Saul Bass Directs: Looking at the Individual Works of an Artist

Long respected for his elaborate title sequences and exquisite movie posters designed for world-renowned filmmakers, Saul Bass was quite a worthy auteur himself. The director of a feature-length film, as well as multiple shorts—one of which received an Academy Award in 1969—Bass brought his love of visual symmetry and eye stimulation to a small but dedicated moviegoing audience. As the Film Society of Lincoln Center will screen a selection of Bass’s personal filmography this week, we thought now would be the perfect time to mention a few highlights.

A welcomed headscratcher, Why Man Creates, which won the Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subject, is playfully existential and intelligently whimsical. A mix of animation and live action, the film is seemingly a non sequitur of philosophical events, discussing and often questioning the origin of the universe as well as man’s place in it. Why Man Creates takes us (quite literally) up the pyramid of mankind, complete with quotes from Albert Einstein and playful sketches. The best involves an angry mob on a street corner questioning a piece of art, each vocal attack morphing into a bullet that’s shot right into the artist, killing him.

The film mocks man’s supposed idea of free will—a scene involving traffic lights demanding pedestrians stop and dance in the middle of the street is quite comical—as well as his reluctance and yet ultimate acceptance of the status quo. "Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions,” ponders one animated snail to another, “then become institutions, and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?"

Written by science-fiction master Ray Bradbury, Quest, co-directed by Bass and his wife Elaine, is a fantastical detour very much in the realm of other 1980s films, such as Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story, involving a life-altering journey (coincidentally, Quest and NeverEnding both feature performer Noah Hathaway). Focusing on a colony of people whose life expectancy is little more than a week (humans are born and go from infant-to-elder in a period of eight days), Bass’s film is more emotionally involving than you may at first suspect.

To expand their life cycle, the people train a newborn in survival techniques and mental strategy, sending him on his way toward a pyramid possessing a light that will increase the people's time on their home planet; sunlight is the key to a longer life. As dangerous creatures and endurance tests abound, everyone who has tried has failed to reach the destination, predominantly because they were a day or two (one fourth of their life) too late. A race-against-time fantasy, Quest tells an epic tale in just 30 minutes.

Saul Bass’'s only feature-length film, Phase IV, has developed quite a cult following since it’s release over 30 years ago, and it’s easy to see why. A sci-fi horror yarn, the film features millions of poisonous ants keen on taking over a desolate land and murdering all pesky humans that get in their way. As two scientists come into town to challenge the ants’ dominance, Bass has a lot of fun with his visuals, often setting his camera at ant-level, as well as providing some inspired ant point-of-view shots. Treated to such gleeful gross-out moments as ants emerging out of people’s hair and hands, the film is both shocking and humorous in its nasty set-ups.

Phase IV’s screenplay gives these sequences a powerful context, and its binary relationship with the footage of these small creatures is what provides the film with staying power. "Think of their ability to evolve and adapt in ways that are so beautiful and still so unknown and all contained in one simple form," an evil doctor remarks about his miniature enemies, "so defenseless in the individual, so powerful in the mass." Anthropomorphized to a tee, the “all for one and one for all” worker mentality of the ants is given much attention; one memorable sequence involves an ant lining up the corposes of his dead brethen in perfectly constructed rows, similar to the coffins of soldiers killed in the line of duty. And if you’ve been looking for a film where an ant seeks revenge on a hungry praying mantis, Phase IV delivers.

Numerics, shapes, symbols and patterns are prominent elements in Bass's work, whether they be the counting down of days (and video game-like puzzle sequences) in Quest, the multiple phases in Phase IV, or the riddles and equations presented in Why Man Creates. These films, as well as well as two other shorts, are presented this week here at the Film Society as part of the 23rd New York Jewish Film Festival. Screened together, Bass' films can be viewed as pieces of a greater, all-encompassing whole, and if you know him just from his credit-sequence work on films such as Psycho and Cape Fear, now's the perfect time to delve into the films where he was at the helm.

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