Years ago I was with my family at Thanksgiving when my nephew told me he wanted me to see some stuff he’d found on the internet. We went upstairs, away from the rest of the relatives, and he showed me a series of cartoons that were incredibly creepy and hysterically funny, all of them by a guy named Don Hertzfeldt. I’ve never forgotten that day.
Hertzfeldt’s early work may have looked crude, but it was actually way more lively and interesting than most of the animation you see in theatres. The big studios spend millions on feature length cartoons with incredible technical polish and zero soul. Hertzfeldt creates his work himself, with his own hands. His simple line drawings are combined with found images that are often blurred and distorted. For his soundtracks he relies on ambient noise and a fair amount of shrieking. But the end result isn’t just funny, it’s disturbing and moving.
The early shorts are all about brutal, absurd situations where people often get hurt really badly. But in recent years Hertzfeldt has added other dimensions to his work. His most recent release, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is an amazing piece of filmmaking. The crazy horror is still there, but now underlying it is a weird cosmic beauty. With all the terrible trauma we see on the screen, the film has a strange serenity to it. The universe may be a terrifying place, but Hertzfeldt accepts it as it is. And he seems to be saying that we should treasure the stray moments of happiness as they slip through our fingers.
You might think a film that was basically made by one guy would be a thin, minimal affair. But no. Hertzfeldt’s hand-made images vibrate with a crazy, implacable life. Flames leap across the screen. Seagull cries float on the breeze. Windows open up out of the darkness, flicker with distant memories and then close again. Along with the director’s deadpan narration, layers of sound create a dense, sometimes unnerving texture that can be overwhelming. A symphony orchestra plays while noise piles up on top of it, growing louder and louder until you just want it all to stop. And he also layers images over each other, in this case suggesting the way memories pile up in layers, rubbing against one another, slowly growing blurred and faded.
Memory is key in It’s Such a Beautiful Day. The film follows a man named Bill as he slowly falls apart, suffering from some unspecified disease. As his mind and body deteriorate, his memory fades. First he has trouble remembering recent events, and soon he can’t recognize people he’s known for years. Pictures from the past surface without warning, some that come from Bill’s distant memories, and others that conjure up frightening relatives who lived long before his time. The fear, pain and loneliness that haunt Bill aren’t new. They’ve been around forever, handed down from generation to generation.
This probably all sounds horribly depressing. Yeah. It is. Up to a point. But there’s that strange serenity I mentioned earlier. A sense of acceptance. It’s as if Hertzfeldt has stepped back far enough from our everyday struggles to take in the whole universe. Our suffering doesn’t seem so important in the vast, cosmic scheme of things. Bill’s final visions are of an eternal, shimmering, infinite universe in which he’s just a mote drifting through space.
Hertzfedlt may be an awful cynic, but there’s more to this movie than pain and loneliness. As Bill goes through his terrible downward spiral, he comes across reminders that people can care for each other, that tenderness exists. Love may be fleeting, but it is real. And finding the beauty in the world may just be a matter of opening your eyes to it.
In the twenties, the Fleischer brothers created Ko Ko, the Clown, who appeared in their popular Out of the Inkwell series. Later on they produced successful series of cartoons featuring Popeye and Superman. But the character probably most closely associated with the Fleischers was Betty Boop. Though Betty didn’t appear until the thirties, she seemed to be channeling the spirit of the twenties with her short dresses and bobbed hair. At times the cartoons she appeared in featured music performed by Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
Ha! Ha! Ha! begins, as many Fleischer cartoons do, with one of the Fleischer brothers at the drawing board. Max has just finished drawing Betty when quitting time arrives. Shortly after Max leaves for the day, Ko Ko pops out of the inkwell and starts wandering around on the desktop. Fleischer characters often interact with live action settings, and Ko Ko starts munching on a candy bar that Max has left behind. Almost immediately, he’s struck with a painful toothache, and Betty comes to his rescue. Jumping down off the drawing board, she picks up a pen and draws a dentist’s office, giving her all the tools she needs to pull Koko’s tooth, she thinks. After a brief, painful struggle, where pulling the tooth somehow looks more like dancing the tango, Ko Ko is still suffering terribly. Betty decides to give him some laughing gas, but unfortunately she’s a little careless. Soon the room is filled with a dense cloud of nitrous oxide.
