Often cited as the first fully animated film, Emile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908) opens with the animator’s hand drawing into life his character, a clown, who immediately mutates into a man in a top hat. The next 80-odd seconds are a continual whirl of transformation, turbulence, disturbance, dislocation, indecorous responses and illogic: a mini-narrative that is as much about the motility of animation as it is about the ways in which a sliver of drawn film might convey, for purposes of entertainment, absurdity, abnormality, violence and madness.
Just short of a hundred years later, Francis, a disturbed and disturbing boy, is drawn similarly into life and animated consciousness by his animator. And similarly, the next few minutes reflect on abnormal behaviour as it combines in complex ways with the processes of animation. Long ago, Koko the Clown emerged out of the inkwell and, with the animator’s gift of rotoscoping, shimmied into life and ridiculous escapades. In Francis, likewise, ink line drawings segue digitally with the realist emulations of video, and the boy and his gestures are a composite of real and irreal, plausible and ludicrous. The child psychologist’s commentary is equally ambivalent. Its seemingly scientific language presents an unstable diagnosis that sometimes describes and sometimes calls symptoms into being.
But as much as the focus of interest is the boy as psychologised subject, it is also the practice of animation itself. Certainly, handclapping, inappropriate vocalisations, deviant postures may be elements of a physical or psychical complex. For example, such behaviours Francis displays could represent echolocation or eccentric viewing techniques of those with limited sight, and his visual exclusion – tunnel vision – might be labelled as an autistic trait.
But some of Francis’s supposedly repulsive symptoms could apply equally well to much-loved cartoon characters: stereotyped movement, the sudden growth of a Pinocchio-like nose or donkey’s ears, spasms, unstable temperament, pathological excitability, general restlessness. His tics are part and parcel of animated consciousness, or they suggest an elitist’s description of cartoon fan audiences, an amassing of ‘lower-grade oligophrenics’ who display periodic clapping of the hands and inappropriate smiles.
And to further muddle the registers, the psychologist speaks of Francis’s actions in the language of contemporary digital animation processes: banding, jitter, frame accurate, overlap. Francis retorts twice, Tourette-like, with an old cartoon staple: keyframe. This character, it would seem, has fully interpolated the mechanisms of his construction. In just under four minutes madness and animation, both eccentric modes, conjoin in various ways.
The psychologist describes and diagnoses behaviour, but specifically it is the animator who calls all of these tics – excessive nerve action, sluggishness, squeaks, gurgles and jerks – into existence. Diagnosis and behaviour become increasingly disjointed, and the animator spins the boy ever faster while the psychologist’s words attempt to contain the situation.
In the end, as we, the cartoon fans, might note gleefully, animation, an art of involuntary movement, has used behavioural disturbance, a subjection to involuntary movement, to win out over psychology, a technique of involuntary assessment and treatment. For at the close, mobility accelerates into excessive motility, until there is only blur.
Esther Leslie is Professor in Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London. Her books include Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-garde (2002); Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (2000) and Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (2005).
This text was commissioned by Animate Projects.