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This article situates the Pixar computer animation Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, 2017) within a recent selection of afterlife fictions and questions why such narratives might appeal to our contemporary moment. The author’s response is structured around the idea of utopia. In Coco, he identifies several conceptions of utopic space and ideals. The afterlife fiction places characters and viewers in a reflexive location which affords them the opportunity to examine their lives as lived (rather than in death). Transplanting Richard Dyer’s work on classic Hollywood musicals as entertainment utopia to a contemporary animated musical, the article proposes that such a film can be seen as adhering to a kind of ‘new cinematic sincerity’. Coco’s particular depiction of The Day of the Dead fiesta and the Land of the Dead has its roots in the Mexican writer Octavio Paz’s poetic and romantic treatise The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950). A comparison between these two texts suggests that willing encounters with death can be connected to an openness to transitional states of being. Through close readings of key musical sequences in Coco, the author demonstrates how the properties of the musical are combined with animation aesthetics (baby schemata, virtual camera) to lead viewers into their own utopian space of heightened emotions and transition. Keywords afterlife, animation, Coco, emotion, music and musical, new sincerity, Pixar, utopia The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love. (Octavio Paz, 2005: 57) This article examines a recent film that, whilst made in the US (Hollywood), is rooted in Mexican culture (particularly Paz’s romantic conception as quoted above): Disney-Pixar’s Coco (dir. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, 2017). I propose that much of Coco’s narrative is situated Corresponding author: George Crosthwait, Department of Film Studies, King’s College London, Chesham Building, London WC2R 2LS, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org 180 animation: an interdisciplinary journal 15(2) in an afterlife (the Land of the Dead) in order to provide a reflective utopia, or no-place, where characters and viewers can contemplate their prior existence in the ‘Land of the Living’. Additionally, given Coco’s status as an animated film, I posit that: (1) this provides a space further removed from reality where we are nonetheless granted the critical distance to better contemplate reality; and (2) certain aesthetic properties inherent to animation (expression, framing and editing, virtual camera), combined with the film’s music, deploy a form of ‘emotional hot-wiring’ which can bypass the viewer’s intellectual faculties, leading to an immediate affective encounter between film and sentiment. Before conducting select close-readings of moments in Coco where these might occur, I will situate the film in the context of a recent glut of (Western) afterlife fictions. Following this, I outline why I believe utopia is increasingly prevalent in contemporary media and how we might approach it as a theoretical concept. I draw upon ideas taken from Richard Dyer (relating to musicals) and David Foster Wallace (relating to artistic sincerity) and, in describing the concept of ‘emotional utopia’, I incorporate a variety of recent scholarship engaged with realism, emotion and animation. I return to Paz’s writings on Mexican culture and the Day of the Dead celebrations, paying particular attention to his notes on the close relationship of transition (abjec- tion) and celebration during fiestas, comparing this to Gloria Anzaldúa’s work on liminal states of Mexican identity. If we follow Octavio Paz, then the US and Western Europe (their centres of commerce and culture, in particular) are judged to sustain an anathematic relationship with death, the idea perhaps being incompatible with the drives of progress and individualism. What, then, accounts for recent media from the US and the UK, including Coco, which contend with, or are located in, a variety of conceptions of an afterlife? Arguably, afterlife fiction conceals a further aversion to the idea of death – on we go, infinitely, with little or no conception of the trauma of dying beyond a brief existential speed bump. Indeed, scholars have argued that afterlife media represents our disbelief in our own mortality (Knox, 2006: 241). Both the TV series The Good Place (2016–present) and the stand-alone episode of the anthology show Black Mirror (2011–present), ‘San Junipero’ (2016), represent afterlife as artificial utopias: the former divinely created, and the latter technologically. George Saunders’ Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), predominantly takes place in the titular limbo between death and rebirth as described in Tibetan Buddhist scripture (Lopez, 2000). In each case, the characters live out an existence in spite of their demises. The Good Place is a supposed bespoke paradise, ‘San Junipero’ casts its users into a nostalgic frozen time capsule and the ‘shades’ of Saunders’ bardo believe themselves to be merely sick, despite being confined to a cemetery and experiencing all manner of spectral phenomena. Ultimately, these three examples ask their characters to reflect on their ‘post-existence’: why am I in the ‘Good Place’? Do I want to live in an eternally youthful past? Am I dead? If so, why am I in limbo? To a degree, these questions are extended to (presumably) the living viewers and readers as well. A sincere utopia? I have suggested that Coco’s musicality and perceived emotional sincerity can both be considered as relating to ideas of utopia. In order to provide a theoretical underpinning for these claims, I turn to Richard Dyer’s work on the former and the novelist David Foster Wallace’s essay on the latter. Writing about classical Hollywood musicals, Dyer (2002: 20) outlines the utopic qualities of ‘entertainment’: Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realised. Crosthwait 181 Certainly, the idea of escapist entertainment accounts for the appeal of much media – not just Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire – and presumably there also exists a kind of negative to Dyer’s description where the viewer is ‘entertained’ by the ‘sense that things could be worse’ in films depicting marginalized or oppressed societies. Dyer qualifies these remarks: Entertainment does not, however, present models of utopian worlds, as in the classic utopias of Thomas More, William Morris, et al. Rather the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized. It thus works at the level of sensibility, by which I mean an affective code that is characteristic of, and largely specific to, a given mode of cultural production. (p. 20) So, when we watch the utopias of The Good Place or ‘San Junipero’, according to Dyer at least, we do not truly believe in them as viable modes of existence. If they were too close to our lived experience, then perhaps they become too tainted by the quotidian. What these encounters do for us, and how they operate, is on a level of affect. The utopia onscreen is unachievable, but perhaps some personal and ‘realistic’ version would evoke the same sensory or emotional experience. Thus, for Dyer, the extent to which these encounters with onscreen utopias are productive is quite subjec- tive: ‘to be effective, the utopian sensibility has to take off from the real experiences of the audi- ence’ (p. 27). Returning to one of the original questions posed in the introduction: why the need to produce and watch afterlife utopias? In addition, do Dyer’s ‘utopias as emotional experience’ seek any purpose beyond escapism? Writing about US cable television and ‘image fiction’ (postmodern writing and filmmaking produced from the 1980s onwards) in the early 1990s, David Foster Wallace (1993: 173) bemoaned: the reason why today’s imagist fiction isn’t the rescue from a passive, addictive TV-psychology that it tries so hard to be is that most imagist writers render their material with the same ton of irony and self- consciousness that their ancestors, the literary insurgents of Beat and postmodernism used so effectively to rebel against their own world and context. What Wallace diagnosed back in 1993 was a US culture that had become predicated on a reductive form of irony which negated emotion and authenticity. Wallace believed that irony had outlived its original capacity for the criticism of cultural institutions, power structures and society which had seen it emerge as an aesthetic weapon during earlier countercultural epochs. ‘Irony’, he writes, ‘entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground- clearing . . . one ends up feeling not only empty but somehow . . . oppressed’ (p. 183). Wallace saw this trend not only in television and experimental fiction, but in the election campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush which used nostalgia in order to manufacture retrograde and artificial emotional responses in the American conservative heartlands (p. 185). Wallace connects this to his concluding prophecy/desire that we will see a reaction to this flatlining cultural irony: The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels,’ born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single- entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human trouble and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic . . . The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘how banal.’ Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity. (pp. 192–193) 182 animation: an interdisciplinary journal 15(2) Wallace’s call for an earnest response to irony that is rooted in emotion retroactively led to his essay becoming a key descriptor of the ‘new sincerity’ movement (Kelly, 2010; Moats, 2012). Initially used to describe a trend in Austin-based alternative rock music, new sincerity came to encompass literature and film (Collins, 1993) as well. Recently, bands such as Okkervil River (Shoup, 2018) and authors, like the aforementioned Saunders (Preston, 2018), who espouse an attitude or aesthetic of ‘kindness’, are often associated with the movement. Bearing this in mind, I propose that the entertainment utopia proposed by Dyer, given that it operates on the level of embodied feeling, is inherently a (no)place of non-ironic sincerity. Both Dyer’s golden age musicals and my afterlifes arguably correspond to Wallace’s move towards the unfashionable. Whilst musicals and afterlife films can be viewed and enjoyed ironically (there is nothing to preclude this), their construction relies, on some level, upon a sincere belief in musical fantasy-spaces and the spiritual connotations of any form of afterlife. Thus, in an unwritten film– viewer contract, any example of cinematic sincerity (politely) dares its audience to approach it with the same degree of sincerity by which it is presented. Coco, being both a musical and an afterlife film, solicits the viewer on both fronts. It is also animated, which, as I shall argue, lends a third aspect to its particular emotional utopia. Why you are crying In this section I wish to convey two aspects regarding the potential of animation: firstly, its ability to transcend and negate issues of verisimilitude and realism, and secondly its highly effective capacity to invoke emotional responses in audiences. Writing about the relationship between Mamoru Oshii’s classic anime, Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Japanese puppet theatre (bunraku), Christopher Bolton (2002: 739) remarks that bunraku has often been heralded for its ability to invoke emotion ‘and that the artificial . . . can often move the audience more effectively than the strictly realistic’. In reference to Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725), Bolton gleans that ‘the pathos of the puppets depends on this ability to oscillate between real and unreal, simultaneously more and less than human’ (p. 745), and that the dramatic efficacy of both bunraku puppets and the cyborgs in Ghost in the Shell ‘depends on their being both dead and alive, specifically on the uncanny ability of these inanimate actors to simulate life’ (p. 742). Puppet theatre, through its inescapable