Monday, 19 November 2012

Disney Daemonized – Part Two of Two

Disney’s second animated feature, Pinocchio, would lamely attempt to reconfigure Snow White’s Queen positively, in the character of the Blue Fairy. That the experiment was a failure can be gauged by the very different fairy godmothers we would later see in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty – more matronly specimens of dotty grandmothers or eccentric aunts. The similarities between Snow White and Pinocchio, however, end there. Whereas in Snow White, the Queen’s death is obviously just there for form’s sake, the first thing one notices about Pinocchio is how it goes through four sets of quite scary villains, none of whom are punished in the slightest for their deeds. The incomparably-named “J. Worthington Foulfellow,” and his buffoonish assistant Gideon, make some money selling Pinocchio to Stromboli, and then some more selling him again to the Coachman, and that’s the end of it. Stromboli of course loses considerable earning prospects when Pinocchio escapes, but his business will presumably continue successfully enough otherwise. We see the Coachman’s slave trade in donkey-boys have a successful day, although Pleasure Island must represent a pretty considerable overhead. And apart from presumably bruising his snout smashing into the cliff-face, Monstro remains free to terrorize the oceans for years to come.

The world, Pinocchio seems to be saying, is filled with terrors and dangers for little boys, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about them, even if you’re determined to behave well. You’ll probably just get shanghaied or kidnapped anyway, to be sold off to be worked to death and then gruesomely mutilated. This is a message you wouldn’t see Disney spinning in today’s PC-positive-obsessed society, and they probably only keep Pinocchio in release because they’re confident most people won’t see it in these terms. The preferred reading however – about “always let your conscience be your guide” – is so childish as to be impossible to take seriously, particularly in light of how it all really boils down to the bad old ethos of “don’t touch yourself.” The business about “give a little whistle” when you feel your will start to slide essentially means to give your penis a good whack or douse it in cold water. And if, on the other hand, you give yourself over to immorality, then you will be shamefully and visibly marked out when your appendage sprouts into prominent, wooden visibility.

In light of all this, the Pleasure Island sequence is a bit of a red herring, but still interesting inasmuch as we find out that, when loosed from this repressiveness, Pinocchio is actually a pretty resilient party animal. From what we see, it appears that all the other boys have drank, smoked, and brawled themselves into complete exhaustion, but Pinocchio and Lampwick are still up and at it. Lampwick, incidentally, is a new milestone for Disney. In the non-Queen sections of Snow White, and in Pinocchio thus far, all the characters have been basically pantomimes. The thinking was apparently that in animation, one wants to get the maximum interest and screen time out of every movement, and so one sees the dwarfs and Cleo, Figaro, Jiminy, et. al. taking exaggerated amounts of time and effort to get from point A to point B, and having broadly comic difficulties articulating any point of dialogue. Lampwick, however, breaks with all this and becomes the first Disney character to be tersely forthright in a distinctively American idiom. One wonders if Disney had seen Dead End and realized how much further he could go with animation. Lampwick’s joyously vulgar American common sense also serves to highlight the degree to which Disney was working in a very un-American tradition of European folklore and fairy tales. Jiminy Cricket made sense on his own terms hitherto, but no sooner does Lampwick say “you take orders from a beetle?” than we start to wonder why. It shows just how unprecedented Snow White really was that it managed to be so un-self-conscious about its fairy tale European setting, and how it only took one more film for some self-consciousness to set in on Disney's part.

Finally, one of the most famous images from Pinocchio is the scene where he is about to head off for his first day of school, all chipper, upbeat optimism – and to demonstrate the fact visually, he turns his body abound 360º below his neck, without his head moving an inch. For modern viewers, the image will immediately evoke memories of the demonically-possessed Regan in The Exorcist, and perhaps produce instinctive mewling about how things were so much more innocent back then, before all this diabolical perversity we have to live with nowadays. This, I submit, is totally to mistake the line of evolution. What Pinocchio really shows is how much of the daemonic was in Disney at its very first, and how much the infantile “positive/therapeutic/wholesome/reassuring” patina that’s been spread over Disney since has obscured the fact. This disconnect would become even more pronounced with Disney’s next film, Dumbo.

