Parabola (1937) A Silent Film Review

Pioneering animator Mary Ellen Bute creates a mathematical and abstract miniature piece of visual music. It’s a stunner!

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.

Check out those curves!

Texas native Mary Ellen Bute hoped to have an artistic career but was dissatisfied with the static nature of painting. “There were so many things I wanted to say, stream-of-consciousness things, designs and patterns while listening to music. I felt I might be able to say [them] if I had an unending canvas.”

That unending canvas turned out to be a reel of film. Between 1934 and 1967, Bute completed over a dozen pictures, most in the field of abstract animation. She used ping-pong balls, sparklers, prisms, mirrors and, later, electronic imagery like oscilloscope patterns. Her collaboration with cinematographer Ted Nemeth was responsible for some of the bolder, more imaginative examples of mid-century animation.

Bute’s abstract taste and obsession with grinding music down to its mathematic elements means that her animation is not likely to make it into the Saturday morning cartoon rotation but they’re extremely rewarding as works of art. And you can still eat cereal while you watch them, I won’t tell. (Shredded wheat for me, please!)

Parabola examines the beauty of the symmetrical, u-shaped curve from which it takes its name. I am very much in favor of this topic. Sure, love and loss and swashbuckling and dragons are all fun but anybody who would dedicate an entire short film to a member of the conic sections family is okay by me.

And does Bute ever have fun with her subject! Sure, her subject is as nerdy as they come but she pursues it with playfulness and humor so just forget any tropes of a dry and dusty mathematician hunched over a dry and dusty chalkboard. Parabola opens with an ode to the curve and then starts dancing with it to the sounds of Création du monde by Darius Milhaud. Busby Berkeley never had this much fun with legs and tutti frutti hats.

Obviously, even though this film was made a decade after the talkie revolution, it is very much in the spirit of the silent era. Music and images merge together on the screen, each supporting and strengthening one another. It’s quite a sensory feast. You can either be an active viewer and try to figure out how Bute created these images or you can take a more passive approach and just let it all sweep over you. Either approach has its pleasures.

Bute’s very definite artistic obsession with visualizing music leads me to wonder if she had some form of synesthesia, that is, she actually did “see” music. Russian composers Alexander Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov both saw music in color and schooled Sergei Rachmaninov when he objected by pointing out that he wrote a sequence involving a chest of gold in D major, which was of course golden brown. Checkmate, Sergei!

Louis Bertrand Castel and his light organ.

Mary Ellen Bute was obsessed with painting with light and played around with a “color organ” that would emit colored light as well as sound. (This form of visual music had been knocking around for at least 400 years when Bute gave it a shot. I particularly like the idea of an “ocular harpsichord” and would love to see one of these instruments in action.)

I was introduced to the concept of serious visual music at a fairly young age thanks to my family’s Commodore 64 computer and the program Swinth. Random line art and colors would be generated on the screen while synth music played; it’s not truly synchronized with or generated by the music but it does enhance the experience. It may not sound so impressive today but it was pretty amazing in 1985. I wonder what Mary Ellen Bute would have thought of it. (I still find the program to be incredibly relaxing and it probably goes a long way toward explaining my chill attitude toward synth music for silent films. I grew up surrounded by C64 music, Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk; it was inevitable.)

A large part of Parabola’s appeal is its visual elegance. Naturally, curves are the central character in the piece but the way they are filmed is what wins the viewer over. They sweep and shimmer and peel away and swoop back. Ten minutes with a single shape may not sound too fascinating but Bute keeps our interest with her winning combination of imaginative objects and mathematical precision.

Of course, no conversation of this type can be had without bringing in Disney’s Fantasia (1940). All I can say is that if you want an apples to apples comparison, Synchromy No. 4: Escape (1937 or 1938, sources vary) used Bach’s Toccata and Fugue as a springboard for creating abstract imagery—the Bach piece is also the most abstract portion of Fantasia—and for my money, Mary Ellen blasts Walt out of the water. The Disney take isn’t bad but it is more literal and obvious while Bute’s film goes racing off in all kinds of geometric directions.

(When discussing Fantasia’s possible inspirations, I should also mention that Alexeieff and Parker’s pinscreen animated Night on Bald Mountain was released in 1933. It is also included in the Early Women Filmmakers box set.)

Mary Ellen Bute may not be as big a name in animation as Disney but she deserves a place of honor. Her constant innovation and her playful imagination pushed the boundaries of her art and her films make for wonderful viewing eight decades after they were first released.

Parabola is a beautiful film that is at once thoroughly 1930s and timeless, an absolute treasure for anyone interested in the artier side of animation. It’s an excellent introduction to the kind of logical madness that marks Bute’s work.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD and Bluray as part of the Early Women Filmmakers box set from Flicker Alley. The set also includes Spook Sport, one of Bute’s first color animations. Well worth seeking out.


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  1. Marie Roget

    I had hoped you would at some point review this Bute film, one of so many treasures in the Early Women Filmmakers boxed set. I have always felt that listening to music (particularly classical) in a pitch dark room is just the best experience of it. It allows the listener to visualize the forms it suggests as if on a personal screen. Oh, to preserve those images…and Bute did!

    Thanks for the shout-out to the pin screen Night on Bald Mountain, which I have completely fallen in love with since buying the boxed set 🙂

  2. Gijs Grob

    I thought I knew my avant-garde animation, but this stunning artist thus far had escaped my attention (oh! those unjustly male-dominated histories!). Thanks for sharing!

  3. Ross

    “Mary Ellen Bute (1906-1983) brought a longstanding interest in electronic media to her filmmaking in the early 1950s. In the final two animated abstract films of her career, ‘Abstronic’ (1952) and ‘Mood Contrasts’ (1953), she incorporated oscilloscope imagery.”

    ‘Animation: The Global History’ – Maureen Furniss.

    Buried away in Mac OSX is an interesting program which ‘Parabola’ reminded me of: ‘Grapher.’

    It’s at HD->Applications->Utilities->Grapher

    Fortunately for the unqualified in Solid Geometry (and me very much so) there are examples which can be played, and modified.

    I’d imagine Ms Bute would have enjoyed and perhaps used it.

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