Saturday, November 20, 2010

Animal Passion? Hyacinth Hippo and Ben Ali Gator

This is a slightly revised version of a post from The Valve, Slapstick Onto-logic in Dance of the Hours.
When I watched Fantasia six or seven years ago, this episode, a setting of Dance of the Hours, was hard to take. Frankly, I felt a bit embarrassed to be watching it. It seems so silly, cute, and cloying. But Ward Kimball convinced me to give it a chance. He was one of Disney’s premier animators from the early days and he remarked, in “The Making of Fantasia” (included on the DVD): “Every once in awhile you see something that’s perfect. That was one of them.” If Ward Kimball thought it was perfect, then I figured I should give it a chance.

So I watched it, and watched it, in whole, in segments, stepping through some parts frame-by-frame, and came to appreciate it, even to like it. Really.

In its original setting, Dance of the Hours was a ballet within an opera, Amilcare Ponchielli's La Gioconda; that is to say, it was a play within a play. This music was a bit long in tooth by the late 30s and ripe for parody. Disney's basic conceit is to have ungainly animals dance the roles normally taken by graceful ballet dancers. Beyond this, as I have argued in an exchange with Michael Barrier (animation historian and Disney biographer), these animals have a hard time keeping in role.

And that leads to the issue I want to examine: Just where is baseline reality in this segment? What’s a role and what’s reality? Just what is being staged, and by whom?

Dance of the Hours Framed

As its title suggests, Ponchielli's ballet depicts the succession of the hours of the day. Disney picks up on that and divides the ballet into five segments: 1) ostriches, early morning; 2) hippopotami, mid-day, 3) elephants, dusk, 4) alligators, night, and 5) finale, night. The climax of the sequence occurs in the second half of the fourth segment, when Ben Ali Gator woos Hyacinth Hippo - who'd been introduced in the second segment and was sleeping on a chaise longue during the third segment. (Note that these names never appear in the film itself; they are names used by the production staff.) The wooing is at once absurd and dramatically intense, set to a sustained crescendo in the strings that bespeaks consummation. This is followed by a moment in which Ben proudly presents Hyacinth in a promenade:


It was somewhere in this sequence that, on one occasion, I said to myself: “They're not acting! They're for real!” For what it's worth, that's the observation that prompted me to think seriously about Dance of the Hours. This promenade gives way to several turns, which then give way to the finale, when everyone is back on stage in furious zigzagging motion.

When Dance opens we see the doors to a large room, the doors open, and the camera zooms through (perhaps) a hallway to face a stage with lowered curtains in front. The curtains rise and we see an ostrich awakening and beginning to dance. Clearly we're looking at something happening on a stage. But, as we will see shortly, we leave the stage near the end of this first segment and go out of doors, where the action remains into the finale. Two thirds of the way through the finale it suddenly becomes obvious that we are watching something take place on stage. As the music comes to an end, the camera zooms back so that we see the entire stage, with dancers arranged in a final tableau, and keeps zooming back until we are outside the hall, looking at the doors, which then fall off their hinges.

So, this five-section drama begins on-stage and ends on-stage. In between it is out of doors, in the “real world.” Except that it is not - by which I do not mean that it is all a cartoon. That is obvious. What is not obvious is just how this cartoon works.

Look back at the previous frame grab. This action is taking place outdoors. Ben and Hyacinth are on walkway with grass in front of them and behind them. But they also appear to have a spotlight shining directly down upon them, for their shadows are directly beneath them. Nowhere in this garden do we see lights up on poles, much less strung out over open spaces. But if we imagine this promenade to be taking place on stage, then the light is readily interpretable as standard stage lighting. Thus, on the simplest interpretation of the visual cues before us, this space is ambiguous, it is both outdoors and onstage.

Let's look at that ambiguity. Even as the cartoon presents us with a line of foreground action where animal dancers have difficulty staying in role, it also presents us with a distinction between being onstage and being in reality. It then proceeds to elide that distinction.

Cues and Coherence

Let us return to the opening segment, danced by ostriches. Through most of this segment there are clear indications that the dance is taking place on a stage, with painted scenery. Look at the background to the left and center in this frame grab:

2 0 onstage.jpg

You can see light horizontal and vertical lines indicating seams in the surface on which the sky is painted. That motif is quite obvious in many fames in this segment and it will return at the very end.

