Animation Grows Up, Gets Dark

This weekend, two groundbreaking, heart-wrenching, and deeply poignant animation works will be up for Academy Awards: Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow (the Blu-ray was funded on Kickstarter with the help of 4,478 backers) and Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa (funded on Kickstarter with the help of 5,770 backers). We’re taking a moment to reflect on the history of animation as it relates to the dark, the existential, and the weird, and considering what these two highly affecting films say about contemporary culture—and about humanity, itself.

The word “strange” isn’t usually associated with the Oscars. At their most basic level, the Academy Awards serve to validate a particular style of filmmaking and subject matter. While most of this year’s nominations are in line with the usual suspects, the inclusion of Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow and Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, two uncompromisingly existential and darkly comic animated films that don’t fit into the Pixar mold, make a very different statement.

Rather than rewarding business as usual, these nominees for Best Animated Short and Best Animated Feature suggest that we can finally dispense with the notion that animation is just for children. Of course, the idea that animation is only for the under-thirteen crowd isn’t particularly novel or controversial — what is new is that such efforts are being recognized by the Academy. Pre-film animation technologies, like the magic lantern and flipbooks, weren’t age specific (in fact, some were pornographic in nature), and soon after the invention of cinema, animation offered fertile ground for the avant-garde.

While the advent of Saturday morning cartoons and the Disney machine largely came to define the practice as kids’ stuff in the twentieth century, the past thirty years or so have been about flipping that script. This is in large part thanks to The Simpsons (for which Hertzfeldt did an extended, unsettling couch gag last year), the longest-running scripted television show of all time. Its immense cultural impact not only redefined the family sitcom, but maximized audiences and fans of animation.

As those who grew up watching The Simpsons came of age, unconventional animated sitcom programming proliferated over cable, be it Comedy Central’s South Park, FX’s spy-spoof Archer, or Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. In the early- to mid-nineties, the late-night void became a home for weirdness, notably filled by MTV’s Liquid Television, which cultivated works by experimental animators parodying the corniness of “regular” TV and adapted works by independent comic book artists like Mark Beyer. What had formerly been limited to festivals on the coasts—such as Spike and Mike’s Festival of Animation which ran from 1977 to the early 2000s—was now available in the living rooms of millions.

MTV’s animation arm also produced inexpensive, thirty-minute, overtly adult animated shows like Æon Flux and Beavis and Butt-head, which, over the course of the decade, were rerun at all hours of the day and night, exposing audiences to the form and its potential for experimentation. Unapologetic and transgressive, nothing about these shows felt like “something for everybody.”

World of Tomorrow, 2015 ©Don Hertzfeldt

Don Hertzfeldt’s uncompromising work is perhaps best understood within this late-night cable tradition. (Also, in a more literal sense: his previously Oscar-nominated short Rejected was supposed to have had its television debut on Adult Swim — first in 2001, and again in 2002 — but never actually aired.) Hertzfeldt’s films are remarkable for their distinctive visual style, which places simplified but expressive stick figures against minimal, often uncolored backgrounds. Why do audiences find these simply rendered characters so compelling? As Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko has argued, simplified facial features make it easier for audiences to project themselves onto the characters and identify with them. Returning to questions of mortality, memory, time, and the search for true happiness, the bare bones approach in World of Tomorrow allows viewers to reexamine the way in which we each experience the world — and, poignantly and disarmingly, reminds us of the finite nature of our lives.

The conceit of World of Tomorrow, Hertzfeldt’s first foray into science fiction, is like a Robert Heinlein story with a sense of humor: a clone appears to her source, “Emily prime,” in order to show her the future, and to extract a faded memory that will comfort her as the world comes to an end … except that “Emily prime” is a toddler with a short attention span. When the clone (Julia Pott) finally gives toddler Emily prime (Winona Mae) the predestined advice in her quasi-robotic monotone, its bluntness delivers a crashing moment of clarity that nullifies the dazzling future surrounding them: “Now is the envy of the dead.” Similarly, the memories that the clone covets most — grass blowing in the wind, Emily walking with her mother — are fleeting slices of life that can never be repeated, regardless of the future’s wondrous technological advances. It’s savvy commentary on our own world of smart devices and, while the message isn’t spoon fed, it hits hard.

World of Tomorrow, 2015 ©Don Hertzfeldt

World of Tomorrow marks Hertzfeldt’s first foray into digital production; prior to this, he worked with a 35mm Richardson animation camera. Despite the switch, the world he creates in World of Tomorrow is an expansion of those he’s envisioned before, and simultaneously embraces the limitations and vast potential of the medium. In one scene, Emily and her clone wander through the “responsive,” abstract goings-on of the “outernet,” a three-dimensional internet for the upper classes (which calls to mind the world of The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, the seminal Chuck Jones short) and through more stripped-down, memory-created landscapes that mimic the textures and grain of paper. Rather than punching up the dialogue and ideas with flashy effects, they’re fully integrated into the filmmaking in a way that wouldn’t be possible in live action, even with a gigantic budget.

© 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The same is true for Kaufman and Johnson’s animated feature, Anomalisa. Although Kaufman has previously fashioned scripts that call for spaces, people, or memories to fold into each other in surreal ways — assisted by CGI or Michel Gondry’s eye-popping special effects — his latest is a literalization of disordered perception. Set in 2006, Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a customer service guru who has lost the ability to connect with anyone or enjoy life, for he (unknowingly) suffers from Fregoli delusion and believes that everyone is, in fact, the same person. This experience is represented through Johnson’s puppets, which, male or female, have the same bland facial features and voice (Tom Noonan’s). Everyone shares the same pronounced lines underneath their eyes, splitting their doll-like faces into quadrants, like a bad mask that’s cracking along its seams.

© 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

While the paranoia that underlies the Fregoli delusion is immediately apparent, Kaufman and Johnson use animation to hone in on the grinding indignity that sufferers of paranoia must carry, and extends it to a critique of our own globalized, homogenized world. Michael travels the country giving the same (or similar) speech about customer care over and over, the crushing uniformity of his life echoed in the impersonal “luxury” hotel he stays in (like an airport, it’s no-place but every place at once), and the dowdy peach-and-brown color palette of its environs. The pallor of the puppets often bleeds into their surroundings, blurring the distinction between inanimate and animate objects. A reality without any variety is indeed a very sad one, which is why Michael goes out of his way to seduce Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman who doesn’t sound like everyone else he meets, but is in every other sense unremarkable. After spending time with her, what made her special begins to fade, and Michael immediately rejects her, glumly returning home to his wife and son, who he solemnly refers to as “slugger.”

As in World of Tomorrow, there is no redemption to be found, save for positive change viewers might make in their own lives following serious introspection. Like Emily’s clone that visits her from the future, Michael is damaged in a way that we are not, but it allows us to see ourselves more clearly. Call it inspiration by negative example — whatever it is, it’s a profundity you can’t find in typical Oscar tales of bravery, set in the real world, that offer easy solutions. These are two films that don’t treat you like a kid — which, in a media landscape that increasingly plays things safe, is pretty subversive.

This piece was written by Violet Lucca, who is Digital Editor at Film Comment magazine, as well as a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Brooklyn Magazine, and Little White Lies.

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