In the aesthetics of experimental cinema, sex has always been an appealingly explorative motif. Film, being a medium powerful enough to convey abstract ideas, encourages artists to explore and visualize all senses beyond perception. This urge to examine the sensual is incredibly prevalent in experimental film or, in this case specifically, experimental animation.
The influence of Stan Brakhage will surely come up while discussing experimental animation. He is regarded as a forefather of draw-on-film animation. In this method, the artist’s main material is the film stock itself, creating drawings, or etchings directly on the film stock. Today, his work is now more accessible than ever; I remember going on a YouTube rabbit hole binge, captivated by the pure exploratory spirit he brings to his films. Brakhage’s approach created an imprint on cinema that extended beyond the sphere of experimental/avant-garde cinema. In a nutshell, he defined his work as an examination of “sex, death, and the quest for God” through abstract blasts of color, with no discernible plot or characters. One of his most famous work was Mothlight (1963), which was made by gluing pieces of moth wings, grass, and other things he found in his garden on the film strip.
Though Brakhage’s style is more abstract, Gotot Prakosa uses this approach in a different way in Indonesia, generating bright, colorful doodle-esque animations that immerse the audience into fresh perspectives and ideas challenging the regime at the time. His film titled A Film On Family Planning (1979) illustrates doodled penises and hearts contesting each other in its brilliant parody/critique of the government’s KB (Keluarga Berencana) program that intertwined private lives with Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime.
Both examples above show that sex has been a tremendous explorative topic in experimental cinema and draw-on-film animation specifically, or at least in my preconceived knowledge. This realization comes further upon attending this year’s Minikino Film Week 8 in Bali. As a result of being fortunate enough to access this year’s film catalog, I got fascinated with one particular short film that I feel continues this tradition of exploring the theme of sex in draw-on-film animation.
Made by illustrator/filmmaker Chaerin Im, the film Eyes and Horns (2021) is a modern type of draw-on-film animation. The animation is drawn from beautifully detailed etchings on plexiglass, then processed onto a light-sensitive cyanotype paper that gives its distinct sky-blue color. As an experimental filmmaker, what is distinct about Im is not only her unique techniques and craftsmanship, but also how she uses sex and gender as the main motif of her work. Her previous short films like Flora ‘꽃’ (2018) and Mate (2019) made by all kinds of techniques, from lithography, colored pencils, etching, even CGI animation. Yet, her work primarily focuses on the themes of sex. This intices me even more, considering how artists in the past like Prakosa and Brakhage also conveys ideas about sexuality through experimental animation.
Shot on digital, technically speaking, Eyes and Horns cannot be made with the draw-on-film technique. But, the aesthetic influence is undeniable; the film looks and feels like it was etched directly on celluloid, where each frame is a work of art in and of itself. I think the influence of draw-on-film animation has grown beyond its technical specifications. Where artists like Im might use a different process, the film still feels like a perfect fit for the trajectory of this tradition.
Narratively, the film explores sex and gender by dueling the concept of masculinity and femininity. Upon the first watch, the animation immediately feels like a profoundly vigorous yet sensual depiction of struggle, brought to life by the sexual discovery of a mythical half-goat, half-man minotaur. The film is also highly energetic and fast-paced, where the energy of the animation makes the experience very immersive. As an audience I was sucked into the film, bringing me on a journey into a mesmerizing perspective unimaginable by the eye. And what also amazes me was despite the fast pacing, the film still manages to bring a type of raw and profound emotion.
There is one particular moment in the film’s midpoint where the camera slowly tracks back from the minotaur’s pupils, then holds a position for a second to focus on their eyes. Just for a few seconds, the look the minotaur gave was captivating. It was a look of exhaustion and uncontrollable grief. The film continues with the minotaur overcoming this grief through self-discovery, where the dueling concepts of femininity and masculinity blur into a portrayal of being comfortable with oneself.
Upon reading more about the film, Im noted that the story and characters were heavily inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Vollard Suite, a series of etchings the artist made in the 1930s. Im choosing Picasso as her main inspiration for the film was a calculated and incredibly bold move. Though in the mainstream world, Picasso is considered a pioneer and highly respected, Art historians noted that Picasso was also famous for being a misogynist and a sexual abuser. In fact, the Vollard Suite this film was inspired by was a highly dark account of Picasso’s psyche. Picasso’s version of the minotaur was a toxic and violent monster, acting cruel and violent sexual acts toward helpless women.
In Eyes and Horns, on the other hand, Im holds autonomy on Picasso’s classic to flip it on its own head. Im transforms the minotaur from a monstrous personification of toxic masculinity into a compelling and profound analogy of the fluidity of sex and gender. This type of autonomy and exploration has always been the spirit of experimental cinema. What’s even more fitting, experimental animation allows even another level to this spirit of exploration.
Through the unconstrained nature of animation, artists like Chaerin Im could illustrate abstract feelings and emotions into something visually concrete and rebellious. Through Eyes and Horns, Im created an original redefinition of a toxic yet treasured piece of art from the past by telling a tale of intimacy, self-discovery, and the power of compassion.