When racism and violence were good clean fun
By SEAN AXMAKER
SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER
Forbidden: the word seems so much less a caution than a promise. Of secret knowledge, of illicit pleasures, of the taboo.
The taboos of the Forbidden Animation Festival, curated by one-time Seattle theater owner and film programmer Dennis Nyback, are a little different than you might expect. These vintage short films, spanning from the silent years through the 1950s, feature outrageously racist stereotyping and shockingly violent humor, yet were considered good clean entertainment in our cultural past. They were never meant to offend.
Many of the taboos will be familiar, even if the actual cartoons are not (most — if not all — of these shorts are conspicuously absent from TV and unavailable on home video). In “Strange and Vicious War Cartoons” (tonight), animated icons like Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck and Popeye battle jingoistic stereotypes. More cringe-inducing ethnic defamations can be seen in “Offensive Animation” (tomorrow) and “Jazz Jazz Jazz Cartoons” (Tuesday), and you can guess what the harmless funny animals are up to in “Cartoons Too Violent for Children” (Sunday).
Nyback calls the “Cult, Oddball, and Rubber Hose Toons” (Wednesday) his “favorite program of all because I can show lots of great rare shorts.”
While some of these are truly offensive, there’s an affection for some of the embarrassing stereotypes that gives them a guilty, misguided innocence amid the silly cartoon slapstick. And the series is full of the anarchic of animated comedies of the 1930s, where surreal dream fantasies bop to life with bouncy, jazzy scores.
But not all is in fun. The part-animated 1952 Sherman-Williams informercial “Doomsday for Pests,” part of the “Corporate Animation Amok: The Shame of a Nation” program (Monday), sings the praises of household DDT (“completely harmless to humans!”) between animated sequences of an insect holocaust played for laughs. And in “The Dark Side of Dr. Seuss” (Thursday), a collection of World War II propaganda and armed forces films written by Ted Geisel, the future children’s author warns the soldiers of the post-war occupation army that “The German lust for conquest is not over. It’s just gone underground.” More unnerving than funny, these are perversely fascinating.
Dennis Nyback now lives in New York and travels the world with his collection. He’ll be back in Seattle for the weeklong run to introduce the films and offer his own unique perspective on the programs.
Entertainment & the Arts: Friday, March 19, 2004