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Son of Paleface
1952. Paramount. Directed by Frank Tashlin. With Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Roy Rogers, Trigger
At the exciting climax of Son of Paleface, Junior (Bob Hope) is being chased by bad guys on horseback when one wheel of his jalopy comes off. His pal Roy Rogers, riding alongside on Trigger, ropes the axle and holds up that corner of the car as it tears along through the sagebrush. Then Roy has to ride on ahead, so Junior takes the rope and holds up the axle of his own car while he's riding in it. He calls to Roy, "Hurry up! This is impossible!"
Impossible it is. I'm no physicist, but I know that you can't apply force against a system that you are inside of, at least not any force that will move it relative to the outside world (you can't, for instance, make an airplane go faster by pushing against the seat in front of you).
We could see this jalopy gag as just another cartoony Tashlin assault on the laws of physics, but I think it has special relevance to our topic. Self-referentiality, too, exerts pressure on a system--the motion picture that we are sitting in the theater watching--from inside that system. Here, too, characters and events that should by all rights stay contained within the bounds of the film's fantasy world, pop to a position outside of and above the whole thing, a position from which they can reflect on their own existence and occasionally even intervene in the events they are involved in. Something about the medium of film permits this temporary suspension of the laws of nature, and gives us a rare change to explore that paradoxical region that is simultaneously inside and outside, involved-in and looking-down-upon.
This happens, for example, when the narrator of La Ronde is seen snipping salacious frames out of the film in which he lives ("What would happen" I asked in that posting, "if his scissors slipped and he cut himself out of the film? Would the whole thing implode?") It happens when the film director character in Wings of Eagles tells the screenwriter character, "They won't let you say 'hell' in a picture." When, at the end of The Player, we learn that the whole story we've seen has been a movie written by one of the characters in the story, which means that he created himself. When Koko the Clown puts alcohol into his animator's inkwell so that all subsequently-drawn characters in the cartoon are drunk. We're playing with frames of reference here. One tells us that, like Junior, we're barreling along in our three-wheel jalopy. The other tells us that it's impossible.
Bear with me a moment while I invoke Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. This theorem is usually grossly oversimplified, and the following is no exception. Godel stated that any symbolic system contains fairly-derived but paradoxical statements like "There is no proof of this statement," which, if true, cannot be proved, and, if false, allow for a proof that they are true, which is a contradiction. This is a generalized version of the famous Liar's Paradox, and, when you think about it, raises questions about how completely you can understand a self-contained system from inside that system. (I'm indebted here to "Zillion's Philosophy Pages" at www.myrkul.org/recent/godel.htm.)
Interpolating from Godel, we could say that it's impossible for a character within a movie to examine that movie (which includes himself) as a construction without running smack into the twin paradoxes of self-consciousness and recursion. Yet Bob Hope does this all the time.
Son of Paleface begins with a pre-credit sequence in which Hope/Junior shows us a shot of himself kissing a pretty woman, freezes the frame in order to comment "Few people recognize me from this angle" (i.e., his nose is not visible), and then lets himself do some more kissing. At another point someone gets real mad and the sound-track goes momentarily silent. "Whew! You should have heard that line!" Junior/Hope tells us. Junior grumbles about an unseen photographer, "Who does he think he is, Cecil B. DeMille?" and C.B. himself emerges from behind the camera. And, as Chris Fujiwara pointed out in the early days of this List, there's a completely random shot of Bing Crosby driving a car. "Just an old character actor who hangs around the Paramount lot," notes Junior/Hope. "We try to keep him working."
"The use of this shot," Chris wrote , "acknowledges another material property of filmthe possibility of montage, and its inherent arbitrariness." A Tashlin insight if there ever was one.
These are old Road to Utopia style gags, typical of Hope as commentator on his own vehicles. In a sense, his movie persona spends film after film holding a jalopy aloft from inside the car, and then chiding us for believing that such a thing could be possible. He's a great post-modern comedian, and Frank Tashlin, the former animator who knows that motion pictures are just an extended optical illusion, is a great collaborator for him.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein