Journal of Film and Video: Vol. 58, No. 4, Winter 2006

by Juliet Davis

If it seems odd that Deanna Morse’s work has found a home in such disparate places as Sesame Street and the permanent collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, consider the complexity of expression the artist brings to the simplest line, on one hand, and the unassuming humor she uses to draw us into even the most controversial topics, on the other.  Move—Click—Move (a reference to stop-action animation) is not merely a DVD collection of Morse’s 30-year body of work; it is a sharing of process and meaning, a portrait of the artist and her relationship to her work and her public, and a study of the act of animation itself--a continuous metaconversation about meaning through bodily movement, and a focus on embodied difference. 

Even some of Morse’s simplest animations directed toward children comment on ethnicity and gender.  For example, “Kitchen Creature Feature” (2001) is a claymation commentary on domesticity, in which an awkward Godzilla character wreaks havoc in the kitchen wearing an apron that says, “I hate housework.”  The clay pots boil over (with clay-foam), the toaster catches on clay-fire, and in the end, Godzilla breathes with clay-flames (which, we find out in the process footage, were difficult to prop up and shoot one at a time). This clay awkwardness speaks to the awkwardness and arbitrariness of gender roles themselves.  Another look at marginalized perspectives, entitled “Reality Check” (1981), features a harmonica-playing African-American narrator who calls himself “Dogman” and speaks in a community dialect about middle-class materialism and technological progress:  “Why don’t you open up your eye holes and take a glance at the nation?” he says.  Later, another character says, “I just want to be myself and be free and find my own individual reality.”  But the grid paper and the recombinant magazine cut-out imagery remind us that we can never get off the “grid” as products of consumer culture.  The two-dimensional flatness of this animation also seems intentional as it comments on our flat perspectives of people and cultures, as accessed through popular media.   

Not all of Morse’s work is humorous or simple.  The film short entitled “August Afternoon” (1985) is a study of light moving across surfaces of a house (interior and exterior) in time-lapse cinematography.  This work establishes Morse’s fascination with surfaces, textures, and light, as well as natural progressions of movement in nature contrasted with feminine/domestic space.  The importance of these elements resurface in more complex work such as “Mother’s Advice” (2000), which is about women shaving the hair on their legs at puberty. Morse dwells on the movement of the razor across the legs, playing the sequence both forward and backward, clearly suggesting that this act is compromising the surface and texture of the leg, disrupting its natural growth and movement (and the integrity of film movement itself). 

While Morse’s themes resonate with wide audiences, Morse is, in many respects, a distinctly Midwestern artist.  Some of her work involves themes of rural uprooting and urban alienation (for example, in “Lost Ground”--1992) while it questions the roles of women and minorities in rural cultures.  In The A.m. Dream (1990), animation form and process once again become meaningful content.  The female narrator (Morse’s voice) reveals that she had two recurring dreams as a child:  “In the good dream, I can fly,” she says.  She and her best friend share this dream, but their mothers say they “watch too much TV.”  In the “bad” dream, she is in a house that is about to explode: ”They said, ‘Get out, get out,’ but I didn’t.  I found a place to hide—different places in each dream.”  She continues:  “Now I am grown up.  I travel a lot.  I play with computers.  I can make things fly. . . . My dreams are more varied now. . . . I can make things fly.  I play with computers.  I travel a lot.  I can make things fly. . . . “  While there is circularity here as the artist’s recurring childhood dream of flying materializes in looping animation sequences and repeating narrative, there is also horizontal movement, as the artist finds  freedom in time-based media (the “move—click—move” of frame animation; the “mouse-click-move” of computer animation) and in embodied movement (“travel”).  “Now,” she says, “I would not find solace in those suburban hiding places.  Now, when they say ‘Get out, get out,’ I MOVE.  Now, when they say ‘Get out, get out,’ I MOVE ON.  Is that so unusual?”  We come to realize that it is indeed unusual for a woman to fly (and for us deeply rooted Midwesterners to “move,” for that matter). Finally, it is complex for any of us to contemplate movement: change in domestic setting, change in our bodies, movement from our home towns, and the importance of imaginatively taking flight.  This complexity of movement is the focus of Morse’s work, in both form and content.
An early animation entitled
StarCycle (1978) moves beyond even this complexity to see animation deconstructed.  The film follows the path of an animated red star as it moves into different visual settings.  Each key image of the animation morphs into the next.  A hand becomes mountains; a cat’s nose becomes a woman’s hair; the little red star becomes static on a television set, which becomes the waves of a woman’s hair, which grow into hands to wave.  It’s “reincarnation,” as a child’s voice says in the end, and it reminds us that animation is, fundamentally, a celebration of metamorphosis and the visual interconnectedness of things—each frame being part of an interconnected chain, but also each line carefully drawn to merge into the next.  Even when individual images themselves may otherwise seem obliquely related, meaning is derived through their movement alone, by virtue of their own temporality and kinesthesis.

Morse’s own life as an artist is undoubtedly a celebration of the interconnectedness of people and things. What is perhaps most evident in the DVD is the heart of the artist herself.  This is a portrait of a woman who has not only been commercially successful but who is connecting deeply with communities of children—for example becoming an artist in residence at a school for the deaf and working with ethnic minorities. Behind her visual imagery, we often hear sound tracks of children laughing, experimenting with words, speaking their own language. In the introduction of the DVD, Morse appears on film saying, “Anyone can animate.”  While it certainly helps to have boundless imagination and talent, the message is clear:  Anyone can be part of this interconnectedness through movement and shared language.

For many of us, Morse’s Sesame Street animations have become part of cultural memory.  By bringing her work to mainstream audiences—and particularly children—Morse has created for us a shared past, one that sees diversity as something as natural as movement itself, and one that is so fresh enigmatic, and eye-opening that it does not slumber in the normal milieu of childhood mythologies.  In “Night Sounds” (1992), for example, a frightened girl believes she hears a monster “whistling the cha-cha outside my window.”  Finally convinced that “it’s only the wind blowing the trees,” she falls into rhythmic snoring.  Enter multi-colored monster playing the moroccos: “Whoa,” he says, hearing the girl snore, “it sounds like a Martian singing the Mambo in that house over there,” and he runs in fear.  In the end, we realize that scariness is a matter of perspective.  The monster itself is an ironic character--with six hands, a monkey tail, a rhinoceros horn, dragon’s teeth, and cows’ ears, its humor lies in the very fact that it seems burdened by its own scary body parts.  Nothing is truly simple in Morse’s world.  It may seem familiar, legible, consumable, but it is always stirring.

Because it is such an insightful study of movement in a larger context of visual culture, Move—Click—Move has served as an educational tool distributed to institutions and individuals in over twenty countries.  The Addy- and Omni-award-winning DVD itself, which features an animated interactive DVD menu that simulates an exploration of the artist’s desktop, was produced by Eric Oehrl at Lawrence Productions, designed by Grey-Berlin Design Studio, and supported by Digital Video Services. The DVD is in its second pressing, and proceeds go to a scholarship fund for Film and Video students at Grand Valley State University. To purchase Move—Click—Move, send a check for $25 to Deanna Morse, Professor, School of Communication, 268 LSH, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, MI 49401.  Make checks payable to Grand Valley State University.  The DVD is also available at

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