Fever Dreamer: Suzan Pitt’s Feminist Fantasias

Fever Dreamer: Suzan Pitt’s Feminist Fantasias

Flowers and vegetables pulse, slither, and take dirigible flight; a horse becomes a pampered, petulant lover; a diminutive porcelain mouse transforms into a muscled superhero to save a beleaguered heroine: these are just some of the arresting images in the films of artist and animator Suzan Pitt, whose lushly sensuous, oneiric, and psychosexually charged work created a vital link between two cinematic worlds. On the one hand, the dark surrealism of Pitt’s early work immediately aligned her with the heady, hallucinatory cult cinema of the seventies, defined by now-classic works such as René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and David Lynch’s Eraserhead. At the same time, her meticulously handcrafted animation drew from deeper avant-garde traditions as well as her own training as a painter and background in theatrical design. Throughout her long career she remained a true multimedia artist, inventively combining techniques to realize her intricate and immersive visions, using cell animation, collage, stop-motion, and sand painting to impart a feverish energy to every frame. Her films renewed the most primal meaning of animation as a mode of bringing forth wondrous life.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Pitt displayed artistic talent from an early age, and she would remain in touch with her formative creative experiences by giving special roles to children and childlike innocents throughout her films. Indeed, Pitt frequently mentioned a creepy dollhouse from her youth as a lasting inspiration. She received her formal education at the historic Cranbrook Academy of Art, whose apprenticeship method she would extend in her own later work as a teacher and mentor, first at Harvard and then at CalArts, where she was a longtime and beloved member of that legendary faculty. Pitt’s films put the spotlight on her students, many of whom are credited in key roles, beginning with her early film Jefferson Circus Songs, made while she was teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and in collaboration with local schoolchildren who helped create their own roles.

Top of post: Asparagus; above: Crocus

A good entry point for Pitt’s cinema is her early short Crocus, which makes clear the distinctly feminist estrangement of sexuality central to her first films. Opening with the image of a naked, hirsute man emerging erect, flower-like, from a crown of leaves, Crocus is a family portrait of sorts, observing a naked woman and man engaging in foreplay until they are interrupted by a child in a crib in an adjacent room calling out for water. Rendered as limited mobility paper-doll figures, the amorous couple evokes the tender awkwardness and strangeness of physical intimacy, while the man’s comically oversized erection insists on the woman’s attention with the same total self-interest as the young boy. A telling scene makes clear the film’s playfully introspective and self-reflexive feminist stance by showing the woman as a double image, appearing within the bedroom mirror, giving a wink to the viewer and holding a Bolex camera that she uses to film her other self in bed with the man.

Subtler and more mysterious, Asparagus gives a fuller cinematic dimension to the feminist address of Crocus. The film calls to mind Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon through a ritualized unfolding of time and repeated gestures, including a looping scene in which a woman reaches into a series of inter-nested miniature living rooms. An oblique allegory of alienation and identity, Asparagus follows this faceless woman’s solemn passage through a candy-colored dreamscape of opulent boudoirs, seedy city streets, and a theater staging a hypnotic spectacle of mechanical clouds. The title is reinforced by the prominently sexualized vegetables that drift throughout the film, recurring in different sizes and situations as emblems of primitive fecundity and phallic potency. Like Deren’s experimental film noir, Asparagus uses the slenderest of narratives to structure an intensely self-contained world that turns in upon itself, architecturally and emotionally, opening boxes within boxes, rooms within rooms.

Equally striking is the close dialogue between Asparagus and the work of Lynch, whose debut feature, Eraserhead, was in fact paired with Pitt’s film during its legendary, almost two-year run of midnight screenings in New York and Los Angeles. Asparagus shares with Lynch’s film a postmodern uncertainty of historic time, a sense of pastness folded into a floating present and similarly expressed through evocative settings that meld elements from different periods: thirties Deco meets fifties Googie meets Memphis-style retro-futurism. The unspoken tension that builds across both Lynch and Pitt’s films is deepened and made viscerally palpable by their soundtracks, by the low-voltage industrial current heard throughout Eraserhead, and Asparagus’s taut and haunting electro-jazz score by Richard Teitelbaum.

