Wednesday, 4 December 2013
This week I've been thinking aloud, as it were, about Disney's first five feature-length animated films. I don't know that I've come to any especially pungent conclusions (still thinking, really); but here for the sake of neatness are the links to those five blogposts:
1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (prod. Walt Disney; dir David Hand et al, 1937)
2. Pinocchio (prod. Walt Disney; dir. Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske, 1940)
3. Fantasia (prod. Walt Disney, dir. various, 1940)
4. Dumbo (prod. Walt Disney, dir. Ben Sharpsteen, 1941)
5. Bambi (prod. Walt Disney, dir David Hand 1942)
This brief series of blogposts on the first five Disney feature-length animations comes, I'm afraid, to a rather anticlimactic conclusion with my thoughts on Bambi; because I haven't really got any thoughts on Bambi. Of the five, it's my least favourite. I know people who had genuinely traumatic childhood experiences watching this film (Bambi's mother! Dead!!), and maybe that intensity of emotional response bonds a viewer to the movie. Not having had that particular experience, I'm not well placed to say. (That is to say: I didn't see it as a little kid. I caught up with the movie later on, when I was already grown-up). Without that electric moment of affect, the film surely falls back upon a rather underpowered narrative, and a series of pretty but not especially striking visual representations of nature. And Thumper, who's just fucking annoying.
I'm being harsh, I know. I suppose the problem is that Thumper is cutesy without being kitsch. Do I dance with the angels on a moonlit pinhead when I make that distinction? Ah, perhaps I do. But it's my way of trying to get at something that seems to me important, about Disney in particular and about key modes of art that have mattered a lot to me in my life (particularly animation and SF). Cutesy may be part of kitsch, but Kitsch is much larger than cutesy. And Bambi isn't really kitsch enough. No parading pink elephants in this woodland glade.
Yes, it's about death clearly. Wikipedia points to the high praise it has won ('Mick Martin and Marsha Porter call the film "...the crowning achievement of Walt Disney's animation studio." In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "10 Top 10" — the best ten films in ten classic American film genres – after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. Bambi was acknowledged as the third best film in the animation genre') and also a main reason for that praise: 'it is listed in the Top 25 Horror Movies of all Time by Time magazine. Bambi, Time states, "has a primal shock that still haunts oldsters who saw it 40, 50, 65 years ago".' To swerve away from animation for a moment, I remember being struck by one of he things Rosencrantz says in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966):
Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one. A moment. In childhood. When it first occurred to you that you don't go on forever. Must have been shattering, stamped into one's memory. And yet, I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it. Before we know that there are words. Out we come, bloodied and squalling, with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure.I read this first as a teenager and it seemed to me right and, somehow, profound. But that may have been because my own growing up lacked the 'shattering' moment of realisation. For many, Bambi provided just that moment. (Katzenberg-era Disney tried something similar with the death of Simba's Dad in The Lion King, but fluffed the moment by having Mufasa return as a kind-of ghost in the sky. Bambi is more pitiless in its message: dead is dead.) This may be why the film is so under-kitsched: kitsch is not about death, or perhaps it would be more accurate to swing that about and say -- there's nothing kitsch about death. Its universality and inevitability give it seriousness that transcends the sparky restlessness of the truly kitsch. Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, after all. Perhaps my indifference to this movie is an index of my refusal to accept the importance and gravity of that apperception.
Not that I'm the only one to take refuge from individual extinction in humour and kitschy energies. For example, I give you, Zombi: Fawn of the Dead.
Tuesday, 3 December 2013
The story so far: Snow White had made a truckload of cash, and established Disney's studio as a global player; but the two follow-up films, Pinocchio and Fantasia had both lost a great deal of money. The studio blamed World War 2 for this, because the conflict cut-off most of the lucrative European market; but the fact is, even in the States audiences just didn't fall in love with the later two films the way they did with the first. Dumbo was made quickly and cheaply in order to balance the books; backgrounds were drawn swiftly in watercolour, not meticulously painted in with gouache; animators for the first time were allowed to animate directly without having to work through elaborate preliminary animation processes, such as filming sequences with live-action actors to pose as motion models, or producing pencil animations of whole sequences (you can see the results of this glorious fluidity in the Pink Elephants sequence).
(It's also this peerless sequence that does the (very early, chronologically speaking) postmodern thing of breaking the fourth wall by emphasising the framing of the movie, when the elephants parade along and up the edges of the screen. I have lots of clever things to say about this marvellous moment, but like Fermat with his margin, I don't have leisure to jot them all down here at this time.)
Anyway, back to the budget: designs were simplified, frames de-cluttered, a smaller team of animators was assigned. The script was not fine-tuned over years, as the had been the case with the previous movies; indeed, the story could have been a little better balanced -- it pays-off and ends more than a little abruptly. The result was a motion picture that cost $900,000 (Fantasia had cost $2.3 million and Pinocchio an equivalent sum) and which lasts a mere 64 minutes: the shortest of all Disney features. It made $1.6 million on its initial release, and much more over the re-releases through the 1940s. Job done, financially. Better yet: it was a film that actually moved audiences, to both tears and laughter.
It is, of course, Pinocchio Redux: only child, separated from parent, guided by externalised conscience (who happens to be a small talking animal) eventually overcomes adversity to reveal his true worth. But there are two things in particular that interest me about this reworking. One is that (as I've mentioned already in this sequence of blogposts) this is the first feature-length Disney animation to be set not in an idealised Old World Europe, but in the New World. There's a lot one could say about Disney's fascination with the Old World, in part because it is a significant part of the larger Hollywood fascination with the Old World, or more particularly with England and Englishness. But Disney is American, not merely in terms of the nationality of its founder but in terms of its global cultural logic. It stands, like McDonalds and WalMart, as a sort of shorthand for American-ness. It might, I suppose, be that Disney leavens its Americanness with a more 'global' set of flavours (see also: Aladdin, Lion King, Mulan etc) in order more effectively to penetrate global markets. It might, on the other hand, be that the Old World provides an ersatz historical depth to an otherwise too-too bran new cultural productive idiom at odds with the necessary historical resonances of fairy tales et al. Not sure about all this.
