24 November 2012

Back when the name "Hanna(h)" would make you think "Barbera," not "Montana"

I've been thinking a lot about cartoons lately. So much so that I'm thinking in cartoons, a flickering parade of animated images, projected against opaque white thought bubbles.

And those images that dance before me are the ultimate examples of "Disneying" narrative, reducing every story to a moral duality of good versus evil, love conquering hate. Cartoons were Hanna(h) Montanaing children's entertainment long before Billy Ray ever had a glint of lust in his eyes. The white-washing typically occurred in story, with sanitized plots and simple situational comedy. The studios turned the occasional blind eye to cartoons tackling the real issues, like law enforcement's extended investigation into a string of pick-a-nick basket larcenies. These were, however, exceptional. For the most part, cartoons were a lesson in justice served and evil punished.

Perhaps the greatest dumbing down of material in childrens' entertainment occurred in character. Most of the cartoon characters from my childhood were nothing but stereotypes. Looney Toons was filled with them. Foghorn Leghorn was nothing but a good ol' ill-bred, poorly-educated, down-home country hick. Speedy Gonzalez, his own thick, Spanish accent and vocabulary presented for laughs, was accompanied by his lazy cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez. And, clearly, Pepe Le Pew was a sexual harasser. That cat never wanted his advances.

Hanna(h) Barbera characters had even less subtlety. Huckleberry Hound, although a sheriff in the Old West, for some reason had the slow stigmatic drawl of the deep south. Honk Kong Fooey's every screen entrance was accompanied by a reverberating gong. Snagglepuss was pink, had a lisp, spent part of the day in a cage, and dressed like a Chippendales dancer. No, he wasn't gay.

Stop-motion animation has also been on my mind, but not because of a tendency toward indoctrinating the idea that the Other can be neatly divided into types and is here to entertain us. Animation is really a time-elimination operation. Not just any time is eliminated, however, but a specific kind of time: non-narrative time. This is the time unfolding in-between the key beats of narrative; this is a liminal time. Non-narrative time necessarily produces narrative time, which is nothing but a spine of sought-out and connected beats, key moments, form. Non-narrative time is real time, measurable in labor and production, and yet it is time that we discard, suppress, willingly forget, sacrifice to the narrative. It's time that exists, but that is literally obscene ("off-scene") in hopes that it will not attract our attention. We're complicit in this operation; we don't want to experience non-narrative time because it reveals the illusion and obscures the spectacle. 

Narrative time is time made spectacular, cut down to the interesting and entertaining bits. It's time edited. It's the product of labor, the strip-mining of coal while looking for diamonds. All else is discarded because the only part that is of value to us is the diamond, the pleasurable illusion, the gem of story. And then, only valuable to us until the next diamond is brought to the surface, followed by the next, in a prescripted cause and effect chain, a diamond choker. It is an order imposed, and the result presented for our distracting entertainment.

The persistence of vision, the illusion upon which animation, and spectacle, is based, has its counterpart in narrative. While our mind blinks to obscure non-narrative time, the imprint of our last beat of narrative time remains there, a distraction from the labors of non-narrative time. It fades only slightly before we're presented with the next beat of narrative time to hold in mind and provide a distracting spectacle. We grasp onto the narrative image, forgetting that the flow of time continues until it becomes time to replace our current narrative image with the next.

We might, however, form our own connective patterns if we can survey the whole timeline. Searching from outside of time, we might find a natural pulse, organic, rather than one constructed and imposed. We, instead of ignoring non-narrative time, might examine it closely enough to recognize Aristotle's unity of time is characteristic of all time. All time is narrative. Not all narrative time has to be spectacular, however. Perhaps if we, as audience, choose for ourselves the key moments of time, the beats, the form, perhaps if we become our own narrators rather than accepting the narrative time that has been selected for us and presented to us as a distraction from the real, then, maybe then, we have the antidote to spectacular time.

To counteract spectacular time, we have to step out of time, in an off-rhythm, syncopated marching to Thoreau's drummer or a wild and spasmodic Butoh dance. We must play with all our being, and not accept leisure time as our time. We have to play and we have to laugh.

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