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?

The Main Premise.

Brode lays out the goals of his study right from the start.  "The argument here is that Disney was anything but what he is generally considered by most fans and foes alike: the most conventional of all major American moviemakers.  This position will be advanced through three strategies, presented simultaneously: a close textual analysis of individual films, a concurrent relating of the movies to one another, and a sociopolitical analysis of Walt's work within its historical context.  Disney was not, I hope to prove by book's end, a person who, had he lived to see Woodstock (Walt died in 1966), would have been horrified at what occurred.  More likely, if the movies express the man as I believe they do, he would have been thrilled.

"My aim is to show that Disney's output - as experienced at the movies, on television, and in person at theme parks - played a major role in transforming mid-1959s white-bred toddlers into the rebellious teenage youth of the late sixties.  No one, of course, can achieve such a lofty task alone; countless other artists, as well as people from other walks of life, played their roles in the metamorphosis of our modern world from Eisenhower-era mendacity to post-Woodstock iconoclasm.  Still, no other single figure of the past century has had such a wide, deep, and pervasive influence on the public imagination as Walt Disney.  He did, after all, reach us first (and, therefore, foremost), at that very point in our youthful development when either an individual or a generation is most receptive (and vulnerable) to such forces and ideas.  The title of this tome, if admittedly exaggerated, holds true.  More than any other influence in American popular discourse, Disney ought to be considered the primary creator of the counterculture, which the public view as embracing values that are the antithesis of those that the body of his work supposedly communicated to children (ibid)". 

It's a task that he spends the rest of the book's page count trying his damnedest to fulfill.  The study's central claim, in itself, is perhaps a bit more than daring.  It is just possible to claim that the author has stepped way out of bounds, in a desperate attempt to make his own bid as an iconoclast.  It's to Brode's credit that he seems self-aware enough of the charge.  "Even daring to suggest such a reversal of long-held opinion is risky," he admits, "some might even say foolhardy.  The term "Disneyfication" long ago entered into our idiomatic American English as a stigma.  Whenever anything is said to have been Disneyized or Disneyfied, a harsh criticism is implied.  Substance in the source has been eliminated, the original's impact diluted.  This renders the work's materials more easily accessible to modern mainstream families while removing all the dark edges and thematic depth, or so goes the claim.  Disney films, according to such assumptions, are awash in the worst sort of sentimentality.  As a result, they prove garishly appealing to the lowest common denominator of audience intelligence...

"This notion has been accepted for so long, particularly among academics and intellectuals, that it no longer is considered a subjective opinion but has taken on the weight of irrefutable fact.  The point is that none of this has any basis in the work itself.  The demeaning reputation of Disney as superficial - compounded by the commercial success of his work more than thirty-five year after the man's passing, which in some corners only adds to the reprehensibility of his image - fails to hold up on close scrutiny of his output.  That no one has seriously challenged that perception of Disney merely attests that such a negative assessment is considered not a perception but a reality (x-xi)".

So far as reaching for the stars can go, it really does seem as if Brode is determined to scale the heights as best he can.  In that sense, it's easy to argue that his main thesis idea is already enough to at least win a point for novelty.  I can't recall any other critical examination of Walt's creativity that was willing to view it as a prototype of the 60s Counterculture.  There is no other conclusion, then, except to admit that I've stumbled upon a one-of-a-kind text.  In that sense, it serves as a break with whatever critical consensus existed at the time he was writing.  The author brings up Disney's academic reputation, or rather a lack thereof, as far as he can tell, anyway.  I'm willing to grant that this was probably true at the time the book was written, though I'm no longer sure what kind of reputation Walt enjoys among the intellectual class.  So far as I know, the entire educational subculture that Brode was familiar with seems to have been subsumed into a larger study of pop-culture, in and of itself.  It's the kind of setup where Walt's reputation might be able to gain a fair hearing.  I just wonder what Brode must think about such a radical paradigm shift in his academics surroundings?  Does he feel like he's gained, or lost?

Strengths, and One Necessary Correction.

