a climactic scene on the Sun Deck. 3/4

Monday, February 6, 2017

35/15: Governor's Palace Wallpaper II

What is 35/15? Read the Introduction first.

This post is a sequel to 35/15: Governor's Palace Wallpaper.

35/15 is back, two years later! Should this post actually be titled 35/17? Who knows! Let's move on!

One of my favorite Williamsburg discoveries from the 35/15 Photo Project would have to be the existence of Governor's Palace Wallpaper.

In my first post, I wondered where it had gone? What had happened to it? One does not simply give up. This is iconic wallpaper that was on display in a major tourist attraction. There had to be some trail.

So, I used the best tools in my arsenal -- Google and Pinterest image searching. I was looking for hours, getting distracted by very artistic Chinese wallpapers, finding dead ends, trying new keywords. Someone had to have a picture online somewhere.

One of my wallpaper "well that looks fancy" excursions led me to de Gournay. de Gournay is a premiere custom wallpaper company. Their wallpapers have been featured in Vogue, perfume commercials, interior decor magazines, even called upon for use in the 2015 Met Gala. 

Looking through their extensive online collection, I came across a design that was very, very similar. So, I inquired about it.

It turns out, the design was based off the Governor's Palace wallpaper. de Gournay had seen some panels of the wallpaper being auctioned off, and created their own design, "Earlham," based off of it. (Many of de Gournay's wallpapers are named after historic English estates/homes.)

Some time later, they were approached by Michael S. Smith, a well-known US interior designer. He had a client that had 6 original Governor's Palace panels that they wanted restored, as well as ordering new panels to go along with the old ones. So, there you go! A good amount of it is still out there, being used, in good condition, and surrounded by immaculately-designed surroundings.

Clicking through de Gournay's website, it is fascinating to see the different variations on the design that they can do. While the original Williamsburg colors (which de Gournay named "Sung Blue Williamsburg" in honor of its past) will always be my sentimental favorite, de Gournay and their clients are not consigned to always replicate it. Check out this one in a light gold. Do you like the color green? How about colored flowers? How about we ditch wallpaper altogether and go with a cushion? The possibilities can be endless.

So, it is great to hear the wallpaper is still being used. It's also amazing I could one day own my very own Governor's Palace-inspired wallpaper! 

Monday, January 30, 2017

SS United States Streaming Screen Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017)

A Series of Unfortunate Events is a dismal, sad, depressing story. Its author, Lemony Snicket, advises everyone to avoid the tale at all costs. I advise otherwise.

I read this book series when it was first coming out in bookstores. I owned the whole series. I think I was into the mystery surrounding everything and the premise that this was indeed going to be a series full of unfortunate events. It was something you didn't see in the youth genre, and on some level I appreciated that. I did enjoy it, but I only read it once. Odd, because I usually read things I like more than once. I think I was left a little miffed at the questionable ending. I actually got rid of the books, another weird move on my part.

When the 2004 movie came out, I only saw it once (sensing a pattern here?). I remember I did not enjoy it, probably because it deviated so much from the book series. I was a real stickler for sticking to the source material. Still am, but I'm now a little more forgiving.

So, I was not super crazy excited when the Netflix reboot was announced, only pleasantly excited. Netflix has done some great series, and reboots of recently filmed stories are still in vogue. It sounded like a good idea.

Then everything changed with one teaser trailer:

0:01 through 0:19, I was nodding my head. Ah yes. Netflix does not disappoint. At 0:20, I would have done a spit take if I had been drinking something. The SS United States?? Here??

So, A Series of Unfortunate Events instantaneously became one of my newest obsessions!

So let's get down to it. The series chronicles the tale of the three Baudelaire orphans whose parents are killed when their mansion mysteriously catches on fire. The Baudelaires are sent to live with their relative Count Olaf, who will do anything to get his hands on the orphans' family fortune. A series of unfortunate events ensues.

Season one of the Netflix series covers the first 4 books, with each book being covered by 2 episodes. There are 13 books in the series altogether, so there should be at least 2 more seasons

This was a book lover's dream. ASOUE was everything Harry Potter fans were asking of their adaptation to film. No detail was skipped, no character was angry when they were supposed to be calm (I'm still bitter, Goblet of Fire), and there was enough time to cover everything significant and the little details. There were changes and small additions, but every change/addition felt natural, like it could have always been that way. It dissolved into the world like a tasteless, odorous poison into a drink. They didn't contradict major plot points in the book, unlike the 2004 movie did. Everything felt authentic. I was pleased.

The world that was created had a huge Pushing Daisies feel to it. Quirky, morbid, artistically stunning visuals, stoic children, zany one-off characters, timeless fashion, an amazing narrator, and architecture to the T. Pushing Daisies is one of my favorite series, so the feeling was welcomed with open arms. Stills from each show could be confused with each other, except PD took the color saturation to 11, whereas ASOUE muted colors. ASOUE also made everything dingy and run-down-looking.

Let's be honest, I was only here for the ship, you're only probably reading this because of the ship. I have dawdled long enough. Let's go to the dreary dock.

I didn't remember a ship of her magnitude in the book series, so I was interested how the Big U would fit in.

The SS United States first appears briefly in the opening credits of each episode of the season. It's an image of the ship on a cork board, covered with strings tied to thumb-tacks. You later infer it is a montage of Lemony Snicket working, researching and figuring out how the different pieces of the story go together. I was pleasantly surprised to see the ship appear so soon.

Then we get to episode 3 & 4, aka "The Reptile Room." The SS United States stars as the SS Prospero, a ship headed towards Peru. Not much else is stated about the ship itself. It is supposed to take the orphans and their current guardian to Peru to finally get some answers and safety. What actually happens is the exact opposite. No one rides the boat, no one gets any questions answered, no one is safe (especially the guy that dies), and the season of unfortunate events continues on for 4 more episodes.

The SS Prospero in A Series of Unfortunate Events.
In the teaser trailer, she doesn't have a name on her bow.
In the episode, you can see "SS Prospero"

The ship enters the story (a la the magic of CGI) in her current rusty state. The rust fits the look of the series well. Everything looks like it's been through a couple hurricanes. Only problem... like the current SS United States, there are no lifeboats on the SS Prospero. They should probably add some for future voyages, just in case...

Towards the end of the episode, Count Olaf boards the SS Prospero (as seen in the teaser trailer above). The inside of the ship is a set, and is not based on any of the SS United States' innards. One reason: wood. The stateroom walls look like wavy wood veneer, while the hallway you can see out the door is paneled wood. You can get a glimpse of the stateroom in the trailer below, 2:10-2:21.

Something has felt off. The SS United States feels like an odd fit. A very specific real world place was placed in this otherworldly series. There are no connections to the real world, except the SS United States and Peru. I can overlook Peru, because that was in the book series. The boat could have been any turn of the century steamship, and no one would have batted an eye. But no, they chose the SS United States. This is a very fine detail, but it won't stop bothering me, so I intend to get to the bottom of its mystery.

I reached out to the CGI team that created the visuals in the series, CVD VFX. Their response was pretty much, Oh, yeah, it does look like that ship you're talking about, Dunno why, Good eye! Since then, they have elected to not respond to any email asking for anyone I could be referred to who might know. Great customer service right there.

The Season: Absolutely Dreadful. 4/4
SS United States: It's CGI... but you see it a lot, relevant to plot, and you briefly go on it. 2.9/4
CVD VFX: Bad customer service always mars any good experience. 0/4