#610) Why Man Creates (1968)

#610) Why Man Creates (1968)

OR “Better Call Saul”

Directed by Saul Bass

Written by Bass and Mayo Simon

Class of 2002

The Plot: Iconic title designer Saul Bass takes a turn behind the camera to try and explain “Why Man Creates”. In his signature style, Bass takes millennia of human creativity and boils it down to the common threads: the inspiration, the experimenting, the successes, the failures. All of this is told through a series of vignettes that range from fun animation to avant-garde presentations to the simple act of writing. Saul Bass successfully takes all of these big ideas and compresses them into one 25-minute film that is endlessly – forgive me – creative.

Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mostly an overview of both Bass and the film, but the accompanying essay by archivist and Bass expert Sean Savage dives into more detail.

But Does It Really?: “Why Man Creates” is in the NFR subcategory I call “But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct”. This list contains several movies directed by people whose filmmaking talents were in other departments (Haskell Wexler, Cedric Gibbons, and Busby Berkeley, to name a few), so I have no objections to including a film by Saul Bass, whose praises I have sung in many previous posts. “Why Man Creates” is probably the best known of Bass’ short films, and its universal themes have aided in its longevity and accessibility. A yes for both “Why Man Creates” and Saul Bass on the Registry.

Everybody Gets One: While this is far from his only NFR appearance, a quick word on Saul Bass. Born and raised in the Bronx, Saul Bass started his showbiz career designing movie posters. His commission for Otto Preminger’s “Carmen Jones” so impressed the director, Preminger hired Bass to design the opening credits in the same aesthetic. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Bass designed several eye-catching opening title sequences for such directors as Billy Wilder, Stanley Kramer, Robert Wise, and of course, his legendary collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. By the mid-60s, Bass was focusing more on filmmaking, helming a number of corporate-sponsored shorts for such events as the 1964 New York World’s Fair. “Why Man Creates” was commissioned by Kaiser Aluminum as a recruiting film for scientists and engineers.

Title Track: Saul Bass actually hated the title “Why Man Creates”, which, according to the aforementioned Savage essay, was imposed by Kaiser. The title itself never appears in the film, which opens with the handwritten introduction, “A series of explorations, episodes, and comments on creativity.” For the rest of Bass’ life, he always referred to this film as “the creativity film”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Why Man Creates” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1969. Although I question the film’s categorization, this was Saul Bass’ only Oscar win, so I can’t gripe too much. Bass received two more nominations in the ’70s, both in the more appropriate category of Live Action Short Subject.

Other notes

  • Not a lot of information out there about co-writer Mayo Simon, other than he collaborated with Saul Bass on a number of projects, and wrote several plays, teleplays, and screenplays throughout his career, including the script to “Futureworld”.
  • After a flashy, fast-cut opening was rejected by Kaiser, Bass reshot all the title sequences as someone writing out each title by hand with a pencil. I’ll do the note writing around here, thank you very much.
  • The film’s opening segment begins with cavemen creating hunting tools, followed by the cave painting of their first prey. This begins a lengthy vertical pan up a seemingly never-ending tower populated with every major civilization and technological advancement in the history of the human race. No easy task, but in true Bass fashion its stylized minimalism speaks volumes. 
  • Among the discoveries made in this segment: the integer 0, depicted here as being discovered by a Muslim scholar. I guess someone had to find it. Coincidentally: my research shows that ancient Egyptians visualized their zero equivalent baseline using their word for beautiful: nfr
  • One segment features public reactions to creativity, consisting of “man on the street” reactions from real people, most of whom hate the final results (unseen by the viewer). One man says it represents “the decline of the west”. No, that comes later. One of the few positive responses comes from an unseen voice, and I’m pretty sure that’s prolific voiceover actor June Foray giving her approval. Now that’s something I really like.
  • Another segment about a ping pong ball that bounces higher than all the others is titled “A Parable”. It’s been done.
  • Either the most dated or least dated segment is one chronicling scientists who have spent years tackling such various big concepts as a cure for cancer and an alternative to the Big Bang Theory. This must have been the Kaiser mandated “hard sell” section. One of those scientists, Renato Dulbecco, went on to win the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his cancer research. 
  • Ultimately, while Bass never intended this film to be the be-all-end-all discussion of creativity, “Why Man Creates” does end up having a thesis statement. In addition to the film’s emphasis on individuality and thinking outside the box, Bass answers the titular question with “I Am”. Humans create as an outward expression of self, which this film views as a subconscious attempt at immortality. Years from now, people can see our creativity as it says for us “I was here.” For example, my blog posts are a subconscious way for me to say “I am here, I am unique, and Josef von Sternberg is overrated.”

Legacy

  • According to Sean Savage, “Why Man Creates” is the most viewed educational film of all time. The film was a staple of classroom viewings and art exhibitions, and an edited version aired as part of the premiere episode of “60 Minutes” in September 1968.
  • Saul Bass continued his pivot towards filmmaking and away from title design throughout the ’70s and ’80s, including his only feature-length film, 1974’s sci-fi thriller “Phase IV”. Bass returned to title design on a semi-regular basis in the late ’80s and early ’90s, designing credit sequences for the likes of Martin Scorsese, Penny Marshall, and James L. Brooks. Saul Bass’ final title design was for Scorsese’s “Casino” in 1995 before his death the following year at age 75.
  • And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Saul Bass also designed a number of company logos, including the AT&T blue globe and, most importantly, the logo for the National Film Registry.

Further Viewing: One of many video essay appreciations out there for Saul Bass, courtesy of The Royal Ocean Film Society.

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