On Saturday, September 26, CRL awoke to find itself in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by sleeping bags and oddly flattering light.
After drinking a few cups of coffee its sense of purpose emerged--to screen cartoons to the denizens of Chicago's Learning Machine, flanked by some of the city's finest cartoon practitioners and nimblest wits.
I, Erin K Drew, was the the hiccuping Country Cousin, blustering into the big city with embarrassing enthusiasm, a laptop and a dream to showcase my project. I started the morning's entertainment with a selection of mid-century cartoons portraying Modern Art and Modern Artists.
While modern artists famously integrated imagery from comic books and commerce into their paintings and sculptures, collapsing distinctions between forms, cartoons parodied the habits and habitats of the untamed creative types as savage, seductive Others.
Screened as appetizers before artsy foreign films, the animation of Norman McLaren introduced audiences of cinema to the abstract possibilities of the moving image. "Dots" (1940) is as minimalist as they come, black balls of various sizes drawn directly onto film, with a farty, funky soundtrack generated in a similar way. It was immediately succeeded by "The Critic" from 1963, a Mel Brooks production in which a skeptical character provides arm chair art criticism over a McClaren-esque animation. Brooks has reported that his ad libbed monologue was based on comments made by a mumbling elderly audience member at an actual McClaren screening.
"The fellow who made this, he must be over thirty if they let him do this kind of thing, right? Why does he waste his time with this? A fellow like that, he could probably drive a truck."
Brooks' character ultimately vocalizes the conceit shared by the apostles of the culture wars: that artists are trying to bewilder and swindle viewers.
With this stance in mind, we moved on to "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," a 1965 short from the briefly-lived Beatles cartoon series. It begins with the Beatles touring a stuffy New York museum, bored by The Spirit of Spring and fleeing for a Greenwich Village party, despite stern leader John's warnings about the world of trouble they could find at these "disgraceful parties." After obtaining directions from some gender-confusing individuals, the Beatles (sans John) embark on the Artists' milieu. They have fun observing the filthy freaks and their wacky habits (yoga! poetry! skateboarding!) until John bursts in in apelike pursuit. In a musical montage that owes more to film of the sixties (Breakfast at Tiffany's disgraceful soiree comes to mind) than to the properties of animation, the Beatles evade him as they play amidst a Mondrian-minimalist grid decked in sunglasses and sombreros and watch the wild partygoers interact.
The toon ends with John slipping on a toy left out by a child-adult and declaring that he'd like to stay with the artists forever.
From this cartoon I based the interchangability of the terms "artist" and "beatnik." Amidst swigs of coffee, audiences received instructions on how to be a Beatnik from Bullwinkle's Mr. Know it All then ventured with Beany and Cecil on their journey to ensnare the Wildman of Wildsville, a trophy weirdo from a faraway land, for sport.
In this 1961 Bob Clampett cartoon, a boy and his giant sock dragon pursue the legendary Wildman, an expressive savage voiced by Lord Buckley who swings on vines and scats in various states of undress. Similar to the Beatles episode, Beany and Cecil are seduced by the unkempt ways of the Wildman's world and veer between outfitting the Wildman with a straight jacket and opting to stay with him in his garishly painted world.
Jenna Caravello led us through the next round of deftly chosen cartoons featuring fluid transitions and timelessness and showcasing the possibilities of animation at its limits.
She began with Georges Schwizgebel's "Jeu" from 2006, a hand drawn animation that mutates through vignettes of leisure activities at a lurching vantage, then stops and rewinds. This was followed by Tezuka Osamu's "Jumping," a 1984 animated short that situates the viewer as the actor making outrageous leaps from backyard to jungle to war torn urban scene and into the underworld before resetting where it began. She ended with "Cat Soup," a dazzling 2001 short film by Tatsuo Sato that centers nebulously around a bizarre journey taken by a big-eyed white cat in search of its sister's soul.
This memorable and moving short unified Caravello's theme about the pointlessness of time and geography in cartoons while provoking questions about the distancing effects of experiments in animation and audience engagement in narrative.
Attendants smoked cigarettes and had varying degrees of success with bathroom processes for eleven minutes, and then Max Morris screened a few of his favorite cartoons. These selections centered around the theme of abjection and showed hilarious and terrifying body transformations.
Morris picked up where Jenna left off, showing an intense and apocalyptic slice of Masaaki Yuasa's "Mind Game," (2004) in which a group of humans who have been lodging in the belly of a whale must make a frantic escape before the whale dies. While more directly narrative than "Cat Soup," this scene unsticks in linear time as the characters flash back to scenes from earlier in the film and to previous events in the their (fictional) lives, ultimately resetting at the first scene of the film. This scene encapsulates the grand scale of "Mind Game" as a project and depicts the humor and horror of inhabiting a mortal human body-- no big deal.
Morris moved on to the humor and horror borne of sexual desperation as portrayed in "Eveready Harton and Buried Treasure," a piece of 1920's pornography (touchingly) gifted by a team of animators to Winsor McCay. In it, our hero Eveready and his enormous boner gets into trouble while attempting to make it with a woman, a man, a donkey, and a cow, ultimately finding the cow to be the most gracious partner.
He concluded his set with "King Size Canary," a 1947 Tex Avery classic of substance abuse in which the dramaturgical triad of dog-cat-mouse is disrupted by a bottle of Jumbo Grow plant formula. A cat and mouse battle to diminish one another until their bloated bodies outsize the globe and they collapse into each another's arms in resignation.
CRL Chicago was a gratifying and special experience. Chicago scholars elevated the discourse of our important work and were fun and good looking. Our hosts worked hard to show us country mice the ropes in the big city without robbing us of our endearing provincial dopiness.
Set your sights to the next iteration of the Cartoon Research Lab-- the Spooky Edition!-- Saturday, October 24 at 11am at General Public Collective.