Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Independent Animation: Suzan Pitt, Robert Breer, Jeff Scher, Paul Glabicki,

Here's just a quick tour of some independent and experimental filmmakers whose work you should know, if you don't already.

The Films of Suzan Pitt: El Doctor / Joy Street / Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, USA, 1979-2006, 64 minutes)
Netflix: This collection of short films showcases the originality of Suzan Pitt's strange yet beautiful animation, which has enchanted audiences for three decades. The surreal "El Doctor" tells the tale of a Mexican physician who goes on a twisted journey. Next, in "Joy Street" a woman travels from the depths of depression to happiness with the help of an unlikely guardian angel. Finally, "Asparagus" takes viewers on a vivid, sexually charged nightmare. Netflix link.

Pitt is probably most well known for her short, Asparagus, which opened for David Lynch's Eraserhead when that film crossed over into the Midnight Movie circuit in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  But her subsequent work has been featured at the New York Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, and she has had a career retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.  More recently, she has been an instructor at Cal Arts.  All of this and more is discussed in a helpful interview with Pitt that can be downloaded (as a .doc file) here; the interview originally appeared in the Society for Animation Studies Newsletter.  Netflix user comments indicate that some viewers might have technical difficulties watching all three films, but they are indeed streaming so if nothing works hit the individual play buttons on the webpage.

Robert Breer on UbuWeb:
All of Robert Breer's films are great, but my particular favorites available on this page include Fuji (1974), LMNO (1978), and TZ (1979).  Breer has had a lasting influence on subsequent generations of animators and experimental filmmakers, as can be seen in this insightful essay on Breer by animator George Griffin.  The following passage from Griffin is a good introduction to Breer's work:

It is impossible to see Breer’s films without being reminded of the art world movements and ideas that influenced him: Dada’s anarchy, Abstract Expressionism’s action, Pop’s appropriational fun, Minimalism’s severity. Yet this heady mix is often tossed up with snatches of cartooning as children, rats, pocket knives, cats and nudes tumble through the timescape. How do we interpret these icons? Are they aspects of a personal narrative, breathing the complications of familial life and love? Symbols of a footloose nation teetering nonchalantly between war and peace? Illustrations of what art critic Harold Rosenberg called the “anxious object”? Or, as William Carlos Williams put it, “No ideas but in things”?

Breer's emphasis on the graphic elements of the image (shape, size, movement, and color) allows him to shift back and forth between pure abstraction and stylized representation.  This is perhaps best seen in Fuji, where the easily recognizable representation of the Japanese mountain is re-worked and re-formed in various degrees of abstraction.  Somehow we are able to appreciate both the formal properties of the image as well as the literal and connotative meanings associated with the image.  Thus, what might seem at first to be mundane travel home-movie footage in Fuji is transformed into a fascinating work, one that teaches us how to see the world differently. 

While different than Breer in their degree of formal rigor (and different from each other in important regards) the following two filmmakers, Jeff Scher and Paul Glabicki, can be seen as working in the tradition started by Breer and other experimental animators.

Jeff Scher's The Animated Life Blog: 

New York Times Bio:  Jeff Scher is a painter and experimental filmmaker. His work is in the permanent collection of numerous museums, among them the Museum of Modern Art, and has been screened at film festivals around the world, including opening night at the New York Film Festival. He has also created work for HBO, PBS, the Sundance Channel and, most recently, a music video for Bob Dylan. A selection of his films, "The Best of Times," was just published as an iPhone and iPad app. Mr. Scher teaches at the School of Visual Arts and at N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts. Music for Mr. Scher's videos in The New York Times are by Shay Lynch.

Scher's short films are a pure delight.  They balance great craftsmanship with a sense of play with the materials that produces a very personal visual style.  Like Breer, Scher is able to transform everyday observations into kinetic visuals that teach us not to take the mundane for granted.  Sometimes there seems to be a quiet desperation in his attempts to keep memories vivid as he and his wife and child grow older.  Along these lines, You Won't Remember This, You Won't Remember This Either, and In Your Dreams are particularly beautiful films.  For more information on Scher, you can also go to his personal website, Fez Films, here.

Paul Glabicki on UbuWeb:

I wasn't as familiar with Glabicki's work until putting this entry together, but his interest in formal concerns and the relationship between representation and abstraction in films like Diagram Film from 1978 places into the tradition I've associated here with Breer and Scher. 

His work has been featured at most of the important North American experimental film festivals, such as the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Black Maria Film and Video Festival, and the San Francisco Art Institute Film Festival.  In addition to receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, he has also received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Instutute.

I look forward to your reactions and feedback in the comments section.  --JLK

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