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Skyscraper (1960)

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Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 1 win. See more awards »

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title directed by female | See All (1) »

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Short | Documentary

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26 April 1960 (USA)  »

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A masterpiece out of what we take for granted
4 July 2008 | by See all my reviews

There's a wonderful sense of anticipation, hearing of an exciting theme or gripping plot. And then the enjoyment of seeing it realised on screen. But what of the 'dull' themes that unexpectedly turn out to be enthralling? Isn't there an even greater sense of thrill, as we ask, "How did they make such a riveting film out of such ordinary material? Shirley Clarke's brush with Hollywood came with an Oscar nomination for this early experimental documentary. About a building. The Tishmann Building at 666 Fifth Avenue in New York, to be exact.

Immediately Skyscraper starts we are propelled into a new perspective. Voices off-camera are discussing the film, looking out for people they know. It gives the film an immediacy and intimacy. It feels as if this is a private film made for, by, and about, the workers. As if they are watching it at a private screening. Construction workers are recognised by name. We are part of an inner circle. A circle that is at the heart of all the practical issues. Why are there 'bumps' on the cladding enquires one voice? A colleague explains that it increases strength. (The voices are in reality actors playing workers.) When we are sitting on the girders high above the tarmac below, this closeness almost induces vertigo. What would induce panic in most normal people is made real enough to touch as they open their sandwiches on a work break.

Camera techniques recall both sequences from Brussels Loops – where construction was filmed so fascinatingly – and Bridges-Go-Round – where geometrical shapes are studied for their own unique beauty. Jazz songs reflect various stages of the process (The film's irreverent tone has even caused it to be described as a 'musical comedy.') Jazz music was a genre Clarke would continue to develop into her features, etching a free-flowing realism, such as in her more-real-than-real depiction of Harlem in The Cool World. But in Skyscraper we see her using the medium in perfect harmony with the subject, the words of the songs immortalising the building as if it were the subject of folklore and the sort of thing people would naturally write songs about.

Skyscraper shows a master filmmaker taking a seemingly random subject and re-creating it with a depth and sense of awe that enriches the world around us.

Clarke was not particular pleased to be nominated for an Oscar – by an institution she had little respect for. Later, when Roger Vadim tried to draw her into mainstream, she retorted, "What Roger wanted was for me to be 22 years old. I realised that he didn't have any idea who the f*** I was... He wanted me to shoot his script, each scene in wide, medium and close-up so that later on he could edit it. For me to make a cheapy film I didn't respect with a script I didn't like, without the right to at least do it the way I want, for God's sakes, that's insane." Clarke never bowed to Hollywood, even when they bowed to her. Skyscraper would set the tone of the rest of her career. Pure class.


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