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Yar Habnegnal on Happy Feet

Yar Habnegnal on Happy Feet



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Published by Ray Langenbach
An analysis of the animation Happy Feet formerly published in Forum on Contemporary Art and Society, edited by Lucy Davis
An analysis of the animation Happy Feet formerly published in Forum on Contemporary Art and Society, edited by Lucy Davis

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Published by: Ray Langenbach on Apr 16, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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01.04.2007Dear Lucy(....)On another issue, Yar Habnegnal, our favourite self-professed ‘neo-con performanceartist and agent provocateur’, sent me this short critique of the recent animatedfilm, Happy Feet (2006). Extrapolating on your use of the term ‘animalities’, hecalls the piece ‘Faunaphiliac Animatalities’, referring to ‘the human affinity for“animated-animal” icons’. I must admit that I am a bit disappointed that hisanalysis doesn’t extend to the complex worlds of interactive online games thatmany of us periodically inhabit, or to the more rewarding creation of cognition-based parallel-life personae. Mainstream animation is limited by a narrativeunivalence that reduces ontological questions to spectacle hermeneutics, and wenow require a coherent ontological articulation that addresses these avataric‘universes-in-universes’. I know Yar has a lot to say on this subject from ourrecent conversations at his home in Lahore, and I look forward to his promisedtheorisation of these at a later time. Habnegnal’s post-Marxist analysis ofbase/superstructure is useful in the analysis of animal predation and predationavoidance behaviours in mainstream animation and in animated avatar games, such asSecond Life. At any rate, here is his short piece of writing, in the hope it hassome relevance to your topic of ‘animalities’.Yours Truly,LGBHabnegnal writes:… Faunaphilia in mainstream Hollywood animation obviously goes back at least toearly Disney and Ub Iwerks of the 1920s, and subsequently Warner Brothers’ LooneyTunes, but the recent animated film Happy Feet, by the Australian company AnimalLogic and Australian director George Miliotis Miller (author and director of theMad Max series and Babe, which starred a talking pig) breaks some interesting newground.The plot winches around a conventional ‘nature versus industrialisation’ dualism,in which the fish are being over-trawled by massive factory ships, therebyreducing the food supplies of the penguins. The flock singles out Mumble, one ofits own mutant fledglings, as the source of the crisis since he cannot sing likethe other young penguins (‘A penguin without a heart-song is hardly a penguin atall,’ proclaims the penguin singing teacher). Instead of singing, Mumble(presumably a pun on ‘mambo’) tap-dances R&B numbers in the style of Vaudevilleand Broadway (‘I wouldn’t do that around folks, son. ... It just ain’t penguin,’his Elvis-crooning father admonishes). The elder penguin leaders assume Mumble’saberrant behavior must have caused displeasure to ‘The Great Penguin’, leading tothe shortage of their staple, fish. Mumble is also anatomically idiosyncratic:perennially immature and covered with fluffy down well after the other youngpenguins have grown adult feathers (an immaturity reminiscent of—though not self-imposed like—Oscar in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, who also relies on rhythm tocommunicate). His tap-dancing produces disgust, then awe, then finally recognitionand acceptance from all the penguins. While penguin ‘speech’ is frustratinglyindecipherable to humans, the percussion of ‘happy’ penguin feet on ice does seemto transmit emotions of affinity (and apparently complex ecological data as well)across spec-ial borders. Mumble is convinced that the ‘aliens’ (humans) with theirmassive ships are the cause of the disappearing fish, and sets out on a ‘mythic-hero’ journey of self-discovery and survival (with echoes of Road Warrior andcountless stories of teen prodigality) to prove his hypothesis. Meanwhile, thehomo sapiens are oblivious to the mounting environmental disaster. The penguinsserve in the story as stand-ins for the proverbial canary in the mineshaft, butinstead of the canary’s sudden silence alerting miners to the presence of gas, itis Mumble’s rhythmic tap-dancing in an aquarium that alerts the humans to theirprofligate over-consumption of fish.
Having fitted him with a transmitter, a group of scientists follow Mumble back tohis ‘people’, presumably to see if R&B tap is a mutation in one individual,learned or instinctual behaviour of the whole colony. With his re-entry into hissocial milieu, Mumble’s rhythmic tap-dancing, which had been culturallydenigrated as subversive to both the community’s traditional culture and religiousbeliefs, suddenly catches on to become a mass behaviour. All the penguins dancefor the human scientists, with Mumble implicitly taking over as the new leader,and the Christian gospel roots of R&B displacing the former conventions of beliefin ‘The Great Penguin’. For their part, the scientists are duly amazed that tap-dancing has been adopted by a colony of Antarctic Emperor penguins, and somehowget the vibe that the Busby Berkeley number is a signifier for human over-harvesting of the fish and looming starvation for the penguin colony. This suddenopening of communication between the two species leads to a ban on open-waterfishing at the UN. On the one hand, the mass choreography is reminiscent of massrallies—Nuremburg, May Day in Red Square and Tiananmen Square, the American RoseBowl and the Singapore National Day Parade. On the other, it calls up scenes ofwhite explorers ‘discovering’ the ritual celebrations of ‘primitive’, generallyblack cultures, depicted in films such as King Kong—a trope also used in thecartoon, Madagascar (2005). In this case, the scientists are portrayed as utterlybenign and curious, and the survival needs of the penguins are represented asconsonant with global ecological science.But we must assume that the sudden appearance of homo sapien at a penguin colonyalso augurs the end of their ‘wildness’ and