Canary Row

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 31, 2015

We start with this bird watchers’ society, which seems innocuous enough. Sylvester is looking at something through his binoculars, but there’s some mild suspense music and that pointedly urban setting to suggest that something else is up. What’s that? Broken Arms Apartments, eh? And Tweety looking right back at him!

This is Rear Window exactly (except that Canary Row came out a full four years previous!). Lots of theorists have had at Rear Window, and drawn much more than just plot from it. Here’s a major example. There’s a voyeur, or a scopophile, if you will. He, or she, or usually he looks and looks, and objectifies—makes a mere Object out a what is by rights a complex and autonomous Subject—the thing at which he looks. A dire, unhealthy hierarchy results. Many have averred that this pretty effectively describes the majority of gender relations in modern, industrial image-or-media driven culture.

Power and victimization. Until the voyeur gets caught out that is, gets trapped, and the previously vulnerable objectified person (Marlene Dietrich in the von Sternberg films, Raymond Burr here, the persona eventually created by the pop-star Madonna, sexual women, generally) suddenly assumes control and sets her own terms.

That scenario (as mentioned elsewhere, you can read it at the more-or-less source, which is Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” 1975), ends up being kind of conventional when it comes to gender roles and sexuality. Conventional and quite productive. But in this case, in this setting and especially with these characters, I would like to suggest that the scenario becomes even more primordial. It looks like the big fish always get the little ones, until we get to the microbial level. That objectfying or annihilating gaze, when boldly returned, also echoes the hunted taking over from the hunted, the eaten from the eating, the little from the big, the polis from the bad old configurations. As evidence, note the double POV, double-sutured opening in this very cartoon.

I’ve got a sense of another parallel here, just as geological. Tweety is also a really powerful symbol of childhood, balanced somewhere between of-such-is-the-kingdom-of-heaven, the martyred Anne Frank, and Anne Frank’s actual, wonderfully contrary personality. What a sweet, pretty creature. How vulnerable! How resourceful in the midst of limitation and dependency. What a scoundrel, and even a sadist!

This could be just a coincidence, but then again deep patterns are hardly ever, practically never the result of any kind of premeditation or conscious arrangement. They’re too deep for that. The main Tweety cartoons start streaming into theatres after the war, and continue through the entire next decade, with all of its geo-political uncertainty, its international outrage and privation. Elsewhere, victimization. Here, assertion, even we’re-not-gonna-take-it! (1969, not 1984.) This isn’t just a film (character, franchise) for kids, it’s a film for kids, and in their behalf. The effect is similar to that of a generation’s worth of documentary films produced in Britain from the start of the Depression. Contrary to always, and almost everything, these films portrayed working people sympathetically, with incremental detail and substance. And then they elected Atlee.

So here it’s frankly, and from the very first, the child in charge. Contrary to how most of us, as children, would have felt when stalked by malice, “I did, I did, I did taw a puddy tat” isn’t at all anxious. It’s the roadrunner, maybe, made more explicit, and more reassuring for the youngsters. Absurdly repeated tasks meld with developmentally appropriate repetitions. What’s that?—Esslin and Piaget? A dire world, and it’s ultimately safe for the little ones.