Celebrating Two Pioneer Women Animators: Mary Ellen Bute and Claire Parker

On the occasion of their 100th birthdays, experimental animators Mary Ellen Bute and Claire Parker will be honored with programs showcasing their extraordinary work. Parker worked in collaboration with Russian-born animator Alexandre Alexeieff, often using a large, elaborate pinboard mechanism that allowed the pair to create incredibly nuanced portraits of light and shadow by pushing thousands of pins to differing heights. In Night on Bald Mountain (1933), the animators illustrate Modest Moussorgsky’s tone poem with a cast of goblins, skeletons and other fantastic creatures depicted as shadowy, morphing figures dancing across the night sky. It’s a haunting, ethereal film lush with texture and emotion. Thirty years later, Parker and Alexeieff created The Nose, based on a Gogol short story; here, their technique has greater clarity and precision, and looks like a detailed etching in motion. Mary Ellen Bute called herself a “designer of kinetic abstractions” and wrote about the “absolute film,” by which she meant art composed of light, form, movement and sound projected to stimulate an aesthetic idea. Her abstract animations set to music belong to the larger canon of visual music and include several black-and-white experiments from the 1930s, among them the lovely Rhythm in Light, made with Melville Webber and Ted Nemeth to accompany the Peer Gynt Suite. Here, sharply etched triangles and circles contrast with soft, amorphous shapes to convey the music’s mood, and while the synchronization isn’t always perfect, the sheer beauty of the abstract images sustains the film. In Tarantella (1940), Bute uses rich reds and blues to signify a lighter mood, while quickly moving spirals, shards, lines and squiggles capture a faster beat. All of it is exuberant and uplifting. Both Parker and Bute were enormously talented filmmakers, and their rarely screened works significantly broaden conceptions of early animation history. Filmforum at the Egyptian Theater; Fri., Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m. (Alexandre Alexeieff/Claire Parker program); Sat., Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m. (Mary Ellen Bute program). (323) 466-3456 or

—Holly Willis


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