Sunday, February 04, 2007

Oskar Fischinger Saved My Life

OK, we can’t take it literally. We never met. In fact, when I first heard the name Oskar Fischinger, he had been gone for over ten years.
Nevertheless, this German artist awoke a dormant portion of my skull. It was 1977, it was a Sunday, and I was housesitting for a professor on summer vacation, staring at a stack of sketches I had made for still another professor’s lab manual on organic chemistry. My brother called from the family home (he had the summer off) and told me that Camera Three was going to run a program on "some guy that worked at Disney."
At 11am, I tuned in on the professor’s TV, and by 11:30 I was no longer a pharmacy student facing a mind-numbing future being an insurance monkey for a corporate chain. Well, let me rephrase that–I was still facing that bleak pharmaceutical future, but my mind would not be the property of a Cunningham’s, a Walgreen’s, or a Rite Aid. That afternoon, I set the lab manual sketches aside and began making random circles and lines, one atop the other, in the traditional animation style I had set aside while pursuing the "proper" career of becoming a pharmacist...a few weeks later, I filmed them with my Super 8mm camera and spliced the results into the middle of another animated film I had also set aside for the sake of academics.
In the meanwhile, I had written a note to Camera Three expressing my thanks for their program. A few weeks later, I received replies, not only from Camera Three, but from the widow of Oskar Fischinger, Elfreida, who sat on the discussion panel that Sunday morning between poet- filmmaker William Moritz and moderator-animator John Canemaker.
She thanked me for my comments and recommended Dr. Moritz’s extensive article on her husband in Film Culture written in 1974 (if you can find a copy, get it, No. 58-60), of which she had several copies. I bought one, and read it to ribbons. Our communications were periodic after that, and when VHS became an industry standard, I bought a copy of her husband’s films from her. I have also nearly run that tape to bare mylar as well. We exchanged Christmas cards, I continued to fumble around as a pharmacist, first in the Detroit area, then in Battle Creek, and still made short animated films on super 8mm for the festival circuit. Pharmacy paid well enough for me to pick up 16mm copies of Fischinger’s work from Elfreida as the years went on, and I built a tiny archive of his work.
In 1988, we finally met. I was attending the Ottawa International Animation Festival when ahead of me I saw a couple walking. It was Elfreida Fischinger with William Moritz. She was attending the showings, and he was putting on a program of abstract animation featuring Oskar’s work. It was a wonderful encounter. She told me her younger brother was a pharmacist in Germany contemplating retirement (it is true everywhere–pharmacists never retire), Dr. Moritz told me gossip surrounding Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, and we all met the next day for breakfast.
We continued our written communication, supplemented by the occasional phone call, and when I first married in 1992, she sent a beautiful poster for one of Oskar’s retrospectives as a wedding gift.
So when Elfreida passed away in 1999, it was not just a name being wiped from the upcoming 2000 census, it was the loss of a friend.
Dr. Moritz completed his testament to Oskar Fischinger, Optical Poetry, just before he faded away in 2003. This book is in print. Get it. Get two. (Indiana University Press, www.iupress.indiana.edu)
And John Canemaker, the host who brought both of them onto CBS that Sunday morning, remains a champion of animation history and independent production -- he has finally won an Academy for his animation work and is helping bring Disney to the realization that their unsung heroes have populated their archives with astonishing works of art.
I have come upon a new DVD of Fischinger’s work, from the Center for Visual Music (http://www.iotacenter.org/) that is an incredible, beautifully preserved and digitally restored collection of ten of his films, as well as offering a huge selection of photographs and filmed experiments. For anyone interested in how abstract animation can actually work, both as an art form and as a source of entertainment, this is the place to begin.
It could save your life.



(Here's a teeny version of my Sfumato #1, inspired by Oskar Fischinger, circa 1999)