DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: THE ANIMATED FILMS OF SUZAN PITT

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 Fandor.com), 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.

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