In the late 1920s, when sound first came to the cinema, music was the primary resource that kick-started the film industry. Across the start of the 20th century, the nascent film studios (Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Universal, et al) had established their empires through music publishing. Prior to movies, vaudeville bills, music hall revues and Broadway musicals were the chief multi-media entertainment channels. They sold tickets on site and sheet-music in shops. The publishing houses built their fortunes on these avenues of consumption. It was logical, then, that movies were initially seen as opportunities to capitalise on the houses’ existing resources.
The advent of sound cinema in this epoch highlighted the singing voice as a ground zero for technologically re-invented cinema. Gone was the melodramatic friezes and tortured poses of silent cinema — a medium which seemed to be a form of ‘theatre in crisis’, grieving over its inability to import the cultural aspirations of playwrights and stage actors. Their forced catatonia was sneered at by the lowly rabble of gangly hoofers, chorus girls and slapstick comedians, all of whom could now break into a song and amaze a large paying audience. The early musical movies were continually advertised as “All Singing! All Dancing!”. And they had to prove it by showing lips synchronised to voices, and feet tapping on floorboards.
In 1928, the Walt Disney Company presented Steamboat Willie. Promoted as a “Mickey Mouse Sound Cartoon” it was the premiere release of his character. In this short film, Mickey plays a deck hand on a steamboat captained by a grumpy boss cat. All sorts of gags are paraded throughout the cartoon, proving the capacity of this new film’s soundtrack to truly ‘animate’ life in sight and sound. At one point, a goat eats Minnie Mouse’s sheet music and violin. Mickey then opens its mouth like a gramophone, Minnie turns its tail like a winder, and a music box tinkling plays Turkey in the Straw, a 19th century minstrel song. (Mickey’s status as a problematic blackface character can be discussed elsewhere.) Mickey then takes a washboard and various pots and pans to configure a trap drum kit which he uses to play along to the goat’s ‘gramophonic’ tune. He produces even more sound effects by pulling a cat’s tail, stretching a duck’s neck, pulling the tails of suckling pigs, and using a cow’s teeth like a marimba.
The cartoon was a huge hit at the time. Walt Disney extended its tricks and effects one year later in another cinema short, The Skeleton Dance (1929). The animation is one of most famous of the Silly Symphonies series — a soft mocking of concert hall propriety. It’s a micro-masterpiece of synchronisation, entrainment and percussivity. Every squiggle, blob, line and shape moves in direct response to a sound effect or musical ‘sting’. And every musical event is strictly timed to the skeletons’ movements, as they arise from their tombs to perform chorus line routines, magic tricks and virtuoso musical feats (such as one skeleton using another skeleton’s ribs as a xylophone to play a faux-Khachaturian allégro).
It’s hard not to reflect on this legacy when viewing and auditing Özgür Kar’s GOOD NIGHT (2021). A variation on his suite of works involving black-and-white graphic-line animations of skeletons singing or intoning, this iteration is a four-screen work stitched into a single, long horizontal tableaux. The skeleton appears to be interred in its four-screen coffin, legs slightly bent at the knees like an adolescent who has outgrown their childhood bed. The skeleton lies supine, arms by its sides, staring up into whatever realm of the living it imagines to exist outside of its digital tomb of rare earth sheen. The polar opposite of The Skeleton Dance, this skeleton is drained, ironically seeming to be, as we say, “on its last legs”. Its last breath (eternally looped in the living hell of being exhibited in a public art gallery) is expelled through soft plosives of extended notes. They seem vocal, but they also mimic the near-atonal improvisation of a wind instrument. Occasional swells of synth pads surge and hover, breaking the silence. At other moments, the apparition of a female voice imparts a breathy eulogy of sorts. Close-miked with slight echo, it sounds drained and exhausted. I think I could make out “angel” and “good night” but that could be a semantic illusion. It might not even be in English. (This is to its power, as literate declaration — or dumb lyrics — would only degrade the audio-visual poetics of the animation.)
Despite the vocals being supplied by Ivan Cheng, its falsetto range and tactile timbre evokes a feminine presence. As such it riffs on the ‘dead girl’ trope of morbid femininity, which can be traced through the erotic lineage of contralto siren singers: from Julie London’s Cry Me A River (1955) to Jane Birkin’s Je t’aime (1969) to Julie Cruise’s songs in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) and Blue Velvet (1986), to the contemporary variations of rich girl pouting (Lana Del Ray’s Summertime Sadness, 2012) and suicide chic (Billy Eilish’s Bury A Friend, 2019). The ‘dead girl’ in Good Night is dead but not-dead. The skeleton is an animated reliquary. Part Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-1522) and part The Skeleton Dance and its fevered animation of anything and everything inanimate. What could be more death-affirming than graphically depicting Christ as a corpse? And what could be more death-negating than an all-singing all-dancing skeleton? GOOD NIGHT finds an intermediate zone to lay down and wile away time, singing, dying, animating.