All our senses have their own space area of reference, and normally when we perceive we combine them all, what we see, hear, touch and smell all into the one area of space where we live. (Lee, 1971 p. 17)
This essay explores the animation practice of Australian filmmaker Michael Lee, whose career spans the late 1960s to the present. His notoriously dissident and innovative feature length work The Mystical Rose (1976, 65 minutes) is the primary focus, the fulcrum point of this analysis, and balanced by a review of his earlier shorter formative films, his cultural milieu, the thinkers that shaped his youth and particularly his changing relation to the Catholic Church. His relationship with Christianity has gone full circle through a critical rejection, worked through in The Mystical Rose, to a re-embrace in his later films Turnaround (1983, 60 mins) and The Contemplation of the Cross (1989, 27 minutes). This trajectory is understood here in relation to Magic Realism, Michael Bakhtin’s conception of the ‘Carnivalesque’ and Surrealism. What is of particular interest historically for animation is Lee’s pioneering and innovative combination of animation with live action documentation, conveying both inner and outer realities, and mapping the relationships between them.
The Mystical Rose, with its explicit nudity and surrealist transformations of male and female genitalia, has been described as a document of ‘sexual liberation’, addressing a similar audience to Serbian director Dušan Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). For Lee himself , there “was a lot of conflict about sexual matters at the time. I’d inherited the moral code of my Catholic background and I was living in contradiction to them. There was a lot of guilt and confusion and the film was an attempt to exorcise that guilt” (Lee, 1987 p. 27). For Jake Wilson “The desire pent up by Catholicism breaks free in a barely controlled stream of images, as if the very principle of metaphor had been uncovered for the first time and seized upon as a key that might unlock the world” (Wilson, 2004). Though almost invisible now within Australian film history, and unknown internationally, screening for a two-week season at the short-lived Melbourne Filmmaker’s Co-op Cinema in Lygon Street Carlton, its notoriety briefly gained it a cult following locally.
Lee’s next film, Turnaround (1983), made nearly a decade later, marked his reconciliation with Christianity and, although more subdued, its animation sequences made a similar use of metaphor. A remarkable time-lapse sequence has Lee sitting in a lotus position in front of Uluru for hours. Lee commented in 1977 on The Mystical Rose that “I was heavily concerned with my Catholic background. At first as an attempt to destroy it, or throw it off, because I felt it was inhibiting me a lot. So I began by making anti-images to their images” (Lee, 1977 p.16). In 1987 he described this project more dismissively as a “rebellious adolescent film I made in my early 20s” (Lee, 1987 p.27). Whilst Lee’s ignored practice has remained personal and artisanal, the co-op movement in which he participated re-launched an Australian film industry, wherein the innovative cinemas of Paul Cox, Phil Noyce, Peter Weir and others were shaped and gained international prominence. Nevertheless, Lee’s films, including The Mystical Rose remain available for loan from the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.
Michael Lee was born in Townsville, Queensland, on October 15, 1949. He came south to Melbourne from Brisbane in 1968 to study at the newly established Swinburne Film School. He had obtained Special Consideration through the intervention of Erwin Rado, The founding director of the prestigious Melbourne International Film Festival, based on a relationship with the artist Milos Zika, whom Lee’s father helped set up in his stained-glass business in the early 1950s in Melbourne, when the Lee family had lived there. Founded in 1966, Swinburne was at the time the only film-making school in Australia. Lee did not graduate but attended for 18 months, under then-teacher Nigel Buesst. According to Lee, in these fledgling years students did not get full access to editing facilities until their third and final year.
