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Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde

Four working composers discuss the creative challenges of making music for animation. Denis M. Hannigan, Don Grady, Jody Gray and James L. Venable offer tips and advice for both composers and creators, directors and producers.

We, the inhabitants of Animationland, are often guilty of happy seclusion. We have our festivals, our Academy Awards, our masters, our history and our books about it. Only sometimes do we dare to look outside of the walls of our own culture. But there is society, politics, science, music, art and philosophy out there; they actually interact with us and we do so with them. This is the reason why I warmly, heartily recommend everybody read this book by Esther Leslie, a lecturer in English and Humanities at Birkbeck College in London, Great Britain. It is a large, open window through which we can see the landscape that surrounded our founding fathers in the first half of the 20th century.

A Fascinating Approach

Hollywood Flatlands is not a coffee-table book and you must have a helluva good grounding in history and many more branches of learning to savour it fully. But Leslie's approach is refreshing and exciting, as she tells us how some of the 20th century's greatest avant-garde artists, thinkers and film-makers (more exactly, the pre-Cold War artists, thinkers and film-makers) reacted to Hollywood animated cartoons.

Suspicion: isn't this an elitist and cold subject? Maybe. But a) the book is full of surprises, and b) Leslie's prose is as captivating as a storyteller's.

In this incisive and profound study, which at the same time is an intellectual novel, you find such classic subjects as Adolph Hitler, Charlie Chaplin, Leon Trotsky, Mickey Mouse, Nazism, Leni Riefenstahl, Theodor W. Adorno, Sergei M. Eisenstein, Dumbo, Betty Boop, the Class Struggle, Piet Mondrian, Walter Benjamin and Walt Disney (along with much, much more).

The author is an unparalleled researcher and is capable of sharp insights; especially about German avant-garde, philosophers Horkheimer and Adorno's approach to animated cartoons, the love/hate affair between the Nazis, Disney's output and Walt Disney himself, and the reaction Adorno had toward Fantasia.

In a couple of sentences, Leslie writes a full essay about two decades of German documentary: "(By the mid-Thirties, Leni) Riefenstahl was pirouetting on the grave of avant-garde. Her mission, from Triumph of the Will (1934) onwards, was to prune documentary of its experimentalist, Weimar-Jewish connotations. () In 1934 Walter Ruttmann did film a frame story for Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and he directed a number of studio scenes. From a left-modernist perspective, this collaboration marks the collapse of the avant-garde in Germany." Another example: "(Sergei) Eisenstein took Disney extremely seriously. He was aware that his own mode of film-making was not so removed from Disney's mode, even if it might seem to some a world apart. Both used storyboards, for example." (I'd like to add a personal anecdote here: since my adolescence I have been fascinated by a short sequence in Eisenstein's masterpiece Battleship Potemkin (1925), where he symbolizes that the Odessa people strike back at the policemen's repression with the quick editing of three close-ups of marble lions in different successive positions relaxed, reacting, attacking. And this is, in its own way, animation.)

Wait A Minute

If you feel I'm serenading this book too much, hold on. I must add that there is one thing in it I frankly find surprising and odd. It is no less than its main thesis, as stated by Esther Leslie in her introduction ("Prelude").

She writes: "A generally accepted line declares over and over that high culture and popular culture have been — for so long — enemies." () "Postmodern orthodoxy claims that 'intellectual' interest in popular culture comes into being in the post-war period (after years of modernist elitism), with the inauguration of postmodernism's own discourses." () Therefore "this study was motivated by frustration at the phoney war between high culture and popular or low or mass culture." () Because "modernist theorists and artists were fascinated by cartoons. And those who took cartoons most seriously were political revolutionaries."

Now, in 35 years as a film and animation critic and historian, I never met a serious person who truly believed that high culture and popular culture have been — for so long — enemies. I'm not an expert of postmodern orthodoxy, but if it is based on the grounds that "intellectual" interest in popular culture came into being in the post-war period, well, this is simply a false base; it certainly blossomed in the post-war period, but had always existed and most inhabitants of Animationland have always known it.

In other words, I'm happy that Leslie got so frustrated as to feel the urge to write this masterful book, but I don't share the same starting point. Although, since there aren't any reasons at all for mistrusting her good faith, I have another frustration. There must be many people around that actually have said or written those things at which she got angry. God save us from them!

Hollywood Flatlands — Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde by Esther Leslie. London, U.K. and New York, New York: Verso, 2002. 344 pages. ISBN: 1-85984-612-2 (US$30.00)

Giannalberto Bendazzi is an animation historian whose latest book is Alexeieff - The Itinerary of a Master.