Whatever the case may be on that score, these are the terms above in which Brode hangs his entire study on. After laying out his opening case, the critic then dedicates the remaining chapters of the book to supplying proofs for his main thesis.  There are ten chapters in all, including an unnumbered introduction and conclusion.  Each chapter, in turn, is dedicated to establishing a connection between the Disney films made under Walt's tenure, and the then nascent, 60s generational movement.  The purpose of these demonstrations can be discerned with enough ease by a careful study of the chapter sub-headings: Disney and the Youth Culture; Disney and the Culture of Conformity; Disney and the Rebel Hero; Disney and the Sixties Sensibility; Romanticism and Religion in Disney; Disney and the Environmental Movement; Disney and the Radicalization of Youth; and Disney and the Denial of Death.  

Brode's goal, in all of this remains the same.  His conviction that Walt had an unseen (and therefore unnoticed) influence on that generation of the audience that would grow up to become the Flower Children is apparently honest enough in its sincerity, and it's clear that he has a genuine dedication to the idea.  Brode's general approach throughout the book is to range over the whole panorama of Walt's career as an artist.  His choice is not to zero in on any single film as a subject of focus for an entire chapter.  Instead, he's opted to take a number of films from the roughly three eras of Walt's management of the company, and lump them all together as demonstrations of a particular theme.  A good example of this strategy can be observed by the way Brode lays out one of his sub-chapters.  Chapter One, for instance, has a subsection entitled, "Don't Knock the Rock: Make Mine Music ("All the Cats Join In") (1946) (7)".  Brode then warms up to his subject in the following manner:

"With rock came a sense of identity.  At last, "teenagers...felt that they had a music of their own, a unifying force that gave them a common consciousness and set them off from their elders."  So was born the American - and, in time, international - youth culture...A new term - "juvenile delinquent" - was added to our pop lexicon.  Self-appointed guardians of public decency irresponsibly bandied the concept about, using it to describe any young person who enjoyed rock.  In Hollywood, producers churned out movies like Rumble on the Docks (1956), depicting an escalating rock 'n roll-inspired youth menace  Disney alone dared openly oppose such attitudes:

"Despite all the publicity about delinquency, [I think] America's youngsters are a pretty good lot.  One of the things I want to do is make a picture that shows the good side of teenagers.  I get so put out with all these pictures about delinquency....I don't think they show a true picture of young people today.

"Walt illustrated that attitude early on, in the "Jazz Interlude" segment of Make Mine Music.  released in 1946, at the onset of postwar modernism, the sequence (alternatively known as "All the Cats Join In") not only predicted rock 'n' roll a full decade early, but presented it as a viable extension of the Big Bands - as such, a natural evolution in popular music rather than, as social conservatives would have it, a temporary aberration.  Benny Goodman and his orchestra provided the score, segueing from traditional jazz in the sequences early moments to an ever more radical sound as the "Interlude" continues.  In essence, Goodman - the least likely artist to be associated with rock - introduced the new sound to American audiences, in collaboration with Disney (8-9)".

Make Mine Music is one of those titles that tends to slip through the cracks of public attention.  Nowhere is this more true, in my experience, than in even the so-called die-hard Mouse House fan communities.  I think it speaks more to whatever aesthetic tastes are currently in vogue, rather than any intrinsic issue with the movie itself.  If I had to look for any good way to describe the film, then I'd have to call one of a handful of semi-sequels to none other than Fantasia, of all things.  While not a financial success on its initial run, Walt still had enough of a fascination for the "Concert Feature", just as a general concept.  As a result, he decided to take at least two more stabs at the idea.  Neither of them exist much in the collective memory these days, except perhaps as it was played in snippets here and there on old Disney Channel anthology shows.  At least that's how I found out about them.  The best term I've got for the "Jazz Interlude" segment that Brode is talking about, is to refer to it as an animated precursor to what George Lucas would attempt four decades later, with American Graffiti.  Which, in turn, ushered in the creation of a television show like Happy Days.

Much like Lucas's film, the story of the segment, such as it is, is little more than chronicling an average night on the town by a group of representatives of the emerging teenage culture of the late 40s/early 50s.  The same group that in about nine or so years from then would go on to make an obscure recording label known as Sun Records into one of the designated Rock Music shrines.  We do little more than follow a gang of teen friends as they make their way to a local hang out joint, and slowly lose themselves in the joy of the the new music.  Brode, in particular, notes the image of a girl who "hops into a car overflowing with teenagers, who drive wildly on their way to the impromptu hop.  A decade later, writer-director Nicholas Ray would revive that image as Natalie Wood leaps into an identical carful of kids in Rebel without a Cause (1955).  The difference is, Ray's rebellious teenagers are perceived, even by the film's young hero (James Dean), as juvenile delinquents.  In Disney, and Disney alone, teen rebels are positively portrayed (9-10)".  For what it's worth, I think it's possible to cite at least one other influential filmmaker with a sympathetic voice for the growing teenage demographic of the time.  I'll let that wait for later, however.  For the moment, all that's really important is the way in which Walt is able to depict the nascent movement in the music.

