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Notes from the Underground Part Two — Highjacking Animation (And Taking It Back!)

Jean Detheux returns to look at the path animation has strayed onto a linear, non-experimental path and discusses why and how we should try to bring it back onto the road leading to Art.

Emeute 62z19q by author/painter Jean Detheux. This is part of a bitmap animated work in progress. All original artwork © Jean Detheux.

Emeute 62z19q by author/painter Jean Detheux. This is part of a bitmap animated work in progress. All original artwork © Jean Detheux.

In "Part 1 -- Animation, Prozac or Kyosaku?" I basically accused the North American popular culture of being guilty of murdering Rembrandt (and Amélie) by way of (habitual) animation!

The main differences between the Amélie trailers as made for French and for English-speaking North American audiences are very striking (if you have not done so yet, please go compare them and see for yourself).

The French trailer is constantly whispering in one's ear, confiding in us, appealing to our complicity, and our intelligence. It relies a great deal on "subtext," on all sorts of innuendoes that enrich what is shown and said with so much depth. (The French narrator did a fantastic job, I know he worked with the director for countless hours to get the tone of his voice just right, and right it is.)

The North American English version is all in your face, leaves no room for whispering and complicity, and definitely fills in the blanks/silences with whiz bang stuff that totally kills the subtext (the narrator has that annoying "voice of bullshit" we are constantly bombarded with in all things commercial, really addressing us as if we were "dopes").

Make no mistake about this, the implications of those differences are enormous, and need to be looked into: while the French Weltanschauung credits each one of us with a uniqueness of vision embodied in the particular experience, and supports it as a manifestation of the universal, the U.S. popular culture negates it all together, and basically, posits personal experience as being "merely subjective," assuming that all we are "good enough for" is yet another bout of materialistic pursuit seasoned with worthless entertainment, making life more or less bearable while we await death ("Life is a bitch and then you die!").

This difference is visible not only in the Amélie trailers, but in most of the cultural production born of the two respective "agendas."

As I write this, the Oscar ceremony just took place, and Amélie went home without a single award.

Yet, to me, that movie is like a paradigm shift, and I am very sorry to see that, once again, genuine groundbreaking work is superseded by the usual "more of the same," and that just as in popular U.S. sports, the U.S. claim of "universality" is a disguise for very parochial values (need I say "baseball?").

The U.S. entertainment juggernaut is eating away at much of the best of what we, as a species, have created over many, many centuries. All the particular experiences that are entry points into -- and manifestations of -- the universal are progressively being dismissed in favor of a "generic" look and feel which are to intrinsic worth what a "Big Mac" is to "Roquefort" cheese. (Interesting note: after French farmers complained that McDonald's France did not offer any of the traditional French foods in its "restaurants," Roquefort was tested by McDonald's and declared to be "not up to McDonald's standards!")

To me, this Roquefort story has the feel of the fate of Amélie at the Oscars.

One word about "entertainment" compared to European, especially French "divertissement."

I receive most "entertainment" productions as a form of catering to the lowest common denominator, without any effort made to raise standards (unlike what Cézanne said: "Art is a religion. Its aim is the elevation of thought").

Yet, I receive "divertissement" productions as an effort to cater to the "light" part in us, the part that can indeed criticize, but that does so in good spirit, giving "the other" the benefit of the doubt (to say the least!).

I believe that the Europeans in general, and the French in particular, ought to be supported in their efforts to maintain the "cultural exception," an exception that would keep all works of culture away from being considered as mere "manufactured goods."

The U.S. juggernaut claims that all things are "goods" and therefore must come under the regulations of trade agreements. This not only can kill agencies like the National Film Board of Canada (to name one great example of a state agency with a proven record), but it also promotes and even imposes a need to compete with the big commercial studios on their own turf, increasing the "generic" look we see more and more now, no matter where the work comes from. The French cultural exception means that a state can (and in my book must) subsidize its own cultural agencies (and workers), and that means that a movie such as Amélie can and will be possible again (that movie would likely never have been made were it not for substantial public help in its financing).

What is at stake is enormous, it literally signifies whether or not "Rembrandt" will survive (let alone thrive), or if South Park will totally prevail.

It does not take a lot of imagination to understand the fate of future "Rembrandt/Amélie" if the bean counters and other shareholders were to control whatever will be "allowed and supported" in all fields of creative work. Budgets are most often defined and policed by people who are very much in touch with a very narrow and limited idea of "the possible," and Art is made by those who dare explore the impossible. (Reading about the pioneers of animation, even those who started what are today major commercial interests, one is struck by how "experimental" it all was, and by how "frozen" things seem to have become since. There used to be a "let's see where this goes" attitude, now replaced by "make sure you/we know what it will be like before you start, or don't even bother.") Even though Amélie calls on minimal animation (though the little that is present is oh so well integrated), its made-for-the-U.S. trailer typifies what is wrong with the mindset behind "habitual animation."

"The world is not merchandise!"

What are "we" (it should really be: "what am I") doing animation for?

What is it "we" are aiming at when putting in those long hours?

This may seem to be a trivial question, if not an intrusive one, but I suggest that it would be very healthy if many amongst us were willing and able to ask themselves that question, and stay with it for a while.

After all, is animation in crisis, or not?

Why is it that, so often, Hollywood and the "North American popular culture" take something that has depth and complexity, and almost invariably, transform it into something that is so very bland, so full of clichés, based on recipes, so predictable, so tasteless (in all the meanings of that term)?

