11 January 2010

Art Clokey’s Ecstatic Visions

As an adult, I’ve gone back only occasionally to look at the Gumby films that captivated me when I was a child. Now the news of the death of animator Art Clokey provokes memories like fever dreams, filled with strange and almost incomprehensible images, of the sort that make hallucinogenics superfluous.

Those little stop-action movies were the oddest things I’d seen, when I was four, and they’re still near the top of the list — yet I approached them matter-of-factly. I was unfazed by green-clay Gumby and his sidekick, the orange-clay horse called Pokey, though they inhabited a universe in which every form was always mutable. Honestly, I was more interested in the characters’ jokes (pretty mild, when heard today) and in the general atmosphere of playful adventure than in the incessant marvels of Clokey’s surreal imagination.

Constrained as I was by the laws of physics, I couldn’t quite replicate those adventures, not even when I deployed any of the many, many bendable Gumby and Pokey figurines I owned over the years. Though they couldn’t change shape or defy gravity, they were real, they were tangible, and they were satisfying to chew on.* These qualities probably made it easier for me to watch the weird stuff that their counterparts did on TV.

Clokey’s other masterwork was surreal in a way different from Gumby and Pokey. Davey and Goliath looked more or less realistic, but the resemblance to earthly life forms ended shortly thereafter. Sure, they got into scrapes — but then the preaching started. Each episode contained a moral lesson, courtesy of the Lutheran Church.**

And while the talking dog Goliath was amusing (“Gee, Daaaavey”), Davey himself talked like a girl — voiced in fact by Norma MacMillan, who so memorably impersonated Caroline Kennedy on the First Family album in 1962. She voiced Gumby, too, but that casting posed no significant problems in a show that was so strange already, and less blatantly concerned with Christian values.

For a girly Davey (already an insufferable goodie-two-shoes) could find few admirers, and fewer converts, among boys in his audience. You just couldn’t see yourself — or hear yourself — saying in that voice, as Davey so often did, “I’m sorry, God.” Your best bet was to watch only the beginning of any episode, and to skip out before the cocktails of retribution, atonement, and penance were served. I’m surprised none of the show’s producers realized this.

Now Clokey will have the opportunity to ask God whether he got the right answers to the tests of Christian life, as Davey struggled so hard to do. But, at least as far as Gumby and Pokey are concerned, Clokey can look God in the eye. For he, too, created a universe. And it was good.

Weird, but good.

We are as spiders in the hands of an angry Animator.

*NOTE: Our own dog agreed with me on this point, gnawing through innumerable Pokeys. Both of us drew the line, however, when the wire armatures started to emerge. Not chewy enough.

**Before I was old enough to appreciate the fact, my father pointed out that the show’s theme music was “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” by that super-Lutheran, Johann Sebastian Bach.

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

My dad used to make me laugh by telling me that the musicians at the beginning of Davey and Goliath were the Count Basie trumpet section. (Yes, I was exposed to jazz at a very early age.)