Carmen Hannibal – Metamorphic Identity Over Time: interpreting Priit Pärn’s Some Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life

Not much has been written a great deal about Estonian animation, likely due to severe censorship on film production during the Soviet occupation of Estonia in the post-war era. As Andreas Trossek writes, censorship on this scale subsequently delayed the wider distribution of Estonian animated film outside the country (2008, pp. 33-36), possibly also withholding scholarly interrogation of these films until Estonian independence in 1991 when the films became available in new distribution formats. Although generally perceived as a symbol for Estonian animation in Western Europe, there is very little written about contemporary Estonian animator Priit Pärn’s (1946 -) hand-drawn short film from 1980, Some Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life. Why this is the case is not clear, but the director’s use of crude line drawings, circular repetition, slightly mistimed music and subsidiary surrealism, challenges even patient viewers to make sense of it, a seemingly-futile task for an audience expecting a coherent narrative, or at least a reasonable explanation of the general content of the animation. Despite its opaqueness, I have been drawn to the counterintuitive logic of Pärn’s film. By closely examining the imagery in Pärn’s animation, I wish to propose a new interpretation of the storyline, which I hope will spark revived interest in Some Exercises, particularly as there are almost no extended writings on his film.

From a political to a philosophical interpretation

For those unfamiliar with Some Exercises, in summary, the film is about an encounter between a boy and a man. During the progression of their interaction, and with the intervention of a hand that – through metamorphosis – provokes a merging of the pair, they seem to switch roles by taking over the unmistakable world of the other.

 

Marsh Murphy (2005) has examined the film in detail, favouring an interpretation that emphasises the dialectic play between the boy as a free-spirited individual and the man as society’s suppressing bureaucrat and proposing an analogy between the narrative of the animation and the sociopolitical influence on Estonia by the Soviet occupation. According to Murphy, the main theme of the story is connected to the ability to live freely and independently within Estonian society at the time, and more specifically, how such independence was perhaps not actually possible (p. 12). Estonian art critic Mari Laaniste, however, questions whether or not Pärn’s animation was intended as a political commentary on the historical events of the time and should primarily be understood within this framework. In “Pushing the Limits: Priit Pärn’s Animated Cartoons and Soviet Cinema Censorship” (2008), she argues that the political circumstances under which the animations were created might be given too much attention in contemporary interpretations of his work. She contends further that the sources of personal testimonies from the Soviet period tend to support the view that Pärn is mainly concerned with strong political themes, are equally dubious as historically true. She points out that a narrow focus on the historical backdrop functions to make the interpretation of Pärn’s work more exciting than what the films themselves portray, outside Pärn’s historical context (p. 47). Forwarding a series of other possible reasons why Some Excesses was not widely screened, Laaniste concludes that “nobody can really tell any more” (p. 52).

In my own analysis, I sidestep a sociopolitical analysis of the film in favour of an alternative interpretation based on the notion that the boy and the man are in fact the very same person. My more personally-oriented approach foregrounds an interpretation that shifts more towards questions concerning philosophical problems, which I believe Some Exercises brings to mind through its visual content. Starting from media historian Norman Klein’s take on the self-reflexive nature of the animated metamorphosis effect in animation (2000, p. 22), I aim to bring into consideration a narrative that surrounds the old philosophical discussion on ‘personal identity over time,’ which, according to Patrick Connolly (2018, IEP), is commonly known to have been initially proposed in the 17th century 1689 by English philosopher John Locke. In other words, and not to be misunderstood as the process of maturation, I suggest that the metamorphic technique of the animated image in Some Exercises cleverly poses the question of how a person continues to exist as the same person over time, rather than ceasing to exist.

Metamorphic qualities

Sergei Eisenstein neatly describes our psychological tendency to personify movement, which he also recognised in animation, arguing that “in phenomena or objects in which movement was detected, there were suspected at one time or another signs of energy, will, life” (1986, p. 54). By the end of the 19th century, imitations of movement were complimented by chalk drawings on blackboards in British music halls, known as lightning cartoons. As Malcolm Cook notes, one of the main characteristics of these performances was the surprising transformation of displayed motifs, revealed by the hand of the artist, who cunningly changed the line drawings. As these performances over time were combined with techniques developed for trick films, the performing artists would eventually recede from the act, making the moving line drawings appear to have an agency of their own (2013, pp. 247-251). According to Norman Klein (2000), only hidden traces of their hands at work could still be found in later animations, changing seemly autonomous line drawings into protoplasm form and back again. During this transformation, laws of nature start to dissolve as morphing effects gain control, shape-shifting forms out of scale (p. 23). It is within this tradition of animation where our normal perception of the world is bending, best described as a state of metamorphosis, that Pärn locates his animation.

