NB. This is a cannibalised, barely recognisable version of an article originally written in 2010 for a now-offline website. The original article holds the rare distinction of being a piece I was actually paid to write.
To the long-suffering near-masochists known as Zappa fans, the unmistakable work of Bruce Bickford is a familiar sight. Easily the best thing about Baby Snakes, his fascinating animated sequences mitigate against the longeurs of Roy Estrada and that doll. But Bickford has had a long career independently of Zappa’s patronage, and is perhaps the only outsider artist to work in the medium of animation. A personal appearance at London’s Horse Hospital in 2010 – along with a screening of the documentary portrait Monster Road and of his film Cas’l – still seemingly a work in progress at that time – offered a chance to find out more.
Monster Road, as well as being insightful, amusing, and sometimes tear-jerkingly sad, is a valuable resource for understanding this little known artist and his work. In one memorable scene, Bickford is heard on the telephone, telling a media company that he used to work with Frank Zappa in the 1970s. One imagines that they are puzzled as to who Zappa is, never mind Bickford himself. They say his work will be outsourced, much to Bickford’s bemusement. This brief segment contains two truths about Bickford: that he is somewhat out-of-step with modern ways to distribute and market one’s work, and that Zappa’s shadow still looms large over the animator, despite him having a worldview (and a technique to match) that is considerably more supple and imaginative than Zappa’s curmudgeonly burlesque. Bickford’s work bears more fruitful comparison with the work of David Lynch and Sergei Eisenstein, as I will show.
Bickford is the son of an engineer who worked for Boeing in Seattle. During the Cold War, the engineering plant was disguised using a life-size model village made of polystyrene and burlap. The documentary implies that this experience with a 1:1 scale reproduction of reality is what inspired at least some of Bickford’s surreal work – The diorama of “ye olde” London (complete with Globe theatre) that features in Cas’l being one example. Proportion, and the distortion thereof, plays a key role in shaping Bickford’s work.
Cas’l is a masterpiece of exuberantly savage cartoonish invention. It teems and pulsates, as if trying to escape the confines of the screen within which it is contained. But then, animation has, consciously or not, always been an attempt to play with or frustrate the ontological properties of film. The constant process of transformation that is the prime mover in Cas’l affects creatures and objects alike. A painter’s palette becomes a pizza; men become werewolves; a vast humanoid head becomes a hamburger, a the hamburger meat turns into human faces which are dragged to their doom by the salad, now transformed into tentacles. The figures in his film are locked in a continuous cycle of violence and rebirth. Bickford sees this in direct terms – as “action.”
His films have a moral code, he explains: When someone does something bad, something bad happens to them as quickly as possible. Just as in real life, people are constantly doing something bad – Usually his humanoid figures (whose top-heavy proportions produce hulking movements) punch each other in the face and then stab each other, releasing a torrent of crimson blood – or is it clay?
The fecund Washington State atmosphere captured in Monster Road recalls Twin Peaks. Although David Lynch’s work is sometimes used as an all-purpose touchstone for American “weirdness”, the comparison is more than skin-deep. The Green River Killer, likely the inspiration for the murders that set Twin Peaks in motion, dumped his victims in the river that Bickford’s house overlooks. Bickford’s artistic response was to create a diorama of the entire town of Twin Peaks, complete with plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer.This project is more than just a pop culture reference or tribute to a hero – Bickford found increasing parallels between his own fictionalised version of the Green River murders and Twin Peaks. His protagonist, Detective Copeland, is another of Agent Cooper’s doppelgangers. And of course, it’s easy to imagine the entire psychodrama of Twin Peaks being nothing more than a diorama on the work surface of an artist, with an even more violent and visceral world raging outside his studio.
Bickford’s real affinity with Lynch can be discerned in the shifting, metonymic nature of reality that they both perceive. In Eraserhead, Henry is not just a bemused new father; he’s also a planet, and his head is skin and bone – yet suitable material for making pencil erasers. A radiator is a gateway to another world – terrifying, yet strangely alluring. In Twin Peaks, Cooper three people in one; upstanding new age FBI agent, sociopathic criminal, and soporific zombie. In Bickford’s work, as in Lynch’s, everything is simultaneously something else, or just about to turn into something else.
The constant metamorphosis on display in Bickford’s work recalls Sergei Eisenstein’s later Symbolist-inspired writings, especially his work on Disney. Eisenstein was of course a cartoonist early in his career, and never lost the knack for the subversive levity offered by the cartoon. Although vintage Disney is wince-inducingly twee when viewed today (the anarchic Looney Tunes stand up much better) Eisenstein divined in these cartoons a liberating plasmaticism; characters are able to change form, size and proportion. He posited a yearing for an abundance of forms, linked in a chain but sometimes evolving to the point of incompatibility, as a universal human feeling, a feeling in which some utopian potential may be glimpsed. If, as Paul Klee once said, “drawing is taking a line for a walk”, then while Eisenstein takes a concept for a walk, Bickford takes the chaotic, destructive side of our nature for a joyride. There are no answers from Bickford as to why this behaviour is so violent, just endless reconfigurations of the same problem (cf. the final episode of Twin Peaks: The Return).
Bickford’s caustic sense of humour is at its most telling in the opening of his 1988 film Prometheus’ Garden, where an opening title proclaims “This film contains much graphic violence: Viewer discretion advised.” Below these words, one figure disembowels another. Despite Bickford’s moral conviction to supporting the little guy against the big bully, violent death in his films seems to have a levity that it is rarely accorded in the moving image, or at least an entirely different kind of levity to the guffawing splatterpunk of Sam Raimi and Quentin Tarantino. Bickford, like Victor Frankenstein, is a modern Prometheus; he can make yet more unruly figures from clay, who, like the original Prometheus, and ultimately like us, will take their place in an eternal cycle of evisceration.