Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Metaphysical pizza - review of Bruce Bickford's film Prometheus' Garden

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 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.


Gabriel said...

I haven't even seen the film, but that's a great review, you sure nailed a lot of aspects we see in pretty much everything Bruce did. I'm in the group who loves his stuff, and Monster Road who was one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. I can't wait to see Prometheus' Garden!

Hermanos Encinas said...

Your Work in stop motion ist simple ammazing. Thanks for your great work

jriggity said...

Hey man!

nice write up.

...Im not sure where I fall with his work. I appreciate it but not sure If I could watch very much.

I have never seen monster road and I might start there as an introduction to his work.


Darkmatters said...

Thanks guys! Great to hear from a couple of new readers (or who haven't posted before anyway).

Monster Road is definitely the place to start with Bruce. I really wouldn't recommend jumping in with Prom's Garden before getting some small doses and building up a tolerance.

But if you make it through Monster Road , then you're definitely a fan! I've watched Prom's Garden several times now - there are two different sound tracks plus the commentary (I think my favorite is the newer track by the Shark Quest guy, but the original is good too) - and each time I watch I see things I hadn't noticed before. I mean, not just stuff going on that I had missed, but I get new levels of meaning out of it.

Bruce is an artist with a very 'primitive' style, sort of childlike.... which is what Picasso strove for all his life (and said it was hard to achieve in adulthood). That can be offputting.... at times it reminds you of nothing more than a child's work, but this would have to be one seriously genius kid, and with a work ethic like you couldn't imagine any child having!

Gabriel said...

I first got to Bruce because I'm a Zappa fan, so I watched Dub Room, the Amazing Mr. Bickford and Baby Snakes even before Monster Road. To me The Amazing Mr. Bickford is the hardest one to get into. I think it's more focused on tiny figures with less detail than usual, and the Zappa music may be offputting to some people (not to me, but it's not rock'n roll, it's his 'serious composer' music). Despite not being very accessible, it's rewarding once you acquire the taste.

Hey, darkstrider, have you seen The Dub Room Special? I generally agree with your statement about the childlike quality of his work, but Dub Room has some stuff that I think are would seem very elaborate and skillful to anyone, really. Like that part with Frank playing the guitar in which his fingers are multiplied, and also a part in which a shirt appears on his body out of nowhere (made from his body hair, maybe?). I think the most impressive footage of Bruce's work is in Dub Room and Monster Road (and Prometheus' Garden, I hope).

It's curious how a painter might get a 'primitive' look by trying to be quick and spontaneous, but Bruce's work probably owes its look to something different. I mean, it's spontaneous in the sense that he makes up everything along the way and don't seem to care much for logic or continuity. He doesn't try to be quick, though. He works at 24fps, shooting on ones (we can see that on his 2d animation too). He sometimes builds incrementally smaller variations of objects that are supposed to shrink or grow. He'd probably be diagnosed with some sort of compulsion, but he puts it to good use. I think being self taught also plays a part on it. Maybe he is one of those anomalies who actually benefits of not having got 'proper' instruction on his field.

Oh, and yes, I'm new to your blog, but I really like it already! Can't wait for your next posts.

Darkmatters said...

Hey Gabe,

I haven't seen Dub Room Special or Baby Snakes.... guess I need to try to get them. I wasn't sure, but I half had the impression Amazing Mister Bickford included most of what was on them. Guess not. Though I have seen the Zappa clip with the multiplied fingers on YouTube (really low quality).

Glad to have you aboard reading! And thanks for the compliments.... it's always good to hear people like what I'm doing.

Man.... I wish I had the kind of compulsion Bruce does!!! It seems I can only do so much on a project, then I burn out and need to switch to something else. I go through these little obsessions.... which is very useful because I totally get into one thing for a while - like studying lighting techniques and buying light fixtures for a few months, then after getting my lighting needs upgraded I moved on to studying story structure.

But watching what Bruce does makes me almost wish I had never studied anything! I agree Bruce doesn't really rush the animation.... especially when you consider all the tiny little blades of grass he's got waving around and tiny little figures all doing different things. I don't understand how he keeps track of it all without a framegrabber! Although I have animated enough to know that after you've been doing it for a while you learn to tell just by looking at an arm or a leg and reading the body language of the puppet which way it was moving.

I really want to try something like what he does. Just for fun, get a bunch of clay and whip up some little guys and just make it all up as I go. My results will probably suck though.

Edwound Wisent said...

(^ the offer still stands, Mike. same to Gabriel.

(^ swing on over and help scan some images.
you go any music to go with it?

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