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The Dark Side of Classic Sitcoms

Animated film shines light on the underbelly of family life during the Golden Age of TV

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June 6, 2012 | by Erin White

EVANSTON, Ill.--- What if Ward Cleaver was a lousy drunk who beat up June, Wally and the Beaver? Or imagine Lucy and Ricky Ricardo as deadbeat parents who neglected Little Ricky?

This dark glimpse into the could-be underbelly of stereotypical mid-century television sitcoms is the focus of “Retrocognition,” a short animated film by Eric Patrick, associate professor of radio/television/film at Northwestern University’s School of Communication. 

Funded by a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, “Retrocognition” is set to hit the national and international film festival scene this summer with a world premiere at MashRome Film Fest this month. Watch the trailer

“It is a story about suburbia and the nuclear family in the time right after the atomic bomb,” Patrick said. “There was a really homogenous view of culture and of families during that time and a ‘Leave it to Beaver’ lifestyle that not everyone fit into. There was often abuse, neglect and many unseemly events that we now know about. I was just trying to reveal some of that trauma through an allegorical narrative.” 

The characters, sets and props in the film were constructed from a collage of photographs as well as mixed media. Patrick collected hundreds of hours of World War II-era radio dramas to create the film’s dialogue and soundtrack. The photographs used in the film are cut-up and collaged in a way that mirrors the cut-up and found nature of the audio track. 

"It seemed as if there was a residue of domestic trauma that could be teased from these audio clips, almost like a form of archeology brushing away the facade of suburban bliss," he said. 

The inflections of speech and dated phrases used by actors in the Golden Age of television and radio add to the slightly disjointed feel of the film. The sound bites were juxtaposed to reveal unexpected dialogue that borders on the schizophrenic, Patrick said. 

“This approach leads to an unsettling experience of watching something that has the aesthetics and signifiers of vintage media sitcoms, yet appears and sounds like it has been hacked to pieces and put back together to reveal a dark alternative to the initial intent,” Patrick said. 

The idea for “Retrocognition” began to take shape in the late 1990s, when Patrick was up late at night editing an animated film and listening to bits and pieces of old radio dramas broadcast on a local radio station. 

“They played two different shows that night, but I was so busy animating, the parts of dialogue I caught didn’t really match and seemed bizarre and surreal and somehow perfectly epitomized the darkness that you often hear about in the nuclear family,” Patrick said. “These old broadcasts led me to this cultural critique of the meme of the ‘nuclear family’ found in sitcoms.” 

The film is screening at Anima Mundi in Brazil in July and at Exdox documentary film festival in Germany in September. The University Film and Video Association has also named it a finalist in the animation category.