In the year it has been at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Michael Heizer sculpture known formally as “Levitated Mass” and more familiarly as “the rock” has drawn more than 300,000 people, many of them posing for Instagram or Twitter photos as though they are holding the boulder in their palm or on their shoulder. The shot even has a name —- the “boulder holder” pose.
Doug Pray’s new documentary, “Levitated Mass,” which has its world premiere this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival, tells the complete story of LACMA’s rock star, and the tale has levity and mass.
Reporting for the Los Angeles Times, I traveled on and off with the boulder caravan on its 11-day journey in March 2012 from a Riverside area quarry across the Southland to LACMA’s Wilshire Boulevard campus.
Pray adeptly captures the spectacle, from the thicket of permit snags the project required, to the international TV crews, to the traffic lights and power lines that were reconfigured so the towering rock could pass by. As the shrink-wrapped boulder atop its unwieldy, bright red “transporter” snaked its way through Southern California streets, it sparked a frenzy of curiosity, drawing pajama-clad spectators even in the middle of the night.
That’s plenty of drama for a documentarian; and Pray could easily have structured the film as a simple, linear road trip, hitting all the obvious numerical facts along the way: 340 tons of granite, 105 miles, four decades of planning at the cost of $10 million.
Instead, the director weaves three separate and more nuanced narratives to provide context and depth.
There’s the story of the logistically complicated, expensive and potentially dangerous journey, but “Levitated Mass” also charts LACMA Director Michael Govan’s plans for large, modern outdoor sculptures that make the museum’s campus an even more attractive cultural gathering place.
The third strand of the film explores the reclusive Heizer’s background and vision for the sculpture — Heizer first conceived of the piece in 1968.
“It started with pure boulder mania in my brain, and ended up being ‘I’m fascinated with Michael Heizer,’” says Pray, who knew nothing about the artist or land art when he started the project.
In the opening scenes of “Levitated Mass,” boulders thunder down a jagged quarry hillside in clouds of dust after a dynamite blast. Heizer similarly detonated artistic conventions in the 1960s and 1970s with his landscape sculptures that were as much about “negative space,” or holes in the ground, as the physical installations themselves.
He doesn’t appear in the first two-thirds of the film. Instead, Heizer and works such as “Double Negative” in Nevada and “North, East, South, West” at Dia: Beacon in New York, are spoken about.
By the time he appears on-screen to help with the installation of the boulder at LACMA, he feels like something of a mythical figure. It’s then particularly powerful to see Heizer — in his wide-brimmed hat and with his lined, deeply tanned skin — power washing the rock and overseeing the crew with uncompromising command. For a notoriously press-shy artist, he’s also surprisingly at ease on camera.
“There is no art yet; we’ve just been moving components around,” he tells one interviewer during the installation process.
At the artwork’s official unveiling, as dozens of people flow through the concrete walkway beneath the rock, Heizer says: “Everyone takes away their own understanding. Everything said here is said by [the sculpture].”
More than anything, however, “Levitated Mass” — which captures all 22 cities the rock traveled through as well as the public’s reactions along the way — is a portrait of the profound diversity of Los Angeles and the many different ways art can be interpreted.
Scene to scene over 11 nights, as the boulder travels through mountainous terrain at sunset and past congested, shimmering urban skylines in the middle of the night, the public’s reaction mounts in intensity.
Women draped in saris gawk, curiously, as the boulder passes by them on the street. Bible-quoting zealots pontificate on the rock as a symbol of stability in shaky times. College kids with beer in hand cheer from the rooftop of a fraternity house. Conspiracy theorists call into question the real identities of the engineers who steer the rock’s transporter. Coiffed looky-loos extol the art project’s virtues; the unemployed condemn it as excessive.
That’s part of what drew Pray to the project in the first place — he’d always wanted to make a film about Los Angeles.
“This just seemed a really interesting way to portray the real L.A.,” Pray says. “This vast, spread-out city, neighborhoods that are so different and so diverse — ranch-like, desert-like, urban — and the people who live there. But it’s also a simple story about the making of a piece of art.”
Where: 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
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