Image supplied by Van Norris

Van Norris, Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, takes a deep dive into Countercultural Animation

Historian Arthur Marwick noted that studies of 1960s countercultural texts tended to be defined more through individuals and artisans, often neglecting the wider contextual conditions.

So, when constructing a typology of the qualities that Marwick considered as embodying the creativity unleashed during the popular culture of the 1960s, (art, cinema, graphic, literature, television, shows, theatre, concerts and so forth), he settled on several discursive categories which encapsulated and defined the broad, rich experience of this era. A time that he described as not only a period of: “social and cultural transformation”, but also as a: “participatory, uninhibited and innovative” space (2000, p. xii). 

Drawing on the theories of cultural spectacle and postmodernity, Marwick specified that a free play between media and mediums, a sense of radicalism in practice, (that had been hitherto contained within traditional understandings of production, reception, and boundaries of taste) all sat central here. In drawing links between highly disparate, well-known cultural productions, he proposed that a pure sense of “conceptualism”, (i.e., an originality, if you will), was another defining quality, along with an embrace of technological development and the deployment of “spectacle” to convey meaning (2000, p. xiv). All this movement being set within a more active, interpretative viewer-situation. 

Animation: The Forgotten Art?

Yet it is notable that Marwick, (like so many other historians), tended to ignore what was happening within the animation field at that time. A medium that not only conformed to this typology but that was matching the creative evolution of both mainstream and independent contemporary ‘live action’ cinema and was reacting to the larger socio-political shifts of the period. This sudden movement in ‘Countercultural Animation’ emerged from the margins of avant-garde practice, as a range of culturally available global productions were redefining the perception of animation’s form and status. 

Image supplied by Van Norris

Counterculture and Freedom

Through critique, form, and theme, this was animation that challenged modes of institutional censorship, parochialism, and rejected the paternalistic, political, and social oppressions of the 1950s (Moss, 2000, pp. 417-455). The Liberalism that had infiltrated most cultural spaces of the free world offered creative freedoms that inspired politicised animations that pushed at the orthodoxies of the medium itself, the very “crossover” texts that Marwick had outlined as encapsulating the essence of the era (2000, p. xiv).

From the Avant-Garde to the Mainstream

This moment began with the surrealism of Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic (1956-1964), Godfrey’s absurdist: The Do-it-Yourself Cartoon Kit (1961), the symbolism in Borowczyk’s 1964 Les Jeux Des Anges (The Game of Angels) and the ironic commentary on social and industrial institutions in Klein’s Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (Who Are You Polly Maggoo?) (1966). Here the medium revitalised dormant connections with it’s saltier, pre-Hollywood subversive past and offered an implicit formal questioning of the dominance of commercial American product. 

It continued through the parodies of American genres, found in both Bozetto’s 1965 West and Soda and 1968 VIP, mio fratello superuomo (VIP – My Brother Superman), Forqué’s Dame un poco de amor…! (Bring a Little Tenderness) (1968) and the 1968 compendium film, Capriccio all'italiana (Caprice Italian Style), in the likes of George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine (1968), Bourguignon and Sallin’s 1969, Picasso Summer and in more experimental discussions of subjective memory and eroticism in Ahlin and Danielsson’s 1968: I huvet på en gammal gubbe (Out of an Old Man’s Head). With Terry Gilliam’s inserts for the 1969 BBC sketch comedy series, Monty Python's Flying Circus, bookending this period as a kind of culmination.

Countercultural Animation was often sexualised, irreverent and sometimes deliberately obtuse, unified more through agenda than form or production setting. These were texts that embraced confrontation, playfulness, and an often-ragged hybridity, that spoke the visual language of artists who had been immersed in both commercial animation and high-art histories but were now freed from the demands of 20th century castes of high and low taste. 

Image supplied by Van Norris

Incorporation and Replication

As with most revolutionary moments this impulse soon evaporated. As the 1970s arrived this ideal became incorporated, mimicked, translating into animation that was less about political contest and more about style, vulgarism, and shock tactics. Exceptions persisted, such as Yamamoto’s One Thousand and One Nights (Senya Ichiya Monogatari) (1969) and the painterly 1973, Belladonna of Sadness (Kanashimi no Belladonna), alongside Susan Pitt’s 1971 Crocus, Wakefield Poole’s Vittorio (1971), Ralph Bakshi’s trio of abrasive masterpieces, Fritz the Cat (1972), Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975), Godfrey’s playful 1971, Kama Sutra Rides Again and Bozetto’s 1976 Allegro Non Troppo

‘Adult’ Animation?

As Eric Schaeffer outlined, that whilst sexuality was often used as a revolutionary narrative as a “countercultural act” to address contested issues of censorship and freedom of speech (2002, p. 18), by the dawn of the 1970s this debate had solidified into a more cynical, expedient, exploitative sensibility. A clattering distorting of the term ‘adult’ animation permeated works like the startling, but sleazy, The Telephone Book (1971), Down and Dirty Duck (1974) and one-joke narratives such as Once Upon a Girl (1976), Let My Puppets Come (1976) and Historias de amor y massacre (Stories of Love and Slaughter) (1979) among others. 

The qualities that underpinned Countercultural Animation could still be discernible as late as films like Heavy Metal (1981); but these works were but echoes of a period when the medium not only looked to fully embrace its creative potential but that they could also be a credible platform from which to debate upon the world that was to come, at the end of the 20th century.

Image supplied by Van Norris

Bibliography:

Marwick, A. (2000). Introduction: Locating Key Texts Amid the Distinctive Landscape of the Sixties. In A. Aldgate, J. Chapman, & A. Marwick (Eds), Windows on the Sixties – Exploring Key Texts of Media and Culture (pp. xi-xxi). I. B. Tauris.

Moss, G. D. (2000). America in the 20th Century – 4th Edition. Prentice Hall.

Schaefer, E. (2002, Spring). Gauging a Revolution: 16mm Film and the Rise of the Pornographic Feature. Cinema Journal, 41(3), 3-26.


Van Norris is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Media and Animation History and Theory Studies, in the School of Film, Media and Communication in the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries.