Saturday, April 30, 2011

Just Ducky: Sally Cruikshank

Like H.R. Pufnstuf, Sally Cruikshank’s animated shorts helped prepare a generation of kids to trip their lights out. Surreal and baroque, her animation also appeared in Sesame Street and graced the opening credits of several films. In 2009, Cruikshank’s work became canonical when her best known film, Quasi at the Quackadero was voted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Perhaps an even more significant honor for hardcore cineastes, Cruikshank will be the focus of Just Ducky, a special evening’s retrospective at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow night.

According to Cruikshank, she was initially influenced by Carl Barks’ Disney ducks. However, she readily admits her ducks do not look particularly like ducks. (For Japanese cinema fanatics, they kind of look like kappas.) Inspired by old time Fleischer cartoons, Quasi is a cad and Anita has a real femme fatale streak. Though he would rather stay in bed, Quasi accompanies her and their robot companion Rollo to the Quakadero, a freaky carnival where the attractions involve psychic mind-reading and time travel. Quackadero was produced in 1975 and it looks it—in a cool retro Yellow Submariny kind of way. Quasi and Anita are essentially Cruikshank’s franchise, appearing again in Make Me Psychic, where they revisit Uri Geller territory, and Quasi’s Cabaret Trailer, a spec film for a proposed feature that would have made the trippy Quakadero look like a Branson, Missouri dinner theater.

Music often plays an important role in Cruikshank’s shorts, like Danny (Batman and several hundred other films) Elfman’s playfully referential score for the bizarre haunted house short Face Like a Frog. For jazz listeners though, one of the coolest shorts of the evening will actually be a piece produced for Sesame Street. An ode to dreaming, Cruikshank originally set From My Head to the gently swinging vocals of the great Betty Carter. The stylish animated sojourn into the subconscious was later incorporated into a duet of the same song for Elmo and Diane Schuur.

The ahead of its time hipness of Cruikshank’s work for Sesame Street is quite striking. A piece like I’m Curious could easily be seen as a forerunner to The Cars’ famous “You Might Think” video. Still, she has had the occasional detractor along the way. Reportedly, Mick Jagger was quite uncomplimentary in his appraisal of her animated credits for Ruthless People, but frankly, they are far more distinctive than his theme song playing over them (quick hum a few bars, if you can possibly remember it).

Cruikshank was always at the vanguard of independent animation, yet some of her strange and psychedelic work helped make my generation what we are today (which is quite significant, I guess). A singular stylist, up-scale animation fans should definitely check out her work in all its diversity tomorrow night (5/1) at the Anthology Film Archives.