ANIMATOR SUZAN PITT VISITS MICA
Fanboy with Suzan Pitt
Last night I got to meet one of my idols, American animator Suzan Pitt (pictured above right), who was in town for a free film screening of her works Asparagus (1979), Joy Street (1995), and El Doctor (2006) at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Suzan Pitt is an artist and independent animator whose acclaimed works are characterized by their bright color schemes and concern with the spiritual and psychological journeys of their protagonists. Interested in the aesthetic of moving painted images, her goal has always been to make animated films that are gorgeous to look at but which also have something important to say. But that only tells part of the story of this talented artist's work; her life is a work of art in itself, one that has enabled her to meet and work with artists of every stripe, including "rock stars" like Debbie Harry (who sings a song with the Jazz Passengers on the soundtrack of Joy Street) and Peter Gabriel (Suzan helped animate his Big Time music video). But more on that later.
The screening was organized by Laurence Aracadias and Richard Lipscher of MICA's Experimental Animation Department (as pictured below with Suzan), in collaboration with the Maryland Film Festival.
Laurence Arcadias, Suzan Pitt and Rich Lipscher
Entering MICA's Brown Building lobby at half past 7 p.m., I immediately spotted Laurence Arcadias talking to someone I assumed was one of her students, a slender study in black jeans and knee-length black coat. But on closer inspection the "student" turned out to be none other than guest of honor Suzan Pitt, who calmly explained that she had lost a lot of weight the last month from a bout of flu.
"You wear it well," I complimented her. "I mistook you for MICA coed."
Despite still being a little under the weather, it immediately became apparent that Suzan had a very relaxed, easy-going manner, one entirely in keeping with her self-characterization as "an old hippie." She is definitely "Old School" as far as animation goes, a hand-drawing/painting cel animator (the end credits in her latest work, 2006's El Doctor, said it all: "Hecho a mano," made by hand), who takes great joy in what she called "the process" - the whole soup-to-nuts process from conception to completion that goes into creating a work of art.
As we stood conversing outside Falvey Auditorium, other Suzan Pitt fans gathered around her, including my cineaste co-worker Marc Sober (pictured right), his friend (and erstwhile Baltimore Film Festival impressario) Harold Levine, retired film teacher Mike Iampieri, and BCPL Nex Gen librarian Cody Brownson. In full otaku fanboy mode, Marc and I loomed over Suzan asking for autographs and pictures. She gracefully indulged our attentions and obliged all parties concerned with ample photo ops.
By way of introduction...a slight digression
So why all the fuss and fawning, you ask? Well, if you don't know about Suzan Pitt's work, you really should. I would be doing an injustice to her if I summed her career up in one word, but it's the first word that pops into everyone's head when they've seen her work, past or present. That word is: Asparagus.
Asparagus is hard to digest on just one viewing
I work in the audio-visual department of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and anytime someone interested in animation asks me for recommendations, the first question I ask is, "Have you seen Asparagus?" It is at once mind-blowing, bizarre, and surreal - as well as beautiful, detailed and thought-provoking. Or, as Turner Classic Movies describes certain must-see films, it's one of "The Essentials."
Five years in the making (1974-1978), this award-winning (First Prize - Oberhausen International Film Festival, Baltimore Film Festival, Atlanta Film Festival, Ann Arbor Film Festival) 20-minute candy-colored dreamscape wowed audiences upon its 1979 release and propelled Suzan Pitt to the front ranks of indie animation. As critic Michael Spor recalled, "Asparagus was the biggest thing in the Independent animation world back in the early ’80s. Hardly a screening of animated films existed without including this short."
Baltimore filmmaker/curator Skizz Cyzyk can certainly vouch for that last statement. Long before it finally became available on DVD, Asparagus was only available locally as a 16mm print at the Enoch Pratt Central Library and Skizz used to check it out regularly to show at his Mansion Theatre and MicroCineFest "underground film" screenings. And I myself have shown it so many times at Enoch Pratt film programs that I've lost count.
