Lovingly handmade and taking nearly as long to put together are its subject did, “I Build the Tower” chronicles the creation of the Watts Towers, that impossibly fragile-looking yet durable trio of spires rising above the Watts area of South Central Los Angeles. If the docu still needs pruning and finishing touches after more than two decades in the making, it nonetheless is the most complete visual account of self-made architect Simon Rodia and his masterpiece, an artwork that blends the sacred and the primitive with the futuristic. Fests with a docu slant should clamor for pic, which will also draw international interest and vid buyers.
Filmmakers Ed Landler and Brad Byer compile as much information and detail about Rodia and his work as they can, but they also allow Rodia to remain something of an enigma. While following the at times poorly organized telling of Rodia’s early life story and about his eventual settling in Watts, the viewer may come to believe that Rodia was destined to build his unique structures and to build them in a manner no one else could.
The cogent Los Angeles social critic and author Mike Davis convincingly proposes in an interview that the Towers should be the city’s iconic landmark — Los Angeles’ Golden Gate Bridge, Statue of Liberty or Space Needle. Made of a dynamic process combining the simplest of materials (mortar, wire, glass shards) with a visionary engineering technique that allows its extremely narrow rods to weave and bend into a surreal adaptation of church spires reaching nearly 100 feet high, the Towers seem pure Los Angeles, from the way they crazily adapt European traditions to their extremely personal, visionary sky-bound aspirations that link them with the city’s traditions in aerospace, the movies and radical design.
But the Towers’ brazen lack of purpose or official stamp of approval prompted city officials to attempt to tear them down in 1959, a crisis that the docu covers in fits and starts between descriptions of Rodia’s vagabond lifestyle. Born in 1879 to a working class family in Serino, Italy, Rodia migrated to the U.S. as a young man bringing with him strong memories of Catholic processionals –iconic symbols and shapes from the objects used in the processionals are beautifully incorporated in the Towers — and an even stronger sense of working class politics. Soundtrack is repeatedly peppered with rare audio recordings of Rodia lecturing guests and friends about the evils of dog-eat-dog capitalism, so it’s hard not to read the Towers as Rodia’s rebuke of corporate-style utilitarian design.
Landler and Byer, though, aren’t out to make Rodia into a saint. After marrying a woman named Lucy and working as a bricklayer on the first buildings on the UC Berkeley campus, Rodia apparently soured on family life and turned into a drunk and a wife-beater, according to Lucy’s divorce papers.
He became a hobo and rode the rails through North and South America finally stopping in San Pedro, Calif. Gaining work as a bricklayer and a tile-layer (pic shows evidence of his work on structures across Los Angeles, including the famous Bullocks Wilshire building) and even spending time as an evangelist, Rodia decided to buy a home in the early 1920s.
In one of countless fascinating factoids that will make “I Build the Tower” pure catnip for fans of the city’s lore, pic notes that Rodia wanted (for no known reason) to buy on a triangular-shaped lot and nearly opted for a cheaply priced plot at the corner of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards — now at the heart of ultra-pricey Beverly Hills. Instead, he opted for a lot in working class Watts and immediately began work on the Towers.
Rodia is reported to have had no knowledge of Antonio Gaudi’s remarkably similar fanciful architecture, and side-by-side images shown here of the Towers and Gaudi’s still-unfinished Sagrada Familia in Barcelona reveal many differences. Rather, futurist designer and engineer R. Buckminster Fuller argues in some lengthy and marvelous interview clips (one sign of how long pic has been in the making) that the Towers are a revolutionary feat of tension and compression, a triumph of exactly the sort of complex geometrical shapes Fuller forged during his long life.
In a fitting testimony that caps the film, the city’s demolition plans were foiled when a stress test (described here with vivid recollections) proved that the Towers could withstand major earthquakes. The tantalizing mystery of why Rodia suddenly left his property in 1954 without notice is never solved, only adding to his work’s romance.
Editing is sometimes rough but research is truly awesome, as are a series of graceful crane shots that allow the camera to track the Towers in detail from base to spire.