The Zagreb School of Animation and the Unperfect
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University of Washington Abstract The Zagreb School of Animation and the Unperfect Paul W. Morton Chair of Supervisory Committee Gordana Crnković Department of Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media From 1956 until 1991, a group of animators based at the Zagreb Film studio, in the Croatian capital, produced approximately 500 shorts, including avant-garde experiments, children’s cartoons, gag shorts, and sex comedies. Like Yugoslavia itself, the Zagreb School of Animation (as the animators collectively came to be called) challenged utopian ideologies and the East-West binaries of the Cold War. Their work transformed the cartoon from a cinema of attractions, which celebrated the technology which gave it birth, into a cinema of the laborer, which celebrated the humble artisan behind the technology. Animation, historically, has been described as a seamless marriage between mankind’s lost childhood, embodied by anthropomorphized animals, and techno-modernity. The Zagreb School, however, emphasized human fallibility and accepted technical mistakes, such as a stray line in a frame, or an imperfectly synchronized connection between sound and movement. Rather than the confident Soviet new man, the defining character type of the Zagreb School was the “small man.” This dissertation uses the “small man” to understand how the Zagreb School struggled with the major preoccupations of post-World War II Yugoslavia: fears of nuclear annihilation, environmental collapse, and the disorientations of urbanization. It explores how the Zagreb School re-imagined the animator as a figure who intentionally reveals the make-do nature of his working methods and the flaws of his finished project – hence the use of the term “unperfect” instead of “imperfect.” This dissertation involves a close formalist study of approximately twenty Zagreb School films, most of which are not currently in distribution. It draws on personal interviews conducted with surviving members of the studio as well as interviews conducted by other scholars, original Croatian-language scholarship, contemporary accounts of the studio and studio documents collected in a four-volume set published between 1978 and 1986. It draws on recent scholarship on the culture of the former Yugoslavia, as well as foundational texts in animation studies, particularly work focused on films from the US, the Soviet Union, and Canada. This dissertation begins with a capsule history of the Zagreb School, from its pre-history in 1922 and reaching forward into the 1960s and ’70s. It situates the Zagreb School within the culture of workers’ self-management, the policy of the former Yugoslavia which hoped to provide labor autonomy. It then argues that the small man is a self-portrait of the laborers in the Zagreb Film studio and explores how the small man attempts to achieve the ideal of unperfection. It explores how the Zagreb School situates the small man as a citizen of the polis at a time when Yugoslavia was rapidly urbanizing. It then turns towards the Zagreb School’s examination of war, and argues that the animators employ so-called “limited animation” to reinvent violence in the animation medium. It will argue that its conception of violence is part of a broader project to remember the traumas of World War II and warn of future conflicts and the specter of nuclear annihilation. A humanist socialism defined the philosophies of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Accordingly, the animators of the Zagreb School sought not to technologize the human, but rather to humanize technology.