John Sayles

It Looked Like Jazz

Selected films of John And Faith Hubley, 1956–1973

My earliest movie experiences were at the drive-in, sitting in the backseat of the station wagon, looking past my parents’ heads. It was usually a double or triple feature, starting with cartoons when it wasn’t really dark enough to see the action of Heckle and Jeckle or Tom and Jerry too well, but the light quickly dimmed so the last cartoon—either Casper the Friendly Ghost or Mr. Magoo—looked good up there. This was in the days of wired speakers hung on the rim of the driver’s-side window, so there was a great surrounding reverb effect in the lot that made everything even more exciting. Magoo by then had become a fairly standard blind joke, but his creator, John Hubley, was starting to make cartoons and short animated films that sometimes snuck into the programming, and they were definitely way out there compared to the early Hanna-Barbera or Disney looks (though Hubley had worked on the production line at Disney for features like Dumbo, Bambi, and Fantasia before he was blacklisted, in 1952). The stories were offbeat and short on explosions or characters getting flattened, and the animation was impressionistic to the point of being abstract. Often you could see the outlines of buildings or trees when the characters passed in front of them, and details both large and small (like sky and ground) were often left out or merely suggested.

Hubley had been a production-line animator at Disney during the time when artists might spend years doing nothing but “water” or “tree movement” frame by frame. A lot of that work is amazing, but if a physical element wasn’t part of the story or feeling Hubley was after in his own films, he just left it out. Teaming with his wife, Faith Elliott, he worked, often uncredited, on animated commercials and conceived, designed, and directed at least one independent film a year. Kids in my neighborhood knew every line of the Marky Maypo cereal commercial—a masterpiece of minimalist characterization—and the Hubleys’ work increasingly snuck its way onto movie-theater bills around the country. I didn’t read credits in those days—I thought of movies as John Wayne– or Woody Woodpecker–type affairs—but when a Hubley film came on I immediately thought, There’s another one of those things! This despite the fact that the graphic technique was often strikingly different from film to film. I certainly didn’t know or understand the word sensibility at the time, but I knew by the feel of the films that they came from a unique place. And a lot of this had to do with their sound.

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John Sayles is a fiction writer and filmmaker. His latest works are the novel A Moment in the Sun and the feature film Go for Sisters.

March/April 2014
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