13*. PROMETHEUS’ GARDEN (1988)

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“I guess danger and weirdness have always been the main features in most of my stories.”–Bruce Bickford

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Bruce Bickford

FEATURING: Bruce Bickford’s handmade clay models

PLOT: A man discovers a garden and figures oozing out of a hole, who he fashions into miniature people who then begin multiplying on their own. The man is then sucked into a planet which he has created, and chased first by vikings, then centurions. There is no coherent start-to-end plot, but some segments of the film enact mini-stories.

Still from Prometheus' Garden (1988) 

BACKGROUND:

  • Animator Brice Bickford gained modest underground fame when his animations graced ‘s concert film Baby Snakes (1979) and The Dub Room Special (1982). Prometheus’ Garden is the only film Bickford made over which he had complete control, however.
  • Prometheus’ Garden was completed in 1988, but rarely seen until a 2008 DVD release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the gang of newly-minted werewolves enjoying slices of pizza; an octopus lies on the pie along with the other toppings. Don’t like that pick? Skip to any random point in the movie and you’ll see something just as weird.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Werewolf paint; monster pizza

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Human heads grow in a field. Imps and demons spontaneously generate from the soil. Clay figures disembowel each other. Nude Viking women slather themselves with Vaseline in the sauna. Every element of the movie is in constant motion for thirty minutes. Weird hardly even begins to cover it.


Original trailer for Prometheus’ Garden

COMMENTS: Flesh-colored flowers grow out of a green field, turning into big-headed monsters as cotton ball smoke wafts across the land. Another figure grows out of a leaf, and then we see a “normal” man’s face, which immediately starts growing hair as his head expands into an oblong football. The camera burrows in closer and closer onto this character’s nose; the brown clay bubbles and boils and forms another demonic head, which itself immediately begins to melt as the planet Earth forms from its eyeball, filling the screen. The camera zooms onto an island in the Caribbean, traveling inside a cave where a boat sails; inside its hold, another giant head starts to form…

That’s about one minute of the opening of “Prometheus’ Garden,” but it’s representative of the whole 28-minute clay epic. Nothing stands still or holds its shape for more than a few seconds in this world; everything is in the process of transforming into something else. The experience is too much for many people to handle; if you’re hoping it will slow down or develop some sort of plot to help guide you through this bewildering maze, you’re watching the wrong garden. The ceaselessly morphing, fantastic visuals are what you might imagine the world looks like a legendary dose of LSD.

Touchstones to steady yourself are few and far between. It may or may not be significant that the one character who (briefly) resembles a regular person, and who may or may not be the titular Prometheus, is sucked into what may or may not be his own creation. Once there, he is constantly fleeing the omnipresent assaults that are the only constant features of this world (the film begins with a warning about violence; too late, as it turns out, as a man is being disemboweled on screen as the words appear.) One of Prometheus’ Garden‘s few running themes seems to be that the little people—ordinary citizens of this extraordinary world—are constantly under assault by bullies, men with swords or guns, torturers. In the end, the common folk always triumph; when their blood spills onto the ground, new people spontaneously spring back up, and they can always dab the bad guys with paintbrushes to turn them into harmless werewolves.

Those approaching Bickford’s DVD commentary hoping to learn something about the film’s “meaning” or “symbolism” will be disappointed. He does divulge some otherwise unknowable elements of his private mythology: for example, that the vines draped over some of the women enable them to regulate their temperature so they can’t be seen by mercenaries in the forest who are hunting them. But most of his comments are almost hilariously unhelpful; musing about the same mercenaries later, he observes “They have a bad habit of shooting armless little people.” Bickford speaks of his creations as if they exist independently, with their own sets of concerns—thrones are important in their culture, he notes–and he’s merely an observer of their world. It’s all very playful and childlike, as if he never lost that ancient part of himself that could sit for hours on a Saturday afternoon with his toys spread about on the floor, imagining strange worlds and adventures. Trying to describe the action onscreen as the figures scurry about on various errands, Bickford figuratively throws his up hands: “It’s all very vague, don’t ask me what’s going on here,” he confesses. “The whole idea was just to keep animating.”

“Prometheus’ Garden” exists on the borderline of outsider art. Not in the sense that Bickford is mentally ill, or unworldly and unsophisticated—on the contrary, he comes off as sane, if eccentric, and is cultured enough to throw offhand mythological and historical references into his stew. Rather, the outsider feeling grows from the sense that he just doesn’t seem to care at all what commercial interests, the art world, or any sort of normal person thinks about his work. This leads him to create a peculiar, personal magnum opus that is exactly the sort of movie which our “Apocrypha” designation is designed to catch. Prometheus’ Garden is not really substantial enough (either in length or in content) to fit comfortably within the boundaries of the very best weird movies ever made, but it’s undeniably way, way out there—an impressive oddity that any connoisseur of the strange should be aware of.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are terms which can evoke the film’s look and feel – surreal, hallucinatory, dream-like, nightmarish – and they would be accurate enough, but without capturing any of the movie’s specificity… It is weird and complicated, and well beyond the scope of the animated ‘family films’ that fill the multiplexes on a regular basis.”–Shaun Huston, Pop Matters (DVD)

“…mind-warping, intense, beautiful – often staggeringly so – and completely incomprehensible…”–Darkmatters (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Prometheus’ Garden (2008)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The mad, magical art of animator Bruce Bickford – Short profile of Bickford for a Seattle TV program, with clips from “Prometheus’ Garden”

Early edit of Bruce Bickford’s epic animated film Prometheus’ Garden debuts in Seattle on September 5, 1983 – A brief history of Prometheus’ Garden‘s release

Brett Ingram – homepage of the director who helmed the short Luck of a Foghorn: The Making of Bruce Bickford’s Prometheus’ Garden” (included on the Prometheus’ Garden DVD) and Monster Road (a feature-length documentary about Bickford)

HOME VIDEO INFO: As mentioned in the background section above, “Prometheus’ Garden” was made in 1988 but not available until an outfit called Bright Eye Pictures released it on DVD in 2008. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the limited-run DVDs are already long out of print, and copies are precious on the secondary market. If you can find one, it’s quite a treasure. The feature only runs 28 minutes, so the producers include a “making of” featurette that is as long as the main attraction. There is also commentary from Bickford, an alternate score (which is more melodic than the sometimes grating original electronic accompaniment, but which eliminates the film’s limited voiceover work), and a trailer for Monster Road, the feature length documentary about Bickford. Bickford is now dead and Bright Eyes Pictures doesn’t seem to be around anymore, so “Prometheus’ Garden” seems unlikely to be re-released anytime soon. Let’s hope that it eventually finds a home somewhere.

(This movie was nominated for review by multiple readers, including “steven,” who called it “pretty good.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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