Films On Art and Soul

At The Movies

36

The New Bauhaus

The German Bauhaus (roughly “building-house) was a touchstone for 20th C. Western art, architecture. and design. It was founded after WWI by Walter Gropius and other creative thinkers who introduced both new ideas and philosophies to a then shattered Germany.  Based first in Weimar (from 1919) and later in Dessau (in 1925), its teachers proved an immense influence grounded in the idea of a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”) in which all the arts would eventually be combined (the film is now out on streaming media, runs 89 minutes, and is not rated).

Bauhaus style later became one of the most influential currents in modern design, modernist architecture, and architectural education. The movement had a profound influence upon subsequent developments in art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, and typography.  Led by the work and writings of Gropius, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and the radical Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy, the program lasted until 1933, when it was closed under pressure from the Nazi regime.

Moholy-Nagy eventually moved to Chicago in 1937, where he spearheaded “The New Bauhaus,” which took its inspiration from the famous German school and brought together both art and design students, an innovation at the time. This school’s story is the subject of the current documentary “The New Bauhaus,”

From his Bauhaus experiences, Moholy-Nagy took a pioneering interdisciplinary, mixed-media approach to art and design that was vastly ahead of its time. Though the school had early financial troubles, it ultimately found an angel in Walter Paepcke, Chairman of the Container Corporation of America and an early champion of industrial design in America.  Seeing clear financial advantage in the school’s focus, Paepcke offered his personal support, and by 1939, Moholy-Nagy was able to re-open the school as the Chicago School of Design. In 1944, it became the Institute of Design, where it still resides at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The film chronicles the lively history of the Institute, illustrated by myriad clips and photos of the period, showing both the ideas germinating in classrooms and exhibits, and interviews with one-time students, many of whom became prominent designers and creators of their own. To solidify this history are occasional quotes in an over-voice narrative by Hans Ulrich Obrist, reading the words of the master. More up-to-date material is covered in intimate interviews and sequences with Moholy-Nagy’s daughter, Hattula, who adds some personal flavor and an in-depth exploration of both her father’s vast and groundbreaking work, as well as his compelling personality and boundless energy (Moholy-Nagy died in 1946 at 51 years of age).

What is thrilling about this review of the work of Moholy-Nagy and his colleagues is the amazing scope and ambitions of the documentary’s filmmakers, led by co-writer and director Alyssa Nahmias, who carefully and fruitfully compiled–from mountains of material and serious research—the movement’s major works, from stunning new buildings through well-wrought crafts to more pedestrian advertising designs.

“The New Bauhaus” offers an illuminating portrait of a visionary teacher and thinker—and his legacy.

Performers at the “Summer of Soul” in 1969; (from left) bluesman BB King, and The Fifth Dimension. Photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Summer of Soul

“I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Everyday People,” “Oh, Happy Day,” “When I Sing the Blues,” “Let the Sunshine In”—sounds like a roll call of major Black music from last century.  And it is, as all of these pieces, and many more, were delivered in long-forgotten music performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which was held at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem. The festival, promoted by raconteur and MC Tony Lawrence, lasted for six weeks in June-July 1969 with an audience of over 300,000. It now can be joyfully witnessed in “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (The film, not rated, runs for 117 sparkling minutes).

Despite its standing-room only attendance and stand-out performers such as Stevie WonderMahalia JacksonNina SimoneThe 5th DimensionThe Staple SingersGladys Knight & the Pips, and Sly and the Family Stone, the festival, coming during the same summer as Woodstock, never entered the general public’s consciousness.  While most of the music was considered “soul” at the time, the playlist was quite inclusive and also featured gospel, jazz, pop, Afrobeat, funk, and even Latino numbers. One of the absolute high points of the concerts is when gospel legend Mavis Staples sings “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” then passes the microphone to Mahalia Jackson (her mentor), and the two finish the number in an electrifying duet (and the crowd goes nuts!)

Though forty hours of footage of the Festival was recorded live on videotape, it was later placed in a basement, where it languished for about 50 years, unpublished. Years later, producer Robert Fyvolent became aware of the footage, and eventually acquired film and television rights to it from its original producer and cinematographer, Hal Tulchin. Then, in 2018, producers brought it to the attention of musician and drummer Questlove Thompson (now the leader of Roots, the house band for “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”). The footage survived and was able to be restored and edited down by its director after many months to become one of the best American concert films in recent memory (while its look and sound are great, it does show its age only because it was shot before high-definition imagery).  It premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and garnered the Grand Prize.

“Summer of Soul” is also a wonderful time capsule into Black consciousness in the later 1960’s, a period of Black Power burgeoning, flamboyant, African-inspired dress and costume, and the opening of new avenues for Black expression. The film brings out this awareness through over-voice narration from attendees at the event, one of whom remembers the crowd as if he “was seeing royalty.” The crowd shots, pervasive throughout the film, are vivid reminders of a high point in Black life, a whole people grooving to the rhythms of its diverse culture.

It will be hard to keep your feet from tapping and your body from moving watching “Summer of Soul.”

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.