Pencil test for some clown bell-handlers for a boxing match in my new film. Ballpoint pen on paper.
Some clown sketches for my new film. One scene combines my two loves: Clowns & boxing.
The following is an essay I wrote for Dr. David James’ class ‘Avant-Garde Cinema’ at USC in the fall of 2013. The subject being Peter Millard:
Peter Millard: Avant-Garde, Unmensch, Boogodobiegodongo
Peter Millard is an animator hailing from the Malvern Hills, England but resides and works in London. His heavily stylistic and absurdist work has been exhibited around the world in the most prestigious of animation festivals as well as galleries. The nature of his work defies any true categorization but the following is an attempt to place it within the context of the Avant-Garde. He will be compared with dominant trends during and shortly after the birth of animation as well as those of modernism. A particular emphasis will be put on his most recent film Boogodobiegodongo, its content, form and structural implications.
In the 1870s in France, the term Avant-Garde, while preserving its broader political meaning, came to designate the small group of advanced of writers and artists who transferred the spirit of radical critique of social forms to the domain of artistic forms (Calinescu, 112) However sympathetic these artists might have been to radical political ideas they sought to focus their attention on radicalizing the very form of their artistic practice for they chose to believe that to revolutionize art was to revolutionize life itself. This was a conscious effort to turn away from the stylistic expectations of the public and was a sharp contrast to the revolutionary propaganda that other political radicals were employing to win over the common man (Calinescu, 112). It is worth noting that almost all future-oriented ideologues across the political spectrum adapted the term at the time, from Marxists to Saint-Simonians to Anarchists, compromising its use significantly, (Calinescu, 114) but in this paper I will use the term as first described for the sake of clarity.
Animated works, in particular the mainstream cartoons of the 1920s and the 1930s, have long been the focus of political debate as well as the source of admiration for fine artist, the most famous of which being the surrealists. The utopian implications of the early Disney shorts were not lost on intellectuals of the time including Walter Benjamin. In 1931, the same year as a small (and at the time insignificant) Nazi minority railed against the ever-popular Mickey Mouse and his hold on German youth, Benjamin wrote a fragment titled “Zu Mickey-Maus” in which he briefly defends early Mickey Mouse cartoons as rejections of the civilized bourgeois subject (Leslie, 81). His reading only makes sense, the Mickey mouse of the time was a curious rodent, neither respectable nor subordinate and his world was inhabited by impossible contractions such as anthromorphisized machinery as well as Mickey’s own body who could be changed at will to perform (almost) any desired function. The Mouse in this incarnation fit perfectly with the ideals of the modernists, something which Benjamin further addressed that same year in his essay “Karl Kraus”where he claims that “The prototype for emulation for any self respecting modernist is not the Ubermensch but the Unmensch, the un-person, the barbarian.” (Leslie, 81)
A logical evolution of this idea and perhaps a distant cousin of the early Mickey Mouse is Millard’s 2011 short “Hogan”, a surreal tribute to one of the best known barbarians of our age, wrestling superstar Hulk Hogan. It is not so much the subject matter as the way Millard handles it that brings the Unmensch to the foreground but it would not be preposterous to claim that the film is the perfect marriage of form and subject. Taking his cue from the morphing body of the stars of the early animated shorts, Millard creates a world previously unheard of, not concerned with even the dream-logic of the early Disney shorts in which however distorted things may become, they always return to normal. Millard abandons all such concepts in favor of maximum distortion both of story and the physical form of his characters. His drawings are childlike, not only in the sense that they are crude and that the color does not always fit within the lines but because of the extraordinary freedom he displays in his creation of them. Were a “self respecting modernist” to successfully emulate this, there is no telling where it might take him or her.
Millard animates using mostly the “straight-ahead” method in which drawings are done in the sequence in which they appear, often resulting in changing volume and escalating distortions. This method forms a sharp contrast to what was and is the standard method of mercantile animation production in which a series of ‘key drawings’ are inbetweened. The latter method is ideal for mass production as well as planning scenes and maintaining the illusion of realistic characters through the consistency of volume. Straight-ahead, on the other hand, makes any planning a nightmarish ordeal and intrinsically favors madness and distortion. A barbarian needs not much time to choose between the two. Millard says the following about his process and his inspirations:
I’m a big admirer of the animator Bruce Bickford whose films are hard to watch but not hard to admire due to his process and the amount of work and energy that goes into his films. He is a personal big influence on my philosophy of how animation should be approached. Another big influence of my work is improvised jazz music such as Charles Mingus and Don Cherry, as their approach to making Jazz music is something that i feel can be transferred to myself when making my drawings which I think is becoming more apparent the more confident I’m becoming with the medium.
