June 13, 2011
Cartoons & Forked Reality
Cartoons taught me a lot of bad lessons as a kid. I hate to admit it, but you can’t paint doors on walls and then walk through them. A basic law of cartoons is that gravity only acts on someone if they’re aware that they’ve walked off an edge.
So I’d cover my eyes with my hands, stress my fingers to block out as much light as possible, and walk off the side of my bed, believing that I could float through the air if I just didn’t look down. I was fully committed to the notion that the only way to float was not knowing if I was floating.
But I’d had it wrong. Ignorance of his situation didn’t keep Wile E. Coyote in the air. The very laws of physics themselves bent to the shape of his karma, only holding him up so that his fall was that much funnier. Road Runner, forever aloof, can peer straight down and remain hovering in space. I’m still looking for the line between perception and reality, but that bird seems to know there isn’t one.
Maybe there is a line between perception and reality, but it may only be in the places where “things can not be other than they are,” in the words of Aristotle—things like gravity. If it isn’t a predictable law like that, it’s all up for grabs about how we see things. Part of the humor of cartoons is that we can suspend the unchangeable laws of the world and enjoy the opportunity of this infinite malleability. The roadrunner can not fall, because he chooses not to see the ground. While the coyote has opted into gravity, the roadrunner has chosen levity.
It’s a classic case of perceptional choice, a shifting of an understanding where one way of seeing is observed, but a second way of seeing may snap into focus. The classic example of the shift is Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit, but I’ve always found the cat/mouse version much more playful.
Which makes me wonder, where am I the coyote?
The more you understand, the more you find it difficult to talk. When we talk, there is apt to be some misunderstanding, because the true way always has at least two sides, the negative and the positive. When we talk about the negative side, the positive side is missing, and when we talk about the positive side, the negative side is missing. We cannot speak in a positive and a negative way at the same time. So we do not know what to say. It is almost impossible to talk about Buddhism. So not to say anything, just to practice it, is the best way. Showing one finger or drawing a round circle may be the way, or simply to bow.Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
I’m a big illusion junkie. That particular genre is called “multistable perception”, when input has two equally valid forms. Our brains aren’t wired to accept two interpretations at once, so the best illusions force us to spontaneously shift between realities. When I called myself a “junkie” I meant it, these are micro-hallucinations.
Suzuki tell us that communication works the same way. Our eyes can’t focus on two images, and our mouths can’t speak two words, so please just shut up and do. I come back to this quote often, but I have a hard time understanding an idea until I try saying it out loud.
So she moved me up a grade ’cause I wasn’t fitting in, so now I’m even more not fitting in. I was getting good grades, you know, like all A’s. So my mom says, “You need stimulation.” I said, “No, I don’t. I’m stimulated enough right now.” So she says, “Uh-uh. You don’t have a challenge. You need a challenge.” So now I’m challenged, all right—I’m challenged to hold on to my lunch money because of all the big mooses who wanna pound me, ’cause they think I’m a shrimpy dork who thinks he’s smarter than them! But I don’t think I’m smarter, I just do the stupid homework! If everyone else just did the stupid homework, they could move up a grade and get pounded, too! Is there anymore coffee?Hogarth in The Iron Giant
What’s interesting with communication is that there are certain impossible duplicities, and then other possible ones. One of my favorite examples of this, to return to cartoons, is Hogarth’s coffee-fueled monologue in The Iron Giant. Hogarth goes through what’s called a dialogismus, a one-person dialogue. He has his own voice and opinions, but at the same time, he’s imitating his mother’s. Our mouths may not be able to speak two words at once, but we can communicate two different viewpoints at the same time.
Typically when we summon the dialogismus, it’s to recreate an argument or spat. That makes it a special sort of storytelling where we play both characters, and by telling the story, we might achieve a certain sense of empathy for the other person: a pleasing sort of positive doublethink where we understand both ourselves and the other person a little bit more by trying on their persona for a little while.
I suspect dialogismus is a universal activity, I certainly do it. The converse, then, is fascinating. The people we mentally argue with most likely do the same with us. Maybe we even win sometimes. Wouldn’t it be great to meet those versions of ourselves? A chunk of our identity, modeled against someone else’s experiences.
For me, these imagined conversations are typically speculative, a way of considering what could occur if I chose one option over another. It’s a format for exploring possibility, projecting into various alternate realities. Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life touch on this wonderfully. But I’d like to introduce a fundamental law: Futurama did it best. In the episode Farnsworth Parabox, the wild differences in the realities they visit seem to have no meaningful impact at all. In this clip, we visit a universe where nobody has eyes, and yet everything else appears to be the exact same. It inverts the what-ifs we play out in our minds, where daily choices seem weighty. Instead, massive change is only ever surface-level.
You could almost consider every story with a “world” to be an alternate reality. Think of it this way: in the reality of The Simpsons, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie don’t age. If they did, Lisa would be 31 this year. Since the worlds we construct live in stories, what is interesting is that these realities may be alternate or duplicative, but they may also fork. Think of all the forked realities in fan fiction.
