Phase IV, the legendary sole feature directed by Saul Bass, is a monster movie like no other 

Ant Misbehavin'

Ant Misbehavin'

Saul Bass, the renowned graphic designer and artist who created the title sequences for some of Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger's most notable movies (including Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, and The Man With the Golden Arm), also directed his own films. Most of these were visually striking experimental shorts — one of them, 1968's "Why Man Creates," even won him an Oscar. Bass' one feature, 1974's Phase IV, lies somewhere in the middle between avant-garde whatsit and old-school genre filmmaking: It's a monster movie shot like a science experiment. And it is unnervingly beautiful.

It begins with a cosmic event in outer space bathing the Earth in energy waves that cause colonies of desert ants to become hyper-intelligent and set aside their differences. Utilizing remarkable microphotography, Bass shows us the world of the insects up close, burrowing in their holes and following them around as if trying to understand their purpose. Even in these early scenes, Phase IV treads a fine line between narrative and abstraction. We sense the ants communicating with one another, even though we don't quite know what they're saying; we are strangers in their world, a fact that will be borne out ominously by the rest of the film's narrative.

By the time the humans show up, we may be forgiven for our surprise; it seemed, for a while, that the movie was going to be entirely about ants. The film's main characters are two scientists — the mercurial Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and his more practical assistant James Lesko (Michael Murphy) — and a little while later a young survivor named Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick). As Hubbs and Lesko conduct studies on the ants, trying to figure out what these mysterious insects are up to, the tension between them grows.

But Bass relegates the human emotions and interactions to the background: He's still more interested in our soon-to-be insect overlords. The film's most striking scene involves an ant chewing into an air-conditioner cable and then collaborating with another ant to fight the praying mantis the humans have introduced to stop it. When Bass is not focusing on the ants, very often he's focusing on the machinery around the humans — the buttons and switches and various other doodads of their work. The humans have tools, the ants have community. If you think about it graphically — as Bass must have — it's a battle between the angular and the organic, between machine and nature.

As with most experimental films, there are many ways to read Phase IV — as an ecological warning, as a spiritual allegory, or simply as a study in contrasting images and impulses. (That includes whatever impulse led a major studio to release a film so resolutely unconventional, though Bass complained of post-production tampering: The version screening at The Belcourt restores the original psychedelic ending cut before release.) But what's most striking about it is how Bass drains it of what we might call conventional emotion and characterization — Hubbs, Lesko and Kendra's interactions at times seem just as mysterious as the insects' — and yet still manages to build genuine tension. It's a tension borne of the film's unsettling imagery, its troubling and reflective mood, its very refusal to do the things we expect. You've never seen anything like it, and when it's over you'll wish Bass had made more features.

Note: As part of The Belcourt's "Science on Screen" series, the 7 p.m. March 10 screening of Phase IV will be followed by a talk via Skype by Deborah M. Gordon, head of the Gordon Lab at Stanford University and author of Ant Encounters and Ants at Work. Biology professor Gordon will discuss her research on ant colonies' collective behavior and its implications on systems as diverse as the Internet, the immune system and the brain. Tickets are $9.25 and available at belcourt.org.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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