On the white page of the background, a young boy jumps and jitters, playfully escaping any consistent contour as his body morphs into a tree, a car, a cloud, a butterfly and back again. He holds not one shape but brings to life the unstable fundamentals of his metamorphic existence. Interrupting this particular existence is a seemingly displeased adult man in a brown suit in what resembles an office. Absolute stability prevails and properly executed gestures provide structure for the man: sitting on a chair, picking up the phone, reading a newspaper and lifting his hat. In sharp contrast to the boy, the man consists of one solid shape that does not give way to any changes. As their encounter unfolds, atmospheres collide (Klein 2000, p. 23). When the boy starts to curiously imitate the man’s repetitive actions, the boy’s morphing events start to settle, and when the man is confusedly pushed into the play-world of the boy, the man’s solid form begins to stir up. Amusing as these colliding moments are, the metamorphic effect calls for our acute attention as it reveals an ontological dimension to the imagery as the man’s head gradually morphs into the head of the boy. For a moment the character becomes aware that he is, in fact, the little boy who has been present the whole time.

The use of metamorphosis in the film thus serves to emphasise the contrasting nature of the two characters and what they might represent in order to form the overall themes of the animation, e.g. political concerns of independence, as Murphy argues. However, as I argue, the metamorphic effect also works as a narrative heuristics to visualise how these two characters rest in one and the same person, sparking the character’s understanding of himself as someone completely different yet remaining the very same person, when he metamorphosis into his younger self. The metamorphic effect in Some Exercises thus holds the key to interpret both form and content.

Philosophical perspectives

The concept of personal identity over time brings into focus the assumption that it is possible to talk about people in terms of continuity. Olson wonders, if a person exists at one moment in time and a person exists at another moment in time, then the question becomes – what is necessary and sufficient for them to be one and the same person, rather than two? (2017, n.p.). Although there is no consensus on how to adequately answer this philosophical problem, there have according to Della Rocca (2014), throughout history been various attempts to solve it. Initially embedded in a religious worldview, wherein Christian beliefs about a life after death made the problem important in the context of the possibility of an afterlife, the problem today is concerned more with our selves in relation to our day-to-day lives that presupposes such continuity and to our contemporary moral practices.

During the 17th century, two views dominated the discussion among theologians and philosophers. While some focused on the sameness of the soul, others focused on the sameness of the body. Inthe first view, because the soul is an immaterial non-physical substance, and therefore not detectable through the senses, it is not possible to be sure that someone is always the same person. For the latter, problems arose about how individuals, who had experienced bodily death, could be resurrected with the same body given that their bodies on earth would decay. As both views faced different explanatory difficulties, they invited the consideration for other understandings of personal identity over time. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), English philosopher John Locke contributed significantly to the problem by rejecting both views.[i] As noted by Forstrom (2010, p. 24), for Locke the key to personal identity over time was the sameness of consciousness. More precisely, he argued that consciousness is determined and constituted by ‘memory’: a person remains the same throughout time, if and only if, person X can remember enough of what happened to person Y. Further to this, Noonan (2000, p. 216) stresses that central to this notion of consciousness, is its capacity to identify itself as itself in different time and places. According to Locke, personal identity over time is possible when a person’s consciousness of self is extended over time, through memories of previous thoughts and actions. This new understanding of personal identity over time made it possible to think of personal immortality, independent from the identity of any substances, whether material or immaterial.

Locke’s account of personal identity over time does not at first glance seem to contribute much to our understanding of Pärn’s animation, and even less to the metamorphic effect used on its characters. I will, nevertheless, stress that in light of these philosophical discussions, it is possible to show how the character’s self at different moments in time of his life is connected through memories aided by metamorphic events, forming the basis of a subtle narrative in Some Exercises. Moreover, my contention that it is exactly in such interpretation of the narrative that a fascination with this animation must lie. As the viewer engages with the character’s lyrical exploration of himself as a continuing self over time, they are themselves invited to reflect upon and try to comprehend the very mystery of the continuity of their own self-existence. As Robinson points out, central to Pärn’s work lies the question of ‘how people live’ (2006, p. 97). Although Robinson refers to the effects of the sociopolitical constraints of the post-war era, it is likewise possible to derive a philosophical dimension to Robinson’s assertions. The interpretation of Pärn’s film is thereby not limited to the conflicting nature of existence in an external world, but also forms a catalyst for self-reflection on the self as a person changes over time. Keeping the philosophical framework of personal identity over time in mind, I will now suggest a new interpretation of Some Exercises.

