With the possible exception of certain underwater adventures and outer-space stories, pretty much every movie relies on architectural symbolism, finding in the house where the hero lives, the saloon he drinks in or the city streets he caroms through in his getaway car some useful ways to sharpen its thematic message.
This year's Oscar nominees for best picture, though, exploit that symbolism to an unusually effective degree. Director Joe Wright begins and ends "Atonement," his version of the Ian McEwan novel, with a Highly Meaningful shot of a house. At the start it's a dollhouse version of the English manor where much of the action takes place, at the finish a dreamed-about cottage by the sea. In between -- at least when it's not trying to cloak itself in the gauzy light of a Chanel No. 5 commercial -- the film uses architecture to flesh out ideas about class, penance and the tedium that is part of any drawn-out war.
Yet it's the other pictures -- "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men," "Juno" and "Michael Clayton" -- that really lean on the visual importance of streets, office towers, churches, hotels, motels and lofts. And surprisingly enough, the four -- all set in the U.S., though "Juno" was filmed in Canada -- do so in pursuit of essentially the same theme: that American culture has always been a struggle between brash, ragged individuality and streamlined conformity, and conformity almost always wins out -- especially when it comes to making real money, and especially these days. Each of the four films is, in one way or another, not just a tribute to but also a requiem for eccentricity, the price one pays in this country for refusing to bend to homogenization, high-school popularity contests or corporate power.
In "There Will Be Blood," directed by Paul Thomas Anderson from a 1927 Upton Sinclair novel, the action begins in a hole, as Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) hacks away at a chunk of rock, pick-axing for oil. The vertical cut into the earth is the opposite of shelter: an anti-cave, a place that makes the man at the bottom of it fully vulnerable to both accident and weather.
But the work that Plainview and his crew do in that hole leads to oil, and oil leads to money, and money leads to buildings. Soon there is a kind of primitive architecture, the form of latticed oil derricks and listing little houses, sprouting up in the harsh, desolate landscape, followed soon by more permanent structures. The fire-and-brimstone preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) also moves into noticeably roomier digs, his new church shaping the Sunday morning rays into a perfect sunlight cross.
Still, as the architecture around them begins to look more impressive and more fixed, Plainview and Sunday remain primitives. Even after he moves into a mansion worthy of Charles Foster Kane, Plainview continues to sleep on the floor, as if nuzzling his cheek against the dirt he knows lies underneath the polished floorboards. And when he attacks the preacher in the basement bowling alley of that same grand house, it is less a Darwinian moment than an indication that these men are simply not cut out for an American culture learning to channel the physical aggression of a frontier nation into the camaraderie-building, revenue-generating leisure activity of a settled one.
The other western, "No Country for Old Men," takes place more than a half-century later, but it covers some of the same thematic ground. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen from Cormac McCarthy's novel, it is essentially the story of three bow-legged anachronisms: Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a Vietnam vet named Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and the killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the last two of whom leave a bloody trail through western Texas.
All around them is an architectural landscape that seems to be growing more placeless and forgettable by the year. What society gives up in exchange for prosperity and safety, the movie seems to say, is not only the kind of bloody code of ethics that Anton and Llewelyn follow to the point of absurdity, but also peculiarity and character, whether personal or aesthetic. Both the generic motels and the mirrored-glass office tower where much of the action takes place suggest a corner of the country losing its regional identity and quirkiness.
Sheriff Bell is about to retire; Llewelyn proves principled (or hard-headed) enough to get himself killed. What promises to be left after they're gone is a western Texas that looks more like everywhere else. When the action does move into a building with some sense of history and singularity, the stately and creaking Eagle Pass Hotel, the building seems as clearly doomed, as much of a relic, as the men who stalk its halls trying to blast each other full of holes.
In that sense, the most important architectural gesture in the film comes when Anton arrives at the Desert Aire Trailer Park, looking for Llewelyn. He shoots an air gun meant for killing cattle right through the lock, as he does when faced with any closed door, but in this case the lock flies all the way across the trailer and bounces hard off the far wall. When Bell and his deputy arrive later, they discover that the lock has left a permanent mark in the cheap wood paneling: a personalized architectural detail, steer-branding meets Louis Sullivan, in a landscape that is rapidly being stripped of such ornament.
By the time we get to contemporary America, where "Michael Clayton" and "Juno" take place, the homogenization that we see emerging in "No Country" has had time to mature fully: There is in both movies a sense that a Starbucks or a Walgreens lurks around every urban corner.
In celebration of idiosyncrasy
JUNO, the pregnant teenager played by Ellen Page, uses glib phrases and equally cheeky decor as a shield against that aggressively homogenous society. The symbols of pressure to conform are everywhere in Jason Reitman's movie: American culture, it suggests, is becoming more and more like high school, a realm where the key to success is to look like everybody else, only slightly shinier and peppier.
There's no more obvious symbol of that idea than the suburban McMansion owned by Vanessa and Mark Loring (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), the smiling couple who want to adopt Juno's baby. It is decorated as a kind of Pottery Barn-as-torture chamber, the prosperous and spiritless look broken only by the single, hidden room where Mark gets to keep his records, memorabilia and other prized relics of his premarital life.
Architecturally and emotionally, the room is a time capsule. Juno feels comfortable there precisely because she has arranged her room at home, with its now-iconic hamburger phone, in the same way: as a cluttered monument to the sort of individuality that is frowned upon in the open air of a high school campus, where everybody can inspect and make fun of it.
In "Michael Clayton," the most cunning of the bunch in its use of buildings and interiors, we see an American urban landscape that has nearly perfected its quest for streamlined profitability and architectural predictability. There is the sleekly forgettable Manhattan tower, set in a forest of other such skyscrapers, that holds the offices of the law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. There are the hotels in Omaha and Milwaukee, with their anonymous bars and oversized grand ballrooms where some of the most dramatic action unfolds. This is a world where, as the commercials for the agrichemical giant U/North tell us, technology has made it possible to "speed the harvest" -- to make even the cycles of nature bend to shareholder taste.
The brilliant, unstable corporate lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is an advertisement for the idea that standing in the way of such progress requires at least a shred of insanity. He lives in a high-ceilinged loft with peeling paint and bottomless visual appeal: the kind of building no residential architect would design today simply because it wastes so much space. It wouldn't pencil out, as the developers say.
What does pencil out in this America are spaces that look unsurprising because they are designed to promote unsurprising behavior: law-firm conference rooms, prefabricated Courtyard by Marriotts. When Arthur, in an effort to escape that world, goes off his meds, he grows wide-eyed and vital. "What makes this feel good is I don't know where it goes," he tells George Clooney's Michael Clayton.
After Arthur's death, Clayton is sitting in a bar having a drink with the law firm chairman, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). "People are incomprehensible," he tells Clayton. They are -- and in response we build not just economic markets but also cities that are as comprehensible, and sometimes as drained of surprise, as possible. The last thing the men who kill Edens want to do is leave behind an Anton Chigurh-style signature, architectural or otherwise, at the crime scene. Theirs is a technical and clinical kind of murder-for-hire, just as their corporate clients demand.
Together, what these movies suggest is that these days, nostalgia can no longer be defined simply as a longing for a time when things were different than they are now. Nostalgia has also become a longing for a time when things -- not least houses, office buildings and whole neighborhoods -- were different from one another.
Hawthorne is The Times' architecture critic.