Review by Jason W
Posted on 08 August 2005
Source bootleg VHS
Features: Titles Designed by Saul Bass
Saul Bass’ uncanny talent for title sequence design can be regarded as a confluence of smaller talents, each of which allowed Bass to flourish as a distinct auteur while simultaneously highlighting directors’ feature-length visions with shorter, complementary visions of his own. Bass’ most consistent gift may have been his ability to recognize complexity in others’ work, coupled with an ability to simplify complexity without reducing the impact or breadth of the ideas being examined. In this sense, Bass was a true collaborator. He never imposed themes or obsessions onto his title designs, but rather used his creations to accent the larger works his sequences were a part of, by drawing out the most relevant and interesting aspects of a film, most often before the feature has even begun.
A renowned example of this is Bass’ titles for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and North by Northwest, which successfully decipher the tangled and neurotic metaphors at the heart of each film via a simple series of relentless vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. In Vertigo, Bass summates Scottie Ferguson’s descent into an obsessive hell with the austere and hypnotic image of a spiral. The morphing, tortured face which opens Seconds may not prepare viewers for the psychic and physical torture ahead, but it accurately reflects what John Frankenheimer has in store for the audience. In each of these cases and throughout his career, Bass viewed fearless technical innovation as necessarily co-mingling with intense personal expression. However, once one has seen a piece of Bass’ own directorial work, such as Why Man Creates, it becomes obvious that while Bass flourished creatively within the parameters of a theme set forth by the filmmakers he created titles for, he had a great deal more to express beyond his work as a title designer.
Who’d have guessed Saul Bass was a romantic? That is the question I found myself asking throughout Why Man Creates, a surprising twenty-five minute film dedicated to a topic as broad as it is inexhaustible. Bass and co-writer Margo Simon approach their subject matter with a refreshing lack of trepidation, plunging forward bravely and without cynicism or reserve, while retaining the critical faculties necessary for dealing with as broadly focused a topic as the nature of creativity.
I refer to Saul Bass as a romantic because I find it incredible that not only does he feel comfortable asking as enormous a question as, “why do humans create,” but he is then willing to answer his own challenge. Bass does not leave the viewer with a sense of hopelessness, ambiguity, or a conclusion that teaches that broad questions result only in mystery and are therefore worthless to ponder. Rather, Bass is engaged by mystery. He is excited by the prospect of not knowing. Bass is a romantic because when faced with meaningless, he becomes excited by possibility. If anything, Bass has to play down his excitement in moments when Why Man Creates seems on the verge of treacle, such as during the film’s conclusion, when the narrator states over a shot of a young boy on a beach below a sky of seagulls:
Yet among all the variety of human expression, a thread of connection, a common mark can be seen. That urge to look into one self, out at the world and say, “I am unique, I am here, I am.”The scene’s grounding in a sense of oneness with the universe – an almost ethereality – may be reflected elsewhere in Bass’ work, but it seems more likely we are witnessing here a side of Bass that can’t been found in his body of title sequence work. Perhaps this scene could only be expressed in a forum as intimate as a film written and directed by Bass himself, if only because title sequences tend to have context and necessity already built into them; regardless of how creative a title sequence is, it must always serve the utilitarian purpose of providing viewers with names and credentials, even as additional information and tonalities are being supplied. On the other hand, to Bass the appeal of a subject matter as expansive as “humans creating” may have resided in the topic’s very allowance for excessive introspection, without running the risk of self-indulgence. As evidenced in the finished film, Bass relished in the open-ended and fragmentary nature of his subject matter, taking every opportunity to explore and play with ideas, while avoiding the need for a unifying or stridently singular metaphorical thread throughout. In this sense, Why Man Creates can be regarded as Bass taking a vacation from detailed sequence design – the film tellingly omits an opening title sequence – allowing him to explore ideas and passions of interest to him, rather than having to recognize and draw out the strongest metaphors and imagery in another director’s work.
“What is the shape of the Earth?”
“What happens when you get to the edge?”
“You fall off.”
“Does the Earth move?”
Bass becomes more critical as the view continues to move upward and the sequence approaches the twentieth century. While acknowledging the significance of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, and Louis Pasteur upon mankind’s contemporary strivings towards awareness, knowledge, and good health, Bass ends with an ominous criticism of both excess consumption and the shortsightedness of employing scientific discovery without understanding potential long term consequences. The criticism begins as the Wright Brother’s plane becomes sky bound, followed by a more modern jetliner, followed by jetliners being piled on top of one another in rapid succession (indicating the Western world’s confusion between evolution and excess), followed by washers and dryers being disposed of on top of the planes, followed by the image of a nuclear power plant sitting on top of all this waste, with a mushroom cloud emerging from the top of it.
Section Two is titled, “Fooling Around,” which is exactly what Bass does throughout this section. Eggs are cracked, with everything from yolks to black tar to butterflies emerging from them. The image of an unsuspecting man walking down the street is frozen as his head, phrenology-style, is divided into a series of sections. The sections read, “soup bones,” “sirloin,” “prime,” and so on. A group of people waiting to cross the street begin to do jumping jacks, because that’s what the sign begins flashing. In an interesting piece of criticism on thoughtlessness, regardless of the political viewpoint from which the thoughtlessness emerges, Bass makes fun of both a middle-aged woman for dismissing the ideals and dreams of the youth and a young hippie who states, “Forget the hang-ups. Freedom, man. That’s what it’s all about.”
