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Author: Norman M. Klein, 1993
A Summary of Where Cartoons Go after 1934
Excerpted from Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the Animated Cartoon
Norman M. Klein
To review my argument up to this point, the animated cartoon has a complex syntax of what has been called "anti-story" (graphic narrative, vaudeville timing, antic characters, upside-down gags, and staging). During the period 1928-34, the outlines of this complicated narrative were established, with the introduction of sound, and the many formal elements continuing from the twenties cartoons, and borrowed even nineteenth-century illustration (and the comics from 1890).
From 1934 through 1936, this vocabulary went into hibernation. Perceptual changes linked to movie marketing brought profound changes in the graphics, story and gags. Animation became far more about movies and less about the printed page or vaudeville. As a result, entirely new systems emerged around what generally has been called full animation.
But whatever the changes, I see animation (full or otherwise) as a struggle against the inevitable anarchy that makes animation effective. Full animation is a package always about to explode, always at war with its nature. This is why it remains so fascinating.
That will become clear as I proceed, also as I enter the fifties, to the world of consumer marketing, consumer graphics and television. The sum of all these shifts over three decades will be documented along the way. I want to remind the reader that while we race from one shift in style to another, the overall importance of cartoons as historical documents should be lost. I will not be analyzing how this evidence compares to others, how animation fits into historiography. I will occasionally insert a few paragraphs about the history of melodrama, or of variations of anti-melodrama or pre-melodrama. These are like side-bars, to remind the reader that animation is older than cinema, just as pantomime is older than drama. Animation is an other example of why postmodernism may have started in the fourteenth century, when the carnival shifted towards the Commedia dell“ Arte. I can only make these observations as they fit the central aim of the book. But I want the reader to notice that there is a secondary aim as well. I do not want that to get lost. In many ways, I am examining the history of audience perception as well as the history of the American cartoon. After 1934, the decline of print as the defining medium for audiences can be traced very clearly, in background layout, animation technology, and technique. The cartoon literally reveals a shift in paradigm, very coherently. It documents precisely when audiences turn from print-driven entertainment to cinema-driven entertainment. Then, in chapters on the fifties, cartoons respond to new consumer industries like television. There is a lot in that evidence as well. What does the cartoon as evidence tell us about the history of media? It tells us that media must be studied by the evidence of how an audience remembers (entertainment, leisure, personal details, history, politics). At one point, much of this memory was left to print, then to film, now to video. But the record in cartoons warns us to be cautious in our carbon dating. According to cartoon Ņevidence,‹ it takes quite a long while for a cycle like that. Despite the popularity of film, the twenties were still very much a print era. Only in the late thirties is there clear cartoon evidence that movies have begun to replace the way memories are stored by an audience.
Using the same approach, television through the early fifties was essentially radio with a picture for many in the audience. Its impact on how the audience "remembered" becomes much more evident by the late seventies (with Star Wars, new special effects, new ways of repeating genre in cinema and TV, new forms of film and video editing with the video/computer era).
Another question: Why are cartoons such useful documents in this matter? For any number of reasons that I will elaborate as I proceed, animation must be guided by changes in perception more directly than any other area of mass culture I know, except perhaps advertising. Cartoon gags, to be read as funny, must play off the pain and embarrassment that is familiar to audiences at a specific time; and show these in terms of entertainment. The world that cartoon turn upside down must be perceptually in tune very directly with a specific year. For example, audiences today still love Second World War cartoons, though we may fail to get all the gags about rationing or whether a trip is necessary. Something in the way cartoon humor was assembled simply operates as its own code. That does not mean that humor is the international language. Quite the opposite. It means that humor must be lodged inside its moment to be funny.
The last paragraph forces another question: Why, fifty years later, do audiences still laugh intimately at a world they have forgotten? I believe they laugh because the humanity of the cartoon is coordinated in subtle ways: gestures, turns of phrase, characterization, they all operate so well together. The notion that Disney features are timeless has tended to obscure the crucial modernity that makes cartoons funny. They are their own brand of ethnic correlative.
Cartoons are timeless because they look - and
feel - like the year they were made. They are an upside-down version of entertainment
and consumer rituals popular in that season. As historical documents,
they are priceless journeys into the signified. More recently, as I will discuss
in the Conclusion, this journey has taken us toward animation in architecture,
special-effects cinema, TV and musical-video editing, computers for the workplace
(and in warfare). The implications would make another book - a raft of books
actually. This book has to be more modest - seven minutes long.
So rather than expand the text with sweeping theories about media perception, like someone trying to talk to quickly into an answering machine, I wanted to stop for a while to alert the reader to implications that are surely, but not primarily, in the text. They are a subplot. And this is an entr`acte.
The history of perception in entertainment has to take a secondary place (except for a few inserts along the way, inserted as modestly as possible into the basic text ). My primary goal is to set up a cartoon vocabulary. I want to reveal hidden possibilities within this seemingly innocent area of American cinema and be certain that this vocabulary comes directly out of the historical evidence (interviews, films, documents, the practice itself ).
The vocabulary is extremely "telling," in all senses of the word. It is the story of how an industry was invaded, of how the viewer is invaded, and how characters invade each other. Remarkably enough, this vocabulary survived under fire for generations. Its anarchic mode was remarkably durable. Despite the problems and the new methods, that early system of amoralic and anarchic graphics repeated in new ways from 1928 to 1960. The vocabulary, ever mutating, also left a record on the rocks, about social history and perception, about the transience of the gag.
I also want the writing style to honor that vocabulary. That limits how judicial I can get and still accomplish my task as historian. The trimmer the vessel, the more it can carry. And I am trying to keep this vessel as trim as possible, to make suggestions for future work, not to girdle the universe. I write in broad strokes initially; that is my style. Sometimes I feel as if I write with a blunt point cut by a knife. But I want to write in a way that honors the abbreviated language and the music of those I have interviewed, and their films, to maintain a literary honesty to the original text. These are cartoons after all, a miniature world made by gifted cobblers. One has to see an animator at work to understand what I mean. What is discarded is in itself often a marvel. In fact, at the old Disney Hyperion studio, many people, including garbage collectors, used to rummage through the trash at the weekends. Neighbors also used to toss stray cats over the fence, believing somehow that Disney would know what to do with little animals, flatten them on to a cel perhaps, and give them a funny voice. The politics of innocence can be rather perverse.
But the history of the audience perception can
be told through cartoons; it shifts from print to cinema and then to video.
I must emphasize that somewhere. The evidence is palpable, in thousands of
500-foot reels of film. Cartoons are an encyclopedia of allusion and refractions,
as I explain in the Preface and in the Conclusion. This summary is something
of a coffee break between the two. Hopefully it provides a moment to check
if what you are sensing about this book is close to what I am intending -
a multi-leveled journey through the "anarchy" and pluralism of the American
animated cartoon, 1928 to 1960, the major figures, the major techniques.