Cartoons: the only thing computers are good for

The slightly depressive, slightly snobbish Jonathan Adams spends an afternoon on the web looking wistfully at old cartoons.

So far as most True Animation Enthusiasts are concerned, television has been either a wasteland or a quagmire (We can’t decide which) for a very long time now. The animation in most of the cartoon sitcoms so popular among The Young People of Today (as well as in shows like “Space Ghost” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim) is for the most part fairly inexpressive – even stupid-looking. To their credit, these shows often jokingly acknowledge this fact. They can get away with it because their fans usually tune in less for the animation itself than for the writing, and expect the visual aspect of the show to remain more or less the same from week to week. Many of us remember a time when things were different—and, as luck would have it, so does your friend and mine, the internet!

Earlier this month, the National Film Board posted 50 animated shorts on its website, spanning 60 years of the institution’s history, from Norman McLaren’s beautifully rendered "Hen Hop" (1942), one of several films in which he experimented with drawing directly on the filmstock – to Diane Obamsawin’s workplace management parable "Elbow Room/Distances" (2002). The initial purpose of the NFB when it was founded by John Grierson at the height of the Second World War was the manufacture of government propaganda, but Grierson’s decision to hire wacky artists like McLaren to this end established the tradition of relentless experimentation that has made the NFB one of our country’s most cherished cultural institutions.

Among the 50 films included on the NFB website, you will find plenty of sentimental favourites, like Cordell Barker’s "The Cat Came Back", Evelyn Lambart’s instantly recognizable "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse", done with paper cut-outs, and Richard Condie’s "The Big Snit". (Incidentally, whatever happened to those good old days when Canadians vacuumed the inside of their bathtubs and watched wholesome TV programming like "Sawing For Teens"?) You may also discover some new treasures, like Michèle Cournoyer’s "The Hat" (1999), an explicit and haunting meditation on abuse conveyed through the tormented memories of an exotic dancer.

There are a few notable films missing from the online selection—like Janet Perlman’s “Why Me” (featuring one of the greatest performances of a voice actor in any cartoon), Jacques Drouin’s pinscreen experiments, and more of Paul Driessen’s NFB work (represented here only by “Air”, which nevertheless remains one of the best examples of an NFB film that manages to make a political point without becoming preachy). Luckily, these are all available to order on video from another section of the NFB website. Or you can hurry up and visit your local public library before it is ravaged beyond repair by neglect.

Elsewhere in the collective unconscious that is the internet, the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive (www.animationarchive.org) has dedicated itself to the preservation and study of vintage American animated cartoons, comic strips, and illustrations. If you ever feel nostalgic, for instance, for some Terrytoons (which you will have seen if you remember paying a quarter as a child to sit in one of those little red booths that used to populate our malls, grocery stores, and other places of higher learning), you have only to visit this website, and the memories will return like the breath of a forgotten summer’s breeze. You may even begin to wonder where your mother has gone.

Having watched the 50 NFB shorts and the archive of cartoons at A-HAA, your appetite for nostalgic reverie ought to be well sated—after which, feel free to turn the television back on and marvel anew at the horror of being alive in the present.

– Jonathan Adams