For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. Holy Bible; 1 Corinthians 13: 12
It’s a known cinematic fact that those things that would be considered boundaries in life are all but limitless in animation. Starting as early as the 30’s, animation has had the distinct honour of transcending the scope of filmmaking and giving light to truly astonishing feats of cinematic genius.
As regards animation, it’s my contention that some of the best storytelling comes from Japan and France; however, in American film culture, there are a few animators who’ve taken thematic content about sex, drugs, religion, and the ubiquitous Big Brother, and forced the have viewers into a sort of transcendental meditation.
It’s no surprise that one of the most powerful films to come out of America was based on a science fiction graphic novel by the ever introspective Phillip K. Dick. 2006’s A Scanner Darkly took the notion that we are nothing more than slaves to our own paranoia (therefore thrusting ourselves into a police state whenever the acid trip of life becomes too close to the skin) and painted a landscape that was equal parts psychedelic and uncompromisingly cerebral. The street drug “Substance D” (“D for death”) distorts the reality of the mind, blanketing it in a multi-faceted array of colours and shapes that spring forth right in front of our eyes. With the magic marker of Richard Linklater, the audience is crashed into, and forcibly invaded through every sensory organ until we’re unable to tell whether our reality is really there or if we’ve been completely trapped in a cyclic daydream.
Linklater tapped into something very primal in our human parade: the fear of a complete abdication of autonomy over one’s self and his actions, and then, in turn, being punished for this inherent lack of control. The animation is boundless – no lines to speak of, no singular colour palette, and no real sense of depth perception. This brand of animation, most commonly known as “cell shading”, comes in many different forms, the ultimate result being detailed facial features. When used to a certain extent it allows for cartoon characters to be more expressive; however, when coupled with a live-action base, it renders the images hyper-active – facial feature atop facial feature until the line between what the mind perceives as normal responses to stimuli becomes frighteningly distorted.
Of course, with the advent of CGI, illustrators and animators have become the new puppet masters. For my part, I think a great deal of CGI is overblown, pretentious, and soulless. However, there are those big-budget studios that’ve become more than just catalysts for box office success. Pixar, for instance, has created some of the most successful animated films of all time. But, if you actually dig deeper, you find that their brand of animation only further heightens the abstract notions of love, loyalty, betrayal, and heartbreak. They’re a studio that, no matter how much you want to hate them, you simply must be in awe of their artistic approach to capitalising on the children’s animation genre. Films like Ratatouille were able to take a very real problem – prejudices based on upbringing, culture, and ethnicity – and make it very children friendly, using a rat as the universal symbol for the proverbial “judging a book by its cover”.
In France, there’s been a very long history of augmenting the naturally outrageous through animation. Films like Les Triplettes de Belleville and Renaissance take a very interesting look into “mob-related” activities and give them depth and perspective. Triplettes was an acute look at the disparities between French and American culture (while the former is obsessed with the Tour de France, the latter is obsessed with Vaudeville and hamburgers), sensationalising the physical attributions of its characters with a very traditional ink and paper technique that saw a great deal of maturation in the form of Sylvain Chomet. Renaissance took the cell-shading technique and painted it on top of the physical expressions of its actors. Director Christian Volckman (along with writers Alexandre de La Patellière and Mathieu Delaporte) created the perfect landscape to portray an abundance of human trafficking (in order to, essentially, harvest youth and beauty) in Paris in the year 2054. A classic black and white noir with a twist, Renaissance took much the same approach as many Japanese animators and let the story dictate the animation rather than the animation being the leading force of the story.
Animation has that multi-dimensional aspect that makes it so intriguing to children and adults alike. You’re transported between time and space and given a massive playground in which to express yourself. In the instance of 2004’s Ryan, you’ve got James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist with a bit of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey in the form of Canadian animator Ryan Larkin --who saw fame come and go with his eccentric style of storytelling, a style that garnered him an Oscar for best animated short film with his 1969 film Walking. The story is both compelling and visually spellbinding, allowing the viewer to literally look past the shell of a man that Larkin has become and see the genius for the sinner. The intricacy with which the film’s director, Chris Landreth, tells Larkin’s story is notable. He manages to take the abstract ideas of hopelessness, genius lost, and emotional damage very visceral to the point where the audience is able to reach out and touch Larkin’s hollowed visage.
Animation has been and will remain one of the most honest renderings of the human experience ever put on celluloid. Going back to Fantastic Planet – in which we explore the segregation of races based on caste system and supposed mental superiority – to Heavy Metal – in which we’re taken on a journey of sexual and pharmaceutical exploration-- to A Scanner Darkly, the audience is able to see more and more of itself through the animated glass.
The line of scripture preceding Paul’s declaration of seeing through a mirror blindly, is the infamous “When I was a child, I spake as a child.” Animation is this glass through which the audience sees themselves darkly. As we grow, we’re able to capture a glimpse of who we were and what we’ve become. It’s a way in which we are forced to become aware of ourselves and our imperfections and embrace them. Animation takes the boundary off of such fallacies and forces us to ponder those darker things within us that have shaped our understanding of the world in which we live.
I have a keen interest in all things that shed light and colour in this dark and, at times, uninspiring world. I love film, all film --ranging from Japanese and Korean horror, to nonsensical action films. The one qualification is that it must, must entertain me. As much as I love watching film, I love even more to write about it. Right now, I get my jabberjaw jollies writing for Star costumes. If you want to give me a buzz, I can be reached at cmlewhite at gmail [dot] com.