Monthly Archives: October 2012

Obsession (1949): Trapped Film Series Number 1

This is the first of my notes about my ongoing series of films at The Woodmill Studios in Bermondsey. To see the entire line up and get all the details go here.

NB: These notes make the outcome of the plot explicit

My choice of 1949’s Obsession to begin a series of films about the theme ‘trapped’ was made on two counts. Firstly, the specifics of the narrative: Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) plots to kill American Bill Cronin (Phil Brown) as a punishment for an affair with his wife, Storm (Sally Gray who also stars in the other perfect British noir of this period, They Made Me a Fugitive). Hesitating in killing Cronin until suspicion has passed over him, he confines him to cell in a bombed out house and daily delivers a hot water bottle of acid each day, slowly filling a bath in which he will eventually dissolve the man who cuckolded him. His only companion is Clive’s dog Monty and four volumes of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Over the course of the film, the two men build an equally entwined relationship as the two eighteenth-century grandees. Besides the plot, I thought the production circumstances of the film were too germane to the theme to pass up: its director Edward Dmytryk had fled America, refusing to reveal the specifics of his communist colleagues. After ending his exile in Britain as a member of the Hollywood Ten, he found himself sentenced to a six month prison term on his return to the USA, just shortly after the film was released.

The killer among the model trains (this scene reminded me of A Mighty Wind’s Crabville)

Despite its American protagonist and director, the film nevertheless shows a rare focus on idiomatically British themes and attitudes. Jules Dassin’s  Night and the City (a film that was a product of the same blacklisting) shows a thorough disregard for the specifics of the British social scene (and for the geography of London) but Obsession is ridden with details that blend noir tropes with the older British modes of detective fiction. When a gun is drawn in this film, it is not simply a quotidian prop as in the American thriller: here it is a statement of intent, the kind of object only a man seriously determined on murder would seek out.

The focus on the gentlemen’s club bears this out: Clive’s associates there seem like a collection of garrulous spectres, unaffected by the huge social changes that were transforming the nation. ‘Things were going on quite nicely until Hitler popped up,’ one opines. ‘Met a Canadian once, fantastic lingo; same as Americans, you know.’ Defeated and insignificant, like the rest of the nation they are ‘living on American dollars’ and subsisting on the ration (‘diabolical coffee’). Clive’s prison for Bill is a perfect metaphor for their existence: an untouched façade leading onto a back garden that shows the depredations of war where unspeakable acts can go unnoticed.

‘Dreadful whiskey’. The deadening environment of the club

Post-war British noir films had the advantage of a huge number of damaged buildings to create an analogy for the lack of progress the war had brought

Clive himself and his actions seems to be emblematic of the state of empire too: no longer ebullient or virile, lacking strength, he now must rely on calculating cruelty that will trap his subject in order to kill it. This cold methodology is embedded in the pacing of the film. Contrasting with the propulsion of an American thriller, we linger over Clive preparing the solution he plans to dissolve Bill in, Clive entering the makeshift prison; the film has the prison movie’s attention to the magnification of minor frustrations that comes from confinement. Showing characters trapped in a film means the producers have to overcome a consequent narrative stasis. In this case, the film chooses the play out the relationship between jailer and prisoner to deal with this potential inertia. Like Walter Mosley’s The Man in My Basement, the reasons for imprisonment seem arbitrary: it is an excuse to let two figures who are fully themselves (as well as having allegorical import) confront each other over extended sessions, rather like a philosophical dialogue (the serious, impotent colonial vs. the impish, philandering new worlder).

‘It’s a pity I’ve got to kill you because I really quite like you.’

It is only in the film’s final third that the battle is revealed to be between three, rather than two, competing parties. Naunton Wayne plays Superintendent Finsbury, brilliantly riffing on his established turn as Caldicott that started with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Here, he is an avenging spirit on the inventor of the perfect murder, appearing at inopportune moments and making Clive’s home seem just as confining as Bill’s cell. This character, an interpolation from the Golden Age of detective novels, knocks the film into thoroughly British territory, as cosy and cunning as Agatha Christie’s Poirot and possessing a supercilious but devastating wit. At one point Clive describes being tried for murder as ‘awkward’ and this sense of the art of murder as a question of manners is expressed in the embarassment that Finsbury visits upon Clive. He quietly threatens Clive, ‘All murderers are amateurs Mr. Riordan. The only people who are professionals in the game are the people who catch the murderers.’ The details of the film (acid in hot water bottles, thermoses and ham sandwiches for the prisoner and, wonderfully, our would-be murderer waiting coolly for his victims by polishing off the Times crossword) all give the film a drawing-room quality that collides productively with the blackness of the murder itself.

