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An artwork that might not exist is about minimalist as you can get. Ed Ruscha’s Rocky II is that piece. A resin sculpture of a boulder made in the late 1970s, it’s rumored to be somewhere in the Mojave Desert. When Oscar-winning screenwriter Pierre Bismuth (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) saw a 1979 BBC documentary on the renowned Southern California artist making the rock and putting it in the desert, he couldn’t help but wonder, “Where is Rocky II?” The question became the title of his new documentary, getting its U.S. premiere at LACMA on Jan. 13.
A catalog of Ruscha’s work makes no mention of Rocky II, and when Bismuth turns his cameras on such figures as LACMA CEO Michael Govan or MOCA director Philippe Vergne, he’s met with blank stares. Other than the BBC footage, there was no reason to believe the piece even existed. Bismuth sought verbal confirmation by posing as a journalist at the 2009 London presser at the Hayward Gallery during a retrospective on the artist. Ruscha appears taken aback when questioned about Rocky II, responding, “You’ve done your homework,” then adding, “It’s out there, somewhere.”
“My fear was he would be open and say everything and the film would be over,” Bismuth tells The Hollywood Reporter. Flying in from his home in Brussels, Bismuth will be part of a post-screening Q&A with detective Michael Scott, surfer Jim Ganzer, producer Gregoire Gensollen and screenwriters Mike White (School of Rock), D.V. DeVincentis (The People v. O.J. Simpson) and Anthony Peckham (Sherlock Holmes), who play themselves in the film. Ruscha will not be joining them.
The artist’s curt response at the London presser, along with the 1979 BBC footage, was enough to convince Bismuth to fly halfway around the world to find a rock in the desert. His first stop was a visit to retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office Detective Scott, who guilelessly questions art-world figures as he would a waitress in a diner. In the BBC footage, the rock was used as a prop in a Western starring Ruscha’s friend late actor Dennis Hopper, a thread that leads nowhere. As expected, Scott seems lost, until he finds Jim Ganzer, the guy who helped Ruscha sculpt the rock.
Bismuth employs overly dramatic background music and hires three screenwriters — White, DeVincentis and Peckham — to script scenes for a trailer for a movie about an artist with a secret hidden somewhere in the desert. Bismuth was interested in finding where the screenwriters, who start from fact and work toward fiction, and the detective, who begins with conjecture and works toward fact, would intersect.
“The person to elevate it to the stature of a work of art was Pierre,” DeVincentis says of Rocky II. “I don’t think even Ed Ruscha considered it a work. But because it was made of the imagination by the artist, to Pierre it was a work of art.”
Bismuth’s work in the fine arts often revolves around moving images. Begun in 1998, his series Following the Right Hand of …” used film clips of numerous figures, including silver-screen stars like Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich, while Bismuth traced the movement of their hand on a pane of glass. His 2003 work Respect the Dead features a loop of three movies, Lethal Weapon, The Godfather: Part II and Vertigo, shown only as far as each story’s first death.
“When we started, I thought it impossible,” confesses Bismuth of finding the rock. “Then Michael Scott is quite good, and I thought we might find it. Then when we found Jim Ganzer, I thought, shit, we’re going to have it!”
Ganzer is a longtime Malibu surf legend, one of a posse of friends who inspired the 1978 surf-themed, Big Wednesday, written and directed by John Milius. When the Coen brothers were developing The Big Lebowski, Milius introduced them to Ganzer, who is said to have been an influence on The Dude.
In Where is Rocky II?’s final scene, Scott and Ganzer drive out to Ruscha’s desert house, which may or may not be deserted. Unwilling to cross into private property without permission, Scott and Bismuth wait behind while Ganzer, an old friend of the artist’s, walks up the driveway. When he returns moments later, well, to say more would be to give away too much.
“It’s totally normal for the audience of Where is Rocky II? to doubt that everything exists,” laughs Bismuth, who recalls some viewers at the European premiere at Centre Pompidou last November and at the Tate Modern in December who weren’t sure Ruscha was a real person. “The film succeeded to push people to doubt just about everything in it. Of course, it’s the opposite: Everything you see is true.”
Ruscha screened the film privately at UTA last summer, and Bismuth heard he enjoyed it. The two are scheduled for their first-ever meeting in the days following the LACMA premiere. Bismuth is nervous but optimistic that the artist is pleased with the movie and Rocky II’s elevated profile. “I think he started to like the idea that maybe it is an artwork.”
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