In 1979, Suzan Pitt’s surrealistic, sexually-charged “Asparagus” was paired with “Eraserhead” for a midnight movie double-bill

By on December 6, 2016

In 1979, independent filmmaker and artist Suzan Pitt’s surrealistic, sexually-charged short film Asparagus was paired with David Lynch’s Eraserhead — a Night Flight fave — for a midnight movie double-bill that ended up screening for the next year and a half at New York City’s Waverly Theater, and for a year or two at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica, California.

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Pitt’s animated films are particularly known for mixing playful images with those which are more darkly poetic, creating dream-like visions which seem to exist in a waking state somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, psychosexual explorations of fervid sexuality, politics and the female psyche, among other topics.

Her work is clearly influenced by surrealist artists of the early 20th century, especially female artists like Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning — and one might even assume Frida Kahlo de Rivera’s work was also inspirational — and also by 1960s and early ’70s underground comics, not to mention she’s obviously seen a lot of raunchy animated shorts and odd little cartoons dating from the post-WWII to the 1970s.

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Suzan Pitt in Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision

The 20-minute Asparagus combines handpainted animated cels — drawn and painted over a four year period — with claymation techniques and even some live-action elements to create a bright, colorful Freudian dreamscape filled with the subliminal imagery found in a feminine dream, filled with sexualized plants in a literal garden of earthy delights where asparagus spears are shown in various metaphoric ways, phallic or fecal, onanistic or otherwise.

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Each moving shape, however, morphs into a new image which changes the meaning of the one previous (that’s more Jungian than Freudian though, isn’t it?), as we flow from each setting to the next, from the woman’s overstuffed doll’s house apartment, complete with a miniature of herself, into a crowded theater filled with vagina-shaped lights and red velvet curtains, where the woman (now wearing a mask) unleashes magically flying shapes and objects from her oversized purse.

Pitt once described the film herself as “a visual poem that is an erotic allegory of the creative process, in which a woman views and performs the passages of artistic discovery.”

One reviewer wrote that Asparagus featured a faceless female protagonist who appears like a “pent-up housewife aching to get fucked,” but we think the entire film and its meaning is pretty much open to your own interpretation.

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Pitt — who today teaches classes in Experimental Animation at Cal Arts in Valencia, California, north of Los Angeles — grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where as a little girl she played with an eerie doll house that she found in the attic of an old house, a nostalgia-tinged image which would later show up several of her surreal short films.

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She studied painting at Cranbrook Academy of Art, known as the cradle of American modernism, located about twenty miles northeast of Detroit, Michigan in the town of Bloomfield Hills.

She earned her BFA in 1965, and by 1971 was already using an 8mm camera and already creating little animated films which were filled with what she called “manifestations of her own imagination.”

She eventually graduated to using a 16mm Bolex camera, and was soon sending her short films to film festivals, while also beginning her most important formative years with the completion of Crocus, a surrealistic study and an ode to the feminine dream and the natural world.

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Several of her films — like City Trip, Jefferson Circus Songs and Cels — were developed in collaboration with her students at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, each project earning her more grant money to develop longer, more labor-intensive film projects.

Pitt became involved in the Expanded Cinema movement at this time, which led her to merge performance art with animation.

In 1976, Pitt taught a class at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, at Harvard University, in which she had her students deconstruct animation to analyze all of its parts, creating Loops, a multidimensional, live film theater performance combining film on several scenes, actors and music by the Harvard Composers Ensemble.

Her film Asparagus was created there between 1974 to 1978, made with a production grant from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, Berlin, West Germany and a grant from the American Film Institute and also the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Asparagus went on to win numerous awards around the world, including First Prize at the Oberhausen Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, in Germany, and First Prize at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Kenyon Film Festival, Baltimore Film Festival and Atlanta Independent Film and Video Festival, in the United States.

In 1978, Pitts met film exhibitor, distributor and independent film producer Ben Barenholtz, who for the past ten years at that point had become quite well known as the father the “midnight movie” craze at his Elgin Theater, located at 175 Eighth Avenue, on the corner of 19th Street and Eighth Avenue in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City.

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Barenholtz — who is featured prominently in Stuart Samuels‘ 2005 documentary Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream, during which Suzan Pitts’ film Asparagus is mentioned — had previously managed (and lived at) the Village Theater, which had become a popular hangout for performers, poets, artists and radicals on the Lower East Side.

Some of the first meetings of the anti-Vietnam War movement, including Poets Against Vietnam, were held at the Village Theater, where audiences regularly could hear Timothy Leary, Stokley Carmichael, Rap Brown and Paul Krasner preachin’ to the choir.

The Village Theater — which would become the Fillmore East — was also a major music venue, where the Who, Leonard Cohen, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Nina Simone, and many others performed.

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The success of the Village Theater had enabled him to purchase the Elgin, a 600-seat movie theater designed in the Art Moderne style when it opened in 1942.

The theater became the world’s most innovative specialty and revival house, re-launching the films of Buster Keaton and D.W. Griffith, running a variety of independent films by young American directors, and screening cult, underground, and experimental films for the emerging countercultural audience.

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Barenholtz was always open to new ideas about screening movies, and in 1970 began screening Alexander Jodorwsky’s surrealist western El Topo at the Elgin, which then played for the next six months, seven days a week, to sold-out audiences. John Lennon eventually bought the film. John Waters’ Pink Flamingo followed El Topo at midnight, which was then followed by Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come.

Have a look at this excerpt from Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream:

In 1978, the local community forced the theater to close; by then, it had morphed into an adult movie theater even though it had continued to show midnight movies (the building was returned to service as the Joyce Theater in 1982, and is now a 472-seat dance and performance theater).

That same year, filmmaker Suzan Pitts met Barenholtz and asked him to look at her films, which he initially rejected because they weren’t long enough to be scheduled on their own.

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He did, however, like Asparagus and thought it would be a good film to pair with David Lynch’s Eraserhead, which Berenholtz had screened the year previous at the Elgin and was planning to show again at the Waverly Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Here’s a short film about Suzan Pitt by Blue & Laura Kraning, called Suzan Pitt: Persistence of Vision:

Pitt has since had major exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of Art, the Holly Solomon Gallery in New York, and the Stedlijk Museum in Amsterdam. She has designed two operas in Germany which were the first to include animated images for the stage (Damnation of Faust and The Magic Flute).

In addition, Pitt has created two large multi-media shows at the Venice Biennale and Harvard University.

She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholar Award, three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and a Rockefeller Fellowship.

Her work is in the permanent collection of the Walker Art Center, The Museum of Modern Art, and the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.