Friday, September 07, 2007

Cult Cartoons, Part I

The phrase “cult movies” is not meant to describe the entertainment preferences of Heaven's Gate "straight to Saturn" club members, David “Go Ahead, Burn Us Down - See If I Care” Koresh, the Reverend Jim “Kool-Aid” Jones, Charlie “They Wouldn't Let Me Be A Monkee” Manson or "mass murder on behalf of (pick a deity)" psycho killers.

This term usually refers to schlocky drive-in B-films, featuring mad scientists, hideous monsters, radioactive bugs, rampaging dinosaurs and greasy-haired, booze-swillin’, big-boobed platinum blonde pot smokin’ juvenile delinquents out for a cheap thrill (no doubt hoping for the cameo appearance by Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent or, if a subterranean hipster, Charlie Parker).

Animation historian Jerry Beck coined the phrase "cult cartoons" in a 1980 article to describe "a coveted few Hollywood cartoons that have a magical quality and appeal with their audience of cartoon fans (and non-fans) that far surpasses their production (story, art and technical) value."

As Jerry's list of the top five cult cartoons includes Chuck Jones' DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24TH1/2 CENTURY, this is not limited to the cartoon equivalent of campy low-budget monster movies. He does note that cult cartoons offer "something unique about them that makes a person vividly remember the film days, weeks, years after viewing."

Many of my favorite cult cartoons scared the living daylights out of me in my childhood.

Cult movies and cult cartoons embrace both elephantine and miniscule budgets, the theatre, the multiplex, the grindhouse and in some cases the outhouse.

What Are Cult Cartoons?

Any cult (or psychotronic) cartoon worth its saline must meet any two of the following criteria:

  • no pun is too obvious, no joke too stupid, no sight gag too ridiculous for inclusion in the cartoon

  • film or series has been the object of universal vilification by critics, bloggers and even knowledgeable historians

  • identified as among the worst cartoons or studios ever by at least one Golden Age animator who lived long enough to write memoirs

  • what the late, great Frank Zappa termed “cheapnis”

  • a naive, unconscious and usually pointless surrealism that gives the proverbial finger to the “let’s copy real life” aesthetic. . .

  • blatant, shameless propaganda (Great Depression and World War II era cartoons and Civil Defense films)

  • a mixture of artistic inspiration, the willingness to offend, genuine laughs and disturbing overtones - provided the cartoon was produced at least four decades before the heyday of Andrew Dice Clay. After all, bad taste and general excess, once fashionable, become a bore.

Here is a quintessential psychotronic cartoon, Balloon Land, produced in 1935 by the Ub Iwerks Studio. This psychedelic, dreamlike and bizarre piece, starring a quite phallic "pin cushion man" (maniacally voiced by Billy Bletcher - and Sigmund Freud would have loved him), without a doubt, must have been one of the essential building block cartoons of David Lynch's childhood.


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