Published: May 15, 1989
Honker Home Video
Written, produced, directed & music composed by FZ
Animation scenarios by Bruce Bickford & FZ
Animation photography by Karl Krogstadt & Bruce Bickford
Additional cinematography by Rob Leacock
Clay, cardboard & line animation by Bruce Bickford
MPI/Honker Home Video
(VHS PAL? and NTSC)
Video For Nations VFN 4
Video (English VFN 4) was packaged with Honker "No-D" glasses (source: Kier)
He's one of my fans who's come up from the ranks. We met after my first film in 1971. He started working for me in '73 and it was he who animated A Token of My Extreme (the short film shown some time ago on television).
Zappa's knack for finding people with unique talents is also evidenced in Baby Snakes, which includes some incredibly complex animation by Bruce Bickford, who literally dropped into Zappa's life, after hopping over Zappa's fence. [...]
M.I. Where did you find Bruce Bickford, the film's animator?
Zappa: Around 1971, I was sitting in my basement with my leg in a cast, and this Mansonoid guy climbs over my fence with two reels of film under his arm. He came back from Vietnam and decided he wanted to work with clay, so he went out and bought a hundred pounds of clay.
M.I.: Did he just come up with the scenes in the film on his own or did you try to direct him?
Zappa: Well, I tried to direct him, but there wasn't much I could do. One day he'd just decide he wanted to do some stuff with scientists, so he made about fifty clay scientists with little horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats and slide-rules sticking out of their pockets. I mean, what are you going to do with fifty scientists? Then he said, ''I want to animate the ocean out of clay." Why? Can you imagine the geometry involved in just doing one wave with the whitecaps and everything?
I went to Zappa's Hollywood Hills home for a recent interview. Arriving, I discovered him at one end of the enormous workroom that occupies the lower half of the house. He was seated at the controls of a fearsome machine, a complex of reels and screens which turned out to be a console for the editing and assembly of movie film.
On one of its twin screens he and I watched a short film, an untitled work by a Seattle artist, Bruce Bickford, with music by The Mothers. The film uses the technique of "puppet animation," in which clay figures (as many as 80 of them) are set up and photographed, then moved a fraction of an inch and photographed again, and again and again until their movements make up a movie with a three-dimensional quality lacking in conventional cartoons.
As I was about to compliment Zappa on composing music that so perfectly fit the Hadesian mood of the film, he told me that the music had not been written for the film at all, but had been extracted from live recordings of Mothers concerts which took place before Frank had ever seen the film.
"I got the work print from Bickford and edited that," Frank explained, "without sound. Then, just last night, I was sitting here with the salesman for the [film editing] machine, and I just put the [Mothers] tracks on, and it worked. It's so unbelievable—when you think what it would take to actually score a film like that, and last night I put on this music, which was something constructed for completely different purposes, spontaneously at another location at another time, and I put them together and they worked perfectly."
Zappa explains that there was one eight-month period when he gave Bickford, on Zappa's payroll since the early '70s, a storyboard to complete while he was on tour. When Zappa returned, he found Bickford hadn't done any of the assignment, but instead spent the time making little clay scientists with lab smocks and slide rules as well as little girls in period costumes. "He hadn't done any of the job, but he'd accumulated all these boxes of people and people parts."
"Sure, Frank's a real dictator," says Bickford, admitting Frank was somewhat tee-ed off that the storyboard wasn't done. "But sometimes with me, he gets something much better than what he asks for," as in the cheeseburger sequence. "So sometimes it's to his advantage to ease off and get something else."
April 23, 1994
There was a walkout by the students of [Mifflinburg] High School (no location given) in support of student Richard Hanson, who showed "The Amazing Mr. Bickford" in class, and apparently will be the object of disciplinary action for doing so. Gail is asking that students that supported Hanson by walking out send letters of (presumably) support to her, so that they might be presented to Hanson and/or the school board in his defense.
Reprinted from "The Philadelphia Inquirer"
May 29, 1994
article written by Michael E. Ruane
SCHOOL SHOWING OF ZAPPA FILM HITS WRONG CHORD
A teacher wanted his advanced-English class to see an absurdist viewpoint.
Parents now want him fired.
Mifflinburg, PA—The two names can crop up almost anywhere around here: at the grocery store, the beauty parlor, the doctor's office, the school cafeteria.
First you hear the name of the suspended English teacher who wears earrings in his left ear and keeps guitars in his basement: Richard K. Hanson. Then comes the name of the late avant-garde rock musician Frank Zappa, creator of such albums as "Burnt Weeny Sandwich" and "Weasels Ripped My Flesh".
Often what follows in this traditional, central Pennsylvania agricultural community, with its Moose hall, American Legion Post and farmer's exchange is a nasty argument. You might guess why.
