Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde 
by Esther Leslie.
Verso, 344 pp., £20, August 2002, 1 85984 612 2
Show More
Show More

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.

In the first version of ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility’ a section called ‘Mickey Mouse’ identified the crucial social function of cinema as the creation of ‘harmony’, as Leslie puts it, ‘between persons and machines’. As humanity was industrialised, so it became possible to attribute human faculties to machines – an ‘optical unconscious’ in the case of the movie camera. Motion pictures, Benjamin theorised, universalised the vision of the individual dreamer. This mass surrealism was the stuff of animated cartoons, which did not accept the world as it was – or even acknowledge the laws of physics. Cartoons provided a means for technology to oppose itself; at the very least, they might provide an ‘inoculation against mass psychoses’. And cartoons were funny. By evoking collective laughter with their open exploration of ‘sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusions’ they could pre-empt such unhealthy mental states: ‘American funnies and the Disney films effect a therapeutic explosion of the unconscious.’ No wonder the Nazis were appalled. Mickey Mouse was a rival – an embodiment of the new industrial culture that might alert the masses to the nightmare they lived. Disney cartoons made a mockery of the technological regime even as they addressed the utopian yearning encouraged by technology’s promise.

Could a talking mouse carry such a burden? Leslie compares Benjamin’s fondness for early Disney with the appreciation for Sade expressed a decade later by Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. In both cases, extreme cruelty was seen as exposing the exploitation and reification that apologists for capitalism sought to conceal. Benjamin revised his analysis of Mickey in response to his friend Adorno’s critique of his manuscript. In Adorno’s view, Leslie writes, Benjamin had ‘inoculated himself against the horrors of mass culture by overvaluing precisely what it is that makes it so dreadful: the laughing audience’. (For Adorno, that the audience guffawed in unison was inherently totalitarian: ‘an escapism that provides no escape from the all-powerful injunction to have fun within the terms dictated’.) Benjamin’s footnotes to the second version of his essay, completed early in 1936, suggest that Mickey Mouse had been successfully co-opted and had perhaps always been a mixed blessing: ‘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 we find in medieval pogrom images.’

In suggesting that Mickey was recuperable for Fascism, Benjamin anticipates the criticism of Disney cartoons that Adorno and Horkheimer would publish in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and poses the question Marxists have insistently asked of mass culture: does it liberate or oppress? Is it a form of resistance or a tool for social control?

By the time Benjamin began the essay’s third rewrite in 1936, the idea of movies as analogous to Freud’s dreamwork had given way to the more sober notion of the camera as a means to scientific analysis. Meanwhile, Disney cartoons had also evolved. The sharp-toothed, skinny, feral Mickey of the early 1930s had been domesticated. Disney’s ‘Silly Symphonies’ began to exhibit retrograde, petit bourgeois cultural aspirations. The Goddess of Spring (1934) attempted to animate naturalistic movement; in the same year, The Flying Mouse was sufficiently sentimental to move an audience to tears. The regression culminated in the feature-length Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), an animated operetta that mimicked the camera angles, dialogue and performances of a live-action movie. In Snow White’s seamless illusionistic façade, the avant-garde fragmentation and disintegration so prized by Benjamin had been rationalised. Disney joined what Adorno and Horkheimer would call the culture industry.

This wasn’t Disney’s only sin. When Leni Riefenstahl visited Hollywood in late 1938, Disney was among the few movie industry dignitaries to receive her, treating his guest to a three-hour tour of his studio. Disney and Riefenstahl had recently met at the Venice Film Festival, where Riefenstahl’s Olympia defeated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the Coppa Mussolini. Gracious in victory, Riefenstahl had praised Disney: ‘He has the German feeling – he goes so often to the German fables and fairytales for inspiration.’ Leslie makes a cunning comparison between Snow White and Olympia: ‘These two films are about animation and stasis, and they both dramatise that interest in key scenes. And they both also seem to let on that the cult of the perfect body is a cult of death – the stone athletes, the dead princess.’ Animation had turned to stone. Life was elsewhere.

Although Hollywood movies were banned from German cinemas, Snow White received special dispensation. Hitler and Goebbels were fans and, as Leslie shows, Nazi journalists eagerly sought to give Disney an Aryan pedigree. But only until December 1941: five days after Germany declared war on America, the Film-Kurier launched an attack on Fantasia, Disney’s attempt to illustrate classical music. Meanwhile, having moved to Los Angeles, Adorno and Horkheimer continued their own war against Disney. Responding to the once famous middlebrow explainer Mortimer J. Adler’s defence of Disney as great art, Horkheimer sneered that ‘the sunbeams almost beg to have the name of a soap or a toothpaste emblazoned on them,’ and compared ‘the generation that allowed Hitler to become great’ to those ‘pure, childish souls who applaud with innocent approval when Donald Duck gets a cuffing’. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, animated cartoons were understood not as a revelation of daily life but rather as an efficient means by which to cloud the mind and programme audiences for abject conformism – in part by demonstrating the violence that would inevitably follow from a failure to acquiesce. Cartoons were crucial to a culture industry that, predicated on pure profit and social control, sold its audience the pleasurable spectacle of its own submission.

Adorno and Horkheimer were not totally opposed to mass culture. Technology created new opportunities for art, but it also tied art to big business and thereby fixed it with ‘a certain ideological character’. Once, cartoons had encouraged fantasy; now they colonised the unconscious. Endearingly, Dialectic of Enlightenment praises Betty Boop, hoyden star of the anarchic early 1930s Max Fleischer cartoons, over the impotently quacking, beaten-down everyduck, Donald.

