Prometheus’ Garden (1988)
To his great credit, rock musician Frank Zappa liked to think he could do anything. In his lifelong pursuit of strangeness for the sake of being strange, Zappa quickly branched out from avant-garde rock albums into making independently financed and intentionally incoherent feature films such as 200 Motels and Uncle Meat. Zappa’s highest achievement as a filmmaker is the experimental concert documentary Baby Snakes (1979), which captures Zappa’s 1977 Halloween performance in New York City in all its exuberant vulgarity.
Even if Zappa’s brand of humour isn’t up your alley, Baby Snakes remains one of the greatest concert movies of all time because it entertainingly encapsulates the freakshow atmosphere which elevated Zappa’s international concert tours into a counter-cultural institution for over two decades. Aside from Zappa’s inexplicable onstage charisma, the most memorable aspect of Baby Snakes is the brilliantly unhinged claymation sequences created by award-winning animator Bruce Bickford, for whom the word ‘trippy’ feels like woefully inadequate description. Hilarious, horrific, occasionally obscene and stylistically psychotropic, the stop-motion of Bruce Bickford is a sensory overload of disturbing imagery – And it’s also totally unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
In his appearances throughout Baby Snakes, Bickford comes across as just one of many weirdoes in the bizarre assemblage crazy persons which surround Frank Zappa at all times. Appearing scruffy and easily confused, Bickford plays the stereotypical 1970s drug-addled hippie as he expounds on the threat posed by the impending “disco outfreakage” with deadpan delivery. Bickford’s animation in Baby Snakes is an unrelenting hand-made stream of consciousness of random faces and objects which look as though they are constantly on the verge of cracking apart, before rebuilding themselves as something entirely new and unexpected.
In his book Clay Animation: American Highlights 1908 to Present, author and professor Michael Frierson observes “Bickford offers us a visionary landscape, a hallucinogenic retreat into magical settings where figure and ground may transform into the other at any moment, enchanted settings in which modern technocrats are easy villains and nature is under siege.”
Bickford’s long-term collaboration with Zappa began with a made-for-television music special called A Token of His Extreme which Zappa produced and financed himself. In the special, which was never broadcast in the United States but aired in France and Switzerland, a claymation Zappa grows extra fingers during the performance of a guitar solo. In 1987, a collection of Bickford’s animated works called The Amazing Mr. Bickford was released on VHS through Zappa’s company Honker Home Video and the following year Bickford completed the 28-minute animated film Prometheus’ Garden (1988) which was produced with the support of the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts – pretty amusing when you consider the film’s emphasis on miniaturized disembowelment and full frontal nudity.
Bickford recently told Seattle Channel, “I guess danger and weirdness have always been the main feature in most of my stories. And, I don’t know why. Probably just ‘cause I’m afraid of life and things scare me.” Similar to contemporary work by renowned Polish animator Jan Svankmajer, Bickford’s claymation has a reoccurring fixation with heads and faces which are subjected to disfigurement, dissolve into a puddle or become intractably fused together with other faces.
More than anything else, Bickford’s animation is defined by frenzied movement and the visually arresting process of near-constant metamorphosis; landscapes into faces, naked bodies into buildings, pizza into monsters, monsters into other monsters. Bickford explains his preoccupation with movement, saying “I grew up with a lust for action films. And it’s not just violence, it’s also movement. Just the thrill I would get out of moving that way if I could. Movies are about movement. Or at least to me they are.” Segments from The Amazing Mr. Bickford and Prometheus’ Garden feature some extremely ambitious and complex crowd scenes, like a plasticine re-enactment of a Cecil B. DeMille epic but devoid of any context or explanation.
In the 2004 documentary, Monster Road, filmmaker Brett Ingram profiles Bickford as he divides his time between his various unrealized animation projects and caring for his elderly father. Throughout the film Bickford shares memories of growing up in an abusive relationship with his father and three brothers and casually mentions that he was stabbed in the foot by a fellow soldier during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The documentary reveals Bickford as an aging eccentric, happily isolated from the harshness of the world and living alone in his childhood home in Washington State. Monster Road was recognized at the Boston Independent Film Festival and the Slamdance Festival however the documentary is unexpectedly absent any insight into Bickford’s decade as Frank Zappa’s resident animator nor does it broach the germane topic of mind-altering substances.
Within the world of animation and freak culture, Bickford is admired as a Quixotesque figure; a immensely gifted dreamer whose passion and zeal for animated storytelling has been thwarted by the many demands of the real world. On Ingram’s website, Bickford is described as the world’s only outsider artist specializing in animation. In the last decade, some of Bickford’s projects have been released on DVD for the first time including Prometheus’ Garden. Bickford is currently at work on a two-dimensional animated project tentatively called Boar’s Head and he has also been developing designs for an as-of-yet untitled graphic novel.
Stink Foot from A Token of His Extreme (1974)
Animation from Baby Snakes (1979)
The Amazing Mr. Bickford (1987)
Prometheus’ Garden (1988)
Monster Road (2004), Documentary by Brett Ingram
Bruce Bickford’s unrealized Twin Peaks project
Segment from Bruce Bickford’s upcoming Boar’s Head