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Under the Influence

face like a frog
Sally Cruikshank's 'Face Like A Frog'
Focus On Jim Henson curator Jim Knox on the work of Marv Newland and Sally Cruikshank.

In the company of legions of independent North American animators, Marv Newland and Sally Cruikshank have both worked on commission from Sesame Street; like Jim Henson, both have profited from an acute sensitivity to the function of music. Other Sesame Street contributors - Henson, John Hubley, Frank and Caroline Mouris - are probably better known. What distinguishes the works of Newland and Cruikshank are the ways in which they've adapted the formal innovations of the comic underground to animated shorts.

Both relocated to San Francisco at the end of the 1960s - not on the promise of psychedelic music or drugs, but after discovering Robert Crumb's seminal Zap Comix. Both are long overdue for more dedicated recognition.

A gifted character animator with an arresting visual style, Sally Cruikshank's "deco futurama" evokes the most outlandish 1930s Betty Boop cartoons as much as it anticipates what would later become West Coast New Wave style (accordingly, it seems fitting that her Face Like A Frog is scored by Danny Elfman, and his Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo). While that visual style is uniquely her own, the credits of her films reveal her close affinity with underground comix; Kim Deitch is credited with special art assistance, and Crumb's bandmates from the Cheap Suit Serenaders, Al Dodge and (cartoonist) Robert Armstrong, score the Quasi films. Self-taught as an animator, Cruikshank's giddy narratives seem to combine the wildest SciFi metaphysics of Philip K. Dick with a generous pop surrealism.

  alcheringa
  Still from an animation by Marv Newland
Marv Newland's work describes some other extremities of creative animation. He debuted in college with the landmark anti-cartoon, Bambi Meets Godzilla. While Newland has since championed the work of other independents through his International Rocketship studio, his most implausible collaborations are probably two "exquisite corpse" animations he produced in concert with international colleagues (including Cruikshank and the Australian, Max Bannah). Newland's work can function as a burlesque but sophisticated parody of structuralist filmmaking - all the more acerbic for being discreetly concealed by the madcap japes of Sing, Beast, Sing.

Another Newland animation, Black Hula, finds its pataphysical solution to the problem of Canada's language wars in its use of a Hawaiian lyric (by King Bennie Nawahi and his Islanders). This playful irony is probably the thing that recommended Newland to Far Side creator, Gary Larson. When Larson licensed his work for cartoon adaptation, he made it a contractual condition that only Newland could direct it. Ultimately, with his wry subversion of cartoon storytelling norms, Newland might justifiably be considered to extend a US tradition of avant-garde outsiders into the cartoon arena.

Jim Knox, September 2008
Images courtesy of the artists


 
 
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