Today we took the kids to the movies to see Happy Feet. It was pretty good, I thought, but also clearly a movie that could not have existed without March of the Penguins. You had to know the other movie to appreciate this one. You knew exactly when the sea lion was going to threaten, you knew precisely how dangerous the birds of prey were, only because you had listened to Morgan Freeman’s voice describing it in great detail before. Only because of the documentary could you really know how the cold might affect the penguin egg that eventually births Elijah Wood — er, I mean, Mumble.
In effect, this was a dance remix — with much the same message as the original movie. And in itself, it embraced the dance remix and mashup model: songs mashed together constantly, redone in fresh ways and no so fresh. The music credits were endless, because every penguin has a pop song in its heart.
Leaving aside the question of whether this diminishes penguins, it led me to think, as I was struggling to get my car out of the overly tight parking space, about mashup culture, and about how it’s now taken for granted in this way. A major release that depends on having seen another major release — and not as a spoof, but as a remix. This isn’t Spaceballs we’re talking about.
But then I got to wondering how modern that really is.
In less than a geological epoch
said Henry Mencken
“Some cook, some do not cook,
some things cannot be altered”
What counts is the cultural level
– Ezra Pound, Canto LXXXI
Everything old is new again. Even penguins. Even a style of mashup reference which depends on a notion of a current of literacy that runs through a culture. Today, perhaps, our frame of reference may seem pop-cultural rather than elite, but when I see the amount of stuff my kids learn about our culture and our shared references from cartoons, I am stunned once again at the breadth of human culture and the way in which we develop shorthand.
In the cartoon, Mumble the penguin is the son of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Naturally, he is the savior of everyone, with his tapdancing feet (and he gets the diva as a reward). Pop culture as apotheosis. The final exaltation is all the penguins doing the wave.
In the theater where we saw it, the movie was applauded at the end. Ezra Pound, not so much. 🙂 But everyone still works that grand tapestry, in one way or another.
Depressingly, I had to explain who Robin Williams was by telling my kids, “he was the dad in RV.”