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The Scent of A Romance I Once Had
On Experimental Animation and Surviving Post-Covid
This article started out as a review of the 2022 Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation but through the process of writing turned into a personal reflection on my relationship with experimental animation in the post-yet-present covid era. As such, it’s not a complete picture of this year’s festival. Check out the full festival program here.
Experimental animation is a slippery term, one that is often defined by what it is not rather than what it is. Its lineage is cast in the negative, exemplified by animation that contradicts usual modes and methods. Working in this way often produces provocative, humorous, and challenging films. It’s in this space that Eyeworks deals. Programming both historical and contemporary films, the yearly invitation-only festival curated by Lilli Carré and Alexander Stewart pulls together gems and oddities that span everything from hardline formal experiments to “bad” CG character films. They revel in the negation, in the weird, and the out-of-place.
Leaving The House
A friend tells me that he remembers feeling like his life was ending when the first wave of Covid quarantines began back in 2020 and that the shock of this fear drove the choice to swap Los Angeles apartment living for a house in an east coast suburb. I’m catching up with him and his partner in a busy coffee shop in their old neighborhood Highland Park. Apart from the occasional mask, you’d hardly know we’ve all been living through a global pandemic. We reflect on the weirdness of the new normal of post-yet-present covid and how that plays out in awkward navigations of public spaces and interpersonal interaction after a few years spent very online.
Two weeks earlier, I was sitting amongst a whittled-down crowd in the theater at 2220Arts in Historic Filipino Town. This space, housed in what used to be the Bootleg Theater, has become a pillar of the post-pandemic independent and experimental film community in LA. Together with the other holdouts, I’m waiting for a retrospective of short films to begin by enigmatic Canadian artist-animator Barry Doupé. This is the last of three programs at this year's Eyeworks Festival, and as the title suggests my eyes are feeling decidedly worked. Having attended this festival since 2015, I like to think I’m in tune with its curation, however, this year caught me off guard. Sitting in the utter darkness that comes just after the house lights go off but before the projection begins, I was trying to sort out what had changed: me or the curation. Then a flash of color and blaring synth horns pulled me out of my mind and into the screen.
For the next three minutes, the pure vision that is Barry Doupé’s RED HOUSE (2022) enveloped the room. In it, a simple house silhouette jumps around the screen, expanding to fill the visual field, shrinking to explore its corners, stretching to avoid an object or envelop others, morphing into this or that thing, encountering all manner of shapes and colors along the way, backed by frenetic synth music that punctuates the movements and visual shifts. Nothing stayed still for more than a moment, and then suddenly it was over. Finding myself in total darkness again, those few seconds before the next film begins, a line from Sergei Eisenstein’s writing about Disney rings in my head — “A world of lines and colours which subjugates and alters itself to your command. You tell a mountain: move, and it moves. […] You tell the sun: ‘Stop!’-and it stops.”1 His words echo that of Walter Benjamin from a decade earlier who remarked about early American cartoons, “it must come as a tremendous relief to find a way of life in which everything is solved in the simplest and most comfortable way, in which a car is no heavier than a straw hat and the fruit on the tree becomes round as quickly as a hot-air balloon.”2
Spending a few minutes in Doupé’s red house, where the optimism of Eisenstein and Benjamin lives on, was exactly what I needed. This is because I found that another line of Benjamin’s had been proven true by the previous two programs — “all Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is.”3
Learning What Fear Is
It was halfway through the third film in the first program that I realized something was different about this Eyeworks. Awash in the sensory overload that is David Daniel’s 1985 strata-cut opus Buzz Box I feel the outside world creeping in. This is a film I’ve seen many times before, usually as a bad rip on YouTube. Now larger than life its dystopian forecasting is impossible to look past. I feel the magic circle I drew around experimental animation begin to crack. Then another classic, one I’ve also seen several times, Paul Vester’s 2D cel animation Picnic from 1986. There was always something sinister lurking in the background of this film with its bursts of dark bondage imagery and decaying industrial society over which robot-like workers dance about to eerily upbeat music. But now, in 2022, these two films from forty years ago elicit in me a jolt of pure anxiety. Watching on a laptop screen kept them at a distance, made them discreet art objects from their era. Not here. Like the oozing black void that takes over in Picnic, these films spill into the theater and envelop me with their darkly prophetic visions.
Then a shift — Miranda Javid’s airy graphite desktop film The Wind (2020) probes there-ness and digital translation followed by Sebastian Buerkner’s kaleidoscopic investigation of sight Surge (2020). These films reign me back in and even pull me close. Close enough to remember that I’m sitting next to a friend who I’ve interacted with far more online than in person. A friendship built on mediation and approximation of self, a real covid-era friendship. It’s at this point that I understand the framing of the program. The curation shifts between telescope and microscope. The telescope shows the world out there, one full of inequality and painfully repeating history. The microscope shows the New Self, one relearning intimacy and one that blurs the line between pixels and atoms. Like passing through a prism I feel broken apart by the vacillation between these two, ending up like the shifting mosaic fragments of Joanna Priestly’s rarely screened Jade Leaf (1985).
