Jim Blashfield’s “Suspicious Circumstances”: ‘Salvador Dalí and Betty Crocker’ collage animation geniusness

By on June 29, 2015

Northwest Portland, Oregon-based filmmaker and animation director Jim Blashfield is probably best known today for his studio’s Grammy-award winning music videos back in the 1980s — Talking Heads (“And She Was”), Peter Gabriel (“Don’t Give Up”), Paul Simon (“The Boy in the Bubble”), Joni Mitchell (“Good Friends”), Tears for Fears (“Sowing The Seeds of Love”), Michael Jackson (“Leave Me Alone”), and others — but some of his first public exposure on TV came when “Night Flight” aired this little animated film he made early in his career as an artist, 1984’s Suspicious Circumstances.

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There’s a kind of odd, faded vintage look to this Xeroxed collage-art process now, like it belongs to another time, and that’s because it does. You may recognize it as the kind of work Terry Gilliam did for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” in which juxtaposed shapes float around the frame, connecting, disconnecting, moving on, like a medicine cabinet of cut-out curiosities emptying its shelves of everyday objects and disobeying gravity’s rules.

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They’re a bit like alchemical experimentations taking place on the screen, and our brains usually kind of incongruous connection between the objects, just as it did for the Surrealists and for those in the Dada movement who sought to achieve similar results, and for the artists who provided the key influences on his work: Salvador Dalí, Terry Gilliam, ’60s pop artist Richard Hamilton, 1970s collage artist Joe Webb and others.

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Jim Blashfield in action, 1978/ Photo: Richard Blakeslee

Blashfield studied these artists, and more, at Portland State University in the late 1960s, but one of his main interests then, and now, was documentary filmmaking, and so it’s a bit strange to see the direction he went, as there’s almost no link to reality in these videos, particularly in Suspicious Circumstances, which was produced by Melissa Marsland with a grant from the Oregon Arts Commission.

He explored wherever the art took him, not using storyboards to plot out the action as so many told him he should, and so there is something of a story behind Suspicious Circumstances, of course, which Blashfield has previously described as detective story “a la Salvador Dalí and Betty Crocker,” about a couple named Herbert Emilio, Jr., and his wife Lenore, who are beset by a pair of flying hands. Blashfield himself plays the “Examining Officer” who comes to look into the disappearance of Herbert, at which point it is determined was due to the man “entering another dimension.”

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We see things that don’t belong together in the same frame sharing space — as though what appears in his film was a found object, and whatever happened to be laying around, like disembodied Donald Duck heads lurking behind couches, glossy pictures peeling away from a printed magazine, a cheese grater, an old tail-finned Cadillac, Herbert’s mind opening up like a tin can…all of it accompanied by the evocative sounds of various household knick-knacks dripping, burning, fluttering, tearing, smashing, and clanking in the night, tumbling in from out of frame. Sometimes, usually, we never see them again, and certainly not in the context of how the object is typically seen in reality.

With Suspicious Circumstances‘ success, Blashfield found himself was in the mix in Portland’s film and art community, which included people like Gus Van Zandt, Chel White (another “Night Time” hero, see here, here and here), Joan Gratz and others. Blashfield was then commissioned along with these other artists to create an original film to be scored by and performed live by the Oregon Symphony at the Northwest Film Center, produced by Bill Foster.

Blashfield’s film entry, The Tassled Loafers, was accompanied 19th century composer Hector Berlioz’s mad orchestral masterpiece “Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath.” This time, Blashfield chose to use live-action, along with animation, to tell the tale of a handyman compelled to watch four hours of animated industrial test footage while waiting for his pipe sealant to dry. First he becomes hypnotized by the events unfolding on the screen (an explosion of dancing shoes, crashing anvils, strolling baby bottles and ominously advancing alligators). He then turns his attention to a dead man he has noticed in a nearby restroom stall and becomes fixated on his lustrous footwear.

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Jim Blashfield, 70s, by Craig Hickman

When producer Melissa Marsland sent a copy of Jim Blashfield’s short film Suspicious Circumstances to Talking Heads in 1985, the band commissioned the team to create a video for their upcoming single And She Was from the album, Little Creatures. The succession of ground breaking music videos that followed imaginatively expanded the definition of the genre and captured attention internationally. One of his earliest videos was for the Portland band Nu Shooz and their one-hit wonder, “I Can’t Wait,” in which Blashfield dressed up lead vocalist Valerie Day as a 1950s-era scientist, complete with microscope slides for the full effect.

The videos kept coming, of course, one leading to the next, but over the years, Blashfield’s work has continued to explore new variations — in addition to all of the varied music videos (which we can all agree aren’t what they used to be), he’s also made experimental films and videos, live-action and animated narrative shorts, multi-screen video and sound installations.

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Some of Jim Blashfield‘s best known later projects include “The Lone Ranger” (an abstract collaboration with Bill Frisell, for the the Music Experience Project in Seattle, WA), a stop-motion animated film Bunnyheads (a collaboration with sculptor Christine Bourdette), and a music video for Weird Al Yankovic’s “Pancreas,” for his Straight Outta Lynwood video comp. SuctionMaster: Triumph of Science” and “Vanity”  both use historic black and white footage from the Prelinger Archives to forge kaleidoscopic visions of both humor and menace.

He also created video installations, including “Dream of the Scarlet Crustaceans” for the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, and a five-screen video installation made for the Port of Portland’s new headquarters called,” Conveyor,” which displays twenty different rotating natural and surreal scenes, while “Circulator,” an exhibit for the Brightwater Environmental Center in Seattle, uses seven different screens to evoke basic elements of fire, water and plants. You can check a few of them out here.

Blashfield’s films and videos have been screened at the Chicago Art Institute, Ottawa Animation Festival, Walker Art Center, Art Futura in Barcelona, and lots of film festivals and events around the world. He’s been awarded a Grammy, a Cannes Golden Lion, and several MTV awards and nominations.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, 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.