Sunday, February 23, 2014

It Came in the Night, Night, Night: Rabbit's Moon

All of the talk this past month about the Chinese lunar rover Jade Rabbit has been making me think about Rabbit's Moon, a brief avant-garde film from boundary-pushing filmmaker Kenneth Anger. I first came across this short several years ago at an "Art After Hours" event at the Zimmerli Art Museum, which featured a screening of several of Anger's films as part of the evening's showcase. The other two films (Fireworks and Scorpio Rising) were so full of sadomasochism that it's difficult for me to say I "enjoyed" them, and I also think they took these dark elements a bit too far to be truly good films. But Rabbit's Moon has stuck with me over the years, with its punchy yet haunting soundtrack and cheesy but effective visuals. Filmed under a blue filter, the other worldly quality of the images also leave a lasting impression.

From the outset of this post, I should note that Kenneth Anger played around with Rabbit's Moon several times over a nearly 30-year period, editing it for length and changing the background music. The version which I prefer over all others is the final cut from 1979, and that is the one I will focus on here. It happens to be the shortest of all the versions (boiled down from 16 minutes with the original 1950 version to just under seven minutes); I think the reduction of the source material to its core elements makes it more emotionally resonating. Sometimes less really is more. The 1950 and 1972 versions boast a soundtrack consisting mostly of 1950s popular love ballads such as "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Oh, What a Night." In contrast, the 1979 version features the more obscure 1976 glam rock song "It Came in the Night" by A Raincoat, which plays twice in a row in order to accompany the entirety of the film. This song is addictively catchy, and I also thinks it mirrors the film's content in a supplementary way rather than some of the too obvious choices in the original version (i.e., "There's a Moon Out Tonight"). Also, it appears that Anger sped up some of the character's actions to fit the faster paced music; I'm thinking particularly of the final dance sequence on the makeshift stage but it's apparent in other scenes as well.

With Rabbit's Moon, Kenneth Anger plays around with common myths that continue to permeate over the years as well as elements of various cultures, choosing a mix of Western and Eastern influences to populate his film. For starters, he uses a combination of Italian commedia dell'arte, French mime, and Japanese kabuki theater techniques in the staging and choreography of his short. The title itself refers to a legend about a rabbit that lives in the moon - a mythical creature that appears in both East Asian folklore and tribal North American storytelling. In Rabbit's Moon, we see images of both a beautiful white rabbit and a glowing white full moon, with Anger perhaps over handedly ensuring that we make the connection between the two. The main character's repeatedly reaching for and missing the moon symbolizes the illusory nature of chasing after such myths and fairy tales.

Speaking of the characters, Anger draws his characters from the classic rotation of archetypes found in commedia dell'arte. In Rabbit's Moon, Anger features Pierrot as the main character with strong supporting roles from Harlequin and Columbine. In traditional commedia dell'arte, Pierrot is a pitiable, foolish character who loves Columbine, who in turn will almost always leave him eventually for Harlequin. Anger gives us the traditional Pierrot with a twist - he never seems to have Columbine from the outset, although of course he remains in his role of pining for her once he sets eyes on her. Nevertheless, Pierrot is still the "sad clown" stereotype here that he usually is, with his yearning and grasping for a moon that is never in his reach anymore than Columbine is. Harlequin is typically known as the prankster who is willing to go to any lengths to dupe Pierrot and win Columbine's affections, and that's basically the role he plays here as well. And Columbine ... well, she's pretty much just the eye candy in this case. Unlike her traditional role of cheating on Pierrot with Harlequin, she doesn't work here to actively deceive Pierrot being as she isn't committed to him at any point. It is perhaps worth noting that the famous characters from commedia dell'arte, especially Pierrot, have been elevated to the level of myth themselves. (One of my favorite Pierrot-based tidbits is that Charlie Chaplin's own famous character of the Little Tramp is modeled on the Pierrot and was declared by fellow actor Harry Baur to be "the brother of Pierrot.") The characters being legendary ones themselves serves this film by further solidifying its place in playing with the role of myths in our lives.

When discussing the history of the commedia dell'arte, Wikipedia declares that "Audiences came to see the performers, with plot lines becoming secondary to the performance." The same can arguably be said of Rabbit's Moon, which is light in terms of plotting. The first half of the short shows a particularly down and out Pierrot, who is literally mooning over the moon as he tries to jump up and reach it but repeatedly misses. Nothing seems to make him happy and on repeated occasions, he simply lays himself down on the ground in the fetal position, signifying his unhappiness and seeming despair. As the soundtrack circles back to "It Came in the Night" for the second time with its ghoulish opening laugh, Harlequin appears on the scene attempting to entertain Pierrot with various antics, showing off his traditional attributes of agility and energy. Harlequin's finale includes showing the beautiful and ethereal Columbine to Pierrot, but then he steps in the way of Pierrot contacting Columbine. Harlequin and Columbine disappear, a lunar eclipse occurs, and Pierrot is once again left reaching for the moon unsuccessfully, eventually collapsing prostrate once more as the entire sequence ends.

