The Excitement is Building

Why is architecture the profession du jour for leading men in American movies? Joe Queenan exposes the hidden symbolism: like American men in general, architects are great at erecting enduring buildings, but hopelessly unable to use their erections to build enduring relationships.


Again and again in these pages, we have returned to the theme of motion pictures as the subliminal expression of America's deepest fears. Thus, City Slickers can be viewed on one level as the subconscious embodiment of rural Americans' dread that the entire West will ultimately be destroyed by urban assholes like Billy Crystal. Forrest Gump can be interpreted both as a deep national yearning for an earlier, more innocent time when a Southern simpleton ruled the country (Jimmy Carter), and as an expression of our fear that such an era may once again be upon us (Bill Clinton). And Indecent Proposal expresses all male Americans' fear that once they turn 50 and their skin starts getting really bad, they'll have to fork over a million bucks just to get laid.

With this theory in mind, let us now turn our attention to a collection of recent films that probe another dark corner of the national psyche. The films in question are Jungle Fever, Intersection, Fearless, The Birth of an Architect, HouseSitter, Dream Lover, Quicksand: No Escape, Sleepless in Seattle, The River Wild, Clifford and the aforementioned Indecent Proposal. On the surface, these films would seem to have little in common: some of them were big-budget hits (Sleeless in Seattle, Indecent Proposal); others were medium-budget busts (Intersection, Fearless); some addressed festering racial tensions in this society {Jungle Fever); some did not (HouseSitter, Clifford); one featured an architect in a perilous aquatic sating (The River Wild); one starred the studiously useless James Spader (Dream Lover); one starred the flam-boyantly pointless Tim Matheson (Quicksand); and one starred a very fat man (The Belly of Brian Dennehy).

Yet if we probe beneath the surface of these movies, we can clearly see that these 11 films are united by a common theme: the inability of contemporary architects to build normal relationships with members of the opposite sex. So grievous are the wounds suffered by these gifted architects that one ends up strangling his wife, one ends up committing suicide, one ends up dead in a car accident, one becomes an apprentice to a hit man, and one ends up marrying Goldie Hawn.

The unsophisticated viewer might look at these 11 movies and dismiss this profusion of architects on the silver screen as a mere fluke. This would be the height of folly. If we have learned anything from cinema in the past, it is that the motion picture industry responds to the deepest fears of the American people and transmutes this unspoken dread into celluloid psychodramas in which anxieties are addressed, probed, and in some way, resolved.

In making 11 different films about the failure of male American architects to establish meaningful relationships with their female partners, directors as varied as Nora Ephron, Peter Green -away, Adrian Lyne, Spike Lee and Peter Weir have come face-to-face with the question: Why is it that architects can build wonderful, enduring buildings, but cannot build wonderful, enduring relationships? Are the architects in these films not, in fact, finely wrought symbols of all-American men, who are extraordinarily gifted when it comes to making things, but hopelessly out of their depth when it comes to making love? Or am I just rambling?

To answer these questions, let us step back and examine the plots of some of the individual films. In Fearless, Jeff Bridges plays a successful architect who stops loving his wife, Isabella Rossellini, and also stops being allergic to strawberries, after he miraculously survives an airplane crash. This is not totally outside the range of possibility; lots of men married to women as strange and annoying as Isabella Rossellini could easily fall out of love with them after being in an airplane crash. And allergies are weird. But why would Bridges then turn around and fall in love with someone as strange and annoying as Rosie Perez? Is there something about airplane crashes that calls into question the very foundation upon which marriages are built in this country? And does it make a difference if you happen to be flying with USAir?

As with all Peter Weir films, powerful metaphorical elements are at work in Fearless. Architects make a living by erecting things, but sometimes the things they have erected collapse. Airplanes, like buildings, are supposed to stay up, but sometimes they fall down. Viewed from this perspective, the airplane disaster in Fearless can be interpreted as a metaphor for Jeff Bridges's inability to sustain an erection when Isabella Rossellini is around. Only when his wife resorts to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to pull him out of a life-threatening allergic reaction to a strawberry at the very end of the film does their relationship revive. The message is clear: If you're worried about losing your man to a hot little number like Rosie Perez, put some pizzazz back in the relationship with the help of some common fruits.