Disney reigns supreme amongst those guilty of borrowing (stealing?) civilization-forming myths, and turning them into entertainment, in effect "de-mythicizing" them, rendering them "harmless" and depriving them of their deep significance and impact, nullifying their formative mission.

The appallingly simplistic world view this approach instills in the audiences that succumb to that kind of "message" is no doubt responsible for the overly narrow "understanding" of life's inherent complexity that governs the current U.S. political and cultural agenda (after all, political leaders are fed the same "entertainment pabulum" most of us have been raised on, their values and frame of reference are set by the same dumbing-down regimen).

Unlike "habitual animation," life is a bit more complex than a mere "good versus evil" duality.

So, what could animation contribute to this debate in a way that would raise the current standards? If all that we see in Art is a form of entertainment that provides a respite from the harshness of life, we will increasingly demand more and more of the same (the "Prozac" in Part #1). If, on the other hand, we see that Art is not a respite from "the real," but a privileged way of deepening our experiencing and understanding of it, we will want to lower the level of "entertainment noise" we are constantly being bombarded with, something akin to saying, "Shut up please, I can't hear myself think!"

Cézanne's "Art is a religion, its aim is the elevation of thought" comes to mind again.

Reflecting on the kind of art and music I live with, I was almost at a loss trying to find in animation something that belonged to the same "sphere." Most of the animation choices I have seen do belong to a world I feel very little connection with. Going to animation festivals and looking at most of the offerings, I often wonder what "they" are doing in "my" world.

Where's the equivalent of chamber music in today's animation?

Where are the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Chardin, Cézanne, Giacometti, Pollock, de Kooning, Guston, Riopelle? (Or, as in cinéma, the likes of Fellini and Kieszlowski?)

To Jean-Paul Riopelle (1932-2002) is a tribute to the late artist.

To Jean-Paul Riopelle (1932-2002) is a tribute to the late artist.

In fact, what happened after McLaren and Mary Ellen Bute left us?

How did the world of animation get invaded by (and succumb to) this domination by the story tellers, especially the invasion of the "one-dimensional-linear-supersimplistic-story tellers?"

How is it that this overwhelming invasion of the animation space by the permanently juvenile "escapists" was allowed to take place?

I wonder if the shift that took place happened when "animation as a genuine Art form" was progressively absorbed and assimilated by this relatively new monster, the "culture industry?"

Animation seems to be a privileged medium by which viewers are easily touched; there seem to be very few barriers between an animation and its audience. Most people are sucked in as soon as "it" starts moving, and this is so much the case, it seems to me that a story need not necessarily be told, the experience of seeing form unfolding in time already provides a structure, a "content." (Just as Maurice Merleau-Ponty said that "perception is constitutive," one could suggest that the perception of an animation, even story-less, constitutes a content by the sheer fact of it being seen.) As soon as "it" moves, and especially if it moves "with" sound, the magic is established, the bewitching has begun!

Who needs a story "on top" of that?

The magic of form unfolding in time makes most stories unnecessary, at least redundant.

Why kill that magic by once again reducing everything to a level at which we (think we) understand?

Can't we function efficiently within "unresolved and equivocal space?"

One aspect of animation that is almost totally ignored today even though it is most likely very close to being at its core, is its "form." Beyond, or rather "beneath" what one can do with animation, is that which animation does, what it is before we "use" it.

Emeute xxxx, another image from Detheux's work in progress.

Emeute xxxx, another image from Detheux's work in progress.

For a fairly long period of time, Philip Guston worked on large paintings he prevented himself from seeing from a distance, relying exclusively on what he called "inherent composition."

Jean-Paul Riopelle (who died a few weeks ago) also knew that the minute he would see any of his large paintings from across the room, the journey would be over, or in need of being restarted.

We too could approach animation with the same "gaze," and pay attention to what "it" wants, rather than constantly try to impose our will on it, trying to get a glimpse of that which needs us to exist, but which we never can foresee.

Very few things, if any, are truly random, there is some form and order in what we do even if (I would even say especially if) we do not know what we are doing. Guston and Riopelle relied on their commitment to see the painting not as a whole in order to work on it with a deep faith in another order ("inherent composition"). We can do the same if we prevent our discursive mind from constantly recuperating the overall form of the work that is emerging.

Saying no to closure as long as we possibly can, and refraining from jumping on (or being seduced by) the deceptive train of the linear sense, we too can enter the ("our") unknown, and allow animation to take us where, for example, painting could never go (painting may have implied motion, animation paints with it).

As a painter, I would say that animation as an Art form lags far behind painting, and yet, as a painter who had to abandon natural media (allergies) and enter the digital realm, and animation, I am certain that animation has the potential to be the next phase ("face?") of painting.

Today animation seems to be stuck within the confines of the already known, and to get out of that box, to break down those walls we talked about in Part #1, we need to be able to work without relying on the already known, without necessarily securing our work in the safety of, for example, a story, also freeing ourselves of all that we take for granted about the appearance of the visible world, finally reaching beyond the limitations of "beginning, middle and end" (this applies to not only stories, it applies as well to images).

There must be ways that can help us do just that, and I hope to be able to point to some of them in the next article.

In about two months, I will go into "drawing without knowing" in greater detail. As soon as we begin drawing "knowingly," we are stuck in "habitual ways." The minute we surrender to those "habitual ways," we miss the (only?) chance we have for a much needed renewal.

Jean Detheux is an artist who, after several decades of dedicated work with natural media, had to switch to digital art due to sudden severe allergies to paint fumes. He is now working on ways to create digital 2D animations that are a continuation of his natural media work. He has been teaching art in Canada and the U.S., and has works in many public and private galleries.