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.

Black Sabbath: prophets

It is impossible to understate the prescience of Black Sabbath:

War Pigs: not only the greatest anti-war song of all time, but also a lacerating indictment of the immorality and cowardice of political leadership, and of the exploitation of common people.

Cornucopia: hints at themes explored by Guy Debord. Fundamentally concerned with the human condition in advanced Capitalist western society, and the profound alienation of the individual.

Wicked World: the title speaks a bit for itself; precedes and sketches out themes expanded in War Pigs. Trenchant critique of the hypocrisies of late-Capitalist western society. Describes the healthcare crisis, and portrays the breakdown of the family under income inequality and lack of opportunity. Never so relevant as today.

Iron Man: foretells a post-apocalyptic future, with a dash of sci-fi imagination.

Paranoid: stark portrait of mental illness and the hopelessness experienced by some of the millions of people who suffer from it. Speaks of alienation. Makes perfect sense in an era of rampant opioid abuse.

Supernaut: an ecstatic outlier, imagining a kind of übermensch, and freedom from bourgeois constraint. Bohemian, perhaps. An underrated song in the pantheon. One of my favorites.

Sweet Leaf: accurately predicts the social acceptance and legalization of weed.

Snowblind: another paean to drugs. Fundamentally about escape, the will to transcendence, and the individual’s quest for freedom from judgement. Underlying connections to Supernaut.

Fairies wear Boots: more drugs. The final verse is one of the best twists in any pop song. You think you’re in the land of Led Zeppelin, and hobbits and elves and vikings and shit, and lo, no! The whole thing’s a hallucination. The doctor’s basically saying stop taking drugs or you’ll die. Probably an actual transcription of a conversation between Ozzy and a doctor.

Children of the Grave: huge, HUGE portent. Harrowingly, urgently relevant. Foretells with terrible solemnity the climate crisis and the foreclosure of life for our children, and their children…if they get that far.

Geezer Butler is a genius.

Pather Panchali — as a parent

I posted this in the Criterion Channel FB Group, but I’ll share it here, in the off chance a couple of my more film-inclined friends might appreciate it.

To praise this film is wholly unoriginal, but after rewatching it last weekend with my 11 year old son, for the first time since before he was born, I cannot overstate my awe of the poetry and grace of this film.

I have little doubt that my feelings for it have only been enhanced by having become a father.

I have been utterly inhabited by it for the last three or four days. I cannot stop feeling its echoes.

If you’ve not watched it in a while, I would urge you to revisit it. If you’ve never seen it, it’s mandatory viewing.

Buy the trilogy in the Criterion flash sale today in fact.

And do please listen to Ray’s 15 minute narration of the making of the film included in one of the extra features, recorded a few years later. It’s riveting.

I will expand on my post to include a further appreciation of my son’s curiosity, patience, willingness to explore, and trust in me to guide him on a rewarding journey through cinema. It’s a big part of our life together. We watch a lot of movies, and we do a lot of learning together, and we thrill to how these wonderful films illuminate life, experience, and point towards truths not always easily grasped. I love introducing him to all of these films that have been close to my heart for most of my life, and re-watching them with him. There is always something new to discover and learn and feel, and with a film like Pather Panchali in particular, experiencing that with him as a father now is a whole new gift.

It wasn’t the easiest film for him, but he stayed with it.

It thrills me that he will give so many beautiful works of art a chance. Many of them have become favorites of his: he has Seven Samurai and Stalag 17 and Yojimbo and Sanjuro and The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester version) permanently downloaded on his pad so he can check in with them if we’re on a long drive camping. He can recite lines from these movies. He figured out the themes to some of the Kurosawa and Sergio Leone films on the piano, for both hands. We will whistle them together while we’re driving, or out and about.
More than that, it’s when he trusts me to watch films by directors like Renoir, Bresson, Varda, S. Ray, Charles Burnett, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Chaplin, Souleymane Cissé, or Kelly Reichardt, Herzog, Melville, even bits of Derek Jarman, in languages as diverse as Bengali, Bambara, Fula, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, Cantonese, that I feel especially grateful in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

I would also add that watching movies like some of these can be a truly outstanding way to enter in to fruitful conversations about difficult subjects–history, racism, colonialism, anti-Semitism, fascism, war, genocide, etc. There’s nothing in The Great Dictator a kid can’t see, but in its satirical, humorous way, the film gets to the heart of the horror of Germany in the 1930s, and provides many openings for discussion. We’ve watched it three times, and after the first time, stopped at various points in the film to talk about what’s going on. Same with Aguirre, Wrath of God, which felt terribly relevant after introducing Kiowa to South America this summer, as while we were there, we did not in any way avoid conversations about colonialism, the genocide and exploitation of native people, as well as the complexities of inter-tribal colonialism and conquest (from the perspective of other peoples in the Andes, the Incas were nearly as much an invading, occupying power as the Spanish). To an extent, while not tackling quite such weighty aspects of South American history, The Wages of Fear also bore new relevance after having visited Ecuador.

The most recent films we’ve watched include Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, which would be the oldest film he’s watched thus far; it’s from 1939, and Melville’s Un Flic, both in French, and of course Pather Panchali, 1955, in Bengali.

Verisimilitude in war films

For reasons not worth explaining, I’ve seen the 2014 movie Fury, which follows a Sherman tank crew behind enemy lines in the waning days of WWII.

I wasn’t impressed.

The ‘morning after’ sensation is even worse.

The quest for authenticity and realism in combat does not get us closer to truth.

The quest for authenticity and realism in depictions of combat does not inherently multiply a film’s ability to mean.

I trace the modern version of this quest back to the execrable, lamentable, unwatchable Platoon. I distinctly remember conversations about its authenticity, based on the fact that its director served in a platoon in Vietnam. Later, the equally unwatchable, and equally manipulative Saving Private Ryan continued the trend of amplifying the aesthetics of authenticity–which is a laughable conceit given the essential artifice of filmmaking in the first place–with a particular emphasis on the realism of the D-Day landing. No punches pulled, apparently.

Fury takes its cues from both of its predecessors, and attempts to raise the stakes again, and to me, mostly plays as an empty exercise in style, abetted by abundant, and not always terribly convincing CGI.

But audiences will have their guts.

They will have their guts, accurate depictions of what exactly a .50 caliber round does to an ankle, their wonderfully mesmerizing cascades of rainbow hued tracer fire, pancaked, incinerated human bodies, and particles of flying flesh, god help them.

Pather Panchali

I introduced Kiowa to Satyajit Ray and the timelessly beautiful Pather Panchali this weekend. It was at the limit of quietness and pace for what he’ll find engrossing, but as he has with other challenging films for an 11 year old–Bresson’s A Man Escaped, particularly comes to mind–he nonetheless becomes involved and committed. He knows he can really bail out if he wants to, but he stays with it, and I really admire that about it.

As it relates more directly to me, it’s been quite a few years since I watched Pather Panchali, and not only is it as beautiful and profound and delightful as I ever remembered, it’s actually even MORE beautiful and profound and delightful.

In fact, I’m sure I wasn’t a father yet when I last watched it, and that may be adding to the richness of this film.

What a marvel of poetry.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for the last three days. I want to go back in to it again and just stay there.