Saturday, December 30, 2023

An Adventure in Art (1958).

I'm trying to recall the first time I met Mickey Mouse.  One of two possible candidates, or images stand out in my memory.  The first involves a picture of three figures trapped in an out-of-control mobile home as it's careening down a cliff.  Mickey himself is there, hanging on for dear life, alongside two others.  One of them is a cantankerous duck named Donald.  The other is someone who I think is a kind of dog person?  Anyway, the other fella's name is Goofy.  No, I mean that's his actual name, for some reason.  Not a description of his character, sorta.  The point is that's the initial candidate for the first time I ever met the Mouse and his two famous friends.  On a hook-up live-in trailer that's come unlatched from its 1930s Model T car, and is now literally tumbling it's helpless occupants to their certain deaths.  I'm not sure how the travails of Clarke Griswold and his amusing brood hold a candle to the sort of classic slapstick I'm thinking of now.  The name of the cartoon where all this action took place is called Mickey's Trailer, and I first saw back when I must have been no more than anywhere between five or six years of age.  The second contender for the first time I ever saw these three was in a short titled On Ice.  It featured all three of these characters once again.  This time they were getting into trouble on a simple skating trip.

I know I saw each of these cartoons in turn when I was a child.  I just can't tell you what order they were in.  If I had to take a wild guess, then I'll have to go with Mickey's Trailer as the first time I ever made acquaintance with the work of Walter Disney.  I was just a kid visiting my grandparents one Saturday, and it was at their house that they surprised me with a tape recording they'd made of a series of both Mouse House and Warner Bros. cartoons.  This was a treat they made a habit of for me when I was in their care, growing up.  Thanks to their efforts, I got to meet not just the Don, the Mickster, and the Goof.  I also ran into a rascally rabbit named Bugs, and yet another duck named Daffy.  There was also a cat named Tom and yet another mouse, this one named Jerry.  Last yet not least, I can never forget the wit and wisdom passed down to me and other children of that era through the efforts of three wise, humanist sages by the names of Larry, Curly, and Moe.  And I sort of owe all of these acquaintances to my dad's folks.  My grandparents were kind of awesome like that for some reason.

Looking back on those times now, I suppose the most remarkable thing is that I still own most of those pre-recorded tapes that they used to plunk me down in front of their living room TV to watch as a kid.  To any 80s kids who care about that sort of thing, I guess I count as somewhat lucky.  One thing I notice, going back through a few of these old VHS heirlooms, however, is that some of the content on them are of an interesting quality.  Here's where I have to jump in ahead of the reader and either assure and/or let some of them down.  Don't worry or get your hopes up.  This is not the lead-in to some hackneyed internet Creepypasta.  I'm sticking to real life here, and the content I'm talking has no curses, no secret message, or otherwise displays the by now hoary old trope of the ghost in the machine.  What I find fascinating about these old tapes instead is that my grandparents sort of wound up doing me a bigger favor than they realized.  It's like they created an accidental time capsule of TV shows past.

Now I don't think I'm saying anything too original here.  All I've said is something that a lot of old VHS collectors know about at first hand.  The luckier among us get to collect whole libraries of forgotten celluloid lore, complete with nostalgic scratches and long vanished TV static.  It's a shared memory that's since turned into both its own aesthetic and musical genre.  My interest in all this rests with the few bits of recorded history tapes like mine can tell us about some of the entertainment we grew up watching in an era before the digital revolution swept it all away.  One item in particular that keeps cropping up across most of my grandparents old video cassettes is not such much the constant, lingering presence of Mickey and his kingdom.  Instead, it's more to do with the fact that most of the Mouse's material is confined to a very specific programming block.  Back then, as now, if you wanted to see anything related to the Happiest Place on Earth, you had to look to the Magic Kingdom's considerable PR arm.  What this meant in practice is that every time my grandparents were able to capture a bit of that very same Kingdom on tape, it always came from just one, single source the whole time.

