SIFF 2004: UNSUNG ANIMATORS, RETRO-ROCKERS AND DOGME DIRECTORS

“In Your Hands” (“Forbrydelser”) is an intentionally “feel-bad” Dogme 95 film from Danish director Annette Olesen, concerning a Lutheran priest and her tug-of-war between personal control and religious faith. Anna (Ann Eleonora) works from the chapel of a tough, drug addled women’s prison. Families pass smack to inmates during visitation sessions, before recipients stuff such wares into their privates and distribute them to addicted peers. Despite these dire circumstances, Anna maintains faith in her mission. “A prison priest has to help prisoners with the guilt they bare,” she explains. “Help them to find absolution.”
Immediately, we’re informed that “In Your Hands” is capable of casting us into uncharted territories and making unexpected turns. For instance, Olesen presents Anna as something more than your typical buttoned-down, overly pious priest. The character is seen making love, questioning her beliefs, and revealing a host of human foibles and vulnerabilities. When this woman of the cloth becomes pregnant – and a pediatrician informs her that the fetus might be damaged due to a chromosomal abnormality – her initial elation turns to fear.
Enter Kate (Trine Dyrholm), a spooky new blonde inmate with the coldest stare this side of Nurse Ratched. “They say she received a vision from God,” another inmate informs Anne. Rumors abound that Kate is a healer, and when she seemingly cures an incarcerated junkie of her addiction, such gossip only intensifies. Meanwhile, cynical staffers chock it all up to drug-induced psychosis. “After awhile, on drugs,” explains one prison guard, “they start seeing angels. It’s called speed psychosis.”
“In Your Hands” ultimately studies the tragic fallout resulting from Anna’s decision to seek out Kate for help. Will the latter use her powers to ensure the safe development and delivery of Anna’s child? Olesen’s refusal to flinch from volatile subjects like abortion and romantic attraction between prison personnel and inmates, forces her sensational cast to weather some truly brutal emotional terrain.
As the conflicted priest, Eleonora is absolutely sensational. Her character protests the injustice of this predicament, venting to her husband, “I mix with junkies and murderers who have lots of healthy babies. It isn’t fair!” Later, when Anna considers the shocking nature of Kate’s original crime, she morphs from tolerant advocate to judgmental critic of the prison’s jailed inhabitants. “Even though God created us,” she informs from the pulpit, “this never absolves us of responsibility.”
Like fellow Dane director and Dogme 95 co-founder Lars Von Trier, Olesen doesn’t shy away from tragedy, and viewers raised on Hollywood-style happy endings might find her bitter denouement a downer. At a revealing Q & A following her film’s screening, however, the filmmaker suggests that this dark tone was intentional. “Danish cinema needs to reinvent tragedy,” she insists, “because it’s nearly disappeared.” “In Your Hands” definitely revives it.
Forget trendy claymation throwaways like MTV’s “Celebrity Death Match.” Before “Chicken Run” and “Wallace and Gromit” oozed onto the screen – their rubbery, playdough- constructed creations soaring to heights of popularity unmatched since the ‘60s heyday of Gumby and Pokey – there was Bruce Bickford. An obsessive-compulsive recluse whose hallucinatory, screamingly strange animation caught the eccentricity-loving eye of Frank Zappa in the seventies, Bickford opens his door to documentary director Brett Ingram for “Monster Road.”
Like “Crumb,” Ingram’s film goes beyond merely showcasing his subject’s quirky artistic genius. We’re taken deeper than that, into the Seattle-based basement studio that houses thousands of Bickford’s clay creations, laid out on flat, wooden sheets like gingerbread men about to be baked in an oven. Conquistadors prepare to do battle with green-skinned monsters. A medieval torture dungeon is home to a knife-wielding, leather-bound executioner. Armies of tiny, symmetrical clay men rest in their tins behind other armies of even smaller symmetrical clay men.
Standing on a rooftop and admiring the rustic view below, Bickford states, “I like little guys. I was a little guy. The big guys are usually the bullies. I liked Peter Pan. He was a little guy that took on Captain Hook.” Immediately, we sense that Bickford, like Robert Crumb, uses his art to vent insecurities and temper the sting of frustrations. In fact, the animator later verbalizes his philosophy that the world’s problems could be solved if they were worked out artistically in life, rather than with fists and weapons. “Don’t go to war,” he provides as an example of this pro-sublimation approach, “but instead, make war movies.”
Ingram suggests that Bickford’s uneasiness around people might be a catalyst for his often claustrophobic, menacing visions. The film reveals that the artist has seldom been employed, preferring to hide from the world and fine-tune clay figures in his parents’ basement during younger years. “There’s a fascination with fearful things,” he explains of his worldview. “I was a nervous kid. Things bugged me. If people knew what bugged you, they’d do it.”
Sporting a shoulder-length mane of shocking white hair that brings to mind Riff Raff from “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Bickford introduces us to George, his father. A one-time Boeing architect and engineer diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, George reveals that while his son never excelled at sports, “Bruce was the biggest tree house person.” Looming over the rat race and all of its fear-prompting complications, the younger Bickford found a safe haven among the trees. The same could not be said for one of Bruce’s troubled brothers, who resorted to suicide in 1988.
Following a recent SIFF screening of the film at Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, Bickford was on hand to field questions and give his own frank critique of “Monster Road.”
“I don’t agree with everything in the film,” he boldly admits, “but then again, I didn’t make it. In defense of the film, it’s won a few awards, so apparently, some people like it.”
He announced that Frank Zappa’s 1979 film “Baby Snakes” – which featured vintage Bickford animation and initially launched the artist to cult status – was available commercially following a recent re-release on video. Commenting on fellow under-the-radar rebel Robert Crumb, Bickford reflects on meeting the Mr. Natural creator in 1972, on Christmas night. “He was a neat guy,” remembers Bickford. “I’ve always loved his work. To me, Robert Crumb is not depressing. People would tell me that the movie ‘Crumb’ was depressing, so I never saw the film. I didn’t want to see him depicted that way.”
“As far as art goes,” Bickford concludes, wrapping up the screening, ”Van Gogh says to sublimate the ordinary. I say, accent the essential with detail.”
Stay tuned for further updates from SIFF 2004. Until then, let’s have some Back Talk>>>




Posted on June 3, 2004 in Festivals by
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