The lightning hand and the strive towards an independent life

The man in the film is at first introduced as a fun-loving boy. His bodily form changes at almost every frame and the instability of the line drawings imply the character’s fluxing existence. He swiftly morphs into a tree, a car, a cloud, a butterfly, but always returns to his original form as a boy. Despite the fact that everything about him can infinitely morph and change, the character still remains the same self, because he thinks and perceives himself as being a boy and not a plurality of beings and objects. This idea supports the notion that the ‘identity’ of the boy lies in his conscious awareness, rather than his bodily form – a point that will become more explicit later in the film through the metamorphic effect. A little further into the animation, what might appear as a disrupting encounter with his future self as an adult, is instead a jump in time of the character’s life. This is due to the notion that the transformation that is about to unfold is not displayed in a chronological order, but is rather a collision game of memory links, which extends back to his experiences of himself at the end of his carefree living in his childhood. By understanding the narrative in this sense, the man is fundamentally still the same playful person he was as a boy with the ability to morph, but has also now transformed into a conforming adult, as demonstrated by how he is depicted working a rigid desk job in an anonymous office and how his daily life now consists of repetitive and predictable behaviour.

A human hand enters the screen at several times, interfering with the unfolding narrative by changing the course of its direction and subsequently the plot of the animation. An understanding of the intervening hand in Some Exercises as in line with the idea of the ‘lightning-hand’ in lightning cartoons, brings awareness to the hand’s effect on our interpretation of the displayed motifs in the film; in this case, the character as having a continuing identity. More simply, the hand in Some Exercises now acts as the very point of connection for the surprising transformation of the merging of the boy and the man into the one and same person, opening up a door into the shape-shifting dimension of the animation and new interpretation of the prior and following events. Five minutes into the short film, the hand is drawing a ladybird walking across the man’s desk, which he then follows with his head, eventually continuing the movement into the metamorphosis of his head into the head of the boy. At the end of this metamorphosis, when the head of the boy is now positioned on the body of the man, the man touches his head in a sudden manner, as to reassure himself that he is still there. In other words, the man is now able in his conscious mind to recollect past memories. It is at this moment that the man becomes aware that he was once the boy who could morph into a tree, a car, a cloud, a butterfly. And so does the viewer.

The presence of the animating hand therefore not only highlights the process of creating the animated piece itself but also points to the notion that our sense of the characters as now having a personal identity that has persisted over time from child- to adulthood is likewise expressed through the gesture of the hand. The lightning-hand’s effect on our interpretation of the narrative – now about the man’s exploration of himself as a person that changes but remains the same – further indicates that the creator’s ability to utilise the technique of metamorphosis in animation makes Some Exercises a good case to talk about the puzzle of human existence. The moment of amusement and surprise when this hidden narrative is revealed is what I believe drives the ongoing fascination with Pärn’s animation, as its use of metamorphosis touches upon the philosophical question of personal identity over time.

Provoked by the hand’s mischievous power to change the character’s conceivable existence, memories from when he was an ever-changing boy begins to emerge in his consciousness of self as an adult. Having in mind Locke’s proposed theory of the importance of memories in terms of the question about personal identity, it now possible to interpret the following sequences after the 5-minute mark as the man’s memory-like awareness of his past identity. These sequences make use of effects such as the sound of distant radio music and sepia-colour images, to evoke past memories of himself as a young boy. His self-identification of being a boy who can exist as infinitely different beings, due to his metamorphic attributions, now enables him to consider the possibility for making earlier versions of himself resurface, reconnecting part and present events to form his personal identity. Or, the man is now conscious that he might draw on memories of his ‘self’ in different times of his life, to qualify him for being the same individual person who has sustained over time. Towards the end of Some Exercises, where the man is starting to explore his ability to morph again, he seems to realise that the only way for him to exist independently from outside structures, whatever forms they may take, is to distinguish himself over time from other existences, by exercising his recollected metamorphic attributions containing unlimited processes of his self coming into being. In light of the proposed interpretation, he is only now able to understand that no matter how he has seemed to be changed unrecognisable over time, he is still the very same person as he has always been, namely his identity as a metamorphic being.

