Feats of Clay: Bruce Bickford by John A Riley
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Feats of Clay: Bruce Bickford by John A Riley

Bruce Bickford

Cas'l, Bruce Bickford

Bruce Bickford recently premiered his film Cas’l at London’s Horse Hospital. Cas’l is a masterpiece of violent, exuberant, cartoonish invention. The film was preceded by Monster Road, a documentary about Bickford, which is penetrating, amusing and sometimes tear-jerkingly sad. And Bickford himself, who gave a brief but memorable Q and A after the films, is to-the-point, genuine, pre-occupied and deadpan.

In the documentary Bickford is heard on the telephone, telling a media company that he used to work with Frank Zappa in the 1970s. One imagines that they are puzzled as to who Zappa is, never mind Bickford himself. They say his work will be outsourced, much to Bickford’s bemusement. This brief segment contains two truths about Bickford: That he is somewhat out-of-step with modern ways to distribute and market one’s work, and that Zappa’s shadow still looms large over the animator, despite him having a worldview (and a technique to match) that is considerably more supple and imaginative than Zappa’s curmudgeonly burlesque.

Bickford is the son of an engineer who worked for Boeing in Seattle. During the Cold War, the engineering plant was disguised using a life-size model village made of polystyrene and burlap. The documentary implies that this experience with a 1:1 scale reproduction of reality is what inspired at least some of Bickford’s surreal work – The diorama of ‘ye olde’ London (complete with Globe theatre) that features in Cas’l being one example. Proportion plays a key role in shaping Bickford’s work.

The crew records Bickford animating on New Year’s Eve, with celebrations flickering on TV as he works. The announcer mentions that there is a party at Bill Gates’ mansion, to which Bickford responds that Gates could and should turn his entire mansion over to creativity; films and other projects could be produced non-stop with his resources. “The only thing stopping him is … lack of awareness”, Bickford drawls, a line that provoked laughter from the audience. His simple philosophy may not be meticulously thought out, but to those enamoured of quixotic endeavour, there is much to be admired. As Bickford muses, “There’s a microcosm and a macrocosm, but if you’re dyslexic like me, you can’t tell the difference.”

The Washington State atmosphere captured in Monster Road recalls Twin Peaks. Although David Lynch’s work is a ubiquitous touchstone for American ‘weirdness’, the comparison is more than skin deep. The ‘green river killer’ who likely part-inspired Lynch’s series, left his victims in the river that Bickford’s house overlooks. But it is in the shifting, metonymic nature of reality that Bickford’s real affinity with Lynch can be discerned. Eraserhead is relevant here; Henry is not just a bemused new father; he’s also a planet, and his head is skin and bone – yet suitable material for making pencil erasers. A radiator is a gateway to another world – terrifying, yet strangely alluring.

The constant metamorphosis recalls Eisenstein’s later Symbolist-inspired writings, where he invokes the image of a rocket shooting out of a rocket shooting out of a rocket… and so on. But again, as with Lynch and Bickford, Eisenstein’s object is something that is also something else – he cited the Brazilian Bororo tribe, who believed they were simultaneously man and parrot.

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How to describe Cas’l then, on its own terms? It teems and pulsates, as if trying to escape the confines of the screen within which it is contained. But then, animation has, consciously or not, always been an attempt to play with or frustrate the ontological properties of film. In Cas’l, the constant process of transformation affects creatures and objects alike. A painter’s palette becomes a pizza, men become werewolves, a vast humanoid head becomes a hamburger.

The figures in his film are locked in a continuous cycle of violence and rebirth. Bickford seems to see this as ‘action’ – nothing to do with his time in Vietnam, where he saw no combat, being mostly confined to an army base. His films have a moral code, he explains: when someone does something bad, something bad happens to them as quickly as possible. Just as in real life, people are constantly doing something bad – usually his humanoid figures (whose top-heavy proportions produce hulking movements) punch each other in the face and then stab each other, releasing a torrent of crimson clay blood.

The caustic side of Bickford’s sense of humour is evident in the opening of his film Prometheus’ Garden, where an opening title proclaims, “This film contains much graphic violence: Viewer discretion advised.” Below these words, one figure gruesomely disembowels another. Despite Bickford’s moral conviction to supporting the little guy against the big bully, violent death in his films seems to have a levity that it is rarely accorded in moving image culture. After all, Bickford is a modern Prometheus himself; he can make more unruly figures from clay, who, like Prometheus, will end up in an eternal cycle of evisceration.

About the Author: John A Riley has written for Senses of Cinema and Film-Philosophy, and is currently working on his thesis on Andrei Tarkovsky.

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