What is art? That question has tantalized connoisseurs and yokels for centuries. The question is raised anew in Doug Pray’s provocative documentary, Levitated Mass, which had its world premiere at LAFF this week. The first screening was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was appropriate since the movie follows the installation of Michael Heizer’s massive sculpture at LACMA and the controversy that has long surrounded this artist’s work. The film deserves more widespread distribution, since it is sure to generate heated discussion whenever it is shown.
Pray has specialized in docs about art and music; his earlier films include Art & Copy, about the relationship between art and advertising; Scratch, a look at hip-hop DJs; and Hype!, about the Seattle music scene of the 1990s. In this case he tells the story of Heizer’s Levitated Mass, a project that has been in the works for more than 40 years. Heizer has been creating controversial art projects since the ’60s, and the film incorporates interviews with him as a young man, when he first began to agitate the art world.
The film offers just a few suggestive insights into Heizer’s personality. His grandfather was a geologist and his father was an archaeologist, which may have stirred his interest in giant rocks and their potential to startle the senses. But the film is not intended as an in-depth psychological portrait of the artist. Heizer dropped out for a period because he was suffering from neuropathy, though he installed other massive projects which were debated heatedly. One giant sculpture in Lansing, Mich. was actually removed after 22 years on display.
The current project began in a quarry in Riverside, where Heizer finally found the massive rock that he wanted and managed to have it transported across Southern California to its home at LACMA. The 10-day journey of the 340-ton rock became a major news event in 2012, and the film chronicles its odyssey, along with the diverse reactions of the people who turned out to gape. Several people watch in stupefied disbelief, mocking the idea that heavy lifting of an unformed rock could ever be considered a work of art. But many more are engaged and excited by the unconventional concept and swept up in the adventure. One of the most heartening things in the movie is the open-mindedness of spectators who line up just to offer encouragement to the artist and his monumental ambition.
When the rock finally arrives at its resting place at the museum, Heizer surfaces and proves to be an unpretentious and enthusiastic caretaker of his creation. Another person who emerges sympathetically is LACMA director Michael Govan, who has championed Heizer’s work for years and became a passionate sponsor of this project even when others remained skeptical. The film reminds us of the crucial role that museum directors play in sustaining modern art.
Pray and his cinematographers do a superb job of capturing the grandeur of Heizer’s work, and the haunting musical score by the experimental band Akron/Family complements the otherworldly sculpture. Nevertheless, the film will not convince everyone that this boulder perched precariously over a walkway at LACMA deserves to be considered the equal of venerated works by Old Masters inside the museum walls. But Pray does not browbeat viewers into applauding the artist’s achievement. The filmmaker thoughtfully documents a phenomenon and allows the arguments to continue to rage after the lights come on.
Production: Electric City Entertainment
Director-editor: Doug Pray
Producers: Jamie Patricof, Lynette Howell
Executive producers: Ann Tenenbaum, Dan Stern, Jay Sugarman
Director of photography: Christopher Chomyn
No rating, 88 minutes.