Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Dumbo case

Dumbo is first and foremost a hymn to the night. Whether it’s a crowded circus train or female elephants working to hoist the big top in the rain, or the shadow that’s cast on the same big top destroyed, or the remote cabin where Dumbo’s mother - now a ‘mad elephant’ - weeps, the film’s great moments have the night as their decor. It is night when the young mouse whispers to the man who imagines he is dreaming the idea of the show with Dumbo as its star, and it is night, when after the catastrophe, the big-eared elephant and his pal, the young mouse, fall into a well of champagne. What a strange cartoon it is, this Dumbo in darkness. What a strange story, that of a bogus baby elephant*.  
The answer to the question ‘Where do babies come from?’ first seems to be: ‘with the stork’ (it’s 1941). This is how the film begins, with the storks in their zeal going so far as to also service part of the animal world. But if the she-bear is delighted to take delivery of her cub, the she-elephant (an otherwise irreproachable mother) suspects that those hypertrophied ears will only bring trouble to their wearer. It is the other (jealous) she-elephants who give the name ‘Dumbo’ to he who will never be Jumbo and whom they decide to ‘erase from the elephant race’. Just as later the young mouse will tell him, by way of consolation: ‘Tell yourself your ancestors were mammoths!’ But does he really believe it? For Dumbo who is clumsiness itself, learns nothing, acquires no elephant ways, and doesn’t even speak. 
We know the moral of the film. It is all the more familiar for being thoroughly American (from Disney to Spielberg). It says that an individual never honours his group more than when he has found the strength to transform his personal handicap into a collective strength**. So it’s no surprise to see Dumbo revealed to himself and the others in the last part of the film. The little albatross with giant ears that hinder him from walking, will fly instead and, simultaneously, be up and away with the limelight, stealing the show from the rest. The ending is an apotheosis, with the flying baby elephant escorting the train, the circus and his mother. 
But this moralising reading of Dumbo isn’t obligatory. The film is perhaps more beautiful if you see it less as Dumbo’s revenge than as a process described in many myths, a process that tells the story of the hero’s double birth. The first birth is from day to night. The second birth from night to day. In the first of these Dumbo would be badly programmed in the role of the baby elephant which he isn’t, and in the second he would be revealed as Dumbo, the unique specimen of a species with only one member: the dumbo. Light would finally be cast on the ‘true nature’ of this celestial entity, at the end of a harrowing series of nocturnal tests. In short, Dumbo may not be an elephant. 
Why hazard this mind-blowing thesis? Because there’s one extraordinary episode in Dumbo. Because before he winds up on a tree ready to fly, Dumbo spends one last night on the ground and there, in all innocence, he gets thoroughly sozzled. Everyone who loves cartoons, their crazy euphoria or sheer graphic invention, will know Dumbo’s drunken spree with its frieze of pink elephants on a black background. But this great moment of madness is not entirely without logic. From the black background where elephantomorphic figures at first stand out laughing, to the pink clouds of dawn on Dumbo’s first real day, there is a real rite of passage. And this is a whole series of figures parading, dancing and wriggling, figures comic and grotesque, whose only remaining elephantness is their trunk, indeed just a ‘concept’ trunk. Carnivalesque bipeds, lewd and devil-may-care, wearing masks with black holes in the middle, camel-elephants, pig-elephants, gondola-elephants, automobile-elephants, all delighted at their improbability, a real ‘shape shifter’ of pagan ritual, joyously overseeing the true birth of one of their own: the Dumbo. We are suddenly a very long way from the storks and mummies of the start. 
Dumbo was on TV on Monday on Canal Plus. The next day, still on the pay-TV channel, you could watch – mesmerised – Zbigniew Rybczyński’s sublime Fourth Dimension. Oddly, these two films which are separated by almost half a century, brought up the same questions. The issue is no longer anthropomorphism. It is the return of the figure. And when the figure exists in all of its forms it bears the lovely name: metamorphoses***. 

* The author, who has little taste for animated movies, saw Dumbo for two reasons. He was bored senseless in Malta and he likes elephants. He saw the film in an empty and filthy theatre.  
** This is why there’s something truly heroic in Chaplin’s last films: Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, A King in New York. The last of these can rightly be considered as one of the most unremittingly lugubrious masterpieces of the cinema. This can never be said enough. 
*** Rybcziński, who is from the Eastern bloc, perhaps has more respect for the great figures of the cinema, and he revisits them one by one (Tango, Steps) like a prestidigitator who, before our eyes, would perform the necessary metamorphosis of a plastic world into another one, playing with some kind of retinal super-persistence of the History of the Cinema.
First published in Libération on 5 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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