February 16, 2001

Cornell Cinema: Cartoon Noir

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Film noir could be considered the bastardized middle child of the American narrative cinema family. Born in the early portion of the Baby Boomer years, most of our parents and professors are older than this black sheep of film. In the context of evolution, film noir hasn’t had a very long gestation period; but nonetheless, it has already evolved into quite a complex creature.

For those not familiar with this stealthy and sinister persona of classical cinema, film noir is a type of crime film featuring misanthropic, malicious characters in a sleazy setting and a foreboding atmosphere that is conveyed by shadowy photography and threatening background music. It’s one of those movies with a detective who tells you about that gorgeous dame that walked into his office one dark and stormy night and if he’d have known how much trouble she’d be, he would’ve told her to scram.

It is a curious and unexpected question to ask oneself how this dark and depraved film style somehow crossed over into the colorful and warm arena of cartoons. The first film noir pictures appeared in the late forties with films like The Big Clock. Soon, the cinematic genre was parodied by the satirical Warner Brothers’ Looney Toons, presenting the first bleed over into the wacky world of animation. This bleed over later surfaced in 1969 with the Pink Panther cartoon series.

But, perhaps the most memorable marriage of film noir and cartoon was the 1988 movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Filmed with bizarre and slightly disturbing images of cartoons and real people involved in a crime caper, this film was a box office smash and certifiably film noir. It had the ominous music, the shadowy cinematography, and the sleazy dame.

Then, in 1999 came Cartoon Noir, a medley of existentialist plots and menacing imagery compiling six international animated shorts. The film purifies the communion of film noir and animation only toyed with by other cartoon genre films and series. If Bugs Bunny dressed as a hard-knocks sleuth is on one side of the spectrum, then Cartoon Noir is its polar opposite. One is kind of cute, while the other one may cause those of us with weaker constitutions to lose our lunch.

The most normal and least depressing vignette of the compilation is “Story of the Cat and Moon”. Although a serious subject matter, it’s somewhat reminiscent of a story read to preschoolers right before naptime. Its lulling tempo and somber mood creates a contemplative, albeit melancholy effect with quiet grace. However, the stories that follow jolt the audience over to the flip side, with tales that explore the putrid and corrupt underbelly of reality.

“Club of the Discarded” is a concoction that could have come straight out of Norman Bates’ twistedly afflicted brain. What seems to be a voyeuristic view into an abandoned apartment filled with rotting mannequins, turns into a Marilyn Manson video, co-written by Mother and Norman Bates and directed by Hitchcock himself. The short effectively sends a white current of electricity to the ends of our nerve endings, packing a powerhouse of shock value and derangement.

Like most psychopaths, this film’s genius lies beneath the surface. Provoked to the edge of horror, the viewer realizes the absurdity of this reaction because, after all, these are not deformed people having sex, they’re plastic figurines. The translation of the images as humans rather than mannequins causes our own brains to create this illusion of wickedness. It is a keen look into the ontology of social perception.

As the eighty-three minutes pass, the darkness only grows. Cartoon Noir takes audiences on a journey to the dinner table of a middle-aged couple discussing their meal of ape meat that may have resulted from the wife’s brush with bestiality. We travel further into this arena of disquiet with “Joy Street” as it explores suicide in a crayon-crafted world of fruitfully drug-tinted images. We are then whisked into a nether-worldly type tableau involving an eerie story of a rotting relationship and an abstruse death. This odd tale is woven from the same twisted threads as an Edgar Allen Poe yarn, leaving the viewer bewildered.

The list goes on with an increasingly unhinged repertoire of animated anecdotes. Cartoon Noir clearly captures the unsettling nature of film noir and translates it into the ulterior reality of animation. This slightly vexing creation will leave you appreciating the seemingly less disturbing amenities of the real world.

Archived article by Laura Thomas