Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979)

Suzan Pitt
Elena Duque

In the occasion of the screening of the film Asparagus (Suzan Pitt, 1979) during this month of August in the hall of the CCCB, we publish this article by Elena Duque, filmmaker and specialist in experimental animation. 

In every intricate shot of Asparagus there’s a dense mass of images to get lost in. As soon as we enter the film (it’s a film you enter rather than watch), we’re encircled by a surreal, exuberant landscape. An imaginary tangle of flowers brimming with all kinds of impossible objects, plants, animals and rooms envelops us, sinuously, in its evocative power. This is where the film’s magnetism lies, in a woman’s foray into the most secret corridors of her mind and in the mysterious symbolic power (a symbolism that is both private and universal) of each of the things that populate every single shot in the film. Critic Jim Hoberman describes this with a phrase too good not to be repeated: “a cel-animated psychodrama - Meshes of the Afternoon [Maya Deren] recast in the post-lysergic style of Yellow Submarine”.

Suzan Pitt, originally from Kansas and trained as a painter, taught herself to animate in the early 1970s. After experimenting with cut-outs, cartoons and pixilation, in 1974 she embarked on the production of Asparagus, a film that would take her four years to complete. Apart from one stop motion sequence, Asparagus was made using the same technique as the big studios before the arrival of computer animation: a combination of static drawn backgrounds on which transparent sheets of cellulose acetate or “cels” were superimposed with the animation painted on. In this case, 12 paintings for every second of film, recorded frame by frame in 35mm. Each image, especially in the backgrounds, is painted in almost millimetric detail: the birds, brushes, flowers and sofas, the patterns on the carpets and wallpapers, the pictures hanging on the walls. This is how every second of the film conveys an enveloping sensual pleasure in tune with its sensual content, crossing the boundaries of reason and going beyond them.

Pitt wanted us to move through the film as if we were sliding, with a dreamy rhythm. That’s why she set out to avoid cuts in the editing as much as possible. Most of the time one image leads into another, as if Pitt were a persuasive magic carpet saleswoman showing us her merchandise in a cascade. Other times she resorts to wipes, or an image stretches out a kind of proverbial plant tentacle to drag in another one. Says Pitt: “I wanted the film to mirror the way we daydream - as Jung said, ‘Images are pregnant’: each image leading to the next, the mind unfolding, constantly giving birth”.

Very often the images contain other images like a Russian doll: through windows, mirrors or even a theatre with two superimposed images (the image from the stage and also what’s happening off the stage). A room overlooking a surreal landscape contains a doll’s house, while that same room is also a room inside the doll’s house itself. Here Pitt evokes a little toy house in the attic of her childhood, a miniature portal through which she could escape to other, more fertile imaginary worlds. The female protagonist in the film will need to complete a ghostly journey, full of disturbing details, to be able to venture out into that landscape which she initially observes through the window, that of her own creativity and sexuality, both liberated.

In this flora of female sexuality, Suzan Pitt chooses asparagus as the name of her film and as a powerful image that runs through it: a spear of asparagus sucked by a woman (provided only with a mouth) as if performing fellatio, asparagus that mutates into a thousand other things, asparagus that not only enters through one orifice but also exits through another. On this particular point, Pitt says “I had a garden where I grew asparagus from seed - it’s a very primitive vegetable going back to the time of the dinosaurs. It comes out of the ground as a phallic stalk, pointy and purple green, the essence of a beautiful masculine form. But then, as summer passes, it stretches tall and becomes a delicate fern, seen on roadsides tilting in the wind, the essence of the feminine-like long strands of tangled hair in the breeze. I thought of it as a beautiful symbol of sexuality”. Asparagus, which premiered in 1979, was among the few visions, at that time, of a woman’s sexuality from her own point of view and was also an exploration of that particular subconscious from which primary impulses flow.

In addition to other filmmakers (apart from the already mentioned Deren, we can think of Dulac and contemporary filmmakers such as Hammer), Pitt’s soulmates are also among the surrealist painters: Asparagus creates a universe that seems to border on those created by artists such as Gertrude Abercrombie, Eva Švankmajerová, Toyen, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Frida Kahlo and Valentine Hugo. She also has a kindred spirit in the brilliant generation of animators that emerged in the United States between the seventies and eighties (to which she herself belongs), in their very personal view of the psyche of women. Artists such as Karen Acqua, Mary Beams, Lisa Crafts, Caroline Leaf and Jane Aaron, capable of translating the untranslatable through figures that metamorphose and romp freely thanks to the possibilities of drawing, stop motion and sand animation.

As a daring, atypical work, Asparagus was warmly received at the time. It premiered at the Whitney Museum in its own miniature cinema and was shown for two years in New York (in the famous Elgin Cinema Midnight Movies series) and one year in Los Angeles, alongside David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), in one of the most successful double billings imaginable. When we say “Lynchian” today, we must remember that Lynch is merely the most visible tip of an iceberg of creators who’ve reclaimed surrealism, passing it through their own filters of time and culture.

In addition to cinema (she continued to make films over the next four decades), painting, murals and illustration, Pitt also expanded into other areas. In the 1980s she collaborated on two operas, her work for the production of Mozart’s Magic Flute at the Wiesbaden Theater being the first time animation had been used in an opera. Also famous are her hand-painted coats, which became popular in the New York of Keith Haring and company. In 2006 Blue and Laura Kraning released Persistence of Vision, a documentary about her animated work. Pitt died from cancer at a relatively young age in 2019. Perhaps now her spirit has a permanent home in the hidden depths of her infinite imagination.

Elena Duque

23 June 2020