Prior to my first viewing of Eraserhead, I was warned I’d be horrified and repulsed beyond all belief. Instead, I was stricken with maternal concern for the sickly “baby,” and afflicted with sympathetic anxiety for its suffering parents; as far as I was concerned, David Lynch had created an avant-garde family melodrama, albeit in the aesthetics of a particularly affecting dark and morbid surrealism. Knowing now that Lynch had a toddler during the making of the film lends some credibility to my interpretation. Lynch’s portrayal of “children” is obviously pretty damned disturbing, but I’d argue his more horrifying use of kiddies comes from his 1968 short, “The Alphabet.”
This partially animated experimental film was inspired by the young niece of Lynch’s wife Peggy—the child had been reciting the alphabet in her sleep during a nightmare. Lynch painted Peggy white and filmed her in a room painted black for optimum eerie contrast. In a stark and ghostly bed, she is tormented by a phantasmal alphabet in a series of erratic, disorienting shots before blood spatters sheets; the results are absolutely hellish. The distorted crying you hear in “The Alphabet” is Lynch’s baby daughter, so the film truly is a family affair.
It’s difficult to know what deeper meaning could lie behind the tactic that high-end department store Harvey Nichols used this week to promote their new app—taking actual closed-circuit video footage of actual shoplifters caught in the act and presenting it with adorable little cartoon character heads placed over the lawbreakers’ faces. But you know, meaning shmeaning, the clips are curiously resonant and the kind of weird-ass experimental footage you’re going to want setting the tone at your next ‘shrooms party.
It’s even the case that a public service is contributed, as the clip decisively segues from shoplifters naughtily slipping valuables into their pockets etc. to their frantic attempts to escape security personnel and, inevitably, some glum time spent in a holding room. Crime doesn’t pay, kids! Don’t go there.
Credit goes to the ad agency adam&eveDDB for hiring Layzell Brothers to execute the cutesy robber heads. The jaunty music is Wot Do You Call It?” by Wiley.
On the Yowp blog, your first stop for Hanna-Barbera stuff, there was a post yesterday showcasing some early concept art that was used in making The Flintstones.
The items had been put up for auction at the Van Eaton Gallery in Sherman Oaks, California, and two of them are listed as having already been sold. No artist is listed. The person who runs Yowp wonders whether the items are “retro” or “actually drawn in 1959 or 1960 in preparation for The Flintstones.”
My two cents: Nobody who was familiar with The Flintstones in its mature state would have drawn anything looking like this. That’s my guess. But I don’t know.
The three images below, you can see a larger image by clicking on them.
“Fred Flintstone, Wilma Flintstone, Barney Rubble”: sold for $4000
Darkly comic performance artist Brother Theodore’s trademark manic, impassioned delivery made him an obvious choice for cartoon voice work. Although he was one of the more frequent guests on 80s David Letterman shows, I actually first heard him as a kid incessantly watching the 1982 animated feature, The Last Unicorn (he perfectly voiced an evil hunchback). He also made a great Gollum in the really underrated 1980 cartoon of The Hobbit—again, perfect casting. However, Theodore really shined at monologue, which is why this 1966 animated adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s satirical short story “The Nose” is so strong; he does every voice—the narrator, our tragic protagonist (Nathan Naspicker), the cruel and unfeeling police, and even the rogue nose itself.
“A Nose” is obviously slightly reworked for a light cartoon audience. Rather than Gogol’s 1830’s St. Petersburg, director Mordi Gerstein chose to set the story “in the Year of our Lord 1305, on the 25th of March in the city of Pittsburgh.” Poor Nathan Naspicker finds that his nose has abandoned him and started a life of its own. As Naspicker attempts to track down his roving schnozz, he begins to despair. There is no moral, it’s just pure madness, but it has a happy ending (kind of?)! The format of the film is actually quite experimental as well—partially animated, partially live action. It’s a cute cartoon for kids, but it’s definitely pure Brother Theodore in all his mad glory.
