Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pauline Kael on Criticism

"I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets."

- Pauline Kael
KPFA Broadcast
January 1963

Friday, March 12, 2010

Feed the Kitty (1952)

It’s not such a stretch to say that the bulk of early American animation has relied heavily on conflicts between anthropomorphized animal species; be it cat against mouse, rooster against chicken hawk, rabbit against duck, or dog against cat. The animated short is a universe populated by a whole host of cuddly critters, smart-alecky fowl, and street-smart rabbits. If you look back towards the history of Western literature it shouldn’t be a surprise to discover that since the days of Hesiod and Aesop, storytellers have relied on creatures, both wild and domesticated, as human surrogates when telling their fables or narrating their myths to an enthralled crowd.

Early American animation is primarily divided into two camps, Walt Disney studios and the Warner Bros. Cartoons, specifically the animators working at the aptly named “Termite Terrace”. Although there were a few other small studios churning out their own animated shorts at the time it is only the Disney and Looney Tunes shorts that have survived a century’s worth of pop culture rejiggering and still retained their commercial viability. The most famous animator working at Warner Bros. during that time was Charles M. Jones, often credited as Chuck Jones, whose oeuvre is replete with classic animated shorts, many of which have been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

One of my favorite Chuck Jones shorts is a cartoon little known to the casual fan. It doesn’t star any of the big name Warner Bros. characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, or Porky Pig. The cartoon itself doesn’t exhibit any of the trademark Looney Tunes zaniness, and it would be a stretch to label the short laugh out loud funny. No, the seven-minute film that I’m talking about is a quiet unassuming tale about a bulldog by the name of Marc Antony and the little black kitten, Pussyfoot, that he finds one day.

Theatrically released on February 2, 1952 Feed the Kitty would be largely forgotten today if not for the efforts of a few devoted animation historians and Chuck Jones admirers. Unlike the typical shorts that Jones and the rest of the “Termite Terrace” animators did, there was no precedence to any of the characters in the film. Whereas when you watch a Bugs Bunny short you are watching the accumulated work of not just Chuck Jones but also Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, and many more. Feed the Kitty is the sole creation of Chuck Jones and screenwriter Michael Maltese. Also, unlike the Wile E. Coyote/Roadrunner shorts or the Sylvester and Tweety series the characters of Marc Antony and Pussyfoot only appeared in five films together, and so the formula never really had a chance to wear out its welcome.

What makes the film a classic though is that, first of all, it overturns the cliché animosity between cats and dogs. The relationship between Marc Antony and Pussyfoot can be seen in two ways. The first and most popular is the parent-child relationship. When Marc Antony first discovers Pussyfoot he cradles her in his hand. He dotes on her like a father would and even offers his furry back as a makeshift bed for her. This parent-child interpretation has led many people to consider the story as an allegory for the maturing effect that taking care of another life can have. Before meeting Pussyfoot the character of Marc Antony is an immature boy. His toys are scattered around the house, he struts around the neighborhood without a care in the world, and even tries to scare Pussyfoot during their first meeting. It is only when he begins to care for someone other than himself that he makes the leap to adulthood.

Of course this is only one interpretation of the film. Chuck Jones saw the narrative not as a parent-child story, but rather as a romance. When asked about this specific animated short in a 1975 Film Comment interview conducted by Greg Ford and Richard Thompson, Jones replied “The dog starts out pugnaciously with the cat, but then runs the entire gamut of a relationship with anyone. It’s like with a girl, you know, when you first meet her then gradually it gets so that you can stand her and then you fall in love with her and then you become obsessed with her and fear that she’s gonna die or something.” This romantic interpretation of the film relays the maturity in Jones work. He may have been working in an industry that catered predominantly to children, but that didn’t mean that the work he was doing was childish.

