Radcliff's Review: Visual Acoustics

A new feature from Docs In Progress' Docs Interactive.  Matthew Radcliff from Paignton Pictures, who updates the Documentary Round-Up list of docs screening around the DC area, will be providing occasional reviews of documentaries you should know about.  First up is a review of Visual Acoustics: the Modernism of Julius Shulman, Eric Bricker's 2008 film which is currently showing at Landmark's E Street Theatre.


Every year there are at least a couple of documentaries about architecture.  Visual Acoustics is an architecture movie about photographs.  The film tells the story of Julius Shulman, considered the world€™s greatest architectural photographer.  His photographs were how most Americans saw the mid-century modernist masterpieces and experiments, and the archive of photos that he kept all these years is how many of those structures are being restored.

But enough about Julius €” what about the film?  The good news is that the film shows many of Julius€™s photos; the bad news is that many of them pass by too quickly.  The structure of the film mostly follows the chronology of Shulman€™s life, recounting his early amateur interest in photography and describing how he met and worked with all the top modernist architects.  There is a slight overuse of the standard artist myth of spontaneous generation: the best photos are often referred to as €œjust a quick snap, and the practice and thought that went into the composition is overlooked in favor of €œnatural genius.

At the same time, however, there are some very interesting segments that really delve into how Shulman created his magnificent photos.  A couple of times, we see him setting up a photo with his associate, carefully lining up furniture to echo the lines of the room, or positioning his camera just so to bring out the €œstory of a building.  One segment removes elements from a photo to reveal how Shulman used one-point perspective in his works; and then the elements are added back, which really brings the lesson home.

Another fascinating segment brought noted cinematographer Dante Spinotti (LA. ConfidentialWonder BoysPublic Enemies) to the house in Shulman€™s most famous photograph.  This photo had been the inspiration for several film directors, and we get to watch Dante and his crew film Julius walking through the house.  They discuss lighting, timing, and how difficult it is to match the artistry of the Shulman photo.  It was very interesting for a filmmaker to listen in on those conversations.

The director allows Julius€™s personality to shine through the film, especially when he interacts with people.  Throughout the movie, we get to see Julius meet with the new owners of the houses he photographed.  Some of them are trying to renovate the house, and all they have to go on are Shulman€™s photographs.  We see his passion for the modernist style of architecture, and for the architects, many of whom became his friends.  Towards the end of the film, we witness the transfer of his archives to the Getty Museum in LA.  By this time, Julius is getting older, and while he is pleased to have a home for his archives, the loss of his photos is clearly weighing on him.  Visual Acoustics does a good job of balancing the bittersweet moments as the end approaches.  The whole film provides a good lesson in taking photographs and living your passions.


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