Sunday, December 19, 2021

From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture (2004).

This is how it begins.  "Woodstock; Summer 1969.  What follows is a modern urban legend that, if only apocryphal, remains true in spirit.  One longhair, passing, a toke to a companion, studiously observes the sex, drug, and rock 'n' roll around him.  Smiling wryly, he sarcastically comments: "Can you believe these kids were raised on Disney films?"  His friend, while attempting to inhale, chokes on his own laughter (ix)".  From here, scholar and academic Douglas Brode goes on to create what has to be one of the most succinct statements in the history of criticism.  "End of story; beginning of book (x)".  It may have all begun with a parable, however, I'm not quite sure how many people out there were expecting it to end where it does.  The main point itself is all laid out in the very subtitle of Brode's study.  And yet it's probably one that has no other choice except to come off as just so damned atypical to the casual observer. 

A lot of it is probably down to the collective image that most of us have had built up in our minds over the years.  When we think, or even hear of the name "Disney", our list of automatic associations and recall tends to be pretty much by the numbers.  We each have our own variation of the what the name means to us.  However, when the memories, and the emotions they help conjure up keep centering around the same, familiar set of imagery, even in differing minds, it's no wonder if a large amount of psychological overlap tends to take place.  We think of carpets that fly, a large rock in the middle of an African landscape.  We see a wicked witch offering a poisoned apple to a snow pale looking girl, with dark hair.  We tend to think of a stern, yet fresh-faced English nanny, riding the currents of the air on her umbrella.  Or of a puppet that comes to life.  These are just the most familiar handful of iconography that the House of Mouse has planted in our brains, like an unofficial catechism.

It may not be true for everywhere in the world, however odds are even that it would be difficult to uncover that many in several generations of children whose first impressions of the world didn't include the antics of a talking mouse.  Disney appears to be that rare phenomenon, a piece of entertainment whose notoriety has managed to achieve such a grand level of ubiquity, that it's almost like reading an open and shut book.  It's there right at the beginning, alongside Sesame Street, and Dr. Seuss.  And the funny thing is how there seems to be no getting away from it.  Not that many of us would care to, for that matter, at least when it comes to all the good stuff.  It's like our first, unofficial baby-sitter, or something like it.  I know that's sort of the way it was for me.  Like most 80s kids, I came of age learning about the nature of folklore thanks to Uncle Walt.  It's where I first met the entire heroes and rogues gallery of the Brothers Grimm.  After that initial round of introductions, it was places like the old Disney Channel that acted as a kind of gateway passage to my earliest artistic first impressions.

That was the place where I met the likes of James Mason, Bob Hoskins, Christopher Loyd, and Tom Hanks for the very first time.  For the record, the first time I ever saw the future Forrest Gump was in the Touchstone film, Big.  That's another thing that was pretty cool about the channel, in retrospect.  I managed to catch it at the height of its powers, back before it became a regular cable outlet.  Before 1995, or thereabouts, this was the channel where you could sometimes get lucky and catch a lot of interesting, out of the way programming.  I know how strange that must sound to anyone who is familiar with how the company is set up today.  However, all I can do is swear by the truth of that statement.  It really was the best broadcasting space for a kid to pick up a very memorable set of childhood memories.  I was able to catch previews for films with titles like The Secret of Nimh, Roger Rabbit, or Fantasia.  It wasn't just limited to the "in-house product", either, at least not back then.  

Besides this, it was also the best place to pick up on a whole plethora of these weird, quirky, or sometimes downright strange choices for a program slot.  Some of it was to be expected, such as the occasional rerun of the original, animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  However, then you would get more out of the way fair like The Big Friendly Giant, or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Further on from this, and you get certified weird fare, such as Return to Oz, and The Adventures of Mark Twain.  I'll also swear, one of the most vivid memories I've ever managed to retain of the Channel is about this feature -length, TV special where this cartoon girl in a yellow dress has a very surreal encounter with none other than Herman Melville's Moby Dick.  Yes, that White Whale.  

The strangest part may be that they played the whole thing straight.  No slapstick, or laugh track in sight.  No fooling around, either.  Instead it was very much like they were trying to cram an existential encounter into a kids show.  I'm not sure I can ever convey how weird and cool something like that was for the developing mind of a seven year old boy.  It's one of those creative choices that walks a fine line between childhood nightmare fuel and a really far out trip, man.  Let's just say it's easy to hear Pink Floyd's Echoes or Marooned in the soundtrack of your mind if you watch that kind of stuff.

