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Top 10 ‘Must See’ Films for Architects and Planners

Top 10 ‘Must See’ Films for Architects and Planners
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

The Outlaw Urbanist recently made available the six-hour Architecture and Film ($39.99) course series on its professional development and continuing education learning platform. The series is composed three 2-hour courses, which are also available as individual components: Do Architects Dream of Celluloid Buildings? ($14.99); The Architectural Competence in Cinema ($14.99); and, The Best of Both Worlds ($14.99). The course series is a wide-ranging discussion about architecture’s impact on cinema in the mise en scène (e.g. everything in the frame) of film-grammars, involving general rules for the depiction of built environments in support of cinematic narratives. The course series reviewed dozens of examples in film and television. The question naturally arises about what might be the most definitive examples of architecture’s impact on cinema. What is the essential ‘must-see’ list of films for architects and planners to see?

Without further ado, here is the Top 10 ‘Must-See’ Films for Architects and Planners…

Honorable Mention: Logan’s Run (1976)
Are you still confused about what a ‘smart city’ might really be? Four decades ago, the central premise of Logan’s Run was based on the premise of a smart city. The computers of the city control every significant aspect of the lives of its citizens including decisions of life and death… unless you become a runner. After Logan 5 and Jessica 6 escape the city, the film quickly loses pace. Ultimately, the story cannot bear the weight of its intriguing premise, which is why Logan’s Run barely missed the cut for this list. Logan and Jessica explore ‘outside’ for only a few days, then even they (much like the audience) can’t wait to get back to the city, if only on some ill-defined mission to undercut the society living there.

10. Inception (2010)
The most effective film to date to make use of Computer-generated imagery (CGI) manipulation of the built environment in order to convey a distortion of reality to the audience. In this case, it is the dream-within-dream premise of Christopher Nolan’s narrative. Marvel’s 2016 Doctor Strange deploys the same digital tricks, only more so. As cool as these visual effects are, the most effective consequence has been more realistic cinematic depictions of built environments generating their own gravity in ‘hard’ science fiction films with settings in space such as Interstellar, Elysium, Star Trek Beyond, and so on.

9. The Truman Show (1998)
One of the most comprehensive examples of filmmakers transforming a real place (New Urbanist resort town of Seaside, Florida) into the fictional setting of Seahaven, Florida, which is really a set in Hollywood, California for a reality television series watched by millions around the world. The payoff for the narrative and premise comes at the climax when Truman (played by Jim Carrey) sails to the outer wall of the set to escape his manufactured reality (see above). Pleasantville (1998) in the same year is also worth a look, if only for the joke about the common paradoxes associated with urban geography in cinema. Hollywood films that are basically about Hollywood itself always border on the edge of self-indulgence. Both The Truman Show and Pleasantville avoid this trap, for the most part.

8. Harry Potter (2001-2011)
The Harry Potter films had to walk a very fine line between real and fantastical settings. It is a testament to the genius of J.K. Rowling’s source novels and the creative talents of the filmmakers that the Harry Potter film series successfully navigates this line. The use of film-grammars involving cinematic built environments and spatial concepts play a large but subtle role in achieving this objective. Harry Potter offers a good example of historical juxtaposition and a very specific use for the abnormal scale film-grammar in architectural elements to support  the Harry Potter narrative.

7. “Q Who”, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1989)
There is a great advantage for extended narratives on television, especially for a franchise like Star Trek. There is more time for filmmakers to play with, even subvert well-established film-grammars when it comes to depictions of the built environment in service to the narrative. The problem is selectively choosing only one or two examples of these ‘world-building’ efforts, which are sometimes expansively and exhaustively developed over years, even decades in the case of Star Trek. The 1989 episode “Q Who” on Star Trek: The Next Generation is a good, stand-alone introduction to the larger Star Trek universe. Using the film-grammar of abnormal scale to convey narrative threat has never been done better before or since on Star Trek.

