Frank Film by Frank and Caroline Mouris

Part of our ongoing Film Portal series, Chris Houkal brings us Frank and Caroline Mouris’s Frank Film, an experimental short film comprised of continuously morphing image collages and dual narrations.


Life is a complex affair and any attempt to describe one’s life is bound to be overly simplified. Animator Frank Mouris’s Frank Film is one of the best and most visually arresting attempts at getting this complexity across that I’ve seen.

In 1973 Mouris and his wife Caroline set out to tell his story via collage, using images cut out from a wealth of magazines and newspapers he’d been collecting for years. These images tell one part of the story as two separate voice over tracks expand on what we’re seeing. Well, mostly. While the main narrative and images generally comprise a pretty straight forward autobiographical account, the second audio track, representing his freely associated thoughts (most of which begin with the letter “F”) occasionally only tangentially agrees with them.

Cinephile Interest

Mouris is a curious artist. He claims to have no interest in drawing, yet majored in graphic design in college because, he says, he was not sure of what he wanted to do. His interest in animation came about only after seeing a work by another artist consisting entirely of magazine cut outs, which he felt even he could do.  He attributes his reliance on colorful images to partial color blindness. Mouris’s work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. Original as it is, there are definite antecedents in the art of Terry Gilliam, himself influenced by collage artist Stan van der Beek and others, all of whom owe something to the works of several Dada artists, namely Hannah Hoch and Kurt Schwitters.

Don’t feel too bad if it takes a couple of viewings to ‘get’ Frank Film as it’s a work of extreme density. (And can an experiment in free association ever be truly understood?) This short is intended for people who want to be challenged. Aside from the constantly morphing image collages, which seem to tire of staying on any one idea for very long, Mouris himself confounds the viewer with his overlapping voice over narratives. It’s a lot like watching a very fast-paced film while simultaneously listening to All Things Considered on NPR.

I don’t care who you are: the most dedicated multi-tasker in the universe will have trouble keeping track of what exactly is going on. There are images galore, constantly moving, shifting, morphing into things, disappearing… Just as your eyes are struggling to keep up with the imagery, your ears are confounded by the voices, both produced in a droning manner by Frank himself. One track is offering what you immediately recognize as this guy’s history while the other is …what?

Some of the words seem to coincide with the images and some with the autobiography. Others serve both nicely. But every once in a while Mouris throws in content that seems a tad incongruous. I get the countdown to his birth, here visualized as changing TV styles, and the list of saints as we see cut-out images of various saintly types throughout history (and what appears to be a clown).

Saints Frank Film

But why is he reading what may or may not be family member names between the two as we see images of himself as a child? This is how free association works, of course, and here it probably relates to his growing awareness of the circle of people around him: Family.

Considering the overall abstract feel of the short, some of the sequences are curiously literal – for example when Mouris talks about wanting, as a young boy, to work with his father at the gas station, images of tires and then cars form into magnificent collages. But even here, thanks to some sharp juxtaposing of sound and image, we learn what this is really about: teenage sexual Fantasies, the back seats of cars being where one traditionally makes out with a date.

As this line of thought continues, we return to one of Mouris’s favorite “F” topics: Food. His fantasies here graphically portrayed by what appear to be flying hot dogs piercing the space between two pieces of bread. He then reels off a list of girls he had crushes on as miscellaneous (presumably) female body parts – uh, not those… eyes, noses, etc. – visually evoke these bits and pieces of erotic adolescent memory. If we really want to understand this guy this seems to be an important sequence, as his reading of their names is one of the few times he breaks from his all-words-beginning-with-“F” secondary narration. One gets the impression that this sequence is very important to him because he’s no longer freely associating ideas. There is a particular face and body attached to the word for him in a way that there isn’t with a car or saint. Along with the television sequence which kicks off the short, this seems to me to be the most telling of his associations.

Not only does Frank Film stand as a fine art film in its own right, it also serves a great example of a time when even artsy oddities were found to have merit: it won the Oscar for Short Subjects (Animated Films) in 1973.

Watch Frank Film on UbuWeb.frank-stein

Author: Chris Houkal is completing his MS in Cinema Productions at DePaul University. This autumn he is the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets. Here are some samples of his work on Vimeo.

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