How I met Saul Bass

Today, in a social media context devoted to film titles and the iconic work of Saul Bass, I was asked to tell the story of how I met Saul Bass. My quickly scrawled reply ended up being this. I figured I’d share it.

My father was an advertising guy–creative director, writer, etc.–and they were friends and colleagues. I was introduced to Bass on a couple of occasions, casually, when he and my dad and/or others were getting together for social events, but my best experience was in the spring of 1985 when my dad arranged a meeting for me with Bass, at his Sunset Blvd. office in Hollywood about possibly doing an internship in his office.

Walking in to that office by myself as an 18 year old is an indelible memory. When you first walked in, there was no hint you were walking in to a design studio. Rather, it felt like walking in to a museum. The entry corridor was maybe a dozen meters long, and there was a shallow flight of low stairs. Directly in front of me on the end wall was the beautifully lit alcove of incredible African sculptures Bass had collected–he was known also for his appreciation of African sculpture. The background behind the pieces was lit a brilliant scarlet red, but the pieces themselves were perfectly lit in clean white light. They were gorgeous, among the finest sculptures I’d ever seen.

To gain entrance to the office itself I approached the sculptures, then turned left through an open portal in to the main room. It was open plan–not a big office by any major standard–and there were a number of people working in different areas, at desks, drafting tables, etc. 

The receptionist greeted me–I was alone–and walked me up three or four more broad, shallow steps to his office, and he welcomed me and we sat and talked for a while, he offered some advice, etc. He was an incredibly genial, kind man. His office too was a bit of an extension of that entry hall, although it was clearly a working space.

I ended up doing an apprenticeship that summer with a big commercial photographer here instead, but I was honored and grateful that he gave me some of his time.

The odd epilogue to this is that some years later, in 1997, when my dad died, my siblings and I were reaching out to his colleagues and friends who didn’t immediately know. I called Saul Bass’ office, and it was an initially awkward conversation, as I explained to the woman who answered the phone who I was and what I wanted to let Mr. Bass know, and then she told me that Mr. Bass had also died a couple years prior. I had no idea.

Years before that meeting, my dad used to praise the genius of Bass. He’d routinely point out commercial graphic designs of his to me–logos, etc. That’s how he really came to fame, industrial design.He also showed me Bass’ documentary from the late 60s. And of course he schooled me in the title sequences of Saul and later Elaine Bass as well.I remember their return to titles, I believe with Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence,” and I swear, half the reason I ran out to see that upon release was because of those titles.

On what I think of as late, late Godard

More or less copy/pasted from a Criterion Channel film group, referencing his film output of roughly the last 20 years:

I grew impatient with Godard years ago, partly due to the chauvinism and kind of machismo that I think undergirds a lot of his films. And I just got tired of the genuflection at the alter of all things French New Wave…with him at the pinnacle, undeserved, as that place–inasmuch as we care about hierarchies–is held by Agnes Varda, at least as its greatest pioneer, if not continual practitioner.

I digress.

That said, despite what I still perceive as an inherent assertion of his self in his late late films, I find them rewarding and worth engaging. I really appreciate the formal experimentation, the discontinuities, the cuts and collisions and absences of sound/image that actually feel initially like mistakes–but they are not. I think there’s something crucial and important being investigated here, even if the ego of the director still feels present to me. 

Further, I see a lot of these juxtapositions as utterly logical and consistent in a radically discontinuous, online/digitally-informed culture, with “smart” phones, wherein one can lurch instantaneously from a YouTube video of a Bach minuet to a LOLcat. None of us even question these wild discontinuities in our perceiving lives, and yet, when purposely mimicked on screen by the director, its power to startle and disquiet and disturb is imbued with its own true nature: radical, abrupt discontinuity. We’ve become inured to the truth of our own jarring condition, hurtling from one discontinuous moment to the next. 

There’s value in seeing this represented and explored, and these are worth watching.