Moving Pictures

Film expert Karen Beckman helps bring animation to the forefront of cinema studies.
April 30, 2012
  1. What first got you interested in the scholarly study of animation?
    We had a speaker, Dudley Andrew, come from Yale. He was writing a book called What Cinema Is. Many of the things that he used to define cinema seemed not to apply to animation. And so I started thinking about animation and how it fits into our idea of what cinema is. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that animation had been excluded from many of the conversations that we’ve had over the course of the 20th century about cinema—it’s often dismissed as either childish, silly or ephemeral. But animation has had a very real impact historically. In the 1950s, Czech animators were pushing against the socialist realists and aesthetic in the form of animation. And because it was animation, it went under the radar. And as a result of it, live action cinema also was able to expand beyond where it was.
  2. You are hosting an upcoming conference called "Animation Across the Disciplines." Tell me about that.
    It’s a two-part conference, the first of which was actually in Berlin. The second part will be held here at Penn, in the fall. We’re looking at the production of digital animation and how various disciplines are involved. Faculty from a few different schools will present their take, including Norman Badler, a professor in the Computer and Information Science department, and Joshua Mosley, Professor and Chair of the Department of Fine Arts in the School of Design. They will discuss the interaction between engineering and art, a combination of disciplines that has started to overlap more and more. We also have one of the country’s top medical animators, Janet Iwasa, from Harvard Medical School, joining us to share her thoughts on the importance of animation in the medical and other less obvious arenas.
  3. What projects do you currently have underway?
    I am working on a collection of essays called “Animating Film Theory.” I recruited international scholars who are interested in the intersection of cinema and animation. So I have people from Australia, Germany, France, India, Japan, England, Canada and the United States. Often animation is a discussion that’s dominated by men, so I really wanted to include a lot of female scholars. I also wanted people who were interested in how animation participates in a post-colonial landscape, and how questions of race have entered into studio animation practices across the history of the 20th century. I posed a question to all of these authors: What would happen to the kind of philosophical discourse of film theory if we looked at it through the lens of animation rather than through the lens of live action cinema? So everybody is writing an original essay addressing that question from different perspectives.
  4. The use of animation in the political landscape seems of particular interest to you. Have you addressed this in any of your publications?
    The book I’m writing now is actually about the rise of animation in the contemporary art museum. I’m particularly interested in contemporary artists who have decided to use animation as a vehicle through which to respond to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a practice that I think is a real departure from the kind of responses that we saw to the Vietnam War, and even to the first Gulf War, where artists tended to use a lot more documentary photographic images and video footage. There are exceptions, however. One piece from 1967, which Joshua Mosley told me about and we just screened at the International House for Martin Luther King Day, is a one-minute 1967 Vietnam War protest short film showing Mickey Mouse signing up to go to Vietnam so he could “see the world.” And so he buys his plane ticket and boards the plane. As he’s getting off the plane in Vietnam, he’s immediately shot in the head. It’s all done exactly in the style of Disney’s Mickey Mouse, and you see this kind of inky blood coming out of his head. So there is, I think, a longer history of how animation characters have been used to respond to war, we just aren’t aware of it yet.
  5. Tell me about your involvement in the Penn Humanities Forum.
    I’m a fellow as part of the Adaptation series. I’m looking at the way the post-war films of Alain Resnais, especially “Last Year at Marienbad,” which is often seen as his non-political film or his turn away from history, in contrast to other live action films that he made that deal with Hiroshima and the concentration camps. Resnais was actually a complete comic nut; he has the largest collection of comics in France and became the vice president and co-founder of the International Society for Comic Books in the 1960s. He was very interested as a filmmaker in thinking about what it would mean to make a film that had the same kind of discrete blocks that comic strips have, with a lot of voiceover.
  6. Are there any additional avenues of research you might want to tackle in the future?
    I’ve been reading all the film journals in France from the 1950s and ‘60s really carefully and comparing them with the way that those essays have been anthologized in translations. The editors in the United States and Britain have really emphasized a kind of live action version of those conversations, when in fact the French filmmaking involved in the French new wave and the critics participating in those conversations were totally fascinated by Czech animation, Soviet animation and Polish animation. I found a little footnote in one of these articles about Marie-Therese Poncet. I’d never heard of her. So I went and looked her up, and it turns out she wrote the first dissertation ever on animation in 1952. She compares animation with cave paintings and the Bayeux Tapestry and all these medieval images. This is all in the early ‘50s—there’s no scholarship on this at all. I found a copy of her book from a secondhand bookseller in France. Not all the pages are even cut, it’s so old. So there’s a group of us now internationally who really feel like the standard narratives we have of film history are incomplete. I think it’s clear that animation is much more important than it’s sometimes given credit for.

Karen Beckman is the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Endowed Professor of Film Studies and Interim Chair of the Department of the History of Art.