If you’ve not seen the definitive anime Akira, I highly suggest you make the time to watch it. If you’ve not readthe comic it’s based on, I demand you get on that shit, like, yesterday. Set in post-nuclear Tokyo (well, technically “Neo-Tokyo,” an artificial island in the bay), Akira is a sort of post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story—just with telepathy, gang wars and terrorism. The first of the six volume series was released in 1982, but the decrepit futurism and universal themes have made it a timeless classic.It’s difficult to imagine anyone collaborating with or updating it, but the Akira/Simpsons mash-up, Bartkira, is positively inspired.
Hundreds of cartoonists are collaborating to re-create all six volumes of the series, panel by panel, recast with characters from The Simpsons—you can see the cast list (pre-determined for consistency) here. The project will run until the series is reproduced in its entirity, and you can actually submit your Bartkira fan art to the Tumblr (which has a ton of great art), or send samples of your work to firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to contribute to the actual Bartkira comic.
As if that wasn’t ambitious enough, over fifty animators have actually produced a video trailer for the project, and it’s dead-on. If you’re wondering if this is legal, so are the artists involved:
We’re not sure. We kind of just leapt into it. To be on the safe side, we’re keeping Bartkira as an entirely non-profit operation and we’re giving all the proceeds from sales of books, shirts and so on to charity. If you’ve made merchandise from your Bartkira artwork, we encourage you to do the same. We suspect the project occupies a legal grey area protected by parody laws. Regardless, as of writing we’re a year in and we haven’t received our cease-and-desist yet.
Supposedly, Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo got a kick out of the project, and while Matt Groening hasn’t been reached for comment, he’s got a huge collection of bootleg Simpsons merch, and likely wouldn’t care. And who wouldn’t be flattered by a project this formidable? The scope and artistry of the parody is positively sublime.
Bootsy Collins is very much responsible for the insane cartoon pilot you see below. Named after his 1977 album, “The Name is Bootsy, Baby” is actually pretty fantastic; our titular hero uses his superhuman funk powers to surf through space (on his magical star bass, of course), fight crime, save hot ladies, and… battle vikings and dragons? He still makes time for the music and his legion of fans, but when some wannabe suit tries to jack his spotlight, Bootsy is forced yet again to battle the forces of anti-funk. Okay, so the premise is a little thin, but I remember 1996, and there were way more abominable attempts to sell merchandise and breakfast cereal than this one.
The cartoon wasn’t some two-bit operation either! Executive Producer Abby Terkuhle was responsible for some of MTV’s best animation—Aeon Flux, Daria, and Beavis and Butt-Head, just to name a few. Mike Judge, who gave us the voices of Beavis, Butt-Head, Hank Hill and more, lent his ridiculous vocal cords to the project. Bootsy voiced himself of course, and composed the music, but he also received a writer, director and producer credit. Obviously, “The Name is Bootsy Baby” never really got off the ground, but it’s rumored the cartoon was played before shows, making animated Bootsy his own opening act. That is some seriously meta-funkiness!
A Short Vision is one of the most influential pieces of animation ever created; it is also one of the most disturbing and controversial. In 1952, the very first successful hydrogen bomb was detonated, and it was over 450 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Horrified at such potential for destruction, Hungarian-British animator Peter Foldes and his wife, Joan, began working on a short cartoon in their kitchen, and in 1956 A Short Vision was aired on The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan attempted to prepare his audience for the horror of the film, but his introduction stopped short of warning viewers they were about to watch an interpretation of the nuclear holocaust, complete with bloody, melting faces:
“Just last week you read about the H-bomb being dropped. Now two great English writers, two very imaginative writers—I’m gonna tell you if you have youngsters in the living room tell them not to be alarmed at this ‘cause it’s a fantasy, the whole thing is animated—but two English writers, Joan and Peter Foldes, wrote a thing which they called A Short Vision in which they wondered what might happen to the animal population of the world if an H-bomb were dropped. It’s produced by George K. Arthur and I’d like you to see it. It is grim, but I think we can all stand it to realize that in war there is no winner.”
