Thursday, June 01, 2006

THE IRON MAN (1930)

I've mentioned before my lack of dancing ability. I tend to avoid hitting a dance floor at all costs, partially for the safety and the sanity of others, but mostly to save myself a little face. If will not expound on the stereotype of white guys that can't dance; suffice to say that I know plenty of white guys that can, and most of them are not gay, either (that we know of). I was never even near a dance floor in my life until I was sixteen, and when I did hit one, it was an embarassing situation. It was one of those times (and there are many) where it seemed that everyone else in the world was in on some secret that had been kept from me for my entire life, and there I was, gamely trying to copy what everyone else was doing during Rock Lobster, and then the mood switched to some Kansas ballad or something, and I looked around and caught the sneers and smirks which seemed to surround me in a swirl, when it fact it was only this asshole girl that hated me just because she was an asshole girl. Still, in my head, the disapproval carousel spun slowly to a stop long enough for me to get off, and I left the cafeteria where the dance was held and found some buddies to hang out with and mock the rest of the school. Turn the beat around, indeed...

I might have gotten by with even some minor enjoyment of dancing in my life if I had just found a particularly move that I was even halfway good at faking. Now that the left knee goes out when someone just snaps their fingers, I will probably never accomplish this goal. But I have told Jen that I wanted to take dance lessons with her, and I am sincere. I really would like to have some comfort in those social occasions where instead of everyone thinking I'm crazy for leaving the party when the dancing starts, instead I can get out there (without the aid of liquid courage, my usual aid in this course -- I still look like an idiot out there, but I no longer care at all). If only I had figured out a cool move or combination of moves that would get people off my backs long enough for me to fake my way through the rest of the dancecard without feeling like everyone is blasting me with their critical laser-vision. Something that would have people going "Check it out! Haven't seen that for a while! Ha Ha, my man! Very funny!" And then the rest of the night? Pressure's off.

If only I had learned the Robot.

An organ-grinding cat (which sounds far worse than it actually is) marches through a forest, dispelling notes from his instrument as he yowls along with the music in exactly that way that cats are wont to do. A note gets stuck on its way out of the box, and the cat cannot wind it any further. He pulls out an oilcan, and after a couple of drops, he is able to pull the stuck note out of the grinder. He continues on, and through a spotlight closeup, he see him play along with the music on his teeth, his tongue pressing each tooth like a piano key. He makes his way to barn where he meets a pair of roosters, and his happy music seems to inspire the roosters to start a cockfight. (No comment.) Finally, the dust settles, and one of the roosters lands a vicious kick to the back of the other's head, and the championship is settled. The cat continues to play on, and Farmer Al Falfa sticks his head out of his window and yells, "Rotten!" The windowsill slams shut on his neck, which only riles Al even more. He steps out of the house after the cat, barking "Go on! Get out of here! that's right!", and the cat disappears over the horizon.

Farmer Al Falfa then takes off after the roosters, who have an easy time of it keeping out of harm's way. Underneath a tree, each rooster leapfrogs up over the other, as if they were ascending invisible stairs, and they end up safely on the branch of the tree. Then one of the roosters has an idea, and squats to lay an egg in exactly the way that roosters don't. That rooster hikes the egg like a football to the other rooster, who calls out signals like "23-7-46", and then he whips the egg/ball into Al's face. As the roosters laugh at Al's yolk-covered head, the farmer runs off and returns with a saw to try and cut down the branch. He shimmies up the trunk of the tree, and we are given a wonderful forced perspective shot of the surrounding acreage as Al climbs nearer and nearer. Al reaches the branch at last, but as he swings out onto it, he loses his grip and almost falls. He catches himself and pulls his body up onto the branch will all his strength. He's the one laughing now, and as Al turns about to cut off the branch that both he and the roosters are on, the birds leap up and fly into a hole in the tree. Al severs the branch, and the tree trunk, not the branch, starts to fall down. At the base of the tree, a group of animals have gathered to watch the outcome, and they step as the roots of the tree are upended and the trunk splats into the ground.

Al is still sitting in midair, delighted with the results. He then realizes that he must find a way down from his perch, so he drops himself carefully off the branch, stretches his arms out as far as they can go, and lets loose. He tumbles over and over as he falls, but as he nears the ground, his body slows to a near-standstill, and he alights gently on the ground on his tiptoes. Then the branch falls down and slams into his head! The crowd of animals all point and laugh at him, and Al stalks off grumpily.

