Sunday, July 1, 2012

Roustabouts, Trains, Elephants, and Crows

With a Latourian Afterward

I want to look at two things in this post about Disney’s Dumbo. First, we look at the tent-raising sequence, in which Disney establishes an equivalence between elephants and roustabouts. It’s not merely that they dominate the sequence, and they work together on the same task, but that Disney stages the scenes in a way that emphasizes their likeness, their ontological equivalence.

That same theme is taken up in the lyrics sung by the crows in the last quarter of the film, “When I See and Elephant Fly.” That’s the second thing. I end with an afterword on Latour’s concept of plasma.

The Animate Machine

The tent-raising sequence begins at night. As the circus train comes to a halt the locomotive “breathes” a sigh of relief—you hear that on the sound track—and the engine flexes in the middle, but, obviously, cannot hear the sigh or see the flexing in this frame grab


though you can see the puffs of “exhaled” steam as the locomotive flexes as it relaxes into a full stop. The breathing and flexing is the sort of biomorphic vitalism that is typical of and pervasive in cartoons. Anything can be given the aspect of life.

While we can treat that biopomorphism as a stylistic feature common in cartoons that we can ‘bracket out’ of serious consideration as we know that, in fact, steam locomotives are not alive, I propose that we not do that. The train in this film flexes and coalesces in a way typical of animal movement, but not of mere mechanism.

Beyond that, it has been common to talk about locomotives and other machines as kinds of animals. Consider this passage from Henry David Thoreau’s “Sound” chapter in Walden (1854), which I discussed in an older post:
When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion . . . with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in gold and silver wreaths . . . as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils, (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.
Given the nature of animation as a medium—to create the illusion of life from a succession of still drawings, I think we need to take such things as serious statements about the world, though, of course, we must exercise some care in taking them seriously.

Working Together

Once the train has halted the animals exit. Here we see Dumbo following behind his mother:


Notice that rain has started to fall. It will quickly develop into a torrential downpour.

No sooner do we see elephants leaving than we see roustabouts. Notice that one of them has a sledgehammer; he’s prepared to work:


The fact that the roustabouts follow immediately upon the elephants establishes an association between them. But are we to think of them as LIKE one another or as DIFFERENT? We don’t know that quite yet. It depends on what happens next, and after that.

If you look closely you’ll notice that the roustabouts seem to be dark skinned (Black, like the crows that show up later in the film) and that their faces have no features. The lack of facial definition may reflect budgetary constraints ad Disney was under orders from its bankers to economize. If we are seeing evidence of budgetary constraints, depriving the roustabouts of faces isn’t the only obvious possibility. Consider this night-time shot of clowns in silhouette:


Animating those shadows is much simpler, and thus cheaper, than animating figures fully in the round.

Still, this treatment of the roustabouts may also play a thematic role, serving to reduce the difference between humans and animals by reducing the difference between one roustabout and another. They’re not individuals, they’re muscle. Like the animals.

In this next frame we SEE the elephants working. It’s beginning to look like elephants and roustabouts are alike, at least in this context:


But not all the animals work. Tigers, for example, do not:


Thus a line has been drawn. Elephants and roustabouts are alike in that they work. In that respect, both differ from tigers.

As obvious as that is, I don’t think it’s trivial. We’re dealing in myth logic here, and myth logic has its own rules. Here we see roustabouts tossing tent pegs, emphasizing their status as workers, while the next frame shows them driving a peg into the ground:



Wouldn’t you know, the elephants too hammer pegs, even Dumbo:



This elephant scene follows immediately upon the roustabout scene without so much as a frame between them and without any fancy transitions, no dissolves, fades or wipes, just a quick cut. Elephants and roustabouts are doing the same thing and so are, in some sense, the SAME.

Disney didn’t have to stage things in this way. That elephants could hold hammers with their trunks, pound tent pegs, and do so in coordination with one another—that’s rather fanciful, though no more fanciful than elephants exchanging gossip or flying. Nor did Disney have to juxtapose the elephants and roustabouts so closely. This sequence was deliberately staged to establish an equivalence between the two species, humans and elephants, and an equivalence that goes beyond the bare necessity of allowing for audience identification with Dumbo. That would surely happen without this work scene.

Shortly after the peg driving we see another kind of animal helping with the work:


The camels (there’s another one off frame to the right) are carrying tent pole segments. They appear only in this one sequence and no other animals appear: elephants, camels, and (non-working) tigers.

The sequence now focuses on elephants—these are only representative frames:




As the scene comes to an end the roustabouts return, tossing and positioning the ropes that will be used to haul the tent up the highest, the center, pole.


The tent is hoisted and the scene ends.

In What Sense Alike?

Elephants and roustabouts are different in many ways, but also alike in many ways. The judgment that is implicit in this sequence is, I submit, fundamentally a social one, not a biological one (see the Latourian Afterward below). Disney and his animators are assimilating the roustabouts and the elephants into the same position in society, not merely the society of the film, but the larger society in which they live. Our society.

Roustabouts are elephants, and elephants are roustabouts. That train, it too, is being assimilated into the same position in society.

Position in society is what this film is about. Dumbo’s large ears make him an outcast. First he was merely weird and, as such, as object of ridicule. But then, after he played a role in a terrible accident in during a performance, things got worse. He was supposed to jump to the top of a pyramid of elephants, but he tripped over one of his ears as he was running to the springboard and, instead, ran into the elephant at the bottom of the pyramid:


The accident wasn’t Dumbo’s fault, but he was made to take the fall. The other elephants gathered together and took a solemn oath that Dumbo was no longer an elephant.


