Saul Bass was one of the greatest graphic designers who ever lived. He created the logos for such ubiquitous organizations as AT&T, United Airlines and the Girl Scouts of America. He revolutionized the art of movie titles in such films as The Man with the Golden Arm, Vertigo and West Side Story. He may or may not have designed the famous shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. His design work was always marked by a clean, highly graphic style that you can pick out a mile away.
Yet when Bass got a chance to actually direct, he didn’t make slick movies with simple plots and great visuals, as you might expect. Instead, he made profoundly trippy movies with great visuals. His one and only feature film, Phase IV (1974), is a deeply weird movie about evolution. Think of it as a low-budget 2001: A Space Odyssey. With ants. The movie was butchered by scared distributors and consequently, it bombed at the box office. Almost a decade later, Bass, along with his second wife Elaine, made a short film called Quest, based on Ray Bradbury’s story “Frost and Fire.” You can watch it above.
The film centers on a tribe of robe-sporting people who live for only a mere eight days. If you’re an infant on a Monday, you will be elderly by the time the next Monday rolls around. At the opening, a nameless child is born as his elders ask in hushed tones, “Is this the one?” Of course he is. The reason he and his tribe have a shorter shelf life than grocery store sushi has something to do with a gate that blocks life sustaining light. “Beyond the great gate,” intones one elder, “people live 20,000 days or more.” The problem is that gate is five or so days away by foot.
So after a very brief training montage, the youth sets off across strange and fanciful landscapes that recall Yes album covers. Along the way, he faces down a beast that looks like a bear crossed with a lamprey, plays a video game with a Yeti on top of a ziggurat, and stumbles across a wizened old man who only the previous week was the tribe’s golden boy.
The movie is incredibly, hilariously dated, so much so that it goes right past kitsch into something close to sublime. If you remember watching, and loving, The Dark Crystal, Beast Master, Krull and Tron in your youth, you must check this out.
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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads. The Veeptopus store is here.