A QUICK WORD ABOUT JULIUS SHULMAN
So last night Kate and I went to a screening of Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art here in autumnal Charlotte, North Carolina. We'd gone initially just to culturefy ourselves a little; it's good to get out of your comfort zone a little bit. I didn't know anything about Shulman, but heck I like architecture and modernism, who doesn't? And Kate's an interior designer, so being in a room full of architects isn't all that strange for her.
I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie, and I thought I'd tell you about it. I have a baby shower to get ready for, so I have to rush this. Thus, the helpful magic of bullet points:
• First and foremost, Shulman was an amazing photographer. Photography is a little mysterious to me--I know literally nothing about it, so a really well-composed, well-shot picture is always a little magical to me. And a bad one is utterly boring. Shulman's pictures were a little bit perfect.
• Shulman himself made the picture though. Pretty photographs, even masterful photographs, can't hold a motion picture by themselves. 93-year old Julius Shulman tottered his way through the movie, cheerfully talking about how great he was, telling stories about working with Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, and pretty much all of the modern architects between the 30's and 60's. Charmingly, he's the star of his stories, or the buildings themselves, but rarely the architects. Julius was not a humble man, but he makes it look good.
• I don't know a lot about architecture, but most of the audience was involved in that industry on some level, or at least it seemed that way to me and Kate agreed. For instance, there were jokes that I never would have laughed at at home, but the whole audience would crack up when Shulman would say something disparaging about Post-Modernism or an ugly building or make some similar architecturally-rooted barb. It added a weird context to the movie; it made it almost religious. The movie itself was less a portrait of a man and more a long ode to his genius--but in that audience, it didn't seem out of place at all. You wouldn't go to church and wonder why no one said anything bad about Jesus, after all.
• And as someone more or less unacquainted with the art of architecture past a kind of general interest, Shulman brought a lot of the core elements into focus for me; or at least core elements of Modernism. There's a point early in the movie, where he's sitting in his messy garden, outside his Modern home, talking about how life can't get any better than sitting in that messy garden looking out over the landscape and listening to the birds sing. Throughout the movie the idea of architecture being rooted to its location, to the surrounding landscape, is repeated and underscored. For a dummy like me, it was a real "ohhh" moment.
• Shulman struck me as the platonic ideal of the audience for the modern architects: someone who understood what they were striving for, someone who appreciated both the aesthetic and functional properties of the homes and buildings they were designing. And someone who found his own art is translating those buildings into two-dimensional images that could carry that same idea down to dummies like me. Or--on the off-chance that his entire life's output was not aimed squarely at me--to more educated people. Either way.
• Lastly, and possibly because the entire movie is permeated by his stories about the different shoots and the buildings, how they were built, the idiosyncrasies of their designers: Shulman turns into an accidental historian by the end, as many of the houses he photographed have been torn down or hopelessly ruined by additions and changes by wealthy fools. There's a scene where he's at a show of Ricardo Legorreta's buildings (or Shulman's photos of those buildings? I'm not sure), and he gestures around the gallery and talks about all the contrasts over the man's life's work, how much history there was there. Then 93-year-old Shulman touches the face of a photo of Legorreta, then touches his hand for a long moment in a powerfully loving way, as I tried to scrunch my tear ducts closed.
Anyway! Wow that was a fun experience. I highly recommend the movie, it's on Netflix Streaming if you're into that. Here's a little trailer for you: