Thursday, December 20, 2007

Alexander Stewart: The Animated Gay Utopia

At its most abstract, a gay utopia is a hypothetical post-gender condition in which personality, imagination and libido are the central terms by which a person is defined. Further, a gay utopia is also based on the idea that bodies should conform to the desires of the mind. Using these guidelines, the landscapes and characters of American animated films of the 1920’s are a fulfillment of the ideas of a gay utopia. In fact, it is the spirit of the gay utopia that in a way defines the true potential of animated cartoons: to create worlds whose boundaries and characters are limited only by imagination, a world in which nothing is permanent and everything is potentially something else.

Animation is a descendant of technology and magic. The early cinema genre of the “trick film” hinged on the fact that most audiences had a very limited understanding of how a movie camera and projector actually worked. The mechanical and perceptual principles that generated the illusion of motion onscreen in a movie theater were enough of a mystery to the average viewer in 1907; to take advantage of these principles in order to create trick films was to confound all but the most knowledgeable theater-goer. In films like Georges Méliès’s 1902 Le Voyage dans La Lune, stopping the camera, replacing an actor with something else, and starting the camera again produced bafflingly fantastic transformative results. As a sensational theatrical spectacle, the closest precedent for the viewers of trick films was performative stage magic, and so the filmmakers were behind-the-scenes magicians. The technology of the camera facilitated even more thrilling magic when objects in the film were made to move of their own volition by combining hundreds of those stop-camera frames in sequence, in what can reasonably be called early instances of true animation.

The idea that animation is a magical effect carried over to the early subject matter of drawn cartoons, which tended toward surreal, anti-real, supernatural and fantastical topics. Emile Cohl’s 1908 film Fantasmagorie is generally identified as the first modern animated cartoon, and as the title suggests, is an illogical dream-state metamorphosis. Everything is drawn, and therefore, everything is susceptible to the imagination of the animator. The film is a tour-de-force of surreal stream-of-consciousness metamorphosis, in which everything is on the verge of transformation into something else: a champagne bottle becomes a flower; an elephant becomes a house. Further playing on the idea that animation is magical, a common device in drawn films from this period was to feature the animator as the star actor, sitting at his drawing table, and accomplishing the neat trick of having his drawing come to life on the page. This “hand of the animator” gag can be seen at the start and end of Cohl’s film. The animator is the magician, the animation is the stage-show, and as such the film is about the animator and how well he can conjure amazing tricks. The animator is the central personality of these films.

Fantasmagorie by Emile Chol, 1908.

The shift in focus from the animator-as-magician-as-star to the animated-character-as-star is gradual over the period of 1908-1915, but that trajectory is clearly visible in Winsor McCay’s famous Gertie the Dinosaur. The film features McCay as the principle human actor, winning a wager by creating the requisite drawings for an animated version of a dinosaur. In this way, it is firmly placed within the tradition of performative trick films. The element of the film that is truly remarkable, however, is Gertie herself. Gertie is usually described as the first animated star, which is significant in that she has a personality that manages to extend beyond the ink on the page and the motion-picture screen. Rather than a mere collection of haphazard pranks and figurative gags that were the norm for animated films of the period (compare even with McCay’s own earlier work, the Little Nemo cartoon from 1911), McCay managed to give Gertie a strong personality that projected beyond the framework of the miniscule filmic narrative of McCay’s movie.

Gertie the Dinosaur, Winsor McCay, 1914

By 1920, the magical trick-film inheritance of animation was becoming overshadowed by the appeal of charming on-screen personalities. The major star of the period, Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat, is an example of many of the key qualities that make animated characters work, and in turn, is an example of many of the ideas that allow character animation of the 20’s to fulfill the idea of a gay utopia. While trick-films may have been passing from vogue in the late 1910’s, the surreal and fantastic ideas they exploited were still a major component of the concept of the animated cartoon. Felix’s world may have more recognizable detail than the simply drawn world of Cohl’s Fantasmagorie, but for animators at the Sullivan studio, the drawn landscape still held a great deal of magical potential. In the early Felix cartoons, lampposts grow legs and walk, hot dogs have a mind of their own, and buildings exhibit the same stretch-and-squash principles as the characters.

Which is, of course, the same logic under which the body of Felix himself operates. Felix is famous for the array of surreal functions his body can accomplish: removing and reattaching limbs, using his tail as a sword or clarinet, transforming himself into a suitcase or clock, and in Felix Trifles With Time, having his skin (and muscles, apparently) removed and reattached. Another common Felix trick is to reach for his own exclamation points and question marks as tools to remedy a particular situation. His body is fluid, and changes to meet his needs and desires.

