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A Gesture of Serenity

Mary Ann Skweres jumps into the Slamdance Festival and returns to tell us what she discovered.

William Moritz, an incredible author, has written a remarkable book about one of the great artists of the 20th century: Oskar Fischinger. Moritz book, Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger, is a testament to both men, both artists and both devoted to the creative spirit in man. Indeed, Fischingers tenet (p. 129) might equally well apply to his biographer:

I feel sorry for Jackson Pollock, and the other abstract expressionists, who are so maladjusted, so tortured in ways they cant resolve, that they have to express themselves with violent gestures, with aggressive chaos or sudden glaring gestures haphazardly colliding with other spills and spasms of anxiety. I make abstract expression, too, but for me, I feel such inner peace that I can reach out calmly and draw a perfect circle or a straight line in a gesture of serenity.

This book is by a master of an equally serene disposition (who has been suffering with great courage and dignity from cancer for the last nine years) and is really an extended memoir of both Fischinger and his remarkable wife Elfriede. We have long awaited a full account of Fischinger and Moritz is the ideal biographer, following up his earlier magisterial study of the artists life in Film Culture (No 58-60, 1974) and elsewhere. His continuing research on Fischinger is demonstrated in this books bibliography, and he has now been able to give a wide-ranging account of both the artists life and his work.

We learn of Fischingers early love of music, which was to be a passion throughout his life, of his graphic ability and technical facility, all of which would assist him in his pursuit of the ideal in abstract expression both in film and in painting. We also learn much about the culture of pre-Nazi Germany and the difficulties arising from the new regimes suppression of individualism. The hardships suffered by Fischinger and his family are clearly shown in context with the new American and particularly Hollywood society in which the Fischingers found themselves.

Moritz lightly touches upon the resilience of both Oskar and Elfriede and there are some charming anecdotes, which I wont spoil for the reader, though the meeting between Elfriede and Mrs. Merrill is particularly delightful.

Moritz also describes the films of Oskar Fischinger with lucidity, so that we can relate to the individual works even if we havent seen the films. There is no gobbledygook here, no newspeak so beloved by the theorists of our day. Instead there is lucidity and clarity, which shows the authors immense range of knowledge in many fields. Supporting the text are some splendid photographs from many sources, including frame enlargements from the films, some of which have never been reproduced in color before. My only regret is that we are not treated to more reproductions of the exquisite paintings that occupied Fischinger during his latter years (see especially those on pages 140 and 142).

I should also have welcomed a little more detail about the family photographs. There is a useful filmography, testimonials from other filmmakers and artists, some of Fischingers own statements and an excellent bibliography. There is no index, however, which is a pity, and the publisher has told us nothing on the cover or elsewhere about either the subject or the author; however, these are minor cavils.

Oskar Fischinger, influencing such masters as Alexeieff and Parker (who actually met at a screening of one of Fischingers films), Len Lye, Norman McLaren, Jules Engel to name only a few, has been honored with a fine record by a remarkable writer and artist. The book is warmly recommended not only to devotees of film and animation in particular but to all who love the inner peace exemplified in the work of Oskar Fischinger.

Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fischinger by William Moritz. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2004, 256 pages and London, England: John Libbey & Company, Ltd., 2004, 246 pages. ISBN: 0253343488 ($65.00)

Dr Robin Allan has written widely on Disney and his doctoral thesis was expanded into book form as Walt Disney and Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney. (London: John Libbey, 1999). This was shortlisted for the prestigious Kraszna Krauss Award for the best book on the moving image in 2001 and it won the Norman McLaren/Evelyn Lambert Award for the best scholarly book on animation from the National Film Board of Canada. Robin has lectured widely on Disney in the U.S.A., Canada and Europe.