Dollhouse still from "Asparagus"
In addition to film festivals, Asparagus also ran theatrically on the Midnight Movie circuit, where it achieved cult status when paired with David Lynch's Eraserhead (it was a truly match made "In Heaven" - when you see it, you'll know why.) From its opening scene of a woman defecating an asparagus spear into her toilet bowl to the concluding set piece in which the artist opens her Medusa's box to release rare wonders before a claymation audience, beautifully detailed cel animation leads its blank-faced protagonist into a world of Freudian symbolism and Jungian archetypes.
Asparagus' climatic theatre scene
The link with David Lynch (who, like Pitt, came to filmmaking from a painting background) is more than natural. As is a link with the books of Haruki Murakami (who is sometikes referred to as a "literary David Lynch"). For they all share a fondness for mood and tone over mere narrative and exposition, and for surreal dream-like images. As one spot-on reviewer characterized Pitt's work: "Her background as a painter informs everything she does. She is far more interested in the value of the image than in narrative or character."
Meanwhile, back in the lobby...
As Suzan Pitt made her way into Falvey Auditorium to start the screening, I mentioned that I had seen clips of Asparagus show up in the documentary Midnight Movies, which was inspired by the book of the same title by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The footage appeared during the documentary's segment on David Lynch's Eraserhead.
"I heard that too," Suzan replied, "but it wasn't credited." That would be par for the course, as Suzan complained that people are now also downloading her movies for free on the Internet. Time was, you could only see Asparagus by going to a midnight movie screening, but now everything is readily available in the information age and the increased exposure doesn't necessarily guarantee artistic compensation.
"It's not just people uploading clips for viewing on YouTube," Suzan explained. "People are now downloading the entire film through Bit Torrents."
This is a particularly sore point, because Suzan gets not one penny from these downloads. This is a woman who has invested YEARS of her life for each project she undertakes, with scant funding from grants and institutions. So if you like her work, show it by supporting the woman. You can buy her collected works DVD (distributed by First Run Pictures), El Doctor, Joy Street & Aparagus: The Wonderfully Strange and Surreal Animation of Suzan Pitt, directly from her for $25. (Sound pricey to you? It's not. That's about 5 fancy Starbucks lattes, and this isn't exactly Dragonball Z animation that you can find at your local Blockbuster, this is a true American Master, who painstakingly creates lush, detailed animation that bears rewarding repeat viewing.)
To buy the DVD (and/or reproductions of her cel animation art) directly from Suzan Pitt, just send an e-mail to email@example.com.
And check out her website and blog while you're at it!
And now, on with the show!
At 7:30 p.m., it was time for the show to begin. Inside Falvey Auditorium, MICA experimental animation instructor Laurence Arcadias gave a brief introduction to her guest of honor and then Suzan Pitt stepped forward to address the audience.
Introducing herself, Suzan pointed out that she is that rarity in animation, a female animator in a field that seems to be dominated by men. Not that there aren't oustanding female artists working in the field (Carolyn Leaf, Sally Cruikshank, Kathy Rose, Martha Colburn, and Faith and Emily Hubble spring instantly to mind - not to mention MICA's own talented Laurence Arcadias, whose recent short "Dust off and Cowboy Up!" has been making the film festival rounds).
"I don't really understand it, but it's a fact," Suzan said.
It's ironic, given that the first feature-length animated film was made by a woman, Lotte Reininger (1926’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed) that so little has been written about the history and achievements of women working in animation. Although women have always worked in the male-dominated animation industry in auxiliary roles (tracers, painters, colorists, designers), the number of females working as independent animation filmmakers has only recently increased, a surge that animation scholar Jayne Pilling attributes both to the rise of independent filmmaking in the United States and a redress of gender imbalance in funding policies in the arts, as more colleges and universities offer animation courses (increasing employment opportunities for female artists and providing access to new and and costly equipment.) Of those rising female ranks, many work as independent animators like Suzan Pitt. The reason, according to Linda Simensky (Cartoon Network’s Vice President of original animation): "Women pursuing careers in the field seem more interested than men in animation as an art form. Thus, it is not surprising that the area of independent filmmaking seems to have more women than men; after all, it is an area of animation which has more room for self-expression and no real traditional hierarchy in which to fit."