It is almost a rule of the mass cultural marketplace that every new form brings a banquet of utopian hopes, followed by a long and sour morning after. Scarcely a month before America entered World War Two, the culture critic and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, newly arrived in the US, published a critique of the latest Disney cartoon in the Nation. The inspirational tale of a big-eared flying circus elephant, Dumbo (1941), was for Kracauer – another Frankfurt fellow-traveller and Benjamin’s sometime editor – symptomatic of Disney’s decline. In seeking to naturalise animation by using the conventions of realistic film, Disney had reversed the fantastic transformations of his first cartoons. Furthermore, Dumbo had a deeply conservative moral: ‘Young Dumbo, instead of flying off towards some unknown paradise, chooses wealth and security and so ends as the highly paid star of the same circus director who once flogged his mother.’ Kracauer was more generous towards Fantasia, which he found experimental in its attempt to invent a graphic language for Stravinsky and Beethoven. (This was probably the last Disney animation worth arguing about. Adorno thought Fantasia appalling kitsch, while members of the Popular Front, including the former Disney animator John Hubley, a leader in the studio’s bitter 1941 strike, considered the movie an example of dangerous formalism, advocating Chaplin as a corrective.)

Disney’s contribution to the US war effort – including the fascinating and appalling animated polemic for strategic aerial bombing, Victory through Air Power – began the process by which his name would become synonymous with the nation’s official culture. ‘It is the constitutional privilege of every American to become cultured or just grow up like Donald Duck,’ he said in March 1942, a remark that the authors of Dialectic of Enlightenment might have taken for the book’s epigram. Donald Duck is the designated American in The Three Caballeros, one of several wartime movies Disney made for the Latin American market – a mixture of live action and animation that struck keen Disney watchers as chaotic, garish and stylistically incoherent. (Noting that the movie’s live action is set on flat, simplified theatrical sets, Leslie suggests that The Three Caballeros anticipates ‘the world of Disneyland simulacra to come, full of props and fake-perspective structures’.)

Disney’s last and most loyal intellectual champion was Sergei Eisenstein, then regarded by many as the world’s foremost film-maker and, certainly, its leading film intellectual. Eisenstein, too, had fallen under the spell of the early Disney cartoons, whose use of synchronised sound recorded separately from the action suggested a means by which cinema could elude the trap of photographed theatre that the coming of talking pictures seemed to portend. The two film-makers met when Eisenstein visited Hollywood in 1930 and, in a famous composite photo, he was shown shaking hands with Disney’s mouse. As jury president at the first Moscow International Film Festival in 1935, Eisenstein – already in official disfavour – boldly proposed Disney’s most famous ‘Silly Symphony’, Three Little Pigs (its triumphant anthem is ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’), for the grand prize. Supporters of the Soviet contenders Chapayev, The Youth of Maxim and Peasants prevailed to ensure an all-Soviet three-way tie for first place, but Eisenstein did manage to secure a special third-place award for the Disney short – giving further ammunition to the by then anti-Disney Nazis, who mocked the Soviet defence of Mickey’s creator as a social artist.

Eisenstein stuck with Disney – whose work, he wrote, was America’s greatest contribution to world culture – well beyond Snow White. Indeed, Eisenstein praised Disney’s feature animations for the very qualities that Adorno and Horkheimer found infantile and regressive. Not unlike Benjamin, Eisenstein suggested that even coy Victorian fables such as the saccharine Merbabies ameliorated the harshness of American capitalism. Bambi (1942) was an example of applied totemism: ‘It is a peculiarity of the industrialised world and it ensconces early on in life the fantasy that to be at one with animals is to inhabit a lost paradise.’

It was Eisenstein’s hope that, just as Disney had been a vanguard maker of sound movies, he would be similarly inventive in the use of colour. But in this he was disappointed. Or, perhaps, in the Cold War dawn, it was no longer possible to praise the products of the American fun factories. In a 1947 lecture, Eisenstein declared that Disney lacked experimental rigour; he had not developed any system of precise correspondences that might be considered a ‘colour melody’. On the other hand, as Leslie points out, the introduction of colour – delivered by television into millions of American living-rooms by the 1960s – was the technological jolt that helped remake Disney as something more than a mere producer of animated cartoons.

Disney’s loss of interest in cartoon flatness coincided with the triumph of America’s own particular form of mandarin Modernism, epitomised in Clement Greenberg’s quest for painterly painting. But back then, American intellectuals like Greenberg had little use for American mass culture. Animated cartoons might have occupied a spot somewhere below radio comedy and singing Westerns – even though, as Leslie observes, cartoons were ‘where research into flatness and illusion and abstraction was most conscientiously carried out’. Forget about Disney’s postwar creation of the theme park, first in virtual form on television and then, in ‘real’ life, on the flatlands below Hollywood. As Snow White naturalised early Mickey Mouse, so Disney’s Magic Kingdom blandly rationalised Coney Island’s vulgar energy. ‘The Modernists and the mass culture purveyors part ways here in postwar America,’ Leslie notes. ‘The Modernists refuse to purchase entry tickets to the new states of Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Frontierland.’ Not until European intellectuals such as Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard began to tour the US in the Reaganite 1980s did Disneyland – by then upgraded to Disney World – again seem avant-garde or, at least, exotic. These live-in fantasies were the acme of American hyper-realism – the media-saturated world of self-referential signs, the endless round of simulations without an original: just the sort of substitute for history that Hollywood Flatlands so brilliantly unmasks.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences