“Sex has become very commercialized. But people are moving away from cheapness, it abuses them.”
—Thalma Goldman Cohen
In 1976, Screen International cast an eye over the position of women filmmakers in Britain. “If British Cinema, to its shame, can boast few female directors as yet,” read the article, “one field in which women seem currently to be proving their ability is animation.” The main subject of the piece was a relative newcomer to the scene: Thalma Goldman Cohen.
Born Thalma Cohen in Rishon-Le-Zion in 1944, and adding “Goldman” to her name due to a short-lived marriage in the sixties, Thalma Goldman Cohen moved to London in 1967. She went on to study art at the East Ham College of Technology and St Martin’s School of Art.
Goldman Cohen was inspired to take up animated filmmaking after showing her art to Bob Godfrey, one of Britain’s leading independent animators, who encouraged her to try her hand at the medium. She enrolled at the London Film School and, during 1972, made her first three shorts: Self-variation of a Yellow Woman, Transition and Tea for Two. The last of these is sadly lost, but the first two survive.
As is generally the case with student films, these early works show a joy in experimentation that outstrips any narrative purpose. Transition is a stop-motion short made using photographs of three faces: one is Thalma Goldman Cohen herself, the second is a man, and the third is an ape. The pictures are sliced up into horizontal segments, which mix-and-match to jaunty music, later developing felt-tip additions such as teardrops and clown make-up.
Self-variation of a Yellow Woman is closer in theme and technique to Goldman Cohen’s later work. It shows a nude woman undergoing various transformations as she strokes and fondles her pubic area: she stretches, distorts and multiplies; she changes from a drawing, to a photograph, to a set of abstract shapes. The end of the film implies that the images were a dream experienced by the woman.
In 1973 Goldman Cohen made her final short at the London Film School. Entitled Green Men, Yellow Woman, this film takes the core imagery of Self-variation of a Yellow Woman and applies it to a coherent narrative.
The main character is a yellow woman with a symbolic flower paced between her legs; she sits alone and daydreams of her ideal man, represented by a photograph of Clark Gable. Her thoughts are interrupted by a small, green, goblin-like man who prods and tickles at her vagina-flower until she kicks him away.
She is then approached by a second green man, a caricatured intellectual, who reads to her from a book – only to sneak a surreptitious sniff at her flower. Once again, she kicks him away. Two other green men appear, pulling off her flower and tossing it back and forth; she pushes them away too.
As the woman sits back and plays with her flower, she is suddenly approached by the man of her dreams: Clark Gable! She is thrilled, and imagines a happy life with him.
But then she has a nasty shock, realising that Clark Gable is no more than a disguise worn by the little green men. She wails in anguish and kicks the harassers away one last time.
Then she picks up the discarded Clark Gable mask and wears it herself. As her feminine sobs transform into masculine laughter she becomes an androgynous figure, with female breasts and hips but the face of Gable. His/her last onscreen act is to pull off the vagina-flower and throw it aside, where it transforms into the words “THE END.”
When summarising Green Men, Yellow Woman, it is easy to make the short sound like a dry exercise in feminist symbolism. However, one of the film’s key ingredients is its comedy: Thalma Goldman Cohen uses the kind of knockabout absurdity that is the bread and butter of cartoons. The characters speak in grunts and gasps reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s animated sequences for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, while the general tone has something in common with the sex-based cartoons of Goldman Cohen’s mentor, Bob Godfrey. The basic premise of a character lusting after an idealised, unobtainable member of the opposite sex has served countless cartoons from Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood to Godfrey’s Henry 9 ‘til 5, but Goldman Cohen adds a feminist twist by telling the story from a woman’s point of view.
Goldman Cohen continued animating after her graduation. The first of her post-London Film School shorts, Amateur Night, was completed in 1975.
The film opens with a pair of red curtains, which part to reveal a woman in a low-cut dress. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” she says; a shot of the crowd that she is addressing reveals that it consists almost entirely of ladies, with just the one gentleman. “Some of our friends have a little surprise for you. Encourage them, won’t you?”
A second woman then appears on stage and, with her back to the crowd, drops her skirt to show her spotty purple underwear. She turns around and blushes as the cheering audience calls for her to remove her top as well. Still sheepish, she continues to undress until she is naked, her whole body turning pink with embarrassment. Female voices cheer and shout, while a lone male voice remarks that “they’re all the same underneath.”
