Archive for September 8, 2022

Cohl Face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on September 8, 2022 by dcairns

One reason I initially underappreciated Émile Cohl is that I’d seen and misremembered a BBC documentary about the origins of animation, in which J. Stuart Blackton’s HUMOROUS PHASES OF FUNNY FACES (1906) appeared. I misremembered the film as being by Cohl, and though it was an astoundingly important work — maybe the first (part)animated film, I thought it was pretty ugly and crude. Ironically I’m now finding a huge amount to admire in Blackton’s trick films. At the time, his early work suffered by comparison with Winsor McCay’s beautiful animations, included in the same doc. Ironically AGAIN, McCay seems to have learned animation from Blackton, his first producer. They both used the idea of a live action sketch artist whose drawings come to life, or animate.

Cohl’s slightly crude line drawings somewhat resemble Blackton’s, though he was a brilliant cartoonist whose work could get insanely detailed. I’ve wondered why, given his frequent use of cut-outs, he doesn’t seem to exploit than in his animations. A lot of his ingenuity goes into finding different excuses to embed his animated sequences within live-action scenarios, as if a cartoon by itself would be unacceptable to the public and needed some more naturalistic alibi, or as if it would be too much work to animate a whole movie, even a short one (I’m with him there).

LES EXPLOITS DE FEU-FOLLET (1911, no relation to Louis Malle) DOES use some of Cohl’s insanely detailed penmanship. The moon, for instance, has elaborately hatched features, as does a whale. But this is aligned with classic Cohl stick-figure silliness. M. Feu-Follet is a shuffling, Bod-like pictogram. I like the way the image is filtered (tracing paper?) when he’s underwater, and even the film damage seems to work to advantage here, adding to the subaquatic atmosphere.

And there’s no live-action this time: it’s all just stream-of-consciousness chaos. Maybe that’s why he felt he needed some real people: to constrain the lunacy.

Cohl’s film is certainly crazy. His unfiltered imagination positively cries out for some overall concept to nail it down, force it to work within some logical boundaries in which the madness can be more effective. But it’s the natural exuberance of the innovator, exploding in every direction as he attempts to find some meaningful limitations to what’s possible in cartooning. There are none: the animators of the future will have to invent their own.