Detective Michael Scott, formerly of the Los Angeles Police Department, had solved over 130 homicides and worked 11 years as a private investigator before Brussels–based artist Pierre Bismuth hired him to find a missing sculpture.
Near the start of Bismuth’s new film, Where Is Rocky II?, Scott visits major L.A. art worlders, conducting his investigation on camera. Always straight-faced, he asks them if they know Ed Ruscha, and shows them photos of the artist circa 1979, suave with smoothed-back dark hair. “He’s an extremely important artist in Los Angeles,” MOCA’s director, Philippe Vergne, tells him.
“He’s one of the coolest artists out there,” says longtime collector Blake Byrne.
“Prices of his work have skyrocketed,” says billionaire patron Eli Broad (certainly playing to type).
These smug answers are spliced together for laughs, and on January 13, the night the film made its U.S. debut, many in the packed theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art did laugh—the joke apparently being that a private eye from greater L.A. had to ask, “Who is Ed Ruscha?”
The 93-minute film starts with footage of a 2009 press conference at the Hayward Gallery in London for the retrospective “Ed Ruscha: 50 Years of Painting.” The first question that Ruscha takes comes from a man with a French accent—Bismuth, we will learn. “Mr. Ruscha, where is Rocky II?” he asks. Ruscha, though he knows Bismuth, betrays no familiarity with the man, congratulates him for doing his homework, and declines to answer.
Bismuth, who received an Oscar for co-writing the obliquely whimsical Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and once enlisted a psychoanalyst, a curator, and a lawyer to organize one of his solo shows, learned about Rocky II from a BBC documentary made in 1979, the same year the Stallone-starring Rocky II came out. The BBC footage showed Ruscha and friends transporting a fake rock (Rocky II), strapped to a truck, to the Mojave Desert and leaving it there among real rocks.
By the time that Bismuth showed up at the Hayward in 2009, he had already decided that the rock would inspire his directorial debut. That no one seemed to care much about this artwork, and that Ruscha wouldn’t talk about its whereabouts, fueled the mystery for him. No matter that the work—fake rock amidst real rocks—resembles the kind of prank BFA students tend to find entertaining.
After hiring his detective, Bismuth enlisted screenwriters to write a fictional story about the rock as the detective solved the real one. He told Vice in 2016, “I think . . . the private investigator and the screenwriter are more or less doing the same job, but they start from opposite directions.” Different directions, indeed: Michael Scott knocking on doors, looking at maps, and making calls while screenwriters D.V. DeVincentis (High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank) and Anthony Peckham (Sherlock Holmes, Invictus) toss darts and spitball noir-inspired ideas.
About a third of the way in, Bismuth summons Scott to London to see the vintage BBC footage, giving the detective directions to its film archive and then dashing away, apparently with somewhere better to be. Most people involved in making the BBC documentary remember very little (“That was a long time ago,” etc.), but Scott learns that a certain Jim Ganzer worked as a “rock consultant,” a.k.a. a fiberglass fabricator for his pal Ruscha.
While Scott is in Malibu, looking for and then questioning Ganzer, a bearded artist with a surfer-dude clothing line, the screenwriters try to beat writer’s block by taking Adderall, which their friend Mike White provides. Adderall–fueled, they decide something valuable is hidden in the rock. The artist doesn’t want it found; the detective wants to make off with the loot. We see actors Robert Knepper (Heroes, Prison Break) and Milo Ventimiglia (the adorable dad in This is Us) confronting each other melodramatically in the desert, Knepper an enigmatic Ruscha stand-in and Ventimiglia the detective who’s on to something.
Ganzer seems to remember where the rock is, so Scott brings him to the Mojave. The two white-haired men stay at a motel, bond over surfing and baseball, and then drive to a house, alone in the desert. Ganzer goes to knock on the door, since he knows the guy who lives there. No one is home but one suddenly gets the impression that the mystery artwork may have actually been in the yard of the artist’s desert home the whole time. (Could the famous artist’s reluctance to reveal its location simply be a desire to keep his address public? The film does not consider this possibility.)
Ganzer returns to the front gate, where he left Scott, then leads the protesting detective over a hill, uttering vague platitudes as a sentimental soundtrack plays. Cut to a trailer for a caper starring Knepper and Ventimiglia, where Knepper, just like Ruscha, refuses to tell the press where he’s hidden his rock, and trouble ensues (desert confrontations, gunfights, self-searching monologues). That’s it: a formulaic fictional ending to a staged documentary about a fake rock that is never found.
After the LACMA screening, museum staff brought ten chairs to the stage, for ten men: the nine involved in the movie’s making and Kerry Brougher, the director of the soon-to-open Academy Museum.
“I thought a good detective movie was built on lies and deception,” Bismuth said, when Brougher asked about his methodology. “I set up a protocol that would try as much as possible not to tell anyone what to say.”
“Eventually we made him script stuff,” Peckham, one of the screenwriters, said, adding that Bismuth would let him and DeVincentis improvise for 25 minutes then ask them to do the same thing over again.
“The idea was that if I keep everyone in the dark,” Bismuth said, “something is going to be interesting.”
“One thing homicides detectives don’t like is to be lied to,” said Scott, admitting that, if he’d known what he was getting into at the start, he might not have signed on. “I got a read on Pierre early on. He tested me a couple of times.” For instance, Scott disliked arriving at Ganzer’s home to realize the film crew had been there the night before. He also disliked it when Ganzer led him off into the distance, without saying whether or not he’d actually found the rock.
“I was just trying to deflect you,” Ganzer said, still protective of Ruscha’s property. But the rock was there, said Ganzer, wind-ravaged and right where the artist left it.
Ruscha had seen the film, Gregoire Gensollen, the film’s producer, reported. Gensollen said that Ruscha told him, “I need a few minutes to digest it and then I’ll get back to you.” Perhaps he was just made speechless by the impressively drawn-out, under-developed shenanigans that can result when a conceptual artist and screenwriters join forces to tell a story that didn’t need to be told.