Related to this is the question of race. Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan's Deconstructing Disney (Pluto Press 1999) point to the paucity of African American representation in Disney's movies:
Not since James Baskett played Uncle Remus in the semi-animated film Song of the South in 1946 has a black man, that is an African-American male, been portrayed by Disney in an animated film in human form, and only in Hercules (1997) have African-American women appeared as black women. In fact the hybrid form of the semi-animated film cut with live action means that Disney has never figured an African-American man as an animated human in its entire history of feature-length films. This is an important point, and Byrne/McQuillan note the way Disney's Uncle Remus embodies a 'domestication of black representations that infantalise and emasculate the image of the black man through his elision with children, animals and entertaining cartoon capers, what James Snead calls "a rhetoric of harmlessness".' It wasn't until 2009 with The Princess and the Frog that Disney finally addressed this problem head-on; and although that was a perfectly nice movie, it was immediately followed by one of the Whitest movies in the entire Disney canon. It may look like carping to mention the crows in Dumbo as a counter-example (not 'human', clearly; although I don't see by what codes of representation the 2D painted pot figures in Hercules count as 'human' either).
Still, race is present in the film in more complex and interesting ways than that. For one thing, the human circus workers, shown assembling the big top tent in the thunderstorm, are clearly African American, and although their appearance is marginal to the main line of the film they are neither infantalised nor domesticated. And Dumbo, despite his baby-blue eyes, is an African Elephant (check the ears!), the son of an literally enchained mother who learns to fly and astonish the world. As a fable for the African American inheritance in America it could hardly be more positive.
Monday, 2 December 2013
Here’s today’s interesting fact: at one point in 1938 Disney contemplated animating the recently-published The Hobbit, using music from Wagner’s Ring as soundtrack. [Gabler, Walt Disney: the Biography (Random House 2006), 307]. This idea emerged from the initial groundwork for Fantasia, a movie for which Disney had the highest hopes, but which—partly because it was so expensive to make and to screen (it had to be shown with special expensive ‘Fantasound’ systems in cinemas) and partly because audiences just didn’t fall in love with it the way they did with Snow White—lost the studio a ton of money.
Its original cut, with the lengthy preludes to each sequence in which Master of Ceremonies and narrator Deems Taylor, dressed in a Conductor’s Tux, condescends so breathtakingly to the viewers that it’s a wonder the original audience didn’t throw chairs at the screen. There’s a set of assumptions at work, familiar from Bourdieu’s Distinction book (of the ‘upper-class people like classical music, middle-class people like easy listening and working-class people like pop’ kind) that are wrong now but were surely wrong then; and the idea that we, as audience, have to be eased gently and uncomplainingly into listening to such discordant avant-garde musical behemoths as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s fucking ‘Nutcracker Suite’ is—well, insulting, I suppose. Stravinsky was asked what he thought. ‘I do not wish to criticize an unresisiting imbecility,’ he said. So harsh! Especially since Disney had paid him tens of thousands of dollars for the use of ‘The Rite of Spring’ and general consultation. In many way a more interesting response was the review by Dorothy Thompson (a nationally syndicated columnist) who ‘seethed that she had left the theatre “in a condition bordering on a nervous breakdown” and felt as if she had been subjected to an “assault”—a brutalization of sensibility in this remarkable nightmare.” Thompson’s complaint was that Disney and Stowoski seemed to extol the savagery of nature at the expense of man.’ [Gabler, 343]. It’s a designedly full-on experience, visually; and the ‘Night at Bear Mountain’ ending—or perhaps even more an assault on the senses, the quieter but infinitely more kitsch Ave Maria finale—are pitched to over-whelm.
Worse, the live-action lecturette interludes emphasise the fix-up nature of the whole, to its larger detriment. It’s not a coherent movie; it’s a string of small movies threaded together on one socially condescending premise: ‘you, yes you, I’m talking to you, will obviously never knowingly step inside a Classical concert hall, so we’re going to use your affection for Mickey Mouse to trick you into getting cultured, you horrible little prole.’ This is probably unfair. Nowadays, when Classical Music accompanies every second TV advert, when Puccini’s Turandot is an integral part of the enjoyment of World Cup football and ‘The Four Seasons’ is every company’s call-waiting music, the danger is probably the other way about: not that Classical Music needs winching down fro its high pedestal but on the contrary that it could do with being elevated slightly, or at least hosed down to wash off some of the odour of commodification. But I don’t want to get all ranty.
1. Bach, ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’: a long live-action sequence of the orchestra playing, artfully lit to cast multi-coloured shadows on a backdrop; then a fairly pretty sequende of more-or-less abstract shapes, lines and colours.
2. Tchaikovsky, ‘Nutcracker Suite’: fairies in nature—dewdrops, (racist Chinese caricature) dancing mushrooms, goldfish, more fairies in nature—autumn leaves and frost.
3. Dukas, ‘The Sorcerer's Apprentice’: Mickey Mouse, of course.
4. Stravinsky, ‘The Rite of Spring’: dawn of time; dinosaurs fighting; dinosaurs extincting.
5. Intermission: Meet the Soundtrack: excruciating.
6. Beethoven, ‘Pastoral Symphony’: kitsch rural idyll, flying horses, cute fauns (+ extraordinary racist black faun comic character)
7. Ponchielli, ‘Dance of the Hours’: Hippo and Alligator, dancing. Surprisingly charming
8. Mussorgsky, ‘Night on Bald Mountain’/Schubert ‘Ave Maria’: and we’re done.
Actually, I think the best way of grasping the film as a whole is to separate out its three most successful elements. The abstract sparkles and bow-string lines of the opening Bach sequence is very pretty, in an undemanding sort of way. ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ has a more complex kind of charm, dependent on Mickey himself, on the (to use a horrible word) ‘relatable’ situation he finds himself in, and on the splendidly machinic Terminator-like implacability of the Golem-brooms.
