14/09/2016

Lady And The Tramp - A Dog's Life

Thoughts On: Lady And The Tramp


A pampered Cocker Spaniel is nudged out of house and home for a day following events surrounding the birth of her owners' baby.


This is seen as a great romance. On those grounds this is merely a good film, a mid-level Disney classic. However, as a concentrated narrative, a heart warming story, this film gathers greater strength. This is because, through the looking glass of thematic romance, Lady and the Tramp is a story far too sparse, far too empty. It jumps from scene to scene, hitting the basic plot points of a romance, but it does not imbue scenes with character, with the driving force behind all romantic relations - chemistry. We never push deep into the emotions of betrayal, of trust, we never see revelation around who the two dogs are to one another, there is no concise recognition of their differences and then an acceptance of them. I know this sounds like frivolous criticism of a film about talking dogs, but that's what we do here, and without these deeper elements, you simply have a rather weak romance in Lady and the Tramp. However, to expect a great romance from Disney is rather unfair. It takes delving into adult themes, it takes complex ideas of morality, need, desire, such and so on. And in around 75 mins, to express a narrative of this kind between two character is... to my imagination, it's an impossibility. Of course the opening scene to Up pulls apart the essence of love, really tearing out the core of what it means to be with someone - and is done in a matter of minutes - but, whilst the scene is powerful, it is not an expressive means of telling a deeply character-based story. Such is obvious though. So, coming back to Lady and the Tramp, to see what makes this film great, to articulate why it resonates with its audience, we have to look at this film through the theme of hierarchy. Before we jump to conclusions of love being the means of transcending hierarchical structuring, I don't think that's what this film is about. Before we delve into why, I think it's best to pick up on a few other Disney films...

    

(Links to talks on Cinderella and Snow White). The classic Disney Princess pictures reflect a very similar relationship set-up to Lady and the Tramp. In fact, this is a very broad trend you're likely to find throughout many stories with an element of romance. To introduce narrative conflict, the two halves of a couple are made out to be polar opposites that are attracting. With Lady and the Tramp, as in Disney Princess films, there is a divide between the girl and boy based on hierarchy - it's usually the prince that is free, seemingly more powerful, ultimately the one capable of saving the damsel in distress. There is a similar motif throughout Lady and the Tramp, but it is somewhat flipped. We see this primarily in the title. Lady is given the initial higher ground, has the pampered lifestyle, and despite her fooling around with the Tramp, ultimately provides the safety net they fall into. As in life, romance has its basis in hierarchy, in social exchange - and this is ultimately what this film is about. However, with the movement away from the classical Disney Princess films (the stereotypically perceived Disney Princess films - notes on this in the end) we see an evolving perspective of hierarchy in respect to romance. This, of course, has been in motion for decades, but, on reflection, demonstrates what may be seen as a movement away from (somewhat) realist films, into a romantic cinema focused not on the individual need, but a more general want. To clarify, I mean realist in the idea of...

    

... cinematic realism. You find the best example of such films in the Italian neo-realist movement from the post-world war 2 period. These films demonstrate realism as an embrace of context, meaning films in post-war Italy were about the common people, with narratives centred on problems that were seemingly as trivial as a bicycle being stolen. Romantic realism would embrace context similarly. Say for instance, the context of a girl being held slave to a bitter step mother. But, what now becomes obvious is that 'romantic realism' is an oxymoron - it's not really an actual thing. This is because romance is all about fantasy, whilst realism is about reality. What I then mean to articulate is the internal realism of character. A tramp is a tramp. An enslaved girl is an enslaved girl. This is how they see themselves and act. To transcend such labels, their journey must be internal. And with 'internal' you can infer an emotional journey - which can be further inferred to mean falling in love (and, yes, this suggests that love helps transcends hierarchical structures, but such a reduction would be too simplistic). I see this focus on an internal journey, a journey present in the likes of Cinderella, to suggest realism - a kind of romantic realism if you'll have it.

