Frank Zappa

The Amazing Mr. Bickford

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Enthusiasts of Frank Zappa's visual offerings may best recall clay-animator Bruce Bickford for his contributions to the concert documentary film Baby Snakes (1979) -- especially during the opening sequence that shows he and Zappa making the tedious stop-motion work shot-by-shot. The Amazing Mr. Bickford (1987) is a 50-minute home video project, coupling Bickford's surrealistic visions with some of Zappa's involved orchestrations. Those half-dozen musical selections have been gleaned from the London Symphony Orchestra (1983) and Perfect Stranger (1984) collections. Not surprisingly, Bickford's dark and angst-filled imagery fits well when accentuated by Zappa's equally non-traditional arrangements and melodies. The overt sexual and violent nature of Bickford's creations aren't for the easily offended and at times seem almost inextricably linked to the forcefulness and bombastic qualities inherent in the accompanying audio -- even though the two were made independent of each other. Rather than a series of short unrelated scenes, Bickford's world has a continuity as automobiles turn into aliens and a host of unworldly creatures that morph into a variety of forms and objects. Granted, there is no specific plot or explicit narrative, yet there are a couple of longer and involved incidents including a ferocious battle sequence and a bar fight that is as graphic (if not more so) than most R-rated movies -- but of course, these aren't humans, just clay being brutalized on screen. One real-life incident of note occurred in 1994 when a Pennsylvania high school teacher was reprimanded for exhibiting The Amazing Mr. Bickford to an advanced English class -- proving that death couldn't stop Zappa from continuing to push the boundaries of not only taste, but the thin line tethering art to morality.

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