"On the dance floor, they begin their shenanigans innocently enough, jiving to a jazz tune.  Moment by moment, however, the beat becomes bigger.  As it does, their movements grow ever wilder.  The boy flips the girl about in movements that pass far beyond anything that could be considered jitterbug, resulting in a vivid, accurate depiction of the rock 'n' roll to come.  By record's end, their movements set the pace for the shimmy-bop, mashed potato, and Peppermint Twist.  Walt's full acceptance of the new music makes perfect sense, considering that rock "has little to do with the objective fact of time and age.  It has everything to do with mythic realms of imaginary youth, and these are open to adolescents of all ages".  Rock then, derives from the Disney vision in films and on TV, as well as the theme parks that actualized Walt's "world (10)".

Such is a pretty good outline of the basic approach that Brode takes throughout  the course of his critical text.  I almost want to say that the passage provided above are almost prototypical of everything else in the book.  Before I get to my final thoughts on what it all means, however, there is one minor detail that needs to be gone over.  This has to do with perhaps the single misstep that Brode makes in the course of his book.  For whatever reason, the text flounders when he tries to tie the two main points of his thesis (i.e. Disney and the Hippie movement) to a subset of political thinking that was probably outmoded by the time Bob Dylan was doing his best to imitate Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and still trying to learn the right notes on the harmonica.  It's the first part of Brode's mistake.  We'll take the second half of the problem later on, as that is the crucial part, the one thing Brode manages to get right, as I believe it goes right to the heart of the 60s.  For now, it's enough to offer a corrective to the first mistake.

Let me preface this criticism with a little help from a survivor of that decade.  In his 1999 anthology, Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King made an observation that seems relevant enough to the topics under discussion here.  "College is always a time of change," he states, "the last major convulsion of childhood, but I doubt there were ever changes of such magnitude as those faced by the students who came to their campuses in the late sixties.  Most of us don't say much about those years now, not because we don't remember them but because the language which we spoke back then has been lost.  When I try to talk about the sixties - when I even try to think about them - I am overcome by horror and hilarity (327)".  This is one of those times when it does seem as if the fictional character is able state the sentiments of the real life author with a succinctness that manages to help the story along.  At the same time, there is an inherent irony contained in that statement, even if it is the truth, a far as King is concerned.  He's looking at it from the perspective of someone who almost can't believe it ever happened, even if it's all there, written down in the history books.

King maintains that part of the reason for that is because of a crucial loss of the appropriate language of the times.  It may be a minor point to some, yet it reads like one of those occasions when even a non-academic is capable of some vital form of recognition.  You'd be surprised how much the zeitgeist of a certain era can be contained in the history of its chosen language.  This is something scholars like J.R.R. Tolkien knew well, as it was the study of languages that helped him gain an insight into the cultures of the past.  The irony, of course, is that both Tolkien and King  were literary beneficiaries the 60s, and it kind of winds up showing in both of their works.  The point King makes, however, remains the same.  Sometimes you really do need the proper guide, someone who is familiar with the native language of a forgotten region of the map.  I think that point is obvious enough when it comes to the one misstep in the pages of Brode's study.  It's sustained even further if you flip all the way back to the bibliography of his text, and look at the names there.

This is something that I think only bookworms would be able to pick up on, yet the fact remains that sometimes a bibliography can tell you an awful lot about the thought or worldview that has gone into the making of certain books.  Nowhere is this more true than in the work of non-fiction.  It's sort of why I have to recommend it as a general rule, or standard practice, even to the casual readers of such material, especially if you should ever come across passages that seem confusing.  In Brode's case, I went in looking to clarify either the presence or absence of one author in particular.  The fact that I couldn't find him anywhere, and that his titles were missing from the bibliography was sort of all I needed in order to understand where Brode's mistake came from.  In short, it's that he sort of relied a bit too much on the political aspects from other writers who probably aren't as savvy about that decade as others.  There's a lack of caution and measure in some of Brode's sources, that is otherwise very present even in the semi-fictional setting of King's story.