Suzan then mentioned that she gave a talk earlier in the day to MICA animation students and screened Suzan Pitt: Persistance of Vision, Blue and Laura Kraning's documentary about her that appears on her collected works DVD. (Blue Kraning also wrote the script for Suzan's latest film, El Doctor.) Suzan went on to compliment MICA's animation students, many of whom were in the audience, lamenting that so much animation work goes overseas these days when there are so many outstanding animators coming out of American film and art schools.
Many of those students have the latest high-tech computers and software to assist them in the creation of their animation. But Suzan admitted that she was very much from the Old School, one whose films were made entirely by hand.
"My films take a long time," she explained to the audience during her introduction. "Joy Street took four years, Asparagus five years and El Doctor another five years."
Not that she didn't keep busy with other projects while working on those films. A multi-tasker, Suzan supported herself as a full-time painter who also worked on operas (she created animated images for German productions of The Damnation of Faust and The Magic Flute), theatrical productions, music videos, and other creative collaborations with fellow creative types. Of the latter, she knew many; don't forget, she lived in New York City between 1977 and 1987, an exciting time of artistic endeavor in music (Punk, Disco, New Wave, No Wave), art (Basquiat and the whole downtown/SoHo art scene) and literature.
She also found time to have exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of Art, the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York, and the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam, two large multi-media shows at the Venice Biennale and Harvard University.
She was in no rush, she admitted, clearly enjoying the time-consuming process of creation, like medieval icon painters who measure their work's progress by the passing seasons.
"You're in your studio, listening to music, using natural light, with the camera on the animation stand. I enjoyed it, being in my own little world."
When she was starting to make films, Suzan said she had a 16mm Bolex camera that she loved.
"Of course, I was younger then and I could bend down and shoot my stills right off the floor, but now that would just about kill me, so I have to use an animation stand now."
But eventually Suzan switched to shooting in 35mm because, as she described it, "It's really the closest you can get to seeing the orginal art as imagined by the creator - mistakes and all" before it's cleaned up or tweaked when converted onto video, DVD, or a 16mm print.
Suzan mentioned that her next film will be shot entirely on 16mm, the medium she started out on. She explained that the change was due to wanting to work at home at her own pace, so that she could tamp down the labor-intensive grind of having churn out work on site at LA's Cal Arts, where she teaches. As she explained in her new blog (http://suzanpitt.blogspot.com/):
Most of my films were shot on a professional Oxberry animation stand using 35mm color negative film. This provides a beautiful high resolution image from which 35mm prints can be made, or the film can be transferred to a digital video format and the work finished in video. However, the countless days and weeks required to shoot the animation meant I had to work at Cal Arts or a professional facility in Los Angeles. I've always wanted to be able to work in my own converted garage studio!
After investing 14 years to create the three films screened at this retrospective, I think she's more than entitled to take it easy and work from home!
That said, Suzan told the audience that they were in for a treat tonight because she was screening only 35mm prints of her films, which not only presented the most beautiful rendition of her art but, to discerning eyes, would allow us to her "mistakes." This discerning eye didn't see any.
And on that note, the lights dimmed and the screening opened with Joy Street.
JOY STREET (1995, 24 minutes, 35mm)
This is a story of despair and spiritual rebirth that was previously shown at the Sundance Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Naples International Film Festival (winning Best Short Film), and the San Francisco International Film Festival (where it won the Golden Gate Award). Besides being on her collected works DVD, Joy Street is also available on the Cartoon Noir VHS collection.
Analyzing Joy Street in Animation World Magazine, Jackie Leger wrote "one might say it is the culmination of Pitt's life as an artist and a woman." It certainly reflects a time in Pitt's life when, during the '90s, she became involved with rain forest activism, traveling to Guatemala to observe and paint examples of flora and fauna there. Visually, the film seems split into two parts, the first a dark German Expressionist mood mirroring the protagonist's despair and the second half an explosion of color and movement as the woman starts to look on the sunny side of life thanks to a ceramic ashtray mouse that comes to life. Linking the two parts is Pitt's jungle fantasy sequence.
