Clark Kent at Work: Buildings and the World of Superheroes

An interesting article from Smithsonian Magazine about Superman’s – ahem – office space was very kindly forwarded along to me recently by one of my readers.  The Architecture of Superman: A Brief History of The Daily Planet, by writer and “recovering architect” Jimmy Stamp, looks at some of the buildings which may have inspired the look of where Clark Kent earns his daily bread, under news editor Perry White.  The comic book ancestor of Peter Parker’s unreasonable boss J. Jonah Jameson,  White is the demanding, unpleasant fellow who worked his way up from nothing in the company all the way to the top, and still has a huge chip on his shoulder about it.  Given how tall the building housing The Daily Planet is usually portrayed as being, White understandably had to do quite a bit of climbing to get up to the editor’s desk from the mailroom.

However Perry White himself is not the owner of The Daily Planet: he’s an employee, just as Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Jimmy Olson are, albeit a more senior one.  As such, although he may dictate the running of the newsroom, the look of the place really has very little to do with White’s oftentimes overbearing and negative personality.  Rather, that style choice is left up the owners of the paper, who are competing with other media owners to be viewed as up-to-date and successful.  Given the timeframe of the birth of the series, that means Metropolis resembles how New York, Cleveland, and other big North American cities looked just before World War II.

What’s interesting however, is that even as the Superman universe evolved over the passage of time, for the most part The Daily Planet remains forever ensconced in the architectural era of Art Deco.  “In the 1920s and 1930s, Art Deco was optimistic,” writes Mr. Stamp, “it was progressive, it represented the best in mankind at the time – all qualities shared by Superman.”  Classic Art Deco structures like Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center, Chrysler Building, and Empire State Building date from this time period, and were examples of American optimism seeking ways to triumph over the sorrows of the Great Depression.  Metropolis is portrayed as a big, bright city of big, padded shoulders, just like the suits worn by both men and women in that era.

This type of architecture stands in sharp contrast to the general look of the Batman universe, however.  Batman himself, taking his cues from a creature of darkness, lives in a world dominated by shadows.  Even though Gotham is a city whose appearance dates from roughly the same time period as Metropolis, here the architectural tone is one of congestion, blight, and darkness.  The Art Deco lines are made sharper and more menacing by a fusion with Neo-Gothic elements, lending a nightmarish quality.  Go take a look back at the Gotham City Cathedral, as imagined by Tim Burton in the 1989 Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson film Batman, and you’ll see a church that is undeniably impressive, yet dark and threatening, rather than light and welcoming.

As the comic book characters have deviated further from their origins in recent decades, the generally sunny, positive disposition of Superman and Metropolis have been clouded somewhat, even as Batman and Gotham have themselves grown even darker.  It’s debatable whether these are good or bad developments.  Is Superman more likeable today because he is less of an overgrown, optimistic Boy Scout?  Do we appreciate Batman more because he’s become more inwardly conflicted and twisted, as reflected in the buildings around him?

Whatever your take on these changes, the reader can see how dramatic an impact architectural design can have on the creation of works of popular culture.  Once you learn what the terms “Art Deco” and “Neo-Gothic” refer to, stylistically, then you can better understand the worlds which these very familiar characters inhabit.  The architecture gives a greater context to the story, in ways which may not be immediately apparent when you are simply reading a comic strip or watching a cartoon.  And the joy of educating yourself about architecture, even if you’re never going to build anything yourself, is that you’ll come to better-appreciate not just these fictional worlds, but the places where you, yourself work, live, and play.

Animation cell of Clark Kent by Max Fleischer Studios (1941)

Animation cell of Clark Kent by Max Fleischer Studios (1941)

 

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Looking at Audrey Hepburn and “The Devil”

Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it.  Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.

I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film.  In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now.  Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.

Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her.  Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan.  There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce.  There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).

Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film.  “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline.  There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy.  Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.

If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present.  Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant.   The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders.  Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one.  When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing.  A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from.  Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from "Funny Face" (1957)

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from “Funny Face” (1957)

They’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock

The other night the classic 1953 film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was on; I’ve seen it many times, as it’s one of my mom’s favorite musicals.  When the movie came out in Spain, she and her friends obtained a recording of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the soundtrack, and would loudly sing along to it in their schoolgirl English.  This apparently horrified my grandmother, who had a better grasp of the subtleties of English, and therefore of what the gold-digging Lorelei Lee – played by Marilyn Monroe in the film – was singing about.

I mentioned to an elderly neighbor that I had caught the movie on TV, and he recalled being a graduate student in Paris in the 1950’s, and seeing it premiere at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees.  As he recalled, back then Europe was still in poverty and recovering from World War II, even though over here in America, we were filling our homes with the products of the first wave of middle-class consumerism.  So people flocked to see upbeat, colorful American movie musicals like this one, because their own lives were often so harsh, unhappy, and colorless.

It’s funny that back then, people like my grandmother looked at this film and found it scandalous.  True, it’s about two women performing a musical more suited to a so-called “gentleman’s club” than the Broadway stage.  Yet when you watch the movie now, in light of what we see not only on the big screen but the small screen on a regular basis these days, you realize how far we’ve fallen as a culture since that time.

The racy jokes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are definitely still racy, but they’re not insulting.  The women are clearly objectified by the men, from their suitors, to the policemen in the courtroom, to the entire U.S. Olympic Team, but at the same time, the women are in complete control of the situation.  They insist on being treated with respect.  They like to look beautiful, go dancing, drink cocktails, and have beautiful things.  They work hard at what they do, and they’re pretty happy with who they are.

For the generation that enjoys soul-sickening programs like “Girls” and other such societal take-downs of women disguised as entertainment, I imagine it’s difficult to”get” movies like this.  Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Lena Dunham would recoil in horror at learning that the film’s other star, Jane Russell, became an outspoken pro-life activist, one of the few in Hollywood.  Yet if you strip away all the cheap basement rumpus room plywood veneer that’s been foisted on us over the past 40 years about what men and women are supposed to be like, you can just enjoy being in the presence of two beautiful women who enjoy having a good time, coming close to the line but never crossing over it.  They’re just two little girls from Little Rock, after all.

Marilyn Monroe ad Jane Russell in a scene from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)