Film/VOD Review: CARTOON COLLEGE (directed by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray)

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by Ella Martin on July 14, 2013

in CD-DVD,Film


Cartoon College, a film by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray, chronicles the experiences of a group of aspiring cartoonists enrolled in the selective two-year MFA program offered by the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont.  Featuring interviews with students and a prestigious faculty, it covers — loosely — one class’s journey.

In the opening scene, a student shows old drawings from high school.  He uses the phrase “the character that I worked with” — with as opposed to “on.”  This distinction highlights the relationships cartoonists seem to have with their Ella Martin's Stage and cinema film/VOD review of CARTOON COLLEGE, directed by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray.characters that are equal to, and sometimes direct extensions of, the artist.

Melrod and Wray’s film is based on the premise that many cartoonists have a difficult time building relationships in the real world.  What kind of person becomes a cartoonist or, more specifically, let alone goes to school for a degree in cartooning?  The answer seems to be solitary, scruffy individuals with a tenacious desire to share, through drawings and text, the unique galaxies inside their minds.

Chris Ware, respected cartoonist and a faculty member at the school, offers some extremely perceptive commentary on the development of artists.  “When you spend time by yourself, you’re going to do something with your time, and that is more likely than not going to be something creative.  So you become better at it than people who are getting really good at playing sports, or drinking or, you know, having fun with each other.”

Most of the cartoonists seem introverted; some are outright social outcasts who seem to prefer to inhabit a self-created world of fantasy in which they can, directly or indirectly, be their own heroes.  One Mormon student unambiguously chooses himself as the subject of his thesis book.  A tense graduation planning meeting demonstrates that while some of these people are gifted visual communicators, they Ella Martin's Stage and cinema film/VOD review of CARTOON COLLEGE, directed by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray.are as deeply challenged when it comes to real-life, person-to-person communication.

For a film set in graduate school, the characters are allowed surprisingly little growth on-camera.  Sure, time passes, but the directors seem more interested in establishing a large number of people with defining characteristics — e.g., the one who works too much, the one who’s having a melt-down, the ones who are in a relationship — than in creating a compelling narratives of change for these individuals.  The repetitive indie rock soundtrack is not particularly exciting, also failing to move the narrative to new places, especially when paired — in too-frequent interludes — with what seems like randomly organized photography of comics.

Ella Martin's Stage and cinema film/VOD review of CARTOON COLLEGE, directed by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray.The filmmakers find their footing in seemingly unadulterated moments of simplicity, when they allow the students and staff to speak clearly and honestly about their experiences without using the editing process to compartmentalize their personalities.  A small but highly effective thread centers around Al Wesolowsky who, at 61, takes a leave of absence from his career in archaeology to pursue cartooning, “something that I’ve long been interested in.”  The pressure of constant deadlines is difficult for him to manage, particularly because of his limited drawing abilities, but as he trudges to class through the snow, the camera captures a quiet nobility and determination that endows his quest with unmistakable dignity.  Black lines separate different frames onscreen to give it a comic book effect, with pictures inside panels, and just like that Wesolowsky becomes the hero of his own story.

Emotionally penetrating moments such as this one and the authentic interviews in the segments with Chris Ware stand out from the rest of the film and reveal its unrealized potential.  Over time, Melrod and Wray’s relationship as artistic collaborators could deepen and lead them to a more mature final product; for now, this film is an informative, respectable but rudimentary effort.

Cartoon College
Chicken and Egg Pictures and L.B. Thunderpony Productions
USA, 75min, No Rating
now available on VOD
to view film, visit iTunes

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