Friday, March 6, 2009

A Public Service

For over 3 years now, noted animation director John Kricfalusi has lamented on his own blog in more than one post about how noone knows how to make good cartoons anymore.  Some of his concerns include: "Animation schools don't teach young artists the right things", "Animation Producers interfere with the creative process way more often than they should", "TV executives like to spoon feed dumbed-down drivel to their audiences", just to name the ones most repeated.  Of course, other like-minded animation professionals as well as any other cartoon pundits with blogs (such as myself) have made similar statements as well.  However, all of those people have barely touched on one important thing.  The biggest problem concerning animation today is that people really don't know how to WATCH cartoons anymore.  It's almost become as lost an art form as conversation or parenting.  This is the problem that must be solved first before anyone does anything to fix the system inwhich animation is produced.  I shall attempt to do just that with this post.  Or, at the very least, lay the foundation for which repairs can be made.  Here is what I like to call:

How to Watch Cartoons: A Sad But Necessary Guide For Our Present Society.

As they say, a picture is worth 1000 words.  Therefore, so this post is not just a collection of words, I have procured the assistance of Harpo Marx. 

He will help give a visual demonstration of all the points I will be making throughout this dissertation.  So now, on with the blog.  May there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor.

First off, I'd just like to say that the art of watching cartoons is not that hard to master.  There's really only one step involved.  When viewing a cartoon such as this:

The best response is this:

Nice and simple.  We as a society used to be able to do this.  It was as easy as tune in, turn on, walk away happy.  Or, if the product was of a lesser quality, we would tune in, hold nose, turn off.  Everyone from the eldest senior to the youngest infant knew how to do this.  But, in recent decades, we have managed to make this a much more difficult process.  We have put quite a few
 roadblocks in the way.  On the milder side, it has caused people to make sardonic grunts while others try to watch.  On the extreme side, entire committees have been formed in an effort to boycott or ban cartoons (and many other forms of entertainment as well).  Unfortunately, too many of those committees have members that are overwhelmingly verbose, reactionary, and possess an unhealthy 'holier-than-thou' attitude.  They seem to be an army of hyper-sensitive robots programmed to be a relentless force against anything that violates their narrow, quasi-utopian  idea of "decency".  All of this not only stifles enjoyment, it chokes the creative process too.

Here are some of the more modern reactions to cartoons:

1. No grasp of the surreal.

By definition, a cartoon is a heightened or exaggerated representation of reality.  Therefore, there are many examples in cartoons inwhich Earth's idea of physics, time, space, and matter are either bent at will or completely changed.  This has somehow become forgotten and in some animation studios it's even forbidden.  These days, whenever most people see a cartoon like this:

The typical reaction is this:

People are easily confused by the images they're seeing.  They make the mistake of applying the laws of reality to the cartoon.  Even the idea of animals walking on two legs and speaking is enough to create confusion these days.  The images presented in the above cartoon would make those individuals' heads explode.  Those whose heads don't explode would merely refer to it as "random" as though it were a "mistake".  
It was hardly a mistake.  Those surreal elements were in there for a reason, to fully utilize the fantastic capabilities of that animated universe.  Of course, the best written cartoons don't just do this for mere artistic sake.  Everything is timed out so that it becomes a pleasent surprise, even upon its 100th viewing.  Ergo, the best way to respond to these surreal elements is this: 

2. An over-developed sense of empathy

This is somewhat of an extension of the previous point.  I mentioned that cartoon characters live in a surreal universe where anything is possible.  Among the things that are possible is an
ability to survive the most brutal acts of violence that in the real world could be fatal.
  All throughout the Golden Era, both animators and pedestrians alike understood this perfectly.  When cartoons first came to TV, Peggy Sharin started a committee to regulate the advertising 
content of these shows.  Her aim was to make sure the shows were not just one long cereal commercial.  However, her organization contained plenty of soccer moms who started objecting to the entertainment portion of the shows.  They made claims that the violent slapstick was "imitatable behavior" that would lead to "aggressive actions" in the future.  Since then, many cartoons have been sanitized by appointed censors and have thus people's brains have softned.  

So now, a reaction to a cartoon like this: these modern times, is this:
Some actually feel the pain of these characters as they get knocked around.  Of course, they disguise these feelings by suggesting that "children will learn to think that inflicting pain is funny".  Here's an example of cartoon watching from an Alfred Hitchcock movie called Sabotage.  The main heroine of the film runs a small movie theatre.  In this scene the kids are all enjoying Disney's Oscar winning short Who Killed Cock Robin.

Yes, she did become disturbed by the bird's comical death.  However, she was already depressed because her young son died in an explosion.  Pretty much anything would send her into a depression spiral at that point.  In fact, just a few minutes later she wells up with tears again after almost setting a plate at her son's chair for supper.  Does that make plates, chairs, and supper harmful to someone's mental health?  Absolutely not.  She just needs some time to get over her tragic loss, that's all.  
Truly, the chances of cartoons alone(or many other Tv shows, movies, or songs in general) warping minds and damaging psychies enough to influence behavior are that of a butterfly flapping it's wings in Norway and causing a tidal wave in Fiji.  This can't be emphasized too much, the best response to cartoon violence is:

