An autobiography in films; some personal milestones and revelations, for better and/or worse, in relation to movies I’ve seen.
By BRAD WEISMANN
Prologue: Why movies? Well, they stick in my head. I can’t remember the names of close relatives, but I can remember who played Blinky in “The Killers” (Jeff Corey, the marvelous actor who became one of the great L.A. acting teachers after being blacklisted in the 1950s, who also played Tom Cheney in the original “True Grit,” and Plasus the High Adviser in the “Cloud Minders” episode of the original “Star Trek” series – “You will dig the xenite!” – not to be confused with the similar-looking John Marley, who played Jane Fonda’s dad in “Cat Ballou,” Richard in “Faces,” and Jack Woltz, the director who gets his horse’s head in his bed in “The Godfather.” See what I mean?).
Even though I trained in theater, made comedy my business for years and journalism for more years, love Shakespeare, poetry, art, opera, classical music, and jazz, there’s nothing quite like film to mark my memory. I have been known to walk out of a film and act and talk like the characters in it for hours at a time, overstimulated to the point of being sleepless. I am some kind of weird living litmus paper.
My tentative list of significant films is creeping up on 50 now, and will probably grow the more I think about it. What will follow is an account of these vivid experiences in the context of my personal life. Hopefully, there will be some insights and a few laughs.
PART 1: DISNEY’S TRILOGY OF TRAUMA
Re-release date: Jan. 18, 1962 (Original release date: Feb. 23, 1940)
Dir: Norman Ferguson, Thornton Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen
Prod: Walt Disney
Scr: Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia, Bill Peet
Release date: Aug. 29, 1964
Dir: Robert Stevenson
Prod: Walt Disney, Bill Walsh
Scr: Bill Walsh, Don DaGradi
Phot: Edward Colman
Re-release date: March 25, 1966 (Original release date: Aug. 14, 1942)
Dir: James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Norman Wright
Prod: Walt Disney
Scr: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, Vernon Stallings, Mel Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright
Heaven and hell. Simultaneously.
You know, Mom, why don’t you make my very first contact with cinema memorable. Take me to the most intense iterations of the moving picture experience human ever made – the most visually arresting, addictive, mind-blowing kind of kinescopically psychedelically dank flicks mankind has ever conceived and executed.
Are we talking the works of Bunuel here? Herschell Gordon Lewis? Tod Browning? Ken Russell? Lucio Fulci? “The Exorcist”? “Last House on the Left”? “In the Mouth of Madness”? No.
Oh, and fill them with highly questionable material for children – including the murder of parents by unseen forces, uncontrolled and hellish physical transformation, children who are neglected, then abandoned, death, catastrophic fires, floods, consumption by enormous mammals . . . and Dick van Dyke’s terrifying Cockney accent.
Of course, we are talking Disney films.
Oh, and make sure they are thought of as family classics, canonical masterpieces that must be transmitted from generation to generation to the end of time.
The source of my fascination with, fear of, and struggle to dominate via analyzing film comes from these initial exposures.
Not that I’m ungrateful.
However, you would have done just as well by filling me as a toddler with lysergic acid diethalymide and strapping me to a roller coaster for three and a half hours straight, in terms of my present mental stability.
Of course, children’s stories, the ones that Disney magic are usually wrought from, are not saccharine idylls. They are, and are meant to, be memorably riveting, tough-minded, and transformative. Bruno Bettelheim’s great book “The Uses of Enchantment” is a great place to begin unraveling the coded messages nursery stories deliver.
Growing up in a family with a Scandinavian, Protestant background, it was natural that my first reading would be of material such as that crafted by the perverse and death-obsessed Hans Christian Andersen (tongues cut out, feet hacked off, dying match girls and other children, and The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, who gets dragged down into something like hell for a very, very, very long time and escapes only by becoming a bird -- that flies into the sun?) And don’t get me started on the Brothers Grimm – anyone who’s read the top-notch and forthright Ralph Mannheim translation of those folk tales will find incest, cannibalism, mutilation, infanticide, and such! How jolly!
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But, of course, it’s the sanitized Victorian-era versions of these stories that inspired Disney and most American adaptations of these stories. Yet to the disturbing undertones already there, Disney adds elements such as a Puritan glee in shame (Pinocchio’s shame at his not-quite-real status) and punishing forbidden behavior (the Cronenbergian transformation of bad boys into donkeys later in the film).
“Mary Poppins” is about the redemption of uncaring parents, of course (at least the film is) – but all I seem to recall is horror – at the neglect of the kids, the wind that blows the mean nannies away (I mean, they had to earn a living, didn’t they?), at the toys putting themselves away in the children’s rooms, at Jane and Michael chased through the dark streets of the East End. And in retrospect, wasn’t there something druggy about the whole production? A “spoonful of sugar” helps things get done quickly? Something that makes you laugh and float to the ceiling? JUMPING INTO A PAINTING? Cocaine, pot, and acid, all right there.
Aaaand “Bambi.” Witnessing the murder of Bambi’s mom was pretty much much the defining moment of my childhood. What’s worse, it was a death blow from an invisible enemy – Disney originally planned to show the human hunter firing his rifle at her, but the canny producer didn’t want to alienate the hunting lobby (it still complained). What results is even more disturbing – cause divorced from effect, leaving me riddled with anxiety. Same thing with the climactic forest fire at the end – an insane inferno, punctuated with a pack of murderous hunting dogs, that I’m pretty sure made me pee my pants.
Behind all this celluloid child abuse was the thought that Man was to blame, not to be trusted. I took it to heart, and haven’t really trusted the species since.
In sharp contrast with the calculatedly traumatic elements are the even more traumatic sentimental elements. The bipolar contrast between death and the babyish cuteness that serves less as a balance than as a teeter-totter corrective to the tragic thrust of the narrative was repellent to me. Lisping baby animals – whimsical figurines – condescending glee. Kids can smell cognitive dissonance, and this stuff stank. The earlier feature-length Disney films are rife with this kind of problematic sentiment and aggressive fantasy – the heart-rending “Baby Mine” number in “Dumbo,” as well as the frightening “Pink Elephants on Parade,” and the insanely overused “shoot-the-dog” trope originated in “Old Yeller.”
The true devilment of course it that all three of these films are so vivid, so technically proficient, smoothly and candy-colored surreal. The triumph of image over idea in the Disney canon means that whatever text, subtext, or overtone is present in the material presented is volatile – a hot substance that floods into every nook and cranny of the recipient, unmediated unless you are a cynical little bastard like me. And not even then.
Later, as the Disney affect flattened and became more predictable, the severity of the attack on the senses diminished, losing its punch as the Disney output lost popularity. It wasn’t until genius abilities of producers such as Ron Clements, John Musker, Don Hahn, Bonnie Arnold, and Pam Coats to mastermind projects that offered real emotion, plausible redemption plots, actual humorous humor, combined with the wonderful Mencken/Ashman songs that triggered a revival in film songwriting, that the ship righted. But even then, they still killed an awful lot of critters.
In retrospect, exposing me to the cinematic crack pipe of Golden Age Walt Disney was the strongest kind of inoculation against manipulation through popular art that one could devise, short of what Mark Lewis’ dad did to him in “Peeping Tom.” And look how that turned out.