Directed by Eric Bricker
Although it's never mentioned in Eric Bricker's loving documentary of Julius Shulman—the architectural photographer who brought modernism to the masses—you could intuit from the film's solemn shift of tone that its subject died this summer at age 98 between the end of shooting and the release date. The cheeky, charismatic elderly man guides the film through many visits to buildings and architects that his photographs have immortalized in the public conscience. He was a relentless self-promoter even in the last months of his life—he worked until his death—and it almost comes as a relief when Bricker cuts to other speakers like artist Ed Ruscha, architect and biographer Pierluigi Serraino, or Shulman's daughter, who notes that her father was a "very egocentric person."
Beyond the narrative of Shulman's career, which is especially interesting for a niche audience of architects, photographers and members of related fields, Visual Acoustics also tracks the oft-overlooked richness of West Coast modernism, whose most eloquent promoter was Shulman. The film's narration, delivered by Dustin Hoffman, even makes a whirlwind aside to offer "a brief history of modernism" in architecture, which follows the movement from Germany via Chicago to Shulman's Los Angeles. As his daughter notes of the Brooklyn-born photographer's relationship to his adoptive city: "It makes a lot of sense to think of Julius and Los Angeles as siblings: they grew up together."
Bricker revisits many iconic homes and buildings that viewers will recognize from Hollywood films, if not from Shulman's photographs. He even enlists the help of Michael Mann cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who recreates some of the photographer's most iconic shots (of Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House in Palm Springs and Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #22 in L.A.) with lush, gliding tracking shots that complement and heighten the beauty of the stills. These moments are among the film's highlights, when the compounding mediations of architecture, photography and film amplify one another, garnering new insights into Shulman's vision.
The photographer's dedication to environmentalism and preserving architectural heritage—he repeatedly refers to generic architecture as "a pile of trash"—add depth and shading to a spectacular career. The resulting portrait of the foremost photographer and promoter of West Coast modernism may only appeal to a specific, relatively small audience, but for those few Visual Acoustics is truly sensational.
Opens October 9