Monday, June 17, 2013

Fred Mogubgub would like to blow your mind

As I've noted many, many times on the Funhouse TV show, the pop culture of the Sixties is the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving – each time you think you know all of the most interesting artists and entertainers from that period, you become aware of another one who created some truly mind-roasting work. Such is the case with Fred Mogubgub, an animator whose body of work might be small, but is deeply deserving of a larger cult.

I have an institution and an individual to thank for my becoming acquainted with Mogubgub (more on his odd-sounding name below). The institution is the soon-to-be-movin' Whitney Museum, which included two of his best-known shorts in an exhibit they called “Sinister Pop.” (The exhibit was a lot of fun, but it only partially seemed to adhere to the “sinister” label.)

Some of the paintings were a little ominous in tone, but the underground films they chose to show were very un-sinister (Andy Warhol eating a hamburger on camera; George Kuchar's masterful “Hold Me While I'm Naked”; the trailer for A Bout de Souffle), except for two items (“Scorpio Rising” and Lynch's “Alphabet”). In a corner of the room they had the shorts with which I'll be closing off this post... and my mind fairly reeled.

Once I looked up Mogubgub (writing that name over and over is a side-benefit of doing a tribute to the gent), I found that one individual online has been mounting a sort of one-man campaign to keep FM's work alive. Richard O'Connor has posted Mogubgub's animated shorts on YouTube and written a number of blog posts imparting biographical info, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and critical appraisals of Mogubgub's work as an animator, fine artist, and “idea man” for ad campaigns. (As I wrote this, I then discovered the wonderful FM-related items that Michael Sporn has uploaded to his blog.)

First, a word about the gent's name: the Wikipedia entry for the artist notes that Fred himself said that his surname derived from the sound his Lebanese ancestors made when drowning. O'Connor, however, tells a story in one of his articles in which Fred M. was asked by one of his animator colleagues why he had changed the family name to simply “Mogub.” Fred thought people would laugh at the full name, but his colleague encouraged him to let them laugh, and make himself memorable with the full name. (O'Connor has indeed verified in correspondence with me that Mogubgub was Fred's family name and not just an artist's pseudonym.)

Born in 1928, he served in WWII and then attended the Art Students League. Although he wound up returning to fine art in his later years, he became an animator as a young man and quickly discovered he could make money at it by working in advertising. In 1961, he formed the firm Ferro Mogubgub Schwartz with two friends and wound up revolutionizing the TV ad with quick cuts. He maintained that the viewer could easily digest a lot of imagery in a short amount of time – he felt that commercials, and most films in general, were too slow. He was obviously way ahead of the curve here, operating on a severely "Sixties" wavelength at the very outset of the era.

In between the ads he produced a piece of animation for Jerome Robbins' Broadway production of the “black humor” play Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. His animation reportedly ran before the play started – it most certainly has what later came to be known as the Sixties look, but keep in mind that this play debuted in 1963. The B'way cast included Jo Van Fleet, Austin Pendleton, Tony Lo Bianco, and Barbara Harris. Harris was the only performer to also appear in the really awful movie version of the play, which featured an odd narration by the dead father, played by Jonathan Winters.

FMS had big clients, including the Ford Motor Company. O'Connor notes that the ads created for Ford by FMS “accelerated the action [of the commercial]. Scenes could be one second, less than one second, always long enough to convey the shot's meaning without overstaying its welcome.” Mogubgub created other notable campaigns for Pontiac (using comedian Victor Borge) and Life Savers, for whom he created the tagline, “Have you ever heard anyone say ‘no’ to a Life Saver?”

Mentioned in a 1966 Newsweek article on Pop Art (found here) as “a leading pop adman,” Mogubgub was simultaneously working on his short animated features. The most important of these is “The Pop Show,” which I'll discuss at the close of this piece. He also contributed drawings to The East Village Other.

Mogubgub was aware of how to attract the public's interest – one of his best stunts found him having a three-story mural, which asked for two million dollars, painted on the outside of the building in which he had his studio. The building is i.d.'ed as being on Sixth Avenue, but Steven Heller's blog says it was located on Third Avenue and 59th St.

Upon discovering his work I had hoped that he had made a feature film. He did, but all copies of it are apparently gone. The film, called The Day I Met Zet, was 71 minutes long and reportedly had 72,000 shots in it. (O'Connor mentions that it was shown once on WNET, the PBS station here in NYC.)

It took him three years to make the picture, but after he was advised to change it in certain ways by a potential distributor he started it again from scratch. The best Mogubgub stunt is tied up with the film: when it was turned down by the New York Film Festival, he protested outside the festival screenings with a sign reading “Screw the New York Film Festival.” He eventually burned a canister of film in a garbage pail – although it wasn't Zet, the story got him some attention.