I think the reason for this sense of restraint and lack therefor is pretty simple.  King lived through it.  I'm not sure whether the same can be said of Brode himself.  What I am certain of is that his greatest oversight was in somehow missing out on, or failing to consult the works of Theodore Roszak.  In many ways, I'd have to argue that aside from fiction like Hearts in Atlantis, it is the work of this single scholar in particular who can grant the historical novice or neophyte all he or she needs to know about the basic collection of thoughts and ideas of the Hippie generation.  In particular, I think I'd have to recommend them a series of titles which appear to have gotten overlooked with the passage of years.  I also sometimes wonder if that isn't a mistake on a larger scale.  The study texts I have in mind are: The Making of a Counterculture; Where the Wasteland Ends; The Unfinished Animal; and Person/Planet.

In each of these books, Roszak attempted to trace the historical pedigree of the ideas that inspired the 60s, and ultimately to try and figure out where they were heading after the decade had ended.  However strange this may sound, in many ways, for better or worse, I'm convinced that of all the pundits and historians out there, Roszak still remains the one who came closest to pinning down the exact nature of the counterculture, and everyone else I've read just sort of tends to stand in his shadow.  That's a hell of an endorsement to to make for some obscure college professor most have never heard of, and who hasn't even been around to defend himself since roughly 2008 (tough, yet true).  However, this is not a praise I give lightly.  Roszak really does seem to have hit the bullseye better than all the others.

It's just a shame to learn that Brode never once appears to have consulted any of this author's work.  What makes it a double irony is that the Disney book was published in 2001, when Roszak was still around to be consulted.  If he'd done that, then I think Brode would have avoided some of his more misguided statements.  I'm here to critique, however, and not cast stones.  Hard as it may seem to believe now, it turns out there really is a valid distinction to be made.  Besides, I don't think Brode's text is really a failure in the long run.  It's just that there's one item in the book that needs correction, and Roszak is the one to supply it.  In The Making of a Counterculture, Roszak helps situate the movement by noting a distinction that sets it apart from what had come before, while also being a reflection of ideas past.  "(The) situation they confront," he writes, "stubbornly refuses to yield to a conventional left-right analysis...At last they are forced to admit that the entrenched consensus which repels their dissent is the generational phenomenon which the French and German young have begun to call "daddy's politics."...

"...But where the old categories of social analysis have so little to tell us (or so I will argue here), it becomes a positive advantage to confront the novelty of daddy's politics free of outmoded ideological preconceptions.  The result may be a more flexible, more experimental, though perhaps also a more seemingly bizarre approach to our situation (4)".  What Roszak has done here is something of a favor for future historians looking to understand the time period in which he wrote (the book itself was published in 1969).  What the author does is introduce a simple, yet perhaps somewhat vital distinction in outlining a true definition of the 60s counterculture.  It was a fact that, in retrospect, is maybe a bit too simple to be obvious.  Hence, it's no wonder that is tends to slip under the radar.  It may also be a key to just why it's possible to claim it later amounted to at least a genuine form of success and advance.  What made the counterculture work, according to Roszak, is that the Hippies never made the mistake of getting involved with what might be called "politics as usual".  It's the unnecessary conundrum that we find ourselves embroiled in today, and it was a pitfall that the counterculture was somehow smart enough to recognize, and therefore neatly sidestep.

I have called this a vital distinction that Roszak makes, and I maintain that keeping things like this in mind will help prevent even the supporters of the counterculture from making the sort of false identification that just serves to obscure the truth of the matter, rather than assist it.  This is the nature of the mistake that I think Brode can sometimes be guilty of, at least when he's not being too careful of where he's looking.

Conclusion: A Very Useful Corrective.

