21 November 2011

Film Review: Brick by Chance and Fortune

Film Review: Brick by Chance and Fortune – A Celebration of St. Louis Masonry

Brick by Chance and Fortune: A St. Louis Story is an entertaining, informative documentary about one of the most common and seemingly simple building materials: the brick. Bricks are an old technology. They aren't sexy like stainless steel or titanium. Clay bricks are about as "down to earth" as you can get, as this film demonstrates in more ways than one.

Image from official trailer.
The story of bricks in St. Louis is fundamental to understanding the city, its people, its history and its architecture. This film establishes the narrative groundwork for people unfamiliar with thinking about bricks as anything special to be able to begin to appreciate just how significant a role they play in our community's culture, economy and physical composition.

You can purchase your own copy of the DVD by attending the upcoming event at The Royale on Wednesday 23 November 2011 from 8pm to 11pm. The director will be there to sign personal copies!

Image taken from official trailer.
The centerpiece of the film is a series of compelling interviews with wonderfully demonstrative people who care deeply about the history and future of brick masonry culture in St. Louis. The subjects of the interviews include community treasures like the founder of the St. Louis Building Arts Foundation, Larry Giles, a lover and collector of St. Louis building history, Missouri Historical Society Director Robert Archibald and blogger / activist, Toby Weiss, a prolific writer and photographer of the architectural scene past and present.

The director, Bill Streeter, treats the interviews as the key scenes of the film. They are well lit and composed, the audio quality is very good and the personality they offer is remarkable. In many documentaries, interviews are treated as so many “talking heads”. This film gives the speakers the gracious, personal presentation they deserve, making them the film’s real characters and allowing them to graciously direct the film’s narrative. We are made to feel as though we’re having a conversation with some our community’s most fascinating and intelligent people.

Image taken from official trailer.
Of particular significance emotionally and intellectually are the interviews with architectural historians and preservationists Nini Harris and Michael Allen. Not since Gwendolyn Wright's star began to shine on History Detectives, have architectural historians looked and sounded so good.

Nini Harris’ knowledge and excitement are a constant touchstone giving the film genuine historical clarity and honesty combined with a touching, loving portrayal of the people who created and used the brick structures that make up the fabric of our city. She makes this story a personal one and helps to communicate many of the film's key points in a way that's understandable by laymen not initiated in the rites of architectural history, but accurate and compelling for those already captivated by the spell of St. Louis architecture. Her commentary puts the film into a social and cultural context that doesn't overly romanticize the past.

Nini Harris. Image from official trailer.
Michael Allen’s commentary is forthright and striking in a way that only he can achieve. He reveals St. Louis' geographic good fortune in containing rich and extensive clay deposits that not only made the magnificence of St. Louis architecture possible, but also formed the basis for our significant contribution to the industrialization of brick manufacturing. He describes the humble beginnings of hand-molded bricks made in wooden forms and enlightens us as to the prominent role our community played in developing brick industry nationally. Michael also speaks eloquently about the serious problems we face relating to brick theft and illegal demolition taking place on a daily basis.

Michael Allen. Image from official trailer.
The soundtrack and music for the film served to emphasize the dramatic moments. In some cases, the music provided the joyful and lyrical atmosphere necessary to hold the visual montages together. At other moments, the tragic drone of a harmonica (?) provided a haunting backdrop without becoming funereal or pessimistic. Some compositions seem to have been written and produced specifically for the film. They offer some thematic support, but the lyrics were overshadowed by the folksy rhythms and melodies.

This film could easily for the basis for an in-depth series on St. Louis architecture and building history. Such documentary programs generally seem to be the purview public television, however with funding constraints everywhere, we should all thank Bill Streeter, a native Chicagoan, for seeing the story in the humble St. Louis brick and pursuing the film through his own force of will.

Image from official trailer.
As an architect and photographer, my primary disappointment was with the visual representations of our present day buildings and streets. Too often, a reliance on extreme wide-angle pans or extreme telephoto compression of space made for a less than satisfactory appreciation of the architecture itself. Clearly, the film was created with the general educated public in mind, not so much specifically for architects and historians. The filmmaker had to make tough choices about how to best represent our rich building heritage. My preference would have been for a greater reliance on the details and textures of the buildings themselves, to the point of abstraction, rather than a more superficial gloss on the buildings themselves.

This criticism should be considered as coming from a specialist (and obsessionist) in architectural photography and representation. I imagine most of the audience found the visuals to be sufficiently compelling and illustrative. They contributed to a balanced presentation combining visuals, spoken word and music to tell an important and fascinating story. Bill Streeter deserves our thanks and appreciation for helping us to see our own city more clearly.

Anyone with an interest in St. Louis history, architecture, urbanism or building should see this film. Best viewed in a theatrical setting, you should also consider purchasing the production on DVD. Doing so will help to support more worthwhile projects of this kind. Owning the DVD may prove to be a unique reference that might not otherwise be accessible.

Film trailer:

Illustrations: The images embedded in this post are all screen shots taken from the film’s official trailer.

Andrew Raimist is a St. Louis architect, educator, writer and photographer.

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