Although I had heard about Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camps’s stop-motion video, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” over a year ago, it was only after the sequel, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Two,” premiered on YouTube that I finally decided to watch it. Then I watched it again. Then I played it for my kids. Then I sent the video to friends. Then I began to quote it obsessively to myself. Of the two videos, the sequel is the superior text (due to it’s exploration of shell hardship), but both should be watched.
The first thing that grabbed me about this video series is its format. Much like popular single-camera television comedies such as Arrested Development, The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Modern Family, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is filmed as if Marcel is the subject of a documentary. Marcel addresses the camera directly, answering questions and pointing out items that appear in his home, such as a pet made out of lint. And like the subjects of The Office and Parks & Recreation, Marcel’s world is profoundly mundane. Nevertheless, Marcel immediately ingratiates himself with the audience because 1. he is an adorable shell wearing tiny adorable shoes and a single googly-eye and 2. Marcel has a nasaly, childlike (or should I say shell-like?) voice, courtesy of Jenny Slate. The fragility of Marcel’s shell body and single eye, combined with Slate’s spot-on voice work, make Marcel into an ideal subject for the smallness of the new comedy verité” genre. Like Parks & Recreation‘s Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), Marcel is both aware of his inconsequentiality and yet, is still proud of who he is and how he lives his life. He is an eternal optimist.
Most of the humor of the series is based on Marcel’s smallness and the way that smallness impacts his ability to function in a world built for large, resilient humans, not tiny shells. He often asks his off-screen interviewer questions that resemble the kind of jokes one five year old tells to another: “Guess what I use for a beanbag chair? A raisin” and “Guess what I do for adventure? I hang glide on a Dorito.” These jokes, silly as they are, paint a picture of Marcel’s tiny world. Furthermore, Marcel is usually filmed in such a way that we see the world from his small perspective. The camera films him at eye-level when he stands on a laptop or book and sits on the floor when Marcel scurries under the leg of chair to avoid his new puppy. This cinematography gives us a sense of how large the world must look to a small shell like Marcel.
However, Marcel seems gleeful, not discouraged, by the limitations of his smallness. His size forces him to be inventive, to tinker with the objects he finds around him and put them to new uses. For example, my favorite bit in the entire series revolves around Marcel’s primary mode of transportation — a bug:
“If you do drive a bug you have to be pretty easy-going because you’re only going to get to go where the bug wants to go. One week there was a maple sugar syrup spill in the kitchen and every time I would ride the bug, no matter where I wanted to go, I would just end up back in the kitchen.”
This anecdote reminds me of a Shel Silverstein poem I read often as a child:
One Inch Tall
If you were only one inch tall, you’d ride a worm to school.
The teardrop of a crying ant would be your swimming pool.
A crumb of cake would be a feast
And last you seven days at least,
A flea would be a frightening beast
If you were one inch tall.
If you were only one inch tall, you’d walk beneath the door,
And it would take about a month to get down to the store.
A bit of fluff would be your bed,
You’d swing upon a spider’s thread,
And wear a thimble on your head
If you were one inch tall.
You’d surf across the kitchen sink upon a stick of gum.
You couldn’t hug your mama, you’d just have to hug her thumb.
You’d run from people’s feet in fright,
To move a pen would take all night,
(This poem took fourteen years to write–
‘Cause I’m just one inch tall).
As I child I loved Shel Silverstein’s poetry because he managed to capture, in equal parts, the profound joy and the profound terror of being child. Silverstein understood that the child’s imagination is a gift and a burden. Imagination allows children to transport themselves to places that are exciting and wonderful and yet, because of the boundlessness of the imagination, these places can easily become scary. Sure, if you were one inch tall you could surf on a stick of chewing gum. But you would also find full-sized feet terrifying. As a child I always despaired over the line “You couldn’t hug your mama, you’d just have to hug her thumb.” One wonders if Marcel possesses the ability to hug: he has no arms and he’s a shell.
Marcel offers the same mixture of joy, terror, and sadness as any good Silverstein poem. For example, after the aforementioned bug anecdote, Marcel concludes “Really, what you just have to want to do is take a ride.” Here Marcel takes a situation that should be infuriating — a mode of locomotion that cannot be controlled — and makes it into something liberating. Riding a bug is about a willingness to have an adventure — not about reaching a predetermined destination. Likewise, Part Two concludes with the following exchange:
“Guess why I smile a lot?”
“Uh, ’cause it’s worth it.”
This statement would sound hokey in a different context (though I think Leslie Knope could also pull it off). But it is preceded by a shot of Marcel standing on a white countertop, looking offscreen towards a window, as chimes tinkle softly. He takes a deep breath and sighs, then turns to face the camera with this insight. Afterwards, he turns back to face the window, enjoying existence, mundane as it is.
Of course, life for a small shell isn’t all fun and games — it is also plagued with hazards. In Part One Marcel explains how he longs for a dog. In Part Two he gets his wish, though clearly even a small dog is too much for Marcel. In one scene Marcel runs off camera, screaming, after the dog jumps us to bark at the door. And in Part Two, Marcel explains that he once had a sister named Marissa. “What happened to her?” the interviewer asks. “Someone asked her to hold a balloon.” Marcel doesn’t elaborate on what happened after his sister took the balloon. Instead the camera cuts to a new scene in which Marcel discusses his dog’s proclivities (“Look at him: treats and snoozin’, snoozin’ and treats. That’s it”). The subject of Marissa comes up again later in the video, thus making it clear that her loss was not trivial: “It was pretty hard at the time but now I just think ‘Ohhh, you know, she’s travelling.'” Marcel is still mourning the loss of his sister. But he also understands that life is filled with difficulties and tragedies, especially when one is a shell, so it’s best to focus on the small things that bring us happiness. Like wearing lentil hats and having friends over for salad.