Instead of relying on pop culture references and clever wordplay to get laughs the entire cartoon plays like a silent film. In fact there is something very Chaplinesque about Feed the Kitty; a sentimentality that pervades the entire story but because of the sincerity that Jones imbues in the Marc Antony character there is never a danger that the laughs and tears won’t be well-earned. Also, possibly as a nod to Disney both characters in the short are drawn in a cute style; especially Pussyfoot who resembles an infant in both behavior and size.

The biggest stylistic nod to Disney though would have to be the film’s reliance in the characters eyes to emote a wide range of emotions. Modern animators today may have a plethora of gadgets and software that help them turn two-dimensional drawings into near perfect simulacra of everyday objects and people, but this obsession with creating an accurate three-dimensional illusion has turned the art of animation into a petty contest to see who’s got the flashier looking toy. In Feed the Kitty Jones does not even bother to give the audience the illusion of three-dimensionality. The backdrop for the action looks quite artificial as if Chuck Jones were drawing not a real house and lawn, but the movie set equivalent of one. This bare-bones approach to animated set design doesn’t call attention to itself though. In fact, as talented as Chuck Jones was his great skill lay not in having a distinctive drawing style, but rather an ability to adapt his talent for drawing to fit into whatever story he was telling. And in Feed the Kitty what were important to Jones are the characters. The simplicity in their design focuses your attention not so much on the illustrative qualities of the work but on the content of the story. In several interviews Jones has always mentioned his devotion to studying the great masters like Goya, Da Vinci, Claes Oldenburg, and Beatrix Potter. And in his memoir Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist he makes it explicitly clear that the one thing that unites all great artists is their “ability to live by the single line – that single honest delineation of the artist’s intent. No shading, no multiple lines, no cross-hatching, no subterfuge. Just that line. Was it Feininger or Kandinsky who said, “My little dot goes for a walk?” Just so; every point on a line is of equal importance. That is rule 1 of all great drawing.”

This simplicity in his drawing style doesn’t mean that Jones was incapable of appreciating the eye-popping frenetic style of a Tex Avery or Frank Tashlin short. In fact in later animated films like Duck Amuck and What’s Opera, Doc? Jones embraces the contained chaos of surrealism and expressionism. In Feed the Kitty though Jones downplays the animation and opts to devote his pen to telling a simple little story not with words but through a collection of gestures and movements. Jones makes Marc Antony the most expressive bulldog in the history of American animation; the furrowing of his brow, scrunching of his nose, half-cocked grin, and a multitude of other facial tics relays to the audience a panoply of hopes, fears, and ultimately his love for Pussyfoot. While many writers and animators today are content with bludgeoning their audiences with sight gags and gross-out humor very few understand the key characteristic that separates good animated stories from the timeless masterpieces, like Feed the Kitty, is nuance. All characters, be they human or otherwise, are emotionally complicated creatures. We are contradictory by nature; even in times of joy we can suffer the pangs of grief and during moments of great fear we might find to our amazement a need to laugh at our own predicaments. Feed the Kitty lives on not because it hearkens back to a simpler time in the history of American animation, but because it shows us what we have now lost when popular animated shows like Family Guy revel in base humor and have relegated the expression of genuine emotions like love, hope, and fear as trite and cliché. In a perfect world it would be the other way around.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Andy Warhol on Hollywood

"People sometimes say that the way things happen in the movies is unreal, but actually it's the way things happen to you in life that's unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it's like watching television - you don't feel anything."

"Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?"

"I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic."

"It's the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it. Everybody has their own America, and then they have the pieces of a fantasy America that they think is out there but they can't see."

"Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets."

"My idea of a good picture is one that's in focus and of a famous person."

"Our movies may have looked like home movies, but then our home wasn't like anybody else's."

"Drag queens are living testimony to the way women used to want to be, the way some people still want them to be, and the way some women will actually want to be. Drags are ambulatory archives of ideal moviestar womanhood. They perform a documentary service, usually consecrating their lives to keeping the glittering alternative alive and available for (not-too-close) inspection."

"I tried and tried when I was younger to learn something about love, and since it wasn't taught in school I turned to the movies for some clues about what love is and what to do about it."