This all means that running along side the aforementioned evolution of perceived hierarchy in romance and Dinsney Princess films is an extrapolation of conflict. To understand this you merely have to look at the growth of expanse in Disney Princess films. Snow White, Cinderella and Lady and the Tramp are very subdued narratives, confined largely to interactions between characters. Whilst the likes of a Frozen or Tangled are, thematically, similar stories, they bring in an element of adventure, essentially making what what Lord Of The Rings is to La Strada, what Tangled is to Cinderella. The driving force behind this comes down to conflict and social exchange (under the umbrella of hierarchy). Audiences want to see protagonists or heroines physically fight conflict, actually walk the road toward happiness - not internally, but externally. This implies a new layer to the evolution of Disney Princess films. Have the films really become more empowering, have the hierarchical sliders really been altered? Or, has the presentation of these very similar themes and emotional journeys been externalised, the physically romantic aspects of the stories accentuated? I see the latter to be of greater truth with the change from Cinderella to Tangled being tantamount to the change between...

  

(Links to talks on Persona and Fight Club). The point being, Fight Club is essentially a much more literal and physical version of Persona, expressing a much wider pattern in cinema - its evolution of in terms of expanse, action, pacing and technology. However, we've ridden a tangent through Disney Princesses to Italian realism to Fight Club and Swedish cinema - a tangent pretty far from Lady and the Tramp. But, there is a fundamental link between all that we've discussed and the film at hand. The link is through the theme of hierarchy.

The reasoning behind my embrace of Disney Princess films not having changed much at their core is not that I want to see disempowered women, or that I want to see them subjugated on screen - such a proposal would be ridiculous - I get my fix of that from YouTube, porn sites and horror films. The reason why I see and embrace this consistency is because I see it as reflecting a deeper introspective truth of romanticism - a different shade of romantics if you'll have it. And it's here where we can use Lady and the Tramp to reflect this idea. Romanticism is all about hierarchy, about a gradient that facilitates social exchange - the reason why opposites attract. In short, people need each other, and in being 'opposites' (dissimilar) we hold different qualities, meaning we can offer one another things we need, things others don't have, but we do. This is why the people we love fill gaps - also why the people we love aren't often much like us. They help make a couple a singular whole by filling our proverbial gaps, just as we do theirs. But, to get to this idea, we first have to break down a wider web of hierarchy inherent to Lady and the Tramp. In doing so we come to the pet/owner relationship. It's actually the use of dogs, not people, as the protagonists of this film that makes it so expressive. What it allows Disney to do is tell a story in the genre of 'Romeo and Juliet' that, a) doesn't end in tragedy, and, b) isn't about hierarchy as an oppressive force on young love. The Romeo-and-Juliet-isms of this film are clear, they are in the differences between the girl and boy, but more importantly in the thematic approach to love - it's a need - a somewhat irrational one. This need is not just expressed through the two dogs though. Primarily it is seeded in the love between Lady and her owners. This love is based upon trust, upon a push pull of charity and loyalty. As a result, it'd be difficult to accurately measure the exchange between the human couple and Lady as, to do so tangibly, would leave you to see Lady as bringing in the newspaper...


... and waking the couple up (not much else) whilst the humans provide her food, shelter, warmth, love and collars. What then balances the exchange between dog and human is tantamount to a bad joke:


"Have you noticed, darling? Since we've had lady we see less and less of those disturbing headlines."

What's then clear to anyone who has and loves a pet is that what they give us is almost not of their doing. They make you happy just by being there, and you love them whilst recognising they probably don't exactly register who you really are apart from the thing that gives them food and throws the ball. What this establishes is a hidden emotional precariousness, what is the crux behind such a slogan...