She walks offstage and a fuller-figured woman appears before the excited audience, carrying a red handbag. “Come on, fatty, let’s see it,” calls the male voice, while a female audience member strangely calls for her to open up her bag. The stripper teases the audience by fondling her breasts, prompting the man to say “she’s a professional, she knows what she’s doing.” Despite falling over early in her striptease she continues to provoke the audience (“Swing the other one, for Christ’s sake”) with a performance that culminates in her sensual consumption of a banana. Another woman appears onstage, thin and graceful; the previous stripper is driven away with cries of “get off, fatty.” The slender woman performs a balletic striptease while the audience sings along to Swan Lake.
Finally, the three strippers and the hostess appear together onstage. In the next shot we see that the audience is itself in various stages of undress, with the man who did most of the catcalling being naked from the waist down. The fat woman flings her underwear at him, and he catches it: “it’s still warm!”
Amateur Night moves away from the abstract and sometimes fantastic imagery of Goldman Cohen’s student work and towards a more down-to-earth aesthetic. It revels in its caricatured but forthright depictions of human anatomy; it does not hesitate to show every wrinkle, every roll of fat and every hairy armpit to be found across the three strippers, but it does so with sympathy and affection.
The film was shown at the 1975 Annecy International Animated Film Festival. In an overview of the British contributions to the event, Film and Filming suggested that Goldman Cohen’s humour reflects “the sharpness being developed by the woman’s movement” and compared her aesthetic to the caricatures of the Dadaist George Grosz.
Not all reactions were so positive, however. The Edinburgh Film Festival rejected the film on the grounds that it was sexist, an Australian screening was reportedly disrupted by feminists, and its showing at the London Film Festival was hissed by multiple women in the audience.
In the letters page of Time Out, Goldman Cohen was forced to defend her portrayal of the three cartoon strippers. “They are amateurs trying to lose their sexual inhibitions,” she wrote. “Once in their lifetime these ladies have a chance to stand in the limelight and they love every minute of it, as the audience encourages them.”
“A lot of my life, 3,700 drawings each full of love of the female body went into the film,” she continued. “I love you sisters, but liberation is a long way off if we can’t sometimes look at ourselves in the glass and smile.”
A male viewer, Andrew Goodman, responded in harsh terms: “Frankly, this comes over as the sort of love I imagine a sex murderer has for his victims, a delight in the grotesque, twisted genitalia, distorted limbs and an underlying feeling of disgust… This film comes over as the work of a sexist pig.”
Lucy Hodges wrote an article for the Hampstead and Highgate Express summarising the controversy and ultimately taking Goldman Cohen’s side. Hodges cited Goldman Cohen’s description of the film’s feminist detractors as “extremists who were looking for a reason to hiss” and noting that a lesbian group named Sappho approved of the short so much that they asked to hire it.
Indeed, Amateur Night appears to have functioned as a kind of Rorschach test: the reviews say far more about the social attitudes of the critics than about the film itself. A Financial Times review by Ralph Stevenson, one of the most respected film critics of his day, described the central characters as “pathetic ladies.” Stevenson concluded that, alongside a second short screened at Annecy that he leaves unnamed, the film criticises “a true-Brit working class anti-culture which rejects anything but beer, bingo, strip-tease and the pools.” But the characters, who are voiced by Goldman Cohen’s circle of friends, do not represent any particular class demographic: while members of the audience could be interpreted as working class, the hostess speaks with an unmistakable upper-crust accent.
Goldman Cohen cites horror films and Buster Keaton comedies as early influences, and this is perhaps reflected in her decidedly offbeat 1977 short Night Call. She acknowledges that this film has a different flavour to her other work, which she attributes to it telling a story from a male character’s point of view.
The principal characters are cartoon versions of two men Goldman Cohen knew in person: her then-boyfriend David Warner, and the playwright David Mercer. Both characters were voiced by Peter Deman – although, ironically, the real David Warner would later develop a sideline as a cartoon voice actor.
The film begins with Warner being woken up by a telephone call from his friend Chris (the character modelled around Mercer). Chris announces his intention to commit suicide, and Warner rushes out in the hopes of catching a taxi to his friend’s house. Two bizarre vehicles with human faces drive past him (“that’s strange”, he remarks) and when a taxi arrives, the driver simply ignores him. Warner is forced to steal a bicycle.
Traversing the largely deserted night-time London, Warner is stopped by a sex worker who grows in size as she plies her trade; later on, a bearded tramp sitting next to a “today is the end” sign offers him a drink. Warner then meets a woman sitting in a park with her dog and asks her for directions; she does not answer, although the dog addresses her in a throaty, anxious tone: “madam, madam, I’m cold, I want to go home.”
