Pixar with Lacan
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Pixar with Lacan

The Hysteric's Guide to Animation

Lilian Munk Rösing

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eBook - ePub

Pixar with Lacan

The Hysteric's Guide to Animation

Lilian Munk Rösing

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About This Book

The films from Pixar Animation Studios belong to the most popular family films today. From Monsters Inc to Toy Story and Wall-E, the animated characters take on human qualities that demand more than just cultural analysis. What animates the human subject according to Pixar? What are the ideological implications? Pixar with Lacan has the double aim of analyzing the Pixar films and exemplifying important psychoanalytic concepts (the voice, the gaze, partial object, the Other, the object a, the primal father, the name-of-the-father, symbolic castration, the imaginary/ the real/ the symbolic, desire and drive, the four discourses, masculine/feminine), examining the ideological implications of the images of human existence given in the films.

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Beyond the Name of the Father: Toy Story

In the very first ‘birth scene’ of an animated Pixar character that you could watch on screen, the cowboy doll Woody becoming alive in Toy Story, ‘animation’ is staged as voice and gaze: Woody is changed from a toy to a live character the moment he speaks, and his painted empty eyes become the site of a gaze.
Now, as voice and gaze may seem the trademarks of ‘humanity’ and ‘subjectivity’, Lacan nevertheless puts them on the side of the object, regarding them as potential partial objects, objects to be desired, and to be feared. I shall in this chapter inquire into the ‘animation’ of Woody as well as his seemingly psychotic pal, the space toy Buzz Lightyear. My analysis of Toy Story will take its point of departure in the dimension of the voice, whereas the dimension of the gaze will be central for my analysis of Toy Story 2 (Chapter 2).
The basic scene of the Toy Story films is a boy’s (Andy’s) room, and the characters are his toys, coming alive whenever they are left on their own. The main characters are the cowboy doll Woody and the space toy Buzz Lightyear.
In Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) arrives as Andy’s birthday present and right away becomes his favourite toy, thus dethroning Woody (Tom Hanks). In a series of events initiated by Woody’s jealousy, and by a detour to the fast food restaurant ‘Pizza Planet’, they both end up with the neighbour’s boy Sid, who is a really bad kid, treating his toys sadistically, blowing them up or tearing them apart, putting them together again in surrealist constellations (like a doll’s head with spider legs). In Sid’s home, in a strangely touching scene, Buzz gets to realize through a TV commercial that he is not really a space ranger, but a mass-produced toy – thus he is not unique, and he cannot fly. Through cunning planning and by the help of Sid’s surrealist creations, his kind of mutant toys, Woody and Buzz manage to scare Sid and escape from him, just as he is about to fire off Buzz, being bound to a big rocket, which becomes instead a means for Buzz and Woody to fire themselves into Andy’s car, as he is moving with his mother to a new house. The moral seems quite clear: by overcoming your jealous rivalry, realizing your own limitations, and working together, you can make it. In its pedagogical address to children the film definitely deals with the problem of sibling rivalry. (As my younger son said, when he was seven years old: it is about being the super-coolest, and then somebody else arrives and becomes the super-coolest.)

The voice, the alien

In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Žižek claims that cartoons as well as silent movies present us with a universe without guilt, sexuality and death, as those themes enter into human life only with the voice. In a lucid analysis of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which has moments of silent as well as talking movie, he claims that this film is all about the problem of ‘domesticating the terrifying dimension of the voice’. As long as Chaplin is the Jewish barber living in the peaceful ghetto, he is in the infantile universe of silent movie, with all its primitive laughs and aggressions and gags – as soon as he gets into the role of his double, the German dictator Hynkel, he is inhabited by a voice threatening to demonize him. In the final scene, when the Jewish barber dressed up as dictator gives his heroic speech promoting democratic values, Žižek remarks that his appearance and the enthusiastic reaction of the crowd do not differ very much from the situation of the totalitarian dictator. Even if Chaplin here preaches nice, democratic values, the very demon of the voice has entered his body, threatening to transform him into just a copy of the dictator he is verbally attacking. Thus the voice becomes an instance of that ‘alien’ which, according to Žižek (and psychoanalysis in general) is at the core of humanity: ‘Humanity means: the alien is controlling our animal bodies’ (Žižek in Fiennes 2006, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema).
When we look at the history of animated film, it surely takes its beginning as silent movie, in that ‘anal-oral-egoistic’ universe which Žižek finds ruling those innumerable cartoons where animated animals are chasing and mutilating each other – and which might actually seem a perfect illustration of the paranoid-schizoid universe of the infant as Melanie Klein describes it: the universe where there is nothing between one being and another but revengeful aggression and attacks. Actually, animated film is still often silent movie, and the truth about voice even in live action (that it is not emitted from the body images on the screen, but from another source) is more evident in animated talkies. In the animated universe of Pixar the voice is certainly one of the constitutive features of ‘animation’ in the sense of bringing human life into the representations of things and animals.
Turning to Woody’s ‘birth scene’ in Toy Story, we may start by observing that he actually has two ‘birth scenes’ in the film, two crucial moments of becoming alive. The first one is in the film’s first scene when Woody is left on the bed by Andy, having until then been the one to ‘animate’ him as the child animates his toy. The second one is towards the end of the film, scene 26, when Woody is placed on the barbecue by the sadistic neighbour kid Sid, but starts pronouncing threats with his mechanical voice and finally ‘comes alive’ in Sid’s hand, talking to him, and staring directly at him. Whereas the gaze and the voice in the first scene humanize Woody, in the scene at Sid’s they rather demonize him. When traumatized Sid tells his sister, ‘the toy is alive’, this is (at it would be in reality) really, really scary.
So what animates us, what inhabits us? Is it a soul, or is it a demon? Do the voice and the gaze stem from some kind of inner source of humanity – or are they rather transplanted into our bodies? In the case of animation movies, the voice is clearly something that is put into the figure (and sometimes actually changes the character, as becomes clear from the commentary track to Toy Story, where the animators tell us that Tim Allen’s voice made them change Buzz from a superhero to a space cop). In Toy Story, furthermore, both Buzz and Woody have both a mechanical and a human voice, and what happens in Woody’s animation at Sid’s is a kind of fusion of those two: Woody is talking with his mechanical voice, but he is free to say what he wants, not just replay the same mechanical and rather idiotic sentence (‘there is a snake in my boot’).
Departing from Žižek’s point: ‘Humanity means: the alien is controlling our human bodies’, Woody’s second animation scene is perhaps not contradictory to his first, but rather its truth: humanization is just as much a demonization, a being invaded by the alien, the voice. Thus the ‘animation’ of the animated film might be seen as a familiarization of something which is actually deeply unfamiliar and scary.