When you love an animal in this way, with emotional precariousness (the only way to love them) you are the only side maintaining a channel of love, a material, evidential, give and take, kind of love. I suppose it's saddening to some that this social exchange, that love of this manner, can fall flat so easily, but, such is life. And this is exactly what is expressed with the birth of the couple's baby. To paraphrase what Jock says: a human heart only holds so much room for love. And to approach the situation rationally, it's obvious, even inevitable, that the human couple couldn't maintain their love for Lady. What this opening segment of the film then sets up is under the theme of hierarchy. Essentially, they construct 'fences' (those that the Tramp objects to) to make Lady feel as if her place is within them, before they leave her alone, faced with recognition; the truth that she is trapped without the distraction of loving owners. Pretty existential for a film about talking dogs, huh?

This, though not explored or delved too deeply into during the narrative, is why Lady falls for the Tramp. With the birth of the couple's baby comes the poking of holes into her persona. (P.S I know the dog's name is Barbara - but I prefer Lady - plus, Bar-bara sounds like a silly pun, just as Barb does). Anyway, what the opening act best speaks to, for me, is of childhood, of having to grow up. Of course parents don't love their children in the same way people love pets, but the general narrative resonates with us because we do have those relationships in life where we know we are taking more than we give, leaving us with an underlying anxiety. This is probably strongest during childhood, during the moments where we are made to see just how helpless we are, how much we actually need our parents. In truth, revelations of this kind usually come when it's too late - when we look back on our childhood or are starting to lose it. However, in growing up, we not only realise how much we need others, we actually reach out and weave a network of friends and family who supply us with emotional support, who renew the illusion of not being trapped, of not being alone. This is, quite simply, the narrative arc of Lady and the Tramp. Lady establishes security in family and love, loses this slightly, but finds it again with the Tramp (who embraces the fences he once objected to). Lady essentially becomes an independently dependent, yet providing, body...


... such is family though.

What this says about romance, just as it does family, is that somewhat precarious paths of trust and love must be established in life, must be held onto with hope that things stay ok. Speaking to the opening of the essay, there is then romantic sentiment, a realism, in the final image of the film. And this is because it portrays an idea of hierarchy, a hierarchy that is inevitable, but one we must all live with. We see the Tramp, who loves his kids and Lady. We then see the Lady who loves her kids, the Tramp, the couple's child as well as her owners. And in this complex entanglement of loving bonds there are some that are stronger than others. The couple most probably love Lady more than the Tramp, the puppies more than the older dogs - they definitely love their child more than any of the dog. At the same time, Lady probably loves the couple more than the Tramp does. I could go on, but in recognition of this we come to an awkward feeling. And the awkward feeling of the picture above, the feeling that says to you that the image now seems fake, disingenuous, that love and romance are dodgy, maybe a lie, is the product of anxiety. This is also what fuels the physically romantic adventures inherent to Tangled or Frozen. People love to have love materials, made tangible by gestures. That's why, to some, these images...



... are more powerful that this:


But, I think there is a maturity, a deeper truth, to what might seem like an awkward photo, imbued with tensions, questions of who loves who most and if it will all last. The maturity is in acceptance. This image, to me, captures honesty, it captures the acceptance of hierarchy, of romance as something somewhat irrational, at the least something incalculable, hidden and frightening. This is not to say that there aren't intentionally emotive moments in this film...


... just that they build to a more nuanced and truthful idea of romance, one founded on a difficult interpretation of love.

However, ultimately, what we are searching for is a happy ending - and that's what we get from almost all Disney films. A romantically realist(ish) film isn't inherently better than a more extravagant and emotional one. That's not the point of the essay. The point is to demonstrate one of many ways to speak of something inarticulable. Because, as to put across ideas of romance, we can't rely on a monologue, a poem, a scene, an image. In the end, the articulation of anything said through a film, through any art, manifests itself as a feeling in your body - one that you experience. It's having us see the humanity, the complexities of loving, in dogs that is then, in some ways, redundant, but something that should be commended nonetheless. For who are we but others? Who are we but our minds, its projections and ultimately all we perceive in life? In being what is best expressed by external sources, internally, maybe emotions and our recognition of them is the subtle art of life, leaving the inarticulable precious, something we should maybe hold on to.


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