This came in the form of a TV show which had a lot of names when it was around.  I'm not even sure it exists anymore, if I'm being honest.  The title that I came to know is the one that I'm going to use here and throughout the rest of this article.  Both because it's the shortest and most digestible descriptor I can think of, and also I guess just because it was my introduction to it all, if that makes any sense.  So for the sake of clarity and ease, the program was called Walt Disney Presents.  It had it's start way back in the year 1954, and was still hanging around when my dad's folks recorded reruns of it for me when I was born.  That's how I first made acquaintance with Uncle Walt and his enchanted realms.  It was on an obscure variety program that I think has turned into the analog equivalent of an endangered species with the advent of platforms like Disney Plus.  In a way that is a shame, as I think it robs the company of easier access for its fans.  It used to be you could catch all the magic you wanted on your TV virtually free of charge.  If, that was, Mommy and Daddy continued to pay the cable bills.  As a result, I'm one of a generational cohort that came to know of Disney through this one, charming program.

I've even talked about it a bit, once before on this very site, in fact.  Not too long ago I used a book called Disney TV to provide as good an overview of that show as I could at the time.  Whether I've gotten any better at this is something others will have to judge.  I guess now is as good a time as ever to come clean and admit that brief review of an obscure critical study was meant as a kind of appetizer.  Something that could maybe prepare the reader for more where that came from, and so the time has arrived.  What I've begun to realize for a while now is the extent to which this old, forgotten variety program has gone on to shape a lot of my own tastes.  I'm not sure if it's right to say they've shaped the lens I use to either read or watch stories.  However, this simple TV show does tend to act a lot as a cornerstone that I find myself wanting to return to now and again to gain a sense of bearings.  That's why I thought now might be the time to help unearth a rare, and unheralded gem by taking a look at one of its forgotten episodes.  This is something I've just been able to do for the very simple reason that I'm not alone.  Turns out there are a lot of Mouse House fans who grew up under the same circumstances.

Our folks managed to snag VHS copies of whole episodes of a TV show that Walt started back before the idea of recordable home media was just a pipe dream.  And so now I'm able to recapture moments of my past that I thought I'd lost forever.  Or else I can now watch episodes that I've never even seen before, and knew only from old broadcast listings.  To tell you the truth, I thought most of this stuff had vanished into the sands of time long ago.  Instead, I now have the opportunity to live up to the goals of this site, and rescue an overlooked work of Disney's from the ash heap of obscurity.  I think it fair to warn the reader that this is probably the kind of thing I'm going to make a habit of going forward, every now and then.  This first offering is best looked at as an opening salvo, of sorts, then.  I think we'll start out on an episode of Walt Disney Presents with a very apt title.  It's called An Adventure in Art.

Some Commentary on the Episode.

The show opens with the man himself seated at his office desk.  In front of him are a number of correspondence letters from fans.  This is how the creator of Mickey Mouse outlines the "plot" of today's episode in his own words.  And now, your host, Walt Disney.  "Here at the studio we get many letters from art students, and from people who are just interested in Art.  Some of these letters ask questions that deserve a more detailed answer than could be given in a written reply.  And so, from time to time, we're going to devote an entire program to answering a few of these questions.  Now first off, I'd like to say that I do not presume to be an authority on Art.  It is true that we've had a brush with Art around here, but it has generally been confined to our own field.  The Art of Animation.  And any opinions, or advice on the subject of Art would naturally be limited to that field of experience.  So I'm going to refer to a book that has been a great source of inspiration to me, even back in my student years.  It is The Art Spirit.  Now this is not a textbook, but rather a compilation of philosophy and thoughts on Art.  It's by Robert Henri.  Robert Henri, who died in 1929, was an outstanding American painter.

"His own paintings reflect the revolt he lead against the stodgy tradition that was stifling freedom of artistic expression in this country.  But our interest is not so much in the pictures he painted.  It's rather in his rare gifts of teaching and inspiring others.  Not many great artists are also great teachers of Art.  Robert Henri was both.  And this book is a collection of thoughts from his letters, and notes from his lectures and art classes.  So when I use The Art Spirit in answering your letters, I hope you'll get the same inspiration from it that I did when I first read it"  What's notable about this opening introduction from the standpoint of contemporary criticism is just how inviting it is.  Here we see Disney inviting both fans and just the plain curious to take a closer look at the philosophy that drove his creative output.  This makes it standout to me for a number of reasons.  The most pertinent being in the way that it's the artist himself who encourages his viewers to look below the surfaces of the lines and patterns that his staff have brought to life, and examine the guiding way of thinking that drove their creations.