In spite of this, it is somehow not enough for me to label the finished product as bad.  On the contrary, despite this one obvious flaw, the interesting part is how Brode somehow manages to not let it define the ultimate identity of his text.  I think the main reason for that is because he keeps getting drawn back to one element in particular.  It was that other piece of the puzzle I mentioned earlier, and now is perhaps the best time to state it.  It can all be summed up in the simple, yet somehow complex word known as Romanticism.  It's a continuous note that Brode strikes more than once in his study.  In fact, I almost want to say that it becomes the constant, underlying leitmotif of the book.  It's a note that Brode is quick to sound off on, right in the opening pages of his introduction:

"A case was once made for Plato being the first Romantic, owing to his idealistic conception of "an ideal world concealed behind the visible...his daring deduction of all being and knowledge from the idea of the Good.  Similarly, each of Disney's nature films implies an ideal world behind all the harsh realities on view.  First Disneyland and then Walt Disney World were attempts to create an (ideal, sic) city...The opening of the first Disneyland TV show presented an animated vision of the park (then not yet completed) in precisely those visual terms.  Beginning with Snow White, each film proceeds from a worship of Plato's "Good", illustrated in a modern manner.  If that sounds a far cry from the half a million longhairs who converged on Max Yasgur's farm near the small town of Bethel, New York, fifty-four miles from the actual place called Woodstock, in August 1969, the difference is largely illusory (xxx)".

This is the opening premise which Brode uses to frame his entire thesis.  Nor is it the sole time that any such references manage to turn up in the course of the examination.  A few pages later on, he cites an old Donald Duck cartoon, The New Neighbor, as advancing Wordsworth's maxim that "The world is too much with us".  This is how it goes throughout pretty much the entirety of the book.  The funny thing is how none of it bothers me all that much.  I think a lot of it is down to at least some form of shared sympathy when it comes to Romanticism, at least.  It just strikes me that Brode might at least be onto something of actual substance.  He's hit upon what might be called the beginnings of a genuine insight, for better or worse.  Personally, I'm willing to admit that it's kind of a shame that, so far as I can tell, no other academic, student, or even Disney fan out there has taken up the initial challenge that Brode has laid down in this text, and developed it further and with greater insights and clarity, as it really does seem as if the critic really has struck on a largely untapped vein of gold with this study.

At the same time, it's like I'm able to straddle the line on this one.  I can see that Brode has hit upon a topic worth digging into in greater detail.  At the same time, it's possible to see how a lot of this might be a turn off to the average reader.  Brode's initial insight so far remains one that has not been acknowledged to any great degree, certainly not enough to act as the kind of critical challenge that would ever gain enough of the popularity needed in order effect a paradigm shift in the way we talk about Walt and his legacy.  So I regard it as a shame, while it's also like, yeah, I can see how this isn't the kind of subject most folks would warm up to naturally.  In spite of this, while I do have at least one major criticism of the book as a whole, which was already outlined above, the main point of the text, once free of this single misstep, really does seem like a worthwhile topic of further exploration.

Brode points the finger at the critical backlash that Walt received in his own time for the neglect of this idea.  In particular he points to Richard Schickel's influential essay entitled The Disney Version as the starting point for the critical drubbing and neglect that the vast majority of Walt's canon has received (xxii).  I'm willing to go with the idea that there might be some merit in this particular barb.  What also stands out, however, is that this counterpoint, indeed, the entire book, was made at the very start of the 21st century, in the year 2001.  I don't even think the sky had fallen out of New York by the time Brode's work hit the shelves.  There have been a lot of sea changes happening since the point at which the author tried to make his case for the countercultural currents in the Disney film vault.  I have to admit it would be interesting to ask what Brode thinks of his thesis now, in looking back on his work.   

For whatever it's worth, as I was busy taking all that dictation, I couldn't help but wonder what a scholar like Brode has to say, for instance, about the current studio incarnation as Disney/Pixar?  Does it look to him now as if the whole affair is in danger of becoming the very thing that older critics feared it was?  Take the way the company handles itself with the ratings system.  It helps to recall that back during the 1980s, the Tinseltown taste-makers felt compelled to enact a then new PG-13 category.  It was made in response to the trend that a lot of filmmakers had back then for putting out films that tended to have an edge to them.  Even if the target audience was still meant to be the kids in the aisles, that didn't stop guys like Joe Dante from utilizing the type of gore and shock effects that up till then had been used strictly for the adult Horror markets.  

