During the next three months, as part of its ongoing On Screen at ArtPace series, the institution will screen three films in which architectural spaces define human relationships. Titled "Deuces Wild," the series of screenings and talks is being presented by David Jurist, an artist who specializes in environmental installations. Jurist, who studied film at the University of California at San Diego and landscape architecture at Berkeley and earns his living as a building contractor, seems well-placed to curate a series about how films construct couples through their set construction and use of space.

In the offering for February 19, L'Atalante (1934), one of only two films made by French director Jean Vigo, marriage between newlyweds Dita Parlo and Jean Daste adapts to the rhythms of the barge they sail along the rivers of France. Most of Jean Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), scheduled for screening on March 25, is set in a three-story Paris building in which René Lefèvre, Florelle, and fellow employees wrest control of a publishing company from its corrupt owner. In the April 15 screening, The Honeymoon Killers (1970), which was set to be Martin Scorsese's directorial debut until "creative differences" led to his replacement by Leonard Kastle, charming gigolo Tony LoBianco and 200-pound nurse Shirley Stoler join forces to loot and murder lovelorn women in suburban New York.

6:30 pm
Thursday, February 19
6:30 pm
Thursday, March 25
6:30 pm
Thursday, April 15
445 N. Main

Jurist says that he chose these particular films because they are uncommonly entertaining, less familiar to American audiences than they deserve to be, and illustrative of how the architectural environment creates relationships between couples. In addition, he notes, each is especially relevant to life in San Antonio: L'Atalante in depicting life on a river, the Seine, which flows through Paris; Le Crime de Monsieur Lange in Lange's fascination with the mythic American West; and The Honeymoon Killers in its differentiation between life in the city and suburbs, mirroring the social geography of Bexar County, where, as Jurist notes, "Either you're inside or outside the Loop." The films employ three kinds of space - barge, office building, and private house - to define their couples. Jurist organized the series as a progression from the sequestered innocence of the newlyweds in L'Atalante to the ambiguity of Monsieur Lange's crime to the utter viciousness of homicidal lovers in The Honeymoon Killers.

Jurist's choices are ultimately arbitrary, since the beauty of his topic is that it applies to any and every film where human beings are put in their places. Take Jake La Motta out of a roped-off canvas ring, and the boxer is a different man, which is why Robert De Niro gained 50 pounds for parts of his performance in Raging Bull. Deliverance is the story of four men in two canoes on the rustic Cahulawassee, quite different from the updeck/downdeck drama enacted on a doomed luxury liner on the open sea in Titanic. Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern plots the geometry of a wealthy household compound, in which the master moves at will among the four adjacent cottages assigned to each of his rival wives. Confine James Stewart to a Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg and a pair of binoculars, and the result is Rear Window. In Last Tango in Paris, the torrid relationship between Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider's two strangers exists only when they come together in a neutral, bare apartment. Last year's highly acclaimed House of Sand and Fog is driven by irreconcilable claims to an identical living space.

For reasons of economy, continuity, and intensity, TV series return week after week to the same familiar, defining set: a bar in Cheers, a dispatch garage in Taxi, the White House command center in West Wing. The production designer is the true auteur. In many feature films, the principal set is so crucial to the proceedings that it deserves credit as a leading character. Think of the plantation Tara in Gone With the Wind, to which Scarlett O'Hara returns when all else is lost. Or Rick's Café in Casablanca, which orchestrates the social and political hierarchy of the expat community, much like Sir William McCordle's country manor in Gosford Park serves as a site where social power is aligned, displayed, and exerted among the landed gentry and hired help. The Overlook Hotel in The Shining is enough to drive Jack Nicholson's character, and an overwrought viewer, mad. As much as Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, the star of The Alamo is an old Spanish mission, whose dimensions dictate the siege and the final bloody battle, and whose image has been appropriated as an inspiring icon of military martyrdom.

The premise behind Ship of Fools and Lifeboat is that passengers on vessels big and small constitute a human microcosm. But the community created within a moving car accounts for the distinctive dynamics in road films such as Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Run, and Thelma and Louise. Convicts sharing cells in movies such as The Shawshank Redemption, Short Eyes, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, relate to one another differently, as do inmates in mental hospitals (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Girl Interrupted), jurors sequestered in a courthouse chamber (12 Angry Men, Runaway Jury), and gossips who share the ritual of the hair salon (Barbershop, Steel Magnolias). Partners and employees in a restaurant, such as the hilariously beleaguered brothers of Big Night, are obviously molded by the confines of the kitchen and dining room, but an even briefer confinement, as in My Dinner with Andre, controls the cinematic conversation.

Alfred Hitchcock was the master of using well-known sites to bring out the best and worst in characters. Like Christo wrapping fabric around the Pont Neuf, he appropriates familiar architectural designs into his own narratives, making Royal Albert Hall, Coit Tower, and Mount Rushmore sites for intrusions of terror in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, respectively. Merian C. Cooper accomplishes a similar feat when his King Kong scales the Empire State Building cradling Fay Wray in a hairy embrace. A symbol of human transcendence of earthly limitations becomes the beast's downfall. "Oh, no, it wasn't the aeroplanes," explains a bystander. "It was Beauty killed the Beast." It was also a building.

Of course, many movies base their appeal on the illusion of unrestricted space, liberation from structures and strictures. Westerns - not just Kevin Costner's latest - might almost all be called Open Range, and their characters become noticeably cramped and cranky when placed in parlors, saloons, and churches. "Give me land, lots of land and the starry skies above/ Don't fence me in," pleads the Cole Porter song. Moving beyond our mapped-out world, space epics tantalize with the lure of infinite expanses, no less so when the spacecraft threatens to be a floating tomb for the crew of Apollo 13.

Audiences, too, are shaped by spaces.

We relate to images differently if we encounter them on the seatback of a crowded plane than in a cavernous IMAX theater, or on screen at ArtPace. •


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