This is notable because here Walt is displaying an approach to his efforts that I've never seen given anything like real, in-depth critical attention.  Most of the criticism I've ever read or seen on the man can't seem to reach past a certain point.  Whenever a critic, or even a die-hard fan talks about either a Disney film, or else the history of the Company and its creator as a whole, it's like all they can focus on is a brief description of a few choice behind the scenes details, and then go no farther.  We learn about the "making of" films like Snow White, yet few go on from there to take a deep dive into how Walt and the Nine Old Men drew inspiration from their source material, or why these particular aspects of any Myth they might have adapted mattered so much to them.  There's plenty of books and documentaries out there that tells you how the story of the Dwarves came to the big screen.  None or few of it, however, bothers to ask questions like: "What was it about the folklore that Walt adapted which enabled him to find so many creative ways of bringing it to life"?  Another question no one bothers to ask is: "What way of thinking was it that made Walt and crew take on such a challenge"?

To me, these all sound like very important questions that are worth asking.  They might even have a greater relevance now that even the New York Times is beginning to chronicle the studio's current existential personal crisis.  As I've said, though, it is just a handful of exceptions that have ever come close to diving into these deeper creative wells.  It's a list that includes Kathy Merlock Jackson, Douglas Brode, and Robin Allan.  The rest, meanwhile, content themselves with rehashing the same shopworn details without ever pausing to think how such a sales pitch runs the risk of making the public think that the Art they were trying to make really was all just a bunch of trifles to begin with.  It's a critical error that even the Company itself has fallen into in the past.  The current structure at the Studio seems content with compounding this mistake, for some reason.  In contrast to all this, you've got Walt himself encouraging his audience.  Telling them, "Here's a good resource that has inspired all my life.  You should take a closer look here, if you want to find out about what drives me to make what I do".

I'm not sure how often I've ever seen an actual studio CEO go that far for the sake of the customers.  In other words, I don't know many movie moguls who were willing to talk up to rather than down at their audience.  It's an approach Walt continues and doubles down on as he delves further into the episode's main subject.  He proceeds to lead his viewers into a series of vignettes and clips from the films and shorts that have made up the Studio's history.  In addressing the questions fans have posed to him about Art, Disney provides them answers through what amounts to examples of his best unsung work in animation.  It should be noted that this quasi-variety show format was something close to the norm for Walt's show, especially where showcasing his now iconic works were concerned.  While the show as a whole is best described as an anthology, featuring a different episode of the week, those featuring the Studio's beloved animation would always turn out to be this interesting hybrid of a series of previous cartoons spliced in with original animation and footage, all of which is organized around a theme.

The result is something that's a bit too organized to be just a simple clip show review of the type you sometimes found on The Simpsons.  For one thing, Walt would often edit some of his previous Goofy or Donald shorts together in such a way as to create a longer, more integrated narrative than what they previously were as stand-alone theatrical cartoons that used to run between new reels and the premier of films like It Conquered the World.  Whenever his past efforts were spliced together like they are in An Adventure in Art, the result was often a sum greater than its original parts.  Neither clip show, nor variety, like I said.  Instead, very much like Walt himself, these episodes are pretty much their own unique beast.  It's what helps explain the nature of this episode as Disney proceeds to answer a series of questions contained in the correspondence at his desk.  "The first letter", Walt says, "is from a young lady who is in her first year of Art study.  And she asks: 'Are silhouettes art"?  The writer encloses a sample of her own work that looks pretty darn good enough to hang on a wall, all things considered.

Walt continues to read the letter. "She writes, in part: 'My friends at Art School insist that cutting out silhouettes of this sort are a complete waste of time, and argue that they are not a legitimate form of Art.  In fact, not Art at all.  Now I like making these, and feel they have some merit, but I don't know how to prove it.  Could you possibly think of anything that will help me out with my side of the argument'?  Are silhouettes Art?  Well, when it came to defining Art, Robert Henri took a very liberal viewpoint.  Here are his introductory lines in The Art Spirit.  'Art, when really understood, is the province of every human being.  It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well'.  And here's what he says about what means an artist may use to express himself.  'He does not have to be a painter, or a sculpture to be an artist.  He can work in any medium'.  So, according to Henri, an artist's choice of tools is not important.  And as far as using scissors is concerned, there's no question that it requires a great deal of skill to cut out a good silhouette".

I think that sentence or its underlying sentiment is perhaps one of the most important things any aspiring creator can hear.  Because it grants them that important sense of permission a lot of budding talents need in order to even begin their most nascent efforts at crafting any kind of artwork they can imagine.  For me, this can apply just as well to the world of storytelling, and its various mediums, as much as it does to painting or sculpture.  In fact, this is a maxim that seems to be implicit in Walt's own philosophy of making films.  More than it encourages both the artist and storyteller, I think it's final value lies in the way it nudges audiences to try and see if it's at all possible to think outside the box when it comes to how they receive the stories they either watch or read.  To think in ways that will allow their imaginative capacities to expand, and be a fuller participant in the entertainment of stories.

From here, Walt goes on to prove Henri's point about freedom of expression in a twofold manner.  All of it is done by answering the first correspondent's question about the artistic merits of silhouettes.  And it's here that Disney showcases the other strength of his anthology program.  He seems to have been one of the few adults in the room who knew how to make learning fun.  I suppose a good way to say it is that he beat Jim Henson to the punch when it came to using entertainment to teach kids valuable lessons in, say, the History of the Arts.  If that's the case, then Walt's own efforts at it need a bit of delineating.  For one thing, he's not addressing pre-schoolers, but rather older children from the middle elementary levels on up.  This episode in particular seems to be addressed to those of college age.  As such things are a bit more straightforward, yet it's clear that the art of edutainment is being presented in one of its most polished, yet nascent and overlooked forms.  Once again, Walt proves himself a real pioneer.

What happens is he goes on to prove the artistic validity of silhouette making by showing how the art has been used in different mediums.  The first instance takes us into the realm of the Disneyland park, where Walt has us meet two employees who specialize in cutting out the features of their customers.  It's a neat demonstration of the novelty uses that the art form still has (here and there) to its name.  However, Disney doesn't leave it there.  He then takes that viewer on a brief, yet informative history tour.  "While nowadays silhouettes are associated in most people's minds with fairgrounds and amusement parks, our files show that they are actually of an honorable and really ancient Art.  Possibly one of man's first attempts at artistic expression took this form".  Here Walt opens a history book to display a series of ancient cave drawings.  "One authority has estimated that these silhouettes were made between 5,000 and 10,000 BC.  They are called rock pictures, and are painted on the rock walls of almost inaccessible ledges high in the mountains of eastern Spain".  One of these "primitive" drawings shows the clear figure of a mother and child.  The child appears to be her daughter.  It's enough to raise an interesting question in my mind.  Was the father the artist?  What made him want to do all of that?

I suppose most dad's will be able to answer that one.  Whoever made that image thought it valuable enough to place just out of reach, where neither enemies nor the passage of time could reach it.  It's just interesting to note these are the passing ideas that someone like Walt can plant in your mind while ostensibly talking about something else.  The lesson continues.  We learn how the sketch outline figure began during man's so-called cave dwelling era.  "They tell the story of man's artistic progress, from his earliest known pictures, to skillfully rendered paintings...Sometimes in these caves, drawings of one age are painted over drawings of an earlier age.  So, if we could take them off, layer by layer, we would finally arrive at the very oldest of man's artistic endeavors.  And this will invariably be the silhouette of a hand".  Here, Walt's animation team demonstrate the very layering of art history he talks about.  "There is good reason to believe that he made these silhouettes of his own hand by blowing pigment through a hollow reed in this manner.  Although this is one of man's earliest attempts at Art, this same technique is still being used by the artist's of today".  A Disney artist using this same "primitive" technique to help create the outline, or silhouette of an animated leaf is then shown to the viewer.

We're then treated to further speculation on how early man might have advanced in drawing the human figure.  This includes a humorous short cartoon skit about a Neolithic husband botching a portrait of his own wife.  Who I'll swear is just the same model of as that of Tinkerbell, except that her wings are gone, she's average human sized now, and the color of her hair was changed.  We're then shown how silhouettes were used as artistic emblems retelling story of classical myth in Ancient Greco-Roman pottery and wall murals.  From there, we move on to a final brief look at the life and achievements of the artist who gave this particular form of drawing its name, way back in the 18th century.  He was a French aristocrat by the name of Etienne de Silhouette.  He turned out to be the one to give the method its modern face and stamp.  After going through all of this education as entertainment, Walt finally displays for his first correspondent the value of silhouette making in some of his own animation.