Rewatching this sequence yesterday, I note that this is before the animators learned to draw Mickey’s ears side-on (they are two face-on black circles on top of his pate, and don’t shift their position in the least when he turns his head). It’s also clear that, even though Pinocchio had a whole team assigned just to animating water, the water in this sequence isn’t quite right. It’s too gluey in texture, too silver-transparent shiny, its splashes too soapy and it clings a fraction too closely to the things it dribbles over. It wasn’t until Jungle Book, I think, that Disney managed to get the ‘animating water’ thing spot-on. I say this not to sneer, by the way. Hand-drawing water so that it looks ‘real’ is a mind-boggling challenge, a sort of Fermat’s Last Theorem of animation, and the crucial thing is that Disney, eventually, did it. Otherwise ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ has two things really going for it: the way it renders its slow, inevitable build—the increasing nightmare of Mickey’s over-reaching position; and the hard-to-deny charm of the child analogue, Mickey himself. I wasn’t so sure what to make of the Wizard, with his Semitic conk and his blue traffic-cone-shaped hat adorned with stars and crescent moons.
When he comes in at the end and disperses the water he looks like Moses. Is that deliberate?
Thirdly, there's the Hippo Dance sequence. This could have been a wreck, since the central premise (clearly) is the fat-shaming one of ‘wouldn’t it be funny to see really obese women dancing with ludicrously incongruous grace?’ But the sequence is much more than this rather cruel set-up. The gracefulness is a real thing, it what it brings home is (a) the skill of the animators, able to draw so that their two dimensional forms take on appreciable 3D heft and force, and more importantly (b) the understanding that fat people can be just as graceful as thin. Some fat people are graceless, of course; but so are many thin people. The point, rather beautifully rendered here, is that it’s possible to be both very large and a very elegant mover.
But setting these three sequences aside, the main thing that characterises the rest of the film is: kitsch. It’s kitsch raised to the power of kitsch. I don’t say this to disparage it, mind you: kitsch is a sadly neglected mode of art, I think.
You may choose to disagree with my assessment that the fairies and gnomes sprinkling dewdrops on spiders’ webs in the ‘Nutcracker’ section, or the cutesy fauns and pegasuses (‘pegasi’?) in the ‘Pastoral’ section are kitsch. Doesn’t kitsch require a degree of ironic self-awareness? Isn’t it actually an ineluctably postmodern form of art? Well I’m in two minds. On the one hand I agree with Tomas Kulka (in this, if in not much else) when he says that ‘making kitsch is not the same thing as making use of kitsch’, and draws his distinction between ‘how kitsch may work in the artworld’ and ‘how kitsch works in the kitschworld’ [Tomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art (Pennsylvania State University Press 1996; 2nd ed 2002), 9]. Nobody who has spent any time at a Disneyland resort can doubt that the kitschworld is precisely the locus of Disney. At the same time, aspects of the ironic mode are a central part of what Disney does; in the humour of it, but also in the very form of it.
‘Irony’ is a much larger category than kitsch, of course; and although kitsch generates its affect through its ironic relationship with seriousness it is a much more specific cultural category and must be considered as such. Celeste Olalquiaga suggestively traces the beginnings of ‘kitsch’ to the nineteenth century, linking it with (as she puts it) the way ‘industrialization transformed nature into an artificial kingdom of miniature scale’. For Olalquiaga this aesthetic is ‘at once exhilarated and melancholic’; and although she doesn’t not specifically discuss science fiction she might as well do. The desire to model the cosmos, to ‘reduce’ it to a working scale model—precisely, we might say (though she doesn’t make this particular point) what a cartoonist does to the material of actual life [Celeste Olalquiaga, Artificial Kingdom: a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (University of Michigan Press 1988), 7]. And there is a weird flavour of melancholy, I think, in even the most ostensibly exhilarating Disney sequences. I don’t mean the out-and-out pathos moments, when (say) Dumbo intertwines his diminutive elephant trunk with the trunk of his incarcerated, weeping mother. I mean something more pervasive: a sense of brightness and colour and variety pushed to the point of monotony; of the machinic repetition of animation itself seeping through, as in Mickey’s nightmare tireless broomstick servants, into the fabric of the film's content itself.
‘Romanticism is outmoded,’ Jacques Sternberg once claimed; ‘symbolism disused, surrealism has always appealed to a small elite but kitsch is everywhere. Even more pervasive and indestructible now that it is fused to a civilisation based on excess consumption.’ [quoted in Thomas Kulka, 13] ‘Consumption pushed to excess’ is, of course, the business model of Disney; and it is in kitsch that Disney assimilates its inventively surreal visual imagination—Disney collaborated with Dalí, after all—its reified ‘symbols’ calcifying all the time into brands, and its out-of-kilter relationship with sentimentality, Romanticisms cousin.
If it didn’t sound so philistine, I’d be tempted to peg key moments in art as bringing ‘something new’ to the table, visual-aesthetically speaking. Picasso’s Demoiselles Davignon brings a new approach to form and visual language; Jackson Pollock brings a new attitude to the brushstroke, the core compository strategy of painting. And so on. Well, by this metric Disney was a crucial figure in the visual avant garde: he brought something quite new—motion, music—to the visual image. This, the kitsch flipside to the clean sublimity of Monet’s ‘impressions’ or Rothko’s abstractions, captures something the ‘high art’ equivalent cannot. It has the same expansiveness and mind-startling wonder about it, but married to a gonzo energy and disrespectfulness that animates it more brilliantly. It has the grandeur, but also a kind of innocence pathos of silliness. ‘The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,’ is how Sontag puts it. ‘Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious."’ One can, as Sontag notes, be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. That Disney’s remains a silly mode of art (amongst his first commercial hits were his ‘Silly Symphonies’) is, as the phrase goes, a feature, not a bug.
