Pixar’s new animation SOUL (2020) has a number of interesting observations about art, technology and psychology.
SOUL’s hero, a jazz musician, faces that ancient dilemma: do I work for job security, or do I work for love? His mother is unhappy that he constantly avoids the security of teaching to pursue various gigs. Just when he’s landed the dream gig with a jazz celebrity, the musician falls into a manhole and transitions to the other side. But he’s not content sitting idly on a cloud. Countering the advice of celestial psychologists, he returns to Earth.
So far, the plot is predictable; it draws on tales like WINGS OF DESIRE, where angels return to Earth because they love it more than Heaven. But then Pixar introduces a new character — the ‘’Lost Soul’’. She is the hero’s accidental sidekick, who is looking to discover her talents. Traveling back to Earth, they end up in the wrong bodies. The musician is trapped in the body of a cat, and the Lost Soul finds herself in the musician’s body.
In a mirroring roleplay, the protagonists of SOUL realize that insight only comes from the OUTSIDE: in our ability to connect with the desire of the other
This body swap is a learning device — a mirroring roleplay — for the two protagonists. In training, the two would confront their hidden potentials and limitations. The musician would learn that his perfectionism can be a hindrance to intuition. The Lost Soul would find her spark through Mindfulness. Our meaning and purpose are not inside, but outside, in a heightened perception of the world.
All of this happens in the film, yet it is the underlying psychoanalysis that finally nails the problem (and the possible solution). Namely, when the climax comes for the musician, and he is able to do his favorite gig, he leaves the event strangely disappointed. As it turns out, the fulfillment of his Dream led to a confrontation with emptiness. Psychoanalysis teaches that desire does not come from a positive presence: it can never be ‘’had’’ or ‘’fulfilled’’. The object of desire continuously eludes our grasp. This is captured in that old adage, ‘’the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’’. The end of the film sees the hero embracing total uncertainty. As he steps over the threshold to a new life, he doesn’t know where he is going. But as long as he keeps going, he might invent the goal. Just like the ending of psychoanalysis, where the client realizes there is nothing inside of himself. Everything must be built from the void.
A Celestial Psychologist praises the hero for his willingness to give up on desire and embrace the vast emptiness of knowledge.
This leads us to SOUL’s observations about art and technology. In a crucial shot, the camera lingers on an advertisement from New York’s Modern Arts Museum:
The advertisement is a great animator’s in-joke. The line figure you see in the foreground is of a celestial ‘’policeman’’. He chases the fugitive hero using various energy circuits. The design is very Modernist, recalling the Dadaism of the 20th century. Pixar seems to be saying that their complex animation technology can be reduced to line art. Much like the stuff we saw in the classic ‘’La Linea”:
La Linea points to the primordial hole in the ‘’life line’’
The energy circuits that the Celestial Policeman uses are like the ‘’life line’’ La Linea walks on. It seems that the life line comes from a primordial hole. This brings up the psychoanalytic concept of desire. Knowledge, and life itself, stem from a gap in the system that needs to be filled continuously. Only when we embrace the gap can we actually learn.
There is an interesting paradox at play here. New simulation technologies — many of them pioneered by Pixar themselves — revise the concepts we created for practical purposes. For example, the concept that unlike IT, ‘’art isn’t profitable’’. But art teaches a crucial 21th century skill no other discipline could master. Art makes you realize that rational factors (goals, targets and positive presences) define a small part of motivation. The rest — the volatility of the market and of life itself — can only be grasped if you understand the underlying mechanism of desire. It is very exciting to witness an era in which technology is becoming a new art form.