At a certain point in this segment that prima ballerina, playing one Mlle. Upanova, has a bunch of grapes in her mouth which the others want. They begin chasing her; she starts running to the right and they follow. In the following frame grab they are all headed outdoors between a fluted column in the foreground and a thick wall in the background:

3 exit-to-outdoors.jpg

They arrive at a pond in the middle of the garden and Upanova drops the grapes into it. They all look eagerly into the pond and, when bubbles begin arrive at the surface at a rapid clip, they turn and run:

4 outdoors.jpg

They run directly to the rear, getting smaller and smaller in the distance until they disappear. They couldn't do that on a stage, as no stage is that deep. Notice as well that the sky appears to be perfectly smooth; there is no evidence that it is painted on some surface. One can only conclude that, within the terms offered by the cartoon, we are outdoors. It is not, however, a matter of arriving at a conclusion through some process of deductive reasoning; it is a matter of direct perception.

Once the ostriches are gone, the lead hippopotamus appears from within the pond in the person of Hyacinth Hippo. Hyacinth then dresses and goes through her toilette with the help of her ladies in waiting. Then they all prance around in the garden. Hyacinth becomes exhausted, she yawns, and her ladies drag her to a chaise longue, which simply appeared behind her. She goes to sleep and remains on the chaise as the elephants go through their dance in the next sequence.

The elephant act is based on bubbles. They dip their trunks into the pond and then blow bubbles, lots of them, some of them quite large. That is not something that normally happens in ballet; we are moving away from the initial premise, animals dancing ballet. These animals are now dancing something else. Further, some of the elephants manage to sit on a bubble and float in the air. How did elephants become so light that they can float on a bubble? Just what kind of world is this? All of a sudden it has become much stranger than is was at the beginning.

As the elephant sequence comes to a close the camera pulls back to reveal this tableau:

7 curtain?.jpg

The sleeping Hyacinth is in mid-air supported on a column of bubbles. Notice that the elephants are on a low platform. That platform wasn't there when Hyacinth first fell asleep on the chaise and it won't be there when the next segment begins. Where did it come from and where will it go? And what is that curtain waving in from the right? That looks like something one would find on a stage, not in a garden.

That curtain is driven by a wind that is strong enough to blow all the elephants to the left and then up into the air, where they disappear into the distance (as the ostriches had done before, only on the ground). Hyacinth floats to the ground, night falls, and we see her there, ringed in light:


The alligators spot her, come down from on high by slithering down those fluted columns, surround her on four sides, and dance an elegant figure or two. Then their leader, Ben Ali Gator, appears on high, spots her, and leaps down. His companions vanish, he approaches, is smitten, and the two dance the romantic pas de deux that is the dramatic climax of the ballet. Throughout this segment there is a lot of lighting that reads naturally as stage lighting (such as the spotlight on Hyacinth), but we have not yet returned to the stage. Ostensibly, we are still out of doors. Thus the single most important event in this entire ballet, the passion of Ben and Hyacinth, takes place amid contradictory cues about “baseline” reality. Does that ambiguity have any impact on how one perceives their interaction?

Though it lasts just over a minute, that interaction is complex and subtle, more than I can examine in this context. Suffice it to say that, when it is over, Hyacinth is miffed at Ben and she runs gleefully away; he follows just as gleefully. And everyone else joins in. Wherever the ostriches and elephants went when they disappeared into the distance, they're now back, as are the hippos. The alligators are chasing them all - the ostriches, hippos, and elephants are all female, the alligators male - catching them, carrying them, and even riding them.

At a certain point in this action we see an alligator attempting to carry an elephant between two columns:

91 still-outdoors2.jpg

The elephant gets stuck, the alligator keeps going, leaving the elephant wedged between the columns wondering what's going to happen. We don't find out. Instead, there's a quick cut to this:

92 back-onstage.jpg

Look at the rear wall; clearly we're looking at overlapping spotlights. If you look closely at the turquoise area you'll horizontal and vertical lines that look like seams. From here on to the end we've got abundant cues that we're indoors and onstage.