artificiality and the presence of its human operators (ever visible onstage, dressed in black), releases the audience from any particular concern about a reality effect. And whilst Bolton attributes the same bypass of reality to cyborgs, I believe we might extend this to animation itself. Again, with animation, we are confronted with a represen- tation that cannot, and does not want to, hide its constructedness. Although we do not see the anima- tor as we do the puppeteers, the movement of the figures on screen is, in itself, an ever-present index of human intervention (either by hand or through animation software). Watching animation places us in a comfort zone separated from realism/naturalism. Generic and medium expectations precon- dition us to treat the fantastic and surreal as routine (but not necessarily mundane). Malou van Rooij (2019: 195) repurposes the idea of ‘perceptual realism’ (see Prince, 1996: 32) to describe our acceptance of animated realities – we implicitly accept and understand the ani- mated fantasy world as feasible so long as it corresponds to an internal logic that is also reasonably consistent with our world (a computer-animated dragon obeying the laws of aerodynamics, for instance). Alan Cholodenko (2007: 90) has formulated this in terms of hyperrealism or hyperani- mation, citing Disney’s efforts ‘to be more live action than live action’. Pixar, and by extension Coco, ‘becomes [a] singular exemplar of not only hyperanimation but of hyperDisney animation, the pure and empty form of Disney animation’ (p. 90). Christopher Holliday (2016: 246–247) has analysed how, in animation, animals and objects are frequently anthropomorphized and are Crosthwait 183 designed ‘around behavioural patterns that are anchored to recognizably “human” psychology, intentionality and proportion’. Pushing this further, we might see human animated figures as them- selves anthropomorphized, dealing as we are with representations of humans imbued with recog- nizable human traits. So the resting, watching state of an animation viewer is already quite comfortably at a remove from reality: a sincerely insincere position. Meike Uhrig (2019a), despite noting the incongruity of intricately programmed technology being so effectively affective, writes: With the ability to move beyond the constraints of the empirical ‘real world’, animation allows for an immense freedom of the portrayed – its aesthetic covering the full spectrum from stylized or abstract to photorealistic. Thus, computer animations are a powerful tool for depicting, studying, and manipulating emotions. Whilst this echoes my previous line of thought, Uhrig proposes that a release from the empirical provides great ‘freedom’ for not only depicting but also experiencing emotion. Paul Wells (2019) expounds on this idea in a manner that harkens back to Bolton’s writing on cyborgs and puppets: Its [animation’s] artificial and illusionist status signifies its self-conscious presence as an interpretive form, and privileges its presence as an enunciative practice. In literally announcing its very ‘difference’ as a method, it affords the opportunity for practitioners to create a more nuanced and considered performance of visual ideas, concepts, and narratives. (emphases in the original) Like Linda Hutcheon’s (1980: 49) description of metafiction as honest in its dishonesty (about its status as fiction), or the previously mentioned bunraku, animation forgoes representational verisi- militude – and in fact foregrounds its absence – in favour of ‘enunciation’ (communication). And, as with the puppets, the audience should be less concerned with what is presented and rather with how it is presented. The ‘performance’ or gestures of the puppets/animated figures potentially communicate and emote something additional to, or beyond, narrative structure and plot beats. Mike Jones (2007: 237), in his work on the concept of the ‘virtual camera’ in animation, sets out the idea of mediated and unmediated viewing. The physical camera used in live-action filmmaking can never fully escape its role as mediator between viewer and film due to its mechanical nature. The virtual camera, freed from this ontological grounding, ‘constructs an apparent purity of cine- matic experience where engagement with cinematic space and cinematic depiction is total, unregu- lated and intimate’ (p. 238). Such an experience is, ultimately, illusory as animation is by nature highly regulated. Many computer-generated animated films construct a virtual camera that mimics the physical camera of live action filmmaking, partly to adhere to Prince’s ‘perceptual realism’ – to obey the anticipated grammar of filmmaking that allows spectators to easily digest a given film. Coco, as I demonstrate in my close readings, generally obeys conventions of editing and ‘camera’ movement. There are subtle moments, however, where the super-cinematic properties of the virtual camera are utilized. Uhrig (2018), comparing aesthetic trends in recent animation, puts forward the animated face as a particularly evocative tool. In the tradition of Disney Pixar (and other Hollywood animation studios), as well as Studio Ghibli, Studio Chizu and Studio Ponoc, Uhrig conceives of ‘baby sche- mata’. This describes round-faced, huge-eyed, usually young protagonists in films from the afore- mentioned studios. In fact, this trope was self-reflexively satirized as far back as 2004 when Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) is presented in a high angle shot, hat in hands, eyes shining and bot- tom lip trembling, in order to ambush his pursuers in Shrek 2 (dir. Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury and Conrad Vernon, 2004). Coco has its own ‘baby schemata’. Close-ups of protagonist Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) show him either beaming in delight/surprise, or open-mouthed with sadness 184 animation: an interdisciplinary journal 15(2) or worry. His eyes are always open wide, and his mouth is always parted. Van Rooij (2019) pro- poses that the caricature elements (reduction of detail/emphasis of select features) of such faces focuses the viewer’s attention on key aspects of the face which ‘can embody meaning in a way that, say, real-life actors cannot. When creating a character, the creator can, to an extreme extent, amplify certain features, personality traits or emotions for the audience to recognize’ (p. 197). The more isolated and expressive the feature or gesture, the greater the affective potential (p. 198). In an interview with Uhrig, the animator Felix Gönnert suggests that ‘animation abstracts life and shows it to us in a different way. Sometimes this can be very poetic, sometimes flat or funny. We viewers recognize that and, if necessary, let ourselves be part of this synthesis’ (Uhrig, 2019b). Gönnert proposes quite an idealized relationship between animation and audience. Part of the scope of this article has been to outline the type of utopic spaces and conditions that might lead to this kind of ‘synthesis’. I agree that there is something innate in the form of animation itself which we can attach to the space of the afterlife itself (in Coco and its ilk), and to Richard Dyer’s musical utopias. Perhaps sincerity comes with a suspension of pessimism, or a deliberate entertaining of idealism, even as we suspect it might be flawed on a rational level. This might be especially perti- nent for a film such as Coco which ‘enunciates’ so much on a symbolic level. Coco’s Labyrinth of Solitude Whilst every Pixar feature film takes place in some kind of extraordinary world – a bedroom of anthropomorphic toys, the domain of closet monster, or inside a young girl’s brain – Coco takes place partly in a utopian afterlife: the Land of the Dead. The film depicts a young boy, Miguel, who, despite his family’s hatred of music, dreams of being a famous musician like his idol and supposed great-great-grandfather, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Needing an instrument to enter a mariachi competition taking place on the Day of the Dead, Miguel decides to steal a guitar from De la Cruz’s mausoleum. This act of theft renders Miguel invisible to the living but visible to the skeletons of his dead relatives returning to visit for the fiesta. His late family take him back to the City of the Dead where they agree to return him to the world of the living on the condition that he never plays music again. Unwilling to give up his dream, Miguel teams up with a vagrant skeleton, Hector (Gael García Bernal), who agrees to help him find De la Cruz (who might return him to the living). In exchange, Miguel is tasked with helping Hector be remem- bered in the Land of the Living; for when the dead are forgotten by the living, they vanish from the Land of the Dead. Setting Coco in the Land of the Dead, especially during the Day of the Dead fiesta, does more than situate the narrative in the category of afterlife utopia; it parades its intention to symbolize certain aspects of Mexican culture. Stanley Brandes (2006: 7), in his study of the holiday, claims that ‘for Mexicans, foreigners, and peoples of Mexican descent, the holiday has come to symbolize Mexico and Mexicanness. Within Mexico, it is a key symbol of national identity’. Brandes, rather tersely, suggests that the wider understanding of the Day of the Dead is heavily influenced by the poetic essay by Octavio Paz ((2005): 118), El laberinto de la soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude, 1950). Possibly, Paz’s melodramatic account of the fiesta has resulted in a certain view of Mexican culture. It is not, as Brandes suggests, a rigorous ethnographic study, but rather a lyrical idea of an imaginary Mexico. Without wanting to involve myself in a critique of the essay, I do believe that Paz’s expressively solemn writing is a useful index concerning a particularly vibrant/ serious (sincere) fiesta, and is not an inappropriate companion to Coco which, lest we forget, is ultimately an outsider’s (Hollywood’s) view of Mexico. Whilst Paz’s book and the Pixar film might both be selling a fantasy version of Mexico, I am viewing them through the prism of utopia. Authentic representations of reality are not the focus of this article. Crosthwait 185 Paz claims that the Day of the Dead is emblematic of Mexico’s close relationship with death. This contention with mortality also brings her people closer to life: ‘our cult of death is also a cult of life, in the same way that love is a hunger for life and a longing for death’ (p. 23). We might con- sider my initial hypothesis on afterlife fictions. They are not really solipsistic refusals to face up to death, in fact they are not really to do with death at all. Instead, they provide utopian spaces of removal that allow for perspective and reflection upon lives. Lives lived for the characters, and lives still being lived for the audience. Paz describes the Day of the Dead as taking place ‘in an enchanted world: time transformed to a mythical past or a total present . . . the persons taking part cast off all human or social rank and become, for the moment, living images’ (p. 49). In Coco, the City of the Dead rises vertically in precipitous stacks. Architectural styles from Aztec, through colonial, to art deco suggest that each slice of a tower represents a different epoch of Mexican history. Bearing this in mind, and recognizing that Mexicans (and Aztecs) from all times coexist in the city, this space adheres to both a ‘mythical past’, and also a ‘total present’ where time collapses into an eternal now – indeed the film makes no overt attempt to confront the grim shadows of colonialism and revolu- tion. Unkrich and Molina’s utopia does, however, retain social ranks. Celebrities such as De la Cruz and Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) continue their artistic and commercial ventures even beyond the grave. Paz expounds on this idea, ‘but the Mexican fiesta is not merely a return to an original state of formless and normless liberty: the Mexican is not seeking to return, but to escape from himself, to exceed himself’ (p. 53). This too manifests in Coco through the structure of the Land of the Dead. This is not only a space where all ages and cultures exist harmoniously in spite of history. In fact, history