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Review of Animating the Unconscious: Desire, Sexuality and Animation

By Robin Alex McDonald

Pilling, Jayne, Ed. Animating the Unconscious: Desire, Sexuality and Animation. New York and Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Psychic, phantasmic, and cerebral, Jayne Pilling’s edited volume Animating the Unconscious: Desire, Sexuality and Animation probes the unknowable nature of human desire as it is taken up by and within the genre of animation. Pilling makes the case that animation’s ambiguity and elasticity make it the ideal medium for visually representing inarticulable sexual, romantic, and emotional longings. By retaining the physical trace of the hand, exploring the aesthetic possibilities of the digital, manipulating three-dimensional objects, imagining new fantastical settings, and playing on the familiar spaces of the everyday, animation provides a pliable, transformable space for exercising the surreal musings of the unconscious.

Refusing to tether “desire” only to sexuality, Pilling instead writes about the “general human desire for connection, for relationship, for the push and pull of the urge to feel at one with another, yet retain a sense of identity” (3). By opening up the definition of desire, Pilling not only reframes the scope and aim of the text, but also invites a nuanced understanding of the human psyche as comprised of interwoven and amorphous terrains. Such complex and intricate subject matter necessitates an eclectic and multifaceted approach, and the wide-ranging spectrum of films and perspectives offered in Animating the Unconscious provides this. Bringing together twenty-four contributions from academics, critics, animators, filmmakers, and producers, Pilling offers her readers multiple entry-points into the discussions. It is admirable that Pilling and her contributors do not reduce “desire” to any singular epistemology or theorist, successfully ensuring that the text remains accessible to all animation enthusiasts and popular audiences, not solely those with a background or interest in psychoanalytic theory.

The text’s focus on the preliminary stages of animation—as evidenced by the inclusion of several script drafts for Ian Gouldstone’s guy101 or the extracts from Simon Pummel’s Notebooks—indicates a profound respect for the lengthy and labor-intensive intellectual and artistic process of creating an animated work. Pilling’s inclusion of drafts and sketches also reflects a psychoanalytic interest in the latent rumblings of the unconscious, which manifest most visibly in the incipient stages of thought. In this way, Animating the Unconscious explores the theme of the “unconscious” in the content of its essays, as well as in the very structure of the text itself, making for an exemplary work of editorial finesse. By combining critical analyses, edited interviews with filmmakers, storyboards, working scripts, rough notes, and preparatory sketches, Pilling’s text takes on an overlapping mosaic form similar to the psyche it interrogates, with authors, filmmakers, interviewers, and interviewees appearing and re-appearing throughout the book.

Arguing for a conceptualization of the material and affective dimensions of animation, Pilling’s text uniquely suggests that animated films are not only seen and heard, but also felt. Framing her text as an exploration of “texture” and focusing on the embodied subject of animation, Pilling considers how desire is always experienced within and through the corporeal self, even when that corporeality is rendered two-dimensional through animation. Other animators and essayists pick up on Pilling’s notion of “texture” in multifarious ways; for example, Julie Roy uses Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s “tactilism,” the process of working with such materials as clay and crumpled paper, as a lens through which to analyze the work of Michèle Cournoyer. In both the work of Švankmajer and Cournoyer, texture is synonymous with a kind of physical trace: the smudging in Cournoyer’s drawings exposes the gestural act of his creation in a similar fashion to the moldable materials of Švankmajer. Similarly, in Simon Pummel’s analysis of Ruth Lingford’s films, Pummel argues that despite Lingford’s use of computer techniques in What She Wants (1994), the “tactile emphasis of marks on a surface” makes it possible to conceive of this film as hand-made (71). Perhaps the most inventive conceptualization of texture comes from Lingford’s essay on Pummell, where the author evokes the possibility of a “meaty subjectivity” to express the weightiness of the body—its fleshiness, its materiality (90). In all of these essays, the connection between the texture of animation and the body (of the viewer, the animator, the animated subject, or the voice) remains strong. However, the idea of “the body” as it is produced by and within a nexus of social and cultural discourses (including discourses of race and ability) is not sufficiently considered.

