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“The force and power of altitude must be in it,” Chicago architect Louis Sullivan insisted of his passion, the skyscraper, not long before the turn of the nineteenth century. Sullivan reached as high as the buildings he designed, like the flowered terra-cotta shaft of the Bayard–Condict Building at 65 Bleecker, one of New York’s first steel-frame skyscrapers — one of the first buildings in America with exterior walls that were a thin protective skin rather than the means by which the structure conquered gravity. Walls can only bear so much weight, and so many floors; the iron and steel skeleton of a building like the Bayard allowed cities to ascend. Just going tall wasn’t enough for Sullivan, though. “The glory and pride of exultation must be in it,” he declared. “It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation, that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”
Usually, of course, the skyscraper isn’t that at all. The copy-pasted glass boxes of today don’t exult, and the lines of the ones that sprang up in the decades after the Bayard don’t just dissent from Sullivan’s ideal — they filibuster, some cloyingly and some spectacularly. Tall (2006), Manfred Kirchheimer’s gently cranky urban rhapsody, argues that Sullivan had, in the years after Chicago’s great fire, hit on an American innovation as profound and singular as jazz or the movies — and that his still-provincial countrymen ignored him in favor of skyscraper designs that aped the old world. Sullivan got crowded out by Europe-minded New York architects at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exhibition, and that crew’s enthusiasm for gothic and French Colonial knockoffs set American design back a half century. Of course, to behold Kirchheimer’s footage of three Manhattan skyscrapers that went up within a decade of each other starting in 1902 — the Flatiron, the Metropolitan Life and the Woolworth – is to lose track of the difference between throwback and landmark. The ornamentation on the Flatiron may be fussy, but its sweeping face and defiant prow? Surely that’s exultation!
The history of America is, among other concerns, the history of aesthetes worrying that some free and vital native essence has been lost or corrupted. Consider Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi convinced that the true spirit of it all had died with the arrival of the steamer. Kirchheimer acknowledges that the best of the buildings we have are themselves glorious, especially those premodern skyscrapers and then a spate of art deco descendants, but he aches over the fact that they might have been grander still, more expressive of a peculiarly American genius. (The case that America is hard on its talented dreamers is backed up, sadly, by the fact that this is Tall’s first official theatrical release, despite the fact that Kirchheimer completed the film a decade ago.)
His arguments — delivered in declarative voiceover by Dylan Baker and scored to music from Maurice Ravel and Dmitri Shostakovich, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis — have power, but what stirs the mind and the heart, here, is his photography and editing. Over decades, Kirchheimer, who was born in Germany in 1931, shot many of the buildings cited in his essay (the black-and-white footage is credited to Kirchheimer and Walter Hess), and has also assembled many vintage clips and photographs and postcards, some of them positing fantastical visions of what Skyscraper American might look like. His montage work is magnificent, especially an opening suite focused on the faces of contemporary skyscrapers, which squeeze all else off the screen. He studies the densely repeating geometry of their expanses; the complex play of light and reflections across infinities of glass; the disorienting and possibly alienating sweep of steel and mirror; the timeless grind of doors opening and closing as city people (who we never see directly) pour in and out. Yes, Kirchheimer echoes the go-go despair of King Vidor’s The Crowd, but he’s not pushy enough a documentarian to insist that you, too, feel your humanity assaulted. Yes, the skyscraper might have been warmer, friendlier, along the lines that Sullivan and his protege Frank Lloyd Wright imagined. But it’s indisputable that what we wound up with inspires awe on a screen.