A visit to the worlds of animator Bruce Bickford
Photographed and directed by Brett Ingram. Produced and edited by Jim Haverkamp and Mr. Ingram. Music by Shark Quest. Animation by Bruce Bickford. With Bruce Bickford and George Bickford. 80 minutes. Originally released in 2004 by Bright Eye Pictures
Available on DVD exclusively from Bright Eye Pictures.
Perched high on a hill overlooking the outskirts of Seattle, the eccentric looks down on a valley, his neighbors in the distance, the overgrowth in his yard. Tall and lanky with a stately mane of salt and pepper hair, his piercing eyes stare a hole through reality, their gaze locked in some private memory or joke, or the eternal questions of being and self. He reminds me of an actor that no one ever really cared about—Angus Scrimm
, who played the ‘Tall Man’ in the equally forgotten Phantasm
(1979). But the resemblance is purely superficial. Bruce Bickford is the real deal.
The setting is his home, a small disheveled place built by his father years ago. This is where Bruce lives and works, when not taking walks down Monster Road near Interstate 405. Years ago, there used to be a bomb shelter off of Monster Road, where, as a kid, he spent the days speculating over its design and purpose. Today it’s a ghostly reminder of a future that never came and a past that still hurts.
A documentary photographed and directed by Brett Ingram, Monster Road
(2004) takes a close, personal and darkly comic look at animator Bruce Bickford, his once-brilliant father and this haunted backwoods area, all of it apparently out of fascination and a touch of admiration for the simple, reclusive lifestyle. (Ingram first encountered the artist when he was making a student documentary on clay animators in 1996.) Clearly there’s no draw to his sense of ‘celebrity,’ as Mr. Bickford’s greatest claim to fame was a brief stint doing animated films for Frank Zappa, but that was over twenty years ago.
Above: Bickford’s worlds. (Photo by Alex Maness.) ____________________
The scenes of his clay animation that are offered in Monster Road
are eerie and poetic displays of perpetual consumption and transformation. Warriors locked in combat are gutted, their insides morphing into indescribable creatures. Large, inhuman heads eat everything in sight and rearrange in shape and size. They’re violent but mesmerizing vignettes, set to a rhythmic score by the band Shark Quest
That most of these short films have never been shown in public underlines their relevance to Mr. Bickford as deeply personal expressions and pursuits, and not purely a means of making a living. (The film never explains where or how he earns or collects his income, while any royalties from the Zappa projects must be a pittance at this point.) To the artist, only two rules apply to his work: 1) nothing is as it seems, and, 2) the ‘little guy’ must ultimately triumph over the ‘big bullies.’ From those requirements, what we glean of his childhood shapes into a portrait of a family deficient in communication, tainted by divorce and suicide, lorded over by a father who was manipulative and overbearing, James Mason in Nick Ray’s Bigger Than Life
(1956) only without (?) the cortisone.
As it appears here, the decades between high school and the present are a blur for the animator. His father George is interviewed, ostensibly to fill in the gaps, but senility has erased much of his memory making his presence an unsettling coda to a life and career of once great promise. (Hung about in his home are placards inscribed ‘George,’ perhaps to remind him of who he is.) The conflicting tenderness and distance between father and son nearly approaches that shared by Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie, in Ellen Hoyde and Albert Mayseles’s Grey Gardens
(1975), but in this case Bruce Bickford’s art may have saved them both from spiraling irretrievably into the Beale’s brand of madness.
“You see how frail people are and how everything’s just fluttering along on the edge of extinction,” Bruce says after relating the story of when his father wanted to take the family motoring up into the mountains and then drive them all off a cliff. A vision of one of his bloodied children surviving the ordeal snapped George back to reality. It’s one of several tales from the dark side, nestled in the woods near Seattle, where art and breakdown percolate beneath the bucolic exterior, in the neighborhood off Monster Road.
Copyright © 2006 by Ray Young