Film Histories, Part 2: Animation and TV in Context

Several years ago, I did a posting which promised to be the “first in a series of posts in which I would evaluate some of the one-volume histories of film in English.” For various reasons, I neglected to follow through on it, though I never stopped thinking about it. For instance, I recently wanted to write about the importance of Mark Cousin’s documentary series for Britain’s Channel 4, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which is something of a game changer. Right now, though I want to comment on “the way [film histories] deal with (or ignore) animation and television.”

William Moritz

 

 

 

 

Among the assignments I give my graduate animation students is to write critical analyses of papers on film and animation history and theory; this is part of their preparation to do the written part of their MFA thesis (the other part is their thesis film). Basically, it’s part of an effort to shift their thinking out of term paper mode to original, scholarly research.) One article I recently assigned was William Moritz’s “Concerning the Aesthetic Autonomy of Animation and Why the Short Film is Not Just a Shorter Feature,” which he presented as a keynote address at the 1995 Filmfest Dresden. It is  something of a rant on the problems faced by independent animation filmmakers, especially in getting their works seen. It is also, at heart, a tirade against the conventional feature film (live action or animated) and in favor of “artists’ Animations.”

He begins by noting:

For the last thirty years, at least, the live-action feature film has been considered an artform—joining written Literature in College curricula, becoming sections of Art Museums, and celebrated in thousands of books, most of which have little to do with Art, and a great deal to do with Sociology. Since the live-action feature, by and large, is a representation of some particular social reality, critics can easily decipher the symbolism of Ingmar Bergman, dissect the melodrama of Douglas Sirk, decode the syntax of Robert Bresson, dismantle the narrative strategies of Orson Welles, or dismember Alfred Hitchcock’s intricate plots to find behavioral patterns, prejudices and assumptions, struggles between races, classes, creeds and sexes. For the Marxist, the Feminist or the Semiotician it is almost irrelevant that cinema happens to be the current vehicle, for the same proofs of conviction can be found in novels, opera, television series, MTV video clips, comic books, or any other medium with a social-based narrative structure.

Animation has been almost completely neglected by film critics, and when it has been treated, only the industrial cartoon and feature-length animations (from Snow White to the hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) have been considered, precisely because they also yield to analysis for sexism, racism, excessive violence, and audience demographics.

One might be tempted to dismiss this tirade as a rather naïve piece of special pleading on behalf of some of his favorite independent filmmakers, including Oskar Fischinger, whose biographer he was. However, despite all this, Moritz does bring up an important issue: why do the standard film histories largely ignore animation? (Similarly, I would also ask why they also ignore television, but more about that later.)

Moritz’s focus on short animations may actually be a good part of the reason animated films have often been marginalized. From a conventional film historian’s point of view, though, this makes perfect sense. After all, aside from pre-World War I era, the comedy shorts of such comedians as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, early Disney, and experimental films, the history of cinema is the history of feature films; no,  let me amend that, it’s the history of the theatrical features. It doesn’t matter that some of those who write these histories don’t like animation (some have even written quite eloquently about it in other contexts), it just doesn’t fit into their discourse (or their publisher’s expectations).

Moritz’s article strongly resonates with my students, who eager to make short animations; this sort of enthusiasm is not uncommon in animation, especially  as seen in their glorification by the major animation festivals such as Annecy, Ottawa and Hiroshima, as well as the nostalgia for the Golden Age of American Animation when Looney Tunes and Silly Symphonies were in flower.

The Situation in Television
The situation with television is, in a way, more serious. Though the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the central organization of film scholars is “dedicated to the study of film, television, video & new media,” television is treated as a separate discourse from movies. Though some critics love to point out the superiority of their favorite TV shows over the current cinema and the technological breach that historically seemed to divide film from TV seems no longer relevant, film histories continue to ignore the tube unless a bona fide auteur, such as Ingmar Bergman or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, worked in TV.

This is compounded by the fact that there doesn’t really seem to be a good international history of television. Instead, we have the likes of Gary Edgerton’s The Columbia History of American Television, whose focus seems rather different than say Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell’s Film History. Even if Thompson and Bordwell wanted to expand their 780-page tome to include TV on the same terms they treat film, they would easily end up with a 2-volume book, which I suspect their publishers wouldn’t like. (Both are not unsympathetic to TV matters, as seen in Thompson’s book, Storytelling in Film and Television.)

While some animation histories, such Giannalberto Bendazzi’s Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, may have consciously ignored television, more recent efforts (including the forthcoming second English-language edition of Bendazzi’s book) have attempted to remedy this oversight. However, animation histories, at least in English, mirror some of the errors of the standard film histories by often marginalizing live action cinema and television. That, though, is not a mistake Moritz did not make.

Photo: Center for Visual Music.