The 9th edition of StopTrik and the inaugural conference of the Eisenstein International Network (EIN) took place, borderline consecutively, in October 2019. StopTrik is a Polish/Slovenian stop motion film festival, and the EIN an assembly of art historians and film academics gathered in Paris to try and make sense of the Russian juggernaut Sergei Eisenstein (whose films and essays are often curriculum material for film studies students). Stop motion is in itself a paradox, at once implying pause and mobility. Being at a form specific festival and therefore exposed to a proliferation of 8 to 12 frames per second (fps), in lieu of the 24 to 26 fps you find in live action, I found myself asking ontological questions. The slowed speed of transitions gives you a sense of the process by which these fixed images propel themselves into movement. While this wasn’t a programming directive, this report will attempt to map the ontology of stop motion, using the 2019 program as a case study. Navigating the coming into being of a film form requires looking into the archives of art and civilisation, something Eisenstein happened to be passionate about. The auteur was no stranger to animation, he knew Walt Disney personally and waxed lyrical about his prowess as a filmmaker.1 Walt Disney Studios predominantly releases work in traditional 2D animation, not stop motion, but the directors’ mutual respect serves to counter the notion that animation should not be taken seriously in film criticism and/or academia.
This report will discuss stop motion’s antecedents in art history and philosophy chronologically, however, note that the course of human history is not a linear trajectory. It’s a dialectic. This means that what was, is and will be are in constant dialogue with each other. This dynamic is more akin to a tango than a straight walk forwards, as demonstrated here by George Ritzer:In this view, our subsequent discussions of proto-stop motion need to be considered in conjunction with Antonio Somaini’s presentation to the EIN: Cinema’s Prehistory? Deep Time, Petroglyphic Drawings and Handprints in caves in Eisenstein’s Project for a “General History of Cinema.”3 Somaini cites Maria Stavrinaki, “prehistory is an invention, [not a discovery] of the 19th century.”4 Our retrospective gaze absorbs us into the past while launching us into the future, as we remain anchored in the present, we’re tethered to both ends of the hyperdimensional spectrum. Elaborating on cinema’s forerunners in Eisenstein’s Notes for a General History of Cinema,5 Somaini notes two interconnected genealogical lines: cinema’s expressive means and the urge to record phenomena. To fix a moment in time and space. If a work of art is done well, a static image will jump out at you and tell its own story.
Three hands in human history
- The Caves of Gargas
Michael Kunichika looked to the Vézère Valley and presented the EIN with images from the caves of Gargas. It’s likely that Eisenstein saw the stencils of these deformed hands, as Kunichika notes that the auteur was one of a broad array of international modernists (including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) who made a pilgrimage to the valley in the 1920s. Kunichika posited that these handprints may stand at the origin of art and human cognition.6 In reproducing our image, and looking back at it, we come to know ourselves which is why art is inextricable from the development of civilisation.
- Stachka (Strike, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925).
Having found the works of Henri Breuil in Eisenstein’s library, Kunichika stated that it was likely their views aligned in seeing the prehistoric artists as having undergone different forms of mutilation before leaving their imprint on the cave walls. This is relevant to the disfigured hands of Strike. The violence that underlies each image signals sacrifice and mutilation as being at the genesis of art itself.7 This sacrifice has twinned features: a religious connotation and a revolutionary impulse. Eisenstein summons both in the below image, as the hand straddles both individual identity and collective experience.8
- Fuenf (Five, Peter Kaboth, 2019)
Meanwhile in Maribor, Slovenia, Peter Kaboth extended a high five to the artists of Gargas in experimental short, Five. Five eyes adorn five fingers on a hand equally detached from the body. A routine of plumb consumption and defecation maintains the status quo,9 until a finger and a thumb rebel, resulting in digit decapitation. The efficacy of cave art and stop motion hinges on their materiality. A cave painting cannot be rendered on canvas, as this would be a bastardisation of form. The hands of Gargas are exceptional in producing a visceral reaction, a kinaesthetic empathy of wanting to touch.10 Five, with its manual reconfiguration of props and the capacity to touch what constitutes the image, speaks to this same materiality.
