In between attending screenings of the ongoing 18th Annual James River Film Festival, I went to a one-night-only sound and light exhibition titled "The Vacancy Project" at the 1929 Central National Bank Building at Third and Broad streets.
The event was a successful collaboration between sculptor Joshua Bennett and sound artist John Dombroski. They’re Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduates who received a research grant from the VCU School of the Arts for the project, which tried to draw attention to the many empty spaces in the city and demonstrate how art can, at least for a while, make something come alive again. There are several galleries of photographs on the Facebook site.
The 22-story building was the pride of Richmond when, as the headquarters of the Central National Bank (later Central Fidelity, later Wachovia), it opened a few weeks prior to the stock market crash of 1929.
Given all the films I’d seen this weekend (and at the earlier French Film Festival), not to mention my theatrical predilections, the Dombroski and Bennett joint struck me as the setting for a film or live theatrical production experienced in the imagination of each visitor. We were plunged into dark, cool spaces to wander into the emptied vault, the safety-deposit drawers yanked out higgledy-piggledy as if following a crazed run on the bank. Low ominous tones faded in and passed away, and then, as if left on some ghostly gramophone, Depression–era jazz music arose.
What symbolized the possibility of growth in the economic wreckage of the 1930s today rises empty and purposeless over the tantalizing possibilities and often preventable failures of downtown.
We who wandered amid the Art Deco architecture in the stillness and shadows were transformed into silhouettes and ghosts. Caught in the shifts of the banking industry and real-estate fluctuations, the great building stands almost accusatory in its silence. It’s been empty since 2005.
I tried my hand at iPhone German Expressionism here, as visitors exited the lower levels for the main lobby.
As for my favorites over at the James River Film Festival:
• Modern Times was Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 take on desperation and deprivation among the working class, including the everyday process of survival and working toward a better tomorrow with pluck and verve and humor, though caught in a machine designed to crush dreams. It was a gorgeous 35mm print at the Byrd.
• Jonathan Rosenbaum, critic and visiting professor at VCU, told us that Mix-up ou Meli-Molowas director Françoise Romand’s first film — which stunned me — and her best known, but that’s relative, as she’s little known even in her native France.
Rosenbaum said that every time he sees it, because of the emotional territory Romand explores, he feels as though he’s emerging from an epic, even though the film is a scant 63 minutes. It’s packed with everything, though: the quality of truth and perception, the variations of love, the nature of what constitutes family. In addition, a line delivered to a taxi driver — “Please take me to the airport, I’m going to Andorra” — was among the most unique I heard all weekend.
• Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a landmark of the French New Wave. Screenwriter Marguerite Duras' deceptively simple script follows a French actress having an adulterous brief encounter with a Japanese architect while shooting a film about peace 14 years after the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Director Alain Resnais wanted to “make a film about love in the cradle of anxiety," actress Emmanuelle Riva explains.
• According to writer, baseball fan and movie enthusiast Peter Schilling Jr., the eminent thespian Charles Laughton was so distressed by reviews of his Night of the Hunter that he dropped his effort to adapt Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Laughton’s challenges included parsing a 300-page script written by the great (and alcoholic) James Agee. The film has influenced many directors; there are at least four Coen brothers themes that come out of this story based on a novel, which was itself based on the true tale of a West Virginia serial killer of widows and children. For example, the gospel song “What a Fellowship” that Robert Mitchum’s crazed “Preacher” character uses to announce his presence is a major part of the soundtrack in the Coen brothers' recent film True Grit. And Lillian Gish, whose character gives a home to orphaned or deprived youngsters, speaks of the strength of children who “abide.”
All these, along with the Spanish-language treatment of the 1931 Dracula to the accompaniment of hat-wearing guitar genius Gary Lucas. The film, made on the same sets as the original, was filmed at night to make a Spanish-language version for that growing market. Lucas explained, “The Spanish director watched the dailies of the Tod Browning film and decided to make a better movie.” And may have. It’s campier-creepier and charged with an eroticism missing from the Browning version. The Depression didn’t allow for the creation of a full-length score or many musicians, giving Lucas plenty of room in which to work. He’s traveled the world with this show.
Finally, hats off to my colleagues here at the magazine for a strong showing at the Virginia Press Association's annual honors. Look in the "Specialty" category.