Pat Raine Webb reviews Jayne Pilling's new book, A Reader in Animation Studies, which publishes 21 scholarly Society for Animation Studies essays, for the first time.
My first thoughts on setting about a review of this book were, "Who is going to buy it?" and, "Who is this review aimed at?" The cover picture may attract the average cartoon buff - it bears an intriguing drawing by Joanna Quinn from Body Beautiful showing Vince in a Tutu! (Vince is the sexist muscle man who taunts the film's heroine.) Yet what will the average reader make of the content? This is by no means a coffee-table book filled with lavish color. Rather it is a serious study of the medium of animation. The 21 essays collected here are erudite and scholarly and some may not have instant appeal. The visual material, while thought-provoking and relevant to the text, is all monochrome. But look closer and you may be pleasantly surprised. The Society for Animation Studies was founded a decade ago by Harvey Deneroff in Hollywood, realizing the need for more in-depth critical research on animation. The essays that make up this book began life as visual demonstrations or papers presented at the annual conferences of the Society and now made available to a wider audience for the very first time. Perseverance Pays Off What were the criteria for choosing these particular papers out of the 250 or so written and presented over the last ten years? In this respect Jayne Pilling is a worthy choice as editor. She is a fountain of animation knowledge and has made what is probably the best possible selection of material on a wide range of topics with different critical approaches: theoretical, historical, cultural and political. Analyses of individual films give a new insight into many of our accepted values about classic cartoons and reveal some unknown and forgotten or neglected works. A number of the papers were impossible to put into book form being purely visual presentations and some needed extensive editing which was done with Pilling working closely with the authors of the original works. Some of the titles are daunting. For example, "Animatophilia, Cultural Production and Corporate Interests" by Mark Langer. To my surprise, this is a serious study of Ren and Stimpy. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of the films of Walt Disney and Francis Bacon's Triptych in the Tate Gallery in Simon Pummell's essay is rather more obscure. However, look at a print of Bacon's work (even if you cannot get to the Tate to see the original) and Pummell's text becomes less demanding. Perseverance will pay off and you will find many strange and unknown delights in these pages. An "Intimate Excursion" into the disturbing and macabre world of The Brothers Quay, by Steve Weiner, is full of dark desires. The essay discusses the oddly-titled This Unnameable Little Broom (1985), the Brothers' version of Epic of Gilgamesh. There is a malign presence about this work, the characters - grotesque and erotic puppets - are subjected to bizarre and perverse treatment by savage machines. Yet it enthralls in the same way that horrific episodes in fairy tales often do.
Political issues are explored in "The Thief of Buena Vista" by Leslie Felperin, who exposes Western attitudes towards Oriental and Middle Eastern cultures and Arabian Nights fantasy as depicted in Aladdin, released in 1992, a year after the Gulf War! In fact, the world of Disney is covered in several essays, the one most likely to appeal is Robin Allan's intelligent and revealing study of European art influences on the films of Walt Disney. To quote the author, "the films themselves were indebted to an older cultural heritage which Disney absorbed and recreated for a new mass audience." Many Disney films are based on European folk and fairy tales and Allan's research is penetrating. (He did his Ph.D dissertation on the work of Disney and European artists.) The similarity between early 19th century book illustrations and the work of Disney artists' inspirational drawings is made abundantly clear. The section dealing with the Beethoven Pastoral sequence from Fantasia is particularly engrossing. This enlightening and lengthy study gives one a whole new slant on the art of Disney and makes one long to see the films all over again.
New light is also thrown on some long-neglected films such as The Idea (Berthold Bartosch, 1932), the subject of an in-depth essay by William Moritz that depicts the struggle for freedom of thought. This film was, for me, a personal discovery at the SAS conference in 1993. Several contributions from Moritz appear in the book including his research into early abstract films and animation in Nazi Germany during World War II that makes interesting reading.
Paul Wells' study of the work of Jan Svankmajer highlights this Czech artist's obsession with `body consciousness.' His research into the intense and claustrophobic world of Svankmajer, a world of cruelty, violence and dark humor, is revealing. As so many of these essays do, it produces a desire to view again the works discussed with greater awareness.
The number of women working in animation today inevitably leads to Gender Studies with women's role in society being dealt with extensively. An examination of the work of three women animators in the UK, Joanna Quinn, Candy Guard and Alison de Vere, appears in Sandra Low's essay. It covers Joanna Quinn's approach to feminine issues through her films Girls Night Out (1987) and Body Beautiful (1990) featuring her anti-heroine Beryl, who is far from the stereotyped cartoon female. Her life with her staid husband, her encounter with a male stripper and her yearning for fun all endear her to us. She is "one of us," jolly, fat, feisty and full of life. Both films are played for laughs although there is an underlying treatment of women both in the home and in the workplace. Although the protagonists of Candy Guard's films are similar to those of Joanna Quinn, her style is less elaborate. It is unadorned and the characters more stylized. Narrative is an essential part of her films and the dialogue is short, sharp and pertinent. Most women can identity with her characters who have problems with dieting, getting their hair done, boyfriends and holidays abroad. The work of Alison de Vere, while dealing with many of the same problems, is far more spiritual and there is a lengthy study of her dream-like and very personal film The Black Dog (1987). Familiar as I am with the work of these three artists I found this a most absorbing study.
A more oblique approach is made in Sharon Couzin's analysis of two rather more avant-garde films by women that have a similar theme but are visually disparate. Susan Pitt's Asparagus (1978) is lush, gaudily colored and thought-provoking. It is an overtly erotic allegory about personal identity, while Joanna Priestley's All My Relations(1990),in which characters are depicted as abstract objects, is far more subtle. It satirizes the hazards of romance, marriage and childbearing and the disintegration of relationships.
Modern technologies are not neglected in two stirring essays on computer animation dealing not only with techniques, creating "reality effects" and "illusionistic representation," which one would expect, but also with style, and the relationship between computer imagery and aesthetics as depicted in a case study of Red's Dream (John Lasseter, 1987).
Today it is difficult to define animation. New technology is changing not only how animation is made but also how it is perceived. If you set out with an open mind, this book is a voyage of discovery.
Jane Pilling's A Reader in Animation Studies is now available on-line in the Animation World Store.
A Reader in Animation Studies, edited by Jayne Pilling, Sydney, Australia: John Libbey & Company Ltd. (U.S. Distributor: Indiana University Press), 1997. 283 pages. ISBN: 1-8642-000-5 (U.S. $24.95 paperback). Contributors: Robin Allan, Sharon Couzin, Andy Darley, Harvey Deneroff, Philip Kelly Denslow, Leslie Felperin, Michael Frierson, J.B. Kaufman, Mark Langer, Sandra Law, Terrance R. Lindvall, Lev Manovich, J. Matthew Melton, Michael O'Pray, Simon Pummell, Luca Raffaelli, William Moritz, Steve Weiner, Paul Wells.
Pat Raine Webb is a freelance researcher, writer and programmer in animated film with 20 years experience in the animation industry. She is vice president of ASIFA UK and publishes the group's quarterly magazine Dope Sheet.