Felix Trifles With Time, Otto Messmer, 1925

The primary difference between this metamorphic plasticity in Felix and in earlier work like Fantasmagorie is the awareness of Felix as a consistent personality. Felix may change shape or adjust elements of his figure, but he never ceases being Felix. Granted, the degree of transformation of Felix’s body is nowhere near as fluid and constant as the clown’s body in Cohl’s film, but the potential is there, and it is constantly realized in Felix’s adventures. It is a sort of juxtaposition of conceptual inversions; as if Cohl’s film is a surreal abstraction that congeals into moments of narrative stability, and Messmer’s character is a solidified character who lapses into moments of fantastic transformation. But the successful balance between consistency and mutability that exists in Felix is key to a gay utopia. A citizen of the gay utopia is a personality that directs the form and function of the body. The personality exists distinct from the body for Felix as it does for any other gay utopian.

Which is not to say that the body is irrelevant, secondary or even ornamental. The key to Felix’s character is the paradox that his body both defines him (in an iconic and graphic fashion) and conforms to his imagination. His body informs his character, but does not limit it. It enhances his character by remaining malleable to the whims of his imagination.

The surreal permissibility of Felix typifies the logic of American studio animations of the 1920’s. Felix was the first animated superstar and was hugely influential on dozens of other characters. One of these, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created by Walt Disney and animated primarily by Ub Iwerks, provides for an interesting comparison with Felix. Often seen as the immediate forerunner to Mickey, Oswald was a major improvement for Disney and Iwerks over their other 1920’s animated fare. While only animated by Iwerks for one year, 1927-28, before the rights to the character were forfeited, Oswald is a sort of late-model Felix, improving upon the original, but still existing in Felix’s world. Messmer is clearly the humble master of early silent studio animation, but Iwerks is a major stylistic force who contributed to the rise of the deeply influential Disney style of the late 1930’s. 1927, though, is a unique moment in animation history, when the Felix model of surreal silent cartoons was reaching a moment of near decadence: everything moves, everything is expressive, everything has potential. Iwerks’s take on this style is a milestone. Iwerks’s Oswald cartoons exhibit an elasticity and three-dimensionality that are a cut above Messmer’s graphic work. In the Iwerks cartoon Great Guns, Oswald as a physical creature follows a logic much the same as Felix’s: he detaches and re-attaches his own lucky rabbit-foot, he catches and throws cannonballs with his ears, he is shot to pieces and reformed as liquid in a martini shaker:

Oswald the Rabbit in Great Guns, Ub Iwerks, 1927

But if the 1927 Oswald cartoons are a masterpiece of Felix-style animation, they are also the final chapter of this wonderfully fantastical period. Disney and Iwerks discarded the purity of Felix’s unlimited surreal logic in favor of a more entertaining visual slapstick. Walt Disney is often reviled in academic animation circles for his insistence on a basis of “realism” in his cartoons. As an example, during the early 1930’s, Disney’s backgrounds moved away from the cartoony style of Felix and toward a style of idealized naturalism. In doing so, Disney’s animated landscapes lost their fundamental potential. In the exquisitely rendered world of Disney’s 1937 masterpiece Snow White, for example, the graphic possibilities of Oswald’s fluid landscape has been converted into a calcified storybook painting. The Seven Dwarves may move with an elasticity similar to Oswald’s, but they have very different rules directing their behavior. They have lost their ability to interact with their world as if it were made of the same material as their own bodies; their world has become “real” while they remain caricatures. They have fallen from the state of grace of existing in a world of pure imagination, and instead exist separated from their houses and trees and landscape.

During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Disney’s realist style, aided in no small part by his mastery of the technology of synchronized sound in his cartoons, eclipsed the Felix style that had defined animation during the early 20’s. The surreal impulse that drove Felix reached a high-water mark in the rubber-hose style of the Fleischer studio in the late 1930’s with the fantastic Popeye series. Eventually, however, Fleischer too was unable to stand up to the influence of Disney’s popular style. The Fleischer studio was driven to an economic collapse as they attempted to shift their production style away from the rubber-hose surrealism and toward a marketable Disney style realism. To a lesser degree, the playful surreal imagination of the 20’s lived on in the shorts of the 1940’s created by Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones at Warner Brothers. It resurfaced with a vengeance in 1990’s in the work of John Kricfalusi, with the Mighty Mouse and Ren and Stimpy shows. But for a brief period during the 1920’s, animation existed in a state in which the fantastic was truly possible, and was frequently depicted. The logical boundaries for the actions and bodies of Felix and Oswald are only the imaginations of Messmer and Iwerks.

