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Life driven by death: animation aesthetics and the comic uncanny

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Many approaches to animation underscore a double relationship to life and movement, a relationship that, according to the seminal book Disney Animation: the Illusion of Life, should be expressed in realistic motion, linear narrative and empathetic characterization. Implicit in this formulation is a kind of death behind the illusion, one that is often theorized as a moment of stasis, the fundamental condition for animation's life. This essay argues against the conflation of life and movement, identifying a death-driven, immortal life beyond finitude, one that has a particular legacy in the history of cinema. Less a definition of animation as such than one of its particular aesthetic modalities, this death-driven animation has usually been noticed only in the paradigmatic genres of expressionism and horror, its calling card the anxiety suggested by Freud's uncanny. Here, I construct a comic current of the uncanny, found most visibly and affectively in the cinema of attractions, cartoons of the 1920s and 1930s as well as contemporary horror comedies. Against ironic readings of this comic uncanny, one insistent on the gap between the film's uncanny events and a cognitively distant audience, I argue that there is a humour in horror that overcomes this gap through an alliance of kinaesthetic movement on screen with the spectator's corporeal sensation. Such uncanny movement, both seen and sensed, is figured in the grotesque violence of ghosts, partial objects and undead creatures, their exaggeration and over-driven motion provoking less fear or ironic pleasure than a perverse enjoyment that animates along with these figures’ plasmatic movements and transformations.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2013

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