Saul Bass’ Oscar-Winning Animated Short Ponders Why Man Creates

Maybe you already had a fascination with Saul Bass’ celebrated movie title sequences, or maybe you gained one from yesterday’s post about the current designers he’s inspired. Either way, you can round out your understanding of the man’s artistic sensibility by watching Why Man Creates (part one, part two), the animated film by Bass and his wife/collaborator Elaine which won the 1968 Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. An eight-part meditation on the nature of creativity, the film mixes animation and live action, using Bass’ advanced repertoire of optical techniques, to look at the issues surrounding how and why humans have, throughout the history of civilization, kept on making things. It begins with early hunters felling a beast and making a cave painting out of it. From that cave rises a tower built out of every major phase of human civilization: the wheel near the bottom, the pyramids somewhat higher up, the literal darkness of the Dark Ages as the camera rises higher still, ultimately capped by a heap of planes, trains, and automobiles. One wonders how Bass might, in an update, have stacked his representation of the internet atop of all this, but the sequence’s datedness costs it none of its virtuosity.

Some of Why Man Creates’ subsequent chapters, in their bold late-sixties “trippiness,” may strike you as more dated than virtuosic. But it would take a hardened viewer indeed not to crack a smile at Bass’ Pythonesque turn when a drawn hand flips open the tops of a series of unthinking partygoers’ heads, revealing the emptiness inside. In its 29 short minutes, the film also looks at the creative struggle in terms of the coarseness of evaluative crowds, the tendency of successful radical ideas to become self-perpetuating institutions, and how people just like things better when they have American flags on them. Its journey ends in an unexpected setting, amid the toil of agricultural and medical scientists who may pursue an idea for years only to find that it has no application. This note of frustration leads into a montage of sun, fire, statuary, the Sphinx, canvasses, and rockets. Assembled with Bass’ signature subtle visual complexity, it takes us from antiquity to modernity in a way only he could.

Why Man Creates has been added to our list of Free Oscar Films on the Web as well as our collection of 675 Free Movies Online.

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.


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