Sunday, 1 December 2013
In Multiplane Technicolor, no less! An extraordinary visual text, this; immensely busy and vital and scintillant, all the more remarkable when you remember that the whole thing was hand-made by craftsman. Every frame has something visually wonderful in it, and there are many hundred thousand individual frames. It's like the monks at Lindisfarne produced not one but 100,000 gorgeously illustrated gospels. It is no wonder it cost the, in 1940s-money, heart-stopping sum of $2,289,247 to make; nor that it lost money quite heavily on its initial release. But equally it's not surprising that it made that money back handsomely on re-issue; for in the ingenuous Pinocchio, his nose and his externalised cricket-shaped conscience, Disney created a genuinely resonant cultural icon.
It is based on Carlo Collodi's once-famous (famous-no-longer, I suppose) book, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1882). But adaptation changed not only specifics but the tone of the whole piece. Disney declared that ‘the problem with Pinocchio is that people know the story, but don’t like the character’: in the book he is often cruel and capricious. A strategy for addressing this was to externalise Pinocchio’s conscience as Jiminy Cricket (check the Jesus-ish initials), and to insert the ‘blue angel’ in various scenes. In the novel the cricket is an actual cricket stamped to death on the hearth by the heartless Pinocchio, whose ghost comes back to advise the lad on morality. This was in the original script of the movie, but soon dropped as too savage, although aspects of it remain in the finished picture (the cricket is seemingly undrownable, for instance). And there's one thing in particular this film shares not only with the first five Disney features, but with a great swathe of children's literature. That is the core conceit that the best way to represent children in your story such that children reading, or watching, will most fully identify with them is not to represent them, quite, as children at all. To style them as dwarf adult, or as animals like Mickey Mouse, Dumbo or Bambi. It's not immediately obvious why this should be, unless it is that on some level of subconscious self-representation children don't 'think' of themselves as children: but rather as dogs, or monkeys (with what delight they respond to the kindly-spoken 'you cheeky monkey!'), as superheroes or robots, as gruffalos or princesses or as Mummy's Little Baby. Pinocchio is closest to being a boy of all these, but on the other hand the whole point of this story is that he is not a real boy.
This I suppose has something to do with the development of a psychologically robust self-image, objectifying one's subjectivity via actual objects. It has the additional advantage of consoling the tremulous child-mind with fantasies of invulnerability. Tender human bodies are hurt only too easily, we know from an early age; but toys are joyfully robust and deathless. Look how happy this little chappie is, despite what Saw-like horrors are being inflicted on his torso!
Pinocchio is a fable of growth, teleologically conceived as the anthropomorphism of true humanity at its end. But this growth is not inevitable; as in Kingsley, the danger of bestial devolution balances out the possibility of positive evolution, a fact recorded in this rather wonderful Soviet Russian poster for the movie (from that period when the US and the USSR were allies, fighting a common fascist enemy):
Production had begun in 1937; by the release date of 1940 Italy (the provenance and, patently, the setting of the tale) was a Fascist enemy. It's striking how little this inflects the working-out of the text, actually. And this potent nostalgia for a European past, oddly insistent in the work of a profoundly American studio, is itself a fascinating thing; I'll come back to it and say more when I blog about Dumbo, the fifth feature but first American movie of this American studio.
Instead I want to note something, briefly, about the Disney style. I don't mean the specific style of this movie, lovely though that is; I mean that je-ne-sais-quoi people mean when they say 'Disney'. It has something to do with an unashamed cuteness, a visual sentimentality and a smooth-lined, bright-coloured approachability. But it is also a very carefully mode of simplification that works so effortlessly with the grain of animation itself that it approaches a kind of idea harmony with it. Because any image must be simplified, codified and boiled-down to a modular version of itself in order to be animated, since pre-computers it must be endlessly and easily reproducible by hand-drawing. This interests me very much, because (I suppose) it occurs to me that if 'the novel' does this with life, the 'children's novel' or 'YA novel' must do it a fortiori. The development of Pinocchio as a main character was largely a process of smoothing away the rougher edges until a final form was arrived at that pleased Walt. What he objected to about the early sketches was that they looked too much like a puppet.
But actually the best example of what I'm talking about is not Pinocchio, but Walt's own signature. You can see it evolving, moving towards a final form that combines a visually charming 'handwritten' individuality with the maximum power of machine-made reproducibility.
This is, really, one of the most perfect simulacra of the twentieth-century. It bears only a distant, genetic relationship to an actual handwritten signature, yet it more than supercedes it precedes the original. It 'is' Disney, his very hand guiding his very pen upon the page in his personal, individuated communication to each one of us. A personal, individual message that happens to have been sent simultaneously to another four billion people. The broader cultural codes of visual simplicity as against visual complexity may wax and wane around this fact (computing has made it much easier to do the latter, and so for a while that's what we got; but the advantages of a modular simplification, visually speaking, tend to win out in the longer run) this signature remains the same.
In some important way, we don't really want Pinocchio to become 'a real boy'. He's more fun, and certainly more iconic, as a magical object. The notional trajectory of this film is from reified thing to humanised person; but the larger logic not only of the film but of the 'Disney process' itself is, as the evolution of his signature shows, exactly the other way about.
