“I made animations because I wanted to see my drawings move,” Sally Cruikshank told an appreciative audience at the Museum of Modern Art, Friday night. “I also wanted to make my own amusement park.” That’s one way to describe the Cruikshank oeuvre. Another is to use the title of her early cartoon, “Fun on Mars.”
As projected in a variety of formats at MoMA as part of the museum’s annual “To Save and Project” restoration festival (which, full disclosure, I co-curated), her work includes classic “Sesame Street” bits, a number of movie credits, a few crypto music videos, art school experiments and three of the greatest, funniest cell animations ever made: “Quasi at the Quackadero” (1975), “Make Me Psychic” (1979), and “Face Like a Frog” (1989). The first has been selected for the United States National Film Registry but all of them deserve the same recognition. Introducing the artist, I compared her fantastically labor-intensive reanimation of 1930s style “funny animal” cartoons to the unexpected revival of certain vernacular musical styles (jug bands, klezmer) decades after their tradition waned—except that Cruikshank’s sensibility is definitely post ‘60s. Her stylized ducks, Quasi and Anita, are blatantly motivated by emotions of fear, aggression, and desire. Her cartoons revel in the depiction of impulse behavior.
Cruikshank’s magic (or manic) kingdom evokes a range of native fantasy vernacular styles, from fin de siècle Coney Island and ‘20s movie palaces to the futuristic deco of Hollywood cabaret scenes and Miami Beach hotels to the Day-Glo gaudiness of the 1967 Haight. Anticipating both “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park”, “Quasi at the Quackadero” is a science fiction comedy in which a pair of ducks and a cute l’l robot visit an amusement park cum nightclub where the attractions are all about time travel and mind-reading. “Make Me Psychic,” which also features Quasi and Anita (as well as smiling flying-saucer mobiles, tap-dancing mummies, and anthropomorphic high rises), is a sort of candy-colored carnie version of “Carrie” in which, having been pranked by bratty Quasi, Anita unleashes her newly acquired telekinetic powers to send assorted ducks, birds, and lysergic potato heads flailing out into the cosmos. Perhaps the busiest cartoon ever drawn, “Face Like a Frog” is like a psychedelic remake of the Fleischer Brothers’ 1932 Betty Boop vehicle, “Snow White”—complete with Danny Elfman’s faux Cab Calloway score.
“Face Like a Frog” ended the MoMA show and brought down the house. In the q&a that followed, a fourth grader of my acquaintance asked the artist unprompted, “Do you know that you’re one of the greatest animators who ever lived?” There was nothing more to say except perhaps, “can I see that one again?”
Sally Cruikshank’s movies will be shown once more at MoMA, 4 pm on Monday, October 22. Although the artist won’t be present for the screening, the program does include a 1980 interview in which she discusses her theory of animation. Many of her movies have been posted on YouTube (mostly by Cruikshank herself) and her self-curated DVD is available for sale at www.funonmars.com .
Images: Sally Cruikshank