The Amazing Mr. Bickford

Frank Zappa’s music is not everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who can appreciate his compositions, the payoff is worth it- he always managed to combine his unique personality with a formalist desire to push musical boundaries and a rock musician’s feel for a guttural, energetic delivery. Animator Bruce Bickford is his counterpart in the world of animation: pushing the boundaries of what that art form is capable of, while letting his inner psyche roam free.

The combination of Zappa’s music with Bickford’s visuals gives you The Amazing Mr. Bickford, an intense romp through the subconscious made conscious. Written and directed by Zappa (a control freak til the very end of his days) but fully animated by Bickford, with music from both Zappa’s London Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez albums, it’s definitely a dip into both high and low art the way only these two high and low artists could manage.

There’s no story here- just a crazy visual trip of mankind’s twin favorites: sex and violence. As an artistic statement or a deep narrative, Bickford misses the mark- you’re not going to ponder the existence of life here the way you might with, say, the brilliant claymations of the great Jan Švankmajer, who has an unparalleled and driven artistic focus in everything he does. But the level of craft of both Zappa’s compositions and Bickford’s animations is the real treat here- both artists have a distinctive style that infuses their work with personality.

Bickford (since he’s the focus here) loves to animate his camera position as well as his subject, creating a stop-motion dolly that brings a 3D quality to a medium that is often composed of locked-down shots. Since his subjects, too, are ever-changing, ever-morphing, the result is a truly dreamlike scenario where nothing ever sits still, nothing ever rests. Bickford’s visual fluidity matches Zappa’s sonic one, but the tactile nature of the clay grounds the whole project- the result is dirty, earthy, crude.

At 51 minutes, Bickford is just long enough to be a real epic accomplishment (stop-motion is tedious, painstaking work) but short enough to not overwhelm you too much in its nihilistic view of humanity. Tune in, tune out, and let the experience take over.

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