Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cartoon Noir

Catroon Noir (1999)
Dir. Piotr Dumala, Jiri Barta, Paul Vester, Pedro Serrazina, Suzanne Pitt, Julie Zammarchi
Starring drawings

In preparing for my Annual October Horror-movie marathon (now tentatively titled “Chainsawnukah: Festival of Frights”) I was suddenly struck by the desire to include some animated titles. I had been watching a couple of Ralph Bakshi fantasy films, including WIZARDS and FIRE AND ICE, which along with his creepy LORD OF THE RINGS PART I BUT THERE WILL NEVER BE A PART 2 SORRY go a long way towards demonstrating how the slight exaggerations inherent in a skilled animation can hew towards the nightmarish even in service of a more normal story. Horror is about distortion, right? About taking our regular world and turning it perverse and threatening and alien. There must, then, be some horror titles out there which have made use of this curious fact to produce some epically disturbing little animations. I mean, there must be. Right?

Nope. Turns out there are virtually none. It took until 2007 for the damn French to make one (a pretty good little anthology called FEAR(S) OF THE DARK). Seems like that should have happened way earlier. A concentrated search for animated horror films turned up mostly films from the last 10 years -- the DTV DEAD SPACE film, that animated BLACK FREIGHTER thing from WATCHMEN, a barely-animated indie comedy called CITY OF ROTT from 2006, CORALINE from 2009. In fact, if you search for “animated horror films” you’ll get lists that include such questionable items as MONSTER HOUSE, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (!?), THE CORPSE BRIDE, NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and so on, apparently just to fill out a list which is otherwise a little bare. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that these are mostly kids’ movies -- America still seems to view animation exclusively the province of two major demographics, those being kids and Japanese weirdos who want to see women being raped by giant cephalopods. Of course, they view art as being something of a pinnacle of high-minded adult fare, but I guess that only applies to still images, not a series of still images which when viewed in rapid succession... well, you get the idea. So on the rare occasions where animation gets the opportunity to delve into darker subjects, it’s mostly just to produce cutesy monster parodies stylistically similar enough to Pokemon that they can hope parents will be fooled into buying the wrong movie by mistake. Wikipedia lists only 7 films under its “animated horror films” page, and two of those are parodies and two are god damn ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS movies. Of the rest, one is a MONSTER HOUSE, one is that French one I mentioned already, and one is an out-of-print anime called SHOJO TSUBAKI: CHIKA GENTO GEKIGA which admittedly does sound pretty fucked up* but is apparently mostly comprised of still images and is only 56 minutes long.

You’d think anime at least would be able to fill the horror gap which obviously exists in American animation, but of course the Japanese are way too weird to make straight-up horror movies anyway. I mean, is AKIRA a horror movie? It’s pretty fucked up, but I don’t know if it’s intended to be scary. Or actually, what exactly it’s intended to be, period. There are a bunch of animes titles tossed around on these lists, including SPIRITED AWAY, GHOST IN THE SHELL, VAMPIRE HUNTER D, DEATH NOTE, and the admittedly awesome-sounding BIOHUNTER. Nothing against those films, but their descriptions are usually something like drama/romance/horror/action/sci-fi, which seems to be pretty typical of the animes I’ve watched but leaves a little something to be desired in the horror department. The only one I could find that I remain hopeful about is something called PERFECT BLUE, which judging from the available information is a pretty committed serial killer flick (“If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney, they’d make a picture like this!,” according to Roger Corman, who seems like he’d know).

But, the quest did lead me to one item of interest, 1999’s anthology of dark animations appropriately titled CARTOON NOIR. It’s not horror, but it’s a compendium of top-notch artists using varied mediums to evoke anxiety, despair, shock, fear, sadness and whimsy in ways which could never be accomplished with live action. There’s no framing story or anything, so it’s basically a collection of unrelated short films -- but it manages to tie together the way a good mix tape does, finding the right progression of styles and managing to be both emotionally affecting and a simple giddy playground for filmmakers experimenting with maybe the most versatile and underexplored medium in existence. Let’s break it down and talk about each one individually (and by the way, if you can’t find a copy of the movie, most of these shorts are available online and linked in the text).

Er, it doesn't match my furniture.

Piotr Dumala “Gentle Spirit”: This series of mostly still paintings (on what looks like some kind of textured cloth?) is a symbolic look back on a man’s troubled relationship with his dead wife (I think. Or maybe she’s a ghost?). Grim in a way that only that only a Polish film about death, love, pain, and hopelessness really could be. The limited motion gives an almost stop-motion feel which combines with fluidly animated morphing and flowing drawings for an extremely disconcerting effect. Quiet and extremely dark (both literally and thematically ), there’s a level of despair here which makes you feel like you’ve just barely escaped when it’s over. 

