copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Animation and critical theory

by Alla Gadassik

Review of Esther Leslie’s Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde. London and New York: Verso, 2002. 344 pages. $19, paperback.

The task of breaking down distinctions between so-called “high” and “low” cultures is by now a cornerstone of media studies, and will certainly be familiar to readers of this journal. Yet, despite adamant critiques of ideologically suspect cultural hierarchies, rigid divisions are repeatedly and diligently enforced within media scholarship. In cinema studies, the persistent neglect of animation remains a key example of the discipline’s internal exclusions. Despite its central role in cinema history, animation typically remains invisible in departmental course lists, faculty specializations, and conference programmes. Only recently have scholars brought this neglect to light, at least to the light of anyone not already included in a small community of animation scholars.

Digital cinema, with its rapidly growing array of computer effects, is currently contributing to the emergence of animation as a serious field for critical consideration. However, scholarly discussions of digital animation tend to focus on the latest technological developments, and thus do little to address the incredible range of animated films that have been overlooked for decades. Anyone interested in exploring this territory finds herself with a fairly small shelf of books, a handful of collections, and a number of single essays in one journal or other. Interestingly, nearly every major cinema scholar has, at some point or another, stopped to ponder the realm of animated pictures: Tom Gunning, Mirriam Hansen, Vivian Sobchak, to name but a few. Yet these brief digressions – if not guilty pleasures – remain few and scattered. One is left to piece them together frame by frame, not unlike the painstaking construction of an animated film.

Esther Leslie’s book Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde is a masterpiece of such painstaking construction. Throughout the book, Leslie weaves together various analyses of animation from a surprising range of sources. Readers will find references to cartoons from well-known theorists alongside old newspaper articles, government policy statements, and descriptions of early films. As the book’s title suggests, Leslie focuses on connecting the development of Hollywood cartoons (specifically Disney) with the growth of twentieth century cultural theory (especially thinkers typically grouped under “critical theory”). However, the author also addresses parallel developments in the arts, politics, culture, and film. Perhaps the only thing that seems missing from the book is a cohesive treatment of the title’s third concept – the avant-garde. Just what makes something “avant-garde” is unclear, and the term is loosely applied to a variety of subjects in the book, ranging from films to thinkers. If anything, the strength of Leslie’s book is that it works to undermine the distinction between mainstream cultural products like early cartoons and more “serious” artistic movements. The author shows that a cartoon can be as politically and artistically charged (as “avant-garde”) as a surrealist film or a constructivist painting.

Leslie’s project of eroding cultural hierarchies is twofold. On one hand, the book makes a case that animation, which typically finds itself on the “low” margins of cinema studies, should be considered as a culturally valuable art-form. Animation, far from being consigned to trivial entertainment or childish amusement, represents a playful realm of possibilities – a “universe of transformation, overturning, and provisionality” (vi). Leslie explores this realm of possibilities through the writings and notes of great recognized thinkers: Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, Sergei Eisenstein. By harnessing these writers’ distinct impressions of cartoons, Leslie shows that animation is worthy of critical attention.

On the other hand, Leslie’s book also works in the opposite direction, redeeming the work of critical theorists for scholars of popular culture. The works of Adorno and Kracauer, for instance, are often dismissed by pop-culture scholars on the grounds of perceived old-fashioned elitism. Against such accusations, Leslie finds proof that even the most pessimistic among the critical theorists could find hope and redemption in popular cartoons. The book thus re-animates the writings of thinkers, whose rich and complex ideas are too often misunderstood.

Like many texts on modernism and critical theory, Hollywood Flatlands is structured as a nostalgic narrative of utopian rise and disappointing fall. The first few chapters in the book link early twentieth century animation to important art movements and political manifestoes (Dadaism, Cubism, Constructivism, etc). Animation, as a process of continual erasure and re-construction, becomes a metaphor for cultural and spiritual transformation envisioned by modernist artists and thinkers. Moreover, animation’s suitability for entirely non-representational images (fantastical worlds or geometric shapes) is embraced by proponents of a universal visual language and revolutionary aesthetics. Stylistically, early animated films also paralleled many modern art movements, through an embrace of two-dimensional flatness, interplay of contrasts, and imaginative treatment of the human figure.

The subversive content of popular cartoons is also noted, especially in an extended chapter on Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s fascination with childhood play and therapeutic laughter led him to an interest in mass reception of animated films. In reading Benjamin, Leslie suggests that cartoons can express the difficult circumstances of modern life, which force the everyday person into a cyclical and mechanized routine, full of bittersweet gags. Animated films “make clear that even our bodies do not belong to us – we have alienated them in exchange for money, or have given parts of them up in war. The cartoons expose the fact that what parades as civilization is actually barbarism” (83). Yet in highlighting this barbarism, cartoons open up room for therapeutic energy and self-understanding. Moreover, when animated films show disregard for cultural norms and physical laws, they suggest a realm of possible changes and creative combinations, not unlike the imaginative realm of playful childhood.

Alas, in keeping with other similarly dashed revolutionary hopes, animation’s attack on bourgeois life is rapidly stifled by political and economic forces. This dark turn takes place in the book’s fourth chapter, “Leni and Walt”, which brings together the forces of Fascist ideology (embodied in Leni Riefenstahl’s German films) and the rise of global capitalism (embodied in the growth of the Walt Disney studio). Although the historical and cultural connections made in this brief chapter seem tenuous at times, the theoretical links are interesting. In particular, the author makes a case that the world reflected in Fascist art bears some striking resemblances to the development of Walt Disney Studio’s animation style. In films from both sides, the author finds an increasing standardization of movement, a clinical dissection of social life, and a mechanization of the human body. Leslie suggests that “[f]ilm succumbs, in this era, it might be said, to the victory of technology over technique, or more precisely, technological manipulation on technical consciousness” (136). In the realm of animation, this victory of technology occurs when Disney’s studio moves away from the more fluid and inventive visuals of early cartoons, and begins to imitate photographic naturalism. Stunning lifelike images become more important than silly situations or self-mockery. The figure of Mickey Mouse also matures, loses many of his animalistic qualities, and finally becomes standardized for branding purposes.

