Although it belongs in the tradition of visual music initiated by avant-garde artists such as Viking Eggeling and Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger, the remarkably prescient and political work of experimental animator Jodie Mack is always curious, contemporary and cutting edge.
Working with a 16mm Bolex, with no computer-generated images or alterations made outside of the camera, Mack’s practice is that of stop-motion animation: 24 photographs sequenced for one second of on-screen time. Though her animated films can also be documentaries – two modes that are not necessarily mutually exclusive – they disregard the very idea of objectivity.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Moreover, Mack’s animated documentaries compound and recombine with cinematic genres, and repeatedly with one of the most maligned: the film musical.
Mack – who counts The Cantor’s Son (1937), The Pajama Game (1957), West Side Story (1961), Tommy (1975) and Xanadu (1980) among her favourites – adopts this form in two mid-length and one feature-length films: 2008’s Yard Work Is Hard Work, 2013’s Dusty Stacks of Mom and 2018’s The Grand Bizarre.
Though Mack’s work is especially known for its bright colour, energy and exuberance, even her most abstract or effervescent animations insightfully reflect the anger and anxiety of the world we live in. With a knack for turning the saccharine subversive, they demolish the boundaries between such dichotomies as production and consumption, fine art and kitsch, synthetic and natural, high and low.
Jodie Mack’s thesis film, a handmade ‘minimusical’, is mostly sung-through, with boy-girl duets sequenced and composed in a split-screen, scrapbook style. Perhaps Mack’s least abstract and most clearly plotted film, Yard Work Is Hard Work sets out as a recognisable, conventional romance.
A sweet story of young love tested by the 2008 economic recession, the film instead quickly becomes about capitalism, a grand, glorious musical on unglamorous and mundane minutiae: on adjustable rate mortgages, student loans and health insurance. Mack’s materials – mostly magazines and cutouts from advertisements – are recycled and reappropriated, idealised imagery refashioned into something realer-than-real, manipulated but more truthful for both its consideration of systemics and its sincerity.
For Mack, this is a kind of animation as reanimation: heaps of detritus and scraps of scraps replaced and reinvigorated when put in motion. This aspect of Mack’s practice is found again, and on a larger scale, in Dusty Stacks of Mom, a professional breakthrough that, along with a quartet of accompanying shorts films, forms Mack’s rock opera Let Your Light Shine (2013).Chronicling the rise and fall of Mack’s mother’s mail-order poster store and its closure after twenty-something years, this mid-length musical sees the filmmaker reclaiming all of the business’s outstanding stock for one last hurrah, a eulogy for the mom-and-pop shop’s inventory of obsolete materials.
As a capsule of a time and place since eclipsed if not outright usurped by the internet, Dusty Stacks of Mom points to the limited lifespan of these overproduced, reproduced images in both their form and their content. These are tangible, physical and ultimately perishable objects as well as representations of ephemeral ubiquity and a circulated celebrity that has long faded.
In her quick, kinetic animation, Mack creates manic and mesmerising kaleidoscopic vortexes from these existing materials, borrowing the structure and rewriting the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon – the album artwork for which is itself a simple representation of the prism spectrum, an icon of 1970s psychedelia both abstract and everyday.
A combination of personal filmmaking and live performance, the project’s long-running international tour would afford Mack the means to make her most ambitious work to date: a macroscopic feature-length musical called The Grand Bizarre (subtitle: ‘The Pleasure of the Textile’). This is a tourist’s travelogue in 12 songs and 60 minutes, shot across five years and 15 countries.
Bursting with ideas and painstakingly sequencing more than 85,000 individual frames, the film seeks the origins of patterns in the global economy, as they manifest in the textiles, language and music that surround us. But without lyrics, voiceover narration or on-screen text, Mack’s film – skeptical of systems of knowledge like language – dispenses with any such metatextual techniques to find order in the ineffable and represent reality.
Instead, the film is assembled according to motif and in a causal, connect-the-dots, chain-of-production style: a parade of patterns flickering between flat top-down two-dimensional close-ups and long shots in landscape and textiles in time and space. Closer to Mack’s silent stroboscopic material studies, the film takes these textiles out of that context, dispersing them around the world.
Creating its soundtrack from samples of sounds, not just those of sewing machines and birds, but also the building blocks that create the international phonetic alphabet, The Grand Bizarre synchronises the tempo of its digital audio with the rhythms of its analogue animation.
Musical notes are matched to frames in Mack’s 16mm film, a critique, implicit in the film’s form, of the planned obsolescence of today’s technologies. In The Grand Bizarre’s juxtaposition of artisan industries and mass production, of the Jacquard loom and binary code, the film suggests the finite limits of the digital, of computation in animation and sound, of software such as GarageBand and Photoshop.
Ultimately, the origins of these alluring but homogenous (and easily, endlessly reproduced) patterns prove invisible – just as the labour to create them remains invisible to the consumer. As Mack says, the brightest coloured dyes are the most toxic.