A villainesque Halloween hero: poetry of a stop motion film meant for Christmas and Arendt on the need to think.

A bit late perhaps, although not for the week that has many festivities associated with the dead including ‘Dia de Muertos’ that ends today, but ‘Happy Halloween’ anyways.

Here is something that I have always associated with Halloween, a stop motion movie which is worth watching at least two times of the year. In ‘Nightmare before Christmas’ the protagonist is the Pumpkin King Jack Skellington who hijacks Christmas, Halloween style. It’s a movie by Henry Selick who made his directorial debut with it and Tim Burton who produced it.

Jack Skellington ponders: screenshot from trailer of the Disney Animation ‘Nightmare before Christmas’

Stop-motion demands a great deal of time. Selick (1) plus a team of 13 specially trained animators and an army of prop makers, set builders, and camera operators got to work without a final screenplay for this stop motion movie. Shooting 24 frames per second meant the animators had to create unique motions for 110,000 frames total. One minute of the movie took about a week to shoot and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ took 3 years to complete. The beauty of this immense effort transformed into a visual spectacle on screen.

Moreover, it is the poetry of the songwriting by Danny Elfman and the musical score that are quire remarkable. Jack the Pumpkin King waxes philosophical in this stop motion. There is something in his contemplation that resonates with the power of thinking as described by Hannah Arendt. This in itself is worth a look.

When Jack Skellington sings (2)What’s this’, he really is pondering a crisis of purpose. If you ever wonder the state of the world and seek to understand the reasons why things evolve as they do, I think this song quite captures the essence of the question that sparks it.

Oh my, what now?
 The children are asleep
 But look, there's nothing underneath
 No ghouls, no witches here to scream and scare them
 Or ensnare them, only little cozy things
 Secure them in their dreamland
 What's this?
 The monsters are all missing
 And the nightmares can't be found
 And in their place there seems to be
 Good feeling all around
 Instead of screams, I swear
 I can hear music in the air
 The smell of cakes and pies
 Are absolutely everywhere

"What's this" by Jack Skellington in Nightmare before Christmas;
Songwriter ~ Danny Elfman, Source: LyricFind

Jack also has an existential crisis, which is what probably got him to ‘what’s this’. In ‘Jack’s lament’, he sings:

Yet year after year, it's the same routine
And I grow so weary of the sound of screams
And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King
Have grown so tired of the same old thing
Oh, somewhere deep inside of these bones
An emptiness began to grow
There's something out there, far from my home
A longing that I've never known

"Jack's Lament" by Jack Skellington in Nightmare before Christmas;
 Songwriter ~ Danny Elfman, Source: LyricFind
Pumpkins at a farmers Market nearby

This beautiful gourd depicted above has been consumed in North America for hundreds of years by the indigenous Americans but the tradition of carving it into jack-o-lanterns has been an Irish import (3). Now Jack Skellington is a skeleton, but he has been inspired by a wicker man or a scare crow with a pumpkin for a head (4). He is a pumpkin king who thinks, which could be a dangerous thing for according to Hannah Arendt, the German-born American political philosopher, the activity of thinking itself is dangerous, because it has the power to disrupt our sense of self, makes us question our beliefs and yet Arendt calls us to stop and think (5).

Arendt considers herself a political theorist and tried to distance herself from her mentor, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who confirmed for Arendt that philosophy, no matter how deep it may be, does not automatically lead to a moral engagement with the world (6). I wonder if this is what the writers of the stop motion thought about to present as an idea to the world? Although the credits of the movie reveal no writer, the screenplay having been written by Caroline Thompson and the lyrics to the songs by Danny Elfman, who according to the NY Times (7), wrote the many serviceable songs that turn this stop motion into a full-fledged movie musical, it is Arendt’s view that ordinary philosophical thinking is almost like non-thinking in which the individual tends to become uninvolved and irresponsible, unaware of their crucial role in the world. Instead of quelling our over active and overstimulated minds that we conflate with thinking and then seek meditation and quietude for this very purpose, Arendt actually exhorts us to think, to be wakeful, to engage with the world. We think of ourselves as individuals but do we really possess independence of thought or are we only minimally reactive to stimuli?

In a song written to elucidate the dangerous thinking of Jack Skellington, in ‘Jack’s obsession’, he plans a method to his madness and essentially justifies his crime.

Or perhaps it's really not as deep
As I've been led to think
Am I trying much too hard?
Of course! I've been too close to see
The answer's right in front of me
Right in front of me
…
You know, I think this Christmas thing
It's not as tricky as it seems
And why should they have all the fun?
It should belong to anyone
…
I bet I could improve it too
And that's exactly what I'll do
Hee, hee, hee
Eureka! I've got it

"Jack's Obsession", by Jack Skellington in Nightmare before Christmas;
 Songwriter ~ Danny Elfman, Source: LyricFind

And yet, it isn’t as linear and simple as the songs would suggest, for Jack is indeed the thinking man even if his soliloquies engender feelings of evil portent in others, like Sally the rag doll who secretly loves him, where in ‘Sally’s song’, she sings …

"I sense there's something in the wind
That feels like tragedy's at hand".

"Sally's Song", by Sally in Nightmare before Christmas;
  Songwriter ~ Danny Elfman
Sally’s song : screenshot from trailer of the Disney Animation ‘Nightmare before Christmas’

It is a movie that comes full circle where the slow ponderous thought of the protagonist indeed enables him to understand life and love. As Arendt maintains, an individual is someone who initiates thought-processes, passionate inquiries, and not simply someone whose brain functions just enough for him or her to react when needed in order to make hasty and superficial judgments, then Jack Skellington is indeed the quintessential thinking man who finally has the wherewithal to understand the implications of his actions if this be the thinking individual as envisaged by Arendt.

Happy Halloween !

Some references:


(1) Source-https://www.mentalfloss.com/…/21-things-you-didnt-know-abou…

(2) Source: LyricFind, Songwriters: Danny Elfman, What’s This? lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Walt Disney Music Company

(3) Source-https://www.history.com/news/pumpkin-facts-halloween-jack-o-lantern

(4) Source-https://the-nightmare-before-christmas.fandom.com/wiki/Pumpkin_King

(5) Source-https://uwaterloo.ca/germanic-slavic-studies/news/grimm-lecture-2020-recap-thinking-itself-dangerou

(6) Source-https://philosophynow.org/issues/125/Hannah_Arendt_and_the_Human_Duty_to_Think

(7) Source-https://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/09/movies/review-film-festival-infiltrating-the-land-of-sugar-plums.html

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