In the late 1970s, the BBC commissioned a TV series called Seven Artists (7 Parts) in which various creators speak about the production of a single art object. The final episode features iconic pop artist Edward Ruscha retrieving a damaged cardboard and papier-mâché "rock" from the Mojave desert in California. Ruscha then uses it to create a mold for a fiberglass replacement that he subsequently deposits back in the desert.
The replacement rock is known as "Rocky II."
That might sound like just another weird piece of art history, but when Pierre Bismuth—a Brussels-based artist known for reinterpreting artifacts and for helping write Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind—watched the film, his instinct was to ask: Where is 'Rocky II'?
He eventually posited that question to Ruscha at the press launch for a retrospective of the American's work in London's Heyward Gallery in 2009. When Ruscha refused to answer, Bismuth, perhaps inspired by the American artist's infatuation with the contradictory and the illogical, decided to hire a private detective to explore the matter without telling him the gig would be part of a larger art project. He also asked screenwriters to pen a film based on the private eye's findings. Then, Bismuth began making a quasi-documentary about the hired screenwriters making a movie about the hired private detective who's been tasked to find this possibly-nonexistent art object.
The weird and wonderful results, which blur the boundaries between what the real and unreal, are on offer in Bismuth's debut directorial effortWhere is Rocky II? presented by Art Basel in Locarno, Switzerland on August 9th. We got in touch with the director to discuss his strange exploration of an even stranger artwork.
VICE: Have you ever seen Rocky II, the Sylvester Stallone film? You never discuss this in your movie!
Pierre Bismuth: [laughs] That is a very good question. Did I see Rocky II? You know what, I'm not sure anymore, to be honest. I have seen some of the Rocky films—it's all mixed up now. I've probably seen it, but I didn't decide to watch it again before shooting my film because there is no real connection.
Is Sylvester Stallone aware that there is a different Rocky II out there?
Initially, we intended to have Stallone in the film. We wanted to have Michael Scott, the private detective, go to Stallone and ask if he knew that there was an art piece named after his film—at one stage, we even thought it would happen. This is the only single thing that I would have asked Scott to do, because most of the time, we didn't ask Scott anything, we just followed him. He would say, "I want to interview this person," and we would organize the interview.
As for Stallone, his publicist was not against the idea, but it never quite worked out.
It's good that you don't remember if you have seen Rocky II, because in your films, you like to play with the idea of memory. What is it about memory that you're so fascinated by?
I suppose you're referring to Eternal Sunshine. I think I'm interested in how you build up a fiction, how you fictionalize events, and my belief is that you don't need to add anything strange or special to it. What I mean is that to fictionalize something is not to add some weird elements to a story, but rather it's just a normal product of remembering something. My idea is that you don't have to work so hard to create a fiction because everything you remember is already fictional. I think that is probably what interests me about memory: the way that it uses experience to create something new and unique.
In both Eternal Sunshine and Rocky II you are clearly interested in the rewriting of history, too.
Exactly, because I'm obsessed with the creative process. Where Is Rocky II? is very much about the creative process, how you accept an idea, and try to build on this. Without being too deep, I think the idea behind the film is to say that the private investigator and the screenwriter are more or less doing the same job, but they start from opposite directions, they meet in the middle, and then they separate again. The detective starts from hypothesis, he starts with fiction, he thinks that the artist took something precious and hid it in the desert for someone else. Whereas in the case of the screenwriter, they go in the opposite direction—most of them start with a real fact, they immerse themselves in real facts, they search, and then when they are in the context of what really happened, they start to build up their own understanding of that, as well as their understanding of something fictional.
Are you a man of hypothesis or fact?
I like to start from fact. I'm very bad at telling stories, for example.
Even though you won an Oscar for screenwriting?
Even Eternal Sunshine started from an anecdote I was told—I'm not a very imaginative person. My brain does not produce stories out of the blue; I need to start with something concrete and then I develop. I don't need much effort to develop, but I need to start with something that I've seen, heard, read, or something that I saw. I need that.
