LIST CANDIDATE: THE FILMS OF SUZAN PITT (1979/1995/2006)

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Suzan Pitt

FEATURING: Jose Luis Rodriguez Avalos (“El Doctor”)

PLOT: A collection of three surreal animated shorts.  In “El Doctor”, a Mexican doctor visits odd patients while dreaming of a long dead love.  “Joy Street” contrasts a the life of a whimsical anthropomorphic ashtray with its suicidally depressed owner.  “Asparagus” is a totally abstract surrealist film featuring a faceless woman and obscene iterations of the titular vegetable.

Still from Asparagus (1979)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST:  It’s a question of classification, not of weirdness or quality.  Counting these three short films, made decades apart, as one “movie” for List purposes would clearly be cheating.  That means that we’re really only considering the compilation’s main event, “Asparagus,” for inclusion on the List, which raises the metaphysical question: how good/weird does a short have to be take away a spot from a deserving feature length presentation?  Some shorts will eventually make the List.  “The Heart of the World,” though a “must see” weird film, was eliminated from consideration for being too slim at just over three minutes long.  Pitt’s impressive work clocks in at 18 minutes—should that be enough to put it on equal footing with films that run four or five times as long?

COMMENTS:  Considering the shorts included in The Films of Suzan Pitt from most recent to oldest, and coincidentally from least favorite to most highly recommended:

“El Doctor” sports the crudest animation of the three shorts; deliberately, because the style means to evoke Mexican folk art.  We find the title character slumped at a bar, dreaming of riding into the sunset on horseback with a señorita, but soon the world-weary médico is called away to his strange and melancholy rounds.  These appointments—which take the form of miracles—don’t do too much for the main narrative; mainly, they supply Pitt with the opportunity to take mini-flights of fancy.  There’s not much to the story other than these surreal digressions.  One patient is pocked with holes from which flowers grow, giving Pitt the opportunity to film a field of flowers as if they were a rainforest (an image which pervades all three films in one way or another).  Another patient has twisted intestines hosting festive microscopic fauna; in another ward, a woman gives birth to one hundred mutant babies.  The doctor also sees a sensual female horse, an exam which leads to the most sensual and life-affirming pseudo-bestiality scene ever animated.  Prodded by a psychedelic character who calls herself “the Saint of Emptiness,” it seems like the doctor may be re-developing a passion for life through his exposure to the miracles of the sick ward, but the unsatisfying wraparound narrative ends back where it began, at a place we’ve been dozens of times before.  “El Doctor” is worth a watch for fans of fanciful animation, but the parts add up to more than the whole.

If you were blown away by “El Doctor,” however, the happy news is that the set only gets better.  “Joy Street” is more emotionally devastating than the previous film in the way it handles the theme of life, death, and the nightmarish twilight where one wishes to move between the two.  It begins with a woman with deep black shadows under her eyes, looking like an Edvard Munch portrait that hasn’t slept for days.  She drinks, holds her head in her hands, and taps ashes from her perpetually lit cigarette into a brightly colored ashtray decorated by a grinning ersatz Mickey Mouse.  The figure’s mindless, buffoonish smile almost seems to mock her loneliness. After the despondent dame drags herself off to bed, the contrast in their characters becomes even more pronounced: the anthropomorphic ashtray comes to life when the lights go down.  It’s wacky, whimsical hi-jinks could have come out of a 1930s Disney short; the stylistic contrast is a shock to the system.  These two diametrically opposed personalities inspire Pitt to paint warring vistas of joy and desolation, and the viewer becomes invested in the outcome of the clashing visions; we have a definite rooting interest.  A disturbing trip down a river choked with flamingo corpses is counteracted with a glimpse of a forest paradise full of playful mutlicolored monkeys swinging from flowered branches.  Remarkably affecting, even devastating at moments, the emotional and artistic effect of “Joy Street” is enhanced by an amazing soundtrack from Roy Nathanson: mostly free jazz, but spiked with surprises like a Casio keyboard version of “Danse Macbre,” a silly uptempo “What a Wonderful World,” and Debbie Harry singing the original ballad “When the Fog Lifts” over the closing credits.

Speaking of auditory enhancements, Richard Teitelbaum’s score for “Asparagus” is as challenging to the ears as Pitt’s images are to the eyes. It’s mostly an evolving organ drone decorated with electronic curlicues, but it also features the mad honking sax of avant-garde jazz star Steve Lacy and a deranged interlude played on an out-of-tune calliope.  The dissonant sheets of sound often screech like a bad horror movie soundtrack, but what better music to accompany a film that starts with its title spelled out in stalks of asparagus, after they’ve been excreted whole into a toilet bowl from the rump of a faceless woman?  Almost completely abstract, what little narrative there is revolves around a woman who doodles around her apartment, gazing at the jungle of thorny flowers and fields of wild phallic asparagus that grow outside her window, and visiting the theater before returning home for the night’s climax—she performs magical fellatio on one of the vegetable stalks.  Story aside, the film gives us just what the marquee outside the theater she visits promises: “Wonders, attractions, astonishing feats of activity, surprising performances…  Visions of the studio, or dreams of art.”  There are disorienting reflexive images: the woman gazes into a room inside a shoebox apartment, inside of which is a woman just like her who is also looking into a shoebox diorama, and very soon we are no longer sure whether we’re inside or outside the box—as if it mattered.  Visually, the style is Salvador Dalí by way of Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam, with a touch of Art Deco; the frame is full of objects, and everything is incredibly detailed and densely decorated.  Inside the theater, the audience is modeled in clay; objects released from the protagonist’s satchel—a lamp, a snake, an armchair—float above their painted heads as they gasp and point in astonishment.  This is definitely the one to put on when you’re peaking.  “Asparagus” took four years to complete, using funds from the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts, and was exhibited alongside Eraserhead for two years on the midnight movie circuit.  If it’s pure, undiluted weirdness you seek you can hardly do better than “Asparagus.”  At only 18 minutes this snack leaves the viewer craving more, rather than bloating the eye with its rich surrealism.

Pitt is a painter and professor who dabbles in film too occasionally.  A 23 minute documentary and a gallery of her artwork round out the feature presentations on the DVD.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Pitt’s carefully measured mix of the absurd and the grotesque permeates this ticker tape celebration of her imagination… the dreamlike ‘Asparagus’ conjures the weirdest inventions.”–Bryan Pope, DVD Verdict (DVD)

(“Asparagus” was nominated for review by reader “barryconvex,” who accurately described it as “a short animated film featuring psychedelic asparaguses.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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