Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Legends Are People

"You know what I really hate? I hate books that make my father out to be a plaster saint." - Diane Disney Miller to Neal Gabler

This weekend Ward Kimball's short film Escalation was released on YouTube. It is not for children. It portrays first a crippled dove of peace, followed by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson appearing as a hilarious caricature on a wheeled platform with a nose which grows longer and longer, eventually resembles an erect penis, and reaches orgasm at the climax of a recital of The Battle Hymn of the Republic in a frenzy of nuclear destruction and rapid montage. As the only short film produced independently by a major Disney studio talent, its' release is a cause for celebration, as well as contemplation.

Is it not rather difficult not to make a plaster saint of anybody whose work you study? Ward Kimball, Marc Davis, Claude Coates, and especially "Uncle Walt" - while Disney fans understandably place an emphasis on Disney product, it is perhaps only in short snatches and bits that we can jar loose from, say, The Three Caballeros, the true contribution of Claude Coates. There are sometimes rich veins to mine - the entire Mary Blair and Ward Kimball segments of that same film, for example - these are few and far between. For example, I spent years speculating on Marc Davis' exact contribution to The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad, finally deciding that he probably had a hand in Mac Badger and Ichabod Crane's girlfriend Katrina, based primarily on Katrina Van Tassel's movements and the striking similarities between her and the "tightrope girl" expanding portrait in The Haunted Mansion. Turns out he actually did the weasels. Damn.

Patterns of influence: Four Marc Davis pieces, from left to right: "The Spirit's House", Jungle Cruise Tikis, "Spirit House", Jungle Cruise native village finished show scene. (Click for larger) Below: "Sitting Pretty", Marc Davis.

Ward Kimball's film has everything "not Disney" - pornography, violent editing which calls attention to itself, a political agenda, minimal and intentionally fake animation - you name it. It's also as endearingly Ward Kimball to me as the Aracuan bird. I feel the same way about Marc Davis' fine art, his love of native cultures, and of women. They form a continuity of expression which makes the person behind the legend more real and more tangible, more understandable.

Walt Disney himself is even more difficult to distance oneself from, given his charming of the American public on television screens across America between 1954 and 1966. "Uncle Walt" is charming, endearing, and harmless. Walt Disney was conservative, conflicted, ran his studio with a very tight grip and smoked up a storm. On episodes of Disneyland there are sometimes flirtatious passes between Disney and young studio assistants which look uncomfortably like the real thing. He also approved of tour guide costumes for Disneyland hostesses which look remarkably like kinky jockey costumes, complete with a pony play riding crop. This doesn't make him any less loveable or admirable - it makes him human.

And as an author writing about the Disney Company, I am always conflicted as to how to refer to Walt Disney. It's best and easiest to give him his full name to avoid confusion. I try to avoid "Walt". It's what the fan community calls him but it's always been rather difficult for me to endorse that affectionate term - the man has been dead for 40 years now and "Walt" only seems, to me, to be half of "Walt Disney", after all. Or, alternatley, we can choose just "Disney", a more comfortable term to me. It's a gesture of respect for the stature and accomplishments of the man - like DeMille or Eisenstein - but "Disney" is, in our cynical society, something of a dirty word because "Disney" is often confused with "The Disney Company", which we oughtn't to do.

Sick of this yet?

I'd like to, then, wrapping up and taking a line from the classic line of Goofy shorts, remind everyone today that Legends Are People - the good with the bad, the brilliant with the mundane. And while we're being certain to carefully address Walt as Disney and not fashion plaster saints, for a while at least, let's also remember the remarkable and complex people - just like you and me - who dreamed wonderful dreams and made them real. Or: if you have any good sources or stories for Disney artists' work outside Disney, please share the love.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for the heads-up on Escalation, I've been wanting to see that ever since I read Steven Watts' book on "Walt"/"Disney." And no, I didn't get sick of parsing those distinctions ;) This is an interesting train of thought which perhaps you could expand on next time.