As with most youth during this period Lee was initiated into a ‘bohemian’ life-style of marijuana use, and was also introduced to LSD. Marijuana, however, was the counter-culture’s lubricant of choice. Lee became involved in the growing avant-garde or experimental film scene in Melbourne that gravitated around The Melbourne Filmmakers Co-operative, Pinecotheca Art Gallery and Cantrills Filmnotes initially and later Fringe Network and the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group (MS8FG) and also the Modern Image Makers Association (MIMA), which later morphed into Experimenta. Lee was a member of the founding board of the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-operative (MFMC) which he remembers as including John Mathews, Nigel Buesst and Peter Tammer. This grouping emerged out of the Melbourne Arts Alliance and also included Pat Longmore (1931-1992) who chaired the MFMC from 1972 to 1976. In the 1990s Lee also served on the board of MIMA.
Lee had gravitated towards leftist politics through his misgivings about Australia’s Vietnam War participation. During his Secondary education in Brisbane, he remembers wagging school to attend an anti-war demonstration, resulting in him and others being brought to the School Office to explain their actions to the School Principal. In 1968 he went to Melbourne to study film with his father’s blessings (Lee, 2014).
Lee’s core views were formed not only through his Catholic upbringing but influenced by a youthful immersion in beat literature. At 16 he had read William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and James Joyce. Years 11 and 12 also involved studying art at night school, nurturing those drawing skills that Lee later incorporated into his animation practice. In 1969, after his name had come up in the national draft for war service in Vietnam, Lee pleaded “Conscientious Objection” and won the court case. He had expressed his resolve to serve his three year conscripted service period in jail. (Lee, 2014 and 2016).
His first animation Fundeath (1969, 10 minutes) was shot on Super 8 during his film school period and blown up to 16mm. Its ambiguous title telegraphs the tensions that would similarly underpin The Mystical Rose. Fundeath re-animated images of war gleaned from a booklet published by the Students for Democratic Society, a group propagating the political views of the New Left and formed at the University of Melbourne in 1968. His second short film Black Fungus (14 minutes 1971) cobbled together found or ‘stolen’ newsreel and film footage, and animation produced with idiosyncratic self-made equipment. Lee noted that in filming incognito in St. Kilda’s Palais Theatre on a spring-wound Bolex 16mm camera; “I filmed at 12 frames a second because when I filmed faster it was noisy and people started to look around!” (Lee, 1971 p. 17)
National Geographic and Contemplation of the Rose
In National Geographic and in Contemplation of a Rose, both completed before The Mystical Rose, Lee develops the kaleidoscopic visual effect that finds its way into the lyrebird, flower and cloud sequences of that film. These two films consist of still frames that are faded in and out in series, so that each image overlaps and fades into the next. This metamorphosis has the perceptual effect of focusing the viewer’s attention not so much on the image itself but on subtle changes in focus and framing. In Contemplation of a Rose Lee combines this technique with time-lapse so that the film records the withering of the flowers of this otherwise classic still life. Essentially this technique softens the hard edge of the implicit flicker at the base of projected film, the foundation perceptual phenomenon of persistence of vision at cinema’s base.
Although Lee now considers these two films only technical exercises, they deliver an affective trace often missing, or excised from the rigorous formal structuralist concerns of his British and North American counterparts. This technique also eludes the formalism of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill’s landscape and colour separation films, critical local filmmakers who fostered and influenced Lee’s early career. Though clearly innovative on the level of the filmic apparatus, Lee’s exercises are not explicitly about the apparatus. Their continuously metamorphosing performances infuse mood into the static image, like grass blowing in the wind. It is as if this technique responds to the hard edge of the binary ‘on and off’ of the 24 frames per second flicker of projected film, softening the image at the essential level of the apparatus itself.
Lee states that the “original idea was the nature of how you see things: and that’s how I saw things – they weren’t continuously there, they were continually renewing themselves- continually getting to a state of perfection” (Lee, 1972, p. 7). Lee further connects these kaleidoscopic repetitions to Gertrude Stein’s avant-garde writing practice “Her idea is also that things are constantly re-creating” (Lee, 1972, p. 13). As Stein herself states,
No matter how often you tell the same story if there is anything alive in the telling the emphasis is different. It has to be, anyone can know that. It is very like a frog hopping, he cannot ever hop exactly the same distance or the same way of hopping at every hop. A bird’s singing is perhaps the nearest thing to repetition but if you listen they too vary their insistence. (Stein 1935 p. 167)
The Mystical Rose
The relationship between content and form is critical to theoretical debates around both formalist film and the Co-operative film movement from which Lee emerged and also re-located. The Mystical Rose fuses concerns with content and form, technique and narrative into a contemporary meaning-producing strategy. Lee’s personal narrative constitutes a form of emotional processing that privileges the structure and rituals of the Catholic Church.
