2½ stars (out of four)
"Less is more" was the famed artistic dictum of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe--or as he's often more familiarly called, "Mies." And less is what we get in the Canadian documentary "Regular or Super: Views on Mies van der Rohe." The film provides a view of the famed visionary who emigrated from Berlin to Chicago, from the city of Bauhaus to the City of the Blues, the man who created the "glass menagerie" on Lake Shore Drive and dreamed up and executed the prototypical glass and steel towers of the 20th Century city. Our own city wouldn't have its special contour, its personality, without him (and the 40-plus buildings he designed here) and neither would the other cities whose architects and builders emulated his work.
Mies designed gigantic buildings, overpowering structures-- such as Manhattan's ultimate glass and steel tower, the Seagram Building. But in 1967, at 81 (two years before his death), he also designed a little Esso gas station on Nun's Island, Montreal's showcase suburb. It was a modest-sounding assignment, but he made a striking-looking structure, recognizably in his "no frills" style, a flat roof covering building and pumps with the sleek symmetry of a CD case. Yet, perhaps inevitably, almost four decades after it was built by the dominant architectural stylist of the last century, the Esso attendant who works there describes the station as an "antique."
That's the starting point for "Regular or Super," an interesting film with a great subject, to which it doesn't quite live up. The picture that filmmakers Joseph Hillel and Patrick Demers have made about Mies is just under an hour long, featuring interviews from a number of architects, friends and observers--including designer Rem Koolhaas, architect Stanley Tigerman and architectural professor Elizabeth Diller. It's well-filmed, well-spoken, not overly adulatory, not pushily dramatic or agenda-laden. It gives us a brief sketch of Mies' life and shows us a number of his beautiful buildings and interiors, accompanied by a hip jazz soundtrack. But, unlike his work, it doesn't really fill you up. We could use less of the Esso station and more of Mies.
"Regular or Super" doesn't intensely dramatize its subject, the way Nathaniel Kahn's "My Architect" personalizes the director's father, Louis Kahn, or the way producer Ken Burns' 1998 documentary "Frank Lloyd Wright" portrays and reveals Wright. Nor it is really a love poem to the architect's work, like Hiroshi Teshigahara's "Gaudi." Compared with Burns' film, it's Mies Lite.
Hillel and Demers do get the essentials: Mies' life, from Berlin and his directorship of the Bauhaus to Chicago, where in 1938 he became director of architecture of the current Illinois Institute of Technology (then the Armour Institute), and on to his trailblazing postwar work, including the creation of the stretch along Lake Shore Drive, which, according to the movie , was once designated by cab drivers here as "the glass menagerie."
But we could use more about his roots. The son of a stonemason, a man who had no college degree, he approached buildings from the view of a workman and artisan as well as a great mind. Simplicity and an emphasis on the practical were the essence of his style and it would be nice to have more background. There is more material on the DVD of "Regular or Super," which contains another 57 minutes of deleted interviews on Mies. I wish more of that had been used in the film.
The Music Box Theatre is hosting a panel on Mies following the 3:30 p.m. Saturday screening of the film. Included are director Hillel, moderator Jonathan Miller (WBEZ-FM), David Bahlman of the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois and Ben Nicholson of IIT, who is interviewed in the movie. If you miss the panel however, you might want to arrange your own private Chicago tour afterward : a swing down Lake Shore Drive for a long look at the glass menagerie. Less, sometimes, is more.
`Regular or Super: Views on Mies van der Rohe'
Directed by Joseph Hillel and Patrick Demers; written by Hillel; photographed by Francois Dutil; edited by Demers; soundtrack by Ramachandra Borcar; sound by Frederic Cloutier; produced by Hillel. Interviewees: Georges Danforth, Joseph Fujikawa, Stanley Tigerman, Dirk Lohan, etc. In English and French, with English subtitles. A First Run/Icarus Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 0:59. No MPAA rating. Family.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times