The two-story tall, 340-ton boulder had been sitting in a Riverside quarry for over three years when filmmaker Doug Pray got a call from a friend of his, producer Jamie Patricof. “ ‘I don’t know much about this,’” Pray remembers Patricof saying, “ ‘but there’s a boulder that’s supposed to travel through all of L.A.” The boulder, Pray learned, had been sitting waiting for the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) to figure out how to transport it from the quarry to its mid-Wilshire campus. Once in L.A. proper, it could become part of Levitated Mass, a sculpture the Nevada-based artist Michael Heizer had been envisioning for decades, where the massive rock would appear to levitate impossibly above ground. But getting it there meant passing through twenty-two cities and multiple counties. It meant lots of money, meetings and paperwork.
Pray knew nothing about Heizer, and he didn’t initially know if this story was the makings of a feature or just a short, but he knew he wanted to film the whole process. His past work, including Surfwise, about the eccentric, surfing Paskowitz family, and Big Rig, about truck drivers, had focused on eccentric underdogs and the logistics of living unconventionally. This project fell in line with his interests and it was material for a feature, it turns out. His film, called Levitated Mass after the now-realized sculpture, opens in independent theaters, including the NuArt in Westwood, on Sept. 5.
“It shows two things that are really cool,” Pray says of the documentary. “It shows this totally uncompromising focus of an artist. It's about him realizing his vision amidst the noise of our culture right now, where you can't call yourself an artist without promoting yourself.” The film is also about “how incredibly difficult it is for museums to gain the trust of the public” and the insane process of getting a boulder across multiple counties for art’s sake.
“There were times I was almost sure it wasn't going to happen,” he recalls of the rock-moving effort, which finally began in the spring of 2012. If one city refused to take down telephone poles to let the rock and the big rig the Emmert International Construction Company would ultimately build to hold it pass by at about five miles per hour, a neighboring city might refuse too. “It was like the domino theory,” says Pray.
Sometimes, museum and city officials would bar Pray from the most crucial of the logistical meetings, too afraid of any disruptions that could upset their delicate negotiations. “But I'm kind of glad the whole movie isn't about that,” says Pray. “It would be so tedious.”
His film starts with a view of the quarry at dusk, voices from historians, bystanders and reporters overlapping each other: “New York has the Statue of Liberty, Washington has its monuments. Now Los Angeles has a new attraction.” Then there’s the jarring sound of a quarry blast.
“In my films, I've never wanted just to hear from the experts,” Pray says, and, while Heizer receives mentioned early on, it takes ten minutes for any one else with art affiliations to enter the fray. When Michael Govan, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum does appear, it’s his infectious enthusiasm you notice first.
“The two Michaels, one needs the other,” says Pray, referring to Govan and Heizer. It was Govan that Heizer called first when he found the rock in the Riverside quarry. Govan remembered that Heizer had envisioned this sculpture back in the 1960s, imagining a rock sits above a concrete trench and, because of the angle appears to float up as you descend below it. There are donors that Govan has to call — Jarl Mohn, the media mogul, ends up being the first to contribute — then there are engineers to consult, infrastructure to build at LACMA before the rock arrives.
When museum world experts, like curator Chrissie Isles, talk about the forcefulness of Heizer’s past work in deserts and urban environments, Pray intersperses this art historical commentary with footage showing of the public curiosity, enthusiasm and media frenzy that grew as the rock moved.
The night the rock set off from Riverside in March 2012, people came out, but the mood was subdued. A few days later, Pray recalls, people were saying talking about “the rock” as if everyone knew what they meant. “Did you see ‘the rock?’ Everyone took it in their own way.” Some people who came out thought the whole effort was just dumb, some thought there was something divine about it. Others had opinions about the artist: He’s “some magician or something,” says one guy.
You hear the actual Michael Heizer interviewed for the first time after Pray has shown the intense excitement of the rock’s arrival at the museum. “What art? There is no art,” says Heizer drily. “We’re working on something. It’s not built yet.”
That’s one of Pray’s favorite quote in the film. “He wasn’t interested in the frenzy,” Pray says. “To meet a guy who's working with the oldest material on the planet and does not care one iota what other people think, it's both kind of arrogant and kind of beautiful.”
When he shows the film in SoCal, Pray can say, “Remember the rock?” and people do. In other parts of the country, it can be harder to compel viewers at first — a movie about moving a rock because an artist had a dream can seem abstract. But people who see Levitated Mass seem to understand why the subject warrants attention, Pray says, recalling one viewer who commented, after seeing the film, “Man, our town’s trying to raise money just to buy a $10,000 sculpture.”
“Maybe people in other cities will be inspired,” Pray says. “It's a pretty positive film.”
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