Warner eventually reaches Chris’ house and finds him apparently dead. Suddenly, the departed friend jumps out of bed and points to the date on the calendar: April 1! Chris laughs so much at his prank that he falls out of the window…
While its storyline is driven by a single, straightforward joke, Night Call achieves genuine dreamlike weirdness in its imagery. The film’s vision of a night-time city as a land of fantasy recalls picture books such as Anthony Browne’s Gorilla and Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, which tap into a distinct vein of childhood imagination. One of Goldman Cohen’s friends, animator Alison de Vere, would draw upon similar imagery in her 1987 short The Black Dog; this, like Night Call, mixes childhood fantasy with more adult concerns.
The uncompromising subject matter of her work, so controversial in the case of Amateur Night, meant that Goldman Cohen ran into trouble obtaining funds from the BFI Production Board. She once announced a film about a “male chauvinist pig” whose pornographic posters come to life after he masturbates over them, but this project never came to fruition.
In an effort to gain funding for her work, Goldman Cohen found a job at a topless bar in Piccadilly. “I wasn’t exactly topless,” she explains, “I wore a veil around my breasts. Watching the way the men looked at the girls there was fascinating for me.”
Through working on the side she was able to finance her next film, Stanley, which was made in collaboration with Valerie Bicknell and completed in 1979. Viewable online, this short returns to the raw erotic imagery that was found in Goldman Cohen’s early experiments as a student, particularly Self-variation of a Yellow Woman.
A male cat, with prominent testicles, approaches a sleeping woman and begins pawing and licking at her. The woman awakes and, smiling, allows the cat to dive between her breasts as though her cleavage was a body of water – the cat even makes “sloshing” noises while inside. The cat then slips between her legs, before sliding out in a limbless, ghost-like (sperm-like?) form to suddenly scratch her.
The film pauses at this jolting moment, only to abruptly show the women hugging the cat in a serene manner. The alternation between the tender and the violent continues as the woman gently pets the cat, and then pulls its tail.
The cat splits into three separate felines – the film’s preoccupation with bodily transformation is another similarity to Goldman Cohen’s student work – which then join together to form a single giant cat. The woman places her feet into its mouth; it grows still larger until it has consumed most of her body. The woman reaches an orgasm, portrayed symbolically by flowers emerging from her head. In a dreamlike transformation she then moves from the cat’s mouth to its paw, suggesting Fay Wray in the clutches of King Kong; the cat drops her and she lands on her bed, a waking-from-a-dream image again recalling Self-variation of a Yellow Woman. As the woman lies awake but stock-still, the purring cat slowly strides offscreen with a satisfied smile.
The film was discussed in the 13 February 1980 instalment of the BBC2 arts programme Arena. Here, Goldman Cohen revealed the inspiration for the short: “I was in Israel and I was living in a place that had very wild cats, and one evening I was very, very stoned and I couldn’t sleep, and I had an image about these cats.” In Stanley, this hallucinatory vision of feral cats takes on a symbolic meaning: “I see the cat as sly and faithless like some men. The cartoon isn’t about love, it’s sex for the sake of sex.”
“I wanted to show pure sexuality, no love, no emotion,” she said. “For me, the ultimate in sex is death.”
Stanley was praised by Arts Guardian reviewer Jane Davidson, who commented on Goldman Cohen’s “melancholy, particularly female, view.” In the Sunday Times, an anonymous reviewer hailed the short as “just about the most erotic thing I’ve seen on television.”
During the Arena documentary, Goldman Cohen announced a desire to move away from sexuality in her work. The birth of her daughter in 1979 inspired her to make a film about a children’s magic show; entitled Colzini, this film was to have involved a competition between three magicians, one male and two female. Despite interest from Paramount Films, it was never completed.
Goldman Cohen also announced plans to create a feature-length animated horror film, but similarly, this project never got off the ground.
Even after leaving animation, however, Goldman Cohen continues to work as an artist. She has used a range of media for her distinctive artwork, from the pavement outside her flat to betting slips from a local bookmaker. Her ongoing creative endeavours are the subject of a recent book, Thalma: An Artist’s Life by Richard Hallam and Sylvie Venet-Tupy (in the interests of disclosure, I should mention that I contributed to this book’s crowdfunding drive and corresponded with one of the authors during its creation).
As the book notes, Thalma Goldman Cohen has not ruled out the possibility of a return to animation. “The film was finished but it was such a personal struggle that I went through,” she says of Colzini. “Because I had to leave the story, it became a private thing.”
“But one day, before I go away, I want to finish it properly, because it had wonderful images.”