A Christmas card made by Mogubgub (from the Michael Sporn website)
I have very fond memories of the next project that Mogubgub was involved in: the Sunday morning children’s show “Make a Wish” hosted by Tom Chapin (Harry’s brother). The show (which ran from ’71-’76) was educational but also reflected the stream-of-consciousness, quick-cut spirit of the era, and thus animation producer Al Broadax (of Yellow Submarine) wisely recruited Mogubgub to do segments for the show.

In the Seventies Mogubgub moved away from animation – according to Steven Heller's blog, he threw his cameras into the Hudson River! – and moved back to his first love, painting. O’Connor has posted several photos of Fred M’s paintings, and he has pointed out “[Mogubgub's] painting couldn't appear more removed from his films. The films are frenetic and seemingly scattered, whereas the paintings are detailed and painstakingly rendered.”
A painting by Mogubgub, from the Asteriskpix blog.

Mogubgub returned to animation as a freelancer. He did commercials for cigars and candy bars, and even worked on a music video. In the 80s he continued painting while freelancing as an animator. He animated several commercials for the Buzzco company, including spots for cigars and "Bit O Honey.” He also worked on an ad campaign for a local Minnesota UHF station that was called “TV Heaven” (see image below).

He died at the age of 61 in 1989 and is ripe for rediscovery. At its best, his work did encapsulate an entire era, but his talent extended beyond the “pop” sphere. I’m glad that O’Connor has provided us with so much background information on the man, and I hope his works get further exposure in the years to come — and can anybody find a copy of that damned “Zet” movie?


For those who believe that “everything is on the Net,” I point out that not a single photograph of Mogubgub has been uploaded. Instead we can see him talking in Antonello Branca's documentary “What's Happening?”

The film offers a valuable look at artists in the “pop” period (including the major, museum-friendly names). Among the interviewees (speaking amidst images of their work and some great shots of NYC in the late Sixties) are Ginsberg, Leon Kraushar, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg, an intriguing woman named Marie Benois, and Monsieur Mogubgub:

You NEED TO SEE this wonderful animated version of Don McLean's “American Pie” that doesn't visualize the song per se, but offers many memorable images as the tune plays. Mogubgub was one of several animators who worked on the piece, but he also gets a “Production” credit, and the short definitely is edited in the manner of his solo endeavors.

Three later pieces by Mogubgub: an excerpt from the 1983 R.O. Blechman film The Soldier’s Tale. O'Connor notes the main animator is Tissa David, and FM's section starts at 2:08:

A 1984 music video for the band Khmer Rouge. The video was signed by photographer Nat Finkelstein, but he collaborated with Mogubgub:

And a group of ads from the late Eighties for a station called “TV Heaven” (a rerun channel that was on only in St. Cloud and Rochester, Minnesota). The Fred/Alan blog explains the background for this ad campaign (yes, that's Dr. John singing) and how their work on it was influenced by the films of Fred Mogubgub, whom they eventually hired to work on the animation:

I close out with the three films that define Mogubgub's fast-cut “pop” style. The first, “Enter Hamlet” (1965), is an amazing experiment Mogubgub did for the the School of Visual Arts with animators Irene Trivas and Sylvia Davern.

The trio came up with an illustration for each and every word in the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, as read by Maurice Evans. The fact that some of these pictures are seen for barely a second or two makes this a true “trip”:

Mogubgub's most trenchant statement on consumer culture (and logo design) is “The Great Society” (1967), an assemblage of shots of dozens and dozens of products from the mid-Sixties. This is a perfect time capsule, as well as a kinetic reworking of the Warhol Campbell soup can and Brillo box concepts:

The seminal work is the aforementioned short “The Pop Show” (1966), which was conceived of as a trailer for a television series, and does lead you to believe at points that Mogubgub is referring to a dream film in his head with an assemblage of performers who could've worked together in that era: Alan Arkin, Liza Minnelli (whose name is misspelled), and Victor Spinetti).

This short requires several viewings to catch all the imagey (and simply because it so damned fun). The young lady trying out consumer products in a sexy fashion is none other than Gloria Steinem (after her work on Help magazine and well before the creation of Ms.).

Watching Mogubgub's work, one is constantly jarred by his innovation. It definitely makes one wish he had gotten that two million dollars. 

Note: the images in this post come from the Asteriskpix blog, the Ace and Son website, the Michael Sporn animation site, the Fred/Alan Archive, and the Ani 360 site.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I am the Neice of Fred Mogubgub and I hold a picture if needed.