‘Are you sure my pipe isn’t worrying you?’ Supt Finsbury zeroes in on Clive

There’s a hint of the anxiety that attended homosexual life at this time in the dynamic between these three men: an ‘unnatural’ relationship that must be hidden from the eyes of the authorities and wider society, being constantly interrupted by the police. This interpretation is not so far fetched when one consider’s the extent to which post-war Britain’s social clean up was focused on the homosexual problem (breaking up ‘cottages’ and other gay meeting points), excellently detailed in Richard Hornsey’s analysis of The Lavender Hill Mob in his book The Spiv and the Architect.

This focus on the homosocial relationship between Bill and Clive is borne out in the film’s perfunctory ending. Having suffered many months in solitary confinement as a result of his peccadillo with Storm, Bill is visited by his lover in hospital. Expecting a tear-stained reunion that will see them begin their lives together, she instead declares she is going on a cruise, taking Monty with her; she leaves him to get back in touch with her on her return. As she leaves, we get a reunion with the only creature who was willing to sacrifice himself for Bill’s life.

Man’s best friend and man, in clinch

IMDB; Wikipedia.

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Gertie and Ducky: An interview with Sally Cruikshank

On 22nd September 2012, I delivered a lecture entitled ‘The Many Lives of Gertie the Dinosaur: Early Animation in Context’ at the South London Gallery. I’ve been interested in Winsor McCay for many years now: for me he’s the perfect intersection between pure whimsy, unsettling and uncanny plays on universal fears and elaborate and charming draftsmanship. In preparing for the talk, I wanted to speak to someone who shares all these qualities (including my admiration): animator Sally Cruikshank. Like McCay, she produced her early work alone, painstakingly animating each cel. McCay worked before the advent of cel animation, so each image required both character movement and background to be redrawn. I wanted to talk to Sally because she seemed to be discovering her own method, just as McCay had sixty years before and because they seemed to be drawing from the same imaginative well. Unexpectedly, both artists are enjoying a moment in the spotlight. McCay was recently featured in an elaborate Google Doodle and Cruikshank has been honoured with retrospectives at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Museum of Art and Design.

My first question is why you decided to use the techniques you did when you first started animating? You produced Ducky with a unique style that pans over large scale drawings, has stop-frame paper movement as well as using non-cel animation. Where did this combination come from? Was it inexperience, or frustration with traditional methods? Were you studying in an environment when you produced this film?

Inexperience, entirely. I had no idea of what to do. I bought a big hobbyist paperback written by Preston Blair (a great Disney animator) that said on the back cover in big letters: “You can draw, why not try!” Pretty much my attitude. I was a senior at Smith College and proposed doing a special study making an animated film. There was resistance but the photography teacher helped me. He rigged up a Bolex to a darkroom enlarger. I just tried to make it work. I was so intrigued by the idea of seeing my drawings move.

Stills from Ducky by Sally Cruikshank

One of the things that comes across with reading about McCay is how much he simply derived great pleasure from drawing. It seems that it was the main reason he was able to produce the vast quantities of drawings needed for his animations. How important do you think the desire to repeat, practice and enjoy employing your skills is to becoming a great artist?

Well it seems amazing that the repetition of the drawings gave him such pleasure. I believe his films are all on 1s, i.e. 24 drawings a second.  Considering his stunning imagination you’d think he’d have felt restless. But maybe he had a compulsion to keep drawing. I was sort of like that in college. I do think drawing is a very important skill for an artist, even if that artist doesn’t work in a naturalistic way. The more you draw the more your line expresses who you are (and you get better from the practice). It also gives you something to do in airports besides look at your telephone!

Sally’s joke on the merchandising possibilities of her films in the preview for the uncompleted film Quasi’s Cabaret

Many of your films seem to have moments that detach themselves from plot and are collections of funny, beautiful, ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ details? Do you think it’s a shame that animation in general has stuck quite closely to narrative? 

You know I can’t relate at all to what goes on in contemporary animation. I’m sure there are plenty of great things I’ve missed though. I won’t go to any 3-D animation, and those bulgy balloon computer films remind me of hallucinations I had as a child after dental surgery.

