Friday, 12 February 2010

John Halas on cartoon violence

Above: Fit to be Tied

The 28 January 1960 issue of The Times carried the following letter from Pamela Hansford Johnson :
Sir. - I would like to draw the attention of parents who take their small children to film cartoon programmes, to the nightmarish cruelty of some of these offerings. Nearly all are concerned with violence: but some of the "Tom and Jerry" cartoons are revolting. I saw to-day one called Fit to be Tied, in which a dog, chained up and helpless, was battered all over the face, had his teeth bashed out with an iron bar and was shown (in close up) spitting out the few remaining stumps. Roars of laughter from the audience.

No, it isn't all right because it is just a comic dog in a drawing. I was ashamed to have a young child with me, ashamed to watch it myself, and ashamed of the adults who thought it such fun. Professional film critics are not normally asked to report on some of these hideous shorts. I wish they could make a point, for once, of spending an afternoon in one or two of the newsreel cinemas.
A supportive letter was printed in the 2 February edition:
[W]e took our seven-year-old son to the cinema for the first time. The first film, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, he enjoyed from beginning to end: a good film for small boys - fights, excitement and humour without a hint of horror or cruelty.

But Disney's Bambi that followed was quite another matter. Apart from the sentimentality, which our son obviously found spurious and embarrassing, he got no enjoyment from Bambi's terror, alone and motherless, in the great forest, nor from the drawn-out savagery of the forest fire, nor from the nauseating hounds with their jagged teeth, baying and mouthing after Bambi's blood - no, no! this is no food for children. (...) If grown-ups care for such titillation that is their business, but the assumption that Disney programmes are a child's treat needs looking into.
A number of other letters followed. Some were supportive: "Our investigations disclosed that a great number of small children are more terrified by cartoons than by anything else they see on the screen... I sat next to a child of six, who the moment the cartoon began shut his eyes tightly, put her hands over her ears and said to me: 'Tell me when it's over, Miss.' The next film was a Western, full of violence and killing which she seemed to enjoy thoroughly", read a letter from a former member of a departmental committee looking into the effects of films on children. Some refuted the claims, such as the letter that pointed out that the average child viewer "will most certainly smile through his tears at the end when he sees Bambi living a calm life again having survived the many trials of the forest", before concluding that "Surely if a child is allowed to watch only films about cowboys and Indians, which rarely arouse any depth of feeling, be it sorrow or gladness, he will grow up to be an extremely insensitive person?"

"By all means persuade film critics to attend the newsreel cinemas. An hour's uninhibited laughter would allow them to criticize the films of Ingmar Bergman without being swallowed in his swamps of misery and self-pity", added another reader.

In the 3 February edition a letter from none other than John Halas was printed:
Sir, - Miss Pamela Hansford Johnson, in her letter published in The Times on January 28, expresses her concern at the "nightmarish cruelty" in certain cartoon entertainment films shown in the cinemas. All those concerned professionally in the production of animated films will, I am sure, want to point out to her that by far the greater part of this branch of film-making is, like live-action production, free from the kind of violence to which she rightly objects. Only a small fraction of animation nowadays is, in fact, produced for purely entertainment purposes in cinemas and on television.

The question of violence is one which must always be watched in the cinema and on television, as elsewhere. The particular bearing this has on the drawn characters shown in animated films as distinct from the real people and animals who appear as characters in live-action films, is that the simplest minded audience recognizes that these creatures are wholly unreal and possess, by the convention of the medium, an infinite resilience however drastic the treatment they may receive.

The laughter with which the audience responds to the ill-treatment of these creatures of fantasy depends on this knowledge, and is basically entirely different from the reaction that same audience would give were the creatures on the screen real and therefore capable of actual suffering. Many notable fairy tales and folk tales reveal the greatest cruelty, but the perpetual vitality of magic restores life to these creatures of fantasy, and so, perhaps, restores some confidence to the vulnerable human beings who originally invented them, partly for the purpose of giving themselves courage in the face of the actual sufferings of real life.

The violence in many, particularly American, cartoons keeps within the legitimate bounds of fantasy, but the wholly ugly, vicious, and gratuitous violence shown in a minority of these cartoons must, of course, be condemned.
Halas's argument was backed up by Roger Manvell, who stated that "Cartoon characters in a serious dramatic context can achieve active sympathy and emotional identification in their audience just as readily as live actors if that becomes the intention of the film, as was shown in Mr. John Halas's own cartoon version of Orwell's Animal Farm."

The whole controversy is plainly the product of a different era. This was before such landmarks of animated violence as Heavy Metal and Akira, The Simpsons and South Park, or Happy Tree Friends and Akumi.

I'm intrigued by John Halas's condemnation of the "wholly ugly, vicious, and gratuitous violence shown in a minority of these cartoons"; he clearly had specific works in mind and I can't help but wonder what they were. I'm also wondering if he approved of Heavy Metal, which his studio would work on two decades later.

To close this post here is a second letter sent in by Johnson and printed in the 11 February edition, in which she elaborates on her views:
Sir. - I was afraid that discussion of brutal and degraded cartoon films might be obfuscated by references to Bambi and fairy-tales. It is important to keep to the point. Bambi may be alarming, but it is in intention neither brutal nor vulgar: some fairy-tales may provoke a nightmare or two, but their enrichment of the child's imagination far outweighs their damaging qualities. I have nothing against Red Riding Hood, Westerns, or The Three Little Pigs, nor did I ever give my children, in place of toy forts and soldiers (as in Saki's The Toys of Peace), a model of municipal baths, fitted out with Harriet Martineau, Florence Nightingale, and John Stuart Mill.

My complaint is quite specifically against the deliberate exploitation of sheer brutality. several anonymous correspondents (what are they afraid of?) have tried to blackmail me by deploring my lack of humour. I am quite unmoved by this sort of thing. The moment I find myself rocking with laughter at the spectacle of torture in any form, graphic or otherwise, I shall go to a psychiatrist.

As for correspondents who point out to me that in this best of all possible worlds the cartoons turn out all right in the end, may I ask what their emotions would be at the sight of a cartoon depicting animal A driving a nail through a block of wood into the skull of animal B, A then being caught and sentenced at the end? The cartoons I am talking about are as bad as this, quite as bad: they are part and parcel of the terrifying wave of violence which is sweeping all over the western world.

Let us stop making ourselves comfortable by trying to equate it with The Little Mermaid and cowboys and Indians, and start considering whether in this, as in all things, there is not a question of degree, and whether we ought not to set our minds towards defining it.

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