Thursday, April 3, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Interesting Anomalies

Title: Minnie the Moocher (1932)
Director: Max Fleischer
Time: 8 minutes
Availability: Available on YouTube here
“Minnie the Moocher” is an oddity that is better seen than described. This early Betty Boop cartoon features the flapper running away from her overbearing parents with her dog/boyfriend Bimbo. They take refuge in a cave haunted by a ghostly tentacled walrus (lending it special meaning for this blog) who is actually a rotoscoped Cab Calloway singing his drug-reference-inflected scat jazz hit “Minnie the Moocher.” Some friendly beasties join in the opium-fogged merriment before Betty flees back to her home, sweet home.

This is vintage Betty Boop before the Production Code came and spoiled everybody’s fun, making the now-iconic sex symbol lengthen her miniskirt and stop dating a dog. (Betty was originally a poodle, but since she’d evolved into a human as the cartoon went on the Hays Office was afraid it would teach kids that bestiality was OK.) Somehow the censors missed the references to marijuana, opium and cocaine in Calloway’s song (used in both a live-action intro and the phantom walrus’s subterranean shuffle), leaving the way clear for one of the earliest catchy, tripped-out toons. Incidentally, I had trouble finding very many examples of rotoscoping (animating on top of live-action film stock) that I liked, but another good example is Petrov’s “Firing Range” (1975).

Title: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943)
Director: Bob Clampett
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: If you think for one moment that Warner Brothers will ever release this officially, you don’t know public relations departments. Pick your favorite bootleg method or try this site.
So White is a well-endowed laundry girl who is swept off her feet by Prince Chawmin to go jitterbugging downtown. Her petulant employer, a rich queen, is not particularly smitten with the idea and hires Murder Incorporated to deal with it. (The motto on the side of their black van reads “We rub out anybody $1.00, Midgets – half-price, Japs – free.”) The hired killers are all easily seduced by So White, so the queen has to bump her off with a poisoned apple. Afterwards Prince Chawmin tries to revive her with a kiss, but he lacks the dy-no-mite to recharge her batteries. A goofy American soldier is more successful.

“Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” is one of the better known cartoons from the Censored Eleven, a group of shorts deemed too racist to be unleashed upon audiences in the 1960’s and never since circulated except at rare festival screenings. While the rampant racist, sexist and politically incorrect material is enough to offend almost any watchdog group, it still has a loyal and loving following. Clampett, while misguided, intended the film to be a tribute to his favorite African-American jazz and swing musicians, some of whom provided the ending music. I can’t say I like this short, but I think that Warner Brother’s attempt to pretend it never happened isn’t the right solution.

Title: Mothlight (1963)
Director: Stan Brakhage
Time: 4 minutes
Availability: Beautifully restored on Criterion’s “By Brakhage – Anthology” DVD.
Always redefining the way we look at the world, Stan Brakhage broke all the rules with “Mothlight,” a film which he created by taping hand-plucked moth wings, leaves, reeds, grass and flowers directly to the celluloid and then projecting it. The barrage of fast-flashing earthy debris doesn’t tell a story or even cohere as symbolism, but it can be stimulating to the receptive viewer.

Brakhage is hands-down more experimental than even the directors in my Experimental Edition, but his work is so foreign that I can’t recommend it to any but the most open-minded enthusiasts (although in this case it only requires 4 minutes of your time). Amongst Brakhage’s other innovations that could arguably be considered animation are scratching directly into the film stock (a painstaking method that shows some real dedication), pouring chemical mixes onto raw footage and hand painting onto it. Outside of “animation” he provoked interest and outrage with home movies of his wife giving birth in a bathtub and cadavers being autopsied. His longer works such as “Dog Star Man” and “Scenes from Under Childhood” are considered by many to be masterpieces.

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