Monday, December 8, 2008

101 Dalmatians: Switching Perspectives

"She's watching us, dad"

This post is not going to be on color but on more general aspects of film narration that I have been thinking about ever since I noticed a pair of binoculars among Roger’s stuff.

Let me start with a detour: In films like Sporn’s The Emperor’s New Clothes or Welles’ Citizen Kane a multitude of characters tell their version of a story to an investigating character. All of them (including the investigating character) act as embedded narrators within the narrative that we as spectators see. Each narrator’s story adds some information that wouldn’t be available to the others, so finally we know more than any one character knew before. Yet, unlike with the conflicting versions in Rashomon for example, we have no reason to question these narrators’ credibility. So although each scene is restricted to the knowledge of its narrator, we see an objective version of what’s going on. In principle we are witnessing a detective story where everybody tells the truth.

My point is that this same concept is at work in many “normal” films (including 101 Dalmatians) – only less obvious and without a visible investigating character. Hitchcock, for exampl
e, frequently used his camera as an active investigative character that could focus on details not visible or known to any of the characters in the scene but is still highly restrictive (see Psycho). Upon closer examination it looks like narration here is usually restricted to one character’s knowlegde throughout a whole scene (comprising several consecutive shots). I say usually, because there are occasional cut-away shots that are stretching the concept a bit. Without an investigating character, the invisible superior storyteller (which for convenience’s sake I’ll call camera* in the following) has to subtly switch between these narrating agents.

As Mark Mayerson has already pointed out, the movie starts with Pongo’s voice over. Although he is by no means the narrator of the whole movie, this clearly establishes him as the protagonist. In fact we share his point of view until the end of Sq. 04 when all the adults go for an evening stroll. Of course, none of the other character narrators “tell” their story in voice over, because we have to believe that from the moment the puppies are stolen, the events are unfolding right now before our (and the characters’) eyes. But we are limited to their momentary knowledge over the course of a scene.

Even though I can’t say that the suspense opportunities are played to maximum effect, I still think it’s safe to state that Bill Peet did an incredible job in the story department that not even a conservative director like Woolie could ruin. Many scenes are built around characters observing each other secretely before they react to a situation. This theme is also visible in the backgrounds: think of all the peep-holes and windows.

Right from the beginning there are countless allusions to characters watching each other (there are unusually many point-of-view-shots throughout the movie). In fact, their behavior of observing and reacting tells us a lot about their personalities. Let’s look at our protagonist Pongo for a moment: The first h
alf of sequence 01 is constructed entirely of alternating shots of Pongo looking at something and shots of what he sees.

As a reaction to his seeing Perdi and Anita go to the park he takes the story in his hands and Roger for a walk. Then there’s the small interplay of Pongo and Perdi secretely peeking at each other. So we not only learn that Pongo is an active character, we also learn what he reacts to. It’s interesting (and sad) to see that there’s never a possibility for Perdi to take the lead because she always shares scenes with Pongo whom the camera is following consistently (even when Perdi leads the puppies through the snow, Pongo is the one to change directions). What a perfect example of cinema as a genuine expression of the male gaze! Never fear, I won’t digress into feminist film theory.

Roger (introduced as Pongo’s pet) on the other hand is the most passive character. He at best watches things happen and only reacts when forced into it. Even then he stands around hopelessly stiff. He is very detached from what goes on around him. Apart from pipes, books and musical instruments, there is always a pair of binoculars in his room. Whatever he may be watching seems to be far removed from his own life. We also learn that he looks at fashion models in magazines but does not notice Anita in the park.

I’d also like to focus on two more characters whose personalities are distinguished by how and when they react to what they see: Sgt. Tibbs and the Colonel. Tibbs is introduced as an alert and active character right away when he wakes the Colonel during the twilight bark. After seeing smoke coming out of Hell Hall, they both go to the main gate. While the Colonel waits out here, Tibbs is not only peeping through a window but enters immediately and peeks through a hole in the living room wall. After making sure he remains undiscovered, he starts investigating (constantly advancing from left to right). His first encounter with Jasper ends in an assault on his life.

Later, when Cruella is revealing her intention to kill the puppies, Tibbs is observing the scene through the same hole again. In fact he is the exclusive narrator in both of these scenes although what we see are objective shots from different positions within the room. Only after Cruella’s departure is he coming out of hiding and trying to get the puppies out before the Baduns’ TV show is over. In addition to that countdown suspense situation there is the formerly planted problem that the 15 are also more attracted by what’s on TV than what’s happening around them. After Tibbs and the pups have left the room, the camera stays with the Baduns and we share their point of view looking for the puppies until the Colonel finally dares to come closer and looks through the closed window in the hall.

His position as narrator/observer is clarified by his moving
to the next window so that we can see what’s going on in the living room. This change of perspective to outside enables the camera to switch to Pongo and Perdi more smoothly (we witness the Colonel hearing them). Even after the room has turned red and Tibbs is trying to protect the puppies, the Colonel stays at the closed window that eventually breaks when Jasper throws a chair in his direction. Only at the last moment he even sticks his head through a hole in the door but immediately follows Tibbs and the puppies back to the barn. Yet the camera remains close to Hell Hall until the Baduns leave it for good.

We experience the following family reunion as Tibbs and the Colonel witness it and after the dogs have left the barn, the Colonel is finally acting himself. As Mark Mayerson put it: “It’s an important moment because it shows that Tibbs and the Captain respect the Colonel for valid reasons and they’re not simply indulging him.” I like the narrative progression of the Colonel’s behaviour: He gradually makes his way closer to the danger (still observing and reporting) but is only reacting to it after the danger has come to his home. Tibbs on the other hand doesn’t hesitate for a moment.

After that, the camera follows the Baduns until they catch up
with the Dalmatians on the bridge. Like in a relay race Pongo takes over from that point in time until the scene fades to black. This “relay” technique helps to smooth the necessary transitions from one story thread to the other that normally is achieved by cross-cutting in such chase pictures. There are exceptions to this: the first seven shots of Sq. 13, for example, or the camera traveling to distant locales all by itself following the barking sound.

As we have seen, we can also share a minor characters’ (the cows’ in the Dairy Barn) or the villains’ perspective: In the first picture we know more than the
unsuspecting Radcliffes, in the second one the dogs try to escape their observer and know that they will be exposed any minute now. Both of them lead to different degrees of suspense: In the first one we ask ourselves: why are they being watched? In the second one the question is more specific: can the dogs escape in time?

As a matter of fact, the whole Dinsford scene consists of characters observing each other. Ironically in the end, the dogs are forced into watching their fate being decided by humans who have been portrayed as generally incompetent by now (the police wasn’t able to find the puppies, the Baduns couldn’t even do their job right). Coherently, it’s this incompetence that finally puts the villains out of action.

All screenshots are from Platinum Edition DVD, RC: 2, 2008 unless otherwise stated. All the pictures are the property of Disney, used here for educational purposes.

Sequences labelled according to the final draft (posted by Hans Perk) and Mark Mayerson’s mosaics.


Travis said...

Great analysis. I just rewatched the film recently... it was nice to read this as a follow up.

VPetra said...

This article is just amazing! It's so well written and consistent, it's a pleasure to read. Thank you for posting it.