"With such a distinguished history it's not surprising that even today silhouette making continues to exert a certain fascination and interest.  In fact, it intrigued us here at the Studio so much that we thought we'd try our hand at it.  Since silhouettes lend themselves so well to the expression of romantic subjects, we started with a typical valentine.  We combined silhouette art with the beautiful voice of Dinah Shore, the ballet dancing of Tanya Riabouchinska and David Lichine, and our own art of animation set to a beautiful ballad called Two Silhouettes".  This piece of work was first debuted as a part of the Studio's wartime era "package features".  Films that were less full-length movie and more a collection of strung together short cartoons that when put together would stretch the runtime out to an hour and a half format which was considered the typical runtime for a film back then.  The ballet ballad number itself can almost be spoken of better as less of a short, and more like one of the first early attempts at what would one day become known as the modern music video.  It's content, however, is just as Walt describes it.  A good video of the piece can be found here.  So what makes it notable?

Well, to start with, the vignette is exactly as Walt describes it.  All the viewer is treated to is almost like a stage mock-up that is then expanded and transformed into an abstract art setting through which the silhouetted figures of Lichine and Riabouchinska choreograph there way through to a roughly four minute love ballad.  There's no plot to speak of.  In fact, that whole thing can almost be described as a technical exercise.  This might also become to the biggest criticism for any possible detractors to hurl at the vignette.  My problem with such barbs is the sense of shared myopia that it always seems to speak for.  The type of viewers who are willing to rip an early music video like this to pieces are the kind of who have a clear cut idea of what Disney's filmography is, or what it should be.  These are the kinds who favor a more traditional narrative approach to the Mouse House product.  This vantage point tends to view littler visual experiments like this with disdain.  Much like the friends of the nameless and unseen silhouette correspondent who wrote to Walt, the viewers I'm thinking of now seem to view a work like the Dinah Shore segment as a waste of time that's not even worth a shred of consideration. 

My problem with this whole entire opinion is what I can only describe as its outlook of cozy laziness.  It's the thought process and perception of a mental flatlander.  It displays a fundamentally one dimensional understanding of Art and its inherent capabilities.  As such, it is incapable of bringing anything like a full formed constructive criticism to bear on just what kind of artistic achievement Walt and his team were after in composing this vignette.  Now some may ask whether or not they have a right to their own views on the matter.  To which I reply that this is true in the most ironic sense.  I'm sure that a dislike of a mood piece like Disney's Silhouette sequence is arrived at honestly.  The trouble is the way that people reach this kind of outlook is less by choice, and more by a kind of mental constricting of one's imaginative horizons.  There may be a type of choice involved here.  Yet the final result of such a decision is often of the unconscious variety, and the observer often remains unaware of how they have robbed themselves of a certain freedom of artistic perception that instills an unavoidable cognitive dissonance that leaves them straightjacketed when it comes to different forms of artwork.

It leaves the viewer unfree to get as much out of a work like this as he could.  Hence the irony of such a self-imprisoning outlook coupled with a hazy and ill-defined demand for one's "rights".  Such privileges are always there to be had.  However, a person must first decide if this is what they want, or decide if they are willing to shoulder the responsibilities that freedom (in an equally ironic sense) entails.  Limiting this notion strictly to the sphere of the Arts, what it achieves in the case of an animated performance like Two Silhouettes is the inability to know and hence see and grasp the kind of meaning and effect Walt was after in such an exercise.  It's clear enough that Disney and his animators were all in an envelope pushing frame of mind when they constructed and illustrated this piece.  They wanted to give their viewers a sense of the horizons that still remained to be conquered in the field of animation.  And so they crafted this little dance number as a kind of test reel for both themselves and others to provide an example of the boundaries that animation could break to reach a higher level of artistic excellence.  I'd argue that they've kind of succeeded in a way of reaching these same goals.

For one thing, while Two Silhouettes might come off as having an "antique" quality about it.  It nonetheless has to be seen in its proper proportions, in order to understand just what has been accomplished.  To start with, what we're looking at here is a complex combination of live action and animation that really hadn't been seen by audiences up until that time.  It was the first time in which live action footage had ever been combined with animation in such a way as to appear seamless to the viewing eye.  It may have just been an experiment.  However, the way you judge any such attempt is whether or not it succeeded in achieving the specific goal it set out to accomplish.  In this case, I will have to give the proto-music video a passing grade, because it achieved Walt's goal of pushing the envelope.  It showed both him, the Nine Old Men, and anyone in the audience who was willing to give a shit what it was possible to accomplish if you were willing to take the time and effort to see just how far you were willing to step outside of the box for the sake creating a good piece of Art.