Beyond this, however, there was also stuff like The Rocketeer, The Rescuers, The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Witches, and The Goonies.  Many of the films just listed did poorly at the Box Office on first release.  It wasn't until they started getting repeated air play on the Channel during the 80s and 90s that they slowly began to gain their current status as a lot of criminally underrated cult classics.  Films like Starfighter and Goonies, meanwhile, pretty much cemented themselves as certified 80s Childhood gold, and their repeats on the Disney network at the time just helped solidify their reputation.  It was, in many ways, a whole other world.  I was there, I saw, I had my imagination shaped by the best and brightest of the time.  It was a formative experience that was not limited to just the usual suspects in the 80s Kid pantheon, either.

Way before the launch of Turner Classic Movies in 1994, it turns out the Disney Channel was just about the only place where you could catch re-airings of cinema from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  What that meant in practice was that a lot of the networks loyal roster of kid viewers would have made their first acquaintance with names like Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, and John Wayne.  You could catch them in films like Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Longest Day.  It's a fact of history that doesn't get reported on as much nowadays.  It's what happened to me once upon a time, though.  It was through the services of Uncle Walt that I got to know an actor known as Patrick McGoohan, who would one day go on to make a counterculture classic known as The Prisoner.  Before that, he was The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, however.  This is also something like just the tip of a larger, underwater glacier.  Would you believe me if I told you the Beatles used to be on the Disney Channel?

Now, I know what a lot of you out there are thinking as you read this.  "Well sure", you think, "I just caught Pete Jackson's documentary on Disney Plus.  It's awesome, etc"!  It's a sentiment that's probably true enough, to be fair.  It's also not at all what I'm talking about.  What I'm saying is that this is just the second time the Mouse Kingdom has played host to the Fab Four, not the first.  The initial time these two giant, pop culture entities got together to put on a show for a viewing audience at home was way back in and around 1989, as far as I can tell, anyway.  In fact, if you turn to one of the old issues of the Channel's magazine companion/official cable guide (because, this is Disney we're talking about; of course they're going to do something like this) you might be surprised to run across a promotional article for a long-forgotten documentary called The Making of Sgt. Pepper.  The piece itself makes its own case, in no equivocal terms.  "Through the years there has been much mystery surrounding the project, but with the Disney Channel premiere of The Making of Sgt. Pepper, Beatles fans have their first opportunity to discover some amazing secrets from behind the scenes (27, 30)".

Those words appeared just once in print, in the August/September issue of Disney's magazine, during the last days of Summer, 1992.  The band still had three members left, instead of just two, with the lingering threat that one day we'll have to wake up to find that count reduced to probably just one.  Heck, they even got George Martin, the titular Fifth Beatle, to host the program.  Nowadays, all Jackson has to work with is archival footage.  My reason for even bringing this bit of trivia past up at all is because of just how much of a clash it is for our expectations.  Let's be honest, here.  How many of you ever really expected to see the music group dubbed the Number 1 greatest entertainers of all time having one of their products sold by the Mouse Factory?  It is just possible to get a slight note of cognitive dissonance from the whole affair.  A lot of that might be down to the way history itself has pretty much forced us to place both entities in separate boxes all our lives.

I mean let's do the math here for a second.  On the one hand, you've got the Disney Company.  One of the pioneers of animation history, it's true.  So is the fact that most adults outside of the pop culture sphere still tend to view as just a go-to babysitter for the younger demographic, and not much of anything else.  It's at least certain that I've never seen or heard any indication that the studio has been able to break down any sort of "cartoon ghetto" barrier to a significant degree, not even with Let It Go wearing a permanent groove in the brain.  Then, on the other hand, you have four long-haired guys from Liverpool, and the music they made.  Right away, even a lot of Gen-Z types will be more than happy to halt you right in your tracks, just in case the picture's not so clear.  The Beatles, these folk will maintain, are a bit more than just a mere "rock group", and what they did can't be encompassed in a simple phrase like "music".  If I'm being honest, I kind of get where they're coming from.

