Lawrence Jordan’s Sophie’s Place (1986) begins with a title card describing the etymology of the Greek word for philosophy, “philosophia.” The roots of the word are “philo,” which means to love, and “sophia,” which means wisdom. Throughout the film, Jordan depicts a variety of possible ways to love wisdom or pursue philosophy. His characters peer through eyeglasses, conduct odd experiments, attempt conversation with, measure, and transform the objects around them. The aesthetic can be described as either an animated version of Max Ernst’s Une Semaine De Bonté (1934), a connection Jordan fosters, or as a more darkly absurd version of Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python, a connection Jordan eschews. The cutouts for the film are gathered from sources that represent a variety of different approaches to accumulating knowledge. Early on we are introduced to the storyline of the alchemist’s pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, as well as animated versions of Eadweard Muybridge’s early motion studies. We also see the strangely symmetrical forms of Ernst Haeckel’s naturalism and the rigid right angles and solid forms of Euclid’s geometry.
Sophie’s Place is to be shown along with a series of recently recovered outtakes from Harry Smith’s OZ (1962) as part of Cut and Paste, a two-night screening series devoted to collage animation from North America. The other program consists of a series of short collage films curated by Jodie Mack, an accomplished collagist in her own right. In an interesting mixture of traditional animation, in which the artist constructs each image themselves, and traditional film, where the artist uses the camera to gather images from the outside world, these artists expressively manipulate images that are not their own. By extracting images from their original context and placing them within a new set of relations, these collage artists conduct a sort of playful experimentation. Each new environment brings out previously unexpressed possible meanings for each image and precludes a habituated response. If Muybridge’s main form of inquiry and experimentation could be thought of as the question “How does…?” (as in “How does this horse trot?”), then the major form of inquiry for these films could be worded as “What if…?” We are consistently asked, “What if this thing was this other thing?” (as in, “What if a hot air balloon was a face?” or “What if a goat was a house?”). In the world of “What if…?” objects and images are not analyzed in order to discover what they are, but rather are experimented upon to discover what they can be.
Within the field there are many ways of formulating this question of “What if…?”. Gretchen Hogue’s Where’s My Boyfriend? (2005) uses the Situationist technique of self-destructive appropriation to create a parade of relationship-related images from pornography, sex-ed videos, and fashion/family magazines from the 1960s. The movie asks what happens when we view images of childbirth and the happy home along with images of fucking, fornicating, and fantasizing. Throughout the video’s two minutes, the soundtrack repeatedly asks in a cartoonish voice, “Where’s my boyfriend?” Through the use of harsh juxtapositions in image and audio, and plenty of sardonic humor, Hogue’s piece bluntly displays the undercurrents of gender construction beneath her source material.
Rather than pulling back an ideological veil, Peter Burr’s Gylden Load (2007) manically layers its images—a selection of videogame characters, flash animations, and photos of people wearing Halloween outfits—creating a thick fog of pixels. As the pop music playing in the background builds to a crescendo, the unfortunate children wearing zebra and giraffe costumes get beheaded, gushing bubblegum colored blood. The image layering becomes thicker, swords and machine guns rain down from the sky, and a multicolored strobe light turns on. After a climax in which animal body parts are dropped into a meat grinder, gleefully producing a pile of skeletons, the image fades to a bright purple. As the music leaves us, replaced by the sound of waves coming in at the beach, the purple mildly shifts to pastel reds, then greens, then blues, and so on until it dissolves into black. Gylden Load’s use of collage shows that an oversaturation of the contemporary mediascape has the potential to be sublime.
Jo Dery’s Peeks (2009) obtains its imagery through a combination of hand-drawn animation, animated litter, and cutouts from the pages of National Geographic magazine. Images of construction and destruction mingle, raising the ecological issues we are by now all too familiar with. Anthropomorphic backhoes push aside the bones of dead birds, garbage is shown strewn in a field, and pigeons become see-through as if they had been irradiated. Yet, within all the destruction there is also mutation. In a witty take on the classic werewolf transformation scene, hands held up to a full moon grow veins like those on a leaf. Other hybrid moments occur, as when the jellyfish and coral begin glowing in radioactive greens, blues, and pinks. The wings of a dead bird come to life through stop-motion and nature lives on, though not unaltered. George Carlin famously called the post-global-warming world “Earth plus plastic,” and Peeks speculates as to what that type of next nature may look like.
Bringing forth possibilities, whether in objects or in images, is the goal of all experimentation— scientific or otherwise—and the question of “What if…?” is as good a place as any to begin. Watching the painstakingly constructed collage work in Cut and Paste highlights a unique form of experimentation, which, geared toward speculation and construction, can yield fascinating and unforeseen results.
Cut & Paste: Contemporary Collage Animation From North America screens at Anthology Film Archives from July 20th to 21st. www.anthologyfilmarchives.org