Just published: Funny Pictures

I am delighted to announce that Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood has just been published by the University of California Press, and that, despite the inclusion of an essay of mine, it is an excellent book.

Funny Pictures, as its subtitle states, is concerned with questions of genre and animation in American film. In their introduction to the book, editors Charlie Keil and Daniel Goldmark lay out its approach to historicizing and analyzing Hollywood animation, a segment of American film that is often ghettoized and misunderstood. A question that they address that is of particular interest to me is, simply: “Why is it that, in American cinema, ‘animation’ is nearly synonymous with ‘comedy’?” After all, there’s nothing in the animated image that makes it intrinsically more humorous, somehow, than the live-action image. While it’s true that laws of physics and representation can be and usually are fractured and radically manipulated in animation, such manipulations are not necessarily tied to a generic identity.

We might look to Japan’s anime industry for contrast: animated Japanese films range across genres far more widely than do American films, particularly those made during the Studio Era. To take just a few very obvious examples: Akira is dystopian science-fiction; Grave of the Fireflies is heart-wrenching drama; the work of the late, great animator Satoshi Kon challenges the very conception of genre. But even when a work of American animation contains elements of pathos or melodrama (the incredibly moving trash-compactor scene in Toy Story 3 is a great example), it is still generally classified as a comedy; right there, at the top of the IMDB page for the film, are the three “genres” into which this film has been slotted, by general consensus: Animation, Adventure, and Comedy. (Don’t even get me started on why Animation is not a genre; that’ll be the subject for another post, perhaps. This post from the venerable Cartoon Brew sums up the issue.)

Frank Tashlin at the drawing board

In any case, the authors of the essays in Funny Pictures investigate and historicize the complex relationship between animation and genre. I’m proud to have an essay included in this book, especially since all the other authors outclass me by several orders of magnitude. My essay, “Tish-Tash in Cartoonland” (excerpted and reëdited from my upcoming book), takes up a recurrent claim about the cinema of Frank Tashlin: that his animated films somehow “look forward to” his live-action features, and that his live-action features are somehow “cartoony.” This is one of the most persistent — and consistently ill-supported — arguments about Tashlin in the fairly scanty body of literature on his work; disputing it is in fact one of my book’s principal projects. While it’s true that Tashlin is one of the few studio-era directors (along with Gregory La Cava) to move from animation to live-action, that unusual career shift does not entirely define or explain away Tashlin’s style or films. The central claim of the essay (and of my upcoming book, The Art of Comedy: The Films of Frank Tashlin) is that considering his films in the context of genre actually explains a great deal more about them than does simply stating that Tashlin’s live-action features are “cartoony,” for instance. No one has ever satisfactorily explained what is meant by this notion.

I’ll certainly be posting more on this topic closer to the time of my book’s publication.


Posted on July 21, 2011, in Animation, Comedy, Film, Tashlin and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Eija Niskanen

    Ethan, I have to get this book. I have been co-teaching and coordinating an animation course on animation at University of Helsinki, and this is an essential new source! Thank you for letting us know!

    • Hi, Eija, and thanks for being the first to comment on my website!
      I’ve taught animation history a couple of times, so let me know if I can help you with course materials, etc.

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