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A Brief Retrospective on Philosophy and Animation
by Max Besser

Pendleton Ward has finally released his new series The Midnight Gospel onto Netflix.  An irregular show with an odd style, it follows the optimistic Clancy on his interdimensional journeys to interview creatures for his podcast. Discussions include views on death, nihilism, the idea of hope or forgiveness and mindfulness. Upon first glance, it may seem like a lot for a thirty minute show. Normal conversations that come out these themes always seem long winded, directionless, and pedantic but Ward makes it work. The show’s trick – blending philosophy with animation.

Animation is a medium without boundaries. Unlike most modes of film production, animation is free from concrete aspects. In live-action film, it is generally assumed that the reality presented to the viewer is similar to their own. It looks the same, so thus it must act the same. This perception of reality, of course, can be easily broken by jarring edits, camera placement or lighting but the filmmaker has to fight with reality to make it so. Filmmakers use wires to make people fly, put cameras on their side to have people scale buildings and craft concoctions of chocolate syrup, food coloring, rubber or processed meats to make that someone murdered right before our eyes. Reality and the surreal have to clash to make the illusion work. With animation, there is only one aspect of reality to deal with, the pen, clay, paper or program being used. With one or two these materials, a new world can be crafted. The animated world appears nothing like one’s own reality, thus the viewer is accepting of what will happen. Philosophy is a subject about that denial of reality. It asks us our understandings and beliefs about existence and to question them. Whether its through the ideas of Nietzsche, Plato, Zizisk, the Bible, the Torah or Qur’an, it wants one to start thinking about bigger concepts than day to day life. If one wants to begin understanding another world view, they have to separate themselves from their current world. A change in reality has to occur, which animation caters to. This is why the two work together so well.    

One of the first films that comes to mind when talking about these subjects is Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell from 1995. The movie explores the mind-body problem through protagonist Matoko Kusinagi, a cyborg detective who constantly feels at odds with her own existence. Her crisis comes to a full head-on collision once she is assigned to huntdown “The Puppetmaster” a criminal who turns out to be a rogue AI program. While this was one of the first major steps for philosophically themes, it has issues. A big promblems of the film is its very light story and clunky dialogue. Oshii prefers to spend the 80 minute run time shifting from quiet scenes with heavy visuals to long winded speeches about life. This leaves the film unbalanced. While it is full of these breathtaking sequences like the opening and the silent fifteen minute sequence of Matako walking around New Port City, it does not give time to truly explain its world or its rules. It is theme over story. Ghost in the Shell opened the door up for animation and philosophy, it fumbles because it tries to tie it down to a narrative. While I would not say it is necessarily bad because of that, I do think it can be frustrating that the visuals have to ultimately serve the function of the story and not the concepts.

In 2001, Richard Linklater released Waking Life. A new direction for the Austin filmmaker, he improves on what Oshii started by putting it in a looser narrative structure. Waking Life combines the omniscient, freeform style of Slacker with digital rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is an animation technique that involves tracing over frames of previously shot film. Things appear to be moving in a similar fashion to reality, but pairs it with unnatural colors. The frequent and minute character inconsistencies give it an uncanny and surreal look – that feeling of  complete familiarity but also unknown of a dream. This makes sense because the film centers on discussions about the power of dreams and the unconscious. Not only does this technique add to the film’s atmosphere – it also helps the audience stay engaged. One of the faults of live-action films like Slacker or La Chinoise is they are very dialogue-based films and can bore or confuse an audience. There are so many moving parts in the dialogue and little variety when it comes to the visual language that it is hard to keep up. There is a lack of visual aids to support or counter the claims being made because these films are set in a very hard reality. With animation, this isn’t a problem. The reality is more loosely defined —things can come into the frame and leave without being questioned by the audience This can easily be seen in the Determinism debate in Waking Life, when the character’s electrical signals leading from his brain to his muscles and the gas particles dancing around him as he talks about the idea of free will. This use of animation as a secondary tool to help reinforce the dialogue is needed when having discussions like this. The short-lived PBS Digital Studios series Blank on Blank understood that and used the medium to draw their famous subjects along with the ideas they bring up in their interviews. This is how The Midnight Gospel operates as well.

The episodes are not structured like a story in three acts, but more of a natural flowing conversation.  The “scripts” are just conversations actor and co-creator Duncan Trussel had with other actors, personalities and authors that are then animated over by Pendleton Ward’s team. An episode on the use of hallucinogens becomes centered around a zombie apocalypse while another one talks about the idea of hope by framing it in a nihilistic prison break reminiscent of Groundhog Day. Sometimes it really does not work well. Episode 4 suffers from narrative dissonance by framing a conversation about forgiveness and understanding through a medieval quest that involves the killing of the woodland creatures and people. The problem is the characters or world do not acknowledge the contrast between dialogue and visuals. But when it does work, it excels. The season finale comes to mind. A conversation with Trussel’s now deceased mother about meditation and motherhood becomes a transcendental journey through space. Whether or not it works 100 percent of the time, The Midnight Gospel  embraces the abstract nature of animation to help teach and visualize philosophy in ways that sets a new precedent not just for the medium, but adult animation on tv as well.       

Besides being a great teacher, there is an odd byproduct that comes when mixing animation with philosophy – that of intimacy. Although a team effort, animation is very much the vision of one person. Live-action film can be the same way, but again animation constructs its own reality from nothing. In a sense a person’s expression through this medium is the most pure visualization of their thought process or views on the world. 2013’s Is the Man Who is Tall is Happy? exemplifies this intimacy. A film that is just three different conversations with linguist Noam Chomsky, it is solely animated by director Michel Gondry via sharpies, paper, a light-table and his Bolex. All he is doing is reinterpreting Chomsky’s answers and theories into his own terms, whether it be a cartoony action walk-cycles of Noam’s aunts or complex mosaics to describe linguistic theory. There is a certain warmth that comes with his doodle-like style. It also helps that the film is presented with the soft, curved edges that come with projecting a 16 mm film. The familiar homemade aesthetic brings comfort to the film and generates sympathy towards Chomsky and Gondry. So much so that Gondry interjects in the midst of the film to discuss the project’s purpose, his disagreements with Chomsky and his own personal life. The style helps frame the two subjects and viewer in the same light, people who are just trying to understand. That is the ultimate goal of any film or art, understanding.

We all think about life, death, love, pain and other grand incomprehensible questions. Although we may all have different answers to the questions at hand, it feels good to hear someone else speak on the subject. Understanding drives us to keep creating. We are always trying to find solutions to situations, whether internal or external, and present them to the public. That public exchange of ideas and solutions through critique, praise and conversation reminds us that we are not as alone as we think.  This is the ultimate goal of philosophy as well – it just happens to get sometimes bogged down by its own headiness. Animation helps break that stigma by being a medium unobstructed by factors of reality. It is the purest form of image, and image is the universal language. New connections and new understandings can be found with use of this new language and they should be. I am ecstatic that there are more mainstream efforts, like The Midnight Gospel that give it the same respect.


The Midnight Gospel – Netflix

Ghost in the Shell

Waking Life

PBS Digital Studios’ Blank on Blank

Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? – also on youtube