5 February 2013

Cartoons without Bubbles

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:51 pm

In Italy in the twenties the Corriere dei piccoli used to publish the best-known American comic strips of the time: Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammer Kids, Felix the Cat, Maggie and Jiggs, all of them rebaptized with American names. And there were also Italian comic strips, some of them of excellent quality, according to the graphic taste and style of the period. In Italy they had not yet started to use balloons for dialogue (these began in the thirties with the importation of Mickey Mouse). The Corriere dei piccoli redrew the American cartoons without balloons, replacing them with two or four rhymed lines under each cartoon. However, being unable to read, I could easily dispense with the words — the pictures were enough. I used to live with this little magazine, which my mother had begun buying and collecting even before I was born and had bound into volumes year by year. I would spend hours following the cartoons of each series from one issue to another, while in my mind I told myself the stories, interpreting the scenes in different ways — I produced variants, put together the single episodes into a story of broader scope, thought out and isolated and then connected the recurring elements in each series, mixing up one series with another, and invented new series in which the secondary characters became protagonists.

When I learned to read, the advantage I gained was minimal. Those simple-minded rhyming couplets provided no illuminating information; often they were stabs in the dark like my own, and it was evident that the rhymster had no idea what might have been in the balloons of the original, either because he did not understand English or because he was working from cartoons that had already been redrawn and rendered wordless. In any case, I preferred to ignore the written lines and to continue with my favorite occupation of dayreaming within the pictures and their sequence.

– from Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988) by Italo Calvino

*  *  *

I’m still a bit hacked off about Google no longer routing image searchers directly to the blog post where the image appears, instead steering traffic to a Google-generated simulacrum of the original blog post. This devious maneuver shifts vast numbers of hits from blogs to Google — probably they’re artificially juicing their traffic numbers to satisfy the investment community about business growth potential. In my prior post I noted that over the years a lot of people have visited the blog to look at the screengrabs I put up from movies I’d recently watched. So what’s the big deal about losing these visitors to Google’s insatiable attention-gobbling maw? It’s not like I shot the films from which I nab the still images. I do have to select the images to post, and it takes a bit of effort to isolate the right ones. For me though what’s important is the assemblage, the selection of multiple images from the same film.

The stills might trigger memories for people who have previously seen the movie. For those who haven’t, the stills could serve as a kind of teaser or trailer, perhaps stimulating them to give it a viewing. But for me the process of selecting and assembling the stills functioned as a kind of prismatic concentration, bringing into clearer focus a particular thematic element extending through the movie. I couldn’t necessarily name the theme; it’s more of a visual resonance. Take this one, for instance, or this one — both historically popular hits from Google image searches. They’re like cinematic triptychs, or Calvino’s cartoons without bubbles. If you don’t already know the stories that go with the pictures you might be able to make up your own.

If I were a different sort of psychologist I might suggest a self-help intervention. Find five photos of yourself, or — better — envision five situations you’ve experienced in your life that you regard as important in some way. Describe each situation in a paragraph, focusing on facts rather than interpretations — sort of like a screengrab without dialogue or a cartoon without a bubble. Now take those five scenarios and, disregarding as best you can the meaning you usually ascribe to these events, invent a new story linking them together.

Me, I’m trying to figure out whether this is a good fiction-writing maneuver: assemble a series of short situational stills involving a character without linking the situations together narratively. Then the (imagined) reader can assemble a story from the fragments.


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