But although Asparagus shares many uncanny elements with Lynch’s cinema—and even anticipates things to come in his oeuvre with heavy velvet curtains hiding alternate dimensions, a fleeting figure of a cowboy, and mysteriously beckoning lights—Pitt avoids the angst of his films. While Eraserhead centers around an unnatural birth, the monstrous baby hidden in the bedroom drawer, Asparagus provocatively opens with an unabashed display of an alternative birth: the discharge of two verdant, thick asparagus stalks from the woman’s naked crouched behind and into a toilet where they spring to life, joined by others, into a quivering garland spelling out the film’s title. In stark contrast to the oozing, shameful, queasy sexuality in Eraserhead, Pitt’s boldly frank and almost joyous display of the woman’s body leads to a climax in which the woman opens her Pandora’s carpetbag to release a strange flock of winged creatures and effulgent objects, letting loose her imagination in a gesture that lyrically affirms the artist’s generous, giving role. The final, now-iconic image of the woman fellating the asparagus goes further still by perversely and playfully offering her assertive act as transformative and creative, with the vegetable stalk turning into a cascading waterfall, an asphalt ribbon, a passage into another realm.

Asparagus’s embrace of animation as a means of creative empowerment is dramatically expanded in two other major works by Pitt, the soulful Joy Street and the melancholy yet darkly comic El doctor. Each traces a similar trajectory of a forlorn loner who finds redemption in a looking-glass world that opens before her, a world defined by pulsing and exuberant flora and fauna. In Joy Street, a woman’s suicide is magically reversed by a cartoon mouse who reanimates her limp body and carries her off to a dense Edenic jungle teeming with life and restorative powers. Anachronistically recalling the lost dreamland of studio-era cartoons by the likes of Disney and the Fleisher brothers, Joy Street conjures a bright fantasy of singing Silly Symphony flowers and elastically personified animals, where everything vibrates and bends in strange harmony. The jungle and the plucky mouse together embody Pitt’s belief in the healing and mind-expanding capacities of the animated moving image. Pitt readily acknowledged Joy Street as her most personal work and an allegory of her own struggle with depression. Taken from the Back Bay street where Pitt lived while teaching at Harvard, the film’s title points toward the voyage to recovery described by the film’s final half, which was in turn partially inspired by Pitt’s therapeutic discovery of the Central American rain forests that became the major subject of a long and heroic new phase of her painting career.

Joy Street

In El doctor, meanwhile, an alcoholic and dying physician finds final solace in visions of miraculous transformation clearly inspired by vernacular Mexican votive paintings, hand-painted images of healing traditionally left as offerings and prayers. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, a young girl suddenly blossoms with new life as a bed of flowers sprouts from head and body, their swirling tendrils dancing with spirited energy. Deliberately embracing a stylistic naiveté, El doctor found Pitt working within a mode of overtly painterly imagery that gives prominence to surface and texture, unlike the style of her earlier films, which tended to interweave hard-lined drawing and live-action elements. Painting became an important focus of the final stage of Pitt’s career, giving way to (among other works) a wonderful series of unique painted coats alive with insects and flowers and all manner of hybrid creatures, garments that at times seemed to give magical attributes to the wearer—not unlike the miracles seen in El doctor. One of Pitt’s final films, Pinball, is a dazzling display of her vision and talent as a painter—a ricocheting cascade of images that forms a mesmerizing patterned dance, set on edge by George Antheil’s score for another painter’s film, Ballet mécanique, codirected by Dudley Murphy and Fernand Léger.

Pitt’s legacy lies in the singular expression she gave to the twisting yet revelatory paths of an unfettered imagination, one that was able to draw equal inspiration from deeply personal autobiography and historical traditions of avant-garde mythopoetics. The sexual frankness of Pitt’s lyrically enigmatic films also gave a new and feminist direction to currents in underground filmmaking, offering an important counterbalance to the principally male, and not infrequently misogynistic, orientation of the counter-cinema defined by directors such as Lynch and Jodorowsky. With many of her films now available in restored versions, Pitt’s animation can now also be reassessed for its dazzling virtuosity and ability to release the fullest expressive potential of the techniques she combined unlike anyone before her. One further measure of Pitt’s legacy is her lasting influence as a teacher and mentor, clearly legible in the work of two former students and remarkable artists, the late Helen Hill and Naomi Uman, women animators who have followed Pitt’s example of an innovative multimedia artist who understood the power of animation as an empowered creative act—an act of world-making and self-affirmation.

Seven of Pitt’s films are now playing on the Criterion Channel along with the documentary Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision.

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