But what happens - or doesn't happen as the case may be - in Rabbit's Moon is less important than the film's ability to broadcast universal emotions and touch upon important themes. Who amongst us cannot see ourselves in Pierrot's melancholic state at some point in our lives? Our fears and concerns may seem as foolish to an outsider as Pierrot reaching for the moon only to be disappointed over and over again. Pierrot may be pitiable but he is also identifiable in his grief. In the first half of the short, the main character's penchant for hanging his head despondently while holding his arms straight out horizontally creates a visual image reminiscent of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Here again Kenneth Anger shows that he's willing to play with iconic cultural references and is once more touching on the inability of myths to create fulfillment for certain people. This imagery has a historical root as well; the Wikipedia entry for Pierrot notes that in the late 19th century, "the Symbolists saw him as a lonely fellow-sufferer, crucified upon the rood of soulful sensitivity, his only friend the distant moon" and that this interpretation of the character led to a portrayal of a "Christ-like victim of the martyrdom that is Art." Indeed, the Symbolist movement seem to adopt Pierrot as their mascot, "[seeing] him as an emblem of suffering, with only the moon for a friend. Naturally, as Pierrot’s association with the moon (and thus, the night) deepened, it was easy to emphasize his darker qualities; eventually artists gave him a literally bleeding heart ... Since his sadness often caused his words to fail him, Pierrot is seen as the father of mime." These aspects of Pierrot's nature and legendary status are all - with the exception of the bloody heart - ones that Anger touches upon and tweaks as he presents the Pierrot of Rabbit's Moon.

In the second half of Rabbit's Moon it seems that with myths being unable to cause joy, Pierrot (and the viewer with him) turns to entertainment as a source of temporary happiness. Pierrot is indeed at least momentarily distracted by the show put on by Harlequin. But this is also seen to be illusory and unfulfilling. Harlequin has only two physical props - a lamp projector and a slapstick. (According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, Harlequin's slapstick is a kind of magic wand that allows him to change the scenery so that the characters appear in a new locale as well as providing a way for him to make objects into different ones.) His other entertainments are pantomimed, with Harlequin hypnotizing and delighting Pierrot using an imaginary balance beam, juggling with nothing, and other parlor tricks reenacted out of thin air. The pantomime can be seen literally, for the vast majority of Rabbit's Moon action is done in exaggerated choreography, but I think it can also be viewed metaphorically. Harlequin's antics are empty actions, simple illusions used to pull the wool over Pierrot's eyes yet again, as these two characters are destined to fulfill their roles of prankster/cheat and fool/cuckold respectively over and over throughout time.

The lamp projector also serves to metaphorically bring these characters forward into the modern day (or at least the modern day of the 1950s-70s). Harlequin uses the projector to shine a light onto Columbine as she dances on a makeshift stage, performing a simple ballet for Pierrot's enjoyment. In a way, the lamp projector can be seen as a stand-in for the movie projector and thus becomes a way to use the film to comment on films themselves. Pierrot approaches the stage and stands just at its brink, dancing as he watches Columbine dance, but his movements do not exactly mimic hers nor do the two ever physically interact. They literally dance around each other rather than with one another. Pierrot also tries once more to get the moon and to show off its wonders to Columbine, but she does not seem to quite grasp the significance of his interest in the full moon. Pierrot seemingly worships Columbine, literally falling to his knees before her, while she views him with disdain, waving a nonchalant hand at him and putting her nose up in the air. To me, this scene seems to comment on how no matter how much we as viewers may get amazed by and invested in our favorite characters on the stage/screen (and in some cases, the actors who portray them), we will always be just outside the realm of their world - perhaps thinking that we are interacting with them as we shadow their movements but never actually engaging with them. Once again, the theme of illusions - and their subsequent disappointments - emerges through the imagery of Rabbit's Moon.

The lamp projector spotlighting Columbine, with Pierrot gasping in delighted wonder as he views her for the first time. I love his expression in this scene and the fact that he literally gets bowled over with amazement seconds after this.
As I mentioned earlier, in this film it doesn't seem that Pierrot and Columbine are the ones to have the prior relationship with Harlequin coming in to steal her away, as is typical in the traditional story of these three characters. Pierrot seems to be viewing Columbine for the first time ever and his joy and wonder at that first glimpse are uncontainable. But as Pierrot becomes more and more fascinated with Columbine and her dance, Harlequin becomes like a strip club owner protective of his employees - you can look but you can't touch being the refrain. A popular theme for the commedia dell'arte stories is jealousy and it seems that Harlequin is the one to catch the green-eyed monster here, rather than Pierrot for a change. He goes from laughing at Pierrot's sad attempts to catch Columbine's affections to jumping in between the two of them to stake his claim on Columbine once again, guarding her from Pierrot's influence, and then whisking her away just before the lunar eclipse begins. The lunar eclipse can be seen as symbolic of Pierrot's further despair as the one bright spot in his life so far (Columbine) is taken away from him. Entertainment and distractions such as physical attraction are but brief flashes of momentary joys that end far too soon. They are bound to disappoint and depending on them for lasting happiness is as fruitless as trying to pull the moon down from the sky.

