Dame Darcy

Once, it was possible to make a clear distinction between studio “A”s and exploitation “B”s; nowadays, the sad reality is that Hollywood turns out exploitation cinemanure at inflated studio budgets. But if contemporary Hollywood otherwise suffers a creative bankruptcy of Enron proportions, much new American animation is as compelling as Confessions of a Rarebit Fiend or Snow White were in previous eras. Having fled the cacophonous “big noise” of corporate hypnotism, let’s seek for whatever elusive wonderments less publicised frameworkers might advance us… let’s look beyond the shadows cast by studio animators like Henry Selick or John Lasseter, or even a veteran independent like Sally Cruikshank: I want to champion the singular works of a contemporary American animator who remains, unaccountably, largely unheralded within our film culture.

Dame Darcy’s work pivots on lyrical anachronism. Her animation and short films elaborate the same varieties of Victorian gothic, transposed to contemporaneous US locales, that she otherwise explores in her music and Meatcake comics. These frontier wilderlands are the retreat of a nostalgic whimsy, and the drawing rooms of the nascent American metropolis are now invested with a minatory playfulness. It’s an aesthetic that reconciles the visual grotesqueries of Edward Gorey and Chas Adams to the mannered restraint of Henry James – all of it specifically American, but after the fashion of expatriate Brothers Grimm.

Similarly, Darcy’s music privileges a quaintly macabre sensibility; there’s an echo of Appalachian murder ballads and maudlin clipper-ship shanties. The autodidact rusticisms of outland folksong suggest a refreshingly unfashionable mythology; at the brink of civilisation, reason and learning might not hold so fast as they do at the cosmopolitan centre. Western culture of the Victorian era is pregnant with supernature; all that devotion to reason and hygiene prompts its corresponding horrors wherever the influence of refinement seems most tenuous. It’s a commensality – the monkey’s paw of the weird within the fox-fur glove of tentative civility – that inspires the Dame’s fascination for this recent antiquity. Aptly, it’s her central female characters who are the agents of carnality and a blue-stocking occult.

Golden Shoes

Darcy’s cinema is a collaborative practice; while she typically contributes art design and the soundtrack music, animation duties are largely the task of her colleagues. The only of her films to screen in Australia is Golden Shoes, a collaboration with digital animator Adam Gravois. Golden Shoes is the elliptical ‘dramatisation’ of the Darcy song that also provides the film’s title and soundtrack. The song itself is a perfectly realised work of naïve acoustic pop (on banjo, vibraphone, and other appropriately pre-Edwardian instruments) but the lyrics are so cryptic that it doesn’t provide even a fraying thread of narrative intrigue. Instead, what the song gives the film is both an aesthetic discipline (ingenuous backcountry gothic) and a fragile emotional tone. It’s a genuinely beautiful piece of music, and its lament for a doom-haunted childhood is stunningly matched by Gravois animation of Darcy’s dolls and drawings.

Darcy herself studied animation with Larry Jordan – the one-time assistant to Joseph Cornell – and has acted for George Kuchar. Among her screen works are commissions from PBS and the Cartoon Network, an MTV I-d, and she continues to both host and produce her Turn Of The Century cable-TV show.

A self-styled “lipstick luddite”, the art of Dame Darcy makes a visible refusal to accommodate Capitalist Realist predicates of virtuoso formal perfection or gratuitously sophisticated technology. Instead, Darcy’s films are the proof of an acute sensitivity to musical dynamics; a sensitivity perhaps enhanced by her chimerical multiple career as a musician, as well as an accomplished artist and animator. If her films sometimes hazard the possibility of appearing spontaneously hand-wrought, this quality only serves to enhance their giddy, playful enchantments.

Dame Darcy will be visiting Australia in December, ostensibly to promote the local release (through Simon & Schuster) of her new book, “Frightful Fairytales”. In Melbourne, Darcy will be performing music and screening a selection of her short films at the Builder’s Arms Hotel (Fitzroy) on the evening of Sunday 22nd December; for details of Sydney screenings and performances, at the Mu-Meson Archives and The Chocolate Factory, ring 02-9517 2010. Darcy & Gravois “Golden Shoes” is available on the “Best of Resfest” DVD (http://www.resfest.com).

About The Author

Jim Knox has just quit his bread-job and promises to live by his wits (expect his standard of living to plummet accordingly). He freelances for ABC Radio National and writes liner notes for the Omni Recording Corporation CD label. He is Co-Curator of the Focus on Jim Henson (ACMI, September 2008) and, since 2003, manager of the Outlands Ecoplex cinema for the Meredith Music Festival and Golden Plains Festival. His most recent commission from the BFI is an essay on Jack Ellitt for a DVD-box of work by the GPO Film Unit. He is currently finishing his MA in media arts at RMIT University and the new animation is proceeding slowly...