One of McCay’s colourised Dream of the Rarebit Fiend cartoons

Why do you think we associate great art with great mental perseverance and/or suffering but not necessarily with physical perspiration?

Well even architects just draw the building: they don’t even get their fingers dirty.But to digress a little. Now that there’s software to make the animation process easier, particularly Flash, you’d think there would be so much great new work, and maybe there is but I haven’t seen it. Working with Flash, I found that I would often accept something as good enough, not go back and refine it (and the Flash drawing line is very hard to work with for me) but if it had been traditional animation, with all the stages of pencil drawing/clean up/inking/painting/photography of cels I would want each drawing to be the best it could be, particularly once I got into cel animation.Sometimes making things easier doesn’t mean making it better. I don’t know. So many examples of this in all aspects of design. I feel badly that animation is such a popular college major, like marine biology about ten years ago. I can see why they like it but is there anything to be done with it? The free content aspect of the internet has been very tough on creative people.

An editorial cartoon by Winsor McCay

Do you think McCay had an influence on your style or proved an inspiration, or was ‘just’ someone you admired? 

McCay had a HUGE influence on me: you can see it particularly in Quasi at the Quackadero with architecture in the Quackadero.  But more than that his astonishing comic strips of Little Nemo: the dreams, breaking through into another reality. He is so under appreciated! Maybe because his comic strips were so physically large and people only like to concentrate on little things (tablets, phones) these days.In today’s culture if someone came upon his remarkable work they’d probably think, “Whoa, that dude must have been onto some drugs” or however they say it. People neglect the possibilities of the imagination these days. I remember going to an art show of great Sunday comics and it was hard to look at for long. Different artists, all really great, but exhausting all crammed together shuffling through a museum reading one after another.And then to think he took Gertie the Dinosaur out on vaudeville circuit – amazing! And Gertie so charming! And he drew SO WELL! I’m certain he was the inspiration for Marice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

A caricature of McCay preparing for his vaudeville show

His relationship with his children seemed wonderful. But where did the stunning concepts of Little Nemo come from? Maybe just one of those moments in history, concurrent with Freud, Jung, dream exploration, and a little after that, Buster Keaton? What he reminded me most of is Robert Crumb, who was also a compulsive artist who really liked observing details for drawings.  I knew him a little before he moved to Europe. One time I had lunch with Terry Zwigoff and him and said I was having trouble animating water (working on Make Me Psychic). Right away he said “Look at Walt Kelly’s comics (Pogo) He draws water really well.” It was very helpful. Crumb also emerged from a family where you wouldn’t expect such a major talent to come along.

Pinnochio’s (1940) Pleasure Island, one of the most terrifying sequences in all cinema

Why do you think that animation has such a connection with the fairground? (I’m thinking of Pinnochio, the Quakadero, McCay’s circus film and lots of others).
An animation writer (Karl Cohen) approached all the animators he knew recently and asked, “What inspired you to animate?” I wrote back, “I wanted to see my drawings move” which was true. He said, if you think of anything more, write me. He was getting multiple paragraphs from most people. So I wrote back, “I wanted my own amusement park.”
Oddly, I also collected postcards of the amusement parks that inspired Winsor McCay’s architecture, before I’d ever seen his work. I have albums full of them. When I lived in San Francisco in the ’70s the underground cartoonists fancied carnivals for inspiration, including the title of a more literary book series that Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelmann published, Arcade.

A postcard of Luna Park at Coney Island. McCay lived in Sheepshead Bay, less than a mile from the amusement park.

Do you still work on animation at all now? 
I’ve given up on animation but have enjoyed doing watercolor paintings this past year, some for sale on Etsy. Cel animation is pretty much over: not only is there only one animation camera service open in NYC, but even film is rapidly becoming an obsolete format.

Quasi’s Cabaret

All Sally’s films on Youtube are uploaded to her own account, so she generates revenue from each view. However, I strongly recommend getting a copy of her DVD which collects together all her short animations. Along with Phoebe Blatton, I previously interviewed Sally for The Coelacanth Journal Issue 6, which also features an extended article about the problems of CGI cinema that chime closely with some of Sally’s thoughts above and can be bought here.  You can follow Sally on Twitter and buy her watercolors, artwork and DVDs on Esty

My talk at the South London Gallery

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