Thursday, January 8, 2015

Porky Pig Goes Surreal

Wacky creature goes "boo"

Another workping paper, this one about Porky in Wackland. You can download it HERE. Abstract and introduction below.

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Abstract: Porky in Wackyland is a satire of the get-rich-quick scheme in which Porky intends to get rich by capturing the rare do-do bird. It turns out that the do-do isn’t so rare and that the do-do and his companions capture Porky. The cartoon consists of seven segments, with the nature of the action changing after the fourth and middle segment. Before that Porky Pig is subordinate to all the strange objects, creatures, and events that take place in Wackyland. After that the focus shifts to a battle between Porky and the do-do bird he’s attempting to capture. The cartoon features self referential elements and a diverse ontology of strange and not-so-strange creatures.

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Introduction: Some Title Here

Cartoons have always bordered on the surreal. It’s not only that animals talked, but that the whole world was fluid. Inanimate objects talked as well, and shapes would shift, identities would change. Cartoonists took advantage of the medium’s inherent freedom – anything you could draw was fair game – to create gags that played against our ordinary sense of the world. They were trying to do things that couldn’t be done in live action film and, in the process, entered the surreal, not though deliberate desire to stake out the aesthetic avant-garde – they were, after all, engaged in a commercial enterprise – but simply because, there it was, standing right next to good old reality, the surreal.

You couldn’t miss it. And so animated cartoons, as a medium, found favor with the avant-garde prior to World War II. You shouldn’t miss it.

But in Porky in Wackyland (1938) director Bob Clampett decided to embrace surrealism whole hog. If one were to count the frequency of gags, one would find they’re more frequent in this cartoon than in most. In a sense, the whole Wackyland world is a gag asking us to find some sense somewhere somehow.

That makes this cartoon fertile to a descriptive analyst like me. You can go nuts just pointing out all the gags and references. And I DO devote a fair amount of time at this, though I make no claim that I’ve caught them all. I didn’t even attempt to do so.

But one can’t help but feeling that that’s something of a trap. To invoke an old cliché, you miss the forest for the trees. There must be something else going on besides a heaping pile of gags. But what is it?

There is, after all, a fairly conventional quest story. Porky Pig is looking for a rare do-do bird so he can collect a huge reward. The whole cartoon’s a gag on a get rich quick scheme – the bird’s name, do-do, is a pun on “dough”, a slang term for money. In the time-honored manner of cartoons, the scheme fails. No sooner does Porky catch the do-do than the do-do turns out to have lots of pals and they collectively catch him.

One might even say that Clampett is deconstructing the get rich scheme, which is more or less what I do in the last of the four posts I’ve gathered here. Now that I’ve pointed that out, though, it seems obvious. But it wasn’t obvious when I started working on the cartoon. And, however obvious it may be, I don’t find it very satisfying in itself. What’s interesting is how Clampett got there.

And that’s not at all obvious, and I say that after having watched the cartoon many times and spending hours analyzing it and writing up the results. While I’m tempted to make yet another try at pulling an interpretive rabbit out of the analytic hat, I fear that all I’ll do is simply recount, in summary form, the various things I point out in the first three posts–the ogre that transforms into a sweetie-pie, the cat-dog in conflict with itself, the pawnshop balls that become the three stooges, the meta-commentary where the do-do draws a door in the middle of nowhere and then goes through it, the…–I’m doing it, aren’t I? I’m attempting to summarize the cartoon.

Impossible at the moment. We don’t know how to think about what’s going on. I am convinced that there is coherent order here, that the cartoon has seven segments, and that there is a change of direction after the middle segment. Before the middle Porky was secondary to all the tomfoolery that is Wackyland, after the middle the focus shifts to a battle between Porky and the do-do. But how the mind takes this in, that’s a mystery.

I figure my contribution to solving that mystery is to describe just what’s happening as best I can. There’s much more to do along those lines. For one thing, I’m mostly been concerned about identifying objects and things and categorizing them in some meaningful way. I’ve said little about the visual logic through which they’re deployed on the screen, mostly because THAT kind of description if very difficult as it requires almost frame-by-frame annotation.

Where I to do more work on this cartoon I’d probably try to get a handle on just what kinds of things appear in the cartoon. I’d make an inventory of the objects, actions, and gags and see what we’ve got. What I’m looking for is an ontology: animal, vegetable, mineral, and so forth. It’s a various world Clampett’s gathered there and I want to see just how various. Is it various enough that we could argue that’s he’s put together a mini-cosmology? That’s what Walt Disney was up to in Fantasia, a matter I’ve argued at length.* Disney, of course, had a much larger canvas to work with, but Clampett was working in a much more distilled idiom. But so what?

We’re just beginning to understand the mind, so why should cartoons be any different? Porky in Wackland is extraordinarily rich and has much to teach us about the wacky underpinnings of the mind.

*Walt Disney’s Fantasia: The Cosmos and the Mind in Two Hours, Working Paper, November 2001, URL:

1 comment:

  1. Reminded me for some reason of an old folk tale with a surreal element from 1870 and a remote part of Scotland.

    Youngster has to collect a bird for a collector from the mainland, the collector will be able to read the mysterious markings on the bird that no one else can. The story makes a reference later to canned goods. I suspect that sets up a retro gag. Marks are on the tin, illiteracy was rife but reading clubs etc mean awareness of wider culture that appears to being incorporated into the tales.