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Ever since the onslaught of those racially questionable California Raisins, claymation has gotten an incredibly bad rap. Ask any fan of the stop motion cartoon format and you'll hear responses as varied as a love for the work of Henry Selick (not really involved in clay, but that's excusable) to a retro relishing of the kid vid kookiness of that little green guy Gumby. Some may even know the overall resume of Art Clokey or the numerous individuals he influenced, like the aforementioned Raisins' Will Vinton. Sadly, it's a safe bet that one name barely mentioned will be that of the stunning surrealist, Bruce Bickford. Noted for his work in Frank Zappa's concert craziness Baby Snakes, Bickford was at one time the avant-garde rocker's personal animator. Predating efforts like Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time", the duo combined mind bending music with visually morphing animation to suggest a deeper social and philosophical subtext to Zappa's sometimes insular compositions. But while experimental virtuoso is a legend today, his clever collaborator is all but forgotten, locked away in his own little world of constant personal production. With the arrival of the wonderful film Monster Road, it may indeed be time for a Bruce Bickford rebirth. Yet the artist himself might argue that he never really arrived in the first place.
He was born in Seattle to typical post-World War II suburbanites. His father worked for Boeing, building long and short-range missile systems. Mother took care of the kids and like most women of the era, stifled her dissatisfaction with life by devoting herself to her home. By the time they were teens, the Bickford boys were a wild, uncontrollable bunch. Enjoying the idea of tormenting and teasing each other, the siblings strove to drive themselves, and their miserable mom, to total distraction. Then suddenly, the family was dissolved – kids with their mother in the family house, Dad living somewhere else, far enough away to be disregarded, close enough to still be a source of stridence. Into this messy marital arena, third child Bruce tried to introduce art. A sculptor, painter and sketch artist, he knew from an early age that he wanted to be involved in such a creative career. But it wasn't until a chance encounter with one of music's most notorious geniuses that Bruce Bickford established his craftsmanship credentials. Soon after his stint as Frank Zappa's house animator was over, Bickford more or less disappeared. Filmmaker Brett Ingram found him, feverishly working away on films that few people, if any, have ever seen. Such a discovery forms the foundation of Monster Road, a documentary that portends to present Bickford to the medium that's more or less shunned him for 30 years. But in reality, there is much, much more to the story than that.
For those hoping that Monster Road would stand as the definitive statement regarding Bruce Bickford and his amazing stop motion animated artwork, this is perhaps not the documentary for you. There is very little of the man's astounding history, barely any mention of his work with Frank Zappa or any other career successes. The clips consist mostly of material he's created in the last few years, and his life at age 59 is one of seclusion and struggle. Therefore, anyone looking for a celebration of a slighted genius as mythic mentor will be momentarily put off by filmmaker Brett Ingram's round about, impressionistic approach. Yet part of the genius of Monster Road is in its ability to argue everything about its subject – Bickford's highs and lows, his passions and his own personal pitfalls – in a way that is both completely closed off and remarkably adroit. Though the manner in which he works is never explained, by the end we totally understand his methodology. Similarly, his lack of current commerciality is never even mentioned. Yet all throughout this outstanding documentary we witness flagrant examples as to why he remains an outsider in an equally arcane arena. Unless your name is Aardman or happen to catch the entertainment eye of Tim Burton, there is very little call for the meticulous demands of stop motion today. Of course, this means there's very little work for an artisan like Bickford.
In truth, animation is just the backstory for who Bickford is today. Shut off from the rest of the world in a house his father built decades before, hidden inside a museum like collection of his various handcrafted animation elements, and dealing with both his own disassociation from the world and his dad's advancing Alzheimer's, the portrait painted is one of eternal optimism and obvious defeat. Ingram is wily in the way he sets up the storyline. We hear Bickford discuss his dysfunctional childhood, his parents growing distance and eventual spilt. Brothers are mentioned, and the sibling chronology (Bruce was the third son of four) is explained both logistically and psychologically. Every once in a while, archival images from a home movie, a first animation experiment, a page from a sketch pad or a collection of photographs fill the screen. Over the varying visuals, Bickford slowly, slyly walks us down the antagonistic avenues of his life. Things start to come clear. Then suddenly, quite out of the blue, he will drop a bombshell (the death of his mother, the suicide of his youngest brother) and within a single moment, the perfunctory has become the prophetic. Part of the power of Monster Road is the realization that Bickford may be biding his time, borrowing against the flow of years heavily in hopes of never having to pay it back like his Mom or siblings did. Yet as we watch him lost in his work, we fear the debt is already grown too great.