In Part One of Hogan, a drawn Hulk Hogan floats across the screen, a distorted, ever morphing being, that both encounters himself and eats his own hand. He sounds like an airplane while reassuring slogans appears on the screen. “Hogan knows best”, “Yes” and “Hulkamania” and he is fueled by eggs and protein. Part Two features mock-enlightenment in which a soothing sitar plays over a continuously morphing Hogan-head. In Part Three, Hogan rips his own head off. The crowd cheers, he morphs and finally stares into an unseen pond. Hogan comes apart and so does our image of him as Millard distorts him physically and even violently pulls him apart.
Millard’s attitude and by extension his method relates to another Benjamin piece, also written in 1931 - The Destructive Character:
The destructive character is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates in clearing away the traces of our own age; it cheers because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition….. The destructive character has the consciousness of historical man, whose deepest emotion is an insuperable mistrust of the course of things and a readiness at all times to recognize that everything can go wrong.
Through his medium, Millard embodies this ideal. Equally in tune with the the aforementioned modernist aspiration of the Unmensch andthe idea of the destructive characteris an earlier film by Millard, Custard (2010) which Millard wrote in a stream of consciousness diary before making any drawings. The film features a flock of ducks prominently which Millard describes as such:
The Ducks featured throughout the film and are the cement of the short that keep everything together. They are the bully of the banana who is a helpless object a bit like a turtle fallen on its back that cannot be helped. This feeling of helplessness was something that popped up a bit while writing the film.
The scene he mentions is a memorable one: A giant banana with a face lies on the ground wailing as the ducks stare at him intensely. The film also features television set displaying the headline “More Bad News” next to a picture of a duck as a horrified newscaster screams for his life as the television that literally houses him, crumbles into nothing. A lion drinks milk casually and so does an elephant. The people in the film, with the exception of the newscaster and Santa Claus, are as nude as the animals. There is no resolution to any of this, the film simply ends with the wailing banana. Anything can happen, and it does. There is neither glory not triumph, just madness.
The mad visual extremities of Millard’s most recent film, Bogodobiegodongo recall a piece conceived at the very birth of animation and whose roots are perhaps more intrinsically locked with the Avant-Garde than any other animated film., Fantasmagorie (1908) by Emile Cohl. Often credited as the originator of the langue of animation, Kohl was a member of a group of radical artists called The Incoherents, a group which embraced laughter and ludicrousness. They held a show that consisted of drawings made by people who did not know how to draw and another that displayed sculptures made out of bread and cheese. There was an entirely black painting by the poet Paul Bilahaud entitled Negroes Fighting in a Cellar at Night. After the group disintegrated, Kohl maintained their attitude but as an animation filmmaker (Leslie, 2). Fantasmagorie’s protagonist is a clown. Barring the initial scene that is relatively tame, the film is entirely surreal. The clown is thrown around by a giant flower, encounters an elephant out of nowhere, is blown up like a balloon and spins around. The film is as medium-specific as those of Peter Millard and are seemingly made in very much the same spirit.
Boogodobiegodongo merges structure and nonsensical content even more successfully than even Millard’s previous films. The separation between characters, form and narrative is all but extinct here as each part, from drawings to structure and sound, march harmoniously forward into an overwhelming whole of nonsense that should be hailed as a contemporary absurdist masterpiece. The film starts with a black screen over which loud gibberish is played. Manipulated voices jolted one against another until with the sound of a gong, a completely still face appears. It is round and as simple as can be. It fills the screen and the impact of seeing this celebration of absurdist spectacle on a large screen cannot be overstated. Suddenly, the face start moving and changing color and as it does so, brass circus-reminiscent music starts playing until at title card appears, cutting out the music and replacing it with Millard’s own voice reading the title slowly as can be: Bogodobiegodongooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. Soothing music plays as a man slowly and gently rams a red stick through another man as angelic music plays, The victim splits casually. There is nothing violent about this but worry not, the next shot is of a man screaming as he rams his own fist down his throat resulting in a myriad of heads filling the screen amidst a cacophonic blast of trumpets. Things only get stranger from there. The film is interrupted about midway through via a still drawing of a man staring blankly while we are treated to a high pitched sound until his head breaks free from his body, floats around and changes color wildly. A screaming red man appears on the screen and the other head floats behind him. A yellow fist punches the red man in the eye and a multitude of figures appear out of nowhere heralded by trumpets. A new shot of a continuously morphing and spastic figure appears. It’ is completely out of control but a calm man, carrying a rod approaches it slowly. When he gets close, the mess turns into a wall with a slot in which the rod fits perfectly. He inserts itand immediately the still white man from before is restored along with the high pitched sound. Since, by now, all this has become too absurd, the film reverses the events by playing them swiftly backwards. Then: A climax of two recurring characters beating the third completely into the ground for an extended period. For Millard, these characters are particularly significant:
All three of these sequences were actually done in slightly depressing circumstances where my studio at the Royal College of Art was in a windowless basement room. Sometimes it got quite cold and I strongly remember listening to the Tom Waits song Kentucky Avenue where there is a big emotional violin part in the last quarter of the song. I remember drawing the first picture of the yellow man and just sitting there looking at him whilst I played this song really loudly. Then in silence drew the three scenes solidly over three days. So to me these three scenes represent for myself a great sadness in my head hence why I used sad violin music over that scene in the film but along with all my work I don’t mind if people don’t get that from it when watching the parts. As I work spontaneously its easy for me to reflect on these things on a more personal level than a stranger watching it. I guess in a very morbid way the beating into a pulp part is about feeling beaten up in life.
