Donald Duck gets a cuffing

J. Hoberman

  • Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde by Esther Leslie
    Verso, 344 pp, £20.00, August 2002, ISBN 1 85984 612 2

In 1931, a Nazi journal called the Dictatorship complained about the amazing popularity of Mickey Mouse: ‘Have we nothing better to do than decorate our garments with dirty animals because American commerce Jews want profit?’ That same year in Berlin, Esther Leslie reports, Walter Benjamin was also thinking about Mickey mania. After talking to some friends, including Kurt Weill, Benjamin made a few notes in praise of this insolent, lowlife, magically animated creature. Mickey’s cartoons exhibited a commendable disregard for bourgeois propriety. What’s more, their sadism, their violence, their very two-dimensionality served as a diagram for the mechanisms of social oppression: ‘The public recognises their own lives in them.’

Let the culture wars begin. Among other things, Leslie’s Hollywood Flatlands teases out the ambivalent relationship between a few, mainly German, left-wing intellectuals and the talking, squawking, hawking animated cartoons produced in the US under the rubric Walt Disney. It is not an inconsequential subject. Disney was the 20th century’s corporate artist supreme, the original multimedia genius, Andy Warhol avant la lettre, Elvis Presley’s only rival as the most important figure in American mass culture. Besides, as Leslie is well aware, the cartoons on which Disney built his Magic Kingdom have never seemed more central to the history of motion pictures than they do now. In the last year of the First World War, two decades after the Lumière brothers premiered their cinematograph, Apollinaire predicted that all arts would soon be based on photography and motion pictures. But now, every day in every way, digital imaging and computer editing are bringing all film closer to animation: the motion picture camera is less a device for recording nature than a source of visual data to be sweetened during post-production by the addition of material that has no indexical relationship to external reality. The photographic becomes simply the graphic – a development that Benjamin seems to have anticipated in his assessment of Mickey Mouse.

Brash and erudite, Hollywood Flatlands treats animated cartoons as an avant-garde taste and anti-illusionism as a Modernist problematic. Leslie’s history of cinema begins with the French film tricksters of the early 1900s, the one-time stage magician Georges Méliès and the cartoonist Emile Cohl (whose motion pictures shunned photographic reality altogether). It continues with the work during the 1920s of a few Berlin-based painters: Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and Walter Ruttmann, whose animated films sprang from a desire to replace European culture with American technology – jazz rhythms, comic strips and slapstick, Coney Island, Charlie Chaplin, Felix the Cat and, with the coming of sound, Mickey Mouse. America had developed fun factories, and in Benjamin’s analysis they played an important role in the technological reorganisation of daily life – and, consequently, consciousness. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility’, familiar to most readers in its much rewritten third version, the first to be translated into English, was originally concerned with the ways in which the masses might come to terms with the technologisation of daily life. The Soviet film-maker Dziga Vertov had already portrayed the parallel between industrial labour and the mass production of leisure in his 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera, and Benjamin believed motion pictures had the potential to subvert the new technological regime. Animated cartoons – which offered up such ‘figures of the collective dream’ as the ‘globe-encircling Mickey Mouse’ – were especially promising.

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