The documentary Monster Road reveals how animator Bruce Bickford creates his own little worlds. A cult figure for his collaborations with Frank Zappa, Bickford crafts his largely unseen, clay-based animated films from his basement studio near Seattle. His figures prove ceaselessly malleable: One sequence shows a human face morph into a werewolf, then a demon, then an ocean, and more.
Director Brett Ingram remains rigidly within the confines of Bickford’s regular routine, seldom straying from his workspace or the cramped kitchen of his father, George, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Best Documentary winner of the 2004 Slamdance Film Festival, Monster Road focuses almost exclusively on the relationship between the two men and the origins of Bickford’s aesthetic. The 60-ish artist recounts his childhood living with his then distant, brooding father, two aggressive older brothers and bullying classmates. Cold War memories of an unfinished fallout shelter on nearby Monster Road also clearly fired his imagination.
Bickford describes his early fascination with “little guys” like Peter Pan who triumph over physically menacing villains. Such images recur throughout the snippets of his work shown in Monster Road. Occasionally, we see glimpses of creation and abundance, including bits of his film Prometheus' Garden, but more often the clips emphasize stabbings and other forms of violence in elaborate fantasies reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch.
Beyond the perceptions and memories of the elder Bickford and younger Bickford, context is nonexistent. Apart from a passing mention of his work with Zappa, you’d never learn about the 1987 video The Amazing Mr. Bickford, which features the animator’s work accompanied by the musician’s orchestral pieces.
Terry Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb presented more breadth in its portrayal of cult artist Robert Crumb’s craft, as well as his dysfunctional family background. Monster Road feels much more claustrophobic, which could imply that Bickford has become so disconnected from the rest of the world that he obsesses over increasingly narrow subject matter in his art. Bickford’s father, meanwhile, struggles to recall details from his past but ruminates over his failing body and the origins of creation. In Monster Road, art may not be the answer to George’s existential decline or Bruce’s childhood traumas, but one feels that it’s the only answer that the animator can offer.