Category Archives: Director Retrospective


A promenade through the oeuvre of animator is like taking part in a bohemian cavalcade disguised as a dollhouse, awash with luminous colors and energetic imagery, while grinding atonal music from a Holly Hobbie record player. She’s a balls-to-the-wall art school darling; unassuming, yet filled to the brim with edifying duplicity. Pitt inspires one to glean from life what one gleans from her art.

Her background is in painting and, as she explains in the aptly titled documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision (2006), Pitt explains that she realized that the figures of her canvases had an implied history and future and began processing the idea of “what would happen if this moved over here? And that moved up there? Then that would be a different thing. There would be a passage of time.” The end result of that process was a painter interning in animation. Pitt’s first credited short is Jefferson Circus Songs (1975). Already in this first effort, she emanates an idiosyncratic abjection that spikes into mystical farce. Inundating us with a smorgasbord of imagery (live action, stop motion, and willfully rudimentary animation that includes harlequins, Siamese twins, geishas, an adolescent nurse with mop hair, Christmas lights, Easter eggs,  and mythological creatures), Pitt introduces us to a vision which repudiates rationality and judgment. The threat of an overwhelming seriousness is dissipated as the filmmaker unveils her sense of self-depreciating humor. Yale Marshall’s tinkly score compliments the chaos.

In her second film, Asparagus (1979, available on DVD and on, Pitt again displays a shrewd awareness in juxtaposing music with imagery. Her composer of choice here is Richard Teitelbaum, who studied under one of the 20th century’s most vital composers: Luigi Nono. Asparagus also features the music of prolific and prominent free jazz artist Steve Lacy (who has worked with too many artists of note to name, including Carla Bley). Together, the aural language of Teitelbaum and Lacy create an ideal dialogue with Pitt’s imaged world of a phallic asparagus. Pitt describes her work as “a rich pastiche of imagery that folds together and becomes  a running image.” The imagery, once internalized (from the way we manipulate and arrange images from childhood) is put together and connected to a “world of sense-making.” It follows Jung’s idea of pregnant imagery and she describes it as a “daydream that you can come into at any point,” being a “complex circle.” Pitt, leading an exquisite assemblage of artists, produces a provocative, erotically charged short that beams and steams absurdity with septic glitter in the most edifying way. Although as personal as a poem, Asparagus rightly resonated strongly with both critics and audiences, winning festivals the world over. Of all Pitt’s films, it is Asparagus that invites the most commentary,  a rare example of a wholly successful independent film, which is covered in detail here already as a List Candidate.

In addition to her animated film work, Pitt is a professor who has done work in murals and theater design, along with actively showing her paintings and wood constructions in gallery showings, which explains the almost twenty year gap between films. Compared to the first two films, Joy Street (1995, on DVD and Fandor) is almost rhapsodic and narrative. Opening with imagery which conjures up visions from silent film, Joy Street wistfully flows into ecstatic, bonbon-hued colors, burning with ravenous anecdotes and music by Roy Nathanson from the Jazz Passengers. Although Pitt is often referred to as a woman animator, one would be hard-pressed to locate a male counterpart, which nullifies such categories. Her acerbic candor is probably never more accessible than here.

El Doctor (2006, on DVD and Fandor), written by Blue Kraning, is the first Pitt film with dialogue. It is the story of an alcoholic doctor, along with a gargoyle and south of the border art, inspired by Pitt’s own trip to the doctor. In her fourth film, Pitt captures the flavor of (what is to us) an eroticized, dissonant Catholicism, the Hispanic culture it influences, and outsider artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. Commendably, Pitt doesn’t subscribe to the usual bathos associated with naive art.

The half hour, self-coiling documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence Of Vision is directed by Blue Kraning and Laura Kraning. I’m glad it exists as a proclamation reflecting on Pitt’s past, film techniques, and artistic worldview. Loving someone like Pitt goes beyond perception. The world needs her, and this primer is highly recommended viewing.

Pitt can also be seen as one of the smokers in James Benning’s 20 Cigarettes (2010) (sadly, they never called me).

Inspired by an ashtray and H.P. Lovecraft, Visitation (2012, also on Fandor) is cartoonish erudition, gestural and unforgettably hand painted. Juxtaposed to the music of Jules Massenet, Visitation is a monochromatic vision. Christ have mercy! It crosses every border and makes you fall in love with Pitt’s artistic voice all over again: configuring , transforming, reminding us that her first ventures into film were in 8mm. Archaic, postmodern, jazzy, operatic, with images ranging from the Spanish inquisition to the witch of the forest, it’s the kind of film one imagines film should be like.

At seven minutes, Pinball (2013) is the briefest Pitt film to date and one of the most startling. Juxtaposed to the preexisting 1952 revision of “Ballet Mecanique” by the bad boy of music, George Antheil (a beloved Surrealist), Pinball is a art film connoisseur’s orgasm. I was immediately reminded of John Zorn, Roy Lichtenstein, and Phillip Guston (he of the Morton Feldman tribute). Upon seeing it, my wife said, “I see you found another soul companion” (the other being ). Pinball shows exactly the mental images I conjured up on first reading of Antheil’s premiere of “Ballet Mecanique,” with Andre Breton, , and on the stage pistol-whipping protestors.