Long after the Nazi regime has lost power, Disney’s studio continues the tradition of coating political ideology in romantic imagery. Only this time, the ideology reflects the technological and economic triumph of unbridled capitalism. The works of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Siegfried Kracauer fit very well at this juncture, and they form the basis of the following two chapters in Leslie’s book. As the author shows, all three theorists had some connection to cartoons in general, and Disney’s studio in particular; all three eventually became disillusioned with the changes in film and animation they witnessed toward the middle of the twentieth century. They argued that cartoons were no longer revealing new worlds, but rather teaching submission and conformism. Contrary to Benjamin’s belief in therapeutic laughter, Adorno and Horkheimer wrote that the amusement of cartoons is nothing but the “worst bourgeois sadism” (178). Cartoons produced by the culture industry (including the animation industry) lack spontaneity and imaginative novelty. In betraying his earlier aesthetics of flat drawings and formal experimentation, Disney “violated his early avant-gardism and produced the illusion that is now known as Disney magic” (199).

Siegfried Kracauer joins this line of critique, when he looks beyond the illusion and analyzes the exploitation of (animal) labour in Disney’s classic film Dumbo. Leslie uses Kracauer’s disparaging remarks on Dumbo’s class relations to initiate her own discussion of parallel labour struggles at the Walt Disney Studio itself. In both realms, real and drawn, individual efforts are co-opted by a circus that enslaves generation after generation.

Importantly, the problem with mid-century animation was not its popular appeal or “low” cultural value. On the contrary, these theorists believed that cartoons did not go “low” enough – they became tamed, formulaic, afraid to include as much mockery and barbaric absurdity as they did in their beginning. They lost the formal defiance and risky content that makes supposedly “low” cultural products so appealing and subversive in the first place. It was the middlebrow fare that so offended the critical theorists – the repetitive cartoons that tried to simulate live-action films, while parading themselves as fantasy realms. If these remarks seem unjustly harsh on mid-century cartoons, they become all too relevant in today’s context of CGI trailers and comic-book Blockbusters.

In the final chapters of the book, Leslie approaches the unique appeals of animation from two more perspectives: color and line. One chapter details the development of (and experiments in) color animation, which ultimately fails to live up to its promising potential. The other chapter focuses on Sergei Eistenstein, whose writings on Disney foreground the importance of the fluid line that characterizes drawn animation. Eisenstein considered the moving and jiggling lines in Disney’s cartoons to be magical, full of life and universal energy. As Leslie writes, even the meaning of the word animation excited the Russian director:

“Breath, soul, mind, liveliness, mobility, atavism – all present in the most modern, flat, trivial and mass form of entertainment; and present in multiple ways. Cartoon drawings were animated – that is, they had life – indeed so much so that their bodies stretched and popped and twisted” (235).

However, here, too, the story ends in disappointment, as Disney’s increasing emphasis on flashy productions and moral tales moved away from the magical realm that Eisenstein so admired.

In its entirety, Hollywood Flatlands is a complex and multi-layered discussion that, at times, becomes somewhat tangled and overwhelming. However, this seems almost deliberate, as the book leaves many tantalizing loose threads that can easily inspire numerous books, projects, and dissertations. The strength of Leslie’s work is that she carefully unpacks a number of gems, while briefly tracing many more paths for other writers and filmmakers. Like the best animated films, Leslie’s book contains shifts and transformations that demand repeat viewing and that engage the reader’s imagination.

The book brings together a myriad of facts and sources, only to open up a number of interesting questions that remain to be addressed in today’s media scholarship. For instance, how can the cyclical repetitive form of cartoons – which can be tied to cyclical repetition of both analog and digital technologies – be used for transformative ends, rather than always loop back on itself? More to the point, how do we negotiate the line between absurd animated realms that actually stimulate viewer imagination, and those that only conform to status-quo entertainment? This latter question remains the most open in Leslie’s book, especially when she negotiates between Walter Benjamin’s optimism about Mickey Mouse and Adorno’s critiques of Disney’s famous creation. The paradox of how the “same materials can work comically or horrifically” (116) is not fully explored.[1]

I also feel compelled to add a note of disagreement with Leslie’s conclusions in the book, which take on a rather pessimistic tone. Leslie is correct in structuring the book as a tale of animation’s rise and fall, because such a movement is characteristic of critical theory (and many other writings on modernism). However, to share in their disappointment is to ignore the astoundingly rich tradition of experimental animation that persists to this day. Far from being subsumed by the big studios, independent animation has been growing and breaking taboos (cultural, aesthetic, you name it) for decades. In the Soviet Union, for instance, the influence of Disney’s realistic style was met by resistance from an entire generation of innovative animators. In Canada and the United States, the history of groundbreaking animation has yet to be fully appreciated by scholars, even though it has been much appreciated by viewers. If there is little critical theory written on these films, it is because there were few “critical theorists” to write it. None of the writers profiled in Hollywood Flatlands wrote past the 1960’s, and the following generations of theorists have often neglected the “odder” interests of their predecessors. Leslie’s incredible book corrects this neglect, but it also reveals how much is still left to be inked-in by media scholars.


[1] For another great discussion of the dialogue between these theorists, I would recommend Miriam Hansen’s essay "Of Mice and Ducks: Benjamin and Adorno on Disney" South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (Jan. 1993): 27-61. 7

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