Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Film Review--CAS'L' (2010)

Is Bruce Bickford even human? I’ve seen pictures of the guy and he appears to be of my species, but what Earth-bound mind could possibly conceive of the monstrosities born of his work? Between his hands and a ton of clay lies a magical, undulating world of Bickford’s unique vision that is, at once, violent and sexual, disturbing and beautiful, and always complete genius.

Bickford’s public body of work is unfortunately slim, but by no means does this indicate a stagnant artist. Instead, the detail needed to create these figures and landscapes demands extreme labor and patience. Eighteen years of that patience resulted in the astounding CAS’L’, forty-five minutes of contained insanity and animated wonder. While Bickford’s style hasn’t changed much since his word first appeared to a relatively mainstream public in the Frank Zappa film, Baby Snakes, the scope of CAS’L’ is far more broad and fully realized than anything he has ever created.

Trying to glean a plot from CAS’L’ is a fool’s game, one that I won’t pretend to play. Bickford works off of themes and blunt-force imagery, not story. CAS’L’ moves like a river as clay overtakes clay in waves on mayhem, rising up to consume what came before and waiting to die by the grostesquery that follows. The style lends an impression of stream-of-consciousness while being anything but spontaneous. Bickford’s clay animation is as deliberate as you’ll find; it had better be because once a figure is gone, it’s destroyed forever.

Bickford’s morphing, bleeding style isn’t some gimmick he uses to overshadow second-rate work; he has it down to a science. It’s often said that, in art, it’s important to have a broad enough perspective to kill your babies. On that level, Bickford is a serial murderer. Committing gleeful infanticide with every meticulously constructed frame, his figures are born and eat, then killed and eaten to make way for a rebirth in a different, equally hungry form. Giant nude women wielding swords yield to tiny versions of themselves, who are then smashed into hamburger (or, more accurately, a hamburger) to be eaten by a living human and have their insides poured onto the landscape to recollect as a group of gun-toting Sandinistas built to wreak even worse havoc on the next generation.

We get four loose slices of this world that have only a tenuous connection to one another. The interpretation of each scenario is certainly up for debate, but themes of war and consumption are ever-present. Whether you’re watching a rendition of the Globe Theater or perusing the outskirts of the “Crum’L’ Brand Criminal Cigarette” factory, you can be guaranteed of three things: swords, blood, and clay devouring clay. Everything moves in and out of each other; it’s an awe-striking thing to behold. Colorful and creative on one hand a virtuosic level of detail on the other, CAS’L’ is a nearly perfect balance between the aesthetic and the technical.

Great as Bickford’s images are, CAS’L’ is silent on its own and would be slow to watch, let alone to market, without a top-notch soundtrack. In 1979, that was provided by Zappa. Today, that duty falls to Greg McClellan, who edited the film in addition to writing the music, playing bass and keyboards, performing the sound effects, and appearing in the film as “Giant with Swords.” Fairly, McClellan is no Zappa (who ever has been?), but that doesn’t change his impact on the film. Along with Bill Barkley on guitars and Daren Pullen on drums and percussion, McClellan provides a Carl Stalling-esque mash-up of styles, from flamenco to jazz to metal and just about anything in between. The seconds-long snippets of music remind me of Mike Patton’s Fantomas or John Zorn’s Naked City projects (comparisons that couldn’t be more complimentary), and add levels of humor and irony that do nothing but enhance the often nasty, always hilarious effect of the film.

I loved CAS’L’ from top to bottom and start to finish. I can’t say I understand every little thing about it, but I don’t want to. CAS’L’ is an aesthetic feast, a film that should be seen by far more than ever will. No matter how many eventually witness Bickford’s greatness, art like this is two decades well spent.