The skyscraper is an American invention, and its story is worth telling. The innovations that made it possible -- the elevator, the steel frame -- are fascinating. More fascinating is the long struggle, still going on, in which architects have tried to figure out what this new kind of building should look like.
The material for that story is here in this documentary by Manfred Kirchheimer, but nobody has bothered to make it coherent. The goal instead seems to be making an art film. We watch abstract still images of unidentified buildings float across the screen, many of them reproduced from postcards, while the soundtrack plays every kind of music from Baroque to cool jazz. Abstract images, portentous music: Yes, it looks like a film-school film. Now and then we do hear a narrator's voice. But where ''Tall" could be filling us in on interesting detail, it limits itself to short statements that sound like captions, then falls silent again for lengthy periods.
There's little attempt to organize the material into a story. We learn first of the skyscraper's technology, then of early skyscrapers in New York and Chicago. Well into the film, we are introduced to Louis Sullivan, the Boston-born Chicago architect who popularized the expression ''form follows function" and who designed two remarkable skyscrapers in Buffalo and St. Louis and the facade of a third in New York. Sullivan came to be seen as an avatar of the modern movement, and his eventual influence was great. But his career faltered early, partly because public taste, at the turn of the last century, preferred more traditional-looking buildings.
The film treats all this as warmed-over cliche. The tale of Sullivan as a tragic genius whose gift was snuffed out by the ignorance and timidity of clients and public has been told and retold and was popularized by his pupil Frank Lloyd Wright. At its best the tale is simplistic; at its worst, as in this film, it has the moral power of a fortune cookie. And the film keeps wandering away from Sullivan anyway, fast-forwarding into the career of Wright or on into the present. It touches everything lightly, never digs into anything. It ends with yet more collaged images of unidentified skylines and curtain walls. And music.
Robert Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.