Sections three and four feature an artist struggling for inspiration and clarity, followed by the realities of facing public scrutiny once a work has been completed. Section three, “The Process,” sees the artist struggling with a variety of large and oddly shaped boxes. He can’t make sense of what to do with them, until he accidentally punches his hand through one. Staring at his hand, he gathers up a series of mannequin limbs, constructs an elaborate sculpture by sticking the limbs into the boxes, then in an interesting but confusing moment, concludes, “All it needs is an American flag.”
Having finished his piece, Bass presents his work to the world, which is actually a group of people on a city street. The people are obviously staring at an actual art piece, which we never see and which is probably not Bass’, but the pointed and terse comments that emerge make Bass’ point nonetheless: “What a piece of garbage that is”; “It represents the decline of the West”; “Terrible”; “Sick”; “This is where your taxpayer’s money goes.” As the comments are heard, the artist emerges dressed as a cowboy. He tries to shoot back at the crowd, but their words prove too much, ultimately killing him.
In “A Parable” a ping pong ball is created in a ping pong ball factory, proves too high a jumper to fit in with all the other ping pong balls, is disposed of on the street, despairs, recovers, joyously bounces into traffic and across a busy intersection, finds a park where other discarded ping pong balls live, then bounces into the sky, never to seen again. The sequence concludes:
There are some who say he’s coming back and we have to wait…
There are some who say he burst up there because ball was not meant to fly…
And there are some who maintain he landed safely in a place where balls bounce high…
Section six, “A Digression,” is animated in a style similar to the film’s opening sequence – Monty Pythonesque, I would say – and is compromised of a single, static shot of two snails talking. The sequence is short and brilliant, so rather than interpret, I will simply transcribe:
Snail 1: “Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?”
Snail 2: “No.”
Snail 1: “Gee, for a minute there I thought I had something.”
Why Man Creates‘ final section is titled, “The Search: work in progress on new ideas.” Scientists working on a variety of subjects, from cancer to food preservatives to the Big Bang theory, are interviewed. The conclusion Bass draws from these scientists is that regardless of what aspect of life is being examined, scientific inquiry is slow-going, requires decades of dedication, and relies upon repeated trial-and-error before success can be achieved. Hardly a novel set of conclusions, Bass strengthens his point by having the scientists state the time they’ve spent on a singular problem. Each scientist gives an answer in the decades, and each scientist also states that they hope to find a cure to their problem (cancer and food distribution to the entire world population included), within a few years. That Why Man Creates was made in 1968, with the battle against cancer and global malnourishment having only grown more desperate in the nearly forty years since, says a good deal about frustration, the necessity for patience when exploring the uncharted, and the inability to know if a lifetime of work will lead to something fruitful when working in the field of science.
Bass wraps up his film by asking, “Why does man create?” He’s been asking this question implicitly throughout the entire film, but by asking it outright, Bass allows himself room for a lengthy diatribe on how humankind has tended to create throughout history:
Man has struggled against tie, decay, destruction, against death.
Some have cried out in torment and agony.
Some have fought with arrogance and fiery pride.
Some challenge the Gods, matching power with power.
Some have celebrated life.
Some have burned with faith.
Some have spoken in voices we no longer understand.
Some have spoken eloquently.
Some have spoken inarticulately, some haltingly.
Some have been almost mute.
Yet among all the variety of human expression, a thread of connection, a common mark can be seen.
The film concludes with a quote provided earlier, regarding the human tendency to look inward at one self and outward at the world in an attempt to make sense of existence, accompanied by a boy on a beach and a sky of birds.
Why Man Creates was frequently screened in elementary and high school classrooms across the United States throughout the late 1960’s and much of the 1970’s. Many adults who were schoolchildren during this time have extremely fond memories of Bass’ film. Even though the film does not have an explicit title sequence, viewers are nonetheless provided with a rich introduction into the tropes that make Bass’ title designs so distinct, through the ways in which visual ideas and concepts are presented to the viewer. The strongest consistency in Bass’ sequence work was his ability to introduce text to a world of motion and dimensional space. In Bass’ hands, text was no longer superfluous to the film it surrounded. Title sequences came to life. That Bass uses blocks during one sequence of Why Man Creates is especially appropriate because blocks – like text – are dimensional toys, space creators which Bass so often brought together and tore apart as his many sequences dance and unfold. Why Man Creates fits alongside Bass’ best work as a designer, because like his finest designs, the film is at once child-like and playful, while serving higher themes of idea and speculation. It also allowed Bass to shift his seemingly endless stream of startling visual concepts in a direction suited to a narrative of his choosing. This film is a singular piece of work that reflects the personality of a craftsman film audiences had previously gotten to know only indirectly, through the obsessions and preoccupations of whichever filmmaker happened to be working at the time. With Why Man Creates, Bass served himself.