In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Donald Duck gets a cuffingJ. Hoberman
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
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

letters@lrb.co.uk

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.