Monday, November 10, 2014

Another important/annoying/provocative doc about art: Doug Pray's LEVITATED MASS

How unusual but bracing to have opening in New York theaters within as many weeks two very special documentaries about art and its place in society. If LEVITATED MASS -- the latest film from Doug Pray who graced us with one of the best movies ever to deal with "family" (Surfwise) before foisting upon us a really crappy one about the glories of the advertising industry (Art & Copy) -- is not quite up to the amazing level of Jeremy Workman's Magical Universe, it may still find wider appeal due to its subject being a piece of art coupled to an event that made international news two years back. That would be the art installation of what seemed at the time a billion-ton boulder in the heart of Los Angeles.

If you remember this "case," it had to do with artist Michael Heizer (above) in connection with LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and some heavy-duty donors, along with the folk in charge of some dozen or so towns in the area between Riverside, California (where the boulder was detonated out of its quarry) and Los Angeles, where the rock was to eventually come to rest (see poster above and photo at bottom) as some sort of an "exhibit." What made this more than just another piece or good, bad or indifferent "art," was that fact that the boulder's size made getting it from Riverside to L.A. the hugely expensive, time-consuming task that required the kind of cooperative effort than in other times might have won World War II more quickly or today turned Climate Change back in its tracks.

How all this gets done, along with raising the question of why, is part of the very good film that Mr. Pray, shown at left, has delivered. In it, he also offers up much of the history of the artist and his earlier work, and we see and hear Heizer as far back as 1969, then in 1980 and finally at the event of the rock and its installation. Interestingly, in 1969, as part of an exhibition in Bern, Switzerland, Heizer was called "the most extreme and troubling figure," due to the kind of art he was making. A later "exhibition" in Detroit (you'll have to see the doc to believe what this art entails) ended so badly that Heizer was forced to remove his enormous work -- at his own expense.

The movie is also full of talking heads -- from LACMA's director to other gallery and museum folk to construction men (notes one, "this is art on the scale of infrastructure") to employees of the towns in which the boulder must travel to reach its destination, and finally various men-(and women)-on-the-street interviews regarding the actual worth of this art. As to the cost of transporting the boulder to its final resting place, "We don't even have money to fix our roads!" notes one interviewee, expressing the shock and dismay that many viewers are likely to feel, as well. Ah -- but we're doing this for the sake of art, doncha know?

It is greatly to Mr. Pray's credit and to the success of his film that he allows us all the mixed feelings and opposing ideas that keep occurring as the film wends onwards. We're inundated with everything from Biblical references and religious theories about the rock to exposition/blather from the art establishment as to what is being accomplished here. "Levitated Mass" (the art project, not the film about it) is very much a product of the current art establishment and the monied donors intent to seeing it to fruition. As one person so thoughtfully point out, "This is a California rock, and Heizer is a California artist." Yes? And...?

Magical Universe, on the other hand, is anything but art establishment. It's a personal film about a very personal artist whose work would not even have surfaced were it not for the filmmaker who encountered that artist and began a ten-year collaboration with the man. The project -- photographing Barbie dolls in specially made environments -- is bizarre but genuine and finally productive for everyone involved, while the project in Levitated Mass never quite overcomes its own sense of pomposity. In my opinion, at least. You might call Heizer's work minimalism maxed out.

Nonetheless we learn a lot from this documentary, including the fact that New York City has its own "Levitated Mass" -- granted in a much smaller format -- made in 1982 at 500 Madison Avenue. In Surfwise, as here (though not in Art & Copy), Mr. Pray gives us a heady mix of positive and negative and lets us form our own conclusions. And while there is much that is undeniably impressive about Heizer's idea brought to its conclusion, there also lurks the question: If this much money, planning and cooperation can go into the creation of a single piece of art, why are we still so stalled regarding our response to Climate Change?

Levitated Mass, the movie, after playing more than half of its playdates already, will open here in New York City this Friday, November 14, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. In your city? You can check all past and upcoming playdates, cities and theaters by clicking here.

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