'Acoustics' honors a master's modern eye

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

An hour and 20 minutes may seem like a hefty investment to make for the life and work of a man who photographed buildings. But Julius Shulman, the irrepressible and engaging subject of the documentary "Visual Acoustics," was no ordinary architectural photographer, and his long and productive career makes for a fascinating primer in modern architecture, Los Angeles culture and the meaning of a well-lived life.

Shulman, who died last summer at 98, was a talented knock-about with an interest in photography when he met architect Richard Neutra in 1936. Thus began what should have been a minor career in a service profession subsidiary to the real show: architecture. But Shulman's eye, and his passionate support for the ideals of modernism, made his photographs more than just documents of the built world. They became glamorous advertisements for a lifestyle in which human beings weren't so much at home as onstage.

Over the course of his very long career, Shulman photographed the buildings of Neutra and his contemporary, Rudolf Schindler. He worked with Frank Lloyd Wright late in the master's life, and championed younger architects such as Raphael S. Soriano and John Lautner. His photographs were so influential that he became a de facto talent scout, helping to make the careers of unknown architects. Near the end of his life, his archive became an essential tool for preservationists and homeowners newly ensorcelled by the midcentury look. Shulman's images were used to reconstruct homes that had been polluted with additions and alterations.

But it was a photograph of a house known simply as Case Study House No. 22, by architect Pierre Koenig, that became Shulman's most famous and captivating image. By shooting the same night scene twice, Shulman captured both the city of Los Angeles laid out like a twinkling carpet of light below, and the interior of the glass-walled house, which seemed to pitch out over the side of a steep hill. Two elegantly dressed women were lounging in the room, and Shulman's photograph caught the very essence of a fantasy of Los Angeles life: clean and modern, elegant and comfortable, and all in harmony with the strange hybrid world of man-made machines and natural beauty. Perhaps it also suggested airplanes and flight, with a long list of unconscious but deeply American associations with the power of machines, the shrinking of the planet, the ability to project power into the corners of the world, and the pure thrill of slipping the surly bonds.

Shulman's photograph was a perfect bit of artifice, a careful construction that depicted something not quite true to life. He wasn't above bringing his own furniture and props to the houses he photographed, and he was more than happy to rearrange interior spaces. His images were often rakishly angular, photographed in a strict single-point perspective that made them feel a bit like looking at a ship's prow coming straight at the viewer. As the United States was becoming the greatest consumerist nation the planet had ever seen, Shulman depicted a world that was often appealingly empty and uncluttered.

"Visual Acoustics," narrated by Dustin Hoffman, includes interviews with architects and architectural historians, as well as artists such as Ed Ruscha, designer Tom Ford, and at the end, there's a fascinating but ambiguous encounter between Shulman and Frank Gehry. As tastes shifted away from the lean, rectilinear lines of modernism toward the eclecticism and silly referentiality of postmodernism, Shulman was forced into retirement. Gehry's work is better than the postmodernism that Shulman loathed, but it is far removed in spirit from the modernism he championed. We see Shulman (who came out of retirement late in life) photographing the torquing, shifting, flowing metal sculpture that is Gehry's Disney Hall in Los Angeles. The photograph rationalizes the building, trimming its sails, aligning its pieces. But it would be good to know more about what Shulman actually thought of Gehry's work.

There are other unanswered questions in this film, directed by Eric Bricker. The most important one goes to the core of the film's message: What exactly was the lifestyle, the dream, the fantasy that Shulman was capturing? It's hard, looking at his photographs (which are flashed on screen too quickly to make much of an impression) not to think it was an elitist ideal, celebrating a life few could afford, a world of jewel boxes for rich people, far removed from the mass of humanity who lived in a tackier, boxier, more monotonous world. Which is to say, it was a fantasy of modernism at odds with the social and political ideals of modernism.

That certainly wasn't Shulman's view of things. Over the years he became a passionate voice for environmentalism and urban planning. And perhaps this was no mere avocation, but an unconscious acknowledgement of the costs of the very fantasy he had such a role in making. Modernism done well was a lifestyle to be savored, but it was often surprisingly dependent on landscape. Many of the most beautiful houses that Shulman captured -- including Case Study House No. 22 -- were set apart, with wonderful views, riding above the world with a privileged detachment. But there are only so many lovely views that can be had before the world is cluttered and not so lovely anymore. In one telling scene, we see Shulman reminiscing that he told a homeowner to buy the land nearby. The advice wasn't taken, and now an ugly building encroaches on a once-splendid isolation.

Modernism that was affordable, modernism as replicated for the masses, became a world of shabby repetition, close neighbors and tedious streets clogged with traffic. Shulman's own home was a gardenlike place, but it was an English-style garden, lush and masterfully disordered, at odds with the arid French garden of the Los Angeles he both mythologized and tried to escape. Near the end of the film, we see Shulman being interviewed onstage before a live audience. Behind him is a typical image of the city of Los Angeles, a man-made grid laid over the landscape. Shulman points to it and asks, "How'd you like to live somewhere in that pile of junk?"

It's an important question. It's the dark side of the modernist fantasy. It's the unseen specter that haunts his images and the dream they proffered.

Visual Acoustics

(83 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated.

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