Short Rounds: Baz Luhrmann, Museums and Learning Through Cinema

Short Rounds: Baz Luhrmann, Museums and Learning Through Cinema

May 23, 2012

The trailer for The Great Gatsby has hit and the internet is aflutter. Personally, I think it looks like an over-designed mess that may end up ignoring its characters altogether in the interest of showcasing some over-the-top parties. Moulin Rouge! filtered through Party Monster, if you will. However, it is a wonderful excuse to talk about Baz Luhrmann’s other 2012 project. In conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum’s new exhibition Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations the Australian director has produced a series of bite-sized short films. Miuccia Prada and Elsa Schiaparelli sit across a dark dining room table, discussing fashion. The latter designer, who died 39 years ago, is played by Judy Davis. The shorts are featured in the museum’s exhibition galleries and are also available to watch on YouTube.

We might not always be so aware of it, but museums produce and commission short films all the time. These institutions are more than glorified warehouses of old art, but rather take an active and participatory role in contemporary culture and its development. Whether it’s through community involvement and encouragement of young artists, the preservation and curation of forgotten oddities and hidden gems, or the creation of entirely new ways of seeing, museums use short form cinema to enrich our living and learning. And this work goes well beyond the walls of the Met and MoMA in Manhattan.

The principal art of the museum is, of course, curation. The juxtaposition of artists and their work, sometimes in unexpected ways, enriches the viewing experience and can fundamentally change the way we look at the work. That’s the driving goal of the Met’s new fashion exhibition and the focus of Luhrmann’s “Impossible Conversations” series of short films. Just as the two designers’ works are framed in dialogue in the museum, so these two women face each other in dialogue across a table. Moreover, there is a contrast even in the design: documentary clashes with fiction cinema as Miuccia Prada’s unassuming openness encounters Judy Davis’s stylized imitation of the legendary Schiaparelli.

Prada brings such authenticity and honesty to the conversation, insisting that fashion is not an art and that it is so much more difficult to shock in today’s world. Davis on the other hand, seems to have been directed simply to remind us who Schiaparelli was, no matter how clunky that may seem in contrast. However, the focus here is really on the words. Ideas are even physically highlighted in the air as they are spoken, reminding us that this is a conversation to which we are invited as well.

One need not depend upon actual dialogue to facilitate this back and forth between art, artists and audience, however. Sometimes museums commission entirely new works inspired by their collections, adding further voices to the conversation without the help of interviews or explanations. The Brothers Quay are probably the best example and their Phantom Museum is one of the best of its kind. The project is the Wellcome Collection, a medical museum built up from the books, paintings and strange items brought together by Sir Henry Wellcome (1853-1936).

The Brothers Quay were let loose amongst these oddities, the perfect choice of filmmakers. After all, what is the primary goal of both museums and stop motion animators, if not to bring objects to life? Phantom Museum is haunting, beautiful, and floats between the morbid and the erotic. A viewing not only changes the way we might look at the objects in the Wellcome Collection, but also our perception of medical devices in general. It is a conversation of images that remains live well after the credits roll.

Museums can also use their archives to inform our understanding of the past and enrich our ideas about where culture and technology may be going from here. The Computer History Museum out in Silicon Valley does an excellent job producing their own documentary-style videos to educate guests, a project that has won awards within the museum community. They also explore the way computers have been viewed in the past, including some wonderful old films on their YouTube channel.  This 1959 example briefly tells the success story of the Case University basketball team, thanks to one of the giant computing machines of the period. After finishing a season 6-10, they went to a nerd to save the day. It worked.

Community involvement is also crucial in this process, of course. The Chicago History Museum is one of the many institutions to use video as a way to reach out to the city around it, in this case producing a series of short films about LGBT artists, activists and citizens in Chicago. Out in Chicago is a collection of 19 portraits, most of them under two minutes long and all of them made with a quiet sense of humanity. AIDS activism, the leather world, the transgender community and the Chicago Police Department all make an appearance. Each film on its own functions as a miniature documentary, but as a whole they create a rich conversation about the community at large.

In 1945 the city of Warsaw was a mess. That much is obvious. But can we actually visualize such a thing, urban destruction on that large a scale? Experts at the Warsaw Rising Museum teamed up with the Visual Effects Society to recreate the flight of an American aircraft over the ruined center of the Polish capital. The scope of City of Ruins is extraordinary, moving from one neighborhood to the next without finding even a single untouched building. The music is admittedly a bit much, but the importance of this project can’t really be overstated; if more institutions begin to undertake this sort of virtual restoration project, the way we teach history in museums may very well change drastically over the next few years.

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