Visual Acoustics


Julius Shulman is described in the promotional material for Visual Acoustics as “the world’s greatest architectural photographer,” and having now read a little bit about him online to get a better sense of who he was (I had never heard of him prior to seeing this documentary), I’d say that’s a plausible claim.

Architecture is not something I know much of anything about or have ever developed an interest in, so architectural photography is even farther removed from me. I know there are many people who enjoy picture magazines about houses and such (the bulk of Shulman’s photos shown and discussed in Visual Acoustics are of private residences)—both people interested in architecture as an art, and probably far more people who want to know how their favorite celebrities and other rich and famous types live—but to me it’s hard to imagine a more boring type of magazine.

Which leads to obvious questions, such as why would I choose to watch this film, or why should anything I write about it be afforded any weight since I have an admitted bias against the subject matter going in?

My thought is that it can be good to sometimes open myself up to a movie (book, class, etc.) about a subject that I don’t have a preexisting interest in. Granted, the chances of my liking it are considerably lower than if the subject matter is something I already care about and want to know more about, but sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised (even if more often I’m not).

Then when it comes time to assess such a film and write about it, part of my approach is to ask myself whether it met the challenge—the greater challenge than if it were about a subject I already was interested in—of engaging my interest, of making me care after all.

For example, art (as in paintings) and the art world, or more specifically modern or abstract art, is not a big interest of mine. I suppose it appeals to me a tiny bit more than architecture, and I’ve given it slightly more thought or been exposed to it a bit more (at the occasional art museum or gallery) than architecture, but it’s not something that’s ever played a significant role in my life.

Yet in recent years, I can think of five art documentaries I’ve seen and written about, including Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, F for Fake, Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter, Waiting for Hockney, and Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? None of them turned out to be completely boring and of no value to me; each had at least some things that I found thought-provoking. Frankly, though, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World and Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter didn’t do much for me, and I’d put them well down in the bottom half of documentaries I’ve seen in terms of how much I enjoyed them, and F for Fake was only modestly above those two for me.

However, I found Waiting for Hockney and Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? to be delightful, intriguing films, clearly among the documentaries I’ve enjoyed most since I commenced regularly writing about the movies I see.

So it’s possible, albeit not easy, for a film about a subject matter I have little or no preexisting interest in to win me over.

So did Visual Acoustics win me over like that? I thought it was a well-made documentary, I’m almost certain that people who are interested in architecture and especially architectural photography would like it very much, here and there it interested me and made me think about certain things, but if I had to answer with a simple yes or no I’d say no. It’s not a film I was significantly engaged in throughout.

Then again, if the question were whether Shulman himself won me over I’d say yes. He’s a cool guy.

The movie came out in 2008, and my impression is that the bulk of the footage of Shulman and the interviews with him are from around that same time, i.e., from when they were putting the documentary together. If so, they just barely did the film in time to include him in the making of it, as he died in 2009 at age 98.

So he was presumably in about his mid-90s when this footage of him was shot. If so, he was in remarkably good shape. Physically you’d guess he was maybe 75-80. He struggles a bit to get around, but he can still walk under his own power, and in general he seems quite functional.

But mentally he’s even more impressive. Maybe he’s not a hundred percent as sharp as he was 50 years earlier, but whatever drop-off there has been I would think is slight. He has no trouble following a conversation, he’s articulate, and he’s witty.

I sensed that at times people in the movie react more to his age than to how unexpectedly sharp he still is. There’s just a hint of a patronizing feel to the way many of them interact with him—talking a little slowly, keeping things simple, always agreeing with him, laughing a little too much at his witticisms, etc. Granted, much of that surely is just that they are respecting him and treating him as the big deal that he is in his field, but I suspect some is based on the tendency to expect elderly—especially very elderly—people to have significantly regressed mentally and to adjust how one treats them accordingly.

But I was impressed with Shulman beyond just his being extraordinarily together for a nonagenarian.

He has a kind, gentle nature, the way he speaks to people and about people. He took great joy in his work and has a passion for life in general. Even though he is formally retired, he remains active with charitable activities, teaching, etc. There’s an interesting clip of a TV interview from decades ago labeling him an “environmental photographer,” indicating that he was interested in the social and political implications of land use and not just taking pictures of pretty houses. (Apparently the clip was taken from some kind of talk show debate. His “opponent”—speaking on behalf of whichever industries benefit most from despoiling the environment—is a smug chap who disdainfully notes that no one has ever even been able to define “environment” to his satisfaction.)

