Everyone knows the film school version of Saul Bass: iconic graphic designer, creator of logos, revolutionary innovator of title sequences in film, “pictorial consultant” on PSYCHO's infamous shower scene. Saul Bass’ legacy is one of commissioned work, realizing and executing the visions of others.
But what he really wanted to do is direct.
That’s not completely true; I was just channeling Bass and really wanted that aesthetic break up there. But when his contributions pivoted from logos and poster treatments in the '60s, Bass began to explore filmmaking techniques via his work with Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Wise, and Stanley Kubrick. He began storyboarding and even filming sequences for these films, and with his wife and creative partner Elaine he made two short films (one of them won an Oscar).
Then in 1974 he made PHASE IV, his only feature film as director. Cut up by distributors, lampooned by MST3K, and mismarketed as a disaster epic, PHASE IV has in the past decade enjoyed something of a resurgence, and you could certainly do worse than to spend 83 minutes of Saul Bass’ 100th birthday revisiting this singular work.
In a reductive way, the plot of PHASE IV can be boiled down to a line of VO from its opening sequence. “Ordinary ants of different species were doing things ants don’t do.” But what could have been (and was in fact sold as) a standard '70s eco-horror is rendered uncanny at every turn by Bass. The landscape of Kenya standing in for Arizona. An eerie electronic soundscape that often bristles up against a much more traditional score. Symmetrical Kubrickian opticals presenting outer space as ordered, logical, planned.
And of course, there’s the film’s honest-to-God breathtaking close-up photography of ants “doing things ants don’t do.” The opening five minutes of PHASE IV, filmed by wildlife photographer Ken Middleham, yield some of the most striking cinematic visuals of the 20th century. Loosed from his drafting table, Bass delivers amazingly edited narrative sequences of ant activity that look as if the most gifted film student in the world did a bunch of edibles and made the trippiest nature documentary this side of KOYAANISQATSI.
There’s an actual plot -- two scientists race against time to thwart an evolving colony of ants intent on resetting the planet for their own inscrutable purposes -- and the movie emerges from the ant colony close-ups long enough to have the scientists tell each other (and us) what the hell is going on. You’ll feel a bit of whiplash as the film at time pivots to drive-in exploitation territory, but it’s precisely that kind of juxtaposition that makes the film so exciting. Bass isn’t playing in any one sandbox; he’s building a new sandbox. It’s dispiriting to think the adventurous New Hollywood of the ‘70s didn’t give this outlandish new color a slot in the crayon box.
Bass never directed another feature again, and was eventually dragged back to Hollywood by no less than Martin Scorsese, who hired him to create title sequences for GOODFELLAS, CAPE FEAR, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and CASINO. Today his influence touches every title sequence that’s more than words on a screen (I’m looking at you, SEVEN and MAD MEN and TRUE DETECTIVE and a million other things), and his tragically underseen, lone feature film is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.
Note: After watching PHASE IV, do the right thing on Bass’ birthday and watch his lost original ending for the film.