Monday, February 09, 2009
All Frosting, No Cake
Many years ago my sister made her first cake. My father was so happy about his daughter's first baking effort that he decided to make genuine homemade whipped cream, the kind his father put on top of the five cent banana splits sold in the family restaurant during the Depression, in my sister's cake's honor.
Dad bought a pint of whipping cream and some caster sugar and whipped it up until there was nearly four inches of the stuff...but my poor sister's poor cake was a lamentable effort, only about an inch high. Nevertheless, Dad insisted on putting ALL the whipped cream on the thing.
The frosting completely swamped and drowned the main event. "Where's the cake?" I exclaimed as I went prospecting through the gargantuan whipped cream topping.
We ate it and all got sick afterward from the superabundance of fat and cholesterol.
This deadly dessert is, to me, symbolic ofModern animated features, where technique is the whipped cream and story is the cake.
I was going to write some criticism of two animated features I saw recently, but found that someone else wrote a much better one years before feature animation was a glimmer in Lotte Reiniger's or Walt Disney's eye.
So here are some wonderful excerpts from Mark Twain's essay, FENIMORE COOPER'S LITERARY OFFENSES, written in 1895 (the official birth year of motion pictures!) It is amazing how much these arguments apply to film stories. I am editing the word "Deerslayer" and a few points out so that Twain's argument may be applied to animation in particular. Here goes:
1. The rules (of literary construction state that)...A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "_________" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "__________" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "__________" tale.
4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "___________" tale.
5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "_________" tale to the end of it.
6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "___________" tale, as ____________'s case will amply prove.
9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "___________" tale.
10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the (viewer) of the "___________" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "_______" tale, this rule is vacated.
I will venture to add one point to Twain's wonderful list. Characters in an animated film should have some discernable design relationship to one another and be from the same design universe unless the story calls for it. If a film (CORALINE) has grotesques for neighbours in both the 'real world' and 'other world' while she and her parents and one friend are designed and animated in a completely different style, how do you differentiate the Other World from the Real World? You are piling frosting on top of frosting until you have completely hidden the cake.
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is three or four cakes...I waited an hour for the story to start. Was it about a mouse, a rat, or soup? (I didn't wait long enough to find out if it was about a princess.)
CORALINE'S cake makes little sense and collapses like a fallen souffle the minute you try to puzzle out character relationships, motivation, or meaning.
But the frosting is little short of miraculous.
That may be enough for some people, but I somehow doubt that either film is going to do very well. Story remains undeveloped in these features while technique soars to magical levels. But it's all just putting more whipped cream on top of the same sad cake.
All the audience really wants is a good, understandable story, with characters that we are interested in, that is well told. Walt Disney knew that, and his heirs at Pixar know that. Give us more cake and less topping.
I'll let Mr. Twain have the last word.
A work of art? ______ has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are...Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.