Wednesday, June 07, 2006

MAKIN' 'EM MOVE (1931)

When I saw Penn and Teller on the stage years ago (and also had the chance to meet them post-show, where I had a spirited discussion about Buster Keaton with the stage-silent Teller), Penn Jillette mentioned something about the true nature of magic, or rather, illusion, as they prefer to call it. I don't remember his exact words, but it had something to do with the people who can't just be happy with seeing an illusion performed to perfection before their disbelieving eyes. No, these people had to know how the trick was performed. The most often-asked question about any magic trick is "how did you do that?" That is, if the person observing it isn't pulling the "I know how they do that!" bluff, wherein they really don't know how it is being done, but they have to pretend they know openly so that they seem bigger in their eyes and ego, even if no one around them gives two shits. 

The beauty of the art of illusion is not in knowing how it is done. Don't go crazy trying to ascertain the knowledge of how the illusionist performed his "magic", but rather, be content with the artistry it took to pull that illusion off and make your brain go "What the hell?" That's the fun part. You know it is a trick, but the beauty is in pretending it isn't. The "magic" in the trick is in believing that you have just seen the impossible. Once you go behind the curtain and see the wizard is a fraud, the magic dies... unless you became a magician yourself.

More years back than I care to imagine now, there was an idiot who had a series of specials on Fox (yet again the harbinger of evil) performing as "The Masked Magician." The specials were all about the great secrets of magic being revealed once and for all --- and all hell broke loose around their airing, especially in magician's circles, who swore that Val Valentino, the guy's real name (though unknown at the time) would never work again, and that the art of illusion would be ruined forever. The quartet of specials aired anyway... and I never once tuned in to them. Why not? Because, despite all the controversy, I thought it was a ridiculous non-event. The secrets he was purporting to reveal to a curious public could be easily found in any decent library in the country. We had books on the history of magic since we were kids, my brother Mark and I (Mark, at one point, had an interest in the hobby; I was merely addicted to the occasional magic specials that popped up on TV from time to time), and despite my knowing how some of the tricks (not all) were performed didn't take away from the spectacle itself. Because illusion is mostly that --- spectacle. Away from the audience's view, there is a science and art to the trick itself, but the bulk of what the audience "sees" is misdirection and folderol.

Animation, too, is a form of the art of illusion. 24 fps, people, and you have what it takes to convince the human eye that animated motion is fluid; 1440 of these photographed frames sustains the illusion of that movement over the course of a minute, and just over 10,000 of these frames gets you seven minutes of cartoon enjoyment (or crap, if it is done by a bad studio). But, not everyone is happy with simply this knowledge; no, they're not happy until they have figured out every little detail of the industry. At the beginning of the Aesop's Sound Fable called, cleverly, Makin' 'Em Move, a lovely lady-cat in high heels and a tight dress struts and shakes her way through the back door of an "Animated Cartoon Studio" (so says the sign on the glass of the door) with this simple entreaty to the seemingly dozing security keeper who guards the studio: "Pardon me! I've always wondered how they were made!" As the lady-cat giggles to herself, the annoyed keeper (who is played by a dog) tells her to "Shhhh!" and unlocks the door. As the familiar Halloween strains of Mysterious Mose play about them, the keeper and the lady-cat march through a section of hallway marked with a "SILENCE" sign to another door. This action is repeated down another hallway, and then down a third, until they come to a fourth door.

When this door is opened, the pair are flooded with thousands of sheets of paper, which fill the screen like a full dam bursting, and when the sheets have cleared away, we are given a look into the busy cartoon studio. An orchestra plays jazz full-bore on a bandstand while many artists draw frantically, throwing each completed drawing on the floor over their shoulders and starting the next drawing. Busybody interns bustle to and fro carrying supplies and large piles of completed drawings. A line of animals at adjacent drawing boards each complete their own section of a drawing in an artistic assembly line: one draws the head of a cat, passes it to the next, who draws the body, then the next draws the arms, the legs, the belly button, and so on. Back by the bandstand, the band sputters and starts with frightening bursts of sound, sending all of the artists somersaulting from their tables. After a second turn at this, a hand reaches out from under one of the tables and shoots the band-leading lion, who drops face down on the bandstand, still conducting as his musicians play normally again and artists return to their duties.

A pretty kitty in a short skirt poses for an artist, and as he draws each picture of her, she shifts her position slightly so that he draw the next. Finally, his pencil snaps, and a mouse climbs up onto the desk to using his gnawing teeth to sharpen the pencil, which is accomplished by the artist cranking the mouse's tail like a real pencil sharpener. The artist takes his completed drawings and flips them, showing us the animated sequence of the stick figure version of the kitty, which she herself duplicates while standing on the tabletop, in perfect unison with the flipping drawings, and all while The Streets of Cairo plays along with her seductive belly-dance.

