April 14th, 2010

drawing, old man

Why we prefer Eastern European cartoons

Amid from Cartoon Brew recently posted about "Music Box with a Secret", which I talked about a few days ago. In the ensuing discussion, a poster named Nicholas wrote what I think is a pointed summary of the difference in characterization between the animation in the West and in Eastern Europe:

Well, my love for many of the Eastern European cartoons and lack of it for the majority of the American ones has more to do with the characters. In many Eastern European films (not in this one, which I find unpleasant) the characters feel like charming, warm, imperfect, amusing, thinking and feeling creatures with a complex set of qualities that makes them a great companion. As a child I would love to have a creature like this for a friend. American characters always look like they are trying too hard to be entertaining, and I would prefer to keep away from somebody like that. They are egocentric, demanding, hyperactive, loud, over the top, in your face caricatures who might occasionally be funny but nobody in their right mind would want to spend any time with such a nuisance in real life. They look like they would be pulling your hair and screaming in your face and forcing you to do ridiculous things. So whether it’s the Incredibles or Duffy Duck, or Family Guy, I often watch them with mixed feelings of amusement and certain distaste, as one would watch a circus clown, kind of: do your tricks, some of them are funny, but please don’t get too close. So my point is that of course all is a matter of taste, but unlike what somebody said about having a sense that “Eastern European cartoons were made with the expectation that no one was watching”, they WERE made for an audience, but a different audience.

This is indeed a defining trait of most Soviet cartoon heroes. Some popular examples (subtitled): Cheburashka (films 1, 2, 3, 4), The Kitten Named Woof (films 1, 2, 5), Buttermilk Village (films 1, 2). Characters are more likely to be vulnerable and kind than stylish and showy. This began to change in the 1980s with films such as Tatarskiy's "The Koloboks Investigate" and Cherkasskiy's "Treasure Island" (part 1, part 2), which were more circus-like. Tatarskiy's first choice of profession was actually to work in the circus.

There is another difference that is more universal. To make it clear, I will begin by quoting Paul Wells' classification of the cartoon body from his 1998 book Understanding Animation, p.188-9:

-The body is malleable - it may be stretched over long distances, be compressed or extended, take the shape of another form, fit into incompatible spaces, etc.
-The body is fragmentary - it can be broken into parts, reassembled and conjoined with other objects and materials.
The body is a contextual space - it can be a physical environment in itself, which may be entered into and used as if it were ostensibly hollow.
-The body is a mechanism - it may be represented as if it were a machine [in either the literal or Deleuzian sense].
-The body has impossible abilities (i.e., it can fly, lift heavy objects, experience violence without pain, etc.).
-The body directly expresses explicit emotions (i.e. it fragments in surprise, contorts in terror, etc.)
-Bodies of humans/animals/creatures which are apparently incompatible are rendered equable in size, strength, ability etc.
-Bodies may re-determine the physical orthodoxies of gender and species.

These apply to much American animation. None of these traits except for the last two are typical of Soviet animation. (Tatarskiy's 1981 cartoon "Plasticine Crow" was revolutionary precisely for the reason that it did have the other traits)

I remember not liking “Looney Tunes” very much when I first experienced it as a kid (I started out watching only Russian cartoons) for basically the reason that the characters were not “real” to me; I could not believe in them. They broke the laws of physics, got sawed in half, even died, and were back the next frame as if nothing had happened. No consequences, no progression, the next scene always a reset button.

This never happens in Soviet animation, no matter how modern the art direction is. If someone falls, they get hurt. If someone dies, that’s it. There are consequences to actions. Even the popular “Nu, pogodi!” series is like this, which is its main difference from “Tom and Jerry”, to which it is often compared.

As a bit of an aside... maybe this explains (or is explained by) the never-ending American optimism for new beginnings. “The past is past”. Elect a new president and everything will be fixed… and after he does an awful job, believe the same thing about the next one. “I can stop any time I want to”, etc.
drawing, old man

Shareholders (1963)

Another film that I translated, aided by julia2night in a few spots.

"Shareholders" is an ambitious ideological satire directed by Roman Davydov in 1963 (Davydov is best known for directing a feature-length adaptation of Kipling's "Jungle Book" in the 1970s). A certain amount of ideological cartoons like this were always being made, though it was never a large percentage (in WW2, it rose to 50%).

What most attracted me to this film is the wonderful art direction, done by Perch Sarkisyan. This was Sarkisyan's first "break"; after this film, he became a director himself and made two films with a similar visual style before his death in 1970. It is also one of the very few examples of widescreen in Soviet animation, using a 2.37:1 aspect ratio.

To summarize, this is a critique of "people's capitalism", a term which seems to be much more widespread in Russian than in English. It stars an American worker who starts out a believer and ends up a revolutionary. Some things here are probably more true now than when the film was made (i.e. buying your house on credit that you can't afford). Overall, the satire is variable, with some hits and some misses. Living so far away from the US, they could understand it only through a certain lens. And so the life of the rich, being America's most visible export, is better captured than that of the poor (despite some odd mistakes, such as a garage door that opens sideways). The middle part of the film is the weakest for this reason; the experience of joblessness is portrayed as going on a very long and lonely walk, but the questions of how Michael Chase gets food, where he sleeps, are not dealt with. There's a bizarre episode about a shop that buys skeletons (post-mortem, I suppose?) but a golden opportunity to criticize the capitalist health system is missed - maybe because it was unbelievable to the creators that a sick man would have to pay for his care. On the other hand, the metaphor of American society as a high-risk, high-reward race track at the end of the film is a stroke of genius.

Subtitles in English or Russian can be selected by clicking on the triangle on the bottom right of the video and turning on "CC".

I don't know why Roman Davydov decided to do a film like this. Maybe it was handed down from above. Maybe he decided to take it on, since it would be a good career move and allow him to be more bold in other areas. In any case, he took his job seriously and made a film that is rather striking and daring, regardless of ideology.

P.S. According to Georgiy Borodin, "the most difficult acting scenes" in this film were animated by Anatoliy Petrov.