There were so many things on at this year’s Flatpack festival that I wanted to see, but in the end I could only go for one night, so I really got just a snapshot of the five day event. What I did see was great – well organised, well attended and really well curated. Amongst the short film and animation programmes I caught, highlights included Peter Millard‘s deranged drawn animation Hogan, Allison Schulnik‘s claymation Mound, and a rare screening of Really Rosie, Maurice Sendak’s 1975 collaboration with Carole King. The standout event for me though was the Suzan Pitt retrospective and Q&A which took place on the final day of the festival at recently refurbished arts centre mac.
Pitt’s four short animated works screened chronologically. The 1979 visionary classic Asparagus played first, and it was great to see it on the big screen for the first time. The film seems to have been made directly from the unconscious, with its heightened atmosphere and vivid colours depicting a world beyond language or rational thought. If ever there was a film to show the unique way that animation can depict the inner space of our minds, Asparagus would be it.
Following that came Joy Street, which as with several of her other films took Pitt several years to make, and was completed in 1995. In her talk after the screening Pitt explained how making the film helped her out of a period of depression, starkly depicted in the first part of the film. The film’s climax recalls images and sensations from her time in the rainforest, which she associated with the idea of redemption and a sense of primal joy. A richly atmospheric score by the Jazz Passengers and Debbie Harry is also utilised to great effect.
Following Joy Street came El Doctor (2006), which takes a slightly different tone to her other work, and which was co-written with her son. El Doctor revolves more around character and story than the other films, and was inspired by the time Pitt spent in Mexico, the people she met there and the prevalent belief in miracles. If at first the more humorous tone of the film might suggest it is more throwaway than the others, one is soon immersed in its world and the richness of its textures and details. Whilst it differs from the others by taking place outside as opposed to inside the head, there is as much depth and weirdness in El Doctor as any of her work.
The final film of the screening was a new piece, entitled Visitation, made in 2011. Made more quickly than her previous films (it took a year), using a 16mm Bolex camera setup in her garage, the film stands out for its monochrome darkness, its rougher energy and uncompromisingly weird and unsettling imagery. Like Asparagus it plugs you straight into the netherworld of the unconscious, but this time of an altogether scarier and more alien variety. Inspired by the experience of reading Lovecraft for the first time while staying in a remote cabin with wolves howling outside, the film captures a Lovecraftian sense of primordial terror perfectly. The experience of watching it is like that of a half remembered, highly disturbing dream. Puzzling, terrifying activities are glimpsed amid dark abstracted shapes and a wonderful industrial soundscape made by Pitt herself grinds on throughout. Visitation is as good, if not better, than anything Suzan Pitt has made, which is saying something. It shows the potential of animation as an artform and her own mastery of the medium. I take great inspiration from the way she only makes films when she needs to, letting them happen organically, and how she constantly tries new approaches whilst remaining completely true to herself.
Suzan Pitt is showing her films and discussing them at the Horse Hospital on 31 March – don’t miss it!