This is where things really get interesting. One of the coolest things about the Fleischers’ world is that anything can, and does, happen. In this case, the clock on the wall suddenly has a face, and it begins to laugh. Then the same thing happens with a typewriter. But the effects of the drug aren’t just confined to the Fleischer studio. The gas spills out the window and into the streets below. Soon crowds of people are laughing hysterically, and even more inanimate objects come to startling life. A mailbox, a bridge, and a car are overcome with mirth, but it goes even farther. As the film nears its end we see an entire cemetery filled with tombstones, all of them bellowing with uncontrollable laughter.
Most animation studios produce cartoons with familiar stories based on familiar formulas, because they know their audience is looking for a safe high. The Fleischers didn’t play it safe. They really took advantage of the possibilities in animation by creating a universe where anything could happen, and the laws of nature didn’t apply. Their cartoons may take you into other dimensions, other realities. They may take you places you don’t even want to go. Much of their work has a wild, surreal quality, and some of it is truly creepy.
Unfortunately, they had to clean up their act in the mid-thirties when the Production Code took hold. The Fleischers continued to do excellent work, but without reaching the same crazy heights and scary depths. The character who suffered most was Betty Boop. In a way she seemed like the last hold-out from the jazz age, a cute, sexy girl looking to have fun. The Production Code put an end to all that. Forced to change her ways, Betty became a much less interesting character. She made her last cartoon in nineteen thirty nine.
You can watch Betty in Ha! Ha! Ha! by clicking on the link below.
If you’re interesting in seeing one of the most startling and strange cartoons the Fleischers produced, take a look at…
As for their later work, one of their most visually striking efforts is…
Back in the fifties, most cartoons were about funny animals doing crazy things. While some of them included humor directed at adults, animated shorts were intended to be family fare. Cartoon characters might fall off a building or get blown to smithereens, but nobody ever got hurt. The tone was always breezy, lighthearted, upbeat.
So UPA’s decision to produce a short based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart was a pretty startling move. But this wasn’t the first time the studio flouted the status quo. Though little known today, UPA was one of the most innovative studios in the history of animation, and it had a tremendous impact on the medium. Most importantly, the studio’s artists embraced a radical simplification of figures and backgrounds, and drew on the language of abstraction. They didn’t care about imitating life. Their goal was to create vivid, expressive images.
Poe’s story is a disturbing descent into the mind of a madman, who tells us how he came to murder the old man he had been living with. The opening paragraph gives us a vivid picture of the narrator’s state of mind.
TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
The tale is incredibly compact, with our narrator giving a harrowing account of the crime in about four pages. At just under eight minutes, the cartoon maintains the same single-minded focus. Screenwriters Bill Scott and Fred Grable do away with the obsessive precision of Poe’s language and go for a simpler, more direct approach. They also eliminate the killer’s explanations of his complex, conflicting emotions. In the film the narration is fairly straightforward, and James Mason’s delivery is both effective and affecting.
In the film, just as in Poe’s story, we experience everything from our narrator’s point of view. Director Ted Parmalee, designer Paul Julian and animator Pat Matthews conjure up a series of unnerving images that bring us right into the oppressive gloom of the old house. Drawing on both expressionism and surrealism, the style of the film makes us feel that we are indeed seeing all this through the eyes of a madman. Spiky shadows stretch across the floorboards. The moon decays and crumbles before our eyes. When the old man is murdered we see his face disappear in a violent swirl of yellow and black.
