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100 Greatest Animated Shorts / Asparagus / Suzan Pitt

100 Greatest Animated Shorts, Featured

USA / 1979

When a film starts off with a woman defecating asparagus into a toilet and ends up with her performing what is sometimes referred to as a “sex act” on another asparagus you know you are experiencing images pulled straight from some kind of Freudian deep subconscious.

Far from being just a visualisation of somebody’s psychotherapy session however, the film is a rich and sumptuous visual treat, a psychedelic Art Deco pop art candy coloured fever dream drifting through through some unbridled impulses of female sexuality. Like rapidly gorging on a box of brightly coloured sweets, dreamlike environs drift before our eyes, places in in which every detail seems to be fighting to excite and stimulate, the projections of a character so full of longing that everything is overpoweringly stimulating.

Pitt, who teaches Experimental Animation at Cal Arts when she isn’t film making, grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. A creepy doll house that she found was an early inspiration which would later show up several of her shorts, more of that later.

As a painter experimenting with her brand of psychological surrealist work in the 1960s at modernist college Cranbrook Academy of Art, she started playing with an 8mm camera and discovered the potential of animation to turn her still work into moving narratives.

Pitt later became involved in the Expanded Cinema movement which led her to merge performance art with animation. In 1976, teaching at Harvard University, she continued to merge animation with other forms as she had her students Loops. a live film theatre performance combining film, actors and music.. Her films are often similarly multimedia, combining her trademark elaborate painted style with stop frame animation and video.

After making her a number of shorter films her breakthrough came with Asparagus, created between 1974 to 1978 while teaching at Harvard The film won many festival awards and achieved a cult profile after Pitts met film exhibitor and producer Ben Barenholtz, known as the father of the midnight movie event, still popular today. Asparagus was twinned with David Lynches similarly brain drilling ‘Eraserhead’, a double-bill that ended up screening for the 18 months at New York City’s Waverly Theater, and a similar spell at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica, California.

In Asparagus we first see a lush intro and shots of a richly detailed household environment which seem to relate to that somewhat forgotten period of 1970s style where the soft free flowing psychedelic hippie imagery of the sixties was combined with a harder Art Deco aesthetic and pre war glamour, a look that has been best preserved in the artwork and costumes of bands from the era such as Roxy Music, ELO, T Rex and Bowie.

Many of the household objects seem to take on an organic quality, often phallic, or the female version of phallic, of which apparently there isn’t a direct equivalent, the closest word being the little used “yonic”,(which is further evidence of a patriarchal society I would have thought ). To be honest I don’ t think Ill ever look at a sofa or a handbag in the same way again.

Everything in the rooms seems luxurious as the woman wanders aimlessly through her world, a sexually frustrated rich bored trophy wife perhaps? Spoiler alert: the woman hasn’t got a face. Is she in some sense not human, through being treated as just another precious object, a doll in this exotic collection ?

We see her straddle the toilet, some asparagus falls into the water underneath her. She then moves in front of a window where giant vivid plants scroll past as if she is a small doll in a toy train. She sees a giant woman, to scale with the plants (her true natural self? ) walk around nakedly, caressing the asparagus stalks.

The woman inside looks into a dolls house, a miniature version of her house, in which there is another dolls house and inside that another one and so on.

The woman puts on a female mask , (her make up?), packs her handbag which seems to be from the same yonic designer as the armchairs, and goes to a theatre, which is a tremendously detailed stop motion set featuring hundreds of moving figures in the audience. The crowd are all viewing a huge organically pulsating tunnel onstage, the woman sneaks backstage and opens her handbag releasing her sexually charged objects into the atmosphere to float into the auditorium, like some kind of act of sexual terrorism it seems to stimulate excitement in the audience.

She returns home and takes an asparagus erotically into her mouth, it emits a worm glow of life and turns into fireworks, a furry caterpiller and a curly living strip of something or other which was probably chosen , like a lot of other things in the films, as it was difficult and interesting to animate.

Like the work of David Lynch, with a deliberate lack of any easily digestible straightforward narrative , Pitts films are deliberately opaque and hard to read, falling somewhere between dream and reality and playful and disturbing, and instead aim to provoke a deeper subconscious response. For some viewers this lack of spoon feeding can create a kind of fear and discomfort with something that can never be fully understood on a simple level or logically analysed on a more academic level. Such bombardments of surrealism, deliberate anti logic and deep unfiltered fears and desires can provoke a retreat into simplistic dismissals. In the case of this film traditional feminist theory is an obvious reaction to project on it , accusations that for instance the imagery reinforces patriarchal and phallocentric values and a suggestion that this particular box of chocolates should perhaps carry a warning : “May Contain Penis Envy”.

Pitt is quoted as explaining her angle on this; “I am basically a heterosexual woman and that’s my experience: a man with a woman and my being a woman. That’s what I see. Someone with a different sexual experience would say it in a different way perhaps. I’ve always felt that I was a mixture of masculine/feminine traits. A lot of artists do… I always felt I was third sex. “

Pitt further explains the asparagus motif which appears throughout the film , “ I don’t see an asparagus as purely phallic. I love the way it looks when its coming out of the ground because it’s completely formed, it stands up, looks ancient and yet fresh at the same time. But as it goes through its metamorphosis it grows up to become this beautiful, ethereal, wafting-in-the-wind fern, which is more feminine “ and that the character ‘wants so much to touch it, to embrace it, to make contact with it, to understand it’.

She has also described Asparagus as “a visual poem that is an erotic allegory of the creative process, in which a woman views and performs the passages of artistic discovery.”

After Asparagus, Pitt went on to a career as an animator and painter that is still going strong, highlights included further award winning films Joy St (1995, 24 mins) , El Doctor (2006, 23 mins) and a number of shorter pieces. Perhaps the main reason Pitt has produced relatively few films in these decades is the long running times combined with the amount of work involved in the richness of the content. Other works of note were sequences for the music video of Peter Gabriel’s Big Time (1987 ) ( at that time a Peter Gabriel video was a high accolade for an independent animator) and stage design and animation for the operas Damnation of Faust and The Magic Flute in Germany. She has had major exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of Art, the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York, and the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Short documentary about Pitt and her working methods :

Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!

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