The Mystical Rose was launched with a $3,000 grant from the Australian Film Institute’s newly formed Experimental Film and Television Fund in 1974, a fund established to kick-start the Australian Film industry. This paid for equipment to be used in the film, not a wage for the filmmaker. It was expended before the project was complete. This project was more extended and complex than his earlier films, as Lee himself notes:
I was working on The Mystical Rose for so long, and I’m glad it’s over; I feel a great burden has been lifted off my back. I believe my attitude to things has changed by working on it. For instance, I think I am now a religious person, whereas before I did not want to be. (Lee 1977, p. 33)
Lee grounded the film musically following the structure of the four part Catholic Mass (Introductory Rites, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist, Concluding Rites), and a musical score punctuated by classic and popular music, such as David Bowie’s Sorrow remake, recorded in 1973: “to me rock and roll seems a very religious phenomenon, it serves the same purpose” (Lee, 1977 p. 26). Garry Glitter’s Donna (1972) and Ringo Starr’s Only You (& You Alone) (1974) were also used. On the Classical side Lee incorporated Gregorian Chants, a looped section of Erik Satie’s Socrate (1920) and a Mass by Gabrieli.
The film is not a traditional narrative but functions more as an emotional processing machine. Michael Lee’s animation processes his visual thinking, similar to the later Mike Hoolboom’s personal digital video Tom (2002). In Tom, filmmaker Tom Chomont recounts memories of family, infanticide, incest, fetishism, HIV and death which are then treated in pursuit of an emotional truth via an array of cinema fragments, found and stolen images to create an amalgam of real and constructed imagery. This is similar in effect to Lee’s switching between documentary and animation, which is Lee’s way “of working out [his] life and giving it direction” (Lee, 1987 p. 27). Meaningful co-incidences are important in Lee’s assemblages, an understanding framed through Carl Jung’s writings on synchronicity. In Jung’s Parapsychology (Jung, 1973) synchronous events may be acausal but still produce meaning. Lee used the insight in his editing, juxtaposing apparently unrelated images, animations and documentary footage to invoke an emotional stream of consciousness “narrative”. Lee also used the concept to interrogate his own life events.
Though music unifies the film, its visual transitions can be unexpected and surreal. A symbolic imagery reminiscent of Harry Smith’s Early Abstraction Number 10 (1957) binds the film. According to Lee, his preference is to “organize my images so that there is a dramatic development, drama in the sense of a series of events, rather than an interaction between characters” (Lee, 1987 p. 29). Lee had also absorbed Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python sketches. Gilliam’s short sequences were cut-out animations that mixed graphic, photographic and cartoon like imagery into absurdist chains of cause and effect. Gilliam’s Magic Realism, like Lee’s, is “about expanding how you see the world” (Gilliam, 2003). Problems regarding continuity are resolved in deeply personal ways:
I’m very aware of my dreams too. If I have a problem with the work- like should this image go with another image?- I’ll think of that as I go to sleep, and maybe a dream will give me a solution. Maybe it will give me another image that connects the two. (Lee 1987 p. 29)
Live action and Animation
Lee understood the importance of animation early, mobilizing drawing skills he developed at school. “Essentially film is a shadow on the wall – a flickering shadow on the wall. Animation, pixilation, hand-painted film, time-lapse – these are the essence of film” (Lee, 1987 p. 29). This is the position Lev Manovich later exercised in asserting animation’s essential relation to New Media. For Manovich, animation is core to digital moving image production. “The manual construction of images in digital cinema represents a return to the pro-cinematic practices of the nineteenth century, when images were hand-painted and hand-animated” (Manovich, 2001 p. 295) and “digital cinema is a particular case of animation that uses live-action footage as one of its many elements” (p. 302). The principal historical importance of The Mystical Rose highlighted here lies in the innovative dialogue between live action and animation, now so much in vogue and reflected in the emergence of the term ‘documentary animation’. Annabelle Honess Roe has made clear that within the animated documentary, animation has “the potential to convey visually the ‘world in here’ of subjective, conscious experience” (Honess Roe 2013 p. 2) and “to bring things that are temporally, spatially and psychologically distant from the viewer into closer proximity” (p. 2).