While Pilling poses some pertinent questions around the topic of gender in the introduction to her text—”Does the gender of the filmmaker or the viewer make a difference? Is it in fact immediately clear whether the filmmaker is male or female? Reactions to the film may vary according to whether the film is seem by mixed or same-sex audience. Do these questions matter?” (12)—I wonder whether Pilling’s decision to let these thoughts hang is a productive one for readers. In her introduction, Pilling situates Animating the Unconscious within the post-“coming of age”-era of animation, suggesting that although topics of gender and sexuality were once considered the exclusive domain of feminist women filmmakers, the emergence of work by equally invested male filmmakers has infused these conversations on desire and sexuality with new voices and perspectives. While I appreciate Pilling’s effort to open up the topic of sexuality in film from a “woman’s issue” to a larger issue of gender and its many facets, I worry that the organization of the text into three distinct sections; “Women: From Outside In and Inside Out,” “Interrogating Masculinity,” and “Modes of Reality,” risks undercutting this effort by perpetuating the essentialist notion that women and men inherently experience and represent sexuality in different or even oppositional ways. This perspective is made most obvious in Julie Roy’s text, where the author suggests that Cournoyer’s film is approached through a “resolutely female point-of-view” and with a distinctively “female voice” (19). That said, some of the individual texts, such as Alys Hawkins’s “Whose Body Is It?”, a reflection on her 2002 film Crying and Wanking, and Olivier Cotte’s text, “Michaela Pavlátová: Frustrated Coupling,” do in fact work to nuance and complicate gendered notions of desire. In this essay, Hawkins makes note of her methodological process of interviewing a number of women about their experiences of pregnancy and childbirth with the intention of subverting the medicalization of these experiences. Importantly, both the filmmaker-written text and the film’s efforts to depict “a woman’s experience of her own body: how she sees and perceives it” work to re-claim female agency in subtle but significant ways (151). In Olivier Cotte’s text, “Michaela Pavlátová: Frustrated Coupling,” Cotte considers the gendered dynamics of the (heterosexual and married) couple in Pavlátová’s films. He explores Pavlátová’s representations of the struggles involved in being in relation to another person (the frustration, the desire for dominance or submissiveness, the breakdowns of communication), suggesting that, at times, these inscribed modes of relationality can represent “the cultural straitjacket of tradition rather than the dream of a fairy-tale life” (49). As can be expected, these topics of relationality, power, and control appear and reappear frequently throughout the collection.

Though the text makes a great effort to address the many faces of desire (its unavoidable power dynamics, its ambiguity, its frustration, its darkness, its ambivalence), it could perhaps work to complicate its operative frameworks of gender, sexuality, and visuality even further. For instance, opening up the anthology to include further queer, genderqueer and trans* perspectives could offer entirely new dialogues on sexuality, desire, and identity. One effort to do this is made with Ian Gouldstone’s guy101, an animated short about a self-identified gay man’s experience with “edgeplay.” In addition to guy101‘s script development and the final version of its script, Pilling has included the filmmaker’s own explanation of the story behind the short. Here, Gouldstone offers a self-reflexive account of the film’s successes and failures in relation to its portrayal of stereotypical representations of gay men. He also makes an inventive comparison between edge-play and the “too-intimate” viewing experience. By drawing connections between his film-as-edgeplay and his voice-over-as-safeword, Gouldstone exemplifies how the complexity of desire can be worked through in the realm of the (visual and narrative) aesthetic. Ultimately, Gouldstone wants his audience to inhabit the space of possibility that is opened up by both non-normative forms of desire and the story-telling experience. He states that he does not “even mind what [his audience’s] conclusions are, just as long as the film encouraged them to use their imaginations and their brains” (176). Indeed, this seems to be the aim of Animating the Unconscious on the whole, as it presents countless provocative points that challenge the reader to carry the books’ thoughts with them into their artistic projects, relationships, and viewing practices.

In sum, Pilling’s text offers its viewers fascinating and diversified accounts of desire, longing, sexuality, and humanity that could serve well as an intro to psychoanalytic studies in sexuality and animation. With behind-the-scenes scripts and intimate interviews, stunning visuals, and clever analyses of animated visuals, Animating the Unconscious offers a stimulating read for anyone interested in the animation process and its embodiments of desire. In her extreme generosity to her readers, Pilling ensured that all of the films discussed in Animating the Unconscious were/are accessible on DVD, and in many cases, via the Internet, making the text particularly useful for university or college classroom settings.

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