3. The automatic association of images with the worst Nazi atrocities.

This one is very much an extension of the last one.  In this case, the empathy is quite often misplaced or misused.
Everyone who has poked around Youtube every now and then has seen an old cartoon with racial images that would not be "acceptable" by today's standards.  The ones that receive the most negative press are the ones that depict African Americans (or in some cases, just plain ol' Africans) but the cartoons depicting Asians, Jews, Indians, or homosexuals rub some people the wrong way as well.  Just show a cartoon like this:

...and many people's first reaction will be to do this:

Yep, those angry letters just start flooding in.  And in the most extreme cases, what crops up are more protests than you can shake a water hose at.  No matter what it is, whether the entire cartoon has disturbing images or just one small scene, there are people out there today that react as if the Nazis have re-invaded Poland.  These people need to calm the hell down for two reasons.
a) A caricature is not automatically an insult.  In fact, in many cases, it's just the 
opposite.  Caricature can often times be a form of flattery.  There's a reason why many Hispanics aren't at all offended by Speedy Gonzales.  Mexico even regards him as a hero instead of an insult.  For some reason, Hispanics seem to understand this c
oncept much better than the rest of the world.  
That artist guy at the carnival who drew you with a gigantic head on a tiny body was not making a scathing statement of contempt.  All he did was turn you into a cartoon.  That's all that happened there.  Really, if a caricaturist (professional or amateur) wanted to make a slanderous, mean-spirited caricature, you'd know it.  He wouldn't mince around and leave it for you to "guess".  It would be right there for all to see "Person A is a jerk and we all must shun him/her".  You wouldn't need to cross-examine the subtext to find the hate, it would be in the text.
Yes, yes, I'm quite aware that Africans have had a tumultuous past both in their home country and anywhere else they were forced to immigrate to.  Though, significant progress has been made, it certainly needs to be better than what we have in the present day.  It's no big secret that hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan were 1,000,000 strong in the early part of the 20th Century with many members occupying rather lofty political positions.  However, that doesn't mean that every single citizen of those days felt that way.  Many of the controversial images from the cartoons made in the Golden Age of Hollywood were moreso produced through ignorance rather than malice.  The people who made these cartoons were mostly ignorant of
 racial strife as well as many theatre patrons of the day.  Case-in-point, my Grandma. She grew up practically her entire life within the Ukrainian farming communities of Saskatchewan.  When she finished helping her parents run their farm, she got married and ran a farm with her husband.  This is basically how the first 60 years of her life went.  She didn't even know that "nigger" was a bad word until very recently.  My uncle and his kids found it out the hard way when they showed her an episode of Jerry Springer.  Of course, now that she knows how angry people get with that word she hasn't used it since (although she still refers to Brazil nuts as "nigger toes".  Old habits die hard).  
If the cartoon you are watching was made during your parent's generation, or that of your grandparents, or even further back, the best response is this:
Just say "it was a different time" and shrug it off.  Enjoy the cartoon for its own artistic merits if it has any.

b) Don't sweat the ambiguous.  Of course, it's more common these days to get upset over content that is believed to have subtle racist undertones whether they can be proven to exist or not.  Of course, the most recent example is the furor over this cartoon:

OOH!  AAH!  SHOCK!  HORROR!  SPLATTERED BRAINS!  OOP!  ACK!  It's that New York Post cartoon again.  Okay, for those of you out there that need to release a cargo load of anger right now, just sing a few choruses of this song before continuing:

Okay, back to the blog.

The reason I found the backlash to this political cartoon so bogus is because people were getting upset over images that "can be interpreted" as racist.  That's the operative term right there: "can be interpreted".  I've got news, everything can "be interpreted" as something sinister if the dots are connected a certain way.  How many times on Three's Company did the trouble start because someone put their ear to a door just in time to hear something that "could be 
interpreted" as something awful?  Is it Jack's fault that Janet thought he was going to get a vasectomy and thus caused chaos at the hospital?  Does Janet have any grounds for suing Jack for
 mental anguish?  And, of course, according to Sigmund Freud, every object in the entire world "can be interpreted" as either a penis or a vagina.  Should we reprimand the universe for being so dirty?  Can we sue or demand the termination of employment of every psychiatrist in the world for showing us all those sexually explicit ink blots?
The ones you should concern yourself with are the ones that CAN'T be interpreted as anything else but racist.  I found a motherload of them at this site.  There's no doubt about their agenda.  (No, it's not the Muhammed cartoons).

Lenny Bruce had this to say, "Words themselves are not offensive, it's the power we put behind those words that gives them their impact."  The same goes for images.  The best way to deal with words or images that you find offensive is to take that power away.  Really, though, images are just inanimate objects.  The only way inanimate objects can harm you at all is if it's being thrown at you.  Of course, in that situation, your beef would be with the 'thrower'.  THAT'S where your energy should be concentrated.  Forget the image.
Another good quote to keep in mind comes from Oscar Wilde.  He said, "There is no such thing as 'offensive'.  Things are either well done or poorly done.  That is all."  Case-in-point: Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in Tropic Thunder.  A role that could quite possibly have outraged the entire planet and send him to the same hidey-hole that Michael Richards is in, instead it got him an Oscar nomination.  The reason being: his acting performance was well done. 

(Oh, by the way, this next film was "interpreted" as advocating "violence against women".  Enjoy:

Well, that's about it.  I hope all who read this learned a little something today.  Of course, what good is learning something if you can't put it into practice?  So, for your viewing pleasure I'd like to present a cartoon that encompasses everything I've talked about.  Just apply all I've said to this cartoon and see how it affects your enjoyment of it.

Happy cartoon watching!