Ending the program on Jane Aaron’s Set In Motion (1987), I wanted to feel uplifted. In the past, I’ve always felt comforted by Aaron's films. Short, sweet, and playful gems of animation. But this time, as the funky cut paper shapes passed over every inch of her house, all I could see were particles. A word that I think for most people now calls up images of early covid desperation. It’s as if Aaron is making visible the world of pathogens and viruses that were always there but we couldn’t see. All this is seen through the fuzzy warmth of 16mm film, giving all of us in 2022 a glimpse back into the world of 1987. A world with crises no doubt, but one where people could touch each other and not think about covid. By the end, I wish that I could stay in Aaron's house, but the film is short and the program is now over. It’s time to leave the house.
The Most Distant Vanishing Point
I’m back in the theater and it’s a few films into the second program. The crowd is audibly gasping and I can see people squirming in their seats in front of me. Yoriko Mizushiri’s hand-drawn masterpiece Anxious Body (2021) is teasing the audience one haptic provocation after the next. The title of the film sums up how many of us came out of the early covid years. The film itself is a visualization of the New Self — isolated and constrained but searching for connection and feeling. The previous film, Mathew Thurber’s silent straight-ahead graphite animation How The Dog Learned Perspective (2021) feels like a depiction of any day during early quarantine. Watching I think back to passing time in my apartment playing with my dog as days bled into weeks, into months. It’s fitting that his film ends with an image of binoculars on a receding one-point perspective path. Again, Walter Benjamin, “The existence of Micky Mouse is such a dream for contemporary man […] to whom the purpose of existence seems to have been reduced to the most distant vanishing point on an endless horizon.”4
Looking out through Thurber’s binoculars the rest of the program unfolds. Several films critiquing institutional power, legacies of racism, and the weight of militarism come into focus. They depict structures so large with histories so deep it’s almost unimaginable how one could meaningfully change them. A feeling I think most Americans felt as the failed covid response rolled into the horror of daily police brutality on our phone screens. The fluctuation between near and far was written into everyday life, leading to a complete blurring of vision. I’m struggling to focus my eyes now as Rose Lowder’s Bouquets 23–30 (2005) flicker on screen. The intercut florals refuse to come together from one frame to the next. My eyes try in vain to hold them still, to freeze the pulling apart of the landscape, a sharp reminder of the steady disappearance of the natural world somehow not hindered by slowed production during covid. Tim Macmillan’s Ferment (1999) gives us the held image, showing the ghost of a day in some English village. how quaint it looks compared to 2022, a year recently given permacrisis as its word of the year.
The words “the scent of a romance you once had and smothered to death” linger on screen as Kathleen Daniel sings them hauntingly over her perfectly strange CG film Scent (2015). Its weird character animation and stock textures are pure “bad CG” goodness — the perfect fit for Eyeworks. It’s what I expect at this festival, what exists in my magic circle, in my home I’d prefer not to go out of. But again I find myself thrust out, standing outside with a pang of anxiety in my gut as I read the text over and over. Not even in this quintessential experimental animation could I find the refuge I used to expect from this festival. It’s a painful realization, but a reminder that the before and after which the covid era marks in my and many people's lives represents a loss of innocence that touches almost every facet of experience. I came to Eyeworks expecting a pre-covid experience, but what I got was the reality of post-covid life. The new normal is one colored by the early covid years, nostalgic for the past, cautiously hopeful for the future, seeking familiar joys only to find that even if they haven’t changed you have.
At a dinner with Barry Doupé a few days before Eyeworks, he told me he was thinking about making a film about sidewalks next. He was interested in the way everyone began walking more during quarantine, and how that made his sparsely-used neighborhood sidewalk into a busy path. But also how it came with a new awareness of interpersonal space due to fears of covid transmission. During the Q&A after his retrospective, he quipped that in talking with people between programs he was surprised we all got along since everyone seemed to have such different reads on the films. He said despite that, it was inspiring and meaningful to spend an entire day watching this type of animation together with a group of people.
Lately, I’ve been asking myself what role experimental film and animation can play in a world facing so many perils. It’s been a notably defeating question and one which perhaps puts too much pressure on the individual. However, the answer now seems obvious — it’s in the bringing of people together that this obscure interest holds power. During the intense isolation of the last few years, many substitutes to in-person interaction have been offered, but at least in my own LA ecosystem, people are choosing irl over online. There’s a palpable eagerness for community, and though we lost some cornerstones during covid (rip Echo Park Film Center), several new spaces have popped up to take their place. These developments align with what Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han has written recently, “after the pandemic, what is most in need of recovery is culture. Cultural events such as theater, dance and even football have a ritual character. The only way in which we can revitalize community is through ritual forms.”5
Grasping at the past for some semblance of pre-covid comfort, I keep finding myself flipping through a book of Walter Benjamin’s writing on media I have on my shelf. If I can’t find comfort in the recent past, maybe a century ago will do it. Though his writing on animation amounts to little more than a few paragraphs, he seems to have fully understood the power of the new medium right away. After seeing the free and amorphous Mickey Mouse of the rubber-hose era he wrote, “in these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization.”6 Showing up to a small theater on the east side of Los Angeles over a hundred years later to watch animation I can’t help but feel the same. All of us left the house to take part in the ritual of movie-going, of having a social, and therefore political, cultural experience to see bold and unorthodox animation together. Animation that raised questions of new interconnectivity, digital mediation, institutional failure, militarism, and the echoes of the past in the present. In other words, films about being alive now, about living through the permacrisis. Together, and through these films, we make our preparations.
Sergei Eisenstein, On Disney p.44
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, p.338
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, p.338
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