Life is hard for a shell. It’s easy to get carried away by a helium balloon, trampled by your own pet dog, or worst of all, ignored. But Marcel enjoys living his life — sleeping “eight to the muffin” in a fancy hotel and reading receipts for pleasure — despite it’s obvious complications. After I showed this video to my daughter this morning I asked her:
“Did you like it?”
“Was it funny?”
“Yes. But it was also sad.”
“Why was it sad?”
“It just was. But it was funny.”
I think this is why I am so captivated by “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” It’s difficult to make humor sad and sadness humorous. But Marcel walks that line perfectly. While wearing perfectly tiny pink shoes.
Whenever I screen Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) for students one aspect of the film that we invariably discuss (in addition to the infamous eye-slicing scene), is the way that the filmmaker plays with time. The film opens with an intertitle “Once upon a time” and is followed with such erratic markers of time as “eight years later,” “around three in the morning,” “sixteen years earlier” and finally, the cryptic “in spring.”
I enjoy Un Chien Andalou‘s defiance of temporality because it makes sense in the context of a Surrealist film; Surrealism aims to disturb the viewer through the irrational pairing of images — ants crawl out of a hole in a man’s palm, an androgynous young woman pokes a severed hand with a stick, etc. The film’s temporal disjunctures further add to the viewer’s unease — we cannot orient ourselves in time and are therefore wholly at the whim of the filmmaker. This kind of playing with time is not limited to Surrealist films. Films as diverse as Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino), Run Lola Run (1998, Tom Tykwer) and Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan) jump around in time, as do television shows like Lost. Recently, programs like One Tree Hill and Desperate Housewives decided to shift their narratives to four and five years in the future, respectively, a bold move which ultimately revived the lackluster storylines of both programs.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy this narrative structure (even when it’s overused). I just hate when writers use this trope to make an otherwise uninteresting story appear more interesting. To show you what I mean, let’s look at two recent examples of narrative time-jumping, one that worked and one that failed.
The One that Worked: Modern Family‘ s “Fizbo”
“Fizbo” opens with various members of the Pritchett clan pacing anxiously around a hospital waiting room. Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) refers cryptically to an “accident” while Jay (Ed O’Neill) wonders how it might have been averted. Their faces are grave. At this point in the show the viewer is in the dark about who has been injured, how s/he has been injured and how serious the injury is. The show then jumps back in time to reveal Phil’s (Ty Burrell) decision to host an elaborate birthday part for his son, Luke (Nolan Gould).
This use of time jumping is effective in “Fizbo” because the viewer is given double duties. First, we are watching the episode’s narrative — about Luke’s over the top birthday party (a moon bounce! a reptile lady! a clown!) — unfold. But we are also searching for the cause of the horrible accident. As a result, every new element introduced to the story becomes a suspect: Jay gives Luke a crossbow as a present, a zipline running through the middle of the party seems destined to cause a concussion for some unlucky child, and one of the reptile lady’s poisonous scorpions is set loose by a jealous Haley (Sarah Hyland). Without the time jumping narrative structure the series of bizarre events occurring at Luke’s birthday party would be just that — bizarre. But knowing that one of these dangers will be the cause of the hospital visit we witnessed at the beginning of the episode serves to tie these disparate elements together. In fact, the more bizarre the element (i.e., the crossbow), the funnier the episode becomes.
We eventually learn that Luke is the one in hospital and that he broke his arm after slipping on some beads from the craft table his mother set up. This is the great punchline of the episode because the craft table was the most banal aspect of the party but ultimately, the most dangerous. I’ll never look at comb sheaths the same way again.
The One that Didn’t Work: Gossip Girl‘s “The Debarted”
“The Debarted” opens with Serena (Blake Lively) and her milquetoast lover, Tripp Vanderbilt (Aaron Tveit), who I like to call Waspy McWasperson, engaged in a lover’s quarrel. The source of their tension is, I presume, supposed to be mysterious to the viewer. But given that the characters on this program fight with each other constantly, making up and breaking up and swapping lovers and eloping and divorcing in a nonstop carousel of terrible plotting, I was not all that intrigued. Then, out of nowhere, three wolves appear in the middle of the road (seriously!) and poor old Waspy swerves to avoid hitting them (animal lover that he is) and his Range Rover plows into a guard rail. Nooooo! Despite my lack of interest in why Serena and Congressman McWasperson were fighting and who was hurt, the episode jumped back to “eight hours earlier” to explain the whole mess.
The reason “The Debarted”‘s use of time jumping fails is that it is entirely arbitrary. The big event that the episode is supposed to lead up to — the car crash — only involves two characters and so, when the time jump occurs, all of the other character’s storylines remain unaffected. Knowing why Serena and Waspy were fighting has little bearing on the far more compelling storyline involving Chuck (Ed Westwick) and his inability to mourn his father (the Bart referenced in the episode’s title) on the one year anniversary of his death. Eventually Chuck ends up at the hospital to see Serena, which leads him to finally break down and cry, but the episode needn’t have opened with the car crash in order to bring about Chuck’s change of heart. The episode also focuses on a “secret letter” that Lily (Kelly Rutherford) is keeping from Rufus (Matthew Settle) (YAWN!), but the car accident has very little to do with that story. The fact remains that “The Debarted”‘s narrative and its impact on the show’s characters would have remained unchanged if it had moved forward chronologically. Time jumping in this episode is simply a gimmick, a crutch for the show’s lazy writers. In fact, it is my personal opinion that Gossip Girl is penned by two monkeys throwing their poop at a keyboard. But that’s just my opinion.
So what do you think? Are you sick of time jumping TV? What other prgrams are doing this right now? And who is using this tope successfully and who is failing? I would love to hear your comments.