Knick Knack (1989)


“Snow Was General All Over the Globe”

In stark contrast to the feature films made a decade and some later, the early Pixar shorts are obsessed with inanimate material objects brought to life. With the remarkable exception of the very first short, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. (1984), the next four films—Luxo, Jr. (1986), Red’s Dream (1987), Tin Toy (1988), and Knick Knack (1989), all directed by John Lasseter—feature small objects (lamps, bikes, and toys) which possess rudimentary consciousness as a basic precondition of their existence.

From a film studies point of view, the most interesting of these objects is the snow globe at the center of Knick Knack. The snow globe is, of course, the narrative motor of the most revered American film, Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). The object falls out of Charles Foster Kane’s dying hand and shatters on the floor in the film’s first sequence. In the backstory, it reappears among Susan Alexander’s trinkets, when she first meets Kane. From the start, it is Susan Alexander’s possession, not Kane’s, but like much else, he appropriates and colonizes the object. We come to learn that the wintery scene inside the globe reminds Kane of his childhood sled, Rosebud, which is, of course, his mysterious last word, the meaning of which is the focus of a mad investigative quest by filmmakers attempting to make their short film about Kane less banal.

There are a number of features possessed by snow globes—in and out of Citizen Kane—that I would like to use as methods for understanding Knick Knack. Kane’s object shatters when it falls out of his hand: Susan’s snow globe is made out of glass. In Knick Knack, the trapped snowman uses a chisel, a jackhammer, a blow torch, and explosives to try to break out of his cage, all of which fail. The snow globe in Knick Knack is made out of plastic, a manufacturing technique common in the United States since the 1950s. These materials represent an opposition that allows us to understand history and culture in surprising ways. The snow globe has transitioned from a collectible art object, made of glass, to a piece of low-cost chintz, made of plastic. Indeed, the Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a knickknack as “a small trivial object,” a definition the Pixar film allows us to challenge.

Despite the historical development of its construction materials, the snow globe has maintained its continuous status as an object of touristic commemoration. While mid-19th century snow globes may have emerged from paperweights created by glassblowers, by the end of the century, they settled into the use familiar to us today. Snow globes were sold at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, in which the object housed a tiny replica of the Eiffel Tower. The primary use of the object is thus coincident with the onset of industrial modernity. Indeed, the very function of the snow globe resonates with other aspects of modernity. We take an artificial landscape and vigorously shake it to bring it to life. The animated snowflakes gently falling inside the water medium creates a time-based scene that is allegorical of the cinema, the great artistic achievement of industrial modernity.

The snow globe’s appearance in Citizen Kane is, like much of the rest of the film, laced with irony. Kane’s encounter with the object is one of melancholic nostalgia. As he dies, he laments the disaster he has made of his personal life, returning in a Freudian sense to the moment just before his life was ruined. Playing with his sled Rosebud outside his childhood log cabin in Colorado, reenacting the Union victory in the Civil War, Charles is happy. At this precise moment, his mother essentially sells him to the banker Walter Thatcher, initiating him into a life of urban corruption. The bucolic scene in the snow globe is for Kane the agrarian life he was denied as he became inundated with modernity, taking the form of mediated culture. The now rich Kane as a young man thinks “it would be fun to run a newspaper” and in so doing invents yellow journalism.

Like Kane, and indeed many of Pixar and American cinema’s heroes, the snowman in Knick Knack is an outsider. The Pixar film begins with still life portraits of tourist collectables from various tropical locales—a pink flamingo from “sunny Florida,” a skeleton whose base implores us to “surf Death Valley,” a pyramid with sun glasses from “sunny Egypt,” palm trees from “sunny Palm Springs” and “sunny Jamaica,” and a beautiful bikini clad blonde sitting poolside in “sunny Miami”—all resting on a bookshelf in an unseen room, presumably in an American middle-class home. Individual shots introduce us to these various tourist trinkets, but then an establishing shot features them all together, bobbing happily to the beat of Bobby McFerrin’s improvisational jazz vocals. A pan right from the happy sunshine community reveals the snow globe, containing our hero the snowman and an igloo, atop a base that reads, “Nome Sweet Nome, Alaska.”

Lasseter cuts to a medium shot of the snowman, inside the globe. His isolation is demonstrated by the glance-object cut between his angry look and the happy sunbathers staring back at him. The comic shot replicates the opening of Stardust Memories (1980), in which Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) first looks around at the ugly people on his train, then across the yard at a different car containing all beautiful people, including a stunning blonde woman who blows him a kiss. Of course, he tries to change trains, but by the time he takes action, it is too late.