Directors like Dante, Zemekis, and Spielberg, however, kept arriving at material that wound up pushing the envelope for what audiences of the time were expecting.  It's called revolutionary, nowadays, yet the punchline is sort of on anyone whole still holds to such a view.  Because the truth couldn't be more ironic.  Far from any talk of innovation, or progression, it was all a simple matter of dusting off a lot of old nursery tropes and placing them in modern sounding dress that helped films like Temple of Doom become America's version of the Video Nasties.  What had really happened was that a collective piece of storytelling lore and memory had been lost, of misplaced along the way.  As a result, whenever an artist came along who was able to recall those old tropes, or else uncover and latch onto them along the way, and put them up on the screen, the unavoidable result was to mistake the old for the new.  Hence, the refurbished past was enough to make it necessary for Hollywood to invent a new rating category, in the hopes that it would provide at least some frame of reference, if only to try and help mainstream audiences see if they could even find a way situate it all in their familiar frame of reference.

I think the fact that a vast majority of those old 80s classics, such Labyrinth, are now regarded as cult films, rather than accepted mainstream hits, is a silent testament to just how much of a failure such an effort was to begin with.  The great majority has long since spoken, and when the dust had settled, and their minds were made up, the result was that out-of-the-mainstream films like Brazil, and Buckaroo Banzai are now forever stuck having to fight a constant uphill battle for any real, viable type of name recognition.  What often gets lost in the shuffle of this moment in history is the ironic fact that it was the very House of Mouse that Brode is talking about was one of the key filmmaking outlets responsible for this trend.  The early 80s are often spoken of as the studio's Dark Ages.  The common wisdom is that things hit a slump after Walt passed on, and never really picked up till the advent of the Renaissance period, which got its inauguration with The Little Mermaid.  For some reason, people seem to ignore the impact of a film like Roger Rabbit, as I'm pretty sure the latter wouldn't have had much of a chance without the impact left by the groundbreaking of the former.

However, I think the explanation for that has already been given.  While Roger's exploits are now considered a classic, they are also an exception.  At it's heart, the film is really of a piece with the more darker material of the pre-Renaissance era.  The key difference is that it was somehow enough to get the attention of the majority.  It was not, however, enough to erase the film's identity as something out of the designated, cinematic norm, something that ultimately belonged to the less lighter environs of the Enchanted Forest.  In practical terms, it was a Disney film with teeth, and it could bite you with them whenever it wanted.  This made it something of a paradox.  It's fundamental nature, the one thing it's story could never do without, made it something of a no-no to the parents of the company's target demographic.  At the same, the problem was that the kids just adored it.  They'd keep coming back to it over and again.  They just couldn't get enough of the stuff.  In addition, the film was a genuine artistic achievement, one that received its proper, official recognition later on, at the Oscars.

If all of this this critical-aesthetic back-and-forth seems like a puzzling, hopeless muddle, then that's just what it was, and still is.  Parents and mainstreamers had the worst possible freak of nature on their hands, a work of art whose wild anarchy and inspiration can never quite be tamed.  So, what do you do with something that is well loved, and yet can't conform to whatever the norm of the moment is?  The answer is simple, throw the dog a bone, then lock it up in the kennel.  That's pretty much the surprising fate of the best of the great fantasy films of the 80s.  It's a setup that may shock the die-hard fans who can recognize the quality of works like Time Bandits.  That sense of impossibility also doesn't keep it from being true.  It also helps reveal an unrecognized irony at the heart of the PG-13 rating.  It was created as a way of helping audiences find their way around this new bread of film that was essentially the product of what happens when you let the Hippies take over Hollywood for a time.  All those old acid fantasies get dusted off, applied with a fresh coat of paint, and are then put to good use!

What it also does is uncover the PG-13 rating's dirty little secret.  At it's core, it's a signpost that let's mainstreamers know what they're in for, if they should decide to take the ticket and ride this very particular kind of ride.  Now, to be fair, there will always be some who choose to veer out of the comfort lane of whatever is acceptable, or "of the moment", and go on to make a welcome home for themselves in the Land of "13 and Up".  The majority, however, will still go on to set the standard.  This can be seen in what's happened to the rating over the years.  Has anyone else noticed it?  You see it slapped onto movies like Up and Inside Out.  Whatever the quality of each of these films, there's really nothing in them to justify the extra 13 tag-on.  It's just that the same audience that found a way to tame the dreaded unlucky number are also mostly the same ones who accuse Walt's era of the studio to be both "safe" and conformative.  I'm just curious of what Brode would make of this, is all.