Falling with style

The story of Buzz Lightyear’s fall, central to Toy Story, is yet another story of what animates the subject. The fall may be seen as constituting Buzz as a neurotic. Until then his character matches Lacan’s definition of the psychotic: the one who firmly believes in the big Other.
As explained in the introduction to this book, the big Other (French: L’Autre) is Lacan’s concept for that place – be it a person, an ideology, God, common sense – where I believe the truth about my existence, the meaning of my life, the guarantee of my identity, to be located. For Buzz Lightyear, the big O is the outer space control from which he (thoroughly psychotically) believes he has been sent on a mission.
In Toy Story, in the scenes taking place in the fast food restaurant ‘Pizza Planet’, one may observe yet another allegory for big O: ‘the claw’. The claw is placed in an automate where children can catch small, green, plastic Martians. As Woody and Buzz fall down in the automate, we experience ‘the Claw’ from the small Martians’ perspective – and here it certainly functions as ‘the big O’: the God-like instance ‘choosing’ certain of its creatures to be lifted. In the DVD version of Toy Story, the menu is designed as a TV screen being watched by the small, green Martians, waiting excitedly for the choice of the remote control. Thus the position of the spectator is given as the position of a small plastic Martian, and the TV screen becomes the place from which the big Other emanates. This is something recurrent in Pixar: it is by watching a screen that the characters come to know their desire. This may be both the wish of a movie company, and a truth of our time: the screen is what animates us.
Back to Buzz: his confrontation with the screen is actually something other than the affirmation of imaginary identity, on the contrary it is the deconstruction of imaginary identity – the moment when he is forced to give up his firm belief in the big O. It is spelt out on the screen that he is just one in a series, ‘not a flying toy’, and that he is ‘made in Taiwan’, which is confirmed when Buzz, horrified, observes that writing on his wing. Thus Buzz could be said to be awakening from his psychotic delusion: the subject discovers that he is not an instrument of some all-knowing big Other, he is just a product in a multiple series of similar products, and he does not have any supernatural powers. It is the moment when he realizes what Woody has been screaming to him earlier in the film: ‘YOU ARE A TOY’.
To put it in another way, Buzz realizes that he is not the Buzz Lightyear, he is just a Buzz Lightyear. This is how Woody puts it in a scene before the fall when he says reproachfully: ‘You really think you are the Buzz Lightyear?’, and then there is a scene after the fall when he says approvingly and encouragingly: ‘You’re a Buzz Lightyear’ (which is a very fine thing to be). One might say that here Woody behaves as a really bad shrink, telling Buzz a truth he is not yet ready to face. Furthermore, in his remark ‘You are not the real Buzz Lightyear’ Woody seems himself to be deluded, as if ‘the real Buzz Lightyear’ (and not just copies) existed. Altogether one cannot blame Buzz for answering, when Woody screams into his head: ‘YOU-ARE-A-TOY’, ‘You are a little sad man, and you have my pity.’
Now, Buzz’s condition is not just some ‘toyish’ condition, but rather an allegory of the human condition: the big Other and our imaginary identity are illusions, and somehow we have to realize that, painful as it may be.
The moment when Buzz gives up the idea of some unique, essential identity is the moment when he becomes the subject of his own desire, his own mission (instead of this mission of the big O from outer space). Even if one must of course be strictly aware that he is on a mission for Pixar, whatever kind of big O that might be …
Buzz’s fall is clearly staged as castration, a feminization: he loses his arm, and after the fall Sid’s sister dresses him up as ‘Mrs Nesbit’ in apron and hat, and places him at a doll’s tea table where he gets drunk on Darjeeling: ‘The one minute I am defending the whole galaxy, the next minute I am sucking down Darjeeling.’
Furthermore the fall is staged as a crucifixion (after the fall Buzz forms a cross on the floor), which makes of Woody a Judas, who is according to Žižek the greatest ethical hero of the Bible, being the traitor whose act is necessary for Jesus/Buzz to fulfil his mission.
What Buzz is going through is what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls a subjective destitution: the subject realizing, as Žižek puts it in his colloquial way, that it is just a piece of shit, thereby actually and paradoxically gaining its subjectivity. When you give up the illusion of your subjectivity as a unique kernel, you gain your subjectivity as that which it really is: a knot in a network, the crossing of several inscriptions: ‘Made in Taiwan’, ‘Walt Disney Productions’ (stamped on Buzz’s behind, shown in a very quick glimpse when he is falling), ‘Andy’ (Andy writes his name on his toys’ soles, including Buzz’s).
Book title
Figure 1 Buzz Lightyear forming a cross. From Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) © Pixar.
When you realize that you cannot fly, you are able to fall with style (which is Woody’s wording, finally taken over by Buzz: ‘I am not flying, I am falling with style’).