Millard’s graphic style, with the exemption of a few shots in his entire filmography, would best be described as flat. He rejects the use of shot, reverse-shot, but each scene rather unfolds using a single shot in which all characters involved are visible or appear out of nowhere midway through. When he moves on to another scene, it is always by a straight cut and to a different scene all together, related only by style and association. It is a style more reminiscent of classical Eisensteinian montage than it is of mise-en-scéne .
Eisenstein defined montage as as not an idea composed of successive shots stuck together but an idea that derives from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another. (Eisenstein, 27). A good example of this is a scene in the above mentioned Bogodobiegodongo in which the two recurring characters mentioned above, the pink man and the orange man, approach one another from opposite ends of the screen both carrying rocks. A yellow man stands in the middle. The two pass the yellow man and each other but erase him in the process (only his feet are left behind) The two men each leave the screen from the opposite end of which they appeared. The yellow feet linger on as soothing music plays. Millard then cuts abruptly to a shot of two green men, one of which is upside down, who change positions every two frames. This creates the feeling that what happened before has somehow disrupted the order of these two men, a notion further enhanced by the shot that follows in which complete chaos ensues, seemingly because of the unrelated erasing of the yellow man before.
It should be clear from the description of the shots that this is formally rather bizarre but it needs to be stressed that the animation itself matches that strangeness. The walk of the two characters is completely weightless. There is no ground represented and the character´s bodies have a mind of their own, separate from that of the legs. To put it in the simplest of terms: The walks cycle is as unusual as the scene itself. The second scene, that of the topsy-turvy men is equally unconventional, employing something more akin to a jump cut than animation in the traditional sense to create disorienting distortion and the merging of the two characters into one. Should one indeed read that scene as an intercutting between two scenes and not in fact animation, the notion of Millard’s successful use of Eisensteinian montage is further warranted. The fact that the ideas he plants in the spectator through the use of montage are as outrageously bizarre as the title of the film itself is what places him firmly within the group of those that seek to revolutionize life through the use of art.
It would be easy to attempt to dismiss all the weirdness of Millard’s work as being strange in the manner of most animation and not truly of the Avant-Garde but that would belie a significant lack of awareness of the current culture of animation in general, particularly that of today where companies such as Pixar and Dreamworks dominate the field. Those films are far removed from the connection made above between the utopian implications of early Mickey Mouse and that of the films of Peter Millard, for long gone is the time where the output by animation studios was comparable with the ideals of radical artists or drew the interest of serious intellectuals.
Peter Millard’s films thrive in the different and often overlooked world of independent animation but even within that sub-culture and its surplus of madness and radical experimentations, Millard’s work still distinguishes itself as being particularly strange and free spirited. His is the work of a man possessing the minds of a thousand un-men.
Călinescu, Matei. “The Idea of the Avant-Garde.” Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke UP, 1987. 112+. Print.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Dramaturgy of Film Form.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. By Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. 27. Print.
"Interview with Peter Millard." Online interview. 26 Nov. 2013.
Fantasmagorie. Dir. Emile Cohl. S.n., 1908. Youtube.
Leslie, Esther. Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde. London: Verso, 2002. Print.
The first three stills from the new film I am working on. About 20 seconds done of animation. More to come soon.
I am happy to announce that ‘The Pride of Strathmoor’ is an official selection for The Kurtzfilmtage Winterhur 2014 “The most important short film showcase in Switzerland”