Skillfully structured and highly entertaining, Doug Pray’s docu chronicles the saga of Michael Heizer’s monumental sculpture “Levitated Mass” from its conceptual inception in 1968 to the installation of a 340-ton boulder at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012. Partly an exploration of an artist’s oeuvre, partly a procedural for logistically nightmarish transport, partly a record of an 11-day spontaneous “happening,” and partly an amalgam of different views on art, the film manages to appeal to art lovers, pop-culture disciples and high-concept skeptics and supporters alike. It could easily support arthouse play.
Pray deftly maintains the integrity and momentum of his story’s various strands while moving backward and forward in time, and from one discreet subtopic to another, his segues as unpredictable as they are imperceptible. Successive short sound bites give way to full exposition, while layered voiceover comments alternate with more extensive interviews; Pray, who also edited, weaves a seamless tapestry.
The docu opens at the quarry where the boulder is first blasted into being. Workers there regard it as everything from an oversize rock to a historic geological mass some 900 million years old. Heizer’s controversial art piece involves no sculpting or alteration of the huge boulder, although installation necessitates the construction (shown in detail) of an elaborate steel-and-concrete base that will support it above a deeply recessed walkway. People must pass underneath to correctly experience the “levitated mass” suspended above them.
Most of the project’s $10 million cost (paid by private donation) derives from the Herculean (Sisyphean?) feats of engineering needed to transport the boulder, which is mounted on multiple extended girders and trucks that pass over poorly maintained roads and under wires, lights, bridges and overpasses, traversing 22 separate towns. An exhaustive study of each inch of roadway between Riverside, Calif., and Los Angeles, where every dip, rise and curve is measured, plotted and photographed, yields a single possible route. The 50-minute drive takes 11 days, the transport personnel walking beside the slow-moving cavalcade as it wends its way west, double-checking each irregularity or potential trouble spot. (In this, “Levitated Mass” recalls “Moving Midway,” Godfrey Cheshire’s documentary about the transplanting of his family’s Southern plantation.)
Unexpectedly, public interest in the event grows exponentially, as more people gather along the route to participate in an historic (or just plain trendy) moment, one town throwing a celebratory bash while news reporters join the ballyhoo. Some onlookers decry a waste of money when so many are unemployed. Some find religious significance in the boulder’s overnight stay outside a church whose Spanish name translates as “Of the Rock.” Others find it cool, stupid, brilliant, transcendent, ridiculous, or the perfect occasion for a marriage proposal.
Pray also intersperses glimpses of Heizer’s other monumental works through archival documentaries and newly shot footage alike, tracing the extraordinary career of this sculptor of colossal shapes, from the museum-encased geometric black holes of “North, East, South, West” to “negative space” sculptures cut into the land itself, including the groundbreaking “Double Negative” (a double trench dug deep in the earth the length of the Empire State Building), and the yet-unfinished “City” (composed of several complexes of geometric structures, some of them 80 feet high).
Pray also traces the fate of other selected Heizer pieces, from the initially controversial “Adjacent, Against, Above,” which juxtaposes boulders and giant slabs of concrete and has since become an integral part of Seattle’s landscape, to the rusting remains of the celebrated massive public sculpture “This Equals That,” which stood in Lansing, Mich., until a Republican mayor dismantled it and consigned it to a marshy grave.
The clarity of Christopher Chomyn’s lensing is matched by the film’s pitch-perfect sound mix, all elements distinct yet balanced within the whole.