This is the world of Suzan Pitt, and we are the better for her.


During one of my incognito Sacred Heart Catholic Church field trips with my Aunt Greta, visiting from the Arizona desert, I received a mild scolding—albeit not from immediate family, who would have flipped out had they known my father’s sister had smuggled me into one of those Catholic churches. Rather, it was from Greta herself, who corrected my venial sin: in being transfixed by the statues of the Infant of Prague (a toddler Jesus in drag), Our Lady of Sorrows (Mother Mary with seven knives jabbed into her chest), and Teresa of Avila (she of Lorenzo Bernini’s orgasmic ecstasy), I made the mistake of saying: “It’s cool that your church has such weird imagery, worships women, and you don’t have to worship Jesus.” Greta very quickly and sternly pointed out to me: “We do worship Jesus, and we don’t worship Mary or Teresa. We venerate them.” In hindsight, and putting aside that I was in my teens that was probably the first time I became vaguely conscious of a latent (although denied by some) connection between feminism and blue-collar Catholic Surrealism.

The films of Daina Krumins have these qualities, and more. As with most Krumins followers, I was introduced to her via The Divine Miracle (1972). I can’t recall where I first saw it, but it was in the late seventies, and Aunt Greta’s parish icons immediately called to mind Krumins’s film. Another weird image that I had cemented at the time, mixing my mythologies, was from a TV documentary about the suicide of George “Adventures of Superman” Reeves, in which the narrator described the late actor’s devoutly Catholic mother going to the crime scene and placing holy cards of saints on all the blood stains and bullet holes in the room (the narration was accompanied by eccentric flashing images of devotional postcards). The reason I reference the latter is that there’s something of a holy cards-on-bloodstains texture to Krumins’ work.

Krumins was born in 1947 in a Munich refugee camp. Her family immigrated to the U.S.A. Like her mother, Krumins suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Fortunately, her father, who was an accomplished photographer, and her uncle, a Latvian painter, encouraged her early creative eccentricities, which included collecting metal shavings, wax teeth, snakes in formaldehyde, jellyfish, and crabs. Ignoring her teachers’ advice to be more social and pursue a normal life, Krumins received her BFA at the NYU Film School, followed by an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and found employment as a rotoscoper with Lookout Mountain Films. Images from her art and film can be viewed on the filmmaker’s website).

Still from The Divine Miracle (1972)Krumins is a New Jersey resident and has been described as a “homegrown Surrealist.” That description suggests something coming from the earth, which is apt. Krumins refers to her film, photographs, woodwork, and sculpture as preoccupations with textures. To date, she has completed a total of four  films, Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: THE FILMS OF DAINA KRUMINS


This is part 2 of our retrospective; part 1 is here.

Altered States (1980) was such an extravagant affair that its script writer, Paddy Chayefsky, disowned the film after seeing Ken Russell’s finished cut. It is one of two films Russell made for American studios and his last film to (barely) make a profit statewide. It is a Certified Weird entry.

Russell’s second U.S.-made film was 1984’s Crimes of Passion. Starring Kathleen Turner and Anthony Perkins, Crimes was as divisive as any of Russell’s other work. It was primarily panned by critics and died at the box office, but has garnered enough of a cult following to warrant Arrow’s upcoming deluxe Blu-ray release, which will include Russell’s unrated director’s cut (the theatrical version is “R” rated).

With a new level of serious sleaze, Russell’s Crimes is a “hallelujah” to bad taste. Turner, as China Blue, sears. Perkins is in full twitchy ham mode and is equally fun, consistently chewing the scenery. Maddening, and yet also showing restraint, Crimes feels sincere in its mockery of hypocritical sexual mores.

With a budget of 4.5 million, Gothic (1986) took in less than a million. It is also a List entry.

Ken Russell’s contribution to Aria (1987) is undoubtedly a highlight in this Fantasia for adults. Russell joins directors , , , Nicolas Roeg, Julien Temple, Bruce Beresford, Frances Roddam, Charles Sturridge, and Bill Bryden for this unique anthology. Aria is the kind of film that inspires American classical musical fans ( seeking only traditional interpretations) to bring out the white crosses and matches, slinging charges of Euro trash and sputtering about Regietheater ( which actually does quite well in Europe, as opposed to statewide opera houses which are frequently in the red). The rest of us, less constipated, will find much to savor here.

Aria still from Ken Russell Russell tackles Puccini’s “Turandot,” which admittedly is the first time I’ve been able to stomach that hopelessly conservative composer. It is easy to see why Russell chose to interpret one of the most familiar tenor arias in all of opera, Puccini’s  “Nessun dorma.” Russell uses British pin-up model Linzi Drew for a wincing, bejeweled surgical operation. It’s transfixing Russell blasphemy, which is what we have come to expect and hope for with him.

It was inevitable that the King of cinematic excess would pay homage to that blaspheming saint of excess, Oscar Wilde. 1988’s Salome’s Last Dance is taken from the infamous Wilde play. With tongue firmly in cheek, Russell makes a cameo as a photographer doing a shoot of Wilde’s play. That “outrageous evening” sets the film’s tone.

