If someone were to point a gun at my head and demand that I answer the question “What is cinema?”—well, I suppose my first response would be to wonder whether jump-starting my column is really the very best use this hypothetical dude could find for a loaded firearm. But I’d be pretty torn on response No. 2. Since movies are a series of still photographs projected at high speed to create the illusion of motion, I’ve always felt that animation, and stop-motion animation in particular, represents the medium at its essence; your Ray Harryhausens and Henry Selicks not only think in terms of individual frames, they do so within a context of solid, three-dimensional objects that occupy space in the real world. Pretty fundamental. But then, so is cinema-as-voyeurism, the trope that launched a thousand graduate theses, and I’d be equally inclined to argue that the art form ain’t really and truly at its purest unless we’re watching somebody surreptitiously watching somebody else, with the attendant, slightly guilty sense of rapt identification.
So there’s my final answer: stop-motion voyeurism. Le cinema! As proof, here’s a superb example, taken from the second Wallace & Gromit adventure, “The Wrong Trousers.” For added purity (subdivision: Real Cinema Died In 1927; please note that I don’t personally subscribe to this ultra-nerd position), the sequence is completely silent, save for music and sound effects; Wallace, the only speaking character at this stage, doesn’t appear. It’s just the absurdly expressive Gromit, faithful and dejected, keeping a close eye on his new roommate: a shifty-looking, ass-kissing penguin with a suspicious resemblance to the notorious outlaw Feathers McGraw. (“HAVE YOU SEEN THIS CHICKEN?” blares a Wanted poster, right over a mug shot of a penguin decked out in a rubber rooster’s comb.) Not the funniest scene in the film, perhaps, but it’s my favorite all the same, if only for the way every beat and detail is so exquisitely timed and executed. And “essence-of.”
As you may have noticed, the scene opens with a bit of meta-humor: One of the headlines we see Gromit perusing as he sits in the café is “Dog Reads Paper.” This falls into a different category, I think, than the more conventional canine-related gags Nick Park favors in the W&G films—Gromit reading Pluto’s Republic in an earlier scene, for example. That stuff wouldn’t seem out of place in a Shrek picture, by which I mean that it’s good for a chuckle, but basically dispensable. “Dog Reads Paper,” on the other hand, openly acknowledges the artificiality of the whole enterprise; rather than encouraging us to suspend our disbelief, Park deliberately yanks it back down. This quick joke means to remind us that what we’re seeing has been deliberately constructed, and that awareness is what makes the experience so pleasurable. (It’s also the exact opposite of what occurs in the scene from Children Of Men I eviscerated a while back, to everyone’s wild applause.)
Now the voyeurism begins in earnest, though not before Gromit neatly folds his paper and pays for his coffee; even if this is the first time you’ve even seen this fastidious mutt, you already have an accurate sense of his personality. Working with Tristan Oliver (credited only with “photography” here, but he went on to be the cinematographer on Chicken Run and Fantastic Mr. Fox, so I assume he contributed a lot), Park lights the next several shots in a way that filmmakers routinely did throughout Hollywood’s golden age, splashing giant pools of light across characters’ faces (usually just the eyes) and directly into their paths. It’s a deliberately ostentatious means of directing viewers’ attention, to the point where I almost wonder why they didn’t take that one last step and actually include the light source in the frame. And for me, at least, the device retains all its emotional power, even when it’s used tongue-in-cheek, as it is here. (That may be why I was kinder than most to Steven Soderbergh’s old-Hollywood homage The Good German.)
Following Feathers around the corner, Gromit discovers him casing what will eventually be revealed as a museum, working out plans to use Wallace’s mechanical trousers to steal a valuable diamond. In an attempt to get closer without being seen, Gromit puts a cardboard box over his head, then cuts himself a hilariously precise set of eyeholes. The meta-joke here is that we need the precision, because Gromit, uniquely among animated characters so far as I know, conveys practically every emotion known to man (and dog) using only one small portion of his physiognomy: that infinitely malleable shelf of a brow. You can see this immediately after he peers through the eyeholes—we get a few seconds of generic curiosity, and then the brow suddenly slams down to suggest consternation. Watch Gromit carefully throughout this scene (and elsewhere), and you’ll see that Park achieves everything with just those few millimeters of forehead. You’ll also frequently see Park’s fingerprints, which tend to be more visible there than anywhere else; I find this endlessly charming, perhaps because it’s evidence of the painstaking work that was done.
Speaking of which, let’s hear it for that goddamn tape measure, folks. Truth be told, it’s the main reason I chose this scene rather than, say, Feathers’ arrival or the action climax. The gags are funny enough as conceived, from the inherently goofy image of a diabolical penguin studiously taking measurements (it’s like watching Lex Luthor do a Google search) to the clever trick of hitching a ride up the side of a tall building via auto-retract. Mostly, though, I just sit there in awe of how accurately the tape measure behaves like an actual tape measure—of how Park and his crew somehow manage to replicate the slight, wobbly instability of whatever thinnish metal they use to make modern-day construction-style “tape.” Look at how perfectly it shimmies when Feathers retracts it from the ledge—exactly as you might remember from those times as a kid when you’d try to see how high in the air you could get it before it collapsed. How difficult must that be to accomplish one frame at a time? And Park is aware that we’ll be marveling—there’s no other reason for him to have Feathers initially drop a few inches onto the ground. That’s a nudge, a cue for us to enjoy the virtuosity that follows. And I don’t begrudge it one bit.
Hmm. I seem to have digressed from my original thesis, which involved voyeurism in combination with stop-motion. Seems like if I held the gun to my own head and demanded complete honesty of myself, I’d say that cinema at its best is deliberate, knowing artifice. Part of me wants to think that isn’t true, since I dig plenty of resolutely naturalistic filmmakers, like early Abbas Kiarostami and the Dardenne brothers; even then, though, to some extent (a pretty large extent, actually) I’m responding to the deliberate, knowing artifice of a carefully crafted narrative, which bears only a superficial resemblance to the real world in which we all live. What I seem to want is to be conned, for a purpose, by someone who cheerfully admits that he’s conning me. There, I got it: Cinema is magic.