A smiling camera, with his tripod tips ending in three big clunky shoes, prances up behind one of the artists, who flips his drawings so the camera can film them. He does this to another artist's renderings, and then rushes over to the sound equipment. He threads the film inside him over through a synchronization machine, and places a needle along the edge of the film. The band starts playing, and their music gets etched along the side of the animation, as each note gets sucked into a recording horn. A large lady-pig starts to la-la-la her way through some "lyrics" (and quite horribly, I might add) and she is justly sucked into the recorder, along with the piano-playing lion. Then the whole band gets violently sucked up into the device.

The scene abruptly changes to the outside of a wooden fence, where hundreds of animals clamor and fight to get inside, and all because of a sign sitting on the fence that reads "A MOVIE CARTOON TO-DAY". Inside, though still outside, a movie screen has been strung up between two trees, and a large crowd of animals await the animated delights to be presented. The movie starts, and a title card reads "FABLES ANIMALS present LITTLE NELL". The cartoon characters in this film, like the drawings in the studio, are all of the stick-figured variety, and we first see the aforementioned Little Nell, an ingenue archetype, dancing atop a piano while her most-likely eventually heroic boyfriend plays along with her gyrations. (Her skirt even rises up quite a bit as a result of these movements.) Cue a saxophone-blowing mustachioed villain, who toots along with Mysterious Mose (and whose horn blows raspberries at the hissing audience), as he sneaks up to the window of the house where the couple are playing. His solo is short and sweet enough to attract the ingenue, and she falls into his horn, much to the horror of the hero. He makes off with her as she screams, and the audience hisses in kind.

Of course, a sawmill lies in her future (if not that, then it would be railroad tracks), and when she spurns the villain's continued advances and gifts of pearls (dashing them to the ground), he straps her to a large log (nothing Freudian with moves like that) and starts the buzzsaw, which slowly eats its way toward her little blonde head. With the saw's teeth just mere millimeters from her skull, a title card pops up reading "ONE MINUTE PLEASE" and the audience claps and stomps impatiently. The film returns, and the girl is once more nearing the blade. When she reaches it, she not-so-subtly inches her way back down the log to start her voyage anew. The audience readily applauds the shot of the hero running to her rescue, and he crashes through the door of the sawmill, yelling "You dirty skunk" at the dirty skunk of a villain. The evil creep wants to scrap, but the hero is not messing around. He pulls a gun on the villain and fires at his head, which sends the villain's head and torso pivoting wildly through his legs around his pelvis, and then he drops to the floor in the corner.

The hero rescues the girl, and she proclaims him, in the tried-and-true manner, "My hero!" "Aw, shucks!", he replies coyly, "It wasn't nothin'!" They kiss, and the cartoon within the cartoon comes to an end, as a "curtain" drops down on the screen reading "ASBESTOS". The audience applauds grandly, but the "curtain" arises to allow the performers their bows. Applause for the girl and boy, but when the villain bows, a tiger in the front row dislikes him enough to send a flying punch into the screen, knocking everything down in the process. A fight underneath the screen begins, and all of the remaining animals in the crowd dive into the fray, too. Iris out.

Let's get past the fact that this is a tremendously silly cartoon, and that it yet again falls prey to the early Van Beuren insistence on not seeing the premise of a cartoon all the way through. The cartoon turns on a dime: one film at the midway point, and then it jumps, and it seems we in the second half of another film altogether. The opening scene with the lady-cat never pays off, as she disappears after they go through that last door and enter the studio. Why is she offering us a snickering aside at the beginning? Personally, I thought she was actually Waffles the Cat in drag, and that there was a far more sinister purpose behind the visit. Although, if there was, it would undoubtedly be forgotten by the four-minute mark of the film. No, let's get past all that (though it seems, obviously, that I can't...)

This film purports to show us the inside world of an animated studio, and while it does indeed take us inside one, Makin' 'Em Move neither has the intent nor the interest in truly showing that world. Sure, those with a serious interest might want a closer glance, but the casual audience member doesn't really care how they are done, as along as the result entertains. I am still astounded by how many people I have met personally don't know how a cartoon is created -- and I am not talking intricate technological specificity, but merely the simplest facts about the field. The bulk of the audience just seems to take cartoons for granted, and treat many of the characters as if they were real living, breathing celebrities. Every kid knows that Mickey Mouse is a cartoon character, but name a small child that doesn't believe that Mickey walks among us. They know he does, of course, because they saw him at Disneyland, but that belief got its beginnings in a series of simple animated shorts, and now even the most cynical of adults, myself included, gushes when walking smackdab into the giant rat at the park. Behind the magic is real human effort, but all we see is the magic and believe it.

For some reason, people don't feel the need to extend this acceptance to the field of "magic" itself. They must know how the tricks are done. Even with the smoothest stagecraft and a well-crafted story around the illusion, there are still plenty of people in the crowd who just can't simply enjoy a theatrical marvel, and spend the entire show trying to methodically search out the seams and the trapdoors. Oz never existed for these people, or if it did, the Wizard left town in his balloon a long, long time ago.

Who knows, maybe it was one of those sorry people who dressed up as a lady-cat and visited that cartoon studio. It would explain the snickering. But not the fries that came with that shake...

Makin' 'Em Move (A Van Beuren Aesop's Sound Fable, 1930)
Directors: Harry Bailey and John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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