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GOCRITIC! Animafest Zagreb 2019

GoCritic! Shorts Review: Suzan Pitt Retrospective at Animafest Zagreb


- We look at the work of Suzan Pitt, the recipient of Animafest Zagreb's Lifetime Achievement Award who very recently died at the age of 76

GoCritic! Shorts Review: Suzan Pitt Retrospective at Animafest Zagreb

(Note: Between the writing and publishing of this text on the retrospective of one of the greatest and most original animators who ever lived, we learned that Suzan Pitt had died at the age of 76.)

Imagine peeping through a keyhole and seeing a wild green asparagus garden. Imagine. Imagine a woman's head coming into view, bending down over the asparagus, caressing it, slowly performing fellatio on it. Do you see it?

This moment, which marks the climax of Suzan Pitt’s legendary, entirely hand-drawn work Asparagus from 1979, might be considered representative of the American filmmaker whom Animafest Zagreb has decided to honour with the Lifetime Achievement Award this year. The prolific artist, who has directed and animated some 10-15 films thus far (the number varies greatly depending on the source – not even Pitt’s website lists every single title), started out as a painter and then expanded her artistic range to animation, performance art and painting on clothes to much critical acclaim. Many of her works are now part of international collections all around the world, including that of the MoMA in New York City.

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Almost all these forms of artistic expression are clearly visible in Asparagus. There’s a loosely knit storyline which revolves around a woman living alone, tending to a puppet house closely resembling her own home, attending an illusionistic opera performance and, upon returning home, getting naked to go into the aforementioned garden. However, rather than an actual narrative per se, the surreal world the woman inhabits is more an associative amalgam of related ideas focusing on the importance of autonomous, self-chosen sexual desire and the reality-changing quality of art.  For example, the illusionistic opera performance involves the drawing back of at least ten different curtains, before the audience looks straight into an optical illusion in the form of a seemingly never-ending gyre.

In Jefferson Circus Songs (1973), another film dating from this period with a focus on the transformative effects of performance, live action is blended with animation, in a playful and surprising style. Whilst the mundane – a woman taking the train – is conveyed through animation, the fantasy-like enactments of bizarre gestures are performed in live-action, with children playing adults. The sheer number of gestures – one of them includes a nurse feeding anthropomorphic bird eggs in a basket – makes Jefferson Circus Songs one of Pitt's less penetrable films.

Many of the films shown in this retrospective centre on women or are told from a female protagonist’s point of view, such as Crocus (1971) or Visitation (2011). While Crocus, a paper cut-out animation, once again explores sexual needs – though in an unusually intimate family setting where sex is just as much a part of everyday life as looking after a crying child at night – Visitation is a rather ruminative film. It was shot on black-and-white 16mm Bolex, resulting in a grainy image, which emphasises its dark subject of spirits leaving and entering (mostly female) bodies, some of which are cast into fire – a reference to the burning of witches in the Middle Ages. With these witches featuring among its protagonists, Visitation is one of the rare films made by Pitt to reference specific historic periods.

Joy Street

However, one of her boldest works to be shown in Zagreb was Joy Street (1995), a film about a woman grappling with depression. Her suffering, which culminates in a suicide attempt, is contrasted with a little figurine on her ashtray looking like a distorted Mickey Mouse, which comes to life and discovers her seemingly lifeless body. Though he is introduced as a miniature caricature at first, he grows huge and evolves into the film’s most animated character, charged with the mission of resuscitating the woman by reconnecting her to untouched, wild nature. As the story unfolds, Joy Street’s tonality alternates between drama and comedy, thus achieving an astonishing feat: it acknowledges the abyss-like quality of depression brought on by urban isolation, whilst preserving the hope that nature and/or art can heal or at least alleviate this pain.

What connects many of the films shown in the retrospective is Pitt’s refusal to reproduce stereotypes and her embracing of often abstract and psychedelic surrealism. This aspect of her work is indebted to a variety of cultures, specifically the tropical forests of Mexico and Guatemala which Pitt travelled to in order to paint, courtesy of a Fulbright scholarship, and where she battled with bouts of depression. She was then able to channel this experience and her new-found love for remote areas on the borders of civilization into the aforementioned Joy Street, further strengthening yet another trademark of her work: an intense form of intimacy that can be felt throughout her artistic career.

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