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MOVIE REVIEW

Review: 'Visual Acoustics'

A documentary looks at life's floor plan for architectural photographer Julius Shulman, but, following his lead, it's mostly about the houses.

October 16, 2009|KENNETH TURAN | FILM CRITIC

"Visual Acoustics" is nominally about the life and career of landmark Southern California architectural photographer Julius Shulman, but it's more about the buildings he photographed than it is about him. Which is probably the way he'd like it.

Not that Shulman, who died in July at age 98, was any kind of shrinking violet. Quite the contrary. As revealed in this respectful documentary by Eric Bricker, Shulman could be cantankerous and never hesitated to speak his mind. When actress Kelly Lynch tells him "You are a rock star," he takes it all in stride.

But it is the houses he photographed that obsessed Schulman more than his image. And what houses they were. Name any major architect who worked in Los Angeles during Shulman's lifetime -- Richard Neutra, Rudolph M. Schindler, Pierre Koenig, John Lautner, Charles and Ray Eames, Craig Ellwood, Raphael Soriano, Gregory Ain -- and chances are Shulman photographed their work.

More than just a photographer, Shulman was a proselytizer for the Modernism the structures represented. These architects believed their work could change the world, and they loved Shulman because he defined the way we look at Modernism, because his impeccable work created a mythology around these houses that hasn't gone away.

Shulman was born on the East Coast and moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1920; as his daughter Judy says, "Dad and Los Angeles grew up together." Schindler and Neutra, the twin towers of California Modernism, were his first clients, but Shulman really came into his own later on.

Some of Shulman's biggest successes were with the Case Study houses, affordable Los Angeles structures designed after World War II. Featured in the film is perhaps Shulman's most famous shot, a spectacular 1960 nighttime view of Koenig's Case Study House No. 22 that hangs midair over the city skyline.

Shulman also shot a lot in Palm Springs, and when Neutra's celebrated Kaufmann House was restored, his photographs were as useful as blueprints in determining what the structure had looked like in its prime.

The advent of Postmodernism, which he had no use for, caused Shulman to quasi-retire, but he outlived that trend to a time when everyone knew his name. Celebrities like Tom Ford and Ed Ruscha are shown singing his praises, and the film features some hypnotic footage that cinematographer Dante Spinotti shot at Shulman-photographed houses. Maybe that "rock star" comment isnt so hyperbolic after all.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'Visual Acoustics'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Playing: At the Nuart in West L.A.

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