Arthouse Films // 2009 // 83 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // May 25th, 2010
"Photographer Julius Shulman has defined the way we look at modernism."
The thesis of Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman is that, since we'll never see most of the buildings architects design, our view of great architecture and architectural movements are shaped by photos -- and photographers.
Julius Shulman, a Los Angeles photographer, shot some of the greatest photos of modernist architecture, the movement favored by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, and Mies Van Der Rohe, among others. Working for both architects and magazines, the "rock star" of architectural photography created what one person interviewed called a "mythology" of modernism. He lived nearly a century (1910-2009), retiring to avoid the horrors of post-modernist architecture, but living to see modernism rise from the dead in coffee table books of his photos, and in actual building designs.
Viewers get a short course in modernism, delivered with animation straight out of Monty Python, early in the movie. It'd be best to read up, though, because it goes by way too fast.
The bumpers between the chapters look like pages in one of those coffee table books, and the documentary has enough photos to resemble one at times. The movie is more than photos, though, attempting to cover both Shulman's life and the modernist movement. Everything from John Lautner homes that ended up on the big screen to Shulman's ninety-fifth birthday party to Kelly Lynch's home tour finds its way into the movie. There are even clips from a photography talk show in which Shulman appeared. It's enough to be intimidating if you're not familiar with the likes of Wright, but it's still visually interesting.
As you'd expect from a film on photography, it all looks good. Dustin Hoffman delivers a low-key narration that doesn't get in the way of the interview subjects or the topic.
Bonus scenes are included under two headings: Deleted Scenes and Extra Footage. The deleted scenes, including more of Shulman's birthday parties, aren't that exciting, but there are some goodies in the extra footage, including Shulman's recollections of his vest pocket camera as he thumbs through old photos. One of the most personal moments on the DVD, that one really should have been worked into the movie somehow. There's also a trailer.
In the commentary, filmmaker Eric Bricker brings up the "hyperpacing" of the animation sequence. He also notes that he was covering three areas with his documentary, and points to one sequence that could have been a movie by itself. His hope is that the documentary will encourage viewers to study modernism themselves.
Students of architecture and photography will be fascinated. For the rest of us, it's a visually interesting ride, but the scenery goes by too fast to really enjoy the view. I liked it, but I wished Bricker would slow down.
Guilty of making viewers want to track down those coffee table books for a
more leisurely look at Shulman's work -- but worth a look if you're interested
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arthouse Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Footage