Saturday, 30 November 2013
[Note: this is the first of a series of posts about the first five feature-length animated Disney films, 1937-42, written to help get my thoughts in order about the significance of Disney moviemaking as core 'children's literature' texts of the 20th-century. They are, accordingly, all rather unfinished, these posts: I'm groping my way towards conclusions without fretting too much about crossing all the conceptual 't's and dotting all the interpretive, er, lower-case 'j's. In writing them I also take it as axiomatic that these films are key 20th-century texts of 'childhood', and by and large avoid the more obvious Adorno-Horkheimer Culture-Industry critique of them. Not because such critique is irrelevant, mind. The Disney corporation has been extraordinarily and globally successful, commercially speaking, in large part because it has proved itself so adept at the reification and commodification of children's entertainment. But for the time being I am more interested in Disney as art, which it clearly is; and these films as a series of symbolicially rich and eloquent articulations of children's experience. Which they also are.]
Neal Gabler [Walt Disney: the Biography (Random House 2006)] suggests that Walt Disney had ‘deep-seated psychological reasons’ for choosing the ‘Snow White’ story as the subject for his—and the world’s—first feature-length animated cartoon.
Snow White had nearly all the narrative features—the tyrannical parent, the sentence of drudgery, the promise of a childhood utopia—and incorporated nearly all the major themes of his young life, primarily the need to conquer the previous generation to stake one’s claim on maturity, the rewards of hard work, the dangers of trust, and perhaps above all, the escape into fantasy as a remedy for inhospitable reality. Of course, this is only of interest insofar as Disney’s individual experience scales up to society as a whole. That the film was a success—more than a success, a phenomenal success, grossing $6.7 million in receipts by May 1939 and going on ‘to become the highest grossing American [and therefore world] film to that point, eventually surprassing the previous record-holder The Singing Fool with Al Jolson by $2 million’—this suggests that there’s something about the film that resonated with a larger audience. Gabler quotes Bettelheim (‘stories that tell about an aging parent who decides that the time has come to let the new generation take over; but before this can happen the successor must prove himself capable and worthy …’) which seems like an odd observation, both in itself, and in terms of its fit to the Wicked Queen in Snow White. But really, Gabler’s angle is biographical (he is writing a ‘biography’ after all):
Though some analysts would apply a Freudian interpretation ... and others imposed a cultural interpretation in which the film promoted Depression values of hard work and community, the cartoon would ultimately become a parable of Disney’s own young life. He was Snow White, threatened by parental jealousy and capricious power and forced into his own world, the world of animation …Ohhh kay.
There are several things we can say about Snow White; the question is whether those several things cohere into a single reading of the text. One thing is that the success of Disney’s ‘Snow White’ was more than just the fact that a great many people, worldwide, paid to see the movie at theatres—although, of course, a great many did. But $2 million worth of Snow White toys had been sold by the end of 1938; and another $2 million of ‘Snow White handkerchiefs’ (who knew handkerchiefs were so lucrative?). This is one of the four pillars of Disney’s success—merchandising—and it is striking that it was there from the beginning. Sidebar: what is the biggest grossing movie of all time? Avatar. I know that! It was a pub quiz answer I—not the right one. Oh, really? Was it Titanic, then? One of the Marvel films? Avengers: Assemble perhaps? No. No? Oh, wait, did you mean highest grossing adjusted for inflation? Gone With The Wind, then. Or the first Star Wars movie? No, again, no. Try again. Well then I don’t understand. Those films top the lists of box-office gross. Ah, but box office is only one way in which a film earns money. Add up the box-office take, DVD sales, franchise rights and—especially—toys and mechandise, and the highest grossing film of all time is …
Cars 2. Seriously.
Anyway, back on topic If ‘merchandising’ is one of the four pillars of Disney success, the others are: art; music and character. The visual component ('and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?) is clearly central, and I’ll come back to it in future posts. The music gets overlooked, in some studies of the Disney phenomenon: but it’s hard to think of songs from the 1930s and 1940s that have the presentday cultural currency as ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’, ‘Heigh-Ho’, ‘Whistle While You Work’ (or for that matter: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, ‘Hi Diddly Dee, An Actor’s Life for Me’, or—I could go on). ‘Character’ was something Disney, perhaps surprisingly, kept forgetting. Though audiences empathised with the rather drippy Snow White, and connected emotionally with her conflict with the Queen, the move scores especially in the individuation of the dwarves—the exaggerated yet relatable separate personalities of all seven which, together, somehow aggregate into a single gestalt. That, I’d argue, are where ‘we’ are; positioned as outsider observers by the very logic of cinema itself as the love-story plays through and the beautiful young girl and the handsome young prince pair off.
And that’s the thing that interests me the most about Snow White as a movie. The dwarfs, yes; but the dwarfs as the way the film interpellates masculinity. It is a version of the world symbolically predicated upon the diminishment of maleness. The Queen, wicked as she might be, rules; the core emotional dynamic is between (quasi)-mother and daughter. The film parses 'masculinity' as the threat of violence, of death—think of the huntsman, sent by the queen to knife Snow White to death—but only to unthread it.
Scary! But of course the huntsman can't follow-through. Look what happens to him in the crucial sequence:
He shrinks! He shrinks before our very eyes to dwarfish dimensions; unmanned, we might say, by his tender heart. The very next scene is Snow White fleeing through the forest and stumbling upon the dwarfs. And from that moment on, until the final scenes with the perfectly blank manikin figure of the handsome prince, it is the dwarfs who carry the ‘maleness’ of the movie. They are, clearly, men—not boys—but they are also childish in stature and in terms of their relationship to Snow White. Infatuated with her, yes: but her bed is not a place for them—the bedboard keeps them all neatly at bay, their variously grotesque penile noses the only things daring to reach past the line of demarcation.
