Emile Cohl: Infantile Animation

At the dawn of the last century, two well-established cartoonists took divergent paths in their transformation from graphic art to film performance. Winsor McCay sought to retain pictorial realism at the service of fantasy or journalism: both Gertie and the sinking Lusitania imitate nature through illustration. At the age of 50, when most artists tend to consolidate or refine their work, Emile Cohl reinvented himself through regression: he cast off the legacy of fine illustrated caricature, at which he had excelled, and leapt  backward to a child’s point of view. He grasped the demands of the new time-based medium and gave himself over to a more immediate, primitive, unconscious sensibility: stick-figures acting out impossible, incoherent metamorphoses.

Thus were set in motion two tendencies that mark our history and survive today in hybrid form: mimesis and abstraction. One strives for seamless temporal continuity, fluidity, lifelike design, narrative cohesion. The other revels in discontinuity, angular momentum, distortion, collage of disparate styles; it engages the medium in a self-conscious dialog; it is unsettling, unconsciously modern, pulsating in a breathless synthetic tempo.

Fantasmagorie never fails to transport me with its shocking simplicity, nervy impudence, and casual self reference. It embodies the spirit of children’s play: curiosity, mock combat, an ungravitated universe of lightness — unhinged and improbable.

Though it does not conform to any definition of “experimental animation” (indeed, no satisfactory definition exists) Cohl’s first film must be considered its prime, unprecedented example, the mother lode of inspiration for animators, clowns and philosophers. If Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions” stimulated Picasso and Braque to flay space into multiple planes and perspectives then Fantasmagorie returns the favor by reducing and compressing space, depicting both the artist and his creation as elements of the same graphic equation. A real hand draws a line which then takes on its own destiny as an autonomous figure with its own desires and foibles, until it is pulled back into the humiliation of dependency, re-interpreted by the artist’s hand. This parent-child relationship is a perfect illustration of Freud’s insights into primal relationships. It also encapsulates an artist’s desire to re-invent drawing as if for the first time, to return to authentic origins, unfettered by sophisticated interpretation.

Using a stick-figure design was both a practical strategy but also a fundamentally artistic act of regression, as radical as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon primitivism. It signaled a new set of rules, a rude, unabashed insouciance. Now, for example, elephants meld into houses, a toy harlequin inflates into a balloon after having been broken in two and glued back together, and a lady’s plumed bonnet is plucked clean then turns into an expanding bubble enclosing the same (or another?) harlequin. The narrative structure boomerangs, richocheting madly, until the “hero” exits on a hobby horse.         

Emile Cohl’s long second career as the tireless form-giving artist of astonishment introduced the essential ingredients of invention, play and authorship that still pervade the spirit of independent, experimental animation.