I went to the Barbican to spend a few hours at the Watch Me Move: The Animation Show last weekend, and it was a thoroughly entertaining way to spend a few hours. If you live in or around London you have to go see it (it’s on until 11 September) – the exhibition space itself is beautiful and thoughtfully presented, and there’s dozens of great, rare animated shorts that you won’t be able to watch anywhere else. The film that made the biggest impression on me was Google nightmare Zbigniew Rybczynski’s Oscar-winning Tango, but unfortunately the film is currently unavailable on YouTube or Vimeo. I will try to locate a copy soon, however.
One of the best kept secrets in comedy (certainly in the UK, where much of their work has never been shown) is the PFFR collective, a New York based art/music/comedy collective that consistently produces some of the most uncompromisingly weird material to be found anywhere. Founded on the writing partnership between Vernon Chatman and John Lee, with animation and design by Alyson Levy and John Tozzi, PFFR’s work is characterized by an almost militant desire to transcend convention, avoid clichés, and disturb and disorient at every turn. Insanely stratified wordplay features heavily; as does an eagerness to not so much slay sacred cows, as stitch them together into a cow centipede and torture them to death.
When a nine year old from Chicago named Randi Peters uploaded the first episode of the 'Octocat Adventures' in March 2008, the crude MS Paint animation, hyperactive voice acting and Freud-bothering content ensured that the video soon went viral - not Susan Boyle viral, but fairly contagious all the same. Inevitably YouTube commenters began to debate almost instantly whether this really was the work of an American kid, particularly as, as the episodes continued, the jokes started to become gradually more complex and sophisticated, whilst retaining the coarse art style and unfettered child-like imagination also found in something like Axe Cop. By the end of the fifth episode, though, the jig was pretty much up, and it was clear that Randi Peters might not exactly be who he said he was. See for yourself:
I’ve inadvertently been establishing a loose theme in some of the film articles I’ve been writing in the past week. First there was last week’s look at La Cabina, and how that and Forklift Driver Klaus played not insignificant roles in accelerating the mental deterioration of eighties insomniacs watching late night Channel 4, then there was my lengthy (some might argue unnecessary) digression on Demolition Man in my Julia’s Eyes review and how its early evening screenings on ITV in the nineties left me mildly traumatized as a kid.
This is almost certainly a combination of rose-tinted specs and de-sensitization, but the days of truly weird and scary TV seem to be over. It’s been along time since the halcyon days of La Cabina, and even something like Jam was over a decade ago now. It’s a shame, because that feeling of pure WTF is one that only films screened on TV can really give you.
There’s an anecdote about Charles Bukowski that I’ve always liked: on installing his brand new cable television, the first thing he switched on to “happened to be Eraserhead. I said, 'What’s this?' I didn’t know what it was. It was so great. I said, 'Oh, this cable TV has opened up a whole new world. We’re gonna be sitting in front of this thing for centuries. What next? So starting with Eraserhead we sit here, click, click, click — nothing.”
Depressing end to that story maybe, but imagine seeing Eraserhead and, for a fleeting second, thinking that that is what all future TV would look like? Magical. And scary.
Anyway, this brings me to The Cat Came Back, a very weird animation that used to broadcast rather incredibly as part of children’s programming blocks in the nineties – either in between kids programmes of before a family film like The Three Musketeers. On re-watching it, I’m convinced it must have been edited a bit (the ‘What the ffffffffff…’ surely would never have gone out at 11 AM), but on the whole it’s exactly as I remember it – utterly horrifying.
The set –up is similar to a lot of Looney Tunes cartoons – irritable person or animal is pursued and tormented by cute yet malevolent person or animal. But where the Looney Tunes cartoons are anarchic and hilarious, The Cat Came Back is actually genuinely unsettling.
A big part of this is the scribbly, hyper-caffeinated art style by Canadian animator Cordell Barker, which has more in common with indie cartoonists like Bill Plympton and Don Hertzfelt than Walt Disney and Chuck Jones. But it’s the sheer dread that’s infused throughout the whole cartoon that is the most affecting thing about The Cat Came Back: the cat’s dead, unblinking eyes as he methodically destroys every single thing in our unfortunate hero’s life, the droning, haunted repetition of the chorus, which turns a novelty song into something existential and terrifying, and the ending. My god, the ending. *shudder* The pure, unfettered horror of those closing moments are not something that should rightfully be exposed to tender, developing minds. It makes the ending of The Mist look like the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.
For all I know the BBC might still be showing this on Saturday mornings, but if I’d have to guess I’d say they probably aren’t. They really need to, though, so if anyone from the BBC is reading this (they’re not), pull your fingers out and start blowing some minds by putting this on after/before Fireman Sam once again. And if you can’t get the rights, just screen Rejected instead. Either or, really.