ceases to be a millstone, but rather this coexistence with all other historical epochs creates an enhanced, multivalent existence occurring in the eternal now of the afterlife. Paz likens death to a mirror: ‘Death defines life; a death depicts a life in immutable forms; we do not change except to disappear. Our deaths illuminate our lives. If our deaths lack meaning, our lives also lacked it’ (p. 54). This is not a uniquely Mexican idea. We can find the same sentiment in Tolstoy, or rather Vladimir Nabokov did when he lectured on the idea of the good Tolstoyan death in 1941 (Nabokov, 1982: 273). If the close connection to death which prevails in Mexican fiestas is embedded in a concern of having died following a ‘good’ life, then one might see a similar contemplative gesture in my theory of afterlife media. The tweak being that in after- life utopias we imagine our death in order to reflect upon life. Hence, we are ultimately not really concerned with the endpoint as opposed to the here and now. A revealing suggestion in Paz’s treatise proposes that Mexico’s culture has a unique (to the West at least) attraction to the abject. He writes that: Mexicans, however, both ancient and modern, believe in communion and fiestas: there is no health without contact. Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of filth and fecundity, of earthly and human moods, was also the goddess of steam baths, sexual love and confession. (p. 24) This embrace of the abject (of rejected object) brings about a blurring of subject and object, and hence a disturbance of subjectivity. In afterlife fiction, the mingling of death (abject object) and life (permitted subject) can also provoke this disturbance. This is in fact a desirable state of affairs. Gloria Anzaldúa (2007) has approached similar ideas in her conception of the snake woman goddess Coatlicue, who both births and devours the world. Anzaldúa formulates a ‘Coatlicue state’ to illustrate the experience of being outcast in society – as a woman, as a lesbian and as a Chicano. This state is described as an abject space where one transforms – as a snake sheds its skin or a ‘dry birth’ (p. 71). Thus, whilst this is an abject experience, it also acts as a prelude to change and renewal. In utopic afterlife spaces, the sense of phantom/meta-stable subjectivity activates a simi- lar space of rebirth and delivers us into a state of contemplation. 186 animation: an interdisciplinary journal 15(2) Music is my language As with many Disney and/or Pixar outings, Coco ascends its emotional peaks via musical numbers. Compared to other films, these moments are more consistent to the narrative – concerned as it is with musicians – and are almost all diegetically integrated. The relationship between music and emotional responses is now widely intuited by audiences and, philosophically speaking, music has long been prescribed as adhering to a kind of emotional knowledge (Nietzsche, 2000: 117; Schopenhauer, 1966: 257). To frame this in one sense, the film’s narrative exists as a stage for the musical performances. In fact, Miguel’s first performance reflexively demonstrates the abil- ity of film to mediate between its content and its viewer/listener. In a secret attic space above his family’s shoe shop, Miguel tunes a hand-made guitar and lights candles for a shrine he has made for De la Cruz. In a low angle shot, he looks up in classic baby schema fashion. The ‘camera’ cuts to Miguel’s POV which is aided by some movement that apes both a handheld camera and Miguel’s head movement. This shot shows a record sleeve with De la Cruz’s face, also looking up and also adhering to the baby schema – albeit a moustachioed baby. Miguel inserts a tape labelled ‘BEST OF DE LA CRUZ’ into a VHS player, and switches on a cracked TV to watch a black and white montage of films starring De la Cruz. The monitor image is lined by static to faithfully emulate the picture quality of home recording combined with battered CRT TV. Miguel pulls a face in an attempt to recreate De la Cruz’s smouldering pose – he is far too cute and innocent to transmit such seedy charm, something further reinforced by his performative gag-response to a kissing scene. He begins to play his guitar, effectively scoring a sequence of short romantic scenes and an interview, all featuring his idol. Soon, De la Cruz begins to play his guitar and Miguel plays along to create a call and response duet which works as a sound bridge that spans all the clips shown from the tapes. The first part of Miguel’s viewing/performing has a shot- reverse-shot structure. Medium shots of Miguel show the monitor reflected in his large (baby schema) pupils. The reverse shots show close-ups of De la Cruz onscreen, each time seemingly from a different film. In a mirror of Coco’s musical prohibition, one of De la Cruz’s romantic inter- ests states ‘oh my padre, he will never listen!’ To this, De la Cruz responds: ‘He will listen . . . to music!’ At this assertion, the camera cuts back to Miguel who closes his eyes, cutting out the reflec- tion of the monitor. The shot-reverse-shot rhythm is disrupted and the camera lingers on Miguel’s face. The camera circles Miguel as we hear, offscreen now, De la Cruz tell us all to ‘never under- estimate the power of music.’ As the camera pans round to Miguel’s back he now obscures the monitor, although its light lends him a glowing halo. The camera cuts to a close-up of Miguel, still with eyes closed and still lost in the music, the flickering TV shining like a key light on his face. As the tape changes to an interview with De la Cruz, the spell is briefly broken. Miguel shuffles closer to the monitor and the camera finally cuts back to De la Cruz onscreen. A reflection of Miguel’s face is now visible in the glass, and the monitor image is doubly reflected in his eyes as he now effectively shares the screen with his hero. The tape ends, the TV picture turns to static and Miguel heads out into the world determined to chase his musical dream. This scene is both simple and multi-layered. And it offers us something of a primer on how we might relate to Coco as a film as well as to its use of music. There are two duets occurring simul- taneously here. One is musical, and the other visual. These ultimately form a larger set, or quartet. Miguel improvises off, and scores, the montage of De la Cruz films on his tape. At first, there is a clear exchange before Miguel becomes immersed in his own performance – apparently, he finds the melodrama (romance) unmoving and gross compared to the experience of De la Cruz’s/his own music. The guitar is visibly oversized in his small hands yet, in a figurative demonstration of his ability to find an emotional understanding of grown-up themes, he manipulates the instrument with great skill. He accesses meaning in the tapes through emotion rather than through a full engage- ment with narrative action. Crosthwait 187 Finally, he is brought back to the tape and to De la Cruz. Visually, the shot-reverse-shot setup shows the recorded musician and Miguel performing in tandem, and the reflection in Miguel’s eyes points to his flexibility in reacting to the fixed performances on the tape. As he brings his own per- formance to the fore, the camera ceases to cut to the TV set. Lost in the music, Miguel closes his eyes, ostensibly cutting the scene that has been reflected therein. The light from the TV acts as a spotlight, turning our attention onto the new ‘star’ of the duet. When Miguel snaps out of his zone and returns his attention to the tape, the camera shows us the monitor once more. Now we see the double reflection (face in monitor/monitor in eyes) which shows us that the rigid and technologi- cally produced performance on tape and the adaptable live performance from Miguel have become fully enmeshed – any sense of hierarchy has dissipated. This final shot also introduces the viewer to the exchange of familial gazes which feature in all Miguel’s musical sequences. Here the exchange (between De la Cruz and Miguel) is either refused (eyes shut, in his own world) or unrequited (De la Cruz is on tape). The VHS setup acts as a mediator between Miguel and a forbidden world of music and romance. My suggestion here is that Coco acts, on an extra-textual level, in a similar fashion for its audience. The film itself is a portal that allows you and I access to an impossible utopia (firstly animated and later afterlife) of music and romance. This short sequence illustrates how the film desires a certain level of engagement from its viewers. We might think of this as a willingness to approach the film ‘sincerely’. We then react to the film, thus becoming reflections of a sort (symbolically, in our eyes). Perhaps we are swept up in the emotional beats of the narrative, lost in the frisson of the music or lost in the overwhelmingly detailed fantasy of the animated afterlife space. When we return to our senses, we recognize that there is still a separation between our world and the medi- ated one onscreen, but we also sense that through our reflections upon that world, it has come to reflect us back. We have a residual feeling of entanglement with the film, even if the film cannot share this sensation. The afterlife portion of Coco thus corresponds to the middle section where we potentially become ungrounded – what Paz sees as the abjection/transition phase of the fiesta mindset and Anzaldúa calls the Coatlicue state. Miguel’s first musical number in this place/state, ‘Un Poco Loco’, empha- sizes the importance of letting go. It is Miguel’s first public performance and his entire existence potentially rides on the outcome. Predictably, he is nervous and initially struck with stage fright. He eventually calms himself and endears the audience to him by letting out a grito (literally: a shout) taught to him by Hector. As the title suggests, the song is about being driven to a state of semi- madness – by a romance. As Miguel begins to enjoy his own performance and the audience’s posi- tive response, he incorporates dance steps into the routine. Although he waltzes around the stage and clearly forgets about the microphone, his voice is still amplified clearly. A filmmaking decision to emphasize the vivacity of the performance perhaps, but also an agreement that we have been fully transported into a space where the precise rationality of a given scene is not so important. Counter to this, Miguel’s guitar strumming, picking and fingering are all animated to a highly accurate degree (realistically unrealistic). The rhythm of the music and the performance are then given prec- edent over the realism of the stage setup. Accordingly, the viewer’s senses of physical (rhythmic) and emotional (musical) attachment are enhanced whilst their critical/cognisant powers lie dormant. The (virtual) camera setups mimic concert film conventions with wide angle shots showing the stage and audience, a tighter shot showing centre stage and the heads of the front row, a reverse angle showing Miguel’s back in front of the audience, low angle close-ups from the front row and onstage close-ups ‘shot’ from the wings of the stage. In terms of ‘perceptual realism’, the framing and camera movement adhere to a common live-action referent – concert footage. The virtual cam- era does allow for a high level of audio-visual synchronization (not impossible but harder to capture with a physical camera). Zooms into the sound-hole of the guitar match the intensity of Miguel’s 188 animation: an interdisciplinary journal 15(2) strumming and, as the song moves towards its climax, each pan across the performance frames the stage in perfect symmetry at the end of each call-and-response two-bar refrain. Without departing from visual conventions, this filming strategy gently enhances the embodied sense of rhythm, and thus also the affective register. Miguel is joined onstage by skeletal Hector (his real great-great- grandfather) who detaches and reorganizes his bones as part of a dance. They end the number with Hector throwing his skull high out of shot and placing Miguel on his (headless shoulders). This results in a brief image of intergenerational communion; Miguel the literal living head supported by the bones of his genealogical past. Unlike Miguel’s first performance with the TV, Miguel has