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Case Number 10563: Small Claims Court

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El Doctor, Joy Street And Asparagus

First Run Features // 2006 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // January 4th, 2007

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All Rise...

Judge Bryan Pope doesn't know the definition of high art, but he sure loves his velvet painting of Elvis.

The Charge

The wonderfully strange and surreal animation of Suzan Pitt.

The Case

It's anyone's guess why "Asparagus" begins with the heroine sitting on the toilet excreting asparagus stalks before flushing. Is this artist Suzan Pitt as critic of her own work or as commentator on the creative process? Is she daring viewers raised on a diet of mainstream animated pabulum to step into her skewed world, or is she just pulling their collective leg? Only Pitt knows for sure, but any of these are reason enough to check out El Doctor, Joy Street & Asparagus, a bizarre collection of her animated shorts.

Pitt's carefully measured mix of the absurd and the grotesque permeates this ticker tape celebration of her imagination, but it is her fascination with the thin line between the pretty (a meticulously rendered rainforest) and the profane (bloody corpses floating like driftwood) that elevates her work above "adult animation" and into the realm of art. As much as Ralph Bakshi might disagree, his juvenile movies can't hope to approach the subversive, gorgeous, even poetic heights of Pitt's work.

The 20-minute "Asparagus," from 1979, ran for two years with David Lynch's Eraserhead on the midnight movie circuit, and it's hard to imagine two works better suited for each other. Both are perplexing nightmares on celluloid that shunned mainstream acceptance only to be analyzed for the next several decades.

Exploring the corners of Pitt's fractured imagination, the dreamlike "Asparagus" conjures the weirdest inventions. Pitt's faceless tour guide through this house of horrors chooses one expressionless face from a closet containing many before attending the theater. She touches a child's dollhouse and becomes wrapped in an Escher-esque conundrum. She performs fellatio on phallus-like asparagus stalks. What, exactly, is Pitt saying? Hell if I know, but just try to look away.

Pitt's short is by turns sinister and surreal, employing a multitude of animation techniques—traditional cel animation, stop-motion, puppetry, you name it—to realize her vision. The result is a series of compositions so dense and ideas so multi-tiered that "Asparagus" demands multiple viewings.

This acclaimed work catapulted Pitt into the cultural spotlight by taking top honors at the Atlanta Film Festival and the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, and winning the International Critic's prize. It was also featured in the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in Japan and the Cardiff International Animation Festival in England.

The lyrical "Joy Street" (1995, 24 min.) moves to a different rhythm than "Asparagus," and it's every bit as arresting. It bounces fearlessly between two emotional extremes, but its linear narrative makes it perhaps the most accessible of Pitt's shorts.

A woman on the verge of suicide finds an unlikely savior: a mouse figurine come to life. The woman's despair is offset by an extended musical sequence featuring the dancing rodent, a sequence that immediately calls to mind Warner Bros.' zany cartoon shorts from the '30s. It's a fun moment that offsets Pitt's realistically grim exploration of a woman facing a crisis of self. Her journey back to the land of the living is scored by the Jazz Passengers (Debbie Harry's "When the Fog Lifts" plays over the end credits).

The short premiered at the New York Film Festival, competed at Sundance, and won Best Short Film at the Naples Film Festival. It also took home the San Francisco International Film Festival's Golden Gate Award.

Pitt's most recent effort, 2005's "El Doctor," is an unholy marriage of styles. The 23-minute short is like a Ray Carver story directed by Terry Gilliam based on designs by Crumb. It is softened by Pitt's humanity, a quality that "Joy Street" also had in spades. In fact, the two works have much in common. Like "Joy Street," "El Doctor" is a study of a person at a crossroads. This time, it's a Mexican physician ravaged by age and alcoholism. Salvation again arrives, but this time in something other than the form of a dancing mouse.

As before, Pitt isn't content to rely on a single animation technique. She borrows heavily from Mexican folk art and creates varying moods using chalk, sand, crushed paper, and images painted directly on to 35mm film. The results are breathtaking. Imagine what Pitt's colorful, off-kilter point of view could do with, say, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.

Pitt may not be the most prolific of artists, but her credentials are impeccable. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholar Award, three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Rockefeller Fellowship. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center, The Museum of Modern Art, and Amsterdam's Filmmuseum.

El Doctor, Joy Street & Asparagus is not for all tastes, but highly recommended for anyone who ever resented being forced to stay inside the lines.

The three shorts on El Doctor, Joy Street & Asparagus are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with Dolby 2.0 Mono sound, and it's a clean, entirely pleasant presentation in terms of both video and audio. Pitt's work relies strongly on color, and this transfer preserves her compositions nicely.

The package includes a 27-minute documentary, "Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision," that provides the artist's firsthand account of creating all three works. The intelligent, articulate Pitt recalls the details of her creative process with remarkable clarity. Informative and engaging. Also included is a brief biography for Pitt, notes, and galleries for each of the three works included on this disc.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Animation
• Cult

Distinguishing Marks

• "Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision"
• Galleries
• Director's Notes
• Biography

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