Mr. Hanson, as his students call him, recently showed his English classes at the Mifflinburg Area High School part of a grotesque 1987 Zappa video titled "The Amazing Mr. Bickford". The color film—which includes violent and raunchy, though highly creative, Claymation by California animator Bruce Bickford and music by Frank Zappa—brought protest to the local school board. Now the school board is seeking to have Hanson fired.
The incident has torn a classic division down the middle of this rural community: One side says the film is obscene and sexually explicit and argued for parents' rights in education; the other complains of conservative censorship and the usurping of teachers' and students' rights.
For this quiet Union County community, famous in bygone times as a center of buggy manufacturing, the dispute has been strikingly bitter. There have been student walkouts and suspensions. One turbulent school-board meeting drew police from surrounding communities. And some parents claim that anti-Hanson students have been intimidated and harassed.
Hanson, 40, a native of Hackensack, N.J., has been called by critics as a chronic "loose bolt" who, for years, has been pushing the limits of teaching propriety. His supporters say he is a victim of the area's powerful religious right, which is seeking to stifle a creative teacher and creative teaching.
Caught in the middle of this conflict is: no one. Strong feelings and opinions on this matter are prevalent and there seems to be no agreement on how to handle this dispute of censorship and what can or cannot be presented within this community's classrooms.
The events began on March 4 when Hanson, a theatrical, husky-voiced man with longish hair, glasses and a trace of a New York accent, showed about forty minutes of the film to eight students in a small advanced-English class. The students had just finished studying 19th-century transcendentalist writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who possessed organized and relatively upbeat philosophies. Seeking a contrast, Hanson started to present to his class artists with an absurdist point of view. In a recent interview in his spacious home in nearby Lewisburg, Hanson, who was once a professional rock guitarist, said he felt the Zappa film fit this bill.
Hanson—who came to this area to attend college in the '70s, wrote the Mifflinburg bicentennial song and has taught at the high school for 13 years —said modern teenagers are extremely sophisticated.
"Ideally, it would be nice if they were all like Wally and the Beav," he said, "but let's be realistic."
Zappa, who died at age 52 of prostate cancer on Dec.4, founded the band the "Mothers of Invention" in the '60s and went on to mix rock, jazz and classical music into a strange but famous genre all his own.
Hanson said that he acquired the film, which contains a series of disjointed, gruesome and nightmarish vignettes, after Zappa's death and that he believed it would be ideal for his advanced-English students.
The showing, at least for the students, proved uneventful. One student dozed through part of it. Others worked on projects at their desks and paid the film only moderate attention. The problem came when Hanson showed it a week later, on March 11, to about 100 students in several standard English classes. At least one student was offended, and the battle was joined. Hanson said school officials asked to see the film. When he showed it to them in his classroom on March 28, they were visibly upset.
"I was offended by it," said Superintendent Ben Van Horn in a recent telephone interview. "I was expecting that there would be some frontal nudity, and in many grades that is not inappropriate... but when I saw this video and saw some explicit sexual activity among the animated figures, I was offended."
Hanson was instructed to provide a written explanation. He did so on March 31. Among other things, he wrote:
"If students are to transcend low-level thinking skills, teachers must begin to take innovative steps... risks must be taken..."
Hanson went on to write, "Many students in the Mifflinburg area will never visit a metropolitan area, will never see a professional theater production, will never visit an art museum, and will never see a dance company or hear a symphony orchestra. In short, most Mifflinburg Area High School students will never develop or have a chance to develop an appreciation for the multi-ethnic, multicultural, multidimensional and incredibly diverse artistic expressions our country and the world affords. To limit viewpoint is not an educationally sound policy. I thought I was opening a door to new thought and perception—a door of illumination and comparisons. But not so in the eyes of "educational leaders" within this community"
Six days later, Hanson was suspended. On April 13, district officials informed him that they were seeking to fire him from his $36,000-a-year job for "willfull... violation of school laws" and for his display of "immorality". The case went to outside arbitration. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 23 and 24. Hanson, who is scheduled to go on sabbatical next year, has recently filed for unemployment.
"If you keep young people limited in scope and keep young people stupid, they won't mess with your world or challenge your views or decisions," Hanson said, "I think it's a design, as Frank Zappa calls it, to have nincompoopery take over... this is a dangerous thing and it is happening right here and now."
Meanwhile, there have been volleys of outrage, both pro and con. Some students and parents, as well as the teachers' union, lined up on Hanson's side. Other students, parents and supporters of the school administration along with various civic and community leaders, were arrayed against him.
A local newspaper, "The Sunbury Daily Item", hosted a public showing of the film and polled many of the 1,000 people in attendance. Most of those polled found it suitable for showing to high school students.
