Writing about Bruce Bickford’s stop-motion animated short, Prometheus’ Garden, is a challenging task. It’s a work of such singular visual expression that words are largely inadequate to explain what a viewer should expect to see. There are terms which can evoke the film’s look and feel – surreal, hallucinatory, dream-like, nightmarish – and they would be accurate enough, but without capturing any of the movie’s specificity. It is far easier, and probably more meaningful, to attempt to describe the potential audience for the film than the film itself.
To begin, potential viewers should be open-minded about the uses of animation. Prometheus’ Garden does not have a linear narrative, but it is grounded in themes of violence and destruction, matched by those of transformation and regeneration. For example, in one sequence, a group of men with rifles mow down a line of unarmed forest people, and as the dead bodies and their viscera disappear into the ground, plants sporting strange pods capable of sparking transmogrification emerge from the earth.
In another, men who turn into beasts have their appetites sated by a pizza made from touching others with a paintbrush. The film is full of such graphic violence, followed by some kind of life-affirming change. It is weird and complicated, and well beyond the scope of the animated “family films” that fill the multiplexes on a regular basis.
Bickford’s 28-minute short similarly violates the aesthetic norms set by the hyperreal computer animation typified by Pixar’s films. Whereas the artists at Pixar produce animated figures and landscapes that aspire to making viewers forget, or disbelieve, that they are watching constructed images, Bickford’s figures and landscapes look exactly like what they are: clay, batting, tin foil. Both forms have their virtues, but it is Prometheus’ Garden that runs against the current grain in American animation.
Interestingly, both types of animation are at least partly formal exercises, with one trying to see how far digital media can be pushed in the direction of, and even past, the perceptions of everyday visual realities, and the other more motivated by what different transformations of clay might look like, regardless of how much they defy mundane experience, or perhaps the point is to step outside of that world in the first place.
Prometheus’ Garden will intrigue anyone looking for animated work that creates an alternate reality, a way of seeing the world that is visually and substantively different from the one most people inhabit during their waking hours. The “real” one sees in the film is related to ideas and feelings, not how closely people, places, and things hew to their “actual” appearances.
Viewers should expect to be almost constantly aware that human hands have made what they are watching, and one-person’s set of hands in particular. While this produces a certain distance with the audience, it does not necessarily result in detachment. For me, the intellectual and emotional experience of watching this film is an odd mix of immersion and withdrawal.
The original music for Prometheus’ Garden is heavily electronic and discordant, underlining the dual sense of being drawn in and held at a distance by the film. The Bright Eye Pictures DVD includes an alternate soundtrack that is more analog, in sound at least, and more evocative of discovery and adventure than of violence and fearfulness.
The DVD also includes an impressionistic documentary about the making of Prometheus’ Garden, and a trailer for Brett Ingram’s documentary about Bickford, Monster Road (2005).
Also on the disc is a commentary from Bickford. As with the short doc on the DVD and the longer documentary that viewers will have to acquire separately, the track shows the animator to be a soft-spoken and independent-minded creator. His comments on Prometheus’ Garden are an interesting aggregation of play-by-play, interpretation, and technical information.
Normally, play-by-play type tracks are ones I would just assume avoid, but in this case there is interesting information about the artist’s understandings of his figures and themes (it isn’t, for example, self-evident that certain figures are “mercenaries” and others are “Vikings”, but to Bickford they are). At the same time, it’s refreshing to hear a filmmaker simply say that there are things on screen that are essentially inexplicable or simply weird. Bickford’s clear sense of identification with his characters and figures is another intriguing quality of his commentary.
The DVD does a fine service in its presentation and extension of the film, but Prometheus’ Garden is hardly for everyone. If it is for you, you might wish that Bright Eye Pictures simply packaged Monster Road with Bickford’s original work.