Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pierre Bismuth | Where Is Rocky II?

art without reason

by Douglas Messerli

Pierre Bismuth, D.V. DeVincentis, and Anthony Peckham (writers), Pierre Bismuth (director) Where Is Rocky II? / 2016, USA 2017; the US premiere I saw with Pablo Capra was on January 13, 2017 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Sometime in the 1970s, well-known Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha, with the help of his artist-surfer friend Jim Ganzer, constructed a rock made out of wheat paste, transporting it somewhere in the Mojave Desert within other rock formations. Given the extremes of weather and heavy winds, the “fake” rock, dubbed “Rocky” after the Sylvester Stallone film, did not survive. Another such rock, this time made out of fiberglass and resin, was constructed; dubbed “Rocky II,” it was also transported, in 1976, to a mysterious location in the desert and placed near or upon natural rocks which, at least superficially, it matched. This time, moreover, a British film crew from BBC happened to document the fake rock’s creation and transport it, although not knowing precisely where the rock was placed.

  For years, the short BBC documentary was forgotten, until, soon after filming his script of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and looking for another film project, Bismuth was shown a copy of the documentary.  Perplexed that an artist would create a work of art which no one knew of and very few would see or even recognize it if they were to stumble upon it, Bismuth set out on a voyage to discover the where and why of “Rocky II.”
      Confronting the artist at a gallery in England, Bismuth, pretending to be a journalist, asked a simple question of Ruscha, “Where Is Rocky II?” Admitting that there had been such a work, the artist, however, would not reveal its whereabouts, merely wishing Bismuth good luck in finding it.
      Determined to find the rock or, at least, document an attempt to find it, Bismuth hired a private detective, Michael Scott, to help track down the rock’s whereabouts. Like the flat-footed and clueless detective he truly is, Scott proceeded to question many art authorities throughout the city, including art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch, MOCA’s Philippe Vergne, LACMA’s Michael Govan, billionaire collector and philanthropist Eli Broad, bookstore specialist Dagny Corcoran, and others, somewhat hilariously asking them: 1. Did they know artist and 2. Did  they know anything of “Rocky II?” Of course all knew Ruscha quite well, but none had heard of the piece nor knew anything about its whereabouts. Corcoran suggested Scott check out Ruscha’s catalogue raissone; there was no mention of either of the “Rockys.”
        Had Scott known a bit more about art he might have asked Govan, who after all had helped artist Michael Heizer take a huge rock from nature and place it on the grounds of the museum, why anyone might do precisely the opposite. But the irony was surely not lost on the LACMA audience that filled the Bing Theater, where I saw this film last evening.
       While continuing to film Scott doggedly tracking down leads—from the outset, he determined to ask Ruscha himself last, since the artist was known to have been uncooperative—Bismuth hired two noted screenwriters D.V. DeVincentis (High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank) and Anthony Peckham (Sherlock Holmes, Invictus) to write a fictional movie about the same subject, to be called Monument One. In short, the film he finally shows, a kind of “fake fiction,” moves in two directions simultaneously, as the film writers create a fictional reality—suggesting dark secrets might be hidden in the fake rock and hinting through their cast members, Robert Knepper as Cal Joshua (a fictional Ruscha), Milo Ventimiglia as the detective, Richard Edson, Roger Guenveur Smith, Barry O’Rouke, Tania Raymonde, and others that the rock may even be detonated to explode—that they also document, later bringing in director-actor Mike White to help with the “trailer,” with which this inverted documentary ends. White’s suggestions for the teaser are particularly funny, and, in the end, he seems more interested in getting high than in filmmaking.


     Meanwhile, Scott tracks down Ganzer (suggesting in the after film conversation that he might have been personally misled of his whereabouts by Bismuth and his crew), the two establishing an immediate rapport, and with the help of a map that Ganzer still has in his possession, they travel to the Joshua Monument area in search of the possible location of “Rocky.” The perilous road seems to end up in Ruscha’s private desert home, with no one home. And, apparently, at least in terms of the film, the rock is never found. Ganzer later does admit that he saw it, but that it had been, once again, partially destroyed by the desert conditions. And at moments, movie-goers might even imagine that they have actually seen the rock.
        We can never know the location, nor even quite imagine Ruscha’s real reasons for the rock’s creation. But that isn’t the point. Bismuth’s brilliant film is not so much about truly comprehending what art is and why it is created as he is in showing how truth and fiction in art are intensely interconnected. Of course, no documentary speaks precisely the truth; it is rather a “version” of it, in which real things are posed and redefined. No good fiction is without its truths. Finally, in his mash-up of genres, Bismuth has, for once and all, showed us that the existence and meaning of art can never be completely comprehended. And there logic for why anyone might wish to see or possess this Maltese Falcon-like object.

For many of us in the audience the use of such well-known art figures in the film was more than a bit disconcerting. I have long known Govan, Broad, Corcoran, and Ruscha, and my theater-going companion for the night, Pablo Capra, is a good friend of fellow Malibu surfer Ganzer. Seeing them upon the large screen, accordingly, gave them an almost mythical dimension that created, at least in me, a sensation of humor and dislocation that I don’t quite feel when I see actor friends in movies. 
     In the brief period between the film and the group discussion, I quickly ran out for a bathroom break on the second floor of the Bing. Suddenly right behind me came the film’s director Bismuth. “Is the bathroom up here?” he breathlessly asked. “Yes.” I complemented him on the film. “I go first!” he laughed.“Of course!” I responded, and let him rush ahead of me as I more slowly climbed those steep stairs.

Los Angeles, January 14, 2017

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