Overlooked Oeuvres: Winsor McCay (1867-1934)

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:


Winsor McCay strikes me as an underappreciated artist. Oh, he’s pretty well kown for his comic strips, all-time classics like “Little Nemo” and “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend.” But as a maker of movies he’s often dismissed as little more than an animation pioneer. And while he definitely fits that description, I’m not sure that does full justice to his achievements.

McCay’s movies are fascinating for the way they use drawing and motion to suggest an alternate reality, one contiguous to but distinct from our own. This, I suspect, was an outgrowth of his work in the printed realm, which is famous for its ability to pull the reader into the image — to make him feel as though he’s entered into the space of a dream. The films exhibit this same yearning for the third dimension, and they use the movies’ killer app — their ability to move — to round out the effectiveness of the illusion.

Before beginning his experiments with film, McCay worked before a live audience, dramatizing his drawings in real time. He’d draw a face, then slowly modify it to make it seem to age before the eyes of the audience — that sort of thing. He must have seen movies as being capable of taking this practice to the next level. Now, he could make the drawings change without his hand being evident. This took the act of making images — already rich in shamanistic overtones — and reinvested it with magic. Nearly 50 years later, when Henri-Georges Clouzot showed Picasso doing something similar, it finally made the craggy Spaniard seem human, perhaps because it allowed the public to see him as an entertainer, divested of all that cumbersome theory.

A trained vaudevillian, McCay often took pains to emphasize the handmade component of his movies. Before the animated segment of his 1911 “Little Nemo,” there’s a longish section featuring McCay himself boasting to his friends, telling them that he can make his comic strip characters move and thus seem to live. They don’t believe him. The movie then shows him sitting in his office while enormous reams of paper and barrels of ink are delivered. And then we see him patiently drawing the images which comprise the cartoon. Throughout, title cards helpfully explain the process and describe how long it took. The magician’s demonstrating his methods before showing you the trick amplifies the suspense (McCay was a performer, after all), and it reveals the involved “magic” as being inseparable from the simple mechanics of filmmaking. For McCay wasn’t simply saying: “Look at what I can do!” He was saying: “Look at what the movies can do — look at this new dreamworld they’ve opened up for us.” And once the animation starts, there’s little doubt that you’ve been made privy to a sort of dream. The images grow and morph and dance in ways that make your sense of sight feel renewed, as though it had been broken down and reconstituted from its most basic elements.

Appropriately, McCay’s later films, “Gertie the Dinosaur” and “The Sinking of the Lusitania,” use drawings to evoke things — namely, a dinosaur and a famous naval disaster — which his audience could not see otherwise. “Gertie” repurposes the framing story of “Little Nemo” by showing McCay using his animation to win a bet. But it extends that idea by uniting artist and creation: McCay playfully interacts with Gertie, then steps into the drawing, where his avatar rides the friendly sauropod right off the edge of the screen. (Shades of “Avatar.”) “Lusitania,” on the other hand, might represent the first use of animation to recreate and dramatize a news event, which I guess makes it the ancestor of those wacky CGI news clips from Thailand. The picture brings the extravagant Nouveau styling of McCay’s two-dimensional work to surging, undulating life (much of the drama is generated by the movement of waves and billowing smoke), and it further demonstrates McCay’s facility for evoking deep, engulfing spaces; the busy vertiginousness of the “Little Nemo” strip is replaced by the foreboding vacuum of the open sea.

It’s easy to compare McCay to Méliès, the cinema’s first conscious magician. But I think he’s also rightfully considered as part of a broader filmmaking tradition, one whose constituents recognized the interwovenness of life, dreams, and the movies and sought to draw meaning from the overlaps and interstices. It’s a tradition that includes Buster Keaton, whose great “Sherlock, Jr.” evokes McCay, as well as Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel. And McCay is right there at the start of it.

Here’s “Little Nemo”:


“The Sinking of the Lusitania”:

“The Flying House”:


About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Commercial art, Movies, Performers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Overlooked Oeuvres: Winsor McCay (1867-1934)

  1. Glynn Marshes says:

    I’d seen all of them before except “The Sinking” but had no idea of the backstory.

    They are really lovely . . .


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