If you were in Los Angeles in the spring of 2012, there seemed to be talk about one thing and one thing only: the rock. That was the informal name for "Levitated Mass," the 340-ton boulder that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) spent 10 days and more than $10 million carting from a Riverside quarry to the heart of Los Angeles, for a work of sculpture produced by land artist Michael Heizer.
Over its convoluted 105-mile journey through 22 Southern California cities, the rock attracted thousands of onlookers, inspired a street party, generated conspiracy theories, drew outrage over the cost and got a crew of religious observers deliberating its divine qualities. At one point, the rock was forced to halt in front of a church in Carson called Roca de Salvacion — Rock of Salvation. In the eyes of many, not a coincidence.
Film director Doug Pray captures this spectacle in his new documentary, "Levitated Mass," which after screening at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival opens this Friday at the Landmark Nuart Theater in the Sawtelle area of Los Angeles.
The 88-minute rock doc is a congenial romp through that highly unusual journey. It chronicles the move. It chronicles the mountain of bureaucracy that the museum had to wade through in order to make that move happen. And it even got the notoriously reclusive Heizer on film. (Conclusion: He's kind of a grumpypants.) But let's be clear, it's the rock, not Heizer, who is the star of this show.
"I treated it like a person," Pray says, chuckling. "I filmed it from all these different angles. I've never known a rock so well."
When Pray, who has also done documentaries about long-haul truckers and the Seattle music scene, decided to make "Levitated Mass," he says there was no guarantee the rock could actually be moved. He captures that uncertainty on film. The engineers had to figure out how to weigh and move the darn thing. Government officials fretted that the weight of the boulder would destroy bridges and water mains. All the while, LACMA Director Michael Govan frantically worked the phones.
"There were moments in which we had given up," recalls Pray. "I told my producer, Jamie Patricof, 'This thing is not going to happen. In which case I'll have a movie about the failure of bureaucracy.'"
But the boulder was moved, and Pray's doc is at its grooviest when you can simply watch the surreal sight of a giant shrink-wrapped boulder moving through the streets of L.A. at night, like the world's most ginormous frozen turkey.
"The fact that they shrink-wrapped it gave it this alien, 'Close Encounters' feel," says Pray. "People would just be drawn out of their houses at 3 in the morning in their pajamas just to watch this big white thing move down the street."
Watching all of this unfold, says Pray, reminded him of a 1986 documentary about the punk band X that features footage of a truck moving a house around L.A. at night. "It's just the coolest thing I've ever seen in a documentary," he says. (I've embedded the video, "X: The Unheard Music," into this post. It is indeed wonderfully strange.)
Perhaps unintentionally, "Levitated Mass" ends up being a portrait of the region, featuring quarry workers, art nerds, engineers, museum types, cops, government officials, construction workers and a crew of low-rider bicycle types who attempt to follow along in the rock's wake as it cruises through South L.A.
"The one thing I've learned in this is that L.A. is always up for something unusual," says Pray. "It's in our makeup. Something about the Southern California spirit is very open to anything. People were like, 'Why not a big rock?' 'Why not have a big party next to the rock in the middle of the week?' It's kind of great."
Personally, I've always been a little ambivalent about Heizer's piece. I turned out at a couple of locations to watch it roll through the streets and enjoyed the camaraderie the boulder generated. But the fully installed piece has always left me wanting more. The walk on the ramps underneath feels industrial, not earthy, with the rock's presence belittled by too much concrete. That said, I do love catching a peek of it from some of the museum's galleries, where its rugged prehistoric-ness reminds me of how small we are in relation to geological time.
Watching Pray's documentary, however, reminded me that the whole act of moving the rock was its own work of art. We humans are pretty messed up. We do some pretty terrible things. Yet every once in a while we pull it together to do something so spectacularly absurd on such a grand scale that I can't help but feel deep admiration for our species.
Then again, I'm an engineer's daughter. This is the sort of thing I geek out on.
"Levitated Mass," a documentary by Doug Pray, runs from Friday, Sept. 5, to Thursday, Sept. 11, at the Nuart Theater, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, visit dougpray.com and landmarktheatres.com.
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.