Popeye in The Painless Window Washer, Fleischer studios, 1937

So what sort of gay utopia can be seen in the animation of the 20’s? Based on this examination of trickfilms, early cartoons, Felix and Oswald, it is a utopia in which the underlying logic of the universe is based on the fantastic and the supernatural. The bodies of characters in this utopian landscape are fluid and exhibit what animation historian Donald Crafton in his excellent book Before Mickey calls a “polymorphous plasticism,” open to adjustment and reconfiguration as the scenario requires. Most importantly, in our animated utopia, personalities are constant while bodies may change. Perhaps, though, this simplified gay utopia lacks one of the most crucial elements of a gay utopia: the promise of a society motivated and held together by unlimited polyamorous pleasures. There is plenty of sexual metaphor in the landscape of cartoons of the 20’s, such as the hilariously manipulated phallic dinosaur bone in Felix Trifles with Time, and the consistent appearance of protruding rear-ends in Disney’s character animation. However these naïve examples are perhaps exceptions that prove the rule: there is very little literal sexual content in animation of the 1920’s.

Fleischer’s Betty Boop, who made her debut in 1930, is recognized as the most explicit presence of sexuality in animation of the period. In addition to her famously revealing flapper dress and garter, Betty is often placed in situations where her clothing is compromised for one reason or another. However, the mature Betty Boop (she was drawn with dog ears until 1932) has a solid physicality. She does not metamorphose or adjust herself. Perhaps that physical surrealism would have deflated her sexuality in the minds of her viewers. Betty Boop is literal in her sexuality, but she’s also much more limited in physical potential than Felix or Oswald.

Betty Boop, M.D., Fleischer Studios, 1932

The one well-known instance of explicit sexual material in animation of the 20’s is a film that goes by several names; often, Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure. The apocryphal backstory on this animation is that it was produced collaboratively after-hours at several major animation studios in the mid-20’s, and was shown at a party given in honor of Winsor McCay in 1928. The animation follows the exploits of the well-endowed and aroused Eveready as he seeks to satisfy his lust. This involves frustrated attempts at fornication with a variety of creatures and orifices. During the course of the animation, several interesting variations on the surreal logic of Felix’s universe develop. These variations primarily exist in the relationship of Eveready and his prominent member. Gags like using his penis as a sword, having his penis stretch to fantastic lengths, and hammering his bent penis into shape with a rock seem like simple perverse variations on well-worn tricks from the vocabulary of Felix’s tail. Which would make sense, if in fact the film was created by animators at major studios as is claimed. In the first minute of the cartoon, though, the logic of the sexual hilarity allows for a cartoon joke beyond any possible with traditional characters. Eveready sees two flies on the tip of his penis, and tries to shoot them off with a revolver. His penis, naturally, is shocked by the violence of the act, detaches itself from Eveready’s body, and hides behind a rock. It is shortly reattached, but endowing the auxiliary body part with its own sentience is a trick not seen in most studio animation; Felix can detach his tail, but it never has a mind of its own.

Eveready Harton, 1928.

Interestingly for the animated gay utopia, the one sexual taboo in Buried Treasure is homosexual. Eveready makes absurdly enthusiastic attempts at heterosexual and beastial unions, but his one moment of repulsion comes when he discovers he has made accidental homosexual contact. It is an indication of a sort of ideological threshold that exists in the animation of the period. Even though Eveready has surreal sexual abilities, these still follow a fairly conventional trajectory. The realization of unlimited fulfillment of the sexualized body, and with it, realization of the gay utopia, is within reach in Buried Treasure, but it is deliberately avoided. Similarly, the juxtaposition of Betty Boop’s solidified sexual body with the fluid plasticism in the goofy, non-sexualized bodies of Betty’s on-screen friends Bimbo, Popeye and a rotoscoped Cab Calloway illuminates this same ideological barrier. The sexualized body and the fluid body, which in combination represent the complete realization of the idea of the gay utopia, are in practice at odds in the animation of the 20’s and 30’s. Sex cannot be plasticized here.

