The freeways of Los Angeles are its arteries, pumping a steady stream of cars to its sprawling extremities. So when traffic is blocked or slowed by an activity, it is newsworthy, as if the city were having a stroke. When for ten days in the late winter of 2012, a 340-ton granite boulder was moved on a custom-built, football field-sized, 206-wheeled tractor-trailer to a famed art museum as part of a permanent display, the event was literally—pardon the pun—massive.
Levitated Mass, the new film by veteran documentarian Doug Pray (Art & Copy, Big Rig, Infamy, Hype!), recounts the story of the creation of the eponymous work by Michael Heizer, and follows the movement of the megalith from a quarry in the Jurupa mountains in Riverside County to its permanent home at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The film explores the communal effort required to achieve this giant enterprise, and delves into the recurrent debate of "What is art?" in novel ways.
On the phone with Documentary, Pray recalls the genesis of the film: “One day three years ago, Jamie Patricof, the producer, called me and told me that they were going to move this giant thing through the streets of LA and they would have to take down all the traffic lights. And it was for an art project. And it was immediately of interest to me because first of all, I’ve never done an art film. I’ve done films where I deal with artists, musicians and graffiti artists, and I’ve done plenty of interviews with painters, but I’ve never really done what we would call an ‘art film.’ It’s just a genre that I really wanted to delve into. And I’ve always wanted to do a portrait of LA, as a filmmaker, because I’ve lived here for 25 years. And the fact that it was a rock itself appealed to me, because I love geology—my father was a geology professor, and I grew up running around in quarries and dealing with granite, sandstone and limestone. There was just something elemental about it that appealed to me.”
The film was not commissioned by LACMA—Pray clarifies that “it’s an independent film; we made it and we own it”—but it did require a close collaboration with the museum. As Pray points out, “LACMA had been speaking to a few other filmmakers as well. They knew they wanted to cover this; they knew it was going to be a public spectacle, though they did not realize how much momentum it would build from night to night as the rock was moving. We went to LACMA and there was a whole vetting process to make sure that our intentions would honor the art and the artist, and that the project could be successfully pulled off and filmed right, because it’s a one-time thing. I showed them my previous films, and I showed them that I had done a film about truck drivers [Big Rig] and art [Infamy].”
Although the doc gives a detailed history of Heizer’s body of work, it is not a meditative portrait of the artist, but rather a kinetic snapshot of Los Angeles and LACMA. “I realized early on that I was not about to be making a deep, introspective, brooding art film about Michael Heizer’s brain and all his inner struggles," Pray explains. "I was not going to get a five-hour interview that every documentarian wants. Some artists speak about their art, their lives and their work, and some don’t. And Michael Heizer doesn’t. He lets the work speak for itself, and he really means that. He is one of the most reclusive artists of our time, and we had full access to his process, which is really rare. So I had to change my attitude about what kind of film it was. But then there was the public, and they kind of made the rock their own.”
Indeed, the rock acts as a Rorshach test, a blank canvas on which people can project their own interpretation. “That’s what all art is, but even more so with this because it’s so open ended," Pray maintains. “They projected everything they believed onto that surface. It was like a giant mirror. The people who were deeply religious were absolutely convinced that this was a sign from God. And in places like Bixby Knolls, they just treated it like a giant street party. Everybody made it into what they wanted.”
In sharp contrast to the laconic Heizer is Michael Govan, the jovial director of LACMA. “When you are faced with a character who does not wish to talk about himself," Pray explains, “the very first thing you have to look at is, Who is around him? Who else is in the story? The contrast is amazing, and you can’t really have one without the other. Every great artist needs somebody who is there, who understands them and promotes them and sells them—sort of like an actor and their agent. And Michael Govan has been a true champion of Michael Heizer.”
Pray captures the Fitzcarraldo-like obsession of transporting a giant rock for a 105-mile journey at painstakingly slow speed, and the bureaucratic hurdles and engineering logistics behind such a feat. Even though the actual boulder was blown out of the granite quarry in 2005, it took seven years of research, planning and fundraising before it moved an inch.
“It’s a positive movie about sticking to your ideas,” Pray reflects. “I relate what happened with the rock a lot to documentaries, because documentaries take so long, and there are so many things that can happen where you lose your will and your way. There’s something great about a guy [Michael Heizer] having an idea in 1968, and here it is in 2012. And Michael Govan thought the whole project was going to get destroyed by bureaucracy, because it was not going to be able to move. Even someone as energetic and successful as Govan thought this might not work, it might not happen. I love the fact that it has a moral: Stick to it; don’t give up.”
Once the boulder was moving, the controversy ensued.
“Anytime you make large public art that is conceptual, there is controversy," Pray admits. "So the film is about that, in a way—the failure or the triumph of public art. There’s also political controversy from traffic patterns to those who were convinced this was a huge waste of money at a time when so many people were unemployed and the city needed so much help. Most of those reactions were misplaced or misinformed, because they did not understand that it was not public money that was paying for the rock. In fact, it was quite the opposite; the rock was employing lots and lots of people. It was private money paying for public employees, for the most part.”
When asked about the logistics of filming a live event over ten nights, Pray admits, “It was pretty fun. We scouted the route in a lot of detail, so we knew where the next interesting view was, and it travelled at only five miles per hour, so there were ways we could get around and ahead of it. And we were embedded with Emmert International, so we did have full access to the move. We had three camera people: me; Chris Chomyn, the DP; and Edwin Stevens, who was my assistant and ended up filming a third of the movie. We split the coverage up. And we would jump in moving cars to film it rolling. Because I couldn’t be up during the day, Erin Heidenreich directed the daytime interviews, functioning as a second unit.”
As to the biggest challenge in making the film, Pray concedes, “Early on, the most difficult part was trying to get my head around the fact that I had wanted to do a certain kind of film, and I realized that it wasn’t going to be that kind of film, and I had to change my mind as to what kind of film it would be—which is really a part of documentary filmmaking. It’s negotiating the difference between what you originally wanted, versus what you’re actually going to get, and then changing your attitude and setting out to the new film the best it can be. And hopefully that’s better than the film you had started out trying to make. And that transition is never easy; it’s always like a gearshift. We directors are always hell-bent because we have a vision, and to change that vision mid-stream is always frightening. It involves a leap of faith.”