Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Los Angeles Cinema: A Better Life, Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Schulman

A Better Life. This drama from 2011 is a flawed, but well-intentioned, film from director Chris Weitz [About A Boy, American Pie] that attempts to tell about a less-glamourous part of Los Angeles--the margins of society that illegal immigrants from Mexico exist in. Weitz tries his darndest to move us with the plight of his main characters, but the film lacks enough gritty desperation and dangerous choices that the father and son must face to truly move us as an audience.

The script from Eric Eason borrows heavily in story from the 1948 Italian neo-realistic classic Bicycle Thieves, as father and son band together to search for something they both need to make it the harsh city. Geez, guys, at least try not to steal from a far superior movie without giving it some kind of shout-out. I didn't sit through the end credits, so, maybe they give a nod to Vittorio De Sica? They should at least put in a "thank you" at the tail end as there were some major elements to A Better Life's story that was unmistakeable in their origin. I did enjoy the performance of Demian Bichir [Weeds, Che] as the hard-working father trying to do what he can to make his son's life better. He's an honest man who only wants his son to learn right from wrong, yet realizes the path to adulthood for his teenage son is fraught with dangers. A Better Life is just a little too earnest and a little too heartfelt for me. Those are things I generally don't respond to in a movie. Wietz is trying hard, but that's part of the problem--he's trying too hard. The film feels too forced, too fabricated to move me with their story.
Rating **1/2

Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Schulman. Los Angeles seems to be a never ending treasure trove for the architecture that I am most fond of. People who say that the city is an urban blight really are misguided when it comes to architecture. Sure, it's a sprawling metropolis of streets, concrete, congestion and people. There's also some lovely architecture if you want to find it. Spanish mission? Check. I'm living in a building from the 1920s in that particular style. Art Deco? Check. Los Angeles is rife with examples of Art Deco from the 1920s and 1930s. Modernism? Check. Many people feel that modern architecture best sums up the soul of Los Angeles culture.

The man who is chiefly responsible in capturing the look and feel of modernist architecture, in both Los Angeles and the world, is undoubtedly Julius Schulman. Not only is he considered the most well-known photographer for modern architecture, many consider him to be the pre-eminent architecture photographer of all-time. Being a photographer and a big fan of this style of architecture, it's needless to say how much I enjoyed this documentary. Visual Acoustics looks into Schulman's career, influence and importance during his nearly seven decades as a working photographer and makes me want to go take some city tours and see some of the houses and buildings that Schulman photographed.

I admire Schulman's photographs and anyone who has spent anytime with my work [go here to see my photo blog!] can see that his style relates to my own. I love to take photos of buildings and architecture and feel much more comfortable when that is my subject rather than humans. Schulman believes in the power of the simplicity of the image and that's something that I believe in as well. When photographing architecture, the structure is the most important element of the image, why try to jazz it up or make the image about something else? Beautiful, powerful architectural photography must have that simplicity to it that Schulman made a career of. It looks easy, but I can promise you, it is not. Achieving simplicity, or directness, in photography takes as much skill and thought as so-called "fine art" photography.

Visual Acoustics is appealing on many fronts. It has photography, architecture, design, modernism, Los Angeles and a host of other things that come up during the documentary. Pretty much all of those things are topics I like to learn about and watch. How wonderful are Schulman's photographs in Visual Acoustics? Even if you think you don't like modern architecture, after you see this, you might have a new appreciation for it. After watching Visual Acoustics, I want to get out my Hasselblad and walk in Schulman's footsteps and photograph some of these places for myself. Rating ****


Eva said...

Oh, that first movie, you know what that reminds me of, what recently happened to me?
A library patron came in huffing and puffing, drops some movies in the bin in front of me and as she rushes by to pick up her holds she says to me "oh, the goddamn Germans, they may know how to do a number of things, but making good movies isn't one of them!"

Later she found out I am German (I have a name tag that indicates I speak it ;) and she was embarrassed. I'm checknig her hold out for her and one of them was "A Better Life". She asked me if I had seen it and liked it and I said I thought it was alright enough. I said "it's definitely based on The Bicycle Thief. Do you know that one?" She goes: "Oh, that horrible movie where they make fun of the Holocaust!" I said "I don't think so. I think you're thinking of Benigni's "La Vita E Bella." She is like: "oh, you may be right there. Although I can't pronounce it as fancily as you." (I had temporarily forgotten the English title of the movie, I think I saw it in Europe somewhere).

Then she walks away bitching about La Vita E Bella and the Bicycle Thief (the latter she had clearly never seen). Jeez, woman, if you're in a mood like that, at least know your movies!

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

That's funny. Maybe she just wanted to complain about everything. She doesn't seem to like any movies, ha.