Sunday, 16 September 2012

Disney Daemonized – Part One of Two

When examining the history of Disney animation, one of the most significant facts is that there’s an interregnum of fully eight years between the studio’s first four feature-length films – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi – and all the others that followed, right up to the present day. That would be significant enough in itself, but when one remembers that the first group of films represented the very first feature-length animations that most moviegoers had seen, this makes them a truly incomparable island in the history of cinema.

The reason for the halt after Bambi was, of course, World War II. With much of the world market suddenly in doubt, and materials and labour now at a greater premium, the phenomenally capital-intensive production of full-length animated features was simply not tenable any more. For the next several years, Disney essentially turned the clock back to his pre-Snow White years, and the studio got by producing cartoon shorts. Many of these were for wartime propaganda purposes (remember Donald Duck’s song “The Fuhrer’s Face”?); others were assembled into feature-length revue films such as Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad; and still others reflected Disney’s contribution to the U.S. propaganda drive of the “Good Neighbour Policy,” attempting to cultivate better relations with Latin America – the rest of the only continent currently safe from German and Japanese imperialism.

When Disney finally did release its first post-war feature film, Cinderella, moreover, the cultural landscape had changed profoundly. The supposed innocence and populism of the earlier films wouldn’t quite fly in a nation that was now adjusting to a position of global superpower as opposed to isolationist industrial/economic power, and a society that was now enjoying a post-war boom rather suffering through the pre-war Depression. Accordingly, Cinderella, as well as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty after it, all feel somewhat more slickly professional and by-the-numbers. As brilliant as these films of course are, there isn’t quite the same sense of infectious joy in inventing the wheel – that anything and everything is possible and every new scene is something genuinely unprecedented. Accordingly, there seems far greater interpretive freedom with those first four films, and a lot more to interpret given that, the in the flush of first creativity, Disney and his artists ended up saying a lot more than they seemed to. What follows are just a few of the observations I made when I recently tried revisiting these four films with this mentality.

My organizing term must not be confused with “demonized,” with all its absolutist Judeo-Christian associations of sin, damnation, wickedness, temptation, etc. “Daemonized” draws upon the Ancient Greek and Roman concept of the daemon – a spirit being who is not a pawn in some grandiose celestial binary between simplistic “Good” and “Evil,” but who is distinguished by the sharp delineation of individuality and the self. The daemon is a self-contained entity, knowingly and appraisingly observing and engaging the world, rather than totally at one with the world and creation. “The daemonic” ideal is of individual genius and creative potential, rather than virtue through sublimation to an overarching cosmogony. The daemonic is thus profoundly amoral, and lends itself readily to Decadence. Obviating any hysterical raptures towards the “the Good,” or equally hysterical condemnations of “the Evil,” it coolly recognizes that both co-exist within the human individual, and no mature sense of self is possible without a synthesis of them. As Rilke once said: “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.” The childish insistence upon absolute good or evil is only possible when one has abandoned exactly the sense of mature individual continence and complexity that daemonism is defined by. This might sound like the last mentality that could be profitably applied to the earliest films of Walt Disney Studios, but in my next two blog posts, that is exactly what I intend to do…

When viewing Snow White today, viewers may find its overall narrative arc childishly naïve. There’s the obvious temptation to ask “well, what then?” after Snow White is revived by her Handsome Prince, set upon the back of his horse, and escorted off to his castle to live “Happily Ever After.” A bit over-simplified, isn’t it? What happens after the initial rush of euphoria wears off and the day-to-day reality of married life sets in?

After viewing it again, however, this question no longer arises for me. The answer seems totally self-evident: Snow White will of course develop into the Evil Queen all over again. She cannot help it. They are organically successive stages of the same organism, just as a caterpillar cannot help pupating into a butterfly. It’s an ironclad law of human culture that Romanticism always mutates into Decadence – that every Wordsworth always lays the ground for a Swinburne, a Wilde, a Dante Rossetti. The innocent dreaminess that sees one wish to pick flowers and commune with the cute animals cannot be sustained forever without going stale, and will eventually mutate into the imperious domineeringness that will demand rigorous aesthetic perfection of one’s entire environment. Once Snow White is ensconced as a princess again, presumably to become a Queen in the fullness of time, her chief occupation will of course be to consolidate and defend her “happily ever after” – to let nothing whatsoever disturb the utopian plateau her life has attained. Thus, any unromantic or unhappy discordant notes must be suppressed with all necessary force. This might of course take the form of charity and kindness at first, but that can’t last forever. And of course it’s essential that the prince’s eye must never stray, so maintaining the position as Fairest in the Land which she usurped from the last Queen will be absolutely imperative, and will necessitate making her own reassuring trips to the Magic Mirror….

All this to say, I now find the Queen’s demise at the end of Snow White less offensive and unjust than I used to. The film’s misogynistic moralizing is too transparent to really take seriously, and it especially gives the game away by never having Snow White share a scene with the Queen when she’s in her imperiously beautiful true form. Obviously the sheer gulf in intensity and charisma between them would put Snow White at an unacceptable disadvantage. In her true form, the Queen only takes up a small minority of the film’s running time, but it’s so disproportionately memorable that it feels like far more. The sheer arch, hierarchical, will power that she exudes is the backbone of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ lasting artistic reputation. Efface her, and leave the film entirely to the childishness of its eight titular characters, and it would probably have been forgotten by 1938. As it was, I strongly suspect that, twenty-two years later in Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is in fact Snow White all grown up into the Queen she was destined to become. 

This sort of dramaturgy set the template that Disney was to follow for another seventy years or so where the heroes are expected to be bumptious and unsophisticated, albeit with a certain humorous charm to them, and the heroines were expected to be totally simpering and obedient, forever in need of being led or rescued. Against this supposedly positive "norm," we are given villains – both male and female who are the epitome of elegance, power, and sophistication; always knowing exactly how things stand, always ready with a quip and a witticism about it, and able to intelligently act upon it for their own ends. Thus, we are supposed to hissingly abominate them as evil. It's inconceivable that the adults who were making these films really believed this sort of thing themselves, or expected their target child audience to take it totally at face value. The sheer gulf in cool agency and articulacy between the supposed "good" and "evil" is just too great, and Snow White seems to implicitly acknowledge this in a way that its later successors did not. As for its immediate successors, however, my next post will get to that very soon...

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