Conclusion

As I have argued, an interpretation of the Some Exercises combining the metamorphic imagery with the philosophical question of personal identity over time, provides a refreshing appreciation for Pärn’s Some Exercises as a self-reflexive piece. Self-reflexive both in terms of the creation of the animation itself and also by the very question posed to the viewer during the animation. In light of analyses of the film to date, I have sought to present an interpretation that would reveal a cunningly clever and more subtle narrative in Some Exercises that derives from the effect of metamorphosis as the central point for exploring how the characters are, in the end, the one and same person. This alternative interpretation is informed on the notion that Pärn’s animation is not necessarily only a reflection of the socio-political times of its creation, stressed by Laaniste (2008), but could also be understood as an exercise in carefully re-interpreting the metamorphic imagery to find a new story about how one lives as a continued self. By interpreting the animation as a comment about “how to live” (Robinson 2006, p. 97) from questioning how we can persist over time, rather than simply as a political remark, I hope that the viewer takes away from the animation some thoughts about how they themselves can change, but still remain the same.

An earlier version of this paper was presented in 2017 at the Society for Animation Studies’ 29th annual international conference in Padova, Italy. I would like to thank Amy Ratelle for helpful advice.

Carmen Hannibal graduated with an MA in Animation Production from Art University Bournemouth in 2014 and is currently a PhD candidate in Animation at the Royal College of Art. She has worked as an independent researcher studying metaphor in animation in the UK, Austria and Denmark and her article, “Subjective Perspective as Creative Metaphor in the Animated Film” recently appeared in mediaesthetics – Journal of Poetics of Audio-visual Images.


References

Connolly, P. (n. date) “John Locke (1632—1704).” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: https://www.iep.utm.edu/locke/#SH3d, [Accessed September 28th, 2018].

Cook, M. (2013). “The lightning cartoon: Animation from music hall to cinema.” Early Popular Visual Culture, 11 (3): pp. 237-254.

Della Rocca, M. (2014). “Early Modern: Locke on Personal Identity, Part 1. [online]. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/wi-phi/wiphi-history/wiphi-early-modern/v/locke-personal-identity-part-1. [Accessed September 28th 2018].

Forstrom, K. (2010). John Locke and Personal Identity, Immortality and Bodily Resurrection in Seventeenth-Century Philosophy. London: Continuum.

Klein, N. (2000). Animation and Animorphs: A Brief Disappearing Act”. Meta-Morphing: Visual Transformation and the Culture of Quick Change. Ed. Vivian Sobchack. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp 21-39.

Laaniste, M. (2008). “Pushing the Limits: Priit Pärn’s Animated Cartoons and Soviet Cinema Censorship.” Place and Location: Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics 7, pp. 47-55.

Leyda, J. (1986). Eisenstein on Disney. Trans. Alan Upchurch. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

Locke, J. (1996) [1689]. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Murphy, M. (2005). “Harjutusi Iseseisvaks Eluks: Some Exercises in Preparation for an                                       Independent Life”. Metro Cinema 2, p.12.

Noonan, H. (2000). “Locke on Personal Identity.” John Locke:An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in Focus. Ed. G. Fuller, R. Stecker & J.P. Wright. London: Routledge, pp. 210-35.

Olson, E. (2017) “Personal Identity.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online] Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/identity-personal/ [Accessed September 28th 2018].

Robinson, C. (2006). Estonian Animation: Between Genius and Utter Illiteracy. New Barnet: John Libbey Publishing.

Trossek, A (2008). “When Did It Get Political? Soviet Film Bureaucracy and Estonian Hand-Drawn Animation.”  Place and Location: Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics 7: pp. 31-45

Filmography

Some Exercise in Preparation for Independent Life (Estonia, 1980). [Harjutusi iseseisvaks eluks, Director, Priit Pärn [DVD, 9:05 min]. Estonia: TALLINNFILM.

 

Notes

[i] It should be noted that Locke’s theory on personal identity has been heavily critiqued following its publication, mainly by Bishop Berkeley and Thomas Reid. For further discussions on the proposed objections, see Forstom chapter 6 Locke’s Theory of Personal Identity in Its Context: A Reassessment of Classic Objections. For the purpose of my argument I do, nonetheless, find Locke’s proposed theory of the importance of memories in relation to the question of personal identity to be sufficient to my analysis of the imagery in Pärn’s animation.

 

© Carmen Hannibal

Edited by Amy Ratelle

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