We can see it in his father's dimming eyes. George Bickford is a strange, almost dreamlike symbol in this movie. He was an aerospace engineer for Boeing whose described job found him thinking outside the box most of his life. His was a calling to create solutions where none were apparently obvious, to solve problems that, chess like, may occur several moves down the flood of failures. As a result, he was arrogant and confrontational, dealing with his family in ways that left scars and sacrifices. Now, at his advanced age, his mind is melting. Memories are weak and the ability to remember even dimmer. Bruce must visit him frequently, taking him to the store, making sure he's fed and that his bills are paid. Such a role reversal may seem like sweet vindication for someone who has always felt persecuted by their parent, but caring for one's addled adult guardian is a burden of unbearable heaviness. It creates all manner of unspoken resentment, and transforms all involved into shapeshifting shadows of their actual selves. Ingram is wise to focus mainly on this relationship, giving both Bruce and George an individual forum to vent and explain. The result is an eye-opening look into another person's problems, a chance to view the undeniably depressing truth about how well being, and by extrapolation, the world, can simply sit and watch you permanently pass by.
In fact, it's the story of Bruce's entire life. Those who remember his work with Zappa will be delighted to know that he's still plugging away at his obtuse, unusual cartoons. Like illustrated indictments against everyone whose wronged him, or frame-by-frame manifestations of how unfair the art world can be, Bickford brings to life tableaus that are simultaneously coherent and insane, telling straightforward stories via allegory, metaphor and splatter-filled stop motion simile. As he sits in his makeshift studio, complaining about its inefficiency as a creative space and repetitiously moving his figures to imitate movement, we see a man lost in his own unique universe, a place that gives him as much joy as it did decades before. In essence, its Bickford's escape, his connection to his true self, a lifeline from the weight of being Dad's babysitter, nursemaid and protector. Giggling to himself when a potential job offer must face a "committee" decision, or loping a gas soak lighted rag around his head like some kind of beaten down shaman, Bickford finds bliss in the most extraordinary places, be it standing on his roof or walking down the title avenue. As with most artists, his is an existence of the mind, a fixation constantly seeking a source of expression. The battles he must face to forge ahead are intense, but that's the main point of Monster Road. If art were easy, it wouldn't be so remarkable. In Bickford's case, its manufacture appears to be a matter of life or death. Imagine how that renders the results.
Bright Eye Pictures provides Monster Road with an amazingly sharp and exceptionally clear 1.33:1 full screen image. The colors are vibrant and the details are dense. Moving between several stock elements – film, video, and animation – the DVD delivers a consistently professional picture. For a low budget effort with minimal financial backing, this is a wonderful looking transfer.
Sonically, there is nothing to get shook up about here. The Dolby Digital Stereo is steady, no drop out or aural errors around to ruin the narrative. Shark Quest provides an empathetic score that reflects the emotions and situations expertly. It's flawlessly mixed into the clear conversations, providing a seamless auditory experience.
Consisting of some deleted scenes and a selection of animated efforts from Bickford, the added content on this DVD is just delightful. Just to have the chance to see this animator's unique efforts outside the documentary setting is justification enough to check out this unusual digital presentation. Some of the footage is from early, teenage attempts at stop motion. Others are fully realized sequences from his great unseen epics. While it would have been nice to include some of his groundbreaking work with Zappa (obviously left out to avoid licensing fees) the added content here does exactly what such material should – it perfectly complements and supplements the story at hand.
Visually arresting, narratively sound and deeply depressing at times, Monster Road is a viable reason why the documentary film genre is one of cinema's most passionate and critical. Sometimes, all a filmmaker has to do is turn his camera on a subject and let their story do the telling. In this case, Bruce Bickford is such a striking human being, a man possessed of as much originality as he is overpowered by inner demons. He should be an old master by now, the kind of clever cult guru that young animators gravitate toward in order to learn from and emulate. Sadly, he seems more alone now than ever before in his creative life. Because of its power, its penchant for telling Bickford's amazing saga without relying on the formulaic facets of the biography, Monster Road earns an easy Highly Recommended. You may not know who this atypical artist is before going into the excellent overview of his life and career, but its assured you won't forget him – or his fascinating, freakish films – once his tale has been told.
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