Jiri Barta “Club of the Discarded”: Czech stop-motion film about abandoned mannequins who have their own bizarre parallel life in a dilapidated warehouse. The mannequins eerily mime human activities all day, every day, in the exact same way. We know this because we watch them do it two or three times, all the way through their whole day. It’s kinda creepy, kinda fascinating, and kinda boring. Their routine is interrupted by the arrival of some fancy chic new Eurosleaze fashion mannequins, and a madcap fight for control ensues. But silently and awkwardly because they’re stop-motion mannequins. Has some funny moments, but overall a bit hard to sit through (particularly since it’s the longest segment). I suspect it’s some kind of metaphor, but I don’t care.

Paul Vester “Abductees”: England’s Paul Vester takes on perhaps the most interesting gimmick in the film -- he films actual (alien) abductees describing their abduction experiences, and then animates the stories they describe in a variety of styles. It sounds like a great opportunity to really do something creepy (not entirely dissimilar to the way the flawed but interesting THE FOURTH KIND mixed real interviews with reenactments) but Vester doesn’t go that route. The drawing tends toward the childlike and whimsical, even when the people describing them are obviously terrified (one, under hypnosis, gives a genuinely chilling account which is uneasily wedded to images of cutesy smiling aliens against bright, primary colored backgrounds). I think these may be attempts to render the animation in the same style as the person who is speaking depicted it (at the start, we see drawings made by the abductees). While this is a thoughtful approach to using animation to retain the “voice” of the person telling the story, I feel that this is the wrong way to go-- you’re the animator, Paul. They’re depicting what they’ve seen and experienced as well as they can, but you don’t do their story much good by mimicking their limited ability to express themselves in this medium. Sometimes it feel convincingly dreamlike (which is how many the experiences seem to be described) but other times it feels somewhat cutesy and even a little condescending to these folks who we have every reason to believe at least think they are telling a truthful story. Animation, more than any other visual medium, has the power to be enormously expressive and subjective while still maintaining a consistent internal reality. Vester would have wiser to use animation to explore the character of these experiences (which are especially perfectly suited for animation, since they’re so surreal and intense to the people describing them) rather than using the animation as an extension of the abductees telling their own story.

Finally, concrete proof that will silence the skeptics forever.

Pedro Serrazina “The Story of the Cat and the Moon”: Gorgeous high contrast black-and-white animation accompanies this perhaps overly-precious Portuguese tale of a Cat who falls in love with the moon. Yes, we get it, it’s a metaphor for a love that can never be. It’s a simplistic, romantic vision which gets a huge boost from animator Yann Thual’s fluid, effervescent animated world which continually reshapes itself into bold black and white abstractions and kinetic flurries of movement (Manuel Tentugal’s moody, yearning string score also helps bolster the mood). It’s probably the best, most evocative animation in the whole film, but in some ways the least ambitious. For cat lovers, lunarphiles and born romantics, it’s gauranteed catnip, but for people looking for something a little more challenging, it may seem a little slight. Still, at a lean 5 minutes runtime, there’s plenty to love here -- particularly the unexpectedly affecting ending.

This can't end well.

Julie Zammarchi “Ape”: After the relative normalcy of “Cat and the Moon,” imagine my surprise at seeing a unexpected visualization of one of my favorite poet’s weirdest, creepiest poem. Russell Edson’s collection “The Tunnel” was hugely influential to me as a youngster in its unique blend of dreamy gentility and unexpected venom expressed in a simple, almost minimalistic rush of blank verse. “Ape”  is one of his most visceral, enigmatic works, and Zammarchi’s frenzied, twitchy take on it brings out the savagrey which is often lurking under the surface in Edon’s work (and here, barely concealed). Zammarchi delights in bringing forth the lusty, weirdly sexualized side of the poem, using both sounds and pictures to bring forth something which is almost uncomfortable in its fetishistic depiction of sensation and texture. What the fuck does it mean? I’ve never really been sure, but the poem’s language along with Zammarchi’s bold illustrations truly give it a nightmarish ferocity, like a bad dream boiling under the surface of a placid mind. Like the Abductees’ dreamlike recounting of their experiences in Paul Vester’s short, Edson’s poetry invites a depiction which blends the literal and the surreal in a way that only animation really allows, making this, in my estimation, one of the more effective shorts in the film.

This story makes no sense and I'll tell you why. That thing in her arms is clearly a monkey. Not an ape. Look at the god damn TAIL for crissakes. Do apes have tales? Can you think of one mother fucking ape that has a tail? No you damn well can't because only monkeys have tails. Read a biology book you Philistine.