I think one of my favorite examples of an alternate, forked fictional reality is the Russian version of the Land of Oz. In 1939, Alexander Volkov was hired to translate L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into Russian. Volkov, however, did a relatively loose translation of it, called The Wizard of the Emerald City, and ultimately the discrepancies caused him to pen several books of his own with his new characters and plot lines after the initial translation. It all happened in a place called Magic-Land. In Volkov’s version, Toto speaks. How crazy is that?
In the video, some woodland bunnies are singing to the Cowardly Lion and celebrating the capture of a sabertooth tiger. I think Baum’s version of Oz could use a few sabertooth tigers.
What I like about Volkov’s take is that it blurs the line between knockoff and retelling. Everyone gripes about George Lucas’ edits to Star Wars, but I think he makes a compelling point that the story is a myth now, entered into the general record and ripe for retelling. It went unsaid, and copyright law might not back it up, but what that means is that we all own the story of Star Wars now. Han Solo shot whenever you thought he did.
Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind was a great film unfortunately passed over. The protagonists, for goofy plot reasons, are forced to remake (or “swede” in the film’s lingo) all the movies at the local video store on shoestring budgets with neighborhood casts. John Finlay Kerr nails what makes it so great:
Rather than being accurate copies of movies, what Gondry’s swedeing represents is a greater truth about our resent-day film-going culture. Their transformations of a popular history of film functions as a record of responses to those films; their location in social memory. [...] Certainly Michel Gondry is not dismissing the intellectual copyright of movies (which is the industry’s backbone). But our memories of them are collectively our own, and cannot be audited. They are ours, and they connect us historically through film.
Many on YouTube have since sweded other films, but nothing quite compares to Be Kind’s take on Ghostbusters.
It sounds like you’re reacting to my preoccupation with what I might call the primes of the story. There are aspects of the Odyssey that seem essential, and these are few in number, just a handful of images. There’s a man lost at sea, an interminable war a long way behind him, and a home that’s infinitely desirable and infinitely far away. There’s the man-eating ogre in his cave; there are the Sirens with their irresistible song; there’s the certain misery of Scylla and Charybdis.
I feel like these images are responsible for the enduring power of the story, and its survival, more than the particular details of, say, dialogue among the suitors, or what have you. I wanted to work directly with these primes, to present them in as powerful and stripped-down a way as possible, and to explore how they could interact, and how they could combine to make new forms.Zachary Mason in an interview at BLDGBLOG
It’s great to think of all of these iterations, whether fan art or done by the creator, are responses to the fundamental elements of the story. It’s taking the core of what exists, highlighting the memorable moments, and using them as a framework. There’s an interview with Zachary Mason on BLDGBLOG where he and Geoff Manaugh have a discussion around what they call “The Primes of the Story,” which could be considered the certain hooks that you latch on to when rollicking about in someone else’s tale. What’s interesting is that you could interpret the primes of the story as the places where stories are unable to be forked. By saying so, you’d suggest that rather than keeping the formal structure of the story intact, you just keep the hooks in place.
So, maybe what we remember first from Hamlet isn’t the plot or relationships between characters, but rather the images that the play conjures. What’s more important than staying true to the central story is to have your Hamlet stab a man behind a curtain, and hold a skull deciding whether to be or not to be. The atomic level of a good story seems to be memorable moments rather than plot structures, and everything else can be forked.
Bart (as Hamlet): Someone is behind the curtains.
Bart: Polonius? What are you doing behind the curtains?
Wiggum (as Polonius): I hide behind curtains because I have a fear of getting stabbed.
We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe. — Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
Can a story have variable primes? David Lynch’s Inland Empire certainly tries. It’s a film of key moments, but it doesn’t let you hang onto any of them. Actors play multiple characters, characters are played by multiple actors, plot lines are reversed, repeated, remixed. It presents its own recontextualization in the moment. There is no central narrative to follow, and yet the repetition of familiar elements instills in the viewer an intense singular experience.
I was lucky enough to see Lynch present the film and before wishing us a good watching he read this poem from the Upanishads. It ought to be included in the film, as it speaks so well to Empire’s aspirations. When we dream, the primes of our lives hang out with each other, surprising us with how seamlessly they mingle. Empire shows us these mismatched bits and asks us to reflect on what waking moments could’ve inspired them.
The dream within a dream concept isn’t new, it dates even back to when Edgar Allan Poe said, “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” in the early 19th century. Poe had his poetry, and now we have films like Inland Empire and Inception. I suppose the intrigue of dreams will never leave, because they are at once such a part of us and so indecipherable. There’s high novelty to their recursive nature as well, allowing us to crawl up into them and construct an endless spiral like a Droste image. As storytellers, we use dreams as a way to nest our stories and forked realities inside one another like Russian nesting dolls.
While there are plenty of examples of stories using dreams within dreams, I suppose we should return back to our original subject of cartoons and comics. My favorite example is from one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics where Calvin is continually waking up, walking out to go to school, then falling off a sheer cliff.
Much like you, David, Calvin got out of his bed, and unexpectedly fell. And so, appropriately, I suppose this story ends in much the same way it started, just in the opposite direction of predictability.