Hey, lovers of animation and experimental film: do you know the name Stan VanDerBeek? If not, you’ll enjoy learning it, for more reasons than that it allows you to type four capital letters. Endlessly adventurous in his quest to find new ways to craft (not to mention display) moving images, VanDerBeek, who in college encountered the likes of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Robert Rauschenberg, mobilized for his animation a variety of technologies that, in his day, people didn’t have much of a sense of what to do with, artistically or otherwise. “Everything that artists made art from, or with, in the second half of the 20th century, he pretty much touched,” this NPR piece quotes MIT LIST Visual Arts Center curator Joao Ribas as saying about him. “The medium, whatever he was working with, was not adequate enough. Painting was too static, and then one film was too linear, and then four films were too cumbersome.”
You can see here some of the fruits of this drive that kept VanDerBeek “constantly trying something else that could get closer and closer to what he saw.” At the top, we have a 1966 example of the animated poetry he created with Bell Labs computer graphics pioneer Ken Knowlton, using a programming language of Knowlton’s own design and a score by jazz drummer Paul Motian. But VanDerBeek built more of his reputation with his mastery of cut-and-paste animation, the kind you see in action in 1959’s Science Friction just above. Five years later, he would put out Breathdeath below, which Tate calls “a surreal fantasy based on 15th century woodcuts of The Dance of the Dead” made of “cut-up photos and newsreels, reassembled into a black comedy dedicated to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.” Does this all remind you a bit of Terry Gilliam? It should. The Monty Python animator, a notable VanDerBeek fan, named Breathdeath one of the best animated films of all time.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.