Looking East, André Bazin identified a mummy complex as being at the origin of photography. Pharaohs in ancient Egypt had well-known funeral practices that preserved their cadavers. The development of art and civilisation meant that nobility would come to be content with having their portrait done. They didn’t feel the need to mummify their bodies, as the image would outlive its subject. Therein satisfying their desire for kleos. In photography, Bazin sees the capture and development of an image as akin to embalming the body, since the camera fixes a moment in time and space.11 Departing from Bazin, note that the hieroglyphics and statues carved into tomb walls (in Saqqara, for example) are prototypical of 2D animation and stop motion, respectively.The logic that gives rise to corpse preservation, portraiture and photography speaks to the future while embalming the present. Entombment in Ancient Egypt was done to ensure prosperity in the afterlife, while the figures of portraiture and photography ask future audiences to remember them as they are in this image. This ontology is not grounded in stasis, but in movement across the space/time continuum. This is relevant to our initial ruminations on hands; as the gesture of leaving a handprint on a wall, raising a disfigured fist or having a seizure below a plum tree all signal this dynamism.
Second speaker at the EIN, Ana Hedberg Olenina, laid the theoretical groundwork of expressive movement in Soviet Avant-Garde Cinema in The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies. Here, Olenina cites Lev Kuleshov:
The actor …must be analytically taken apart and examined …as a complex work of engineering. We must register his excitement as it if were an electric current feeding a factory and inscribe his techniques using algebraic formulas …[T]he actor must be Taylorized and work in accordance with a time management chart.13
Kuleshov’s actors and dancers were expected to conform to their predetermined coordinates on set with mathematical precision, while Eisenstein set the standard of his characters’ expressiveness through drawing, leading actor Nikolai Cherkasov to complain that Eisenstein was “contorting him to make him fit the picture.”14 Dance and theatrics, belonging to the canon of “plastic” arts, suggests that the body is a malleable matter that assumes new forms through movement.15 This is translated literally in claymation. Izabela Plucinska’s Portrait en pied de Suzanne (Portrait of Suzanne, 2019), in competition at StopTrik, reveals a corpulent man mediating his hunger for love through overeating. Fragments of refracted flesh rise and fall like waves as sweats, tremors and the tendency to melt into his bed reflect his emotional state as he mourns a love lost. The audience’s impressions are created through Plucinska imprinting a constellation of gestures onto plasticine. Following Olenina’s presentation to the EIN, Irina Schulzki put forward a way of thinking in lines, folds, cruxes and inflections that we find in Deleuze and Eisenstein.16 Centring gesture has obvious ramifications in aesthetics. A director can direct our emotions through the motions they create. This is why Kuleshov, and Eisenstein, foregrounded gesticulation in their cinematic apparatus.17 Due to the meticulous and time-consuming nature of stop motion, these animators can be considered masochists with a god complex. Their method allows them to control every bead of sweat. This is in line with Kunichika’s observation that art, sacrifice and mutation are at the origin of art itself.18
Portrait of Suzanne takes its story from Roland Topor’s 1978 novel of the same name.19 After mistaking a brothel for a restaurant, our leading man injures his foot and the eponymous Suzanne emerges from the wound.
