monster mice: illusion and kitsch

The exaggerated gestures and actions that formed a necessary basis for silent films could only live on in cartoon animation where American eccentrism could still be articulated, capturing the wild speed of a Chaplin, Keystone Cops, slapstick and other representations of New World violence and less bounded norms on sexuality could could be expressed through the rubbery movement and a transgressive approach to the traumatic as seen through the filter of utter chaos. There is a peculiar scene in an early Bergman movie, where the traumatic scene is punctuated, by the use of a cartoon, as a means of avoiding logic and using essence to cope with trauma. To cope or to be consumed?

---"I'm back to reality," says LA media artist Danial Nord as he explains his arduous struggle with the 18-gauge fence wire that forms the armature for the body of a hapless Mickey Mouse who lays dead or passed out on the floor of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Art Park.... "I was building this big cumbersome thing in my studio, twisting the wire to the point of carpal tunnel, and watching this sphere evolve that was just the same as the one I might have been rotating on the computer," he says. "It was absolutely fascinating to be reverting back to the old school thing. It was really rewarding." Nord's COLA project, titled State of the Art, consists of a large sculptural rendition of the famous Disney character meticulously constructed from the black plastic backs of discarded television sets. Nord has placed projectors, mirrors and lights in and around the structure; fragmented sounds of children singing The Mickey Mouse Club theme song bombard you as you enter the dark room in the gallery and step carefully toward the black structure sprawled across the floor. --- Read More:

Mickey Mouse or Monster mouse? Are we consuming or being swallowed chewed and spit out? Cartoons were at the forefront, the vanguard of popular culture as it has permeated all realms of culture. Unstoppable. Its early chaos, the fantastic and non-linear was quickly tamed into animated imitations of realist cinema. The animated gag, or mere nothingness in which served as plot and narrative were quickly coalesced into product, conventional; early Mickey was a ragged, beastly being, a lindy-hopper, jazz loving swing kid not ethnically well defined who confounded all the suppositions of identity and culture, expressing the individualism of madness and dreams, flaunting lunacy as escape from excessive reason and logic. Like most innovations, it was appropriated, diluted and transformed into manipulative emotion. The utopian elements, the heightened reality made dramatic, it was a easy to sensationalize the intrinsic radicalness of cartoons; the anti-physical where time and space are stretched and contracted.

---Discussions of animation often involve concepts of metamorphosis, anthropomorphism, transmogrification, fantasy, mimesis, the polymorphous perversity of bodies, its oddness and absurdity. Cartoon animation has an amorphous, elastic quality that allows forms the freedom to move and change — ordinary objects transform magically, movement is synchronized to music, and inanimate objects become humanized. . . . According to Walter Benjamin, popular animation is a realistic, but not naturalistic, expression of alienation in modern life; “the cartoons make clear that even our bodies do not belong to us. . . what parades as civilization is actually barbarism. In the early 1930′s the Mickey Mouse character was targeted by reform groups and banned by several state censor boards. Soon after, the bawdy sexual humor and aggressiveness of Disney’s shorts gave way to calmer morality, and “the studio began to alter not just its carnivalesque subject matter, but also its animation style.”--- Read More: image:

The Night Before Christmas. 1941. This Tom and Jerry cartoon directed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera for MGM was nominated for an Oscar, and was released the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. These earlier cartoons, while quite violent, have a level of kindness to them absent from later Tom and Jerry cartoons. The backgrounds are exquisite, and there’s a great deal of playful experimentation with animation visible throughout the cartoon, as is a very sweet and wonderful representation of friendship. There’s good reason the HB team won seven Oscars between 1943 and 1952! Read More:

---Josef Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister of the Third Reich, cheerfully wrote in his diary on December 20, 1937: “I have given twelve Mickey Mouse movies as a present for the Fuhrer at Christmas! He is very pleased with it. He is absolutely happy about this treasure!” Read more at Suite101: Adolf Hitler Goes to the Movies | Image:

