Thursday, December 20, 2007

Disney's New Spectatorship: Introduction

A good (or at least traditional) starting place when approaching the Disney animated feature films is to begin by classifying the different periods. After all, isn't it easier to compare the relative triumphs of different films if they're all nicely sorted into little bundles? The problem is that, especially when Walt was really monitoring the animation output of the studio, this isn't so easy. The pair of Snow White and Pinocchio are aesthetically matched through the watercolor designs of Gustaf Tenggren and their modernistic adaptations of European mythical antiquity. Cinderella through Lady and the Tramp could be called "reclaiming lost ground", moving into an increasingly realistic, pared down aesthetic. Then we enter the Wolfgang Reitherman / XEROX period from 101 Dalmatians through The Rescuers, etc.

These are rarely clean breaks, with the highly stylized and effective Sleeping Beauty perched right between the stylistically quite inert early 50's period and the increasingly lazy XEROX period. Then, of course, there is Fantasia, belonging more to the 1943 - 1949 "Compilation Period" but separated from that chunk of Disney history by the quite aesthetically diverse Dumbo and Bambi.

I don't claim to be an expert on those films or much of the animation output by Disney, but one period does strike my fancy: the 1943 - 1946 Compilation Period, comprising two compact miniature movements: the Latin America films and the Post-Fantasias. There are also two double feature films, Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, each comprising two 30-odd minute short films. These films are remarkable for doing all that Disney wouldn't allow his animation department to do following Snow White: being manic, chaotic, aesthetically innovative, sexual, vibrant and sometimes really really funny. I'll take a dozen Saludos Amigos over any one Peter Pan.

What makes these films so remarkable is that they don't shy away from being cartoons: while Disney was intentionally trying to hedge animation away from the thing it's best at (not representing reality) into an area more like moving fine art, receipts just weren't paying off and eventually, the studio was about to collapse after numerous debacles like Fantasia. Then the military took over the studio and, seemingly while Walt Disney was off somewhere worrying about strikes and such, what was left of the animation department quietly began to turn out some really unusual material.

What is amazing about these films is that they use animation is a very aggressive way to inform even the traditional cutting continuity of the Hollywood style they're based on. Animation has always been perched on a strange precipice, where things are obviously phony but always reaching towards realism; it is the current conundrum of CGI animation today. The people who best exploited the "fake realism" animation offers was the Fleisher Brothers Studios. When they rotoscoped over Cab Calloway for their brilliant short Minnie the Moocher, they first showed you a long unedited take of Cab and his band performing the song before the cartoon even started, forcing you to recognize that when Cab Calloway appears in the cartoon later as a ghost walrus, that his movements have indeed been traced over, and that he is furthermore not a character in the diagesis of the story but just Cab Calloway as a ghost walrus.

In another Fleisher short, I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You, performed by Louis Armstrong, the Armstrong band is established playing at the start of the short as in Minnie the Moocher, but are later revealed to be playing behind the movie screen in the theater when the on-screen cartoon disrupts the screen and it rolls up like a windowshade.

These kinds of very aggressive filmic choices, along with those made in the Disney package films and in a certain limited number of live action films, create a new kind of spectatorship. No longer is the illusion of a world existing on screen maintained, but repeatedly and aggressively we are exposed to stylistic and conceptual intrusions which alienate the viewer from the film in a way which forces them to accept the film as not a narrative, but a series of choices performed by a conscious craftsperson for their benefit.

The stylistic mode of Hollywood which evolved more or less accidentally is no more intrinsically valid than any other cinematic mode of representation; it's just the one whose compositions, patterns, and basic structures took power and held power. Much like any other language, literal or figurative, viewers are exposed to one way of doing or saying things until only that mode is truly comprehensible. In film studies we thus call the Hollywood-Griffith-Porter school of cutting continuity the Institutionalized Mode of Representation. Filmmaker Peter Watkins, who brilliantly used the style of news reports and news reels to fictionalize the nuclear attack on Great Britain in The War Game, takes the phrase one step further and calls in the "IMR" the Monoform, to make transparent the stifling artistic sameness of much of our modern media.

Although it's pretty hard to make the converse argument that the Disney films (or any film created with mass appeal in mind) are honestly, diametrically opposed avant-garde experiences, I think a middle ground does exist, where the viewer is allowed the narrative-style pleasure experience as well as a conscious artist, "New Spectatorship" kind of experience. Micheal Powell, who directed some of the best of the authentically artistic narrative films, called this the "Composed Film", specifically referring to his aesthetically dazzling The Tales of Hoffman, which does everything you can do in films in one two hour film opera. This idea of the "Composed Film", of a film where the audience is made aware of choices made by a filmmaker through very brauvera movements and moments, might be identified as the alternative to the "Imposed Film" - the Hollywood style where all distractions are minimized.

Moreover, if we subscribe to this idea of a composed film we can drag in a surprisingly diverse number of sources - Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, F. W. Murnau, Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and countless others have sought this "Composed Film" aesthetic to very different ends throughout film history. Many have expressed their admiration for the efforts of Walt Disney, maker of the most extreme "Composed Films" in history, where every moment must, by definition, be a choice. This legacy is apparent from Reinhardt's Midsummer being a conceptual predecessor to Fantasia and through to Powell and Pressburger's Hoffman being a clear continuation of its' ideas.

This "Composed Film" is most acceptable to a mainstream movie audience in small doses, mainly short films where such ideas can be expressed in moments of singularity. And the Disney package film are composed entirely of short films, usually focused on a singularity of purpose. Rather than being based on question of narrative resolution, they are structured on things like color, meter, music, or rhythm. The narrative is usually of little importance and is, in fact, something of a non-diagetic component in the larger film.


Next Week: Melody Time


Unknown said...


Once again--great post.

The history and development of a new style of fimmaking/animation makes for a fascinating article.

I've never consciously seen those elements as anything more than just being funny. I remember seeing a lot of those in the Fleischer Popeye cartoons. I thought it was unique and rather comical. In hindsight I can see how it is supposed to give you a different view of the scene.

A. Dimond said...

"Animation has always been perched on a strange precipice, where things are obviously phony but always reaching towards realism; it is the current conundrum of CGI animation today."

That reminds me of the notion of the "uncanny valley," are you familiar with that one?

A very useful idea, I think, obviously most salient when discussing AA figures... but Disney leapt straight for the other side of the valley with Hall of Presidents, much of EPCOT Center, etc. The sheer technical virtuosity in that style of attraction carries them, but overall I do think the caricature approach (hitchhiking ghosts and country bears) might be more memorable and successful. I'd be interested to know your take on that.

By the way, I love those "Good Neighbor" junkets as well. A friend and I were just talking tonight about what a strange film Three Caballeros is. Synchronicity!

FoxxFur said...

I think I ought to add here that I don't think (or claim much) that this creation of a new spectatorship is always intentional; lord knows the world would be an easier place if intent and effect always intersected at the same point. But these films, and sometimes very bad films too, create a new way of viewing. In the case of the Fleisher Studio, they weren't brilliant artists, but they created brilliant art. It's an unfortunate but true fact of real life that that's usually the case. =)

That's always the trouble of film writing, which is why we started using the term 'reading' instead of 'analysis'; you can 'read into' anything anything you like. So just bear with me here. =)