A World Without Grice

I’d like the DVD right now, thanks very much, because until I can watch Were-Rabbit, oh, maybe several hundred times more, I won’t be able to compare it meaningfully with A Close Shave and (especially) The Wrong Trousers. In the meantime, I’ll just mention in passing that I had a great time, and giggled uncontrollably in places — the childish glee with which many very-rude-indeed jokes (‘may contain nuts’) are smuggled into what passes for a kids’ film is just the sort of subversion that I hope for from grown-ups.

But despite that knowingness, there’s a true innocence at the heart of the film’s world, which amounts to this: there’s no meta-level for Wallace and Gromit; they exist only within their world, and only within their story. Two things put this into sharp relief: one is how much the film relies on our own meta-level awareness of film genre conventions and specific film references for extra layering (but not in the cheap, tawdry way that’s become the DreamWorks fingerprint lately); the other is how more worldly — both within their world and within ours — the surrounding minor characters are. Both of those lift W&G themselves onto a higher, purer plane, and I think we associate so much with them because we’d like not to be quite so worldly ourselves.

The two principal layers of the film couldn’t be much clearer: the outer layer is soaked in parody and playfulness, and asks much of our knowledge of film; the inner layer is one in which films don’t even exist, and Gricean Maxims might as well be the name of some cheesy character — a bouffant game-show host, perhaps. While everyone else inhabits the outer layer, W&G (and perhaps one or two others) inhabit the innocent inner layer. The pleasure we get from watching them is partly, then, to lay down our own meta-level processing for a while — or to restrict it to the outer layer — as they progress wide-eyed through a plot that might be hackneyed, or a Frankenstein’s monster of bit-parts, to us, but is completely fresh to them. It’s like watching a child discover something that we’ve known for too long; we suddenly see it afresh.

It helps that W&G’s world is conspicuously not our own. It’s not the lack of comedy which makes us weary and angry with a film that presents Cute Teen A wandering into Creepy House B where we know she’ll be attacked by Serial Killer C. What makes us weary and angry is that we know how these films go, so why doesn’t she?. She lives in a world that seems to be ours, so doesn’t she watch these films, the stupid bint? What’s up with her meta-level reasoning? We don’t expect that from W&G. Indeed, it would be terribly destructive to the tone of their world if they had such awareness. The plot might absolutely be one we recognise, but they must not. Sometimes that’s made a virtue in itself: when Feathers McGraw pulls off the rubber-glove he’s been using as a chicken-disguise, it’s funny not just because to us it’s been farcically obvious all along, but because we don’t think W&G particularly stupid for not having seen it. Such disguises work in their world. In the same way, we don’t consider Gromit to be slow for not having guessed (or suspected) the true identity of the Were-Rabbit earlier. It’s just reasonable to accept that his world doesn’t include such background information.

One way of accounting for W&G’s innocence of anything meta is to present Gromit as child — an endearingly bright child, to be sure, but a child all the same — who encounters the world with a clean, sharp mind, but little accumulated wisdom; and Wallace as an endearingly dim grown-up, who conversely encounters the world with much wisdom, but little ability to apply it effectively. Between them, they function as a single entity, but the connection between Gromit’s intelligence and Wallace’s experience never gets made, so they remain forever innocent, living in a world without Grice.

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