This approach is now enabled by the seamless use of digital media with DSLR’s like the Panasonic GH3 and GH4. This technology now allows the recording of high quality moving images with sound and the collection of image sequences or individual images for stop-motion and time-lapse on the same recording device. Lee had to invent his own production pathways to facilitate this integration through the creative use of home-made animation equipment, which included building his own wooden rostrum camera animation stand to which Lee attached the same Bolex camera he used for his live action filmmaking. To economize, Lee often edited his original footage rather than obtaining a copy or work-print.
The Mystical Rose is an early demonstration of Honess Roe’s understanding of animation’s potential to bridge public and inner space. Lee conveys his inner individual experience through his animations, whilst articulating public and social spaces through live-action sequences. The activity around the local church and the ritual slaughter and eating of the lamb at the end of the film (concluding rites) are examples of this documentary aspect. There is a durational balance between these two modes of representation throughout the film. The film continually moves between inner and outer space to produce a dialogue between the two. For Lee, this was essentially an intuitive process tempered by his unique access to drawing, animating and filming technologies:
It happened, I suppose as a child, and in my teenage years, I did a lot of drawing and painting – I always wanted to be an artist – and when I decided upon leaving school, that film was going to be my medium, I naturally got into animation because I could use my drawing skills. Then, also having a movie camera, I filmed live action and then just threw it all together without having a theory to justify it. What I’d say now about it is that the animation would tend to be a representation of internal feelings, much more than the live action filming, and so intercutting the two is a viable technique for integrating the world within with the exterior world. (Lee, 1987 p. 29)
Carnivalesque and Magic Realism
Lee’s consequential re-embrace of Catholicism suggests that what is achieved here is not a sustained alternative view of the world, but an attitude and process resembling Michael Bakhtin’s ‘Carnivalesque’, in which normal power structures are overturned only momentarily. While many on the left of politics who moved from their Catholic faith sustained this rejection throughout their lives, for Lee it led to a strong re-commitment.
In The Mystical Rose, Lee shares with Renaissance writer François Rabelais (1483-1553) the derision of certain religious practices of the Roman Catholic Church. In his analysis of Rabelais, Bakhtin makes the point that the carnival is not the same as modern formal parody, arguing that “folk humor denies, but it revives and renews at the same time” (Bakhtin 1984, p. 11). Lee’s blasphemy of Catholicism led to a renewal, a turnaround further articulated in his later features Turnaround and Contemplation of the Cross. The Mystical Rose is the first chapter of this trilogy.
Bakhtin’s description of the ‘Carnivalesque’ is uncannily accurate for describing Lee’s method and anti-images. Where Lee reconfigures the cross into intercourse between male and female genitalia, and metamorphoses the rose into a vagina, he re-animates the Catholic Church’s iconography into the kind of profanities expressed by Bakhtin’s ‘Carnivalesque’:
All the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of the gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities. We find here a characteristic logic, the peculiar logic of the ‘inside out’ (a l’envers), of the ‘turnabout,’ of a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings. (Bakhtin 1984 p. 11)
According to Bakhtin, “[A]ll were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age” (p. 10). This sense of equality addresses the public mood during this film’s production, a period of high social mobility facilitated by free tertiary education. A belief formed that all were equal inside a youth culture whose sociability was lubricated by pervasive marijuana use and popular music. Cultural production blossomed. This time marked both the emergence of second-wave feminism and the birth of Australia’s contemporary National Film Industry.