Beyond the name-of-the-father

Toy Story seems at first sight to represent a universe where fathers are absent. It is as if Andy only has a mother, even if there is no allusion to divorce or father’s death. Sid’s father is only represented by an arm, sticking out from the back of an armchair in front of the TV, whereas his mother, if not visually appearing, is at least represented by an articulated voice. But actually Andy and Sid could be seen themselves as father figures, as they are a kind of fathers to their toys.
From a Lacanian perspective, Andy represents the symbolic father, also known as the-name-of-the-father. This is the father as the function of inscribing the child into social order. Andy’s name very explicitly has this function of giving social identity to his toys: he marks them by writing his name on their soles. What saves Buzz from insanity is actually this very name-of-the-father written on his sole – when he sees it he gets out of his post-castration depression and takes action. So when it comes to the question of what makes a subject a subject, the film also points to this social inscription, the name-of-the-father. Buzz has more than one name-of-the-father, more than one social inscription: ‘Andy’ is supplemented by ‘Made in Taiwan’ and ‘Walt Disney Productions’ (which may also be seen as Pixar’s ironic tribute to their name-of-the-father). The subject is a product; humanity is a trade mark. Thus the film points to the fact that we are socially always products of more than one ‘father’; the inscriptions quilting us to the social world are not only our family name, but also names of other social forces than that of the family.
The series of such ‘brands’ or ‘inscriptions’ or ‘castration marks’ in the film is extensive: besides the literal inscriptions you have Buzz losing his arm, and Woody having a mark burned into his front like a kind of Kain’s mark (one may observe how this mark is prefigured by Buzz directing his impotent laser ray against Woody, and then inscribed for real when Sid burns a mark in Woody’s front by capturing rays of the sun in a looking glass). The Kain’s mark may allude to the theme of sibling rivalry, which is certainly an important theme in the Buzz/Woody relationship, but at the same time it marks that symbolic castration which has to happen to Woody as well, in order for the two of them to be able to ‘share the fall’ – which might be one way of defining love, and which is very literally what happens in the final scene when together they are ‘falling with style’ into Andy’s car.
Compared with Andy as the symbolic father, Sid could be said to represent the primal father, the one that tends to take over in the symbolic father’s absence, as Paul Verhaeghe makes clear in his article ‘The Collapse of the Function of the Father and its Effects on Gender Roles’: ‘Instead of the real primal father, it is the symbolic function which is destroyed, thereby setting loose what Lacan calls the primal anal father, a figure who is only on the lookout for his own jouissance’ (Verhaeghe 2000: 138). Sid bears the marks of this ‘father-of-enjoyment’ (Lacan: père-jouisseur): his sadistic behaviour, his satanic laughter, his passion for the fantasmatic phallus (the rocket called ‘the big One’ to which he attaches Buzz), his bad teeth that tend to be a characteristic of the visualizing of this fantasmatic figure (think of Bobby Peru/Willem Dafoe in David Lynch...

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Citation styles for Pixar with Lacan
APA 6 Citation
Rösing, L. M. (2015). Pixar with Lacan (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/801202/pixar-with-lacan-the-hysterics-guide-to-animation-pdf (Original work published 2015)
Chicago Citation
Rösing, Lilian Munk. (2015) 2015. Pixar with Lacan. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing. https://www.perlego.com/book/801202/pixar-with-lacan-the-hysterics-guide-to-animation-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Rösing, L. M. (2015) Pixar with Lacan. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/801202/pixar-with-lacan-the-hysterics-guide-to-animation-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Rösing, Lilian Munk. Pixar with Lacan. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.