An interesting thought to consider is how several versions of the traditional legend of the moon rabbit note that the creature's immortalization upon the lunar surface is due to its self sacrifice. Love is a concept rooted in sacrificing one's self to another, of sublimating one's desires in order to promote the well-being of the loved one, of indeed subsuming one's very identity to become one with another human being. Thus, the moon that Pierrot is so desperately trying to reach can symbolize how this lonely person in the forest is seeking an all-fulfilling connection, an all-consuming loving relationship with another human being. The presence of Columbine further reinforces this, as she is the one meant to be Pierrot's partner in the traditional commedia dell'arte lore. Of course, as I've already mentioned several times, she is the one who will ultimately betray Pierrot's affections by leaving him for another man. Again, disappointment abounds in the landscape of Rabbit's Moon, and love is just one more thing that appears to disillusion Pierrot. To pull from Wikipedia's fountain of information on the Pierrot character again, that entry notes that in late 19th century pantomimes, Pierrot incarnations "would appear [as] sensitive moon-mad souls duped into criminality—usually by love of a fickle Columbine—and so inevitably marked for destruction." The self-sacrificing character aligned with the rabbit moon legend is Pierrot, but this sacrifice is not reciprocated nor does it gain him any reward as it does for the mythic rabbit. For a character who is seen almost always as a naïve fool, Pierrot is perhaps a warning to all of us when we view how myth, religion, entertainment, and love ultimately leave him abandoned to a wooded glen, once again alone in the world.

One thing I haven't touched upon yet is the appearance of the wood's children. Two small children emerge from the forest and onto the clearing twice during the film. I'm not quite sure what to make of the children or their place in the film. They appear from behind and underneath Pierrot's outstretched arms, suggesting that he somehow "births" them, but they are not recognizable characters to me. The first time they appear is during the first half of the film when Pierrot is flopping about sadly and all alone. One child holds a mirror to Pierrot and he turns away in disgust. The other child holds a shiny stringed instrument, which neither he nor Pierrot makes any attempt to play. Later when Columbine dances on the stage, the two children make a second appearance with the same props. They kneel where the footlights of the stage would be if it had any, and Columbine briefly admires herself in the mirror; the instrument again remains unused by anyone. The next cut back to the stage finds the children gone. Like I said earlier, I'm unsure of the significance of the children's appearance beyond that they indicate further in the first half how Pierrot won't be made happy by just anything and that in the second half they bolster Columbine's self-preening and vanity. It's also worth noting that in the longer original version, they appear a third time to entice Pierrot into a mystical place that becomes his ultimate undoing.

A final thing that I've neglected to mention up until this point is the introduction to the film. It opens with Pierrot lying on the ground in the forest's clearing as though sleeping. Indeed, it appears at first as though he is waking up and is unsure as to where he is and/or what is going on around him. As he arises and steps about gingerly, he seems to notice the moon for the first time and hence his fascination begins. Again, I'm not quite sure what to make of Pierrot seemingly dumped off in the woods by unknown forces and awakening to confusion followed by longing for the unattainable. It almost seems more explainable that Pierrot would go out seeking a way to get closer to the moon, but it could be argued that he is brought here by forces outside his control, symbolizing how life often brings us to unexpected places. Then again, it could also be argued that Pierrot picking himself up off the ground (where he lays at the end of the film after exhausting himself with his attempts to grasp illusions) is simply a cycle beginning all over again. We may think we are seeing Pierrot set his gaze upon the moon for the first time, but he may have simply been through this whole pantomime (literally and metaphorically) once or even many times before. Again, I think this is also symbolic of film itself. Anyone viewing a movie (well, a well-done movie) for the first time has fresh insights and feels like they are stumbling upon something raw and real; however, all they are seeing is something that was rehashed over and over again as the cast/crew made the finish product and as other audiences watched it in the past.

At any rate, those are my interpretations of the film's characters and scenes. Of course, as with all works of art, there can be many different schools of thought on the meaning. Indeed, one of the things I love about Rabbit's Moon is that despite its short length, I always catch something new in it upon re-viewing. To borrow from Wikipedia again in regards to the myriad interpretations of the Pierrot character over the years, one incarnation is "the narcissistic dreamer clutching at the moon, which could symbolize many things, from spiritual perfection to death." Perhaps my interpretation is completely off base and instead the moral takeaway of Rabbit's Moon is not a solemn dirge to make note of all life's disappointments but a celebratory melody of a character awakening to spiritual perfection by casting away previous distractions. Take a gander at Rabbit's Moon. Mull it over. What do you think Kenneth Anger is trying to say? Is your interpretation as bleak as mine?

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