Transfixed and Goggle-Eyed
R. O. Blechman. © R. O. Blechman.
The theater was packed, and no wonder! Aside from the draw that any Disney animation had, there was the special attraction of seeing the inner workings of a Disney feature--the boney armature as well as the flesh and blood of the film.
Fifteen minutes into the film I felt an irresistible urge to turn from the screen towards the audience. I already had a strong reaction to the film and was curious what other people felt. I turned around. The audience was goggle-eyed. I was no less transfixed, but for a different reason. Here was a cross section of film-lovers--this was The New York Film Festival, after all--clearly loving a film with formulaic artwork, a banal story, and cliché personae. Did these Frenchmen ever inhabit anything resembling a real France? The village these folk inhabited was straight out of a theme park. The stereotypical heroine, Belle, with her enormous sunny side-up eyes, seemed to resemble nothing so much as a Keane painting (remember that Fifties artist -- the butt of Woody Allen's Sleeper--who painted outsize eyes on street waifs? Well here he was, alive again, and on a big screen). Belle exclaims at one point, clutching a book to her bosom (heaving on ones), "I just finished the most wonderful story!" The wonderful story turns out to be... Jack and the Beanstalk! This is literature? This is a role model for children?
Scenes from Beauty and the Beast. © Walt Disney Pictures.
I got up from my seat, standing alone in that vast theater, and walked stiffly toward the exit, hoping that people would think I was headed for the Men's Room. But I doubt if anybody in that rapt audience noticed.
Back to the Forties
Home again, my time clock shifted back to the Forties when I was a young art student in Manhattan. In those days the creative Scylla and Charybides were two artists to be steered well clear of: Norman Rockwell (although I've since come to admire his painterly technique, something not apparent on the printed page) and Walt Disney. Disney himself was aware of his waning hold on the American public.
The Disney studio had been eclipsed by the popularity of an upstart bicoastal studio, UPA, which pioneered a highly graphic approach to animation design. The new studio was producing an often brilliant group of shorts using such talents as Ludwig Bemelman's in the faithfully visualized retelling of his classic children's book, Madeline, and James Thurber in his masterful Unicorn in the Garden (which I saw, incidentally, as a soldier, billed as The Uniform in the Garden). Rankled by the critical and popular success of these films, Disney came out with his own stylized short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom. If animation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is also the surest sign of artistic bankruptcy.
So what has happened in these intervening years? Why would a look considered so bankrupt in one decade be so bankable in another? Why has the taste of the American public shifted so radically--and the taste of the media critics, those presumed watchdogs of the national taste? Something profound, I suspect, and something frightening. Something that goes beyond mere aesthetics (although there is nothing "mere" about aesthetics. It is the barometer of a civilization). It touches on no less than the American psyche.