castles" and Twin Peaks dioramas are shoved into every corner. Armies of preserved clay figures hide in his garage. After working on Frank Zappa's wild, music-video-like films in the 1970s, Bickford has spent his time holed up, using these materials and figurines to create his abstract clay animations, each one a visual stream of consciousness. Bodies melt, spontaneously reproduce, and grow limbs. Faces turn into islands into caves into wolves into globes like a phantasmagorical meditation on the conservation of energy.
In 2003's Monster Road, a documentary about Bickford's life, the curious hermit ambles around his home in holey sweaters and paint-speckled pants, which is pretty much how I found him when I visited in June. In midconversation he would trail off, sit down at the trampoline he uses for a chair, and start working diligently on his comic book. He has never made regular income. In the '70s, after Bickford's military service, Zappa paid his room and board, and in exchange, the filmmaker produced long strands of swirling psychedelic imagery, including Baby Snakes and The Amazing Mr. Bickford. Barry Miles's recent Zappa biography calls Bickford one of "Zappa's pantheon of anthropological discoveries"—and indeed, his ambivalence toward contemporary culture gives his work the feel of outsider art.
Brett Ingram, director of Monster Road and owner of Bright Eye Pictures, also just released a DVD of Prometheus' Garden, a half-hour hallucination of multimedia animation that was completed (but not released) in 1987. It's the only film of Bickford's to reach the public since his Zappa work, and the whole thing serves as an illustration of Bickford's mastery of the painstaking, time-intensive process of replacement animation, where a series of figures are built to create the effect of growing or shrinking. On the commentary track, Bickford summarizes the plot: "[A guy] signals the girls to do something magical with that pot of weird material there, and when they dump it out some kind of an angel-spirit woman type thing appears." I couldn't have put it better.
At 68 years old, Bickford continues to work nonstop in his garage, still in thrall to the anti- establishment ideas of '60s counterculture. He gets his ideas from articles in 40-year-old issues of Mad and Esquire. He cites his greatest inspiration as "seeing the moonlight come through trees" and reluctantly points to Dali as an influence, but then immediately backtracks, saying, "I don't like what he does, but I like what he could have done."
More than making art, Bickford wants to tell stories. Stacked against one wall in his home are three boxes filled with 170-plus stories, each one a hanging folder stuffed with sketches, notes, clipping, and titles such as "The Mask of the Dead Brain" and "Terminal Velocity." A page chosen at random reveals the phrase "gore splatters on the UFO probe." These are hyped-up pulp stories, chock-full of horror, action, sci-fi, and mythological environments, and each one is a seed for Bickford's animation and comic books. "Some people just can't think. They'll steal anyone's ideas," Bickford complains. "I think you can make a story out of anything."
What Bickford really wants to do is adapt these ideas to the film, and not low-budget Zappa-esque cult films, but Hollywood blockbusters (specifically, James Cameron movies). Bickford wants to be relevant—and he should be. He still lives in the vine-covered home he grew up in, without the shrewd business mind to market himself out of there, but he holds a visual ingenuity comparable to, say, Michel Gondry's, and in the right circumstances, Bickford could appeal to the same audience.
Recently, Bickford has been coming out of hiding. Last summer, in one of the rare public displays of his art, he showed his dioramalike microenvironments at Christoff Gallery in Georgetown, and all the while, sat onstage and animated. This summer, in addition to the DVD release of Prometheus' Garden, Northwest Film Forum is hosting Cartune Xprez, a "traveling road show of animated videos" that includes The Comic That Frenches Your Mind, one of Bickford's stunning line animations. Peter Burr, the program's curator, thinks of the work in a high-art context, complimenting Bickford's ability to conjoin the "postmodern tradition of deconstruction of historical iconography" and "the style and ethos of folk art."
Hopefully, the last five years of Bickford archive excavation are only the beginning. Hundreds of film snippets, clay bodies, and comic books still sit in his mouse-infested garage, waiting to be completed. Bickford spots one of them on a table. "That one over there is a woman," he says. "I just haven't put the tits on her yet."