Have a Happy Animated Birthday
The French have a mania for injecting culture into some of their oldest and most notable architectural environments, with a greater or lesser degree of success. Here in Lyon, for example, one of the largest and best preserved Roman amphitheaters plays host every year to an ambitious season of music, dance and theater. You can sit on the ancient stone seats, with the city and the hills beyond stretching out into the distance, as I did one evening this summer during Leonard Cohen's farewell concert tour. A magical moment.
And yet this week while visiting the 16th century monastery built by Anne of Austria in Bourg-en-Bresse, I was startled to find one of the interior courtyards playing host to huge ugly lumps of dirty stone. Talk about shatterning the mood. You never know when you're visiting a chateau what twisted mass of rusted iron will be awaiting you in the gardens. Now, don't get me wrong, I like modern art, and sculpture in particular, as much as the next guy. Perhaps more, given that my first career after art school was that of sculptor (mostly bronze and stone). But that aggressive conjunction of modern and ancient so dear to the French just doesn't work for me. I stand alone, apparently, in my horror of the Louvre's glass pyramid.
So it was that on a recent trip to the charming city of Annecy I stopped dead in my tracks after walking into a dark, cavernous room in the castle perched above the city's old quarter. Oh no, was this to be another jarring old/new experience? Thankfully, not. On every wall, from floor to ceiling, were flickering silent films of obviously great age. But not just any old films. These were animated and were older than anything I was familiar with—pre-Disney, pre-Fleischer, pre-McCay, pre-everything. What were these films and why were they all being screened simultaneously in a castle that dated from the 12th century?
It turned out that I had stumbled into an exhibition devoted to the films of Émile Cohl, whom I had never heard of. Cohl apparently created the first fully animated film 100 years ago, by applying all of the basic principles behind animated cartoons through his use of hundreds of drawings to create Fantasmagorie. And there it was on the wall, beautifully restored, as fluid and lively as ever, with one figure playfully morphing into another, an expression of Cohl's earlier involvement in the Incoherents movement, a precursor of Surrealism and Dadaism.
Cohl was one of those people who through their curiosity and courage to explore, succeed in opening up fresh possibilities for generations to come. He quickly went on to experiment with engraving directly on film, animating sand, exploring the possibilities of cut-outs, animating objects such as matches, bringing puppets to life with stop motion, perfecting the use of matte photography to combine live action with animation, creating the first animated ad (for Campbell Soups) and even introduced the use of color in animation. Whew! His reward, of course, was to die forgotten and penniless. But I guess you saw that coming.
Where to see the films? The ones being displayed at Annecy had been wonderfully restored by the French government but it seems Gaumont, the original producer, still retains copyright and is keeping a tight lid on them. At the show I picked up a 2-CD set of 57 Cohl films, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in animation, the history of the cinema or the origins of Surrealism, although finding this for sale domestically might be problematic. I'm afraid the unrestored version above of Fantasmagorie doesn't do justice to Cohl's work but it would seem to be the only print in the public domain. More viewable is The Hasher's Delirium, from 1910. For those wanting to explore further, Wikipedia has a solid entry on Cohl and this extract from Donald Crafton's Before Mickey provides detailed background leading up to the creation of Fantasmagorie. Long may its spirit remain with us.