Marching to a Different Toon

Liquid surrealism

By John Grant
June 24, 2002

The release of a collection of the short movies of John Canemaker, Marching to a Different Toon, is something of a major event in animation circles, and Milestone are much to be congratulated for it. My only real complaint about it is that it’s too short: at a mere 60 minutes it leaves the viewer gasping for more . . . which is, of course, what showbiz is all about, but I’d have preferred to have been gasping for more about an hour later than I was. In particular, it’d have been nice to see at least a part (and preferably all) of the superb animated sequence from the otherwise live-action feature movie The World According to Garp (1982) — arguably the best bit of that movie — and similarly a good-sized extract from John Lennon Sketchbook (), in which Canemaker, commissioned by Yoko Ono, animated the ex-Beatle’s drawings. I assume copyright considerations obviated the inclusion of either. 

Oh, well, you can’t have everything, and what is here is certainly a rich enough feast by anyone’s definition. 

For the sake of (my) ease, I’ll go through the collection short by short. 


Confessions of a Stardreamer (1978, 9min). One of Canemaker’s most famous shorts, this is based on sections of impromptu monologue by actress Diane Gardner, discussing her dreams of future glory and her past. The most striking sequence for me is the one in which she reminisces about her old drama teacher: as she talks about him, her own figure metamorphoses according to the imagery she uses to describe him and the personas he adopted during the tuition. What is fascinating is the constant series of transformations, so that you’re never at all sure what the screen will be showing you in each next second. As an aside, one does wonder if Canemaker had to pour copious quantities of booze into Gardner before she performed the monologue for him, because some of her admissions about herself are far from flattering; it is a tribute to her that she didn’t demand the erasure of the soundtrack the morning after. 

The style of animation during the short is also frequently changing. There’s a small amount of rotoscoping (or, if it’s not rotoscoping, it looks damn’ like it), but the default is a lovely, loose, sketchy, seemingly pencil/crayon/watercolor mode, with fleeting moments of enchanting detail. The opening moments, by contrast, seem to either homage or parody the Andy Warhol/Roy Lichtenstein school of Pop Art; and other sequences deploy a sort of stripped-down version of limited animation, with only the key poses being shown — it’s an oddly effective technique. There are even some sequential stills. All of these various styles are held together, made coherent, by a unitary visual wit, so that you’re hardly aware, until the second or third viewing, that the mode of portrayal is in this constant flux. 

Another special favorite part of the short is a nightmare sequence accompanying Gardner’s views on auditioning. 

Bridgehampton (1998, 6.25min). Done like a set of animated book illustrations — and in some cases as still illustrations across which the camera pans — this short offers Canemaker’s impressions of his home in Bridgehampton, NY, through the seasons. Again the drawing style, whether deployed in abstract, primitive or quasi-realistic depictions, has a lovely looseness and fluidity. An especially beautiful sequence could be summarized as “Variations on a Theme of Snowflakes”; another heralds the onset of Spring.. Overall, there’s a sense of the peaceful joy to be found in tranquility — a sense enhanced by the vaguely Satie-esque piano score (by Fred Hersch). This is a very, very beautiful piece of work. 

Confessions of a Stand-Up (1993, 9min). Comedian Dennis Blair provides the voice-track for what is really a parody of the routine of a stand-up comedian, complete with appropriately inserted “Just kiddin’!” The routine is accompanied by animation and some still photographs of Blair, the latter being vulnerable to the graffiti-like attentions of the animator’s brush. Yet the short isn’t just a matter of animation being set to the routine; right from the outset it’s obvious this is a partnership between the two forms, with Blair announcing that it’s an animated movies and promptly performing a few visual gags that are possible to his animated self (e.g., plucking his nose off) but not his live-action self. Although the stage routine keeps reappearing, the monologue then segues into reflections and reminiscences that are akin to those of Diane Gardner in Confessions of a Stardreamer (to which it can be considered a companion piece) and interpreted by the animation in similar vein and largely using similar techniques and styles; but here there are sequences (among the most charming) deploying the animation of deliberately childlike drawings — a technique that Canemaker demonstrated beautifully also in the animated section of the feature The World According to Garp. Scattered among the general fluid surrealism, recursive references to vintage animation, the comix and even The Twilight Zone are also fun. 

Bottom’s Dream (1983, 6.5min). This is probably Canemaker’s most famous and popular short, and certainly it must be his most beautiful. On the surface it is a surrealistic pastoral fantasia — complete with the musical accompaniment of the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — but there is a genuine and genuinely strong set of emotions here, some obvious, some subtle. The emotions of Shakespeare’s humble peasant artisan, seen here always with his donkey head except in the first few pre-titles transformatory seconds, are easy enough to read as he is ensorcelled by the allure of the demonic and demonically sexy Titania (voiced by Mary Bringle); far more subtly conveyed is the emotional element in the play wherein the trickster enchantress is momentarily swayed herself by the attractions of her rustic wooer — so simply and so honest by comparison with the somewhat malicious glamour of her husband Oberon. 

