Frank Zappa Presents: The Amazing Mr Bickford

By Andy Gill

Q, July 1993

Video For Nations. 52 mins

Mr Bickford is Bruce Bickford, the plasticine animation genius responsible for the video to Zappa's City Of Tiny Lights. That's not
included here, but what is undoubtedly merits the epithet "amazing". We're introduced to Bicktord via his studio, where the camera pans across shelves of little figures and dives into a drawer crammed with a crowd, literally hundreds of tiny heads, each with their own tiny individual expression. Suddenly we're into the animation proper, initially a relatively straight colonial altercation between natives and explorers which degenerates into a bloodbath. Then, via a drawn sequence at food-fart smells emerging from a toilet (don't as), we reach the main “story", which, set to a succession of Zappa orchestral pieces, unfolds as a daydream: bulbous little vehicles career across a living landscape, legions are butchered indiscriminately, the devil's head pops out of a pinball machine, that kind of thing. It's hard to follow: narrative threads of relative normalcy establish themselves for a while, then someone's head turns into a bridge and a little bulbous car drives up their nose. Don't you just hate it when that happens? The sheer technical effort involved is staggering: sculpted animation is about as labour-intensive as art gets, and here Bickford's camera tracks, pans and zooms even as the entire landscape mutates, a pulsing mass of protoplasm in constant flux. It's a formidable achievement, without even considering the bizarre nature of Bickford's imaginative flights, which at times are like Hieronymus Bosch meeting Salvador Dali in a Van Gogh field, only in three dimensions. Like the box says: Amazing. ★★★★★

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