Bridges's mysterious affections in Fearless are duplicated in last winter's insipid Intersection, In this pitiful Mark Rydell project, the forlorn Richard Gere stars as a dashing British Columbian architect who abandons his gorgeous wife and partner, played by Sharon Stone, to bed down with a dimwitted journalist, played by the inexplicable Lolita Davidovich. Shortly thereafter, he is killed in a car crash, as any man foolish enough to leave Sharon Stone for Lolita Davidovich deserves to be. Although Stone is completely miscast as the jilted wife and mother, Gere is quite believable as the listless yuppie architect, and Davidovich is perfectly plausible in the role of a Canuck bimbo.

The notion that architecture and marital fidelity are incompatible is also addressed in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. Wesley Snipes plays a successful, happily married black architect whose life falls to pieces when he meets Annabella Sciorra, who hails from a downscale Neapolitan clan in the wilds of Bensonhurst. The point of Jungle Fever seems to be that sheltered white girls like Sciorra, growing up in a racially pure, albeit Paleolithic, section of Brooklyn, secretly yearn for what one black woman in the movie refers to as "Zulu dick."

But this narrow racial analysis of the film does not do justice to its deeper inner meaning. Just like Bridges in Fearless and Gere in Intersection, Snipes has reached a point in his life where he finds both his career and his marriage utterly unsatisfying. Like Bridges and Gere, he flees a settled, placid, conventional relationship with his beautiful wife to get his ya-yas off with an exotic ethnic who seems to have a few screws missing. Director Spike Lee thus seems to be saying that if your marriage is already on the rocks, architecture probably won't save it. Or maybe he's delicately suggesting that marriages, like tall buildings, must be erected on a solid foundation, or else they will collapse. Or maybe he's simply saying that all white people suck.

The desire of male American architects to consort with women missing one or more screws also dominates the films HouseSitter, Sleepless in Seattle and Dream Lover. In HouseSitter, Steve Martin plays a reasonably successful architect who has a longstanding relationship with a perky dullard played by Dana Delany. But he eventually ends up marrying Goldie Hawn, a perky, compulsive liar who has invented numerous false identities to camouflage her sordid past. In Dream Lover, James Spader plays a successful architect who divorces his dull, obvious wife and ends up marrying Mädchen Amick, a non-perky compulsive liar who has invented numerous false identities to camouflage her sordid past. And in Sleepless in Seattle, Tom Hanks plays a successful architect whose wife has just died of cancer--perhaps from inhaling carcinogenic building materials--who ends up with Meg Ryan, a perky journalist for a major metropolitan newspaper, and therefore, a compulsive liar.

Is it going too far to say that architecture is such a tedious, lonely, unrewarding profession that even successful practitioners of the art would do anything to pack a few thrills into their lives, even if it means getting married to Goldie Hawn? No, it is not. In Quicksand: No Escapean in direct-to-video- via-cable film by Michael Pressman Tim Matheson plays a seemingly successful architect who develops an unwholesome relationship with a hit man played by Donald Sutherland, whom he never would have met in the first place, except that his wife hired Sutherland to follow him, because she suspected him of having an affair. And in The Betty of an Architect, Brian Dennehy plays a successful architect whose obsession with an obscure 18th-century French proto-fascist architect named Eti-enne-Louis Boullée so traumatizes his marriage that his pregnant wife starts sleeping with an Italian gangster named Caspasian to get back at him. And that's just the tip of a very large iceberg. Dennehy has come to Rome to mount an exhibition honoring his long-forgotten 18th-century hero, but once he gets there, he starts to suspect that his wife is trying to poison him. After Dennehy discovers that the exhibit he has been hired to mount is really some sort of money-laundering scam, he jumps out a window backwards and dies.

In the previous paragraphs, we have isolated truths about contemporary architects. One is that most of them cheat on their wives. The other is that it isn't a good idea to get into a moving vehicle with any of them. Yet a number of key questions remain: What do we learn about architecture in general from these films? Does architecture itself play an important role in the films? And what kind of person would pay Woody Harrelson to design a building for him?

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