This is a well-nigh perfect short movie — exquisite, poignant, wry and visually as enchanting as anything in a faerie forest. The best any reviewer can do with it is to hotly recommend that you watch it. 

The Wizard’s Son (1981, 10min). Overtly appealing to children as well as adults, this longish short tells without dialogue the tale of a wizard and his son; there’s a friendly nod of acknowledgement to the Disney short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (in Fantasia, 1940) in the animation of the wizard’s hat, which seems to mimic the mops that get out of control under Mickey’s amateurish command. Here the wizard is unable to accept that his young panpiping son dreams of growing up to be a musician rather than follow in the family tradition — is unable to accept, in fact, that music too is a form of magic. The panpipes locked away in a drawer, the son is forced to study the boring old grimoires that will aid his wizardly education, but one of his spells goes awry and transforms the family big into a vast and voracious monster. The pig looks set to devour the wizard (and the family cat) but then the son saves the day using the magical music that emanates from his panpipes. This is a charming piece, full of humor and flashes of wit, and with a moral that’s expressed totally satisfyingly rather than — as could so easily have been the case — cloyingly. 

Behind the Scenes (1992, 1min). The rest of the pieces on this video are much shorter than the introductory quintet, being primarily fragments and/or ephemera. Yet they’re well worth watching for all that. This one is a charming, semi-abstract piece that again demonstrates the lovely transformational fluidity characteristic of Canemaker’s longer pieces. Although there are many different drawn lines (and images) in evidence, the fragment has the feel that the animator took a single line and then continued it, without trying to control it, just to see where it would go. 

The Creative Spirit (excerpt, 1992, 3min). This is really just a taster for the animation Canemaker did for the IBM- sponsored PBS series on creativity; here we have the opening credits and a short extract concerning the origins of creative thoughts and the mental mechanisms that inhibit them. There’s some tremendous animation, most notably a sequence formed almost entirely of dynamic lines, but really a taster is what this remains. 

Gay Men’s Health Crisis (1991, three spot ads totaling 1.5min). Three different television ads done for events organized by Gay Men’s Health Crisis Inc. The first is possibly the most interesting, even though it’s primarily live-action: in black- and-white are a group (both sexes represented) of dancers, and colored animation illuminates their actions. 

Laughter is Good Medicine (excerpt, 1981, 2min). Another extract, this time from a documentary on the therapeutic values of laughter and humor. It’s mainly a very funny dialogue between an anthropomorphized depressed brain and a similarly anthropomorphized stomach, with the stomach protesting that when the brain gets depressed the consequence is likely to be the arrival in the stomach of a “devilish ulcer” — which in due course does indeed arrive, in appropriately sartorially satanic guise. 

Break the Silence: Kids Against Child Abuse (excerpt, 1994, 3min). From the Peabody Award-winning documentary, this is largely live-action — children telling the usual dismal stories of violent and sexual abuse — with interspersed episodes of animation to illuminate their narratives. Again the animation deploys that style of making seemingly childish, naive drawings move, but here the pathos becomes almost unbearable, making the narratives far realer than they would have been if left unadorned. The only problem with this excerpt is precisely that it is an excerpt: one is left merely hoping that these poignant tales, unlike so many others, came in the end to happy resolutions for the children. 

What Do Children Think of When They Think of the Bomb? (excerpts, 1983, 2min). Again from a highly esteemed PBS documentary, again deploying live-action and animation. After very striking opening credits, the animation concerns itself with reifying the imagery used by children in their attempts to accommodate their minds to the notion of nuclear holocaust, all framed within one little boy’s scenario of the End of the World Amusement Park. This is grimly fascinating not just because of its subject matter but because it narratively and visually demonstrates mythopoeica in action. 

Science Experiences (excerpt, 1992, 0.5min). Nothing more than animated opening credits, but charming nonetheless. 

The DNA Concerto (excerpt, 1983, 1.5min). The complete story of evolution on Earth, all done in 90 seconds — and to music! From the simple, almost monotone laying of the bricks to build the double helix through to the riotously discordant chord that is the proliferation of life today, this is a sweetly animated piece and a surprisingly effective telling of life’s tale. 


None of these shorts is exactly Saturday-morning tv fare, yet you shouldn’t get the impression that this is artsy-fartsy animation of the studiously inaccessible variety. It’ll probably do great damage to Milestone’s sales of the collection to say that children would love this tape, but it is the fact; at the same time, any adult with an appreciation of the visual should love it as well. In short, this is mature animation, delighting in the opportunities for play that the medium affords while at the same time exploiting the medium for whatever it is uniquely qualified to express. It has often been said that animation permits the moviemaker to put magic on the screen, yet all too often in commercial moviemaking all that this is used for is to supply extra tricks and an extra wackiness to scenarios that very visibly owe their existence to a mental live-action cinema. Not so here. 

Canemaker uses animation fully for the purpose of putting magic on our screens.