As one IMDB user commented, "Pitt gets despair right on: the closed in feeling of alienation, inner pain and hopelessness that can swallow up one's reality, especially when enhanced with alcohol and tobacco, is vividly recreated here, quite a feat for animation."
This observant user adds, "Here Suzan Pitt does her riff on the classic genre of still objects coming to life at night and partying, and what a riff it is. How many times have you been way past blue, took a big, fat toke, then suddenly noticed a small detail of your existence that makes everything seem suddenly worthwhile? That's what you get here. Pitt even includes a rain forest of inspiration for the viewer to play with, crafted from her travels in Central America, and it's a blast. Don't linger over the ape smelling the flower, though, as those of you who have experienced Pitt's other classic pieces of animation will no doubt read sexual connotations in the image. Now that will bend your head."
The "still objects coming to life" riff seemed to be an homage to a bygone era of anthropomorphic animation, reminding me of old 1930s cartoons produced by the Fleischer Brothers and Van Beuren Studios in which cars and trains had eyes and limbs and everything seemed to be in constant motion, as if dancing. These cartoons starring Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Molly the Moo-Cow and Van Beuren's Tom & Jerry (not the cat and mouse duo) existed to make people laugh and be happy, which is exactly what the depressed protagonist of Joy Street needs. That's why the swinging uptempo music, scored by The Jazz Passengers, is also so important.
Now Hear This!
"Wasn't the music in Joy Street wonderful?" Suzan asked the audience after the screening. "The Jazz Passengers really added to the film. Music is so important when you're making animated films. For Asparagus there was maybe $400 for the music, but we actually were able to get a little money to compensate the Jazz Passengers."
The Jazz Passengers were founded in 1987 by saxophonist Roy Nathanson and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, formerly of John Lurie's NYC band The Lounge Lizards, and their ranks later included Blondie's Debbie Harry. Harry appeared on In Love (High Street Records, 1994) and later became a regular member of the band, appearing on a number of follow-up albums, including Individually Twisted, (which includes two duets with Elvis Costello, including "Doncha Go 'Way Mad").
In Joy Street, Debbie Harry sings "When the Fog Lifts" over the end credits backed by the Jazz Passengers. The song can be found on the UK-released CD Blondie Personal Collection.
Picture This: Debbie & the Jazz Passengers put the joy in JOY STREET
"Debbie Harry is a wonderful jazz singer," Suzan Pitt told the audience. "People don't realize that, but she is. And just a wonderful person, too, just so fun to be around and helpful. Besides the song during the credits, that was her providing some of the ooo's and ah's, along with me, during the jungle fantasy sequence."
And speaking of rock stars, I had to ask her about Peter Gabriel. Knowing that Suzan had provided animation for Gabriel's 1986 music video Big Time, I asked her if he was an animation fan.
"Oh yes," she replied. "And just a wonderful, charming man. I remember him as this quiet, polite, doting man who would serve you tea and sit there talking with you about all sorts of things and then they'd summon him off to start filming the music video and he'd suddenly turn it on and become this dancing, animated 'Rock Star'!"
Fade To Black
ASPARAGUS (1979, 20 minutes, 35mm)
Next up was Asparagus, which started, stopped, started and then stopped again, experiencing some sort of technical difficulty in the projection booth. The film only screened for roughly a third of its run time before the lights went up and Suzan had to explain that a technical glitch made it impossible to continue.
A big sigh of disappointment swept the auditorium. That said, the lights dimmed as the next film came on.