…Alas, in keeping with other similarly dashed revolutionary hopes, animation’s attack on bourgeois life is rapidly stifled by political and economic forces. This dark turn takes place in the book’s fourth chapter, “Leni and Walt”, which brings together the forces of Fascist ideology (embodied in Leni Riefenstahl’s German films) and the rise of global capitalism (embodied in the growth of the Walt Disney studio). … the author makes a case that the world reflected in Fascist art bears some striking resemblances to the development of Walt Disney Studio’s animation style. In films from both sides, the author finds an increasing standardization of movement, a clinical dissection of social life, and a mechanization of the human body. Leslie suggests that “[f]ilm succumbs, in this era, it might be said, to the victory of technology over technique, or more precisely, technological manipulation on technical consciousness” . In the realm of animation, this victory of technology occurs when Disney’s studio moves away from the more fluid and inventive visuals of early cartoons, and begins to imitate photographic naturalism. Stunning lifelike images become more important than silly situations or self-mockery. The figure of Mickey Mouse also matures, loses many of his animalistic qualities, and finally becomes standardized for branding purposes….

Benjamin:Property relations in Mickey Mouse cartoons: here we see for the first time that it is possible to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen. The route taken by Mickey Mouse is more like that of a file in an office than it is like that of a marathon runner. In these films, mankind makes preparations to survive civilization. Mickey Mouse proves that a creature can still survive even when it has thrown off all resemblance to a human being. He disrupts the entire hierarchy of creatures that is supposed to culminate in mankind. These films disavow experience more radically than ever before. In such a world, it is not worthwhile to have experience. Similarity to folk tales. Not since fairy tales have the most important and most vital events been evoked more unsymbolically and more unatmospherically. All Mickey Mouse films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is. So the explanation for the huge popularity of these films is not mechanization, their form; nor is it a misunderstanding. It is simply the fact that the public recognizes its own life in them.--- Read More: image:

…Long after the Nazi regime has lost power, Disney’s studio continues the tradition of coating political ideology in romantic imagery. Only this time, the ideology reflects the technological and economic triumph of unbridled capitalism. Read More:


---Benjamin:Placing his understanding of the Disney films in the context of nazi victory in Germany, he considers the latest Mickey Mouse films: "(Their dark fire-magic, for which colour film has provided technical preconditions, underlines a trait, which until now was only present in hidden ways. It shows how comfortably fascism – in this realm too – can appropriate so-called ‘revolutionary’ innovations.) What surfaces in the light of the latest Disney films is actually already present in some older ones: the tendency to locate bestiality and violence quite comfortably as accompaniments of existence. This calls on an older and no less terrifying tradition; it was introduced by the dancing hooligans which we find in media

pogrom images, and the ‘ragged band’ in Grimms’ fairy tales form their imprecise, pale rearguard."---Violence is now revealed to be less a critical metaphorical dismantlement, and more a way of life, a realistic representation of everyday brutality. Read More: image:


…Yet it was the same non-object-like stretching that gave Disney an early success with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit just prior to Steamboat Willie. Oswald’s selling point “…was a rubbery kind of movement that tied into fresh and amusing gags”. In Oh, What a Knight, Oswald wrings himself out to dry, and later, when kissing a fair maiden’s hand, he pulls an endless length of arm from her sleeve in order to have mo re to kiss! In Trolley Troubles even Oswald’s electric car is flexible, “widening and flattening to accommodate the unpredictable changes in the tracks beneath it”.

There was also a phallic fascination, a morphing between flaccid and erect and ba ck again, easily observed in the cartoon cannon and rifle barrels relaxing after each firing; itself well within Eisenstein’s own field of fixations, as evidenced by his cock drawings. Eisenstein’s essay on Disney has this very elasticity as the main concern, finding precedent in Lewis Carroll, the German caricaturist Walter Trier, etchings by Toyohiro, Bokusen and Hokusai, etc. He calls it “plasmaticness” and considers Mickey in possession of “…this plasmation par excellence”. He briefly entertains the idea that its secrets are held in a prenatal, even cellular memory, a standard from which to gauge the morphing of growth and shrinkage. To explain the “pre-logical attractiveness” of Disney cartoons in the United States, he says that the plasmatic “all-possible diversity of form” finds its ground as a counter to a “…social order with such a mercilessly standardised and mechanically measured existence”….