To situate this cynical surrealism in French literature, Topor certainly shares a lineage with Georges Bataille. Not least because of their mutual preoccupation with blood, shit and sex, but Bataille wrote the short story, Le gros orteil (The Big Toe) in 1929. Bataille argued that “Le gros orteil est la partie la plus humaine du corps humain…” (“The big toe is the most human part of the human body….”). If the foot is laden with taboo and erotic fetishism, it is because the dirt that surrounds it reminds us of our own corruptions synonymous with filth while our heads remain raised towards heaven.20 Eisenstein agrees, insofar as his discussions on anthropomorphic totemism cite reptiles, rodents and ants as being analogous with death due to their subterranean habitat. Where we keep our dead.21 Bataille sees life as a perpetual rage that oscillates from obscene to ideal, and that rage is easily directed against an organ as literally and figuratively base as feet.22 It’s in this view that Topor and Plucinska have Suzanne emerge from the foot. She embodies the man’s base instincts: jealousy and indulgence in self-pity. He’s comedic because he’s so pathetic, and tragic because we ultimately relate to him. Love is nice, a rupture with someone you care about is not. This tragi-comedic dichotomy envelopes most human experiences. Curiously, Marie Rebecchi from La Sorbonne raised Bataille at the EIN, as she believed that he was at the forefront of conceptualising the genesis of art and violence. Not Henry Breuil, as Kunichika claims.23
Something that Bataille, Bazin, Breuil, Eisenstein, Kunichika and Topor have in common is that they’re all men obsessed with art and violent death. StopTrik is a self-consciously girl-powered festival, with programs stretching from Latin American incarnations of feminism to Central and Eastern European gendered ethics. In lieu of dissecting these programs individually, I’ll redirect our discussion to look at a form-specific philosophy that underlies these images. María Teresa Galarza Neira questions the protagonistic role fatality plays in (Western) political and philosophical thought. We regulate our communities vis-à-vis the possibility of our demise, thus we administer life in terms of death. Galarza Neira consolidates Chiara Bottici and Hannah Arendt’s research as follows:
Most philosophers, at least since Plato, looked at human beings as beings-toward-death. Very rarely did they take the opposite perspective of looking at them as beings-after-birth, a puzzling fact on its own, given the ontological priority of birth over death. For, while it is true that we are beings-toward-death, it is equally true that we are so because we are in the first-place beings-after-birth.24
If we replace disappearance with appearance – if, in other words, mortality as the preferred category of philosophy is replaced by natality – the pattern, however, changes. Rather than the starting point of a straight line, already hardened by the relentlessness of its path to the end point, birth, as Arendt intends it, is in fact the debut of a journey not yet identified; the event of a pure possibility.25
Avant-garde cinema is a direct affront to fatalism. In the absence of any conventional narrative to structure and guide our anticipation, literally anything is possible. Mara Mattuschka’s NavelFabel (1984) was featured at StopTrik’s opening night ceremonies. Here, the Bulgarian-born Vienna-based artist brings her many selves to celluloid. Using her head as the films centrepiece, wrapped and warped in a cocoon of nylon and newspaper, pregnant images flow from one unto the other. Mattuschka pulsates and sheds skins in tune with a heartbeat, until alter ego Mimi Minus emerges.As is frequently the case in avant-garde, NavelFabel could be played on loop with audiences tuning in and dropping out at any moment and the experience would be the same. It’s the nature of this cyclical modus operandi that seems typically feminine, like a dialectic perpetually giving birth to new forms, dramatised here by a medium-specific mis-en-abyme where the physicality of layers can be pushed, pulled, stretched and shed.
Between fingers with suicidal tendencies, a former lover emerging from a foot wound and a head stuck in a stocking; this StopTrik sample is obviously a bit odd in terms of diegesis. Their program frequently oscillates between experimental, abstract and avant-garde, which is typical of independent animation in Eastern Europe. In this absurdism, we can find an antidote to the tyranny of intellect. There’s something very oppressive about reality, where the world appears as if it could be no other way. The pressure to make sense, or present something palatable, breaks down and restrains healthy expression. StopTrik had an abundance of pre-logical, pre-linear films that remind audiences that there are alternative ways to see and engage with the world. On Disney, Eisenstein wrote:
…only having joined in the fantastical, a-logical and sensuous order is it possible to achieve a mastery and supremacy in the realm of freedom from the shackles of logic, from shackles in general.27
This is a point that most of the filmmakers and academics I’ve cited in this article would agree or identify with, to varying degrees. One sharp methodological difference though, is that EIN members anchor their research in concrete evidence of what Eisenstein knew or was exposed to, then in light of that, they elaborate on how this could have influenced his thinking and cinematic output. For better or worse, this is not the way I work. I do not believe it matters so much if authorial intention and critical interpretation align. What’s important (to me at least) is if an idea is interesting. The delightful thing about human beings is that we very rarely know what we’re doing. As such, I do not know if all (or any) of the stop motion animators mentioned in this report have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Paleolithic and ancient Egyptian art. The lineage seems to be there, but I don’t really mind if I’m wrong. Perhaps this is the difference between academics and critics.