EL DOCTOR (2006, 23 minutes, 35mm)
El Doctor was the last film presented. This was her most recent film, one that played on PBS in October 2006 (as well as the 2007 Maryland Film Festival). Suzan's website describes it as "a dark animated poem set in a crumbling Mexican hospital about 1920. Inhabited by surreal characters including the man shot with one hundred holes, the girl who sprouted morning-glories, and the woman who thinks she is a horse, the Doctor prefers to drink. The Saint of Holes and a mysterious gargoyle rearrange the Doctor's fated demise and send him on a dark and twisted journey. The film celebrates the nature of perception and the miraculous." With a script by her documentary biographer Blue Kraning, El Doctor took over five years of production, utilizing the hand-painted skills of Suzan and a group of Los Angeles- and Mexico-based artists.
It was also project that reenforced to Suzan that she is, and always has been, a very independent spirit. As anyone who follows PBS' Art 21 knows, a great deal of modern art involves collaborations with sometimes a crew of collaborators - gallery assistants, technical crew, and so on. Suzan works with others, but admits she likes to approach it in a more communal spirit, working at her own pace with people she feels close to. As an example, she mentioned that although El Doctor was partially funded by a public television grant - which relieves the anxiety independent filmmakers experience looking for funding - it was not without its costs.
"I was stressed somewhat by that experience," she explained. "I felt this pressure of having to deal with deadlines and people who were overly organized. It was kind of like working with both the FBI and the CIA."
In other words, instead of fellow artists, she found herself having to work with the business/bureacracy side of Art - the funding side full of adminstrators and executives.
Small wonder then that she plans to return to her home studio for her next production, where she'll return to her roots with her handy old Bolex standing on the animation stand she built herself.
The Few, the Proud
On the way out, Marc Sober lamented the sparse turnout for the free screening (a phenomenon I'm all too familiar with at some of my screenings). I mentioned I didn't even known about the event until a few days earlier when I got a Friends of the Festival e-mail from the Maryland Film Festival, which advertised it as $10 - unless you were a friend of the festival. Maybe that had something to do with it. Who knows. Regardless, it was the no-shows' loss, for they missed watching three beautiful 35mm prints of Suzan's films and, even better, getting to hear the creator talk at length about herself and her work.
Note: Michael Spor's blog has a great review of Suzan Pitt, that sums up her work - and specifically the import of Asparagus - better than I ever could in a million years.
Partial Suzan Pitt Filmography:
Here's a filmography put together by Jackie Leger for Animation World Magazine. Note that some of these works are in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.
Bowl, Theatre, Garden, Marble Game (1970), 7 min., 16mm.
*Crocus (1971) 7 min., 16mm.
A City Trip (1972), 3 min., 16mm.
Cels (1972), 6 min., 16mm.
Whitney Commercial (Whitney Museum of Art, 1973), 3 min., 16mm.
*Jefferson Circus Songs (1973), 20 min., 16mm.
Watch JCS Part 1
Watch JCS Part 2
*Asparagus (1979), 20 min., 35mm.
Night Fire Dance (Columbia Masterworks Records, 1986) (Co-Director), 1 min., 35mm., black & white. Music video, with music by Andreas Vollenweider.
Big Time (Warner Records, 1986) (Storyboard & Animation), Music video; music by Peter Gabriel.
Watch "Big Time"
Surf or Die (Profile Records), 3 min., 35mm. Music video; music by The Surf M.C.'s.
Watch "Surf or Die"
The Damnation of Faust (Hamburg State Opera, 1988), one hour, 35mm.
Bam Video (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1990), 3 min., 35mm.
Colors/Colores (Public Broadcasting System, 1995, 1 min. 15 sec., video.
Joy Street (Channel Four & PBS, 1995), 24 min., 35mm.
Troubles the Cat (The Ink Tank, 1996) (Director), 12 six-minute sequences for the Cartoon Network.
El Doctor (PBS, 2006), 23 min., 35mm and digital
*Distributed by the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the British Film Institute, London.
Suzan Pitt's Website
Suzan Pitt's Blog
Suzan Pitt's DVD from First Run Pictures
El Doctor review (Animation World)
Suzan Pitt DVD review (Frames Per Second magazine)
DVD Verdict review of Suzan Pitt's DVD
Michael Spor's Blog about Suzan Pitt
Animation World's Review of Suzan Pitt (Jackie Leger)