What is all this saying about manhood? Well, we could read it a number of ways. Maybe the point is a subtle undermining of the patriarchal dominance of 1930s US society, but that's a hard case to make so that it sticks. After all, one central thrust of the movie is to establish a gendered division of labour. Snow White works hard, but works exclusively at domestic chores; demonstrating, indeed, her fitness for marriage by showing herself super-skilled at the housework. The dwarfs may be small, but they do manly work in a manly way: digging in the mines and so on. Indeed, they bring out so many and such colossal gemstones it's a bit puzzling they all have to share a small rural cottage: they could surely afford a mansion and many servants. But wondering why they don't do so is to open a hermeutic door we probably don't want to open. This land, wherever it is, clearly lacks almost all the infrastructure a functioning society would need. (See also Anne Bilson's excellent blog on the movie, including her livetweeting her viewing of the movie: 'If one of the dwarves is a Doc, how come he’s working down mines & not operating on people? What kind of Khmer Rouge regime is this anyway?')
The broader point is that, in Steven Watts' excellent The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (1997), 'Walt Disney operated not only as an entertainer but as a historical mediator … this role was unintentional but decisive. Disney entertainment projects were consistently nourished by connections to mainstream American culture—its aesthetics, political ideology, social structures, economic framework, moral principles—as it took shape from the late 1920s through to the later 1960s' [xx]. Perhaps we want to read the film's core shrinkage of maleness as an expression of cultural anxiety; or as a playful sense that 'we' no longer need to be the stuffy post-Victorian embodiments of maturity any more. Which is another way of talking about the encroaching infantilising of men. The dwarfs do seem to be having all sorts of playful, childlike fun. Meanwhile, the older woman is passing to the younger woman the Improbably Bright Scarlet Globe of Sexual Allure And Power ('As Used By Scarlet Women Everywhere!'), bypassing the male characters altogether.
WARNING! Improbably Bright Scarlet Globe of Sexual Allure And Power may cause temporary death. This is nothing to be worried about, and is in fact only 'la petite mort', from which you will awake refreshed and, in some cases, married.
Thursday, 28 November 2013
Post-Disney, ‘Peter Pan’ is a name rather tainted with ‘cuteness’ cooties, I suppose. And if we translate it into its root forms we get: ‘Rock Pagan’, which sounds like the name of the lead singer of an epically naff US Heavy Metal band. Something has gone awry. What happened to the Pan in Peter Pan?
There are three main Barrie versions of Peter Pan. In the first, he is as a seven-day-old half-bird, half-human creature flying around Kensington Gardens: this is in chapters 13–18 of Barrie’s adult novel The Little White Bird (1902; these chapters were excerpted and republished in 1906 as a standalone, with nice Arthur Rackham illustrations, under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens). Then there was the stage play, the celebrated and for many core representation: Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (first performed 27 Dec 1904, and a big hit). Finally there is the novelisation of that play, Peter Pan and Wendy (1911). I’d like to say something about the play, and maybe I’ll get around to that some day; but its copyright status is tricky (see here under this entry on ‘perpetual copyright’), and I’m going to stick with the novel for the time being.
The question, then, is 'why Peter Pan?'. And perhaps it is not that surprising that the Disney clean-cut young lad or the girl-actor-in-green-tights-and-tunic versions of ‘Peter Pan’ have overwritten older apperceptions of the god. The crucial thing about Peter is that he is a child; he is, indeed, always a child (moreover the only child who will never be troubled with puberty). Remind me of the famous opening line of Peter and Wendy? Oh, that's right: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ Pan, on the other hand, is the goat-cocked god of adult appetites such as drinking wine and hearty bestiality.
That’s a statue from the rectangular peristyle Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, and therefore pre-79.AD in provenance. But, golly, that’s an arresting image though, isn’t it? Not even Rock Pagan would get up to that, in a suite of the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile, no matter how much coke he'd snorted. Could anything be further from our sense of what ‘Peter Pan’ represents? Something odd is going on here.
One way to understand what that ‘something’ is would be to excavate the modern English resurgence of interest in Pan. This, it turns out, has two phases. First there is an 18th century revival of interest in Pan as a phallic god (probably non-coincidentally, 1757 was when that Herculaneum statue, above, was excavated). Richard Payne Knight published his Discourse on the Worship of Priapus in 1786. Knight explores a variety of fascinating highways and byways of the worship of Priapus, tracing its spectral presence in the Christian era (chapters include ‘Scotland, and its Phallic celebrations’; ‘Phallic figures on public buildings’; ‘Ireland, and its Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘Horseshoes nailed to stable doors, a remain of the Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘The ancient god Priapus becomes a saint in the Middle Ages’; ‘Robin Goodfellow’; ‘Easter, and hot-cross-buns’; ‘May-day festivities, and the May-pole’; ‘Bonfires’; ‘Lady Godiva, the Shrewsbury show, and the Guild festival at Preston’; ‘The Knights Templars’ … wait, what was that about hot cross buns?). But the main thing Knight does is trace all this back to Pan. Originally ‘worship of generative and nutritive, powers of the Deity’ focussed on animals, especially bulls. But:
The Greeks, as they advanced in the cultivation of the imitative arts, gradually changed the animal for the human form, preserving still the original character. The human head was at first added to the body of the bull; but afterwards the whole figure was made human, with some of the features, and general character of the animal, blended with it. Oftentimes, however, these mixed figures had a peculiar and proper meaning, like that of the Vatican Bronze; and were not intended as mere refinements of art. Such are the fawns and satyrs, who represent the emanations of the Creator, incarnate with man, acting as his angels and ministers in the work of universal generation. In copulation with the goat, they represent the reciprocal incarnation of man with the deity, when incorporated with universal matter: for the Deity, being both male and female, was both active and passive in procreation; first animating man by an emanation from his own essence, and then employing that emanation to reproduce, in conjunction with the common productive powers of nature, which are no other than his own prolific spirit transfused through matter. Not sure about that; but OK—Pan.
