'Metropolis II: Highway to Heaven' Takes LACMA Sculpture to the Big Screen

Metropolis II Still - P 2013
Courtesy of Phil Swinburne and Vihang Valve

The film from Phil Swinburne, which premiered at L.A. Shorts Fest on Monday, was inspired by Chris Burden's "Metropolis II" on view at the museum.

There is a long tradition of creating works of art from other works of art. The Greek term for this process is "ekphrasis," which is defined as an art form "in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relates more directly to the audience through its illuminative liveliness." 

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Phil Swinburne's film Metropolis II: Highway to Heaven accomplishes this transcendent goal in a surprisingly tender way. The film was inspired by the sculpture Metropolis II by Chris Burden, which is on view at LACMA. Burden approved the use of the sculpture for the film but plays no role in the movie otherwise. The hypnotic, kinetic sculpture is on extended loan to the museum from collector Nicolas Berggruen.  The piece is a small boy's dream realized -- a towering spaghetti mass of metropolitan energy. The sculpture is a miniature megacity compressed into a cube shape -- over 10 feet in each direction -- of little skyscrapers and miles of labyrinthine electric-car and train tracks. When the power is turned on, it whirrs with the wonderful hubbub of tiny lives in transit. 

Swinburne spoke with THR about his reaction to Burden's creation and his decision to base a short film on the work: "I was inspired to make this film after seeing Chris Burden's amazing installation Metropolis II at LACMA. It evoked a deep emotional response in me, and I wanted to try and re-create that feeling via a narrative fiction on film. If I have managed to achieve that, it is thanks in no small part to a wonderful, moving performance by lead actor Barry Corbin."

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Corbin is perhaps best known for his role of Maurice J. Minnifield on the hit television series Northern Exposure. In Swinburne's film, Corbin plays a vibrant octogenarian who shares a passion for cars with his doting grandson. The young child named Sam, played by Oliver Max, has to watch his grandfather wither as his passion for driving is taken from him -- only to be magically reborn through Burden's sculpture.

Speaking about working with Corbin and Max, Swinburne said: "Oliver is a natural performer, and Barry is such a consummate professional, they connected very quickly. It was so sweet to see them as grandpa and grandson. It didn't seem like acting at all, just a loving family."

Metropolis II: Highway to Heaven had its world premiere Monday night at the 17th edition of L.A. Shorts Fest. On hand for the premiere were Corbin; his son Chris Corbin, who also stars in the film; Oliver Max; Sally Kellerman ('Hot Lips' O'Houlihan from the film M.A.S.H.); Michael Paul ChanDale Dickey and Monte Markham.  

Metropolis II : Highway to Heaven will be screened again as part of the New York International Film Festival, LA edition on Thursday, Sept. 19 at Raleigh Studios at 7:30 p.m.