With Something's Gonna Live, filmmaker Daniel Raim explores the work and life of legendary production designer Robert Boyle (North By Northwest, The Birds) in a continuation from his Oscar-nominated 2000 short, The Man on Lincoln's Nose. While that earlier film was a celebration of a brilliant craftsman, this feature takes on a much more contemplative tone. It follows Boyle as, approaching the century mark in age, he reaches out to his few remaining contemporaries in the film crafting field and grimly reflects upon the massive profits-over-artistry changes that have gripped Hollywood over the years.
The film is actually a bit like three mini-documentaries strung together. The first part opens with grand shots of the massive cemetery that overlooks the movie and TV studios in Burbank, California, as an unseen speaker expounds that film professionals are driven by the fact that "something's gonna live" after they've physically passed on. It underlies this project's main thesis: this is where we all end up, bub, so you better make the best of things while you can. Thankfully, before it can get any more morbid, we get acquainted with the still-sharp and personable Boyle as a reunion is arranged with Henry Bumstead and Albert Nozaki, fellow art directors who have roots with Boyle dating back to when the three first worked together at Paramount Pictures in the '30s. Although the film feels a bit like a home movie with its poky footage of the three gentlemen hobbling around the Paramount lot, one gets a sense of the jocularity and deep ties that these guys (and by extension most film craftsmen) have for each other. It also goes into brief, fascinating details about the men's backgrounds, particularly the story of Nozaki's being fired by Paramount at the outbreak of World War II and sent to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Later on, a debilitating eye disease caused him to go blind - and yet he soldiered on at the studio until 1969 (why couldn't the entire film be about him?).
Delving into more specific territory, Something's Gonna Live's middle portion finds Boyle and the great storyboard artist Harold Michelson revisiting the Northern California locations used as "Bodega Bay" in The Birds, sharing anecdotes on Alfred Hitchcock and his famous perfectionism along the way. Although the segment takes on the same rambling, scattershot quality as the rest of the doc, there's a lot of useful info to be gleamed from Boyle and Michelson as they tramp up a hillside where the film's crow attack scene was once shot. Juxtaposing the current-day footage with storyboard art and footage from the movie itself, one gets the sense that a successful film is the sum of many talented people who bring their own industry-honed skills to the table.
The concluding half hour of Something's Gotta Live concentrates on Boyle and his cinematographer friends Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty) and Haskell Wexler (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Days of Heaven). Both of these men are indisputably great cameramen, but for some reason their segments aren't as absorbing. Part of it is due to the fact that their accomplishments are better-covered in documentaries like Visions of Light (1992), but I think it's mostly because director Raim seems intent on stressing the hollowed-out resignation that these men have over how much the industry has transformed since they were in their respective primes. Illustrated with brilliant film clips, these guys' work speaks for itself. Instead of being celebratory, however, the film turns grim and overly preoccupied with an industry that has (in the filmmakers' eyes) mutated into a huge, ugly, crass behemoth.
Despite its odd preoccupation with decay and death, there are some fantastic, truly valuable insights on the subject of set design and art direction sprinkled throughout Something's Gonna Live. One particularly good moment occurs when Henry Bumstead, who kept at his job into his 90s, describes how he decided to flesh out James Stewart's character in Vertigo by furnishing the film's apartment set with a stamp collection. Although that detail barely shows up in the finished film, it reveals the kind of thoughtfulness that separates the merely good art directors from the great ones.
Docurama's DVD edition of Something's Gonna Live showcases the film in a nicely mastered 16x9 format. The film clips look fantastic, which contrasts sharply with the newer footage. Some of it is decent looking, digitally shot widescreen footage, while other segments rely on older 4x3 source material of varying quality (including aged videotapes).
Most of Something's Gonna Live's stereo soundtrack consists of clear dialogue and no outstanding flaws. Some of the older footage sounds a bit fuzzy, but not too terrible. No subtitles or alternate audio options are available.
Docurama has supplied the film with a good helping of extras, presented via Criterion-esque attractively designed menus:
- The Man On Lincoln's Nose (40 minutes), director Daniel Raim's earlier short subject on Robert Boyle, winds up being a much more concise and entertaining project that Raim's feature on (basically) the same subject. A loving tribute to not only Boyle but the overlooked field of art direction itself, it details the productions of some films not covered in the feature, such as the turn-of-the-century extravaganza Gaily, Gaily (1969) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971). The film is supplemented with its original teaser trailer and a brief Cineaste magazine review.
- Deleted Scenes (16-1/2 minutes) delve more into the making of The Birds and North By Northwest, the influence of Edward Hopper on Boyle's aesthetic and other worthwhile subjects. These are generally fascinating and fun to watch.
- Robert Boyle's Production Design Checklist (23 minutes) is a straightforward filmed lecture that Boyle delivered as part of his AFI Master Class curriculum. It outlines Boyle's personal checklist of guidelines to use when beginning every art direction project. A downloadable PDF file of the lecture is also included.
- Conrad Hall: Life After Film School (6 minutes) finds the cinematographer discussing with Boyle the quandary that film school grads find themselves in of finding work while developing their artistic skills. Like the Boyle lecture, it is mostly of interest to aspiring film professionals (but it's nice to have it on disc, nonetheless).
- Haskell Wexler Radio Interview (20 minutes) is a 2010 taped conversation that Wexler had with KPFK interviewers Donna Walker and Julio Martinez on the film and his career.
- Biographies of the men featured in the film and the original theatrical trailer round out the DVD's bonus material.
The contemplative Something's Gonna Live explores legendary art directors Robert Boyle, Henry Bumstead and Albert Nozaki (with cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall thrown in for good measure) in the winter of their lives. While the film contains some fascinating bits exploring a side of the film biz that doesn't get nearly enough respect, the end result is too inconsistent and poky paced to truly get behind. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.