I mean I'd make the comparison between apples and oranges, yet it really is more fundamental than that.  If they were just good at the writing and singing of songs, then it's doubtful there would be anything to talk about all that much.  What I've just realized, writing this, is how difficult the next part will be to explain to someone who either wasn't there at the time, or else doesn't have enough of the sense of history to understand why and how this simple British bar band from their parents' generation could still maintain a sense of relevance that shows every sign of outliving the members of the group itself.  It's a topic that deserves several articles just by itself.  To summarize a complex situation, it all seems to have been a combination luck of the draw, mixed in with being at just the right place and time, along with having the eerily pitch-perfect creative expression.  One that was good enough to capture the collective imagination of the 60s, and turn the group into this kind pivot point around which the social changes of their decade began to flower and erupt into being.

A lot of it is the stuff we've grown so familiar with that we seem in danger of losing sight of its importance, such as the various forms and types of Civil Rights.  In addition, there is the way the band helped to change the nature of music making in and of itself.  There is a solid enough case to be made that it was the Beatles who gave us the first chords to the sound of what we now know as modern rock.  It's a grave mistake to claim that they brought all this about by themselves.  That's just laughable, in addition to being a disservice to names like Martin Luther King, Mario Savio, Ken Kesey, and a lot of other important culture makers who helped the 60s become what they are and were.  It's more like the decade somehow found the ultimate catalyst for a lot of necessary social changes that needed to happen.  I think what ultimately made them the right candidates for the job was the way their music acted as a bridge for all the differing social groups of the period to come together and, as cliche as it may sound, make a lot of important moral and ethical stands in the name of a fair and just society.  Such, then, is the long, strange, tripped out history of the act known simply as, the Beatles.

Then over here, you've got guys like Walt Disney making cartoons on a little hillside in Burbank, California.  It was the home of Hippie movement, in many ways.  However, is that the same thing as saying that a little animation factory had anything in common with young kids growing their hair long, burning their draft cards, and linking white hands in solidarity with black ones?  What has Haight Ashbury to do with Disneyland?  From the viewpoint of the great majority, the answer would have to be something like, not much, really.  It may be fair to claim that both Walt, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, were both innovators in their respective fields.  That's also about as far as most casual audiences in the street are willing to take it.  One is the greatest musical act of all time, the other is the most notable maker of animation, and there it ends.  However, Douglas Brode holds a very different idea of the matter.  It's an idea that he felt important enough to turn into its own, book-length study.  If his theory is correct, then it could mean that Disney, the Beatles, and the 60s Counterculture could share a greater deal in common together than has been recognized in all the official history books.  I guess the real question that has to be asked here is simple.  Is there any merit in the idea?

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017).

This is a film that's interesting to talk about.  It's got enough to unpack, in and of itself, that's true.  However, there's a kind of bittersweet serendipity at work here as well.  At the start of this year, one of the great lights in the history of cinema finally went out.  Here and now, at the very tail end of the turning of the year, and the start of the seasons, we come to one of the final performances of Sir Christopher Plummer.  For whatever it's worth, at least I can say with an honest face that I never meant for this article to take on the air of a pseudo-memorial.  Nor, as long as we're keeping things honest, is it my intention to make this a gloomy affair.  In the first place, both the holiday, and one of the key figures at the heart of it (the very subject of this film, in fact) tend to mitigate against it.  There's a reason why the author of A Christmas Carol referred to it as "this festive season of the year".  It's a maxim I intend to live by.  In the second place, I can't seem to shake the idea that Plummer himself might have wanted us to enjoy the film for what it is, in the same spirit in which it was given.  That's another goal that I at least hope I can live up to, even if none of us have ever been sure what that entails.  

For me, it means focusing on the story itself, as well as the nature and quality of the writing that went into it.  Same as it ever was, in other words.  That's not to say I believe it's possible to just leave it at that without at least paying some kind of final respects to a great actor.  What I think I can promise is that when the time comes, I'll not mourn, so much a celebrate both a fine career, and a great film to go along with it.  With all this in mind, let's move on to the proper business of criticism, which I'm sure even an actor of Plummer's talent would have encouraged, not matter the final verdict.  And so, with all that said....

We don't tend to think much about where things come from.  Have you ever noticed that?  It's a strange form of free-floating incuriosity that the vast majority of people in the world seem willing to live with.  Either that or else I'm just stuck having to go by the criteria provided by own American surroundings.  Maybe it's different in other countries.  All I can highlight with any certainty is that most of us Yanks can't be bothered to even stop and consider the ideas, facts, and events that have shaped our behavior.  Take Christmas, for example.  Or maybe don't?  I'm told it's kind of a sensitive topic.  Charles Schulz was of the opinion that the three topics you were never supposed to bring up were politics, religion, and the Great Pumpkin.  For what it's worth, I'm not interested in any so-called war, for or against.  Instead, my interest lies a lot closer to home.  I'm interested in the later traditions that have accrued around the holiday.  I'm talking about wreaths placed on front doors, and bows of holly mixed with red ribbons and lights decorating fence posts, front porches, and trees.  The modern iconography of the season, in other words.  I guess you could say I'm sometimes curious about where it all comes from.

