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METROPOLIS / Snapshots from the Center of the Universe

Cinema Verite, or Not

June 13, 2004|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Why direct a blockbuster when real life is so eccentric, arcane and obscure? The film "Inhaling the Spore: A Journey Through the Museum of Jurassic Technology" salutes founder David Wilson's Culver City temple of culture that falls somewhere between natural history museum, art installation and prank theater. Oddball creativity in Los Angeles seems to be a favored preoccupation for director Lenny Feinstein, who "fooled around" with filmmaking while completing a degree in biology at State University of New York at Stony Brook, and moved to Los Angeles 12 years ago as a TV editor for National Geographic and PBS. Feinstein, "hooked" on the museum's deadpan blend of Victorian-era taxonomy and postmodern humor since 1999, also has directed a documentary on artist Robert Irwin, designer of the antically loopy garden at the Getty Center. We asked the filmmaker why exhibits on bats that fly through walls and microscopic portraits of the pope and Napoleon carved from human hair make worthy film subjects.

How did "Inhaling the Spore" get started?

I'd been working on a PBS series that's now defunct called "EGG: The Art Show." It was short segments about interesting aspects of art and the artists. It was very irreverent and funny. They asked me to produce and edit a piece about the Museum of Jurassic Technology. A light bulb went off in my head. We came to an arrangement where I had nonexclusive rights to the material.

The nature of the Museum of Jurassic Technology seems to be catnip to nonfiction storytellers. Your film includes comments from New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler, whose book about the museum, "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," was a bestseller. What was the angle in doing a film?

I had to bring you into this world. You're in an alternate universe. You sort of slip into these exhibits and start wondering. That's kind of the point of the whole thing. I have an education in biology. So when I see a thing about a bat going through solid objects, I have to say, "OK, this has got to be . . ." But listen to the amazing detail and description and history. Is it made up?

What is the point of a museum that may or may not be serious?

It plays with your preconceptions. Everybody will take it differently. People who are stuck in the hard world of ultra reality just say, "I don't buy any of this. Give me real science. Give me real art." I think that's a bad reaction. It does work like a museum; it's run like a museum. There are exhibits that are donated, there's fund-raising. It is a totally legitimate museum in every way . . . yet there is that sense of slippage when you're walking through it.

Speaking of which, there's a slippage sensation in your own sequence on bat science.

The footage of the scientist catching the bat has never been seen. I wanted footage on bat echolocation research. It was an old print at an Iowa university. It's owned by a Bible institute. I had to sign a release that said there would be no content in my film about the theory of evolution in order to use that footage. But there is no evolution in the film.

Given your own scientific background, is it odd that you'd be fascinated by art and pseudoscience?

Nothing in science is as certain as people think it is. Science is not as hard-rock certain as maybe 20 years ago or in the '50s and '60s. We all thought science and the space program was the answer to everything. The museum points out that you should never be certain about anything anybody tells you or anything any scientist tells you or any religious figure. Nothing is certain. You've got to use your mind and weigh things.

Aren't documentaries supposed to examine the truth?

Documentaries you see in the film festivals these days, they're all hard-hitting and trying to right some social wrong, or it's an emotional, personal, cathartic story. There's some person or group of people who are suffering and we're trying to save them, or something like that. That's where documentaries are going. This [film] is about that sense of curiosity that we had as children. That's not something we're getting anywhere on TV. This museum is bringing it to L.A.

How did you know I was real when I called?

I didn't. I took it for granted. I'm sorry. Maybe I'm wrong.

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