an active (if not living) partner for ‘Un Poco Loco’. Hector and Miguel maintain relatively consistent and enthusiastic eye contact throughout. Rather than be immersed in his own performance, Miguel is fully committed to his fellow duettist. Via a few shenanigans, Miguel gains entrance to De la Cruz’s Day of the Dead party where he performs his second afterlife song. Unable to make himself seen or heard across De la Cruz’s crowded mansion, Miguel notices a large projector playing (handily) the same montage of film clips he duetted with in his attic. He climbs up to a raised balcony in front of the screen and lets out a reverberating grito which silences the party. As Miguel begins ‘The World Es Mi Familia’ we can see him standing in front of De la Cruz’s character, his silhouette projected onto the film screen. There are effectively three performers here. Miguel plays with the film – De la Cruz providing backing guitar and vocals – and his silhouette appears briefly to be a part of the film world, mirroring Coco’s plot by placing a shadow into a world where it does not belong. Miguel then leaves the balcony, walking through the crowd, who part to reveal De la Cruz. Consistent with the other musical numbers, Miguel’s guitar picking and vocalizations are animated very accurately whilst realism is distorted by his lack of amplification and his ability to perform acrobatic leaps and pirouettes without adverse effects on his playing and singing. As De la Cruz notices Miguel, the camera pans up and back to the projected film. It is clear that onscreen De la Cruz is also singing ‘The World Es Mi Familia’, and his voice and guitar playing suddenly increase in volume to become as equally prominent as Miguel’s. Whilst De la Cruz and Miguel eventually make eye contact (across a literally crowded room), unlike with Hector in the previous performance, the meeting of gazes is inferred through a cut and is not brought together within the same shot. The song abruptly ends as Miguel falls into a swimming pool. Once again, Miguel is duetting with a mediated partner. This time, however, his performance is directed outwards towards an audience rather than face-to-face with a TV set. And, instead of responding and improvising to the pre-recorded tape, he now allows De la Cruz to become his backing partner. Considering Octavio Paz’s theory, he moves from solitude (unable to reconcile his secret musical identity with his anti-music family) to communion through the possibilities offered by the fantasy utopias of the Day of the Dead fiesta and the exceptional fantasy space of the City of the Dead. His silhouette not only shares screen space with De la Cruz, but also appears to us as a hole in the screen, as if Miguel has stepped out of the film – further accentuated by his black-and- white skeleton disguise. Here is the operation of Paz’s holy filth. Miguel incorporates a mediated version of De la Cruz into his own performance – given to the real De la Cruz. Here, he enters the transitionary Coatlicue state: a shedding and emergence of a new skin. Miguel turns his back, literally, on the mediated world of De la Cruz’s films and embraces the afterlife utopia in which he is stuck (‘this music is my language and the world es mi familia’). Can the viewers of Coco also extract themselves from the subject–object binary of watching the film? Can they incorporate the film within themselves and become abject? If so, then they too can access the Coatlicue state of the film’s utopian space. This musical number provides an aspirational vision of protagonist, film (within the film) and afterlife space in harmony. The glimpse is brief as Miguel’s performance is abruptly ended by the swimming pool, and so we must return to plot and narrative progression (leaving Richard Dyer’s original musical utopia). Crosthwait 189 Remember Me Having been returned from the City of the Dead by his ancestors – without having to sacrifice his musi- cal ambitions – Miguel sings his final diegetic song ‘Remember Me’ (he will sing an ode to music and family, ‘Proud Corazón’, over the closing montage). ‘Remember Me’ is initially introduced as De la Cruz’s most famous composition, although we learn that it is actually a song Hector wrote for his daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), now Miguel’s elderly and catatonic great-grandmother. The song is something of a calling card for the film. It is sung several times by different characters through- out the film and would eventually win the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 2018 cere- mony. The simple lyrics echo the film’s theme of memory: Hector wants Coco to remember him when he goes on tour; Hector needs to be remembered in order to not fade away from the Land of the Dead; Miguel wants his family to remember their love for music and, in doing so, their ancestors. Miguel tries and fails to get Coco to remember Hector. On the verge of tears, he picks up his guitar and plays the song that her father used to sing with her. Coco’s response to the song speaks to another message in the film: the capacity of music to evoke memory and nostalgia. Or, as attrib- uted to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche earlier, music’s ability to bypass cognition. As Miguel starts to play, Coco appears catatonic. In an inverse of Uhrig’s (2018a) baby schema, her head is rectan- gular, her skin deeply lined, and her eyes and mouth are shut. Where Miguel’s baby schema often sees him framed in a high angle looking up, Coco’s head is bowed. When Miguel begins to sing, her head slightly lifts, and her eyes and mouth partly open. She turns her head to look into Miguel’s eyes and sings with him. This is shown in a two shot where Coco’s partial baby schema mirrors Miguel’s complete baby schema. By presenting baby schemata side-by-side, Coco allows for a moment of time-travel or de- aging. This is a visual index of the activation of Coco’s memory by her father’s old song. For the audience, we might recall an earlier flashback where Hector sings to the (actual) baby Coco. This results in a series of memories and flashbacks emanating from this scene: Miguel’s