While the short received a lot of praise from audiences and critics, many were angry and disturbed by such graphic depictions of the apocalypse. To be fair, most viewers were probably expecting something more along the lines of Julie Andrews, or at least Señor Wences. Undeterred by the backlash, Foldes continued producing groundbreaking, socially conscious animation throughout his career, including the first computer-animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award, La Faim in 1974. The short is a violent tale of inequality in which a gluttonous man is eventually devoured by the starving masses—you know, for kids!
It’s the story of a place called Mouseland. Mouseland was a place where all the little mice lived and played, were born and died. And they lived much the same as you and I do.
They even had a Parliament. And every four years they had an election. Used to walk to the polls and cast their ballots. Some of them even got a ride to the polls. And got a ride for the next four years afterwards too. Just like you and me. And every time on election day all the little mice used to go to the ballot box and they used to elect a government. A government made up of big, fat, black cats.
Now if you think it strange that mice should elect a government made up of cats, you just look at the history of Canada for last 90 years and maybe you’ll see that they weren’t any stupider than we are.
Now I’m not saying anything against the cats. They were nice fellows. They conducted their government with dignity. They passed good laws—that is, laws that were good for cats. But the laws that were good for cats weren’t very good for mice. One of the laws said that mouseholes had to be big enough so a cat could get his paw in. Another law said that mice could only travel at certain speeds—so that a cat could get his breakfast without too much effort.
All the laws were good laws. For cats. But, oh, they were hard on the mice. And life was getting harder and harder. And when the mice couldn’t put up with it any more, they decided something had to be done about it. So they went en masse to the polls. They voted the black cats out. They put in the white cats.
Now the white cats had put up a terrific campaign. They said: “All that Mouseland needs is more vision.” They said: “The trouble with Mouseland is those round mouseholes we got. If you put us in we’ll establish square mouseholes.” And they did. And the square mouseholes were twice as big as the round mouseholes, and now the cat could get both his paws in. And life was tougher than ever.
And when they couldn’t take that anymore, they voted the white cats out and put the black ones in again. Then they went back to the white cats. Then to the black cats. They even tried half black cats and half white cats. And they called that coalition. They even got one government made up of cats with spots on them: they were cats that tried to make a noise like a mouse but ate like a cat.
You see, my friends, the trouble wasn’t with the color of the cat. The trouble was that they were cats. And because they were cats, they naturally looked after cats instead of mice.
Presently there came along one little mouse who had an idea. My friends, watch out for the little fellow with an idea. And he said to the other mice, “Look fellows, why do we keep on electing a government made up of cats? Why don’t we elect a government made up of mice?” “Oh,” they said, “he’s a Bolshevik. Lock him up!” So they put him in jail.
But I want to remind you: that you can lock up a mouse or a man but you can’t lock up an idea.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams did a variation on “Mouseland” in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, that it seems likely was read by David Icke where lizards are the leaders. No one likes this (save for the lizard overlords themselves, naturally) but the electorate still keeps voting in these unpopular reptiles:
“...because if they didn’t vote for a lizard… the wrong lizard might get in.”
The short animation below is actually introduced by Kiefer Sutherland, who is grandson to social democratic politician, Tommy Douglas. Tommy Douglas, the most famous orator of “Mouseland” (though it is actually first credited to Clarence Gillis, another Canadian social democrat), immigrated from Scotland to Canada as a child with a nasty case of osteomyelitis; had a Canadian orthopedic surgeon not offered to operate under Douglas’ knee for free (for the observation of medical students), his leg would have been amputated. Today Douglas is widely considered to be “The Greatest Canadian,” on account of his introduction of the Canadian single-payer health care system, and his disdain for the false choice of a two-party system run by elites. The “Mouseland” metaphor is simple in its eloquence, insisting that mice need not vote for cats (though bringing that up might get you branded a “Bolshevik” and thrown in prison).