Now, to be fair, it's not like I have or can give anything like the full answer, here.  I'm just another passenger on the same train, like other folks.  However, as someone who tends to get a kick out of the whole Holiday vibe, it is nice to pick up what bits and pieces of info you can about it.  The best collective piece of information I've ever gotten on the great winter festival comes from the writings of two men.  One of them is more or less still famous, or at least reasonably well known.  The other was just one of the former guy's many biographers.  Way back in another time and world known as 2008, an author, critic, and historian known as Les Standiford released a work of nonfiction known simply as The Man Who Invented Christmas.  The nature and content of the whole book seems pretty well summarized by its subtitle: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.  

Turning to the dust jacket's inside-flap, the prospective reader is given a further bit of clarifying information: "As uplifting as the tale of Scrooge itself, this is the story of how one writer and one book revived the signal holiday of the Western world".  That, in essence, is the story that Standiford has to tell for his his readers.  In some ways, the final product itself can also stand as an act of revivification.  These days, if you say a phrase like Christmas Carol, or a name like Scrooge (even if it's just hurled out at random in the moment, as a form of insult) what tends to happen is almost capable of being charted on a graph.  The very words themselves tend to dredge up various, assorted old memories.  Most of these tend to cluster in and around the age of childhood, as that seems to be about the time that most of us tend to make our first acquaintances with Mr. Dickens, and his little holiday fairy tale.  The whole thing seems to have become an unofficial rite of passage.  We may see images of a "grasping, covetous, old sinner" dressed in black against the cold.  Or else we might see the same figure clad in just a night gown and a candle for company.  

This old sinner is far from alone, either.  In addition, we've got memories of a quartet of ghosts, some in chains, some in light, others dressed in holly leaves and robes.  Some still manage to creep the hell out of us all these years later, and one of them is best avoided altogether.  One or two of them might even be comforting, in their own strange way.  Beyond all this, there's the lingering sense of a very specific time and place.  Or maybe it's a central standard no-place-at-all.  Something that's just as much a product of Imagination as Middle Earth or Neverland.  In this case, however, I like to think there's at least some truth in the trope, or picture postcard image we've come to think of as the Dickensian cityscape or winter village.  They at least have a firm grounding in historical reality (though even Middle Earth might qualify for that same category, surprisingly enough).  This is about as far as most of us can go when it comes to Dickens and his Carol.  The whole thing has become so much a part of the general furniture of our minds that it's more of an item we like to dust off and admire for a moment or two, every now and then, before tucking it away back among the mothballs and old Monopoly board.

Very few of us seem to have much in the way of a reason to examine this story, or the Holiday that spawned it in any great detail.  The cool thing about Standiford's book is that it's written in such a way as to give even the casual fans a reason to keep turning the pages.  Standiford's prose is simple and engaging by turns, framing the actual history in narrative, novelistic terms.  It's what allows us to treat the creation of the Carol as an adventure we can sink our teeth into.  It's made all the more enticing by the way Standiford is able to show how Dickens was able to help solidify a lot of the modern traditions that we now have and associate with Christmas.  What Standiford is able to make clear, and what makes his study such a good read, is how much our current sense of the fun during the Holidays is owed to a former, Victorian newspaper sketch writer, who once signed his efforts with the pen-name of Boz.

From what I can tell, Standiford's efforts seem to have been given a pretty warm reception.  It was so well received, in fact, that a little later on, the book was optioned for a film development by Universal studios.  It seems to be one of those obtuse deals that can happen in Hollywood, ever so often.  Somebody somewhere will be doing a bit of navel-gazing, or caught up in a desperate search for material, and then they hit upon books like Standiford's in passing, so, viola, an idea that's better than starving to death in L.A., that's for darn sure, if nothing else is.  I guess the biggest surprise is that the book was able to get optioned at all.  It's not the sort of item you'd think would make a good film project.  I can recall raising a skeptical eye myself once I caught one of the first trailers online.  Still, the year came and went, and the movie adaptation appeared along with it.  Just in time for the Holiday season, and everything.  Which leaves just one question.  How does it stand on its own two legs?