Blacktop: A Story of the Washing of a School Play Yard

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

Set to Wanda Landowska’s pioneering harpsichord performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Glenn Gould more famously brought those back to everybody’s attention in 1955, but Landowska far preceded him, and this film did too. Makes me think of Norman McLaren’s pre-Beatles collaboration with Ravi Shankar. Hurray for George, but roots like that tend to go much deeper and wider than we think. Makes me think, more, of the Eames’ wide-ranging cultural vocabulary, and how boldly and beautifully they brought unexpected things together. Aptly as well, such that their juxtapositions quickly went from unexpected to natural, even inevitable. This is a profound prescription for education, or at least a place where education can flourish. Things, introduced and then reset, and always reflected upon. Increase!

The music is not only lovely, but it is very appropriate for this film, and what it’s up to. This is, indeed, a story of the washing of a school play yard. But Bach, and the nature of musical variation, alerts us to the fact that there is more to this seeming banality than meets the eye. The suds and water washing over this surface are multiplying, being subtly and progressively altered by composition and cutting, and by our perceiving of the whole.

I love the visual motif of the down-tilted forward tracking shot, in which the soap seems to rise, and the blacktop seems to recede. Norman McLaren was previously mentioned, just in passing, but his experiments with cinematic abstraction are actually more directly relevant here. Blacktop is suggestive of McLaren’s work, but adds to it its own particular Eames-ian wrinkle. We know what we’re seeing—see the film’s sub-title, once again—but we’re also aware of and delighted by a gentle transformation in what we’re seeing. The interacting fluid and solid are transformed before our eyes, and invite or demand that we articulate fanciful similarities. Now we’re cloud watching: there’s a valley, a waterfall, a river, even a field of wheat.

This is secondary revision of course, the just-waking attempt to domesticate dream matter, or intractable modern art, into something that is palatably and unthreateningly linear. Have I overstated that? In this case, we’re not trying to escape the real meaning of our subconscious communications, nor quash needful artistic rebellion. No, this is the child’s optimistic, bright-eyed version of all that. With the added benefit of an adult’s experience, imagination, and resourcefulness. This combination of wonder and analytical sophistication will be the hallmark of the Eames’ films, going forward.

It’s a perfect combination, reassuring and pointing the way to all manner of future accomplishment. Everything resembles something else, everything connects. And we can too.