Importantly Gough Whitlam’s Labor government, the first since the Second World War, ended Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War. At Lee’s flat it became ‘party time,’ to the extent that Lee did not go home after some film events because there were too many people there, sleeping instead under the stairs at the University or in the heated waiting room at Spencer Street Railway Station, enacting a kind of pseudo homelessness (Lee, 2014). The carnival had arrived, a moment of re-appraisal and turnaround for Lee but for others, a new normal, a perpetual never-ending story.
Like many of the 1970s generation, Surrealism spoke to Lee’s cultural and political position during a time of unprecedented aural and personal mobility, facilitated by the transistor radio and a related exploding pop and youth culture. Lee was further attracted to Magic Realism’s mix of the real and the fantastic, a relationship also locatable in Catholicism’s symbolism and imagery and expressed in his mixed practice of animation and live action. Magic Realism is characterized by its mixture of fantasy and the everyday. In it the magical and supernatural blends with mundane everyday life. Lee mobilized experimental animation techniques to invoke an enchanting internal world.
This experimentation approaches the technical range of Jan Švankmajer’s animation practices. In addition to the distinctive in-camera kaleidoscopic effect I describe above, this experimentation included the use of colour filters, double exposures, re-filmed found footage and time-lapse combined with photographs and drawings. Also present is the re-animation of religious iconography in a ‘cut-out’ style inspired by Terry Gilliam’s early Monty Python sequences as well as the construction of miniature sculptural sets. Lee contrasted his animation with a real-time documentary approach of capturing everyday events, mostly from the second story window of the flat in North Melbourne where he lived and worked for 9 years, with an elevated view of a local Catholic Church never entered during this ‘residency.’
Salvador Dalí’s (1904-1989) Surrealist paintings were popular during The Mystical Rose’s production, which Lee also embraced. One animated sequence in particular, in which a gathering of clocks rise out of a ‘lunar’ landscape, brings to mind Dalí’s ubiquitous and celebrated painting, The Persistence of Memory (1931). Dalí’s surrealism was oftentimes paired with ‘drug guru’ Timothy Leary’s (1920-1996) famous “Tune in, turn on and drop out” counter-culture chant. (Leary, 1964) Dalí’s Paranoid Critical Method, wherein the artist cultivated a sense of paranoia to undermine a cohesive notion of ‘the self,’ was designed to produce altered states of consciousness from which Dalí then retrieved his visual imagery, articulations of an ‘irrational knowledge:’
My sole pictorial ambition is to materialize by means of the most imperialist rage of precision the images of concrete irrationality. The world of imagination and the world of concrete irrationality may be as objectively evident, consistent, durable, as persuasively, cognoscitively [sic], and communicably thick as the exterior world of phenomenal reality. (Dalí, 1935)
Leary similarly advocated the controlled use of psychedelic drugs to access such states, a practice avoided by Dalí himself. Lee’s creative method, since discarded, required an almost continuous marijuana induced state of consciousness, combining Dalí’s approach with Leary’s philosophy.
As I have previously suggested, Lee’s dense short-circuited Catholic tapestry further brings to mind Jan Švankmajer’s short films and Terry Gilliam’s embrace of Magic Realism in both his animations and later features. The transistor radio provided Gilliam and Lee’s generation with a new mobility that mandated a new ‘method’ to bring to visual form, for which Lee, like others, combined the approached of Dalí and Leary. For Gilliam, Magic Realism mobilizes an imagination cultivated by intimate visualizations of popular music, since colonized by MTV. Gilliam observes,
I think radio gave me all my visual skills. Which is an extraordinary thing—because you have to invent it, it’s not there. The sound effects are there, the voices are there, and you’ve got to invent the costumes, the faces, the sets. It’s the most incredible exercise for visual imagination. (Gilliam 2003)
Švankmajer’s Lunacy (2005), as many of his other films, re-states the irreverent approach of Lee’s anti-images. Lunacy “contemplates extreme individualism and religious blasphemy as means of liberating the self from strict power structures” (Webb Jekanowski 2013). Švankmajer’s eclectic mixture of animation techniques through puppetry, stop-motion and cut-outs also parallels Lee’s own practice.
