PRINT September 2019



Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons, by Hannah Frank. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. 256 pages.

IT’S NOT EVERY DAY that a posthumously published Ph.D. thesis nudges the world of cinema studies off its axis. All hail Frame by Frame: A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons (2019), by Hannah Frank, who completed the book shortly before her tragic death in 2017, at age thirty-two, from an illness believed to have been pneumococcal meningitis.

Frank is not the first theory-minded cine-historian to suggest that with the advent of CGI the history of motion pictures was effectively subsumed into the history of animation. Nor is she the first to advance the notion of the individual frame as film’s basic unit. Her originality lies in turning André Bazin on his head, challenging his dictum that “the realism of cinema follows directly from its photographic nature” by counterintuitively positing the individual animated frame as a photographic record of a particular moment. It’s a commonplace that every movie is (or was) a documentary of its own making; the same is true, Frank argues, for animation.

Once upon a time, when I was in grad school, I did my requisite film analysis on Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and concluded that, as phenomenally kinetic as the movie was, it was not ultimately intended for projection and could only be fully appreciated when examined frame by frame on an editing console. Frank makes a similar claim for an entire mode of production. Animated cartoons should be watched as though they were periodicals unspooling on microfilm. Winsor McCay’s pre-cel animations are not just movies but archives of his drawing—they belong “to the discursive order of the filing cabinet.”

Frame by Frame complements Esther Leslie’s brilliant, erudite Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde (2002). Drawing on the mighty Marxist trio of Walter Benjamin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Theodor Adorno, Leslie made the case for the modernism of the 1930s Mickey Mouse and the 1940s Bugs Bunny. Frank could hardly have been unaware of Leslie (both contributed to Zoe Beloff’s superbly eccentric A World Redrawn: Eisenstein and Brecht in Hollywood), although she never directly cites her book.

Frank finds animated cartoons intrinsically avant-garde (a Duchampian strategy), flagging numerous instances in which cartoons prefigured later innovations. Felix the Cat cartoons employed flicker sequences in the 1920s, some forty years before Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits; the Disney and Columbia studios visualized audio patterns three decades before Barry Spinello’s 1969 Soundtrack; cartoons by Dave Fleischer and Chuck Jones emphasized cinema’s material basis in anticipation of George Landow’s descriptively titled Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc., 1966. Such vulgar modernism aside, Frank’s comments on the “imperfections, anomalies, and disturbances” discovered in frame-by-frame analysis are a virtual brief for the appreciation of the ultimate “bad” filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux. Even in animation, the camera confounds intentionality by preserving film-makers’ flaws and gaffes. These apparent mistakes are Frank’s equivalents of those privileged moments that, per Marx, “bring to our attention their character of being the products of past labor”—or, as Adorno phrased it, mark the “reemergence of a forgotten human moment.”

Frank’s analysis is doubly materialist: “My interest lies in how this knowledge—of technology and of labor—bears (or should bear) on the viewing of the cartoons themselves.” Addressing the means of production in far more depth than Leslie, Frank points out that cartoons are an assembly-line art form produced by a proletariat of “inkers (who traced the drawings onto cels) and painters (who colored inside the inked lines).” The vast majority of these anonymous workers were women, highly skilled but with no expectation of promotion. Executing a Frankfurt School bank shot, the author suggests that these cartoon assembly lines are an iteration of those precision dancers, like the Tiller Girls, whom Siegfried Kracauer dubbed mass ornaments—“the hitherto repressed labor of a female collective,” Frank writes.

Frame by Frame raises all manner of questions about what might have been had Frank’s career not been cut short. What might she have done with post-photographic animation, including Pixar productions and Richard Linklater’s computer-programmed rotoscopes, Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006)? How would she have theorized 3-D animation or those cyborg films that combine “live action” with digital effects?

Frank makes a persuasive case for a reconfigured canon of cinematic theory and praxis, demonstrating the centrality of Eisenstein’s posthumously discovered essay on Disney and of Robert Breer’s oeuvre. Breer’s radically reductive, (doubly) avant-garde animations A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957), Blazes (1961), Fuji (1974) and Rubber Cement (1976), all of which emphasize the single frame or the hand of the artist, are as axiomatic in their demonstration of basic cinematic principles as Stan Brakhage’s cameraless collage Mothlight (1963) or Ken Jacobs’s found-TV-news slop print Perfect Film (1986).

Frank devotes the last of the book’s four long chapters to the 1961 Disney feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians—a movie that could not have been made without xerography. The original Mickey Mouse animator, Ub Iwerks, eliminated the traditional inking process by developing a Xerox-based camera. Drawings could be transferred directly to animation cels, thus cutting costs by automating a whole class of studio workers—while heightening a new sense of expressive spontaneity.

Not exactly unrecognized, Dalmatians was a critical and commercial success that rescued Disney animation after the financial disaster of Sleeping Beauty (1959). More amusing than most post–World War II Disney animated features, it’s a tolerable movie that, refracted through Frank’s prism, emerges as a technological tour de force, a peer of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), The Skeleton Dance (1929), and Steven Spielberg’s digital breakthrough Jurassic Park (1993). Moreover, Dalmatians is self-reflexive. “As its title hints, it is a film about xerography,” Frank notes; the multiplicity of the individualized dogs could only have been achieved with photocopies. Indeed, given that xerography also preserves the artist’s original line, she jokes, it might be called One Hundred Thousand and One Documents—which is to say that the film’s significance derives from examining it frame by frame. 

J. Hoberman’s new book is Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan (The New Press, 2019).