Dumbo is chiefly remarkable as an illustration of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s notion that all authentic fairy tales are, at heart, horror stories which have been strategically diluted to the point of providing a memorable frisson to very young children. One’s most immediately vivid memory of the film is likely to be that yes, clowns are indeed very scary (see picture at left). Only in an obnoxiously sanitized American circus are they supposed to be funny in a cute and harmless way – in the sort of Old World manifestation Disney offers here, they channel our gallows humour about how gruesome and turbulent life is.

The list of shudder-inducing images accumulates from there: the elephants being used as slave labour to erect the big top in a cruelly driving storm; the way the children are all feral little monsters tormenting Dumbo’s mother; Dumbo’s drunken hallucinations after mistakenly sampling the clown’s moonshine; and so on and so forth. Like Pinocchio, this is another of those films whose reputation as sweet family fare survives only because adult refuse to actually see the film on visceral level, as opposed to simply watching it on a narrative level. Indeed Dumbo is particularly cunning in this regard, as it opens with the most sanctimoniously wholesome business possible: all the cute little baby animals being immaculately dropped down before their mommies by the storks. Surely a film which has begun on this note can’t go on to contain anything nightmarish?

Stripped down to its most basic level, the conclusion of Dumbo is actually quite uplifting in its horror-story way. Dumbo’s eventual vindication and acceptance comes not because his supposed monstrosity has somehow been healed (like Pinocchio’s woodenness), or because he’s somehow redeemed himself in the eyes of the community by performing some great deed, but because he finally embraces the monstrosity of his huge ears, and learns to fully draw upon their power. The ensuing spectacle simply overawes people, and earns him fame and fortune as a world-beating freak, where he had only been shunned and abused as a marginal freak. This is a truly daemonic and amoral universe, so unlike the facilely therapeutic messages that the corporatized Disney of later years would churn out. To get some contemporary equivalent, you’d have to rewrite Tangled to have Rapunzel set herself up as a tyrant queen, and use her magic hair to deal out immortality in exchange for fealty.

For anybody harboring lingering illusions about Disney’s old “innocence” – of the sort that would lead them to take Dumbo’s storks seriously – Bambi provides an open and shut case that they are deluding themselves. It is quite simply one of, if not the most, sensual films ever produced by Hollywood in the era of the Production Code. All the slinkiness and thinly-veiled aura of sex that one sees in The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” sequence can be traced back to Bambi, which demonstrates again the way that people view these older Disney films through a different set of critical eyes. They are “historical classics” – with all the irrelevance and lack of visceral immediacy which that fusty phrase implies – rather than living texts to which you react the same way you would a newly-released film. Thus, when one sees a rival buck backing Faline behind a hedge, and Bambi bounding in to see him off, and the two of them fighting fiercely, and Bambi and Faline then sleekly promenading through the forest, and then vanishing into a glen, and one cut later lying asleep beside each other on a bed of soft grass, one knows it doesn’t mean anything – it’s simply an arbitrary accumulation of shots – because this is a “historical classic,” by Disney no less.

The emphasis on the reproductive function of sex is strikingly frank in Bambi, and would be reproduced absolutely verbatim in The Lion King fifty-two years later. The film opens with the birth of the male protagonist, with the father looking so proud and the mother so sensate and physical that one knows there were no storks involved here. Likewise, the film ends with the male protagonist having reached sexual maturity himself, having switched roles from newborn to father, and now witnessing the birth of his own offspring. In-between-times, thus, the narrative function of the rivalry-and-courtship sequence becomes clear – simply to propagate the species by doing what their affection-instincts tell them to. This is a remarkably earthy tone to strike, naturalizing the physical side of sex at the complete expense of any “higher” spiritualizations of love, and getting right to one of Christianity’s perpetual problems – the way that Nature constantly makes nonsense of the notion of original sin. Reading As You Like It, my favourite part was when in Act III, Scene 2, Touchstone tells the shepherd Corin that he is surely damned because he brings “the ewes and the rams together,” and essentially gets his living as a pimp through “the copulation of cattle.” This is Shakespeare posing an impishly devious paradox for his religious audience, since Touchstone seems to have logic on his side, but basic common sense tells us that what he’s saying is ridiculous. Seeing animals go at right out in the open with no embarrassment can presumably be an awkward experience even for people who may think of themselves as open-minded and liberated. We still have the human traits of self-consciousness and foresight, and religion has long been expert at exploiting those to make us feel uncomfortable about our bodies and sex. 

