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Visual Acoustics

Directed by Eric Bricker. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman. (2008, NR, 83 min.)

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 5, 2010

Visual Acoustics Julius Shulman, the world’s best-known architectural photographer, is the subject of this biographical portrait. Associated with the modernist architectural movement centered in Southern California during the mid-20th century, Shulman’s still photographs are essential to any study of the style’s vast popularization and commercialism. Widely seen in magazines and other media outlets, Shulman’s famous images helped advertise and preserve modernism’s architectural accomplishments and, furthermore, spread its gospel to consumers and connoisseurs who might not otherwise have access to the homes and building designs of Southern California. Shulman worked with the century’s best architects and designers, including, among others, Raymond Richard Neutra, Rudolf M. Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, Albert Frey, John Lautner, Eero Saarinen, and Charles Eames. Although ostensibly a documentary about the work of Julius Shulman, Visual Acoustics is in actuality a primer on architectural modernism – one that uses the archival wealth of Shulman’s photographic archives to tell this story. Shulman died in July 2009, not long after this film record was completed. However, the near-centenarian is a dominant presence throughout, freely sharing his thoughts and opinions and serving as the filmmaker’s ambassador to owners of the various homes on display in the film. Bricker, who has moved to Austin since making Visual Acoustics, does photographic justice to the work of an admired master. It’s no small accomplishment to make a visually compelling film from what is, at heart, a collection of still photographs. Commentary from various architects (Frank O. Gehry), artists and designers (including Tom Ford, Dante Spinotti, and Edward Ruscha), and current owners of notable modernist homes (among them actress Kelly Lynch) adds flavor, as does the narration by Dustin Hoffman. Still, the film, which won the Audience Award at the 2008 Austin Film Festival, may prove tough sledding for anyone not possessing some prior interest in architectural modernism. It’s difficult to imagine who that might be, however, since the style has become so entrenched in our contemporary culture. (Bricker will be in attendance to conduct Q&As at the 7:50pm shows on Saturday and Sunday.)
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