6. The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)
Depictions of the built environment (primarily, historical juxtaposition) for the world-building of these films plays a crucial role in visually conveying important narrative information to the audience. There is a very tight, thematic structure associated with the built environment and nature in The Lord of the Rings, which is effective for supporting the protagonist and antagonist requirements of the narrative. The origins of this thematic structure can been traced right back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s source novels.

5. The Matrix (1999)
The definitive film about the potential allure and negative consequences of life inside a simulated environment. At its core, The Matrix is a sophisticated science fiction escape narrative. Its depictions of built environments are rudimentary for the most part, relying on real locations in Sydney, Australia though the filmmakers manage to make it look like a hyper-real amalgamation of Los Angeles and New York. The cinematic narrative soars when it comes to the visual effects associated with manipulating the simulated reality of the Matrix.

4. Star Wars: Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
When it comes to mise en scène in support of cinematic narratives, The Empire Strikes Back directed by Irvin Kershner might be the most perfect film ever made. Almost every scene conveys a rich amount of information to the audience through the use of background, middle ground and foreground in the frame. In fact, you might be able to watch The Empire Strikes Back absent its dialogue track – leaving John Williams’ crucial musical score in place – and still understand almost every nuance of story and characterization in the film. It is brilliant, plain and simple.

3. Game of Thrones (2011 – present)
The extended narrative of this HBO series (only 10 episode per season so 60 episodes through six seasons though some run times extend beyond the standard one-hour format) is a master class for using the rules of film-grammars in world-building production design to support cinematic narratives. Mainly, this occurs with on-location filming and CGI enhancement of built environments to create the fantastical settings of Westeros and Essos. The filmmakers go far beyond George R.R. Martin’s source novels, which often rely on literary conventions (i.e. allowing readers’ imaginations to fill in the descriptive gaps). We can only hope the climax of the final two seasons of Game of Thrones deliver a satisfactory conclusion to the creative brilliance of the series to date.

It is always difficult to avoid ‘the usual suspects’ at the top of this list…

2. Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott was at the height of his creative powers as a filmmaker during the period coinciding with the release of Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and the Apple “1984” television commercial. Blade Runner represents the ‘oxygen-depriving’ summit. Long before the CGI age, Blade Runner relied on ‘old school’ techniques of on-site location filming, constructed sets, physical modeling, lighting and set dressing to create the futuristic setting of Los Angeles in 2019. Architecture plays a starring role in the film right along with Harrison Ford, Sean Young, and Rutger Hauer. The narrative is tight and thought-provoking. The production design is outstanding. Scott’s use of mise en scène and ‘tried and trusted’ film-grammars to visually convey narrative information to the audience transforms the film into a deeply rich experience on several levels. Despite its reputation in architectural schools,  Blade Runner does not actually break the cinematic mold. It merely elevates it to unforeseen heights of artistic expression.

1. Metropolis (1927)
If Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is the ‘Revelation’ for mise en scène and film-grammar depictions of the built environment, then Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film classic Metropolis is the ‘Genesis’, especially for the science fiction genre. The (often-repeated) film-grammar of abnormal scale for conveying the antagonistic threat of the narrative began here (see above). In fact, a lot of the cinematic conventions most familiar to audiences (if only on a subconscious level) have their origins in Lang’s German Expressionist film. Blade Runner may have elevated the cinematic mold to unforeseen heights but Metropolis invented that mold.

Purchase the Architecture and Film course series here ($39.99)
Purchase Part 1, “Do Architects Dream of Celluloid Buildings?”, here ($14.99)
Purchase Part 2, “The Architectural Competence in Cinema”, here ($14.99)
Purchase Part 3, “The Best of Both Worlds”, here ($14.99)

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Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Fiction Books

Need ideas for gifts this holiday season? The Outlaw Urbanist is here to help you!

The Sovereignty used to be the author’s blog for promoting my science fiction novel Mars Rising (available for purchase on Amazon here). I retired the site a couple of years ago for a new author’s website (www.markdmajor.com) since my published books quickly spread beyond the genre of science fiction to include theatre, poetry, and children’s books as well as the Poor Richard series of almanacs about architecture and urbanism (available for purchase on the menu to your right) .