These mixed beings are derived from Pan, the principle of universal order; of whose personified image they partake. Pan is addressed in the Orphic Litanies as the first-begotten love, or creator incorporated in universal matter, and so forming the world. Lycæan Pan was the most ancient and revered God of the Arcadians, the most ancient people of GreeceThe Greek ‘Pan’ means, ‘all’, of course.
According to Plutarch, the Jupiter Ammon of the Africans was the same as the Pan of the Greeks. This explains the reason why the Macedonian kings assumed the horns of that god. The case is, that Pan, or Ammon, being the universe, and Jupitera title of the Supreme God (as will be shown hereafter),the horns, the emblems of his power, seemed the properest symbols of that supreme and universal dominion to which they all, as well as Alexander, had the ambition to aspire.See also: the horns on the brow of Moses. Now this is exactly the sort of thing we are today deeply uncomfortable associating with childhood, except that Knight’s Pan must be a ‘youth’, since he represents new life, the rebirth of the cosmos after the death of the year. Perhaps we are happiest thinking of this in more abstract terms, as ‘the piper at the gates of dawn’ rather than (to quote Knight one last time) ‘Pan pouring water upon the organ of generation; that is, invigorating the active creative power by the prolific element.’
I mention the Piper, there, for obvious reasons: Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. The novel postdates the first appearance of Barrie’s Peter Pan by a couple of years, but Grahame had been meditating upon ‘Pan’ long before his fellow Scot. Grahame’s first book, Pagan Papers (1893) includes this essay on ‘The Rural Pan’. Here are its opening three paragraphs:
Through shady Throgmorton Street and about the vale of Cheapside the restless Mercury is flitting, with furtive eye and voice a little hoarse from bidding in the market. Further west, down classic Piccadilly, moves the young Apollo, the lord of the unerring (satin) bow; and nothing meaner than a frock-coat shall in these latter years float round his perfect limbs. But remote in other haunts than these the rural Pan is hiding, and piping the low, sweet strain that reaches only the ears of a chosen few. And now that the year wearily turns and stretches herself before the perfect waking, the god emboldened begins to blow a clearer note.When these paragraphs are written Wind in the Willows is still a decade and a half away, but Dawngate scene is here in nascent form. The difference is one of whom occupies centre stage—in the earlier book, Pan; in the later book the mole and water-rat. The chapter ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (from which Pink Floyd took the title for their first album, thereafter rendering the phrase forever hippy, weed-scented and a bit naff) reinscribes the encounter:
When the waking comes at last, and Summer is abroad, these deities will abroad too, each as his several attributes move him. Who is this that flieth up the reaches of the Thames in steam-launch hired for the day? Mercury is out -- some dozen or fifteen strong. The flower-gemmed banks crumble and slide down under the wash of his rampant screw; his wake is marked by a line of lobster-claws, gold-necked bottles, and fragments of veal-pie. Resplendent in blazer, he may even be seen to embrace the slim-waisted nymph, haunter of green (room) shades, in the full gaze of the shocked and scandalised sun. Apollo meantime reposeth, passively beautiful, on the lawn of the Guards' Club at Maidenhead. Here, O Apollo, are haunts meet for thee. A deity subjectively inclined, he is neither objective nor, it must be said for him, at all objectionable, like them of Mercury.
Meanwhile, nor launches nor lawns tempt him that pursueth the rural Pan. In the hushed recesses of Hurley backwater where the canoe may be paddled almost under the tumbling comb of the weir, he is to be looked for; there the god pipes with freest abandonment. Or under the great shadow of Streatley Hill, "annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade''; or better yet, pushing an explorer's prow up the remote untravelled Thames, till Dorchester's stately roof broods over the quiet fields. In solitudes such as these Pan sits and dabbles, and all the air is full of the music of his piping. Southwards, again, on the pleasant Surrey downs there is shouting and jostling; dust that is drouthy and language that is sultry. Thither comes the young Apollo, calmly confident as ever; and he meeteth certain Mercuries of the baser sort, who do him obeisance, call him captain and lord, and then proceed to skin him from head to foot as thoroughly as the god himself flayed Marsyas in days of yore, at a certain Spring Meeting in Phrygia: a good instance of Time's revenges. And yet Apollo returns to town and swears he has had a grand day. He does so every year. Out of hearing of all the clamour, the rural Pan may be found stretched on Ranmore Common, loitering under Abinger pines, or prone by the secluded stream of the sinuous Mole, abounding in friendly greetings for his foster-brothers the dab-chick and water-rat.
"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me," whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. "Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!"This is a vision of Nature as the vehicle of the Numinous from which all specifically phallic reference has been carefully removed (though I do wonder about the artfully positioned vine in that Paul Bransom illustration, there: the frontispiece to the 1913 edition, no less). Grahame's is the inheritor of Knight’s ‘pantheist’ Pan, but there’s nothing mischievous about him; nothing playful, lustful, goatish (there's nothing mischievous, either, about Machen's monstrous 'Great God Pan' (1890), although there's plenty that's shudderworthy, not to say horrible and misogynistic). We might wonder why Ransome's figure is half-goat at all. (In a related datum: Rock Pagan, we all know, played woodwind, uncredited, on Pink Floyd’s first album).
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
"Rat!" he found breath to whisper, shaking. "Are you afraid?"
"Afraid?" murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. "Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!"
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.
[Addendum: students in seminar discussion raised two interesting related facts. One, that the first Narnian encountered by any of the children in Lewis's could-hardly-be-more-Christian Lion/Witch/Wardrobe is the Pan-ish faun, Mr Tumnus; who beguiles Lucy back to his home where he drugs her with tea. Very odd. Two, that Lyra's demon in Dark Materials is called 'Pan'. A series of books about, in the final analysis, killing God.]
