Essays (book reviews)

The Illusion of Life II:
More Essays on Animation

edited by Alan Cholodenko
(Sydney: Power Publications, 2007)


There is only one decent way to approach this book. You have to weigh it in your hand (it’s heavy); turn it on the side and gauge its width (it’s thick); and then you have to flip to the number on the last page … holy shit, it’s 576!

576 pages? Has there ever before been an Australian-made book of highbrow film theory and analysis that has made it to 576 pages? The Illusion of Life II is obviously an event.

It is hard – indeed, impossible – to separate this book from the personality of its editor, Alan Cholodenko. (Almost every place I go in the world, I meet people who want to reminisce about their time spent with Alan.) The book began – a whole 12 years previously in 1995 – as the proceedings of the The Life of Illusion, “Australia’s second international conference on animation”, just as its predecessor, The Illusion of Life: Essays on Animation derived from the first conference in 1988 (but with a mere three-year gap before publication, that time).

Alan C. has a large presence in the new book, as he did in the original: his 86-page Introduction is a mini-book unto itself, and he brings up the rear with another contribution (“Speculations on the Animatic”) that clocks another 44 pages. Cholodenko indeed seems to have identified himself body and soul, since the late ‘80s, with the field of animation studies; today there are few cinematic, philosophical or political topics that will not elicit from him the sage comment: “That’s animation!

Alan indeed seems to have been born for this destined rendezvous with animation. The topic brings with it certain extremes – of the lowest culture mixed with the highest theory – that are exactly his own extremes. Neither the cruddiest TV cartoon nor the most abstruse Derridean play on words occasion any defensiveness in him. Therefore, he is exactly the right person for the job.

Reading The Illusion of Life II prompted many vivid memories for me. Particularly a moment of when I was 17 years old, commuting between Melbourne’s once-beloved International Bookshop (the Red Menace) to buy copies of the new film theory journal Camera Obscura, and the camera stores where one could still buy rolls of Super-8 film. Yes, strike up the band: it’s “Ex-fan of the Seventies” time …

Well, in those days, one could also still buy Warner Bros. cartoons on Super-8 (even Standard-8) rolls in tiny little packets: thus started a homegrown, amateur apprenticeship in textual analysis, winding some Chuck Jones/Daffy Duck reel through a precarious Super-8 viewer perched on the kitchen table, and noticing the remarkable difference between one frame and the next – decomposing movements into their individual frames in order to better appreciate the magic of their continuous projection before and afterwards.

As it happened, there was, right to hand, an essay in Camera Obscura (no. 2, Fall 1977) about exactly this experience of still frames in a strip of animated celluloid – and it also served as an indelible introduction to the farthest and wildest reaches of French theory. The piece in question is Thierry Kuntzel’s “Le Défilement” – and let us pause to pay a silent tribute to this great critic and video artist, who died in April 2007.

Defilement (to render that in English) refers to the passage of the film strip through a projector: the mechanism that clinches movement, and indeed the “illusion of life” itself. Kuntzel’s article (first published in 1973) is about getting an arty Canadian animation (Peter Foldes’ Appetite of a Bird [1966]) down to its frames; once fixed in this way, Kuntzel notices, between the frames as it were, several strange metamorphoses that are almost indiscernible to the naked eye once the strip is (as it were) defiled, played through at normal projection speed: in particular, some remarkably peculiar hermaphroditic sex organs. (The analysis, in fact, looks forward to Edward Colless’ superb reverie located “between the legs of the Little Mermaid” in the book under review.)

The almost in this formulation is important: for what is lost to the naked eye, according to Kuntzel’s theory, gets lodged deep in the unconscious mind, as an other film (one of his favourite terms) under or inside the ostensible film …

My free association leaps forward to a much older essay, but one I tracked down only after a long search. In 1952, a year after the scandalous premiere at Cannes of his avant-garde masterpiece Treatise on Slime and Eternity, Isidore Isou wrote an ambitious, indeed prophetic text titled “Aesthetics of Cinema”. Isou was the ringleader of the Lettrists, and Lettrism is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most significant strands in the history of experimental animation.

There are actually many good reasons to connect Isou with Cholodenko: not only did both men cross paths with Orson Welles (these encounters are recorded on film), and not only are both given to a certain (shall we say) boastfulness (Isou could write, in his early 20s, that “by the age of 19 I had already established the bases of a new mode of knowledge and a new form of culture”); but Isou, too, managed to edit publications in which he gave himself an awful lot of room (in the case of the “Aesthetics”, 146 pages).

But listen to Isou: in 1952, he was already predicting that the future of cinema was post-photographic – and we naively assumed that Bazin’s photo-ontology was the only game in the town of post-war Paris! Moreover, in Isou’s account, cinema – passing, like all the arts, from the era of amplic expansion to its self-destructive, chiselling phase – had only one meaningful unit: the single frame, preferably scratched out, written on, flipped upside down … Isou, in short, was a born animator.

Although the contributors to The Illusion to Life II may not know it, they are the rightful heirs to Isou’s post-photographic legacy. They cover many bases in this book: anime (essays by Kosei Ono, Pauline Moore, Bill Routt, Jane Goodall, Fred Patten); digital technologies benevolent and scary (David Ellison, Patrick Crogan); American animation slick and independent (Rex Butler, Freida Riggs, Rick Thompson, Annemarie Jonson).

I look forward to more on avant-garde animation next time, next century … It was only 27 years ago, in Melbourne, that heavyweight US cinema scholar Brian Henderson predicted that avant-garde cinema would bring about a necessary, generative implosion in film theory: having not exactly happened how he wanted it to, it is time for animation to take up this implosive cause.

Actually, there is a weighty philosophic justification for the 12 years it took to get this book together and out into the world – and it is to be found between the frames of two of its finest essays. For William Schaffer, animation can be considered a control-image (après Deleuze): it’s all about the social techne of defining, mapping, determining, controlling a movement.

On the other hand, here’s a passing definition from Philip Brophy’s notes on “Apocalyptic Echoes in Anime”: filmic animation is “the hysterical unleashing of dynamic movement resulting from the wilful animation of the inanimate”.

You can just picture Alan Cholodenko labouring on the 86th page of his Introduction: wanting to put an Amen to it, needing to secure the very latest (and hopefully the last) reference to his topic, praying for a control-image of his domain … But he can’t: he has helped to unleash (hysterically) a movement (in all senses of the term), and there is no stopping that dynamism.

A book that unleashes movement: I can think of no higher praise for The Illusion of Life II.


© Adrian Martin June/July 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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