Today, The Mystical Rose can be read as prescient of the revelations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church during and preceding the period of its production. Certainly Lee unpacks the Catholic Church’s iconography in its most erotic form. In discussing his film Alice (1988), based on the Lewis Carrol’s surreal Alice in Wonderland, Švankmajer suggests that the creative emotional imagery enlisted by the pedophile is implicitly more persuasive than the critical language available to the educator, asserting that “Carroll is an illustration of the fact that children are better understood by pedophiliacs than by pedagogues” (Švankmajer 1987 p. 51). This insight, while perhaps problematic, is certainly worthy of further analysis.
The initial motivation for this essay was to repatriate an otherwise forgotten or marginal practice and work of art, invisible to a canon that recognizes Svankmajer, Gilliam and Makavejev and to place The Mystical Rose in relation to such practice. In this historical context Lee’s re-embrace of Catholicism no longer has to be defined as a betrayal to a counter-cultural project that has now itself run out of steam. Lee’s innovative combination of live action with animation in The Mystical Rose predicts the emergence of a now viable form of animated documentary practice and a realm of personal filmmaking that seamlessly moves from one technique to another to tell a story through the enabling malleability of digital media.
Dirk de Bruyn is currently Associate Professor of Screen and Design at Deakin University in Melbourne, Victoria (Burwood Campus). He has been practicing, writing and curating in the area of experimental film and animation for over 40 years. His book The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art was published in 2014 by Cambridge Scholars.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1984) Rabelais and His World. Bloomington (IN): Indiana University Press.
Dalí, Salvador, and David Gascoyne. (1935) Conquest of the Irrational. New York: Julien Levy.
Gilliam, Terry. (2003) “Salman Rushdie talks with Terry Gilliam: All my Films are really about America in many ways.” The Believer March 2003. Available from http://www.believermag.com/issues/200303/?read=interview_gilliam
Honess Roe, Annabelle. (2013) Animated Documentary. Palgrave McMillan, New York.
Jung, Carl G. (1973) Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Leary, Timothy, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. (1964) The Psychedelic Experience. New York: University Books.
Lee, Michael. (1971) “Black Fungus” in Cantrills Filmnotes 3. pp. 16-17
—. (1972) “National Geographic” in Cantrills Filmnotes 10 (September). pp. 6-13.
—. (1977) “Michael Lee Talks about The Mystical Rose.” Cantrills Filmnotes 25/26 (September). pp. 16-33.
—. (1987) Interviewed by Dirk de Bruyn “Crossing the Great Stream with Camera in Hand.” Filmviews 133. pp. 27-9.
—. (2014) Unpublished Interview.
—. (2016) Email Correspondence, Tuesday, 5 July.
Manovich, Lev. (2001) The Language of New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. London.
Stein, Gertrude. (1935) “Portraits and Repetition.” Lectures in America. Boston: Beacon Press.
Švankmajer, Jan. (1987) “Animating the Fantastic.” Afterimage 13 Autumn 1987.
Webb Jekanowski, Rachel. (2013) “Running the Lunatic Asylum: Tracing the Grotesque Body in Jan Švankmajer’s Lunacy (2005).” Off: Screen 17 (2). Available from http://offscreen.com/view/svankmajers_lunacy
Wilson, Jake. (2004) “The Mousoulis Vision of Independence.” Realtime 63 (October-November).
© Dirk de Bruyn
Edited by Amy Ratelle