Susan Pitt “Joy Street”: CARTOON NOIR ends with this longer, lushly illustrated tale of despair directed by American animator and painter Susan Pitt**. It involves a deeply depressed woman who mopes around smoking cigarettes in her impressionistic apartment, finding comfort only in a cheery cartoon mouse statue which sits atop her ashtray. As her despair deepens, she decides to take her own life and her apartment becomes increasingly unglued to reality, writhing and squirming in tune to her inner agony. As she collapses onto her bed, something unepxected happens: the cartoon mouse statue on her desk suddenly springs to life, bouncing around with the chipper energy of an early Mickey Mouse short (an association I suspect is not lost on Pitt). He dances around to a frantic, energetically animated version of “What a Wonderful World” until he discovers the bloody-wristed corpse in the bedroom. And then things get really depressing. OK, so the irony is cheap, but the animation is stunning. Pitt’s impressionistic paintings come seamlessly to life as disturbing visions of bloody animals and floating corpses bubble up from the apartment’s gray squalor. The sharp, imaginative drawings give the dancing mouse incredible life and expressiveness, so even though it’s kinda a cheap shot to juxtapose his manic, cartoony joyfullness with the morose fatalism of a suicide victim it’s still pretty painful to watch. Pitt’s use of color is bolder and her animated characters more energetic than most of the other shorts, so there’s a genuine pleasure in the visual flights of fancy that cut through the grim subject matter. In some ways its not a particularly deep short, but the expert animation’s ability to effortlessly bring the viewer to despair, horror, amusement, and -yes- joy, in just a brief 20 minutes is testament to animation’s ability to evoke intense feelings using pure cinema. 

For sale: Joy Street Apartment. Motivated seller.

Overall, there’s nothing exactly revolutionary or boundary-pushing in CARTOON NOIR. I don’t think any of these shorts is as cruel and bleak as Martin Rosen’s THE PLAGUE DOGS from back in 1982, and particularly now that cartoonish nihilism and ultraviolence are played for laughs in things like “Metalocalypse,” I’m not sure I really see the point in going in that direction anyway. But I do think CARTOON NOIR continues to make an excellent case for animation’s ability to reach past the confines of literal depiction, bypassing our rational mind and going deeper into the subconscious than all but the most gifted live-action directors can manage. These six filmmakers do their medium proud, creating memorable and unique works, but come on, this should be only the beginning. It’s so obviously effective that even watching the film it feels deeply frustrating that more artists aren’t taking advantage of the medium.

These artists demonstrate strong visual imagination, but I what I really want is this kind of visual innovation applied by an artist who has an equally strong narrative imagination to pair it with. Can you imagine letting someone like Dario Argento-- who already has an apathy bordering on contempt for reality-- play in a world which could truly reflect his ever-shifting, outlandishly perverse inner nightmare? Or, god help us all, Alejandro Jodorowsky? The ever-restless Richard Linklater has dabbled in the medium a few times (with WAKING LIFE [2001] and A SCANNER DARKLY[2006]), but while he’s an amazingly ambitious narrative filmmaker he’s never shown much interest in equally pioneering visuals and hence his animations tend to be mundane and flat, mostly missing the dynamic illustrative possibilities they offer.  

Ironically, it’s so far been the special-effects monkeys (Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron) who have been most aggressively taking advantage of the freedom a truly animated world has to offer in terms of shot composition -- but they’ve all been bogged down by trying to make it look “realistic,” missing the obvious opportunities a world which can be exaggerated and transmogrified at will can bring. Spielberg et al use their new digital toybox to create some truly impressive setpieces, but they leave almost completely unexplored the possibility of exaggerating not just the scale of the action, but the subjective intensity of the experience. Not that I’m criticizing them -- they’re just using this tool (now tarted up with computers, but fundamentally the same) to do what they’ve always done without the limits they once had. But I think it’s time for some folks with a more evocative goal to realize that this is a gift that has been given to them as well. It’s more than just a means to depict things which would be difficult to film, its a means of literally infusing every aspect of an image with the restless evolution of the human soul. And some horror director out there needs to hole up with a bunch of gifted artists like the ones showcased in CARTOON NOIR and really pour out the phantasmagoric depravity of their particular human soul into an animated feature which lets that soul fly its freak flag high. Not so fast, Japan.  

*”a young girl called Midori who ends up in a circus...she is doing all the hard work for everyone else, and gets raped and molested by freaks.” Way to defy the stereotype, Japan. One IMBD reviewer raves, “It will hurt you emotionally and upset you but it will stick in your mind for days on end!”

**Whose 35 minute film ASPARAGUS was apparently screened with David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD for years. That alone makes her a true American hero, and when combined with the knowledge that the film’s title is spelled out by a series of hefty asparagus trunks shit into a toilet bowl, you can pretty much assume this is an artist for the ages.


  1. Oh snap, "Chainsawnukah: Festival of Frights"? Dan's gonna have a hard time topping that one.

  2. Perfect Blue is awesome, FYI. And it pretty much does what Black Swan tried to do, only earlier and way better.