The snowman in Knick Knack will have none of this. Having learned from the Warner Bros. cartoons of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, he will find a way to visit his beloved in the swimming pool. Emulating Wile E. Coyote, he tries increasingly violent means to break out of the plastic dome. When all these fail, he looks down over the shelf, causing the snow globe to fall. Now upside down, the snowman sees that the bottom of his housing includes an emergency exit. He climbs outside as the globe continues to fall. However, unlike Kane’s shattered glass, the animated globe and the snowman fall gently into a fishbowl. The snowman comes to rest on the bottom, where he spies a new love object, a mermaid atop a rock which reads “sunny Atlantis.” Just as the snowman begins to walk toward her, the snow globe falls upright on top of him, re-sealing him inside his dome. As he turns to the camera to look at the audience in exasperation, the film irises closed on him, sealing his fate as one of perpetual failure and sexual frustration.

As different as Citizen Kane and Knick Knack are, they both use their snow globes to point to the impossibility of human happiness. The snow globe in these films is a nefarious object, one that imagines capturing the purity of human experience, but in so doing seals our inability to ever obtain it. In its initial phase, the snow globe documented our attendance at the Paris World’s Fair, celebrating the human achievement of industrial engineering that is the Eiffel Tower. However, holding the commemorative object in our hand by definition expresses our distance from the real Eiffel Tower. This is the fundamental contradiction of tourism: we go to a place that is not our home in order to have an authentic experience, knowing full well that this will immediately fade into an unstable memory. In modern life, we desperately try to correct for this, obsessively taking photographs and video recordings, not knowing that we are in fact merely denying ourselves even more of the original, direct experience.

In the wake of this crisis of modernity, the 20th century snow globe transitioned into something else, a bucolic retreat from its own industrial status. The snow globe celebrates an escape into nature. Charles Foster Kane’s glass ball memorializes a 19th century America of log cabins and childhood play which no longer exists for him in the modern world of yellow journalism he has created at The New York Inquirer. For his part, the snowman in Knick Knack sees a happy community of sun worshipers whom he longs to befriend to end his loneliness.

Knick Knack continues the allegory of the industrial north in Citizen Kane. For the snowman to escape from the tundra that is Nome, Alaska, he must travel to the “sunny” locales. This is exactly what Kane does, building Xanadu in Florida to attempt to capture that fantasy world that exists in his snow globe imagination, where the cold indifferent snow is replaced by the glow of the tropics. However, as Orson Welles ironically images Florida, it is bleak and dark.

The snowman comes a bit closer than Kane does to envisioning a world of sun and frolicking. However, his tumble off the bookshelf—while it promises a safe landing very different from the shards of glass that begin Citizen Kane—proves no happier. In an existential triumph of the absurd, the snow from Nome follows him always, and his new object of desire, while still from a “sunny” locale, is now even more illusory, not even a real place, but the made-up Shangri-La of the ancient Greek’s Atlantis.

As in Citizen Kane, the snow globe in Knick Knack forwards not only an allegory of what Leo Marx calls the complex pastoral, an American sense that the natural is always at war with the industrial, but also a specific understanding of male sexual desire. For Kane, the dynamics are strongly Freudian. He holds his wife Susan’s snow globe in his hand, presumably worried about why his relationships with women went so horribly wrong, but literally thinks about the moment when his mother sold him away from 19th century agrarian America into the urban 20th century.

If it is at all possible, the snowman in Knick Knack might be even more disturbed from the perspective of gender liberation. At the beginning of the film, he falls in love with the bikini-clad woman in the pool in Miami, immediately setting to work to establish physical contact with her. Then, when he falls into the fish bowl, his object of desire is immediately transferred to the mermaid from “sunny Atlantis.” Again, his desire for physical contact is frustrated, and the film ends.

This is a remarkable allegory for male desire within the patriarchal visual economy. His libidinal life is exclusively determined by the visual, which dooms him to isolation and loneliness. If the snow globe is an allegory for failed modernity, this is perhaps its best articulation in the cinema. In the masculinity constructed by a highly mediated culture—in which pornography determines men’s relationship to their own sexuality, and their false understanding of women’s—not just Charles Foster Kane and the snowman in Knick Knack, but all of us are trapped in the snow globe. In the last paragraph of “The Dead” (1914)—which demonstrates a similar death of desire, as a husband comes to realize he knows absolutely nothing about his wife’s imaginative love life—James Joyce uses the metaphor of snow covering all of us, the living and the dead. Knick Knack demonstrates not just that “snow was general all over Ireland,” but that such icy precipitation covers our entire globe.

–Walter Metz