Farmer Al often gets surprise packages in the mail (see The Prize Package, reviewed here), and today is no exception. A mule-drawn Express wagon rushes towards Al's farm (though the mule is determined to let his hind legs rest on the gear behind him), and in the back, there is a large crate standing awkwardly through the ride. The wagon pulls up to Al's door, and then starts to veer away, and Al yells at the driver. The man stops and unceremoniously dumps the crate crashingly out the back, and then drives away. Al eyes the crate warily, but then undoes the latch with a carefully stretched-out arm. The door swings open, and inside is a mechanical man, but it is backwards and upside-down.

The iron man leaps out of the box onto its feet and facing Al, and it offers his hand in friendship. Al takes the metal hand, and the robot squeezes Al's own hand until it pulses with pain and the arm hangs useless from its socket. The robot taps Al simply on the hand, and all seems fine. The iron man whispers "Shhhh!" three times with a finger to its mouth while it looks dramatically left and right, and then launches into a swell little dance, imploring Al to join it. The pair dance on for awhile, with little weird variations thrown into each count, until at last, the robot stops in midair, and its legs start to tick-tock back and forth together like a pendulum. It swings its arms like clock hands, and then, indeed, it really takes on the appearance of a clock when a cuckoo bird bursts out of its chest! This bit done, the two go back to their dance, but the robot confuses things when he kicks Al in the rear. The farmer is not one to let things go, and so, when it reaches his turn in the routine, he kicks the robot back.

The mechanical man does not know how to react. It stands very confused, and then it starts to swell up twice its size, then four times it size, then off the screen, and then he we see the entire earth crammed into a corner of the screen, and the robot has continued to grow until it is thousands of miles above the earth's atmosphere. It shudders and shakes, and then explodes with a massive "BOOM!" The next thing we see are the parts of the robot falling back to earth, but as Al laughs like crazy on the ground, the metal leg of the machine hits the farmer square on the noggin and knocks him down. The other parts reassemble as they hit reach earth, and the robot chases Al and the crowd of animals off over the horizon. Iris out.

The screen then reads: "2600 years ago, Aesop said:" and we see a small Mickey-like mouse sitting on what could be a black rock in the middle of a pond who is fast asleep as he fishes. A similarly black swan sticks his neck and head out of the water, and says, "An oyster is a fish dressed up like a nut." The swan ducks back under the surface as the mouse awakens and feels a tug on his line. He pulls hard, and then the swan pops up on the other side of its body, tugging on the line. The swan lets go, the mouse falls into the water, and the swan rights its entire body and laughs uproariously.

Good fun, but yet again we have a cartoon, much as in Summertime, where there are three distinct sections which have little or nothing to do with the other sections, except for a character which shows up in some or all of the segments. The organ-grinder cat only leads us to the roosters, which exist only to bring Al into the picture, and eventually Al gets a robot as a present. And the fable has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in the picture. I love this silliness, of course, but it does make it hard to tell any sort of story when you approach a film in this manner. It's a good thing that the filmmakers are not concerned for even two seconds about anything like "a story". Early science-fiction fun? Is the appearance of a robot enough to qualify something as science-fiction if there is no actual science behind the fiction? Does it matter? It's a Farmer Al Falfa cartoon, and it couldn't care less about whether the robot in the film sports a realistic design or not. This cartoon just wants to dance!

And so do I, but only under my own terms. My question about the "iron man" in this film is about the dance that he starts. A human can do a dance where he approximates the supposedly stiff, mechanical movements of a robot, and it is called "The Robot". Since a robot is built to imitate the motions of a human being, is the robot in the film actually doing a dance called "The Human"? And when Al joins him in his merry capering, since he matches the robot's moves exactly, is the farmer actually doing a dance called "The Human, As Filtered Through the Machinations of a Robot"?

If so, then I've been doing that dance for years. It may not be "The Robot", but they're the stiffest movements you've ever seen a human attempt.

The Iron Man (A Van Beuren Studios Aesop's Fable, 1930)
Directors: Harry Bailey and John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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