By far and away, the most popular articles on the old blog were the posts about the “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Non-fiction Books” and “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Fiction Books.” Given their popularity, I want to make these articles newly available on The Outlaw Urbanist blog even though they are not strictly about architecture and urbanism. I originally wrote the “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Non-fiction Books” on September 22, 2013. Below is the first article, “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Fiction Books”, which I originally wrote on August 11, 2013. Without further ado, and with some revisions, here is…

Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Fiction Books
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
(Originally appeared on The Sovereignty blog, August 11, 2013)

I did several author interviews to promote the release of Mars Rising. During every interview, there was always a question about what books I had read, cherished, and believed everyone should have read at least once. It is an interesting and difficult question to answer in brief terms, which was always a requirement of these interviews. There are so many great and important books that everyone should read. It seemed impossible to pick only one or two. It is why I decided to write this article about what I believe are ten ‘must read’ fiction books for everyone. Some of them, people will have already read. Some of them, people will be planning to read. It is unlikely that anyone will find a book on this list, which is completely unfamiliar.

Some ground rules. First, I have limited this list to fiction only. (NOTE: The original article promoted my science fiction novel so the list is somewhat skewed towards science fiction/fantasy genre). However, I will also be preparing a top ten ‘must-read’ non-fiction books list. I have a history degree and consider myself a historian so I read a lot of history/non-fiction books. This means I have knocked what I believe is the most important book everyone should read (period) from the top perch of this initial list to the non-fiction ‘must-read’ list. It pains me to do so but there have to be some ground rules. Second, I freely admit that I have cheated by bundling books together in a series/thematically in order to lengthen the list beyond the required ten books. Sue me. Third, I have stayed away from religious texts, which are undoubtedly important and some are great (think Psalms 23, i.e. “The Lord is my shepherd…” or The Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew) but such texts can sometimes contentious, so I want to avoid any controversy. Fourth, I have not included plays or poems so that disqualifies the entire canon of William Shakespeare, which could easily occupy positions one through ten of the entire list. This also disqualifies Homer and Ancient Greek plays such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Perhaps I will prepare a top ten list of ‘must-read’ poetic/dramatic works later. Lastly, I would love to hear your ‘must-read’ fiction lists so feel free to post them in the comments. I promise I will read everyone’s list and I might even have to revise my list after realizing I forgot something important. With that, let the making of lists begin…

Guilty Pleasure Honorable Mentions
the_standThe Stand by Stephen King
Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth series, I feel compelled to re-read Stephen King’s The Stand every couple of years. The premise of the story is fascinating. King masterly handles the build-up to the apocalypse caused by the viral strain named Captain Trips. The religious themes are compelling even if the conclusion does not support the massive and intriguing weight of the first half of the book (in terms of content, not actual weight). Purchase on Amazon here.

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
I cannot calculate how many headaches I have gotten while reading the Harry Potter novels. This is not a bad thing. It is actually a good thing because the headaches come when I fail to take a break. Once I start reading about Harry, Hermione, Ron, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and the whole cast of hundreds, I cannot stop until I’m finished. Rowling should put a health warning on her novels. Purchase on Amazon here.

NOTE: The General Honorable Mentions list below is a new addition.

General Honorable Mentions
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (rarely do you ever meet a character like Jane Eyre); The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein; Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke; The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (still can’t believe Hinton was only a teenager when she wrote this novel); The Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov; and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath because Sylvia Plath was/is/will always be awesome.

Top 10 ‘Must Read’ Fiction Books

10. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Required reading for every teenager who thinks they are going to live forever. Wilde’s wit still manages to shine through this dark tale about selling your soul for eternal youth. (News Flash: You won’t live forever unless they hurry up with robotics and the technology to transfer our consciousness into cybernetic bodies; personally, I can’t wait for this breakthrough<added November 30, 2016). Purchase on Amazon here.

9. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
I have always loved the legend of King Arthur. I have read several versions of the story, Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the Howard Pyle stories, the Camelot 3000 comic series, The Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur) by Bernard Cromwell, and so on. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is the most original and greatest version of the King Arthur story I have ever read. Zimmer Bradley’s ‘hook’ is she tells the story from the point of view of the women (principally Igraine, Guinevere, and Morgan Le Fay). It is a fantastic read. Purchase on Amazon here.

8. Immortality/The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Kundera casts himself as a character in Immortality and he is asked, “What’s the title of the book you’re writing now?” Kundera replies, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” He is then asked, “Wasn’t that the title of your last book?” He replies, “Yes, but it was a mistake. That should be the title of this book.” The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an incredible love story. Immortality is soul shattering in the surgical precision of its narrative. I will not say anything else about Immortality; in case,  anyone has not read it. I do not want to give away the power of Kundera’s story (spoilers!). My only advice is stick with it to receive your reward. Purchase on Amazon here and here.

7. Dune Trilogy (Dune, Dune Messiah, Children of Dune) by Frank Herbert
The sleeper has awakened! There is little need to read any of the novels that followed in this series by Herbert or titles penned by others (unless you are curious). You probably do not even need to read God Emperor of Dune though it, at least, ties off the story of the Atriedes House in terms of Paul Atriedes and his children. However, things get really, really, really weird after Children of Dune. The Man-worm/Duncan Idaho aspects of the fourth novel are more than a little bizarre and, perhaps, even cruel. You can be content with the original trilogy, which focuses the narrative on Paul and his sister, Alia, as told by from Irulan’s point of view (sorta). It is all about the spice. Purchase on Amazon here, here and here.

6. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
In my opinion, the first great American novel (enough said). Purchase on Amazon here.

5. Twilight
I’m only kidding…


5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Progressives in the United States have co-opted Lee’s novel into the liberal narrative about the civil rights movement, which is O.K. However, at its heart, To Kill a Mockingbird is a love story just as Harper Lee originally envisioned. It is a love story between a daughter and her father, and one between the author and the American South. What transforms To Kill a Mockingbird into greatness is Lee’s ability to express the second, convey it to the reader so they also share that love whilst still providing a poignant and realistic look at its dark underside in the form of racial prejudice. I cannot believe I did not read this novel until I was in my mid-forties. It was a big oversight on my part. (NOTE: In the original version of this article, this novel was ranked #2 ahead of the book now ranked #3 on this list. I’ve made this correction because I think it makes more sense in this order). Purchase on Amazon here.

4. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles in prose but the writing has a lyrical quality unlike anything else I have ever read, which borders on poetry. This impressive novel is one of the most underrated books ever written (because it is true science fiction) and has, for too long, been unfairly overshadowed by Fahrenheit 451. Purchase on Amazon here.

3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
With all respect to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (a little overrated, in my opinion), and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (which was originally higher on this list so I know I was contradicting myself at the time, but this is now corrected), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is the great American novel. NOTE: This novel originally appeared at #5 on the list. Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film adaption of The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio reminded me about why I do not read this book over and over; it is just too darn depressing and would bring me way-too-far-down for at least a week every single time. The ultimate tome about American superficialism. Purchase on Amazon here.

2. Animal Farm/1984 by George Orwell
Together, Animal Farm and 1984 are a clarion call against leftist totalitarianism. This warning is just as relevant today as when first written in 1948. 1984 weaves together a story that ably demonstrates the oppressive effect of totalitarian regimes on the individual. For Newspeak, you can read modern political correctness gone cuckoo (duckspeak). On the other hand, Animal Farm satires precisely the disconnection between what these leftist regimes proclaim and how they really act. Animal Farm wickedly proves that some novels “are more equal than others.” However, we can always give the others a Certificate of Participation. Purchase on Amazon here and here.

1. The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) by J.R.R. Tolkien
What can I possibly say about Tolkien’s masterpieces, which someone else has not already said before? Uh, nothing really. I re-read all four books about every two years from start to finish over a two-week period. Purchase on Amazon here and here.

Read the list of “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Non-fiction Books.”

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