He was ostracized, no longer part of elephant society. Of course, his mother had already been locked up for mad because she’d defended Dumbo from a human who’d mocked him and, when the ring master came after her with a whip, she lost it.

So, both Dumbo and his mother were effectively kicked out of circus society and elephant society. That is, of course, within the film. In the society of film goers, they are stiff very much IN society. They are, in fact, the focal points of that society, Dumbo especially. He is, after all the protagonist of the film. And it is through his action, successful flight in performance, that his mother is brought back into circus society.

Those Crows and Their Puns

That brings us to those crows, whom I’ve discussed in American Mythology in Disney’s <>Dumbo. The give Dumbo the encouragement and confidence, not to mention a helpful placebo, the “magic” feather, he needs to actualize his flying ability. They are, of course, Blacks in disguise as crows, and thus kin to the roustabouts in a human way and to Dumbo in an animal way—they’re animals and they all can fly.

I don’t want to discuss the crows, however, as I’ve already discussed them. I want to look at the song they sing: "When I See An Elephant Fly". Disney eases into the song with a little bit of spoken dialog:
Crow 1: Did you ever see an elephant fly?
Crow 2: Well, I seen a horse fly
Crow 3: I seen a dragon fly
Crow 4: I seen a house fly
Each line contains a (well-worn) pun playing on the fact that “fly” can be used as a verb, depicting a certain kind of locomotion, or as a noun, indicating a certain kind of animal. The first three linkages involve large animals animals—elephant, horse, and dragon—to fly, and the dragon is more a creature of myth than of reality. The fourth links to an inanimate object, a house. So we’ve got inanimate linked animate.

Which is to say, this song isn’t just a series of puns, but puns that are thematically relevant in that they equate things from different ontological levels, different links in the so-called Great Chain of Being:
machines (steam locomotive) and animals,
humans (roustabouts) and animals (elephants), and now
mammals (elephant, horse) and insects,
mythical creatures (dragon) and insects, and
inanimate structures (house) and insects.
The song proper adds more such cross-category equations.

As the fourth crow speaks his line, the head crow comes into view and utters his reply, starting with speech and modulating into song. Here’s the song proper, which I present without commentary:
I seen all that too
I seen a peanut stand
And heard a rubber band
I seen a needle that winked its eye

But I've been, done, seen about everything
When I see a elephant fly
What'd you say boy?
I said when I see a elephant fly

I seen a front porch swing
Heard a diamond ring
I seen a polka dot railroad tie

But I've been, done, seen about everything
When I see a elephant fly

I saw a clothes horse and he rear up and buck
And they tell me that a man made a vegetable truck
I didn't see that, I only heard
Just to be sociable I'll take your word
I heard a fireside chat
I saw a baseball bat
And I just laughed till I thought I'd die

But I've been, done, seen about everything
When I see a elephant fly

But I've been, done, seen about everything
When I see a elephant fly

When I see an elephant fly
No wonder this film was so popular. It’s a celebration of democracy in which people, animals, and things are all put on the same level of “being.” This is NOT a matter of mere verbal assertion, even of philosophical argument. No, it’s different, and works into the mind, if I may, the soul, in a different way. This is, in the terms of an old cliché, showing, not telling. Showing reaches a realm of our being that is inaccessible to telling.

And they’re put there through a medium, animation, in which everything starts out the same, as lines sketched out on paper.

A Latourian Afterword

The philosophical ideas which have been uppermost on my mind for the last year or so are associated with Bruno Latour, who is best known as an anthropologist. That’s what he mostly does, albeit the strange anthropology of science in which one studies scientists in their laboratories rather than exotic peoples in remote corners of the world. But his anthropology has a philosophical flair, and his writing frequently has extensive passage of primarily philosophical reflection and analysis.

One of his principle themes is that all “actants” must be considered in a proper ethnography, nonhumans as well as humans. What he’s concerned about is the process by which these actants, of any kind whatsoever, take their place in society, which he often terms “the collective.”

That is to say, these actants are ontologically equivalent IN the collective. In Reassembling the Social Latour introduced a concept that sheds an interesting light on this emphasis. He talks of plasma (p. 244)
namely, that which is not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. Yes, Garfindel is right, ‘it’s astronomically massive in size and range’.
Plasma, thus, is that which exists, but about which we have no knowledge and so it has no presence in our collective, our society.

Everything that’s shown in Dumbo, of course, is known, by definition. And every projection from our collective into the film, or from the film into our collective, that too consists only of things that are known. The purpose of the film, as I am reading it, is to restore democracy within this collective by putting all the participants, animal, vegetable, mineral or human, on the same basis. Dumbo, the baby elephant who can fly, is the focal point of this metaphysical trickery.

And everything in the film is, in fact, lines and paint. Everything is on a level.


  1. I was told that the Roustabouts in silhouette on the circus tent are caricatures of fellow Disney workers.

  2. in the Roustabouts scene in which they are putting the circus tent up @ night in the rain, at the beginning of that scene there is a 'glowing light stick' for lack of a better description....
    does anyone have any idea what that 'light stick' is?
    old world method of providing work light on the jobsite?
    if so, what method is that? what were the animators attempting to portray? i'm @ a loss as to what that stick is.
    any ideas? thanks.

  3. At roughly 13:29? It looks like some kind of flare, possibly made by saturating the end of a stick in some chemical that burns rather slowly and gives off a lot of light.