musical/family history experience with De la Cruz and Hector, Coco’s childhood with her father, Miguel’s grand- mother Elena’s (Renée Victor) tears at seeing her mother lucid one last time and the audience’s recollection of these events. Miguel’s experience in the afterlife utopia has given him a privileged emotional encounter with his past which he is able to recreate in the ‘real’ world through the utopic properties of his music. The awakening of the gaze in this scene also refers back to the various exchanges of looks in all of Miguel’s performances. In the attic he duets with VHS tapes and predominantly plays with his eyes closed. When his gaze does meet TV De la Cruz’s, it is an illusory exchange given the unrecip- rocated awareness. Performing with Hector at the musicians’ competition, the soon to be revealed great-great-grandfather and great-great-grandson look lovingly into each other’s eyes, hardly break- ing contact despite their energetic singing and dancing. At the party, Miguel turns his back on medi- ated De la Cruz to make eye contact with his (false) great-great-grandfather. The framing of the scene does not bring this meet-cute to completion, separating the characters in reaction shots and undercutting the moment with an abrupt slapstick finish. As mentioned, in Miguel’s ‘Remember Me’ rendition, his great-grandmother’s cognisance is briefly restored through her emotional response to hearing her father’s song sung by her great-grandson – visually represented by the loving exchange of gazes, within the same shot, by two family members. Thus, there is a distinction between exchanges of true love, friendship and respect, and those based on deceit and exploitation which one presumes David Foster Wallace would have appreciated. This forms a metonymic illustration of my reading of Coco (and cinematic sincerity): the raising of intellectual awareness through the means of an emotional aesthetic device (music). The utopia of Coco does not lead to fame beyond recogni- tion of and from those who are closest to you; nor to eternal life, except in memories. 190 animation: an interdisciplinary journal 15(2) After afterlife Coco ushers its viewers through a range of utopian spaces and experiences. The physical location of the City of the Dead, Richard Dyer’s entertainment utopia of the musical numbers and the animated world itself, all allow access to an emotional experience removed from the everyday – or, the everyday ceases to be important. Coco brings these three elements together and shows how each one can be substituted for the other; for instance, how a song in the real world can allow the same kind of fantasy memory and reflection that the afterlife space affords. For all the striking City of the Dead shenanigans and catchy, often moving songs, the underlying takeaway from Coco is perhaps how innate these fantastical and emotional encounters are to animation itself. These qualities demonstrate what cinematic utopia can provide for audiences, but also alerts us to how we might achieve these provisions in a less dramatic sense. The experience of watching ani- mation was already utopic. So, ultimately, Coco and similar texts are not necessarily the manifestations of a culture that is anxious to circumvent, or cannot handle contending with, the idea of dying (Knox, 2006: 241). Whilst this needs to be tested on a case-by-case basis, my claim is that such fictional works are investigations of life still living, and aim to provoke emotional reflections on their audience’s expe- riences. The afterlife space is then something of a red herring. We are not being asked to consider the possibility of life after death. Instead we are being led into a space where our lives can play in front of us. I resolutely believe that, in part, the reason for the recent boom in this type of fiction is a cultural desire for spaces in which we might reflect upon our life as it is lived. Not as it has been lived, or even as it might be lived. These narratives may contain nostalgia and projections of the future (death), but they are neither wholly nostalgic nor prophetic. Instead, their main value lies in their ability to make their audience consider the here and now. Enough practice of this and, eventu- ally, we might not need the faux afterlife to find these ‘thought spaces’ ourselves. Funding The author received no financial support for the research, authorship and publication of this article, and there is no conflict of interest. Notes 1. The term was originally popularized by music journalist Margaret Moser to describe certain alternative rock bands in Austin in the late 1980s, such as The Reivers and True Believers, whose music displayed a striking lack of cynicism. 2. Clearly, more arch musicals such as Team America: World Police (dir. Trey Parker, 2004) would encour- age ironic viewing, although the puppetry in this particular example might not make it as straightfor- wardly ‘insincere’ as it initially appears. 3. On this point, it should be noted that contemporary live action filmmaking devoid of CGI is rare. Whilst such effects are usually integrated in as seamless a fashion as possible (background touch-ups, for exam- ple), we should not forget Lev Manovich’s (1995: 406) prophetic assertion that ‘cinema can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation. It is no longer an indexical media technology but, rather, a sub- genre of painting.’ 4. Cholodenko’s collection was released very soon after Disney’s takeover of Pixar. Thirteen years on, making definitions between the aesthetic goals of each studio is an increasingly muddled occupation. 5. 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He is currently preparing his PhD thesis, ‘Self-reflexivity and cinematic individuation: Abject figures and viewers in contemporary Hollywood cinema’, for publication, and is concurrently working on the intersection between dance and modern horror cinema.
Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal – SAGE
Published: Aug 4, 2020
Keywords: afterlife; animation; Coco; emotion; music and musical; new sincerity; Pixar; utopia
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