Where did you start with Mike, the private detective? Did you know him before, or did you just call up any detective?
When I decided to do the film, I went to LA and we did a casting. We basically saw 30 to 40 private investigators. The difficulty was in asking these people if they were interested in doing a film without telling them the whole story. That was the dynamic and the strategy of most of the film—to involve people without telling them what it was about. It was not so easy because [private detectives] are very different from what you imagine, and what you see in films. Mike is probably the character that is most like a detective you see in films.
When you saw the BBC film, did you ever wonder if this was a fake movie, meaning that Ed Ruscha had participated in a documentary and made a joke about creating Rocky II the artwork?
I never expected it to be a joke because it is a BBC documentary and I don't think the BBC can be that… I don't think the BBC would play that game unless it's by Monty Python. It was obvious that Ed was involved [in creating the documentary] because I know Ed Ruscha's work very well. It is clear that his aesthetic and his mind and his sense of humor are authentic in that documentary.
You say that the film has two stories: the detective and the scriptwriter. But there is also your story and Ed's story. So you have four different truths running through it, no?
True, but it depends on how you look at it. If you look at it as a documentary, it's very complicated to explain. If you look at it as a classic story, it's a very simple plot. It's a film director who needs to do a movie, so he pushed a private investigator on an impossible task in order to produce a series of events that he will use to write a story in order to make another film.
So is this also an elaborate joke?
I think the trick was to start as if it were a serious documentary and to do everything possible to believe it was a documentary. What we were doing here was basically using the material of a reality show and trying to elevate that kind of material to classic cinema.
Was there anyone in the crew who said, "Let's just go to the Mojave desert and bang on some rocks until we find the missing artwork?"
The scriptwriters wanted to do that, but the way the film was made was that after each day's shoot, in the evening, we would think about what had happened and what we would need to shoot next as a result. So the film was being written in real-time as we were shooting, and when the scriptwriters expressed their desire to go to the desert, we started to think about how this could happen. I much preferred the idea that they got there by writing and their imagination, rather than by physically showing them going there by car.
In all your art pieces and in the gallery work, you seem to be a man who loves a conspiracy theory. You always want to take a sideways glance at something and say, how about if you look at it this way?
[laughs] Why do you say this? I can see myself in that description, but I don't think I have the anxiety or the paranoia that comes with the idea of somebody interested in conspiracies. I don't believe there is one truth. If we go back to the beginning of our conversation, it's a question of how you remember something or how you, on the linguistic level, express ideas. I'm sure you have experiences that you try to explain something with some words, and you realize that if you rephrase it in a different way, the meaning is better and the idea is slightly different.
Are any questions answered about 'Rocky II' the artwork, and what happens to the private detective at the end?
Without revealing too much, I can say the mystery about 'Rocky II' is totally resolved at some point and to the great surprise of the detective. What happen to the detective in the end is much more open ended, but it is clear to me that he understood the value of his unusual journey and certainly encountered someone he could develop a friendship with. All of this is what really happened, and not something I ever intended to organize. I just saw it happen in front of the camera.
The film is not only about 'Rocky II,' but also about all the things that happen on the way to find it. But the film could not happen without 'Rocky II' because this unusual object encapsulates or summarizes the tension between reality and fiction that is at the center of this quest. In that sense, 'Rocky II' is not a 100 percent Hitchockian McGuffin (like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction is, for example). The nature of the mysterious object everybody is after is important to know. 'Rocky II' is a fake rock, but not a fake target.
I'd like to know what you hope the viewer gets out of the film.
Where is Rocky II? is a journey into creativity. It is a film that shows from different points of view how creativity works and how potentially everybody is an artist.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The European premiere of 'Where Is Rocky II?' will take place on August 9 at La Sala Theatre in Locarno, Switzerland.
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