The popular history of animation starts with Walt Disney—a tragic oversight and a considerably US-centric misconception. In addition to the pre-Disney animation in America, the Soviets were making cartoons early on (starting with cautionary propaganda, of course) and the Japanese produced amazing early animation referencing folklore. However, the most beautiful and ambitious of early cartoons have to be from Charlotte “Lotte” Reiniger, a German filmmaker who produced lush, elaborate scenes using stop-motion with excruciatingly detailed silhouette cut-outs. Even more impressive was the duration of her films—which qualify as features—made ten years before Disney’s Snow White, which is generally recognized as the first animated feature film.
Below you can watch Reiniger’s most famous work, 1935’s Papageno, which was set to music from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.” While it lacked the production values of some of her later features, Papageno is the most fantastical, following Papageno the birdcatcher’s quest to find his true love. The silhouettes themselves are a perfect example of Reiniger’s cut-out style, which was inspired by Chinese silhouette puppetry. The cut-outs were generally set against brightly monochromatic backgrounds, but the painstakingly cut scenery and subjects really pop against white as well. The piece is a perfect fairy tale—richly evoked with drama, romance and humor.
Despite her success (she was particularly popular in the avant-garde scene alongside artists like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill), Reiniger’s career was sporadic. As known leftists during the rise of the Third Reich, she left the country with her husband and collaborator Carl Koch. Unable to get permanent Visas, the couple hopped around Europe for over ten years and still managed to create twelve films, including Däumelinchen (better known as “Thumbelina”), Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and 1955’s beautifully colored Hansel and Gretel
Many Frank Zappa fans will be familiar with the strange and delightful work of animator Bruce Bickford—his are the claymation sequences in Baby Snakes that you fast-forward through the concert footage to see. Zappa was Bickford’s best-known patron for most of the ‘70s, and his work is featured in the “City of Tiny Lights” and The Dub Room Special videos, but the motherlode of Bickford/Zappa work came in the form of a one-hour VHS compilation released in 1987 called The Amazing Mr. Bickford, which bafflingly has never been released on DVD or Blu-Ray. Bickford’s dizzying stream-of-dementia, anything-can-happen-next, constantly mutating stop-motion animations are scored by Zappa’s orchestral work, culled mostly from Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, though “Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation” from London Symphony Orchestra is present, as well.
Here’s a bit of background from a wonderful piece on Bickford that ran in The Quietus:
Bickford was a Vietnam veteran whose love for animation sprung out his crude home movies. His earliest experiments involved toy cars, but a need to populate these rough little films led to the creation of tiny clay figures. Soon enough he was letting his imagination spill out with strange, ever-morphing stream of consciousness tales that seemed to revolve around demons and animal heads, hamburgers and pizzas, treacherous landscapes and excessive violence – “danger and weirdness”, in Bickford’s own words. Audiences were given an early taste when The Old Grey Whistle Test aired a portion of ‘City Of Tiny Lights’ with animated accompaniment in 1979. Baby Snakes made its debut during the Christmas of that year, containing more examples and a peak of behind-the-scenes amidst the concert footage.
One of the Baby Snakes snippets involves a castle that “would make a great disco” but leads to the creation of monsters. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, though maybe that’s missing the point. The immediacy is what matters, and the fact that these films have the potential to go absolutely anywhere from one moment to the next. They are also clearly the product of a single mind (and single-mindedness), despite Zappa nabbing director credits on The Amazing Mr. Bickford compilation and the ‘City of Tiny Lights’ promo. In a way, Bickford is an outsider artist doing his own thing at his own pace, and was simply fortunate enough to have Zappa serve as a momentary sugar daddy.
Such are the working methods and approach to narrative that very little final product has actually been released. The Amazing Mr. Bickford and Baby Snakes made use of snippets with little or no attempt to explain or understand; they unfold beneath Zappa instrumentals and just exist, nothing more. Bickford returned to his Seattle basement in 1980 and has carried on obsessing ever since. MTV commissioned some idents and a half-hour film, Prometheus’ Garden, was completed in 1987, but otherwise he toils away with seemingly little end in sight.
‘The Amazing Mr. Bickford’ and more, after the jump…