This last transition, from (ambiguously) outdoors back to the stage, is quite different from the first, from the stage to outdoors. In the first transition we followed a central action - running ostriches - through a hall and-or door and outside. The transition is quick, but not abrupt, and a single action connected the two spaces. By contrast, the return to the stage is very abrupt; it happens in between two frames and is not foreshadowed in any way. Nor did any flow of action connect the two scenes; they depict two different streams. In the music, however, the 8-bar phase immediately following the transition is a repeat of the 8-bar phrase immediately preceding it. By contrast, the original move outdoors occurs in the middle of a phrase, not between two phrases.

The finale lasts roughly 109 seconds - the whole piece is about 13 minutes. The transition to stage mode happens about 37 seconds from the end of the piece. The action neither slows down nor picks up in the race to the end. It just keeps going, though it shifts abruptly in focus - ending with Ben juggling Hyacinth with his feet and hands - and comes to a well-negotiated, if not graceful, conclusion.

Gags Rule

That, more or less, is what happens, but what's the point? I'm not sure. I don't even know how much one notices, or how it is that one notices it. To the extent that I am able to recall my own responses, I think I noticed all the spatial and lighting cues that I've pointed out so far - and more. But it wasn't until I became curious about the dramatic space that I was consciously aware of the inconsistencies, and figuring them out took a fair amount of work to accomplish. I watched the segment several times, stopping and starting, slowing it down, and making frame grabs.

Is it none-the-less possible that I picked up the incongruities unconsciously the first time I saw Dance of the Hours? I do not know. Contemporary cognitive and perceptual psychology has shown that there is a great deal of unconscious processing “between” raw sensation and conscious experience. Perhaps that unconscious processing picks up the inconsistencies. But I don't really know and rather suspect that is the wrong approach to the problem. While I don't know what the right approach is, I'd like to conclude by thinking about gags, as this cartoon is a virtuoso exercise in advanced gagology.

What is a gag? When Road Runner steps off a cliff but remains in the air until he looks down, that's a gag. When Minnie Mouse cranks a goat's tail so that “Turkey in the Straw” comes out its mouth, that's a gag. When an elephant blows a bubble and a fish turns up in that bubble, that's a gag. When Bugs Bunny is running toward home plate and distracts the catcher with a pin-up picture, that's a gag. There must be thousands upon thousands of gags, though some get recycled time after time (e.g. walking off a cliff). A rather large class of cartoons depends on gags, though not all cartoons do. There are very few, if any, gags in the other episodes of Fantasia, for example.

Gags are always working against something, a background of conventionalized expectation. Much of that expectation comes from living in the world, while some of it seems to be the property of a particular cartoon universe (e.g. Road Runner) and some of it even seems to develop within a particular cartoon. There is no easy way to characterize the “baseline” against which some cartoon event is perceived to be a gag.

My contention is that the baseline for the focal action in Dance of the Hours is that these animals are playing roles, and hence there is something about them that may, at any time, escape the requirements of the role. Disney's animators then develop gags from that premise. My impression is that these gags start slowly and then pick up in frequency; I also suspect that there is some ebb and flow in the gag rate, but have made no effort to verify these impressions. When we reach the elephant segment the animators introduce a number of gags that depend on those bubbles - such as the fish gag I mentioned above. These gags force the elephants out of their choreographed roles.

This is quite different from the role slippage we've seen in the ostriches and the hippos. The ostriches gets hungry and so chased after the grapes; Hyacinth is vain and so bats her eyelashes and modestly tugs at her tutu. These are failings within these animals. A fish turning up in a bubble is not a failing within the elephant that blew the bubble, nor is a burst-bubble that dumps an elephant on the stage. These gags extend deeper into the fabric of this cartoon universe.

When Disney's artists have the elephants elevate Hyacinth on a pedestal of bubbles, they are connecting the role-based gags of the main narrative line to the ambiguities they've embedded in their treatment of place and circumstance. One might say that one image is proclaiming that “it's all just bubbles, airy nothings.” But that image proclaims nothing. It just is.

If this is metaphysics, it is a mute metaphysics. It is a metaphysics one absorbs through the senses. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, what we cannot speak about we must express through a good cartoon.

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