I'm not the same person I was yesterday.
I'll never be the same person again.
And I'm glad for it.
What happened to change me? I took a dip in the well of souls crossed with a hot tub. This is the way Bruce Bickford describes the pulsing hole in the ground that disgorges living clay - source of endless "chimeras and werewolves" - which is the beating heart of his film Prometheus' Garden.
Being a rabid fan of Bruce's iconoclastic work, I had seen plenty of his animation before.... I bought an overpriced and poorly-dubbed (and re-dubbed) VHS bootleg of The Amazing Mister Bickford off eBay a few years ago, when that was the only way to see his work, and from that moment I was hooked. I also regularly scour YouTube and the net in general for any clips or news about this reclusive independent animator, and from time to time things would show up.
Then along came Monster Road - the stupendously, colossally mindblowing documentary on him by Brett Ingram. It included more of the tantalizing clips, but even more fascinating, it put the work into perspective with a fascinating look into Bruce's life and relationship with his father and 3 bullying brothers. I won't go into detail on that here..... suffice to say it's as good as Crumb, the documentary on famous underground comix artist Robert Crumb - another tortured artist who made his name by delving into the depths of his own mind and hauling out the contents kicking and screaming to serve them up to the amazement and shock of a stunned world on a bloody steaming platter.
How to describe the experience of seeing this film? Well, first and foremost, it's not what you'd expect. Not if you expect a coherent story that is. And to be completely honest, I did sort of hope, even after seeing how purely stream-of-consciousness Bruce's work is, that there would be some sense of coherency.... at least a somewhat decipherable story. Instead it's just like the clips I've seen.... mind-warping, intense, beautiful - often staggeringly so - and completely incomprehensible. Well, there is a main character of sorts..... his name is Gus Reeves and he serves as a sort of stand-in for Bruce. But you wouldn't know his name if you didn't listen to the director's commentary or hadn't already seen it somewhere like on the Brucebickford.com site. In fact you wouldn't even realize he's the main character for a while, till you notice that he's in a lot of the scenes, and he always seems to be escaping the horrible tortures befalling everybody else.
But it doesn't matter if there's a recognizable main character or a discernible story. That's not what Bruce's work is about. Heck, that stuff is a dime a dozen if you think about it.... how many billions of movies are there with such cliched conventions already? Tis a rarer thing by far to be allowed to dive right into the heart of writhing chaos that is the mind of a twisted genius like Bickford. He shows us that Structure is a bulwark - a wall to protect us from an unobstructed view of chaos. And he demonstrates that he has the courage to face that chaos, to descend into it utterly, and emerge with the grisly trophy to show us all. Well, it might not be so much a matter of having the courage, as simply being unable to do anything else. As is the fate of many unfortunate enough to suffer from mental imbalances, Bruce can't "turn it off" - but unlike most he does have the unique ability to tun it into art. So, rather than another struggling filmmaker trying to "break in" and please the viewing public, what we have is animation as therapy - the capturing of inner demons by modeling them in clay and then mastering them through animation.
Watching the constantly metamorphosing environment and the eternally transmogrifying inhabitants (with more popping up by the dozens all the time and rapidly growing into warped monstrosities, then in some cases shrinking back down to disappear again) - I feel the presence of the Absolute. The nearness of Creation and Oblivion. Bickford's fantasies seem to frequently turn to those primordial sources Creation Myth and Apocalypse. At the same time, they also call to mind a strange parallel with the microscopic world of twitching amoeba and writhing cilia. Or with the Realm of the Subatomic, that unmappable zone of the inexplicable where the laws of ordinary physics are suspended.
I wonder if this is what drew Brett Ingram to Bruce's work? Now that Brett has posted his website online, I see that he taught physics at one time (no telling if that means quantum or ordinary though). And - another strange parallel - Ingram also worked on the Space Shuttle program - making him a Rocket Scientist, just like Bickford's dad. Curioser and curioser. There's a tangled web of fascinations uncoiling itself here that will probably never reveal it's myriad secrets. In the final analysis, all that can be said about Bruce's work is... the people who like it really like it, and the people who don't don't.
The commentary track by Bruce is very revealing, but not in the way you might wish. Still no really coherent story revealed, but instead you get to see the way his mind works in constructing these intricate fantasies. Bits and pieces of popular culture seem to filter in (there's a sculpt of Lee Majors that turns into a werewolf, as well as a popular Seattle area sportscaster who does the same). Listening to Bruce I began to realize exactly what his films are.... therapeutic stream-of-consciousness revelations that spans years (if not decades). And since he's not the kind of filmmaker who structures an easily digestible story and then sticks to the plan, anything that becomes really meaningful to him finds its way in.... it's like a scrapbook set in motion. Bits of things he's heard about find their way in.... fragments of stories and cultural myth woven into a dreamlike tapestry where his deepest fears and fondest wishes are acted out. His commentary keeps returning to several points.... most notably the persecution of the "little guy" by the big guys. And here you can clearly see his early family life shaping him. "Big guys are usually the bullies" he says, but the little people (he refers to Peter Pan as well as all types of fairies and brownies etc) have magical abilities to escape by disappearing into the earth or simply by moving so fast they can't be caught. Rapid movement is an important theme in Prometheus' Garden..... when he's small (invocation of Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver) Gus Reeves can glide Gumbylike through struggling masses of bullies and their victims without getting caught, and in fact picks up a magical ability to slice open bullies by simply waving a hand at them. I love one of Bruce's lines here in the Torture Dungeon sequence - "And he'd better keep moving. When you're involved with these kinda people you don't wanna stop and figure out what their bag is - just keep going. Get through there."
Several times Bruce chuckles while trying to explain what's happening and just gives up. Midway through a complicated explanation he'll say something like "After a bunch of weird stuff that's.... unexplainable...." and toward the end he said "It's all very vague.... don't ask me what's going on here." He followed this with a very telling statement - "The whole idea here was just to keep animating". Meaning it's the process.... the ongoing activity that's important to him. He also speaks about the neurology of animating, certain activities that cause the brain to extend "clear down to your fingertips", so in effect he's working on autopilot - the hands doing the thinking and the reasoning mind left out of the equation.
Well this review could go on for days, and I'd be glad to let it - but I need to wrap it up before it becomes unreadable. In fact, it's a good bet I'll return to the subject several times in the near future... I feel more coming on that I want to express. But I need to wind this down, and I'll do it with another of Bruce's great quotes. As the end of the film was approaching, here's what he said - "With a little bit of..... metaphysical pizza - it should just about wrap it up" And lo and behold, there appeared before my incredulous eyes exactly that - a metaphysical pizza, complete with writhing squid and - well, who knows what else?
Sure - I'll take a slice please.
Oh, but hold the squid.