Winner: 1968 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subjects
It seemed inevitable that famed title and graphic designer Saul Bass would venture into directing, but his ultimate output between 1964 and 1983 were 7 films: the shorts From Here to There and The Searching Eye (both 1964), Why Man Creates (1968), Notes on the Popular Arts (1977), The Solar Film (1980), Quest (1983), and a lone feature film, Phase IV (1974).
Bass' designs for titles, album covers, and publicity campaigns are innovative for reducing a series of themes, characters, conflicts, and ideas into fluid montages, or a singular graphic that also functions as a film's logo – something director Otto Preminger adored, since most of his films – Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Cardinal (1963), Exodus (1960) – had main titles and posters designed by Bass. (What's amusing is that by the director's next-to-last film in 1975, Rosebud, Bass went minimalist, and used a silent titular logo card prior to the film's commencement.)
When working with montage, Bass often played with textures, geometric shapes, and movements both in tune with music and/or sound effects, and his dissolves function as portals towards further movement and visuals symbolizing some aspect of a film.
The distillation of narrative passages into stark, metaphorical, or sometimes blazingly simple iconography is everywhere in Why Man Creates, the short financed by Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation, and for which Bass won an Oscar.
Each section is preceded by a hand that writes the names and sub-categories of each chapter; the film is ostensibly about the creative process inherent to man's growth as a problem-solving and problem-bound species, so it's logical to have each word inscribed in pencil, since man's evolution is still rough, and in need of further refinement and editing.
“The Edifice” is probably the most inspired chapter, and it kicks off the short with animations of Art Goodman and Pantomime's cartoons covering man's key technical, creative, philosophical, and engineering feats are chronicled in a kind of evolving Babylonian history stream, nodding to items like Roman law, the Bronze Age, Arabs codifying mathematics (“I've invented the zero!” exclaims an enlightened character), and democracy. It's drawn and animated with cheeky wit, and perhaps the cleverest section deals with the Medieval Ages that shunned any free or creative thoughts: as historical characters exclaim or question planetary movement and Earth's flatness, panels of walls and windows slam shut, solidifying cells that make up a grim Gothic edifice, while silhouettes of gloomy monks move back and forth like robots.
In “Fooling Around,” Bass goes a bit more abstract by flipping through montages of numbers obliterating two characters whose own Q&A devolves into numerical quotations, street crossers moving in a kind of dance, and head-shaking dancers, of which Bass freezes the motions of three to open their heads and either add or investigate the contents using Terry Gilliam-styled, surreal optical effects.
Abstract images also play a role in two chapters with a sense of the absurd: “The Process” has a man assemble an abstract group of blocks and mannequin appendages (perhaps a metaphor for the battle man has over ideas he can't force into an ideal pattern); and in “The Parable,” Bass focuses on a free-thinking white ball that escapes from a processing machine and is eventually surrounded by curious followers (more white balls) drawn to his ability to literally take grand physical leaps and defy rules (until he disappears into the Heavens, prompting the wry text crawl, “There are some who say he burst up there because ball was not meant to fly… And there are some who maintain he landed safely in a place where balls bounce high…”
“The Search” is more indicative of man's inability to harness problems like population growth and disease. On-camera interviews with eggheads have them optimistically proclaim they'll eventually hit the bulls-eye, although one theoretician admits he has to start all over again, and the chapter ends with a simple wide shot of a lab hallway, and the egghead walking to the end, knocking off all the lights, and darkness smothering the screen when the stairwell door closes.
The final chapter is a visual montage of textures and dissolves, and features a narration that sums up man's need to create as a form of expressing his existence. There's some very clever lap dissolves, and the timed transitions are as sharp and hypnotic as Bass' most renowned title designs (as excerpted and commented upon by the artist in the 1977 short film, Bass on Titles).
At present, Why Man Creates is only available from Pyramid Films, but it's a pricey DVD ($49) that may have most fans waiting for a more widely available release (like Image picking up distribution for the Charles and Ray Eames films in an affordable collection).
Like the Eames shorts, the source seems to be an old ¾” video master, with occasional horizontal nicks, muddy sound (the dialogue levels are uneven, and Jeff Alexander's excellent score lacks fidelity), and a rather ringy picture. The ideal would be to have the bulk of Bass' films collected in one newly-transferred anthology, but for the time being, this disc will have to suffice.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan