Alice (Pogo, 2007)
When I was about five or six years old, I was terrified of the sequence in Disney’s Pinocchio where Pinocchio and Lampwick turn into donkeys. I had no problem with the rest of the film, but that scene was just too much. There were a few other times in cartoons when the physical distortion undergone by a character would incite in me a sense of discomfort, but fortunately I grew out of that squeamishness and was able to appreciate kids’ cartoons—and that’s good, because those kinds of scenes happen in a great many mid-twentieth-century animated classics. Nowadays, of course, modern films can use sophisticated special effects techniques to distort or warp the visual image onscreen with near-perfect photorealism, but for a long time it was only in the realm of animation that filmmakers could be convincingly strange. Perhaps I was the last generation to see cartoons as having a monopoly on the bizarre. What were those writers and animators smoking? Cartoons are weird, and they are as weird as anything created by Dalí or Max Ernst (and in my case, they had just as much ability to disturb).
But cartoons aren’t meant to be disturbing. They’re meant to be entertaining, and what they do best is provide an environment for fanciful speculation on all kinds of weirdness. Cartoons celebrate the weird, and a splendid example of this celebratory mode is Alice, the video Christopher Bertke released in 2007 under his “Pogo” moniker. But before I talk about Alice, I need to give some background on what, specifically, Alice is celebrating; however, you can watch the video first if you want.
Lewis Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a very weird book, and Walt Disney’s 1951 film adaptation is equally weird; they are the epitome, perhaps, of the nonsense genre. Disney did a very good job of evoking the book’s tone of off-the-wall surrealism and general wackiness; nothing in either Carrol’s book or Disney’s cartoon seems to acknowledge even the slightest need for a narrative to have structure, coherence, or plausibility. The plot of both book and film can be accurately described as “Alice falls asleep, has crazy dreams, and then wakes up.” I never was fond of the Alice books—not enough characterization, not enough plot, and not enough relevance to the world as I saw it—but that might be because I never read them when I was part of their target demographic; I first read them when I was around twenty-five years old and already had a developed literary taste. If I were a child when I read them, would I have thought differently about them? It seems that children don’t really care about narrative flow as much as adults do. Of course, adults don’t always feel the need for there to be a compelling story in the works of literature they enjoy or admire; note the enduring popularity of Joyce’s Ulysses and Kerouac’s On the Road. Maybe story isn’t what attracts people to these kinds of things? Maybe there is a literary equivalent of the early-modern-era cabinet of curiosities? Maybe the weirdness is a feature, not a bug? “Look at the wild situations I got my protagonist into”?
Imagine you’re a child, watching Alice in Wonderland. For an hour and a quarter, you’re bombarded with a near-constant array of strange and memorable imagery beyond even the normal level of strangeness present in a kids’ cartoon: all manner of zany people; talking birds, flowers, caterpillars, and even playing cards; dancing oysters and teapots; and on and on. And if child-you is anything like I was, these images will roll around in your mind for a long time afterwards. You, as a child, will think about them, analyze them, and puzzle over them. There’s a lot of crazy stuff in that cartoon! Now imagine that you are remembering yourself, as a child, watching Alice in Wonderland. What feeling do you have? Is it nostalgia? Or is it something else? I doubt you really want to go back to those times when you were a child of five years old, getting near-traumatized and certainly rather bemused by a cartoon. What you are experiencing isn’t so much nostalgia as a recognition of the special ability of cartoons to express the fundamental weirdness of the world. There might not be Cheshire cats in nature but now one exists in your mind, and there are certainly more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
By being monstrously ambiguous, Carrol’s Alice books invite the kind of speculative analysis that gives academic criticism a bad name. The human mind craves order and meaning, and when there isn’t any apparent, it gets made up—and there are piles of serious scholarly works on the Alice books full of complex and detailed analyses in direct proportion to the nonsensicality and silliness of their subject. But let’s look closely at Pogo’s Alice and see what we can see.
