THE BOOTLEG FILES: “FANTASMAGORIE”

BOOTLEG FILES 214: “Fantasmagorie” (1908 animated film by Emile Cohl).

LAST SEEN: Widely available on numerous Net sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In duped prints on several anthologies of silent movies.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Stuck forever in public domain hell.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not on its own, due to its limited running time, but dupes will inevitably turn up in DVD collections of silent movies.

We begin our 2008 series of bootleg titles by celebrating the centennial of what is considered to be the first fully animated film ever made: “Fantasmagorie,” the 1908 production by the French artist Emile Cohl.

Now unless you are an animation buff, you are probably saying to yourself: Who? What? Well, there is quite a story behind this odd and remarkable little cartoon. But before we talk about the film and its creator, allow me to talk about myself – or at least my connection to the film.

I first saw “Fantasmagorie” back in 1974, when I was a 10-year-old kid in the Bronx, N.Y. The film was shown on a PBS series called “International Animation Festival,” which was my favorite TV show at the time. When I was 10, my career goal was to become an animator. There was one obstacle that prevented my reaching that goal – I had no artistic talent. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate the brilliance of cartoons and seek out the historical development of the genre.

I can still remember the shock and awe of watching “Fantasmagorie” for the first time. Knowing that film was made in 1908, I was expecting something that was primitive and boring. The film was neither primitive nor boring – it was a kinetic experience, rich with bizarre and (in one sight gag) sick humor. “Fantasmagorie” was my first exposure to avant-garde cinema, which was pretty heady for a 10-year-old. Watching it today, far removed from my youthful innocence of years lost, I am still amazed at what this film offers.

“Fantasmagorie” was technically not the first animated film. An American named J. Stuart Blackton got there first with his films such as “The Enchanted Drawing” (1900) and “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” (1906). But Blackton’s films were a mix of live action and animation, with the artist setting up the film before stepping back and allowing the animation to proceed. “Fantasmagorie” was different because the artist was not present in the film, although an animated version of the artist’s hands turned up briefly.

The artist in question was Emile Cohl, a popular French comic book illustrator who came to filmmaking at the rather advanced age of 50. In 1907, Cohl witnessed a Blackton film called “The Haunted Hotel” at a cinema in Paris. Cohl became obsessed with this production and, being French, felt he could create a film that was superior to the American import. In February 1908, he decided to launch into his first animated endeavor.

“Fantasmagorie” ran less than two minutes, and required 700 drawings to complete. Cohl, who specialized in fanciful stick figure illustrations, borrowed Blackton’s “chalk-line effect” cinematic effect by filming black lines on white paper, which were then reversed using negative film to give the appearance of white lines on a black background – or a chalkboard picture come to life.

Where Cohl left Blackton behind, however, was in the sheer imagination of his production. “Fantasmagorie” is a wild stream-of-consciousness affair rich with lunatic visions presented with uncommon rapid speed. Even by today’s Seth MacFarlane-inspired non-sequitur standards, the film is astonishing for its imagination and audacity.

“Fantastmagorie” opens with a human hand (obviously a photographic cut-out) drawing a fanciful clown. The clown pulls down a screen featuring a picture of a gentleman, who steps out of the picture and into a cinema. A woman with a gigantic plumed hat sits before the gentleman, blocking his view of the screen with her headgear. The gentleman begins to dismantle the hat, pulling it apart until it a skullcap. At this point, the remains of the hat expand into a bubble, from which the clown reappears.

The clown escapes into a box. A fat man comes to drop other boxes on top of the clown’s hiding place. The clown explodes from his box, skewering the fat man’s gut with his conical hat. The clown then takes a fishing rod to hook the jacket of a passing pedestrian. The jacket morphs into a sword-swinging giant, whose challenge to the clown is met with the latter’s fleeing.

The clown then swings around a pole but loses his head, which is caught by another man who uses the bodyless noggin as part of a toy. The clown reclaims his head, but then gets sucked into a giant champagne bottle. The bottle morphs into a flower from which the clown emerges, and the flower’s petals turn into an elephant. The clown rides the elephant’s trunk, while the pachyderm morphs into a building. The clown escapes into the building, but a police officer comes and locks the clown inside. The clown jumps from a second story window in the building, but the impact of the fall causes his neck to break and his head to fall off.

At this point, the animator’s hands reappear and put the broken clown back together. The clown’s costume expands into a balloon and he floats off. The costume deflates and the clown, now on a horse, waves to the camera and gallops off.

For audiences in 1908, “Fantasmagorie” was unlike anything ever put on the big screen. Cohl’s wild and wacky imagination was daring, vibrant and wickedly funny. The film’s success launched Cohl on a new career as a filmmaker. The film clearly had an influence on the pioneering American artist Winsor McCay, whose 1911 “Little Nemo” clearly borrowed from Cohl’s free-form surrealism.

So why is Cohl virtually unknown today? Many of his films are considered lost, and most of his surviving films are not easily available for viewing. Cohl had a rather tumultuous career, including a 1912-1914 stint making short films at the Eclair Studios in New Jersey, but none of his subsequent movies ever matched the brilliant audacity of “Fantasmagorie.”

“Fantasmagorie” fell into the public domain many years ago, and it has been widely duped. The original negative is believed to be lost, and the prints circulating today are several generations removed from Cohl’s original work. The film has turned up in many video and DVD anthologies of silent cinema, and a casual search through Net video sites can locate the film (albeit in cruddy copies).

Despite its obscurity, “Fantasmagorie” deserves to be celebrated on its 100th anniversary. So here is a toast to a zany little movie that can still amaze and delight audiences in 2008 with the same power as it possessed back in 1908.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on January 4, 2008 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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