Profane, passionate, tacky, bawdy, gaudy, naughty, and wearing its theatricality on sleeve, Salome is delicious Russell, ranking with his best work. After all, what could be more campy than the Bible?  Russell is completely in his element Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL, PART TWO


Part I of a retrospective covering the theatrical feature films of (1927-2011). Russell also produced an extensive number of documentaries, television films (many of which were composer biographies), and short films, which will not be covered here.

The late Ken Russell is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and visionary filmmakers in the entirety of cinema. Excessive and flamboyant, he was often dismissed by mainstream critics. Russell was equally criticized in avant-garde circles for not having the courage of his convictions (meaning he wasn’t academically non-linear enough. There’s a reason Russell is often compared to the painter Francis Bacon, who continued painting surreal figurative works in the age of academic abstract expressionism). Admirably, Russell had no use for categorizations, but as idiosyncratic as he was, his execution did not always rise to the concepts in his work.

Russell’s strengths and weakness are evident in his first theatrical feature, French Dressing (1964). It’s a British caper comedy in the vein of ‘s Hard Day’s Night (1964). Initially it was a box office and critical failure. Russell’s penchant for surreal imagery and sharp edits is intact, although subtle by later standards. Even when subdued, Russell’s style doesn’t work for this kind of material, rendering the film heavy handed and narratively confused. However, it was original enough to develop a cult following, the first of many for Russell.

Believing French Dressing to be a misfire, Russell returned to the safety of television work for three years before reemerging with his next feature, Billion Dollar Brain (1967). It is the second sequel in the Harry Palmer series, with Michael Caine once again taking the title role. Russell proved just as ill-suited for this spy thriller trying to cash in on the James Bond fad, but Brain is also a standout in the franchise. Russell’s personal, icy stylization is in evidence throughout the film’s more fantastic sequences. Russell is most in his element with chaos, and most bogged down with restraints imposed by script and production. Despite its flaws, Billion Dollar Brain tries to play elastic with its genre, rendering it a fun mess.

Still from Women in Love (1969)Women In Love (1969) was the film that brought Ken Russell to worldwide attention (he was even nominated for Best Director). Many critics rank it as Russell’s most narratively satisfying film. Of course, Russell has D. H. Lawrence for a literary source and, despite its infamous nude wrestling scene between and Alan Bates, the film is almost shockingly restrained and faithful to the spirit of Lawrence (out of necessity, Larry Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: KEN RUSSELL, PART ONE


Part I of the Ralph Bakshi retrospective is here.

followed Wizards (1977) with the grandfather of all fantasy narratives: The Lord Of The Rings (1978). With the success of his previous work, Bakshi was given an astronomical budget (in 1978) of four million dollars (the box office take exceeded 30 million). Predictably, J.R.R. Tolkien’s elf fan boys were mighty upset with the news that the man behind that obscene Fritz the Cat would be directing. Per the norm, the fans were wrong when they protested that Bakshi would make a travesty of Tolkien. Actually, Bakshi’s adaptation is largely faithful to the first two books. made his (uncredited) Hollywood debut here as one of the animators. This was also the first animated film that was extensively rotoscoped. A few purists cried foul, but generally, critics and audiences disagreed. Bakshi originally conceived of using a Led Zepplin score for LotR, and one can only wonder how that might have affected the final work. Unfortunately, he could not negotiate rights to the rock band’s music and used Leonard Rosenman instead (a decidedly mediocre film composer).

lord_of_the_rings_bakshiAt the time of its release, LotR was the longest feature-length animated film, with the exception of Fantasia (1940), which originally was a stateside flop. Bakshi and producer Saul Zaentz indeed took a considerable risk, which paid off, at least at the box office. The film was unfortunate to be made during a studio shakeup at United Artists, which resulted in a change of producers midstream and budget cuts, ultimately resulting in an unfinished work (originally, the plan was for a trilogy). The tension shows on screen, and too much is packed into the two-and-a-half hour running time. Minor flaws aside, it’s a beautifully mounted, innovative, ambitious production.

Like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, perhaps a perfect LotR only exists on the printed page. ‘s admirable but too-zealous triptych is plagued with about thirty battle scenes too many and a lot of sickening doe-eyed close-ups of hobbits in the final entry (Jackson did pay homage to Bakshi in several admittedly “lifted” scenes).

Although a few Tolkien fans cried blasphemy because of cuts made in the narrative, Bakshi’s LotR established him as the most innovative big name in animation.

American Pop (1981) was already suggested here. Although rightly praised, it’s prospects for making the List were dismissed, which is an assessment I wholly disagree with. Surreal, psychedelic, and phantasmagorical, Pop startles in its innovativeness. This well-written Western saga covers a family of musicians from the turn of the century until the 1980s. It is a collage of a cultural fantasia, mixing animation, footage from newsreels and documentary films, painting, and still photography. Bakshi’s legacy is in pushing the boundaries of what constitutes both animation and film. Bakshi is a juggernaut here, and American Pop is the Continue reading DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: RALPH BAKSHI, PART TWO: 1977-PRESENT