GEORGE GRIFFIN is a 38-year-old film animator from Tennessee who lives in the West Bowery and makes movies that are seven minutes long. D.W. Griffith he's not. He makes his movies frame by frame, dot by dot, line by line, with thousands of sequence-drawings, the kind you need to get, say, the arm of a mouse to go from a belt buckle up to a noggin and back to a belt again. Sometimes Griffin employs cutouts, 3-D models, Xerography and live action to make his experimental movies. The result, like all good animation, seems part theater, optical illusion, hallucinogen, game-playing and primitive magic, not least the magic of the filmgoer willing to suspend disbelief for the length of a "cartoon."
Don't get the wrong impression here. George Griffin is no effete intellectual New York film snob, making artsy shorts for people who live in lofts (though he himself lives in one). He seems quite regular, actually, though not without a certain southern panache. He is lanky and wry, with residue of Tennessee in him. The other day he had on a dacron-cotton $1.99 workman's-gray shirt, which he was wearing as a dress shirt. The flapped pocket of the shirt had a little slit in it, nifty for holding an artist's pen.
Since the reporter had the pad, and the artist had the pen, it was only natural Griffin should have been invited to draw. The artist smiled, took out his pen, and drew, like that, in maybe three seconds, with no more than four or five lines, a Box Man, his sort of cinematic alter ego. He added tiny slanting brows, and suddenly the Box Man was glowering. He put in a mouth, which looked like a door, and the Box Man was talking and happy again. The reporter turned the page of his notebook, but Griffin sat back. "Draw something?" he was entreated. "I just did," he said. He smiled. "I can't draw on command."
George Griffin's latest animated opus is "Flying Fur" and it plays to the sound track of an old "Tom and Jerry" cartoon from the '40s. There's not exactly a story line, but the "work" has all kinds of zany chases and flying sweat and improbable careening jolts, with the chaser being the chased, the joltee coming back to give the jolt. There's also, oddly, some mouse civil rights messages. You don't have to be avant-garde to get it, though on the other hand it's not the kind of thing you're likely to see this summer as a trailer to "Grease II."
Griffin grew up in Knoxville, the son of a successful architect. He read James Agee, played jazz on the radio in his room, enrolled at Dartmouth, took a straight job in New York. It didn't take and Griffin wound up an animator. (He also wound up with an animated woman, ; they've lived together 10 years; their first child is due this fall.) Even now he's not at all sure how he got from there to here. Even now he's not exactly sure what it is the animator does. When he started out a decade and a half ago, he used to ask himself: Who the heck would want to see stuff like this? These days, celebrated as an artist, doing gigs on university campuses, he says, a little more self-consciously, perhaps: "I trace my line to find out who I am . . . As a line it represents a connecting thread to other artists--people who make marks and who are in turn marked by what they make."
Griffin says he would like his films to be enjoyed by nearly every man--and most every child. He has done a number of segments for the Children's Television Workshop and "Sesame Street." Awhile ago, he did an animation insert for an adult architecture film. There has long been a tradition among impecunious animators, especially European animators, of paying for the rent by putting the snap, crackle and pop onto breakfast cereal commercials. Griffin is not above doing commercials. He imagines it would pay handsomely. He has existed mainly on Guggenheims and National Endowment for the Arts and AFI production grants. Last year he was an artist-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. He drew all of "Flying Fur" in a month.
His upcoming project will deal with food culture. Additional funding is the problem. "I'd like to take a look at the way vegetables are dismembered, at the violence done to animal flesh in the kitchen."
Once upon a time, Griffin says, art was probably no more than an irritation in the artist's fingers, an itch, a small palsy. The wriggle became a line. Through evolution the line turned into something else. Which explains why we have people like Picasso. "There's this fantasy a lot of animators have of breaking into some sort of mass popular work. I don't mean Hollywood, exactly. But the fantasy remains: 'How can I burst out of my own personal language?'"