Gherkins, blubfests and knowing cinema’s left from its right

Norman’s wisdom

How lovely to meet Lord Foster. Sitting in Berlin during the city’s last film festival – it seems like yesterday – I received a call to chat after the premiere of a new documentary on him. It’s called How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?, a question once actually put to him by a client about a work in progress. It opens in Britain next Friday.

Foster is one of the world’s most famous architects. Reichstags to the right, Gherkins to the left. Airport terminals everywhere. So why, I ask, does he want a film made about him? He hardly needs the publicity.

“You’re so right. I hate intrusions into my privacy. I’ve never published any photographs of any building I live in. You notice all you see in the film is me on my balcony.” (The balcony, mind you, is a mind boggler, looking down on mortal mountains from some mid-European Valhalla.)

“But we see the architecture in a new way through the film’s eyes. Even the music captures the texture of the buildings and makes it more accessible. My mantra is that design affects the quality of all our lives. It affects us whether we’re aware of it, or the reasons for it, or not.”

For me the movie’s star moment is the mouthwatering sketches for his most ambitious coming project, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Due for completion in 2018, it’s a $15bn eco-Utopia in the desert, energy efficient, cooled by nature, dazzling to contemplate.

“You can visit that site now, and as you ascend to the deck and walk on it, you pick up a breeze which is not evident down below.

“If you’re not designing a city for the private car” – transport in Masdar will be public and electric – “you can rediscover the tradition of the narrow shaded street. There is no air conditioning, you’re very comfortable even in 40-degree heat.” The city looks like a dream from a Spielberg sci-fi film.

Talking pictures, I mention the recent documentary about a distinguished Foster rival – Sydney Pollack’s Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005) – and cite the moment when the genius of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA is asked how he gets his inspiration. Gehry picks a scrap of paper from the wastebasket and starts to twirl shapes.

“Oh,” Foster laughs. “I don’t do that. But you can always have an inspirational idea that jump-starts the process.” He looks out of the hotel window at a certain famous Berlin building, now crowned by a glass dome. “With the Reichstag I remember I was sitting with a colleague and did a sketch and said, ‘Look, we put all the elements we need together. It could look like this!’ And that’s how it was built. You can still see the sketch.”

I save my potentially most impertinent question till last, as we ponder return trips to London. Does he like the word “gherkin”?

“I don’t mind it in the least. I think it’s meant affectionately. Don’t you?”

Oh definitely. Or up to a point, Lord Foster.


Isn’t it wonderful how some movie personalities refuse to be typecast? Clint Eastwood’s early career marked him in our minds as a devotee of the three Rs: rightwing, Republican, probably religious. On screen he told punks to make his day. Off-screen he supported Reagan and Bush. No doubt he was a righteous Bible man too.

Now we can’t keep up. After sympathetically portraying semi-criminal Korean immigrants in Gran Torino and wartime Japanese soldiers in Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood says of his new film Hereafter (opening in the UK next month), a trilogy of tales about life and the notional afterlife: “There’s a certain charlatan aspect to the hereafter, to those who prey on people’s belief that there’s some afterlife ... This is your life and you should do the best you can with it.”

This comes after Million Dollar Baby, in which Eastwood’s protagonist vituperatively disputed Christianity with a priest, then performed euthanasia on heroine Hilary Swank. Before that, the film-maker took a long stick to beat American police corruption and barbarous mental-health treatment in Changeling.

Changeling? You’d almost think so. But isn’t that what we want from our actors and directors? Don’t sell us immutable belief systems; keep surprising us. The danger otherwise is artistic ossification. I remember a morning spent with Charlton Heston in his Hollywood Hills eyrie. After going on about the dwindling army of film industry conservatives Heston said to me: “Now there’s only me and Tom Selleck left.” Soon Tom Selleck appeared in the comedy In and Out (1997), playing a gay man who kisses Kevin Kline on the lips. At that point there was only Heston left.

Among today’s right-wingers who keep going left-field I give you two. Republican voter and indie actor-director Vincent Gallo can be seen next month playing (sympathetically) an escaped Afghan jihadist in Essential Killing. And film-maker David Lynch, of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, is a political conservative who continues to turn out the most seditious, outrageous, resplendent avant-garde visions in US cinema.

Way to go. In a future column I shall discuss left wingers who dress to the right.

The crying game

My handkerchief is now dry but I thank all those readers who expressed sympathy and fellow feeling over my reaction to The King’s Speech. The film has clearly been a blubbing bonanza.

Who hasn’t cried at the movies? It isn’t a badge of shame – nor necessarily a badge of honour. I fear to count the number of movies, usually sentimental riffs on the “triumph of the human spirit”, in which I have welled up while realising my pearls are being cast before cinematic swine. You know the kind of film. Little League baseball team wins national crown against all odds (sniffle, sniffle); love conquers contrived adversity in overwrought Mills and Boon-style romance.

Then again there are films, good films, that astonish one with their emotional power – yet seem to overpower no one else. I cried buckets at Francis Coppola’s Gardens of Stone (1987), a film about the mowing down of a generation in the Vietnam era. I have no idea why. Did I identify with lost American youth? If so, why?

Please tell me the films you have most cried over. It is an under-discussed subject and a rich one. Let’s open it up.

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