I bring all this up because I think it's the best example of proof of concept.  Here we have all the longhairs who were inspired by Walt as kids (i.e. Lucas, Spielberg, Dante, Gilliam, etc) and they've given us our concept of what the future of popular Fantastic cinema can be.  The funny thing is how even this idea is now being clipped and co-opted onto a business as usual platform.  If nothing else, this might just be a testament to the kind of challenge that Brode's thesis is up against.  If that's the case, then perhaps it's all the more reason for championing it as much as possible.  From Walt to Woodstock is not a perfect book, yet it may be something of an essential.  What it does is give Walt the kind of dignity that is usually reserved for outlaw filmmakers like Roger Corman.  I just love this idea that it's planted in my mind of these two masters of cinema, both of whom look totally different on the surface, and yet probably have more in common than either of them ever knew.  

I don't know, there's just something endearing about an idea like that.  It strikes me as the perfect metaphor for Brode's text as a whole.  It's a dichotomy that is also a unification of opposites which go together to create a new lens in which to view some of the most familiar material in the history of movies.  This might just be where the real value of the book lies.  It offers readers the sort of viewpoint which can act as a perhaps necessary corrective to stereotypical view of Walt and the Disney films that have existed for perhaps a bit too long.  Part of the reason why this iconoclastic approach is so appealing is because I might have gone some way towards making myself the ideal audience for this kind of re-framing.  A while back, I had the opportunity to take stock of another critical text known as The Movie Brats, which examined the careers of Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, and Scorsese.  It's one of those critical screeds that time has told on, and not in a good way.

Books like that are less interested in seeing what the art itself has to say, and more with trying to position itself as a critical arbiter of what a film should be, regardless of how things are shaping up in real life.  The result has turned The Movie Brats into a curio piece, while unintentionally elevating From Walt to Woodstock into an undiscovered halfway work of genius.  That's because Brode seems to have his hand a lot closer to the pulse of the trajectory of American cinema over the years.  He doesn't always get the target, yet there are a lot more hits than misses.  And it offers an altogether more informative look at the real legacy of Disney, the Counterculture, and the effect that both have had on the American arts today.  


  1. (1) An interesting idea; one that I'd never given much thought to, but it makes a certain amount of sense. I mean, good lord, one of the signature Disneyland rides was titled "Carousel of Progress," so the idea of constantly moving forward is definitely a part of the underlying Disney philosophy.

    (2) "Make Mine Music" is underrated; that's a movie more people should see. Not quite on the level with "Fantasia" (what is?), but worthy in its own right, for sure. And speaking of "Fantasia," an argument could be made that it's as much an acid-trip as "2001: A Space Odyssey" would later prove to be, but two and a half decades early to the party.

    (3) I might be misreading, but neither "Up" nor "Inside Out" are rated PG-13. I don't believe any Pixar film (or animated Disney film) has been rated above a PG yet.

    (4) I think the company's output is still more or less consistent with Walt's vision. There's certainly something in it which has gotten some conservatives awfully pissed off lately; so the Mouse House must be doing something right!

    1. (1) It could be that it's one of those facts which is, like too big to see clearly. Like the message is there, and it just gets drowned out by all the other things happening around it.

      (2) That has got to be one of the few opinions out there that I've seen from others which is even willing to consider an effort like "Make Mine" worthy of even the time of day. Every other Disney fan out there tends to look down their noses at a lot of the other stuff Walt did that isn't part of the "Classic" Animated Canon.

      It's disconcerting to see just how much of a choke hold this mindset has on current fans. I can only chalk it up to a lack of decent exposure to all that Walt had to offer growing up. Which is a shame, really, cause a case can be made that everyone these days is missing out on a lot of lost gems.

      (3) I'm just thinking now of the ways that rating has sort of become sort of meaningless. Like consider the type of films it used to mean. Stuff like "Temple of Doom", or "Return to Oz", or even "Gremlins". Those last two are good examples of what I mean, because I know for a fact that I've watched old previews for both those films in clips from the 80s era Disney channel.

      Long story short, old nerd yells at cloud, pines for more of that shit!

      (4) I think all anyone can do now is wish them good luck, and just hope that those looking to take the company down don't have any dirty tricks up their sleeve.