In the video there are hints of a narrative arc, but maybe only if you know the story already. The video takes ten seconds to get Alice down the rabbit hole and into the presence of the hookah-smoking caterpillar. From there the strange situations come in rapid sequence for nearly the entire rest of the short video, until, four seconds before the end, Alice gets out of her dream and we see her resting by an oak tree before the screen cuts to black. Since Alice is technically a music video, there is a verse-chorus song structure, and certain imagery clusters itself at certain points in the song; all the clips from the scene where Alice gets stuck in the house appear near the end of the song’s second “verse,” and Alice’s cat only appears once, near the beginning. How deliberate were these choices, and do they have meaning? Are there enough hints of a storyline here to give fuel to a textual analysis in the style of the deconstructionists or a writer from Archive of Our Own? Actually, I wouldn’t mind reading something like that, just for the amusement value.
It’s notable that many of the best Disney cartoons take place in forests (Bambi, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty . . . and even some of the more recent ones: Tangled, Frozen II, Tarzan). This is fitting; forests are natural repositories of weirdness, and the weirdness is more pronounced the closer to the ground you get—as happens in the “flower song” scene from which most of the clips in Alice are taken. But another deep repository of weirdness is music itself. Alice is a song about music even more than it is about forests; nearly all the clips in the video are of musical performances or dancing. Music can indeed be wonderfully and beautifully strange, but that’s possible because music is ordered. It is a remarkable capacity of music that the most freaked-out and uncategorizable sonic craziness can be tamed merely by putting a beat under it. Music is the most orderly of the arts; take any sound and organize it in even the slightest way, and—poof!— it becomes music. The weirdness of talking flowers and dancing teapots in Alice is a tamed weirdness, a weirdness that has become merely curious or interesting due to the power of music. If flowers started talking to you as you walked through the forest, I’m guessing you would be a little worried. But if they started singing to you . . . you’d probably stop and listen.
You know what else is weird? Hands! Take a moment to look at your hands and ponder how weird they are. Human hands are incredibly dense with meaning and significance, almost as much so as faces; they can be awkward, complex, and even confusing—as the AI image engines have so forcefully demonstrated to us. In Alice, several clips feature her hands—either beating time to the music or trying to explain something using gestures—and are looped to become much more significant than they otherwise would be. Everyone either talks with their hands or knows someone who does; what is the meaning of this behavior in Alice? Is Alice trying, with her hands, to explain to herself the meaning of all the crazy stuff happening around her? And by doing so, to explain it to us? Alice is us—we are her. She is a stand-in for us as viewers. She also represents all the children who have ever watched cartoons and immersed themselves in a realm of weirdness. Is the act of watching cartoons a trip down the rabbit hole into wonderland? A trip the memories of which cannot be dismissed easily, cannot be “hand-waved” away?
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I have an intense love for sample-based music and have written about it several times before. Sample-based / plunderphonic / mashup music—it doesn’t matter what you call it, really—can often seem to have an unfortunate weakness of not being very articulate, of not really being about anything. The Vaporwave genre is about nostalgia but in a very vague sort of way (there are some examples, such as Catsystemcorp’s News at 11, which are making a more specific point, but they are uncommon). And I suppose Neil Cicierega’s mashups trade on a kind of humorous nostalgia, but they derive their power more from shock value than anything else, and their novelty soon wears off. The rest of the sample music—music by John Oswald, J Dilla, The Avalanches, and many others—is more about “check out this cool stuff we found” than anything else—a cabinet of curiosities, but little more.
But in this instance, Pogo has enabled the plunderphonics genre to finally speak on its own. Much more than merely conveying a mood, his Alice communicates an idea: that the world is a strange and wonderful place, and that viewing it through the eyes of childhood can recapture some of the wonder of it. What else can sample-based music communicate? I’m excited to hear what the genre says next.
Related reading from the RUINS archive
P.S. While doing research for this essay I found this absolutely terrifying stuffed animal toy.