'REM': Film Review | Venice 2016

Rem - Still 2 - H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Uneven but absorbing.

Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is the subject of the documentary 'REM,' directed by his son, Tomas Koolhaas.

A valentine from a son to his father as well as a largely absorbing architecture documentary to boot, Tomas Koolhaas’s REM, which screens out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, explores some of the buildings and building philosophy of celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

Instead of a typical documentary in which experts let loose about a subject, Koolhaas junior combines extensive audio interview material of his father with a moving-camera look at some of his most iconic buildings, which include the Seattle Central Library, the CCTV headquarters in Beijing, De Rotterdam in the eponymous city and the Casa da Musica in Porto. A few visitors and inhabitants of his constructions also get a say, thus proving the architect’s idea that each building has at least two lives, the one imagined by its maker and one that starts to happen when construction is over and people actually start to use it.

Beyond festivals and venues interested in the intersection of film and architecture, this should do well in the Netherlands and other places where the Koolhaas name means something.

Koolhaas, who will be 72 in November, is quite philosophical about his chosen trade and the director uses this to the film’s advantage. Some of his remarks — such as “This is an exceptional moment in architecture because we build in places where we didn’t grow up,” or “A big building can’t be too specific because it needs to be used by a lot of people” — are at once obvious and profound. They suggest that Rem is someone who occasionally likes to step back to take the widest possible view.

Besides an almost constant English-language voiceover, in Koolhaas’ thick and nasal Dutch accent, the film also contains quotes from the master that appear onscreen at regular intervals (they aren’t credited, so it’s not clear whether they are from Koolhaas’s many theoretical writings or from interviews his son conducted). The quotes help reiterate some of the core concepts of Koolhaas’ philosophy but at times threaten to turn the nonfiction film into a PowerPoint presentation.

Several of Koolhaas’ most famous buildings are showcased both from the outside and from within, with especially Porto’s Casa da Musica ingeniously captured as the director, who shot most of the material himself, follows a skateboarder (Chris Lodge) from outside into the building, where he turns into a parkour dancer of sorts. These dynamic looks at some of Koolhaas' most famous creations do something that’s much harder to do in photos as the moving camera can suggest how rooms and spaces are connected and how spaces are experienced.

The “users” of a few of Rem’s creations also are showcased and they talk about how they experience his buildings. Laure Boudet, a young woman who grew up in the Villa dell’ava as a child, says it made her more ambitious because she felt like she had to “live up to the house,” while two homeless men talk about the refuge they find in the Seattle Public Library. Louise Lemoine, whose late and severely disabled father had the Maison Bordeaux built so he could be a more integrated part of his family, talks about the changing use of the family home.

These snippets of interviews, however, feel more like the first sketch of a good idea than a fundamental part of the project. What’s missing is not only other types of users, like a musician talking about the Casa da Musica or the director of a major corporation who had their HQ built by Koolhaas, but the interviews that are there are very short and don’t dig deep enough. Somewhat oddly, one employee from Koolhaas’ globe-spanning OMA company, Shohei Shigematsu, appears briefly not as a user of a building but to talk about the corporation’s post-Rem era, though he often talks in Sibylline quotes.

One of the film’s most fascinating aspects is Koolhaas’ rumination on the concept of the “celebrity architect,” two words that according to the architect are “almost mutually exclusive.” Except they aren’t in his case and Koolhaas readily admits that press attention is important for him and his renown but that he frequently finds talking to the media a “self-defeating effort.” There’s a priceless scene, oddly placed much later in the film, that illustrates this perfectly as an Italian television journalist at the 2014 architecture Biennale asks him to “take her by the hand” through the exhibition and he first tells her to ask a more interesting question and then pretends to answer by saying he’ll take her by the hand to the start, at the entrance, where she can buy a ticket.

If REM’s form is finally an amalgamation of different ideas rather than a strongly conceptual and rigorously executed design, like most of Koolhaas senior’s creations, the filmmaker, who has over a dozen credits as a cinematographer, does have a good eye for visuals — some overhead shots of New York, possibly the Big Apple’s biggest visual cliché, are breathtaking — and some fascinating editorial ideas. Hopefully, an independent producer will see this promise as well and accompany him on his next adventure.

Director-producer-editor: Tomas Koolhaas
Directors of photography: Tomas Koolhaas, Brett Pawlak, Chris Arata
Music: Murray Hidary

Not rated, 75 minutes