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Monster Road

Continuing my chronicles from the past weekend, a few thoughts on Monster Road, the documentary about claymation master Bruce Bickford.

:: April 3rd, 2004 // San Francisco, Red Vic Movie House ::

Bickford is famous for having worked on Frank Zappa's movie Baby Snakes or rather he was famous for a while, then descended into underground obscurity. As I write, he is holed up in the basement of his Seattle home, tirelessly churning out amazing claymation work which then piles up on his shelf unseen by the public.

I went to the Red Vic to see the shorts featured in the Hi/Lo Film Festival, but it turned out that Saturday's 8pm program consisted solely of Monster Road, Best Documentary winner at Slamdance 2004. This turned out to be a wonderful, serendipitous way to see the movie; in the end I just bought the Hi/Lo DVD (containing about half of the shorts), kicked back and went with the flow.

The only regret I have is that Bruce Bickford himself, that very same night, was in person at Craig Baldwin's Other Cinema for a screening of the very same movie. Bummer. At any rate, I did catch the movie, and it was really quite uncanny. Bickford is an absolute genius of clay animation, and the movie features plenty of his work. As far as I'm concerned, the man fully qualifies as a Visionary Artist, and an astonishing one at that. He brings to life his fanciful, childlike and gutsy inner world, incarnating it in the tactile richness of clay, animating it through the flickering, lush imperfection of film. The results are often quite psychedelic, and it's easy to get lost in Bruce's world, one where everything keeps mutating into everything else, without any logical continuity of scale, meaning, context. Needless to say, the artist's pet obsessions are all there, and Bickford's "fanciful little cartoons" often take on quite the macabre and bloody form.

But the movie wouldn't be as great as it is, if it didn't do more than just allowing Bickford's creations to speak for themselves. Indeed it does much more, gently guiding us inside Bruce's daily life and his personal universe: Bruce's father plays another important role in the movie, and through his recollections and musings we are treated to an extremely intimate view of the context in which Bruce grew up. He also has Alzheimer; perhaps thanks in part to the fact his mind is on the way to deterioration, his reflections on life, death, philosophy, creation are truly moving and arrestingly honest.

The movie therefore immortalizes a wide-angle view of Bruce Bickford's personal and artistic universe as one single thing, showing us the incredible work of an unknown master with none of the typical artistic hype and self-consciousness. It is a beautiful testament to pure dedication; to a refusal to be restricted by social and cultural norms; to a poignant communion with the depths of one's own life, reshaped by the magic of imagination.

I sincerely hope that Bruce Bickford, during his own life, will succeed in his recent efforts to market his work more effectively. But even if he doesn't, filmmakers Brett Ingram and Jim Haverkamp have created a lasting tribute, a respectful, beautifully crafted portrait of a rare being and his art a memory of his passage through the world.