Some parents, however, refused to view the film. One was Alice E. Shoreman, 49, long a supporter of local schools and a mother who has spoken out publicly against Hanson and the film. Recently, she and her husband, Neil, 49, and two mothers of children in the school gathered at the Shoremans' home in nearby Glen Iron to talk about the controversy. The two other women declined to give their names, saying they feared for the safety of their children and they feared retribution against family members. One mother, along with Neil Shoreman, had just viewed the film that morning. The other had seen it at the public screening.
"I wish I had not seen it...," Alice Shoreman said. "I see enough garbage in one day. You can't sit and watch violence after violence and not have it affect you," she added, noting that her family does not have a TV set. "Whatever you've filled your mind with is going to come out," she stated.
One of the other mothers said she took notes while watching the film. "I saw what I believe was sodomy and what quite possibly could have been cannibalism," she exclaimed. "I saw an altar, which was portrayed more toward the end of Satanism than a church altar... I saw forms of sexual intercourse, I saw what appeared to be lesbianism. I saw oral sex... I saw throats being slit and a person being shot in the head... I saw nothing good... these were not just normal cartoon figures."
"There was no theme, no moral and no story," Neil Shoreman said. "The music was just awful, notes all over the place. It wasn't a tune; there was just a continual collection of sounds... the animated characters were very strange and scary... it (the film) was 40 minutes of nothing. "I feel there has to be... people that can be used to challenge children's minds," he said, "that have a more wholesome background and approach than Frank Zappa.
"I fear to go get my hair cut tomorrow," the second mother said, "for fear my beautician is a Hanson supporter and I'm going to come out shaved."
"There's really no room for middle ground here," Neil Shoreman said, "you must take up for what you believe in and fight against this depravity and immoral nature entering our schools."
All members of this previously tight-knit community have lamented the divisions that this incident has spawned. But no one is backing down from their staunch support of either for or against Hanson and what this matter means for the future of their children's education and for future progress within the community itself. Many parents feel that the film genuinely portrays an alternative view that their children would otherwise not recieve and have praised Hanson's dedication and commitment to strive to make students think about how to react to new stimulus and be able to understand other points of view in the world today. As one supportive parent stated, "...there are more things in this world than bowling and church socials, and my children should be able to open their minds and have the opportunity to see alternatives," she went on to say, "I am appalled at the accusations that Hanson supporters are violent people or represent some threat to the community... it is they who accuse who are the real danger... it is like the middle ages around here and ignorance is not bliss... they have small narrow minds and wish the children to have the same pea-sized view of the world."
The day after the meeting at the Shoreman home, seven of Hanson's eight advanced-English students gathered at a bed-and-breakfast inn in nearby New Berlin run by the parents of student Carolyn E. Kribbs, 17. Not one student said he or she found the film offensive. Some were interested in it and others admitted boredom from it but none were upset by the film's showing. Carolyn's parents and the whole of the Kribbs family saw nothing wrong or offensive about the film and praised Hanson for his attempt at offering lessons and materials that let students have varied and diverse experiences. They feel that Carolyn's education has been enriched by Hanson's methods and do not understand the furor over this Zappa film.
"I was intrigued by the complexity of the film," said Stefanie Hoffman, 17, a junior and the daughter of the New Berlin police chief. "It was interesting, but it was boring after a while... is there a crime in showing boring stuff to kids at school... if so then many teachers would be fired or in jail."
Jim Bromfield, 17, a junior also, expressed his views, "I can't say I was unimpressed by the film... but it became boring and I worked on another project as the rest of the film was showing"
Josh Muchler, 17, a junior, like the film a lot. "I was really impressed with it," he said. "The amount of time that it took to make it and the intricacy that the clay figures were formed with and the bizarre musicical score were just incredible... I never knew films like this existed... it was just totally incredible."
The students generally agreed that Hanson is "different" as a teacher. When asked to grade him, Hoffman said she would give him an "A or A minus." Hoffman went on to say, "He never has a dull moment in class... it's always interesting," Hoffman also said, "I'm upset that one complaint can have this huge effect," Hoffman exclaimed, "It just doesn't seem fair. If I ever wanted to go into teaching, after this incident, I don't think I will now. A wonderful teacher has fallen victim to the system that he tried to help and his students are the big losers here... it's totally unfair and unjust... I hope Hanson is allowed to continue teaching. Parents only like the boring teachers that teach us nothing of special value and don't do anything controversial... the kind of teachers that put us all to sleep. I want to learn new things and I feel now that I will be denied that right... don't give up Mr. Hanson !"
Additional informants: Kristian Kier, Antal AdriaanseMaintained by Román García Albertos