For this months Animators Unearthed, Chris Robinson gets the right prescription with Suzan Pitts El Doctor.
In a small Mexican town, a bitter, ailing, alcoholic doctor stumbles onto the street towards his car. In a flash he is whisked away by two approaching medical attendants to the nearby hospital to heal a patient with holes throughout his body. The doctor sees no hope and lets the man die. As he walks back towards his car, a talking gargoyle admonishes the old doctor and tells him he'd be better off committing suicide. In his car, the doctor's heart begins to give way. As he approaches death, the saint of emptiness appears to show the old man a new way of seeing life.
Tinged with elements of magic realism and Mexican culture, and told using vivid oil colors, American animator Suzan Pitt's latest film, El Doctor, is a dazzling, haunting and poignant evocation of a man's final moments.
Like George Griffin, who recently made his first film in 10 years, El Doctor is Pitt's last film since Joy Street (1995). "Yes," says Pitt. "I tend to do other things between films because they take so long to make (four to five years) and I need to emerge back into the world for a period of time."
Between Joy Street and El Doctor, Pitt primarily worked on paintings, some of which served as inspiration for her new film. "I did a series of paintings which pictured miraculous events taking place in Mexico. The characters I created for the paintings and the events which were pictured became the groundwork for the film."
In particular Pitt was fascinated with Mexico's affinity for the divine. "I have traveled there a lot and I know how deeply the possibility of the miraculous is imbedded in the culture the religious and spiritual usually a figure or image appears to someone bringing proof that the spirit world is pushing outward into the real world to bring news of a deliverance, or a message, or a religious or divine presence."
Pitt then asked her son, Blue Kraning, who recently collaborated with Bill Plympton, to write a story based on her paintings. For about six months, mother and son worked and argued on the story. "He devised a story using some of the characters which already existed and the ideas we spoke about concerning miracles and how they might be perceived and what they might mean. The frame and dialogue for animation I felt needed to be apparent, but simple and not needlessly instructive in the way stories sometimes are. The images and characterizations and movement alone can carry the meaning quite well in animation. But the framework of the story which Blue wrote is the basis for the film."
Producing the film was a slightly more complex. Because El Doctor was shot entirely on film, and used full animation along with a number of characters, Pitt was forced to use a small crew. "I'm actually quite proud of the fact that everything was produced in the USA with local talent except for animator Gerard Goulet (who worked on the Triplets of Belleville) who came from Montreal for six weeks to work on the film in L.A."
In voicing the characters, Pitt worked with real actors for the first time. Initially she used professional Latin actors from the Los Angeles area, but quickly ran into a strange dilemma. "The actors were trying to lose their Spanish accents in order to work in L.A. so when I asked them to speak in a Mexican accent they seemed to revert to a stereotype so a lot of the characters came out sounding like a Taco Bell commercial. And just the sound and enunciation of a "professional" seemed wrong and affected for the story."
To capture a more genuine dialect, Pitt decided to re-do with recordings in Mexico. "My friend and animator Dominique Jonard found all the people and brought them to his house in Morelia. We did some rehearsing but not a lot. Some of the expressions and mistakes in English were left in the finished dialogue and added authenticity. We recorded in his living room with blankets on the walls and a portable DAT player."
While Pitt considers El Doctor to be her first narrative film, it would be a stretch to call the film a linear narrative. Reminiscent of contemporary Estonian animation, El Doctor is full of absurd situations and almost grotesque caricatures. In that sense, El Doctor is closer to the "magic" realism of a writer like Gabriel Garcia Marquez than it is to your typical classical narrative film. Pitt is also the first to admit she was challenged by the restrictions of narrative.
"When you tell a story, no matter how absurd or surrealistic it is, you have to include all the necessary elements of the story so the audience can follow it," she said. "If the character has to be shown entering a door because of the script, then the challenge is to make that little animation interesting in itself and not just another 200 drawings of the character walking in the door. I had to work very hard to not feel restricted by the requirements of the story."
Another aspect of the film that breaks from a classical narrative tradition is the employment of different animation techniques to evoke a particular mood or moment in the film. "It seems that certain animation techniques, because of the way they are handled and the particular characteristics of the materials involved, are representative of ways of seeing or expressing. Chalk or sand by its very nature is loose, smeary, suggestive and soft. I used sand in the scene where the doctor looks in the windshield to suggest something he was imagining, something soft and frightening appearing out of the dirt and grime of the windshield."
For the scene with Santa Esmeralda, the saint of emptiness, Pitt used the services of filmmaker Naomi Uman, who scratched and painted directly on 35mm film. "I asked to make her own abstract interpretation of the saint," recalls Pitt, "I told her I would accept anything she did so in this way she was the actress who played the part of the saint... in that slow-motion way only animator actors understand."
To give the scenes with the doctor and Caballita (the woman who thinks she's a horse) a nostalgic, old-fashioned quality, Pitt animated on paper and then stained and crushed the paper. She then drew into the wrinkled images with chalk pencils.
While the meaning of El Doctor is rife with possible interpretations, the message that comes through the cranky, cynical old doctor is that we tend to create our own strife. He sees an ugly, empty world so it remains just that. In a way, El Doctor is a slightly cruel film. The doctor is only shown another vision of the world as he's dying.
"I thought perhaps at the moment of death the doctor might realize that all the times he felt lousy about the world and ceased to care, he was creating the mess himself with a different viewpoint the world was filled with possibility and beauty," notes Pitt. "Hopelessness itself creates futility, so he imagines returning to the hospital and seeing things anew. I don't think it matters whether he was able to live this way for years or only a few seconds in his mind it still happened."
Does this moment of the divine matter in the end? Earlier in the film, the doctor says bitterly that life is nothing but a temptation, suggesting that one will never have their desires fulfilled. Is then death the satisfaction of those desires? "Well, that's an existential viewpoint, isn't it?" responds Pitt, "It doesn't matter whether the doctor was a good man or a bad man what matters is within himself at death... he sees the totality, the universe. It's as if the everything was giving him a smile and a nod and letting him dream away dressed in his beautiful mariachi suit with the light blue tie and riding his favourite imagined horse, and carrying his lovely girl from long ago who still wears her Mexican dress and braids her hair in the traditional style and holds him tightly as their footsteps slip away." In the end, the doctor's life amounts to little more than a moment, but what a moment it is.
"Is that all there is?" chimed Peggy Lee once upon a time.
That is all, and that ain't bad (don't matter if it is).
"Death," adds Pitt, is not so frightening when one believes that which we do not know clearly is larger than our small lives and therefore this large "other" will embrace our deaths with meaning."
So let's keep dancing.
A collection of Pitts films (Asparagus, Joy Street and El Doctor) will be released on DVD in September 2006 by First Run Features.
Chris Robinson has been with the Ottawa International Animation Festival since 1991. A noted animation critic, curator and historian, he has become a leading expert on Canadian and international independent animation. His acclaimed OIAF programming has been regarded as both thoughtful and provocative. In May 2004, Robinson was the recipient of the Presidents Award given by the New York chapter of animators for contributions to the promotion of independent animation.
His books include
Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy: A Story of Estonian Animation, Ottawa Senators: Great Stories from the NHLs First Dynasty, Unsung Heroes of Animation, Great Left Wingers and Stole This From a Hockey Card: A Philosophy of Hockey, Doug Harvey, Identity & Booze.
An anthology of Robinsons Animation Pimp columns will be published in 2006. He is working on Fathers of Night, a novel about angels, devils and everything in-between. Robinson lives in Ottawa with his wife, Kelly, and sons, Jarvis and Harrison.