I’m not sure this brings us any nearer to an answer to the ‘why Peter Pan?’ question. I’ve gone on too long (and not for the first time), so I’ll wrap up with two related points. One has to do with Captain Hook—played on the stage, according to the venerable tradition inaugurated by Barrie himself, by the same actor who plays Wendy’s father. I leave the ‘Oedipal reading’ as an exercise for the reader. Instead I want to suggest a different interpretation of this figure: with his splendid hat, and his hook-for-a-right-hand, and his inexhaustible energy and vigour that is, somehow, intimately tied to the being-in-the-world of Pan himself. Here’s Richard Payne Knight one last time:
We find on the medals of Melita [a representation of Priapus] who seems by his attitude to be brooding over something. On his head is the cap of liberty, whilst in his right hand he holds the hook or attractor, and in his left the winnow or separator, so that he probably represents Ἐρως, or generative spirit brooding over matter.Maybe Hook is a type of Ἐρως, though Barrie also positions him as a malign anti-Priapus, existing in a poised opposition to the pro-Priapus of Peter himself.
But there’s something more directly relevant, I think. The thing about Pan is that he’s the only god to have died in our time. Gods don’t die; that’s what ‘immortal’ (a synonym for ‘god’) means—indeed, that’s pretty much all it means in the Greek and Roman pantheons, where gods are otherwise exactly as petty and moody and selfish as the worst of humanity. So what happened with Pan? Plutarch’s De defectu oraculorum (c. AD 100) relates how a sailor voyaging to Italy at some point during the time of the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37), and passing the island of Paxi, heard a voice booming across the water: ‘Thamus, art thou there? When you reach Palodes be sure to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.’ Thamus did so, and the news was greeted from shore with groans and laments.
In Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, the cry ‘Great Pan is dead’ becomes an ecstatic celebration of the Christian succession to diabolic Paganism. But one thing Barrie’s Peter Pan clearly isn’t, is an ecstatic celebration of Christianity. It is, however, a famous expression of the tendency of the young to laugh in the face of personal extinction. To die, Pan declares gloriously, would be an awfully big adventure.
"Pan, who and what art thou?" [Hook] cried huskily.In the movie adaptations, Hook doesn’t share his existential bravery—a ludicrous gibbering coward in the Disney film, a desperate old man in the rather good 2003 movie http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Pan_(2003_film) (‘old, alone, done-for!’). He’s not like that in the original story; on the contrary, he meets death bravely and with honour (the only thing that scares him, were told, is the sight of his own blood, which is ‘an unusual colour’). In his final battle with Pan, he actually undergoes a kind of symbolic rejuvenation, returning to his days as an Eton schoolboy—and doing so, as it were, ‘fittingly’:
"I'm youth, I'm joy," Peter answered at a venture,
Hook was fighting now without hope. That passionate breast no longer asked for life; but for one boon it craved: to see Peter show bad form before it was cold forever.Stop a bit: go back to the novel’s opening sentence. ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ That’s not true though, is it? Or to be more precise: it’s true only from the perspective of adulthood. A roomful of adults can say to one another, ‘well, we all grew up, didn’t we? That was an inevitable part of our life.’ But that’s not the way the matter presents to children themselves; and surely its children whose perspective should predominate in a case such as this? Not all children grow up. Barrie knew this better than most.
… What sort of form was Hook himself showing? Misguided man though he was, we may be glad, without sympathising with him, that in the end he was true to the traditions of his race. The other boys were flying around him now, flouting, scornful; and he staggered about the deck striking up at them impotently, his mind was no longer with them; it was slouching in the playing fields of long ago, or being sent up [to the headmaster] for good, or watching the wall-game from a famous wall. And his shoes were right, and his waistcoat was right, and his tie was right, and his socks were right.
James Hook, thou not wholly unheroic figure, farewell.
For we have come to his last moment.
Seeing Peter slowly advancing upon him through the air with dagger poised, he sprang upon the bulwarks to cast himself into the sea. He did not know that the crocodile was waiting for him; for we purposely stopped the clock that this knowledge might be spared him: a little mark of respect from us at the end.
He had one last triumph, which I think we need not grudge him. As he stood on the bulwark looking over his shoulder at Peter gliding through the air, he invited him with a gesture to use his foot. It made Peter kick instead of stab.
At last Hook had got the boon for which he craved
"Bad form," he cried jeeringly, and went content to the crocodile.
Thus perished James Hook.
When he was 6 years old, Barrie's next-older brother David (his mother's favourite) died two days before his 14th birthday in an ice-skating accident. This left his mother devastated, and Barrie tried to fill David's place in his mother's attentions, even wearing David's clothes and whistling in the manner that he did. One time Barrie entered her room, and heard her say "Is that you?" "I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to", wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), "and I said in a little lonely voice, 'No, it's no' him, it's just me.'" Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. [Andrew Birkin, J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys (Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2004)]Everybody knows that the closest thing we have to an ‘Alice Liddell’ original for Peter Pan, George Davies, died in the Trenches barely out of his teens. Everybody knows that Barrie had no children of his own; that his own marriage was almost certainly unconsummated. But more relevant, I think, than biographical data, is the larger context. One thing reading into the 18th and 19th-century grounds of Childrens’ Literature does for you is reveal how intertwined it is with death. Eric, or Little By Little. Alice. The Water Babies. It’s the Psychic Death Klaxon. It has to do with the way this mode of literature was born out of an age when children died as a matter of course. At the moment I’m torn between different interpretations of this persistent feature of the mode. Is it that children are involved dialectically in death because they are new life? Or is it that having children entails confronting your own mortality—because howevermuch you love you kids and however earnestly you pray that you predecease them (how horrific it would be to outlive your own children!) nonetheless it is an absolutely central part of raising children that they will be loving and laughing and drinking wine in the sunshine when you yourself are cold and dead in the ground—that this, in a core sense, is the whole point of having children. Not a terribly comforting thought, no matter how awfully big the promised adventure may be. Rock Pagan's new solo album is about precisely this, as a matter of fact.