With Bambi, however, Walt Disney is using his new medium of realist feature animation to put us into a completely different mindset, where the mating urge is totally naturalized – all just part of the circle of life. This makes the Christian Right’s attempt to treat the old Disney films as artefacts of a sort of pre-lapsarian innocence – as opposed to the more cynically knowing tone that came to characterize the company after Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells took over – particularly idiotic. It is precisely the ultra-knowingness of the Eisners and Katzenbergs of the world that prevented The Lion King from achieving Bambi's graceful lack of self-consciousness in this regard. Sure the famous “look” from Nala is totally unmistakable, but it comes at the price of any more sustained narrative. Bambi’s mature courtship of Faline stands in opposition to his aversion towards her as a fawn. In a scene that rings agonizingly true for any male who remembers their childhood, we see how the two are first introduced by their mothers, who take a sort of a sort of passively sadistic delight in Bambi’s fumbling uncertainties in the face of a girl. He only finds his confidence at the sight of a troop of virile young stags bounding into the meadow, which immediately makes him want to show off his masculinity in the most crudely boyish way – challenging Faline to fight. The two have nothing in common, and Bambi despises being outmatched three-to-one. This scene makes me suspect that the famously heartbreaking moment of Bambi’s mother’s death has a much more vengeful dimension to it that is generally appreciated. Once it has happened, however, we next see Bambi at the age of sexual maturity, and all uncertainty about Faline’s purpose has vanished. The courtship begins with no pretence at developing her as a character.

The Lion King can do none of this. The childhood uncertainty has been rewritten to make Simba and Nala best friends, in a childishly spunky way, so that their eventual mating is less brazenly biological. Likewise, the birth of their cub at the end comes only after the entire stretch of the third act has blunted the cause/effect relation to the courtship sequence. Furthermore, the totally patriarchal tone of Bambi’s sexual economy would no longer wash by the 1990s, so some effort had to be expended on making Nala into a real character, however vaguely defined. Her best moment is her introduction, where she has the most vividly realistic and animalistic moment of any character in the film, chasing down Pumbaa with a ferocious hunting face devoid of the prettified anthropomorphism that would return only moments later.

This ability to immerse oneself in the sensual, physical aspect of nature, with no moralizing denial, existed more fully in Disney’s earliest feature films than its resurgent ones of recent decades. It would reach its absolute zenith in the one film I have neglected from these two posts, simply because I can’t do it justice: the work of genius that was Fantasia. In the “Rite of Spring” sequence, unlike The Lion King, the hunt is allowed to succeed, and the likable duffer of a stegosaurus gets mauled and killed by the tyrannosaurus. It’s an astonishing instance of the rhythm and implications of art overriding facile concerns of what’s appropriate to show children, and the contrast with Disney’s 2000 feature Dinosaur shows just how far from that peak of maturity things have slid.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent insightful points you're making here. Today's viewers do seem to watch the early Disney films without actually seeing them. 'Pinocchio' especially, which is so full of the eastern European experience, and such a brutally accurate 'fairytale' about how life was for young children before the advent of labour reform, child protection laws, etc. A Ukrainian child in 1940 (if you could find any left alive at that point) would probably see the film as almost realist in its applicability to their lived experience. Not a pacifying bedtime tale, but a throbbing, kaleidiscopic nightmare. The reference to Bettleheim is spot-on, and I think it applies to all the early Disney films you mention.

    I specifically remember being shown the 'extinction of the dinosaurs' sequence of Fantasia in my third grade music class, and finding it almost too horrible to bear. I walked around tormented over the Stegasauras's death for days, and haunted by the idea that, even as the world fell around them, these creatures fought to their death. It was not a reassuring, comforting concept. But hey, this was the same class in which our teacher played us 'Night on Bald Mountain' (also featured in Fantasia) while projecting slides of paintings by Bosch, Brueghel, and Goya. "Saturn Devouring His Son" is a hell of an image to show to a 10-year-old. Ah, those renegade teachers of the 1970's, so fun to learn from, so conspiratorial! I don't think any of them survived the age of the gated community and the SUV baby stroller.