- Taking a Joke Seriously:Mickey Mouse and William Kentridge1
Transformation, metamorphosis is of course the bread and butter of animation in the studio. Something difficult to do… on the stage, to turn a cat into a telephone, gets called together by the cloth, the paper, the charcoal, the eraser.—William Kentridge, "Drawing Lesson 5: In Praise of Mistranslation."
The film opens in what appears to be the control room of a large organization: computers line the left wall, and, on a large clock, moving hands illustrate the passage of time. The scene shifts abruptly to a man in a pinstriped business suit, standing in what seems to be a bedroom (wood flooring, a fireplace, a small rug and the end of a single bed), reading a letter, which moves slightly as he holds it. Then, the third scene: a difficult-to-identify structure next to the side of a road—gleaming tracks on the road suggest that it could be a tram station, but the position of the windows also hint at the security booth of a gated community or large business. A bird flies over from the top left corner of the screen, leaving a smudged trail behind it, and the scene changes again, to a close-up of the top of [End Page 1146] a power line, where a bird (the same one?) appears at the top left corner and flies across the screen, still trailing black smudges. Finally, the scene shifts again and a black cat walks across the screen from left to right. As the cat walks along a white wall, letters spelling out the word "Stereoscope" appear one by one on the wall behind it. This is the "cold open" of William Kentridge's eighth Drawing for Projection, Stereoscope (1999). All of this is drawn in charcoal and animated by a kind of stop-motion animation, where small changes are made to a base drawing in between sequential shots of it. Thus "each sequence as opposed to each frame of the film is a single drawing" (Kentridge, "'Fortuna'" 64). The charcoal leaves smudged traces behind when it is erased, resulting in, for example, the trail behind the bird as it flies across the sky. Kentridge uses this technique, which he calls "stone age film-making" ("'Fortuna'" 61), to produce a drawn and animated world peopled by three main characters—the man in the pinstripe suit, Soho Eckstein, his wife, Mrs. Eckstein, and Felix Teitlebaum, an artist who pursues Mrs. Eckstein—along with an accompanying cast of, among others, miners, doctors, police agents, a land surveyor called Nandi, a living statue, and an omnipresent black cat.
I've described this opening sequence in such great detail because it includes many of the stylistic features that I'll discuss in this paper: the imitation of filmic conventions (the moving hands on the clock indicating the accelerated passage of time); the use of visual cues to create meaning (we know Soho is reading the letter because it moves slightly in his hand); the creation of continuity between shots (the bird flying from left to right, linking two sequential drawings, suggests that these scenes are temporally and geographically adjacent); the mixing of realistic and impossible effects (the outsize cat patrolling a suburban wall and producing the word "Stereoscope" behind it). In my attempt to address the question of why Kentridge, in this particular section of his substantial body of work (which includes everything from constructing large mechanically-operated music instruments to directing and co-designing the Metropolitan Opera's 2010 production of Shostakovich's The Nose), chooses to engage with animation, I examine how he uses both the technological apparatus and techniques of this medium, and what they allow him to do. In this brief introduction I begin to suggest some answers, but a fuller explanation will require me to delve back into the history of the medium itself.
Rosalind Krauss, in her article "'The Rock': William Kentridge's Drawings for Projection" (originally published in 2000), has written very insightfully on Kentridge's technique of "stone-age film-making." To [End Page 1147] Krauss, "the medium is the memory" (19), and thus, in order to study...