inaugurates a new period of humandomination. When the electronic tracking device on Mumble’s back is detected bythe other penguins, one of the elder penguins accurately assesses the comingsubjugation of the colony: ‘You led them here? You turned them on your own kind?’Survival trumps self-determination—a position faced by many of the world’sendangered species which have been ‘colonised’ and placed in reserves or zoos.Writing here in Lahore, a global nexus where First-World desire for self-determination collides with Third-World pacification, my interest in this filmtakes the form of a two-fold inquiry into the manner that we use representations(such as animation) to interpellate other humans and animals cultures. In the caseof the animals depicted in our cartoons, we do this by conferring (human)subjectivity upon them—in effect nailing them to the very cross of identitarianinterpellation upon which we find ourselves crucified daily. It is through oursubmission to this process of representing identity that oursubjugation/subjection/subjectification is accomplished, and it is throughanimation, film, art and literature that this same condition is so effectivelyimposed upon other species.Secondly, I am interested in an ontological inquiry into the relationship betweenBergsonian notions of duration and vitalism that attached themselves to the earlytechnology of ‘moving pictures’ at the birth of the film age, and the anima(Latin: ‘soul’ or ‘life force’) at the root of the term ‘animation’. Vitalism,soul and life force of course lead to related inquiries into the phenomenology offascism on the one hand and the parallel performativity of cognitive life-formsand cyborg/avatars (and their relationship to earlier screen culture) on theother. I will leave these ontological issues for another time, and focus for a fewminutes on the epistemological issues of faunaphiliac animatalities (that is, theanimated representations of human love for other animal species) and subjectformation.When watching Happy Feet, I found myself musing that a year after accepting Christas their personal saviour, the Emperor penguins have now discovered that they gotsoul (or two souls to be precise: ‘Soul’ in the sense of black soul music, and
anima). Did one epiphany lead to the other? A close reading reveals that beneaththe saccharine personifications afflicting the Emperor penguin (aptenodytesforsteri) in this cartoon are three significant cultural issues: first, the mannerin which (homo sapien) subjectivity is conferred upon another species; second, theeconomics of that conferment; and third, the use of music (rhythm) as the mediumof conference.Penguin subjectivity is grounded in economies of consumption, as they fit into thefood chain between the larger Southern Ocean predators: leopard seals (Hydrurgaleptonyx), southern giant petrels (Macronetes giganteus), skua (Catharactamaccormicki) and orca (Orcinus orca) on the one hand; and their source of food,sub-ice fish, (Pagothenia borchgrevinki. or Bald notothen) on the other.Curiously, the larger predators are provided with the attributes of individuationand agency by the human animators (corresponding presumably to our human view ofour own alpha-predator position in the food chain), while the fish are denied bothof these attributes. Rather than being subjectified, they are objectified andabjectified, providing the material base upon which the spectacle of subjectivityas cultural superstructure can be mounted and displayed.In many of the new 3D animal animations, Hollywood’s obsession with opticalmimesis carries in its wake other corresponding realist attributes. For example,to be ‘real’, the animal-protagonists being anthropomorphised also need to be seento eat, shit, sleep and desire (well, maybe not shit on screen). But it would bepotentially horrifying for small children in the audience to be subjected to Nemo,for instance, in the film Finding Nemo (2003) tearing into and gulping downsmaller life forms that also have individual personalities, calling forthnightmares of adults engorging themselves on their kids. This taboo of the cartoonjungle was almost broken in Madagascar, when Alex the lion, used to being fedsteak on a schedule by his zoo handlers, almost consumed his friend Marty theZebra when they found themselves shipwrecked on the ‘wild’ island Madagascar. Theproblem of Alex’s desire for raw meat was resolved when a group of penguinsintroduced him to sushi, once again positioning fish at the anonymous base of thefood-chain. Of significance to the topic of animalities is this categoricaltendency to subjectify superstructures and to reify the base.In Happy Feet, the problem is resolved in a similar manner, by conferringsubjectivity onto the penguins and larger creatures, but not onto the smaller fishwho are massified as the common food source, even when caught individually.Penguin predation is made palatable through the reification of their food. All thefish look the same; they lack personal attributes, do not speak and presumablyhave no language. And when they die we never see emotions, expressions of pain orblood.But this template runs into an interesting paradox at its extremity. In onerevealing scene, the fish are revealed as totalised commodities when Mumble fightsoff a group of petrels and skua for the remains of a small fish that he thenpresents as a gift to his loved one, Gloria. For those of us who have already beenconditioned to the subjectification of fish by Finding Nemo, it is difficult tonow accept a hierarchy in which fish are treated as dead gifts and bird feed.Rather than simply swallowing the death of the fish as the demise of an anonymouscartoon trope, the audience may be inclined to see this ingestion of a member ofa previously subjectified species as an assassination.There may, however, be an upside to this tendency. Our awareness of it mightproductively lead us to the recognition of animal branding as a pragmatic (ifideologically problematic) methodology in the fight to preserve endangeredspecies. Once individuated, a species obtains in our mind a ‘culture’ and therebymigrates from base into 'superstructure’ in the manner of the ‘charismatic mega-

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