An interesting take on this ideological roadblock can be seen in the sexual mores driving Disney’s fairy tale features, particularly the someday-my-prince-will-come variety like Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. The sexuality is not overt, it is codified in a Hayes Code derived Disney-ese. The fulfillment for the heroines in these animations is a kiss and a marriage. However, the desire for this chaste consummation is ultimately a tension that drives much of these movies, and in that way Disney’s princess love stories do operate with a level of erotic motivation. The flip side of allowing this amorous narrative element is an extreme rejection of cartoon-bodies in the sexualized characters. The character of Snow White is famously the product of many, many hours of anatomical and motion studies by the Disney team, and Prince Charming is for all intents and purposes a rotoscoped figure with an un-charming stiffness. This physical realism in the romantic characters is dramatically contrasted with the floppy squishyness of the Seven Dwarves, whose own amorous desires for Snow White are seen as comical and absurd. Even in the most polished Disney feature work, often seen as the antithesis of the rubber-hose style of the 20’s, the same tension between fluidity of the body and acknowledgement of sexuality can be discerned. If we, the audience, are to identify with a character’s sexuality in any meaningful way, then the body must be stable. Romantic expressions from plasticized characters, like Popeye and Olive Oyl, seem childlike and humorous.

The gay utopia in animation is the true expression of the medium: bodies and landscapes adjusting and interacting on a whim, and with a fantastic physicality. The gay utopia stands against realism in animation on all levels, and delights in spontaneity, imagination and expressions of the character through the animated body.

The end of the fantastical Felix era is marked by the rise of the Disney era, and with it, a fixation on concepts of realism in hand-drawn film. The gay utopia of the 1920’s was overcome by the essentially conservative animated worldview of Disney’s realism. The struggle of creative minds with the tendency toward animated realism is being rehashed in new terms in the contemporary realm of computer-generated films. Sophisticated digital modeling and animation tools have given new seductive promise to the idea of animating things “realistically,” and the animation-viewing public has been treated to some horrific stinkers in recent memory. Perhaps the most conspicuous of these are films that use motion-capture technology to force digital models to move like “real” actors: Final Fantasy: Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and the freshly odious Beowulf. These films are enamored of simulating reality in a way that squashes any real fantastic imagination. They walk the same path, but with an admittedly more interesting future, that Disney did in the 1930’s, away from animated surreal potential (think of the relationship between the body and the landscape in 1982’s TRON, for example) and toward codified, constricted reality.

An interesting note to observe on Beowulf is that the personification of Undefeatable Threat to Mankind is a naked, golden Angelina Jolie. Besides the surface-level issues of misogyny in the film, the fact that Angelina is both gratuitously sexualized (seemingly by a high school sophomore) and has an unstable body recalls the early-animation rule of sexuality being reserved for stable bodies. Without placing too much significance on a crude Freudian analysis, it’s not too great a leap to imagine that Angelina’s tail-like braid, her feet with built-in high heels, her ability to walk on water, and her psionic shape-shifiting allow for the audience to internalize her threat on a psychological level by trying to reconcile our objectification of her as an item of sexual desirability with our fear of her ultimate control over bodily form. It’s a strange fulfillment of the anxiety that keeps Betty Boop from having a transmutable body.

In order to examine contemporary work that either embraces some aspect of the gay utopia or completely discards it, a quick comparison of Beowulf with Pixar’s The Incredibles is in order. Not exactly worlds apart in commercial or creative intentions, but it’s an illuminating comparison nonetheless. The instinct driving the style, character and movement of The Incredibles is exaggeration and caricature, and in fact it produces admirably compelling results. The instinct driving the style of Beowulf is the intention to remove all evidence of the hands and efforts of the animators. Beowulf is a polished, closed visual world, with little room for spontaneity or actual imagination; it is the antithesis of the gay utopia. The Incredibles, while not nearly in league with Felix or Oswald, is at least an adventure in the stylized invention of bodies and landscape, where the physical imitations of the bodies, objects and architecture has some degree of imaginative potential. Beowulf, The Polar Express and their dispassionate brethren offer a look into a horrifying chasm of soulless filmmaking that is at best devoid of any spontaneous creativity, and at worst absolutely no fun.

The gay utopia of 1920’s animation may never disappear completely, but it is certainly not in any condition of robust health in the world of contemporary mainstream animation. However, the fluid potential of the gay utopia is alive and well in a variety of smaller-format animation arenas, including Xavier: Renegade Angel on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim), the web animation Homestar Runner, Bill Plympton’s short Your Face, John Kricfalusi’s series Ren and Stimpy, and a wide range of engaging and challenging animations from the underground/experimental film world, like Amy Lockhart’s wonderful Walk for Walk.

Walk for Walk, Amy Lockhart

Xavier: Renegade Angel

A comparison between two examples of Bill Plympton’s work with a short clip from Robert Zemekis’s The Polar Express is perhaps the most self-explanatory manner in which to illuminate the remnants of the gay utopia as it can be detected in contemporary animation.

Clip of Santa leaving the Nuremberg rally the North Pole in The Polar Express.

The Kiss, Bill Plympton

Nik Nak commercial, Bill Plympton

©Alexander Stewart. Used by permission.

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