John Hejduk, Don’t Look Now

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Publication Date
October 25, 2018

Nicolas Roeg’s 1974 film Don’t Look Now, based on a short story by Daphne du Maurier, follows a young married couple to Venice as they grapple with the psychological rollercoaster of their daughter’s death. The mother, Laura, is portrayed by a chic Julie Christie, whom the audience first encounters reading a book written by her husband John, played by a striking Donald Sutherland. John is an architect restoring the 12th-century Byzantine-Venetian church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli. [1] Throughout the film, John repeatedly notices the color red – reminiscent of the red coat his daughter was wearing when she drowned – and he ultimately follows a person in a red cloak to his bloody death. The film features allegorical and fragmentary use of color, cutting, and double exposure to foreground the story’s suspenseful psycho-prophetic theme, which is personified through characters like John’s hooded executioner and a “monstrous” blind clairvoyant, comically referred to by du Maurier as a “hermaphrodite.” The movie also features a feminist sub-plot, a hallucinatory sex scene, and frequent gruesome corpses. The finale depicts a funeral procession featuring three sentinel women standing on the prow of a distinctly Venetian water hearse.

It has been argued that John’s attempts to repress the suprarational are foiled by his own paranoia, hysteria, and repressed psychic-feminine imaginary. [2] In other words, by undermining the narrative of a youthful male hero in the face of an older woman, du Maurier used veiled monsters to interrogate masculinity in a queer gothic tale of mistaken identity. Apparently aware of this, Roeg elaborated the psychic/rational tension fourfold on film. Roeg’s picture moves erratically through time by collapsing innocent girlhood onto an elderly dwarf-murderer, and pulling dolls and cadavers from canals – simultaneously capturing John’s confidence and hysteria from beginning to end. The grisly apparition of the drowned daughter’s red, pixie-hooded raincoat appears monstrously throughout, from a mud-drenched John clutching his dead daughter to the blood-soaked slaughter scene.

Four thousand miles away and one year later, the haunting content of Don’t Look Now had a similarly profound effect on another John, the recently appointed dean of the new school of Architecture at the Cooper Union. The New York architect John Hejduk, who viewed the film while renovating the Cooper Union’s Foundation Building in 1975, also traveled to Venice to participate in La Biennale di Venezia art show that year. Hejduk went on to participate in the first architecture biennale the next year, titled Europa/America, and again returned to Venice in 1978 when ten architects were brought there for six weeks to design Dieci Immagini per Venezia. For the ‘75 Art biennale, Hejduk proposed a startling renovation to the Molino Stucky pasta mill on Giudecca Island. His plans removed the interior and left an empty facade shell, much like the construction site of his recently gutted school in New York or Roeg’s San Nicolo on film. Outside, Hejduk indicated a new cemetery with long parallel walls to contain what he called “the ashes of thought,” labeled with the names of great authors, and motivated by Gloria Fiorentino Hejduk. Away from this columbarium for burnt books, Hejduk also proposed a replica of his zoomorphic Wall House Three project. This 3D still life was strangely perched on a small barge/island in the Giudecca Canal, gazing toward the horizon like the sentinel women in Don’t Look Now.

Twelve years later one of Hejduk’s Venice colleagues, Rafael Moneo, sponsored an exhibition of the Cooper dean’s Italy-themed drawings titled Bovisa at the Harvard Design School. Hejduk’s work had departed the Wall House phase and entered his so-called pessimistic phase, culminating in an overtly figural pixie-hooded human and angel corpse on yet another cemetery barge, titled “The Canal/Kanal”. [3]  Hejduk was apparently still fascinated by the funeral procession, the hooded figure, and by du Maurier’s “Gorgon-like” psychic on a boat, “who fixes him with her sightless eyes.”. [4]

Unlike fictional John, real John Hejduk was mortified by the girl/ghoul in the red cloak but motivated by the women on the boat. Hejduk’s fascination was borne out in a series of densely gendered masques that he designed throughout the 1980s, featuring fortune-tellers, widows, and Medusa herself. Hejduk was an architect infatuated with the vitality of forms and his work was inflected by the careful study of film, literature, gender, and the suprarational. Beyond a historical anecdote, this film/architecture comparison also indicates something scary about inequity discourse today: that efforts to exclude formalism from questions of gender, sexuality, class, and cosmopolitanism liquidate vibrant avenues for inquiry.

[1] Nicolas Roeg, dir. Don’t Look Now. Performed by Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, et al. 1974; UK, Italy: Casey Productions, 1974. DVD.

[2] Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, “Murdering (M)others: Deaths in Venice: ‘Don’t Look Now’” in Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity, and the Gothic Imagination (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc. 1998), pp.173-186. references pp.181–182, 185–186.

[3] John Hejduk and José Rafael Moneo, Bovisa (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1987).

[4] Daphne Du Maurier, “Don’t Look Now,” in Not After Midnight and other stories. (London: Victor Gollancz Limited, 1971), pp.7–58. References pp.11, 14.

Publication Date
October 25, 2018
Volume
4
Number
05
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