---The same excuse had not been made for Felix the Cat, banned since 1935. Perhaps it was "the German feeling" that so impressed them. "Who is the fairest of them all?" asks the evil witch-queen of her magic mirror in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Why, one whose skin is white as snow, and evil, as embodied in the witch and the vultures, of course, is always dark, hooked-nose and ugly. Beauty and evil manifest themselves on the body – as the witch cackles, while preparing her magic poisoned apple: "on the skin the symbol of what lies within". While class emerges in the image of the friendly but imbecilic and dirty dwarf-workers, Snow White, the temporarily fallen princess possesses a white skin that is emblematic of her inner purity. Some are born to rule, it shows on their very bodies. The poets Stefan George and Hans Blüher and other fin-de-siècle esoterics had asserted the association of white skin and moral purity, most forcefully. --- Read More: image:

…He then goes on at length to generalise such transformations to fire, a fire “…assuming all possible guises” in a aural-like flux where borders dissolve and things are born and die in a moment, and through fire back to music: “…herein also lies the secret of the fascination of music, for its image too is not stable”. In fact: ” ‘Music’ – the element of Disney”. But not completely….in its treatment of fluffy beings – monkeys or fledglings”. Read More:
Esther Leslie:The association of Disney and Riefenstahl was not new. They had been brought together before – in fascist Italy – at the Venice Film Festival, where Olympia had won the Coppa Mussolini. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been a strong competitor for the prize. Asked later why she should have met Disney in the US, Riefenstahl said: …

…And why not! … Disney and I have never met before but our pictures – Olympia and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – were the two outstanding successes in many outstanding countries.

And she goes on to suggest an aesthetic logic to their rendezvous.

He has the German feeling – he goes so often to the German fables and fairy tales for inspiration. (Graham, 222- 223)

What is “the German feeling”? Disney’s aesthetic, especially in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio [1940], and Fantasia [1940] with its ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ tale from Goethe, drew on both Romanticism and a folkish Gothic woodcut tradition. Snow White was a fine Grimm fairytale, though Disneyfication of the ending involved junking Snow White’s vomiting up of the poisoned apple lodged in her throat, and in its stead borrowing an awakening, re-animating kiss from Grimms’ Sleeping Beauty. The German sourcing of Disney’s feature-length films was a major topic of discussion in German film journals. Critics wanted to know who would guarantee that Disney would treat his German material well.  The fairy-tale, according to the nazi critics, was a German affair.

In Riefenstahl’s terms, “the German feeling” denotes a concoction of the romantic, the Gothic, elements of the neo-classical. For Riefenstahl and for Disney, perhaps, the “German feeling” is a code word for restitution and a by-word for kitsch. In 1939 Clement Greenberg, the American theorist of high modernism, defined kitsch as an antithesis, a “rear-guard” of the avant-garde. In the grim ‘30s, the avant-garde fades, exiled, in hiding – in the “Totalitarian World”, or stamped out by the dumb violence of economic facts – in the “Democratic World”. It is occluded by its antithesis. For Greenberg, kitsch was both American commercial culture and the totalitarian art of nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Kitsch, the culture of the industrialized masses, explains Greenberg, exploits tradition. Kitsch is that which is recognizable. Kitsch is heightened reality that is made dramatic.  Kitsch bears traces of yesterday’s avant-garde, diluted.  In the Soviet Union this kitsch is represented by Socialist Realism, an idealized naturalism. In nazi Germany it is monumentalist art, again illusionistic and illusory. In America its quintessence is surely high-style Disney. Read More:
Benjamin believed slapstick films and cartoons might provide “psychic inoculation” to counter volatile social tensions brought about by technification. In his estimation, the “forced articulation of sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusion” depicted in such films would prevent a “dangerous ripening of the masses.” Collective laughter signified for Benjamin a “premature and therapeutic eruption of mass psychoses.” Adorno scoffed at the ameliorative potential of collective laughter for cinema audiences. In 1936, he complained it was not “good and revolutionary” but rather filled with the worst “bourgeois sadism.” The release of such laughter was nothing more than Schadenfreude. Whether persuaded by Adorno’s argument or incapable any longer of sheltering his concepts against the rising tide of mass violence in Nazi Germany, by the final version of his text, Benjamin’s references to Micky-Maus and the “therapeutic eruption” of laughter had disappeared. Read More:

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