Thursday, May 19, 2011

Motion Studies: Dances with Fish

       Ruminating on Monty Python’s imagery need not be reserved for professional comedians and unprofessional goofballs. It should also be the practice of filmmakers, at whatever level of professionalism they may be. Because even though Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a television show, and even though nobody thinks to watch any one of its sketches on a big screen, it is hard to find a more stylized chunk of moving imagery than that of two WWI-era soldiers on an elevated pier, the one on the right dancing in a back and forth in a jog-prance motion slapping the stoic soldier standing in front of him with a fish in each hand over and over, as the water from a dam laps below them.
            Key to this image is exactly how it was shot. The jerky quickness of the water, not the mention the speed of the man, show that the scene is shot in fast motion, possibly at 17 frames a second. It is not much less than 24 frames, because the speed is at first not discernable. If the speed were too fast, it would probably not be very funny. But not only is the speed well controlled; the timing is as minute as a military drill. When the soldier with the fish stops dancing, the standing soldier draws a massive fish from his side pocket and elegantly smacks the dancing soldier across the cheek. He topples in to the water where he is swallowed by an animated Nazi-fish. None of this scene registers as too fast as our eyes process it, but when we watch it again, we realize that it’s an absurdity compounding an absurdity. Nobody slaps anybody else with a fish while dancing. Even if they do, they can’t do it quite that fast.
            Aside from being stylized, aside from being funny, this image is also tragic. Tragic, because it was screened on television rather than in a cinema. Tragic, because there is an audience laugh-track, not organic laughter. Tragic, because the scene is so short. It lasts not much more than thirty seconds, perhaps due to broadcasting constraints, perhaps because its creators were afraid that if it lasted longer, it would lose its humor. They should have known, as they knew in their several of their features, that after a certain amount of seconds you can push humorous concerns to the side. If we saw that soldier dance with his two fish for thirty or sixty seconds longer, all the lunacy in a motion, all the absurdity in the act of filming, all the beauty in a shot, might be revealed.