So I like Shulman, but the film failed to make me care more than slightly about architecture or architectural photography.

Of course a subjective reaction of mine like that doesn’t have to reflect some kind of weakness in the film; more likely it reflects something about me that makes me a not particularly receptive audience.

In speculating about that, it occurred to me that perhaps it has to do with a certain reluctance on my part to care about more things than I already do, especially if they involve significant expense.

That is to say, right now I have various interests, hobbies, etc. that I value having as part of my life, whereas there are many, many things that people commonly care about a great deal that I’m largely indifferent to, and I don’t know that that indifference is something it would be good for me to overcome.

The good thing about having interests and hobbies and such is that they add a certain amount of comfort, pleasure, whatever to my life; the bad thing is that they cost money and generate a certain amount of attachment. They arguably enrich my life, but at the same time anything I have to worry about obtaining, keeping, or not having taken away from me adds stress to my life.

So there’s a noticeable difference in my experience of the quality of my life when I live in a warm climate versus a cold climate, have Internet access, have books, don’t limit myself to the absolute least expensive food, and many other things I could mention.

On the other hand, I’m indifferent (to a degree that’s stunning to many people, like we come from different planets) to clothes, jewelry, liquor, drugs, or to most matters of style and prestige in general. I don’t keep up with what are the “hot” brands of cars, watches, tennis shoes, or whatever.

I’m sort of pulled in both directions when it comes to such attachments. A part of me thinks it would good to add more things to my life that I could feel positive about. Like I’ve toyed with the idea of delving more into art, maybe picking up a few interesting items to put up on my walls and such. But then the other part of me wonders if I shouldn’t be going in the opposite direction and seeking instead to shed some of the attachments I already have. Like instead of adding paintings or sculptures or whatever to my home (which would mean I have to have a correspondingly higher income to obtain them—though probably not all that much since I suspect I’d go more for, say, quirky inexpensive things by local artists—and that I would have more stuff to worry about being stolen or damaged in a fire or adding more bulk if I have to move, and so on), maybe I should cultivate more of an ability to make do with even less, to live even more frugally, to have the freedom of fewer desires and corresponding frustrations.

The way that relates to architecture is that right now I don’t care much at all about most aspects of my living space. I mean, certain functional things I do care about, like is there enough room to do this and that, are there problems with bugs, cold, or crime, and so on, but for whatever reason I’ve never developed more than a minimal interest in I suppose I would say aesthetic considerations.

The example I often use is that I could live somewhere for years and still not be able to tell you what color the walls are painted. I literally would have to look up and find out, as it’s just not the kind of thing that registers with me. It’s not the kind of information I expect to ever have any use for.

So when I see all these photos of and hear all this discussion of fancy homes with unique designs, one reaction I have is that it would be kind of cool to learn more about that and to develop my tastes and preferences as far as what kind of place I’d like to live and why. You know, I’d have it built with this number of rooms arranged this way, with certain quirky design features that would make it unique to me, and I’d decorate it this way, etc. But then I have this other reaction, if anything a stronger one, holding me back, like why do I want to care about such things if I don’t already?

I mean, designing, building, and decorating your living space ranges from somewhat expensive to stratospherically expensive. (I think of Visual Acoustics as mostly about houses at the higher end of that range, though in a sense that’s not the case. Some of what the film highlights, for instance, are Shulman’s photos of some of the “Case Study Houses,” which was a project of Arts & Architecture magazine to have world-class architects design interesting houses for people other than the richest of the rich. Even those, though, strike me as at the very least middle to upper middle class suburban dwellings.) If it has never been a burning desire in me, do I really want to start thinking about it and dreaming about it and desiring it? Wouldn’t that be like developing a fascination for piloting my own yacht around the world? I’m sure there are lots of neat things about being a yachtsman, but it’s not something I’ve ever learned about or developed an interest in, so I’ve never felt the negativity of lacking it in my life, and never felt the temptation to cut the kind of moral corners necessary to get rich enough for it to be a realistic possibility.

So in some ways Visual Acoustics maybe gave me some vague hint of how it could be good to know and care more about architecture and about the architecture of private residences in particular, but I feel a certain reluctance to go very far down that road.

Anyway, that’s all just some random musings that might not even be all that accurate as far as why I was only into Visual Acoustics to the modest degree I was. But my approach to these essays tends to be to describe the thoughts and emotions I had in reaction to a film while watching it or while reflecting on it afterwards, and what I’ve written happens to be where my mind went in thinking about Visual Acoustics.


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