Architectures of Hiding

Linda Heinrich

Impossible Gag

A terrible, but funny thought is that Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was never so well represented visually as through Winsor McCay’s wondrous cartoons and Buster Keaton’s stunts. In this essay’s dénouement, some of Keaton’s silent comedies perfectly illustrate Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (1899), especially when they use McCay’s comic strips as storyboards.

Our imagination is an expert at hiding things when we dream. It disguises certain images as a way to slip them through a censor—a layer of forgetfulness—that insulates us from any memory that threatens our ability to function from day to day. Interestingly, these same Freudian ideas lurk in archival images of McCay’s cartoon strips from 1905 to 1911 in both Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland. The elements of dreamwork detected by Freud are rendered by McCay as the adventures of a dreamer who, finding himself in various nightmarish situations, is inevitably transported⎯incognito⎯into the familiar territory of the bed when he wakes up. Graphical play with likenesses and doubled forms makes for unexpected substitutions. The serious topic of psychoanalysis is portrayed as wonder about cheese.

Keen to parlay his celebrity, McCay hit the vaudeville circuit with some of the world’s first animations, some-times sharing the theater with another act called The Three Keatons. The youngest of the Keatons⎯called “Buster,” which was slang for a bad fall, learned to tumble at an early age as his father kicked him further and further across the stage. Of necessity, his sense of timing was perfect.

Nickelodeons replaced vaudeville almost overnight—Keaton’s celebrity ultimately superseded McCay’s—but his cartoons live in the moving pictures that Keaton made, translated into specific scenes. Keaton dubbed his inventive play with stunts and the movie camera as “impossible gags,” a resistance to reality and its demands. Later in life, he lamented the end of impossible gags as audiences developed an appetite for stories with a plot and a satisfying ending, “like books.”

Humorous anecdotes depend upon the skill of the storyteller. What do McCay’s cartoons about dreaming reveal about the mechanism of disguise?

Keywords: cartoons, dreaming, storyboarding, wit

LINDA HEINRICH is a practicing architect, exhibition and lighting designer. Her work for museums in the United States, London, Hong Kong and Tokyo over the past three decades has contributed to shaping the field of exhibition design. At the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, she studied early cartoons about dreaming circa 1900 while looking for new ways to make museum spaces. She teaches an exhibition design studio at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, which is part of the George Washington University in Washington D.C.