Maribor (Slovenia): 3-6 October 2019
Łódź (Poland): 8-10 November 2019
Festival website: https://www.stoptrik.com/
Annual Conference of the Eisenstein International Network
Paris: 14 – 17 October 2019
Website in development
- See Sergei Eisenstein, On Disney, Seagull Books, London, 1986. ↩
- George Ritzer, Sociological Theory, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2011, p. 48. ↩
- Antonio Somaini, “Cinema’s Prehistory? Deep Time, Petroglyphic Drawings and Handprints in Caves in Eisenstein’s Project for a ‘General History of Cinema’.” Presented at the inaugural conference of the Eisenstein International Network, Paris, 2019. ↩
- Maria Stavrinaki, Saisis par la préhistoire. Enquête sur l’art et le temps des modernes, Presses du réel, Paris, 2019. ↩
- Sergei Eisenstein, Notes for a General History of Cinema, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2016). ↩
- Michael Kunichika, “Eisenstein and the Contours of Prehistory”. Presented at the inaugural conference of the Eisenstein International Network, Paris, 2019. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Post-presentation Q&A with Michael Kunichika at the inaugural conference of the Eisenstein International Network, Paris, 2019. ↩
- The basis of the film is the German nursery rhyme: Das ist der Daumen. ↩
- Remark made by Ana Hedberg Olenina from Arizona State University, in post-presentation Q&A of Antonio Somaini’s “Cinema’s Prehistory? Deep Time, Petroglyphic Drawings and Handprints in Caves in Eisenstein’s Project for a ‘General History of Cinema’.” EIN, Paris, 2019. ↩
- André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Film Quarterly 13, summer, 1960, pp. 4-9. ↩
- “Egypt tomb: Saqqara ‘one of a kind’ discovery revealed,” BBC News, 15 December 2018. ↩
- Lev Kuleshov, “Kinematograficheskii naturschik”, Zrelishcha 1, 1992, p. 16, in Ana Hedberg Olenina, “Moto-Bio-Cine-Event: Constructions of Expressive Movement in Soviet Avant-Garde Film” in Douglas Rosenberg (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016, p. 94. ↩
- See Naum Kleiman, Eisenstein on Paper, Thames and Hudson, London, 2017, p. 17. ↩
- Ana Hedberg Olenina, “Moto-Bio-Cine-Event: Constructions of Expressive Movement in Soviet Avant-Garde Film” in Douglas Rosenberg (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016, p. 82. ↩
- Irina Schulzki, “Eisenstein on Gesture”. Presented to the inaugural conference of the Eisenstein International Network, Paris, 2019. Here, Schulzki is referencing Gilles Deleuze, L’image-mouvement, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1983, and Sergei Eisenstein, Notes for a General History of Cinema, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2016. ↩
- Ana Hedberg Olenina, “Eisenstein’s Model of Spectatorship in the Context of German Aesthetics Philosophy and Modernist Performance”. Presented at the inaugural conference of the Eisenstein International Network, Paris, 2019. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Roland Topor, Portrait en pied de Suzanne, Gallimard Education, Paris, 1978. ↩
- Georges Bataille, “Le gros orteil”, Documents 6, November 1929. ↩
- See Sergei Eisenstein, On Disney, Seagull Books, London, 1986, p. 78. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Chiara Bottici, Imaginal Politics, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014, in María Teresa Galarza Neira, “Dissenting fiction re-righting law: practice-led research into biopolitics, women’s rights and reproductive justice in Ecuador”, Minerva Access, October 2017. ↩
- Adriana Cavarero, “’A Child Has Been Born unto Us’: Arendt on Birth” Philosophia 4, winter 2014, p. 15, in María Teresa Galarza Neira, “Dissenting fiction re-righting law: practice-led research into biopolitics, women’s rights and reproductive justice in Ecuador,” Minerva Access, October 2017. ↩
- Note that this film is available online. ↩
- See Sergei Eisenstein, On Disney, Seagull Books, London, 1986, p. 35. ↩