The film would not be as powerful or as disturbing without Boris Kremenliev’s eerie modern score. Kremenliev did very little work in film, which is a shame because the dissonant harmonies and jagged rhythms he uses for The Tell-Tale Heart complement the images perfectly. His style was completely in synch with the kind of music that was being performed in concert halls at the time, but it was a bold approach for a short that was being released by a major studio. While David Raksin and Bronislau Kaper had subtly woven new compositional techniques into their work, I don’t know of any Hollywood score up to that time that was so aggressively modern.
Though UPA existed as a company into the seventies, it really only maintained its position as an innovator from the late forties into the mid-fifties. But its influence on animation has been felt ever since.
If you want to know more about UPA, you can access the Wikipedia article by clicking here.
And if you want to watch The Tell-Tale Heart, click here.
But in spite of the possibilities, there are very few people who have taken advantage of animation’s full potential. One of those people is Tex Avery. Having arrived in Hollywood in the early 30s, by the middle of the decade he had his own unit at Warner Bros. where he helped to create and refine characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. By 1942 he was working at MGM, which is where he made the cartoons most closely associated with him.
By the early forties Avery had refined his approach to the point where his best films had a distinct style. Most of his cartoons revolve around a conflict between two characters, and the surreal mayhem that ensues. The artists and animators at MGM were skillful enough to deliver pretty much anything he wanted, making the action flow swiftly and smoothly no matter how bizarre the situations.
I used the word “characters” in the last paragraph. Actually, Avery wasn’t really interested in characters. The dogs, cats, canaries and wolves that populate his cartoons are strictly two-dimensional. Northwest Hounded Police features a stoic little dog and a wolf on the run from the law. That’s all he needs to set up the ridiculously simple premise. Everywhere the wolf runs, the dog is there waiting.
It’s a one gag movie, and the gag was actually used by Avery in more than one cartoon. How does he get laughs when he’s repeating the same joke over and over? Part of the answer is that this basic joke becomes progressively more absurd. Another thing that makes it work is the tension between the little dog’s deadpan face and the wolf’s increasingly outrageous reactions.
But for me the most important factor is the sadistic glee that Avery shows in tormenting the desperate wolf. This is a dynamic that runs through a lot of the director’s work. Often one character tortures another for the full length of the cartoon. Sometimes the victim is finally caught, as in Northwest Hounded Police. Sometimes he loses his mind (Slap Happy Lion). And in one case he’s so maddened by the relentless trauma he just explodes (SH-H-H-H-H). People who knew Avery described him as a smart, funny, talented guy, but they also agree that he had his demons. There’s something insane about these frenzied exercises in non-stop mayhem, and that insanity is ultimately the reason I love these cartoons.
The movie begins with the wolf’s escape from prison. We watch him careening around a map of North America, swimming across the Great Lakes, and finally ending up in Canada. When the wolf first realizes that the dog is on his trail, he takes off at top speed. We get a series of lightning fast shots where he moves from extreme foreground to extreme background in the blink of an eye. With the help of the artists at MGM, Avery imagines an amazingly flexible landscape that expands and contracts as we follow the manic chase. We fall from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a lake, parachute from a plane’s cockpit, swim across the Atlantic. At one point the wolf is moving at such terrific speed that he ends up skidding off the film frame, past the sprockets and into an empty white space.
And this is another of the director’s favorite devices. Reminding you that you’re watching a movie. Avery lets his characters tell you what’s going to happen next. Sometimes they even tell you the end of the story. They suddenly run out of Technicolor and the landscape turns black and white. There are cartoons within cartoons. Avery didn’t just work in the medium. He played with it, commented on it, twisted it this way and that to suit his own needs.
His limitless imagination finally did hit some hard boundaries. By 1953 he was exhausted and left MGM for the Walter Lantz studio. He only did four cartoons for Lantz, and when he quit in 1955, that was the end of his career in theatrical animation. While Avery continued to work in the field, the market had changed. He never again had access to the same resources or the same kind of outlet for his unbridled creativity.
But you can still watch Northwest Hounded Police. Just click here.