To the Infinity and Beyond: Buzz Lightyear, Bob Ascher, and some Interminable Ethnographies of Wedding Pictures

The figure of Buzz Lightyear flies by as I feel-fall in desperate need of ”rescue”. Just thinking this  – ”to the rescue” – somehow always brings me back to Buzz: probably because he is the only one – outside of the real business of actual emergencies of tall firemen, strong soldiers and bulky swat teams – to still ab-use the expression (note to self: resist the temptation of ”abuzzing”). Rescue is really the only thing right now that can save me from the upcoming megaton wreckage of – what the hell was going on in this empty helmet brain of mine? – presenting this short movie of me. In public. With actual people watching I mean. Buzz Lightyear to the rescue of the apprentice – of sort – of visual anthropology. That’s about it. Or is it really? Is Buzz flashing by in that grand conference room devoted to animated anthropology with really nothing else to do? Or is his flickering in this bulb of mine, directly speaking to the actual matter of the symposium: an homage to Bob Ascher, anthropologist animated by the possibilities of animated anthropology, possibilities of – as Buzz only can put it – ”To the Infinity and Beyond”? *

First, let’s bring it all back to our Buzzian character from Toy Story, a story of toys doubly animated by the technical magic of a series of images, and by the magic, within the film – or is it for real? – of toys animated by a life of their own. What Buzz is all about if quite unsure. We are never quite certain of what he is doing, where he is going, and as for the when, that doesn’t even ever get close to clear, for Buzz never quite goes, but is always going to. Buzz always seems on the edge of interminable journeys, travels, missions – always quite elusive – and yet still very much attached to a here and now.

But hold on here: why should the anthropologist even care about Buzz Lightyear again? Why for that matter, should anthropologists care for cartoons, moving comic strips, animated images, and other kids’ stuffs, generally strictly reserved to another field-site, recalling indeed a lot of ”participative observation”: the family of the anthro. Why bother an animated figurine? It may be because Buzz Lightyear is, just like other passing-by images completely out of (the) discipline, one good to think with. Exactly because he is from the outer-space, from the outer-anthro, he is very much where should anthropology happen: in and out.

Bob Ascher and Buzz must have met – no other scenario seems plausible – and discussed this. For this is the same spirit that animated Bob To The Rescue of anthropology: he took it out to the cartoons. On a stroll, on a roll, anthro came back animated herself. But O adults of the stuff of the serious (”Why So Serious?”), make no mistake: Bob Ascher is serious exactly because of his lightness. That unbearable lightness of being that some anthro-historians have weaponed up against the weight of our disciplines. That seriousness – for that is the word that some may be more convinced by – doubled with that lightness has a sense of urgency in Bob Ascher animated films. It is not an effort of popularization understood as a tentative anthropological mission to salvage that other savage: the public. That other outside of academia, that other who doesn’t get it, that other who doesn’t know and needs to be enlightened (pass on the salt of higher education please). Bob Ascher’s offer was much more generous than that: he brought back anthropology where it belongs to: the experience, the gut feeling, the hunch, the mind blowing, and also – yes, got to embrace it – the boredom swarming your spine. His films, taking myths, stripping them down to their essentials, spinning rituals to their very marrow, were not about establishing rules and regularities, no more than they were about fetishizing diversity. It may very much be about what shakes the core of anthropology, what makes it so human: an attention, a care, a moment to others, all gifts of looking with rather than at. Bob Ascher takes his film strips, colors them, and in this long moment spent in so much care to his object (a classic anthro myth let’s say, a ritual probably also) he is actually creating a moment between his viewers who could as much be the producers of the myth, the ritual; just as they could be in completely different worlds. He is producing this moment by looking. He is looking and all viewers are looking all along. The attention is shared. A Jean-Rouch-meets-Mac-Dougall shared anthropology of sorts. An anthropology out of it. But then again, what does a Buzz Lightyear of plastic, the figurine of the animated image industry, the savior of the dark empire of animation has in common with a Bob Ascher encountering a third kind of anthropology?

”Buzz Lightyear to the rescue”! I need some strong saving from this moment of sharing about to come. I am going to present a never ending film roughly cut more than a year ago, roughly shot more than two years ago. I have nothing smart to say about it. Now would probably be the very best time ever to just.shut.up. Instead there is this pouring of trembling words, that shaky voice, that quaky discourse, half pronounced, upside down accented, from a language that is probably understood by only person in the room – for I am pretty sure he was around, he always is, awkward – Salvatore the multi-lingual | no-lingual hunchback of ”The Name of the Rose”. I ramble, the movie rumbles. I stand aside, those 11 minutes: interminable.

It’s rough. The watching, the film itself. No post-production but the bare bones of the cut. I can feel Thelma Shoonmaker looking over my shoulder as all editing delicacies have been spoiled and thrown out. I am an insult to my own devotion: rough cut, never finished, Thelma is insulted and leaves the backroom of my head bulb. The film continues to pass (I realize it just hasn’t passed out or passed away yet somehow). It circles around: around weddings’ mises en scene, weddings’ audiences, weddings’ pictures. Inscribing a circle of interminability. Let me say that again: the film is not only unpolished, it is unfinished; I am presenting something incomplete, for it is unachievable, interminable. I just realize it then: it is indeed un-finishable. It has this thing going on, even when you are not around, it kind of has other things to do – or not – and just goes on – doesn’t matter if you are around for it or not. It just can’t be put to an end like that. It’s interminable. And so is ethnography. Always. Rough and unpolished in the texture, unfinished in its closure, incomplete for it should never open on totalities or bound it all. It’s interminable in an infinity of possibilities and beyond.

Interminable is Buzz taking us to the moon and back, an interminable journey. Interminable is Buzz always on the get-going, yet never leaving: Buzz goes ”to the infinity and beyond!” where all possibilities of interminable anthropology lies. Sometimes it’s scary: Buzz’ realization that all he took for granted is no reality, that the only ”to the infinity and beyond” there is, is right here, maybe even just within himself… a horrifying perspective to a lonesome plastic toy ranger. And yet, he repeats, repeats, again and again, hitting the button that will set him off ”to the infinity and beyond!”. That’s the one place anthropologists should go to. I went and met Buzz there. I swear. He was quite a gentleman and took his helmet off. I recognized his undisciplined silver curls right there: Bob Ascher’s very own bulb!

BobLightyearWe should have known better, for he explored all infinities in anthropology and found an interminable anthropology: way beyond anthropology, he took off and that’s where he found himself back to the core of anthropology. An interminable core that is. Bob Lightyear came to the rescue: interminable films are inherently made of anthropology, as much as they make anthropology. And as such they should remain so, just as anthro, as a gift to our viewers: the gift of interminability.

Ithaca, May 1st, 2015, Emiko Stock.

* Those divagations were generated via the film symposium ‘’Animating Anthropology: Audiovisual Experiment in Ethnographic Practice” organized in memory of Bob Ascher at Cornell, April 17-18.

And since it all started with this interminable little film of mine ”The Wedding Picture”, here it is:

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