It's true that Two Silhouettes has become something of an obscurity with the passage of years.  However, it is nice to see that Walt thought highly enough of the work to include it as part of an episode in his anthology show.  It is even possible to argue that the vignette benefits from being used as an illustration of how silhouettes can go on to achieve a genuine level of artistic finesse by making it the ultimate answer to a talented student's question.  This provides the music video a context, and hence a greater sense of purpose which might make it more accessible to those critics who can't approach an art piece like this in isolation on its own terms.  All that Disney has done in this instance is to explain those terms, and provide them with a setup that helps ease the viewer into the nature of the proceedings.


In the second segment of the episode, Walt turns the focus over to the talents of his own animation staff.  Marc Davis, Josh Meador, Eyvind Earle, and Walt Peregoy are each brought on to demonstrate the need for the artist to find their own voice and style, and then be true to that expression of individual talent.  To illustrate this value, Disney showcases the personal styles of all four of the animators listed above.  This, to me, is perhaps the most fascinating segment and aspect of the episode.  Each of these four animation legends spent the vast majority of their professional lives coming together at the Studio to blend their talents in unison to help make the sort of classic, Disney house style.  Yet they were also genuine artists with their own personal modes of illustrated expression.  So it's like there's this interesting dichotomy at work, where you've got the demands of the market dictating the Disney look.  Perhaps a better way of saying it is that on the one hand, you've got the Tradition that has slowly been established at the Company over the course of its history.  Then you've got this quartet of individual talents who work within that Tradition, while still maintaining their own unique creative voices.

This is how Walt lays it all out.  "Here at the Studio, we have many artists who have achieved national reputations as painters, in addition to their accomplishments in the field of animation".  Now this is fascinating to learn, because it's something I've just plain never known about.  Like, not once in any of the official releases I've seen from the Company has anyone ever bothered to point out to me that the Nine Old Men, and other Disney staffers had actual reputations as painters and artists outside of the Kingdom.  Then again, I suppose it helps to bear in mind that this all comes from the later years of the Studio's history.  Long after Walt was shuffled out of the leadership position, in other words.  With him gone, it makes an unfortunate kind of sense that the Tradition of the Company would be emphasized by the marketing department at the expense of the larger careers and achievements of the individual talents that pretty much formed the actual backbone of the Studio, and provided it's life blood.  For the record, this has been something of a standard procedure at Disney for some time now.  It's also the kind of thing that Walt tried to make sure didn't happen under his own tenure.  Which shows how it's all changed.

To his credit, though, Walt was able to recognize the individual strengths of his staff, and went on to give them the room they needed to flourish as artists.  It's the apparent difference that exists between a corporate conglomerate and a genuine creative talent with the vision and skills necessary to help bring together other like minded artists with the goal of perfecting their skills and crafts.  This means it's like Walt describes in the episode.  "These men know the value of Henri's advice to be yourself.  I'd like you to meet four of them, and see how they put this rule into practice".  The result, as we now have it, is a segment titled 4 Artists Paint 1 Tree.  Once more, the content of the segment is what is summed up by the title.  Rather than being an animated portion, however, this time the program switches to live action.  As Walt says, "This sort of deferring to what is most important in achieving a common goal effects every individual while he is at work.  But in his leisure time, he can be himself.  No longer a member of a group, but a virtuoso, and individualist suiting only himself.  Here now, on a Saturday, our four artists take a Busman's Holiday.  On this particular day, the subject that attracts their interest is a fine, old, live oak.  You'll notice that even in the operation of setting up, there is an individual approach.

The viewer is then shown snippets of the care and diligence with which Davis, Peregoy, Meador, and Earle arrange their materials in order to begin the attempt of capturing an element of Nature on canvas.  This is a necessary, and often overlooked step in the craft of painting.  "Let's listen to the voice of each artist", Walt now tells us in voiceover, "as he explains what is in his mind as we see him paint his picture".  From there, the episode turns into a kind of four way dialogue as the viewer watches each Disney artist begin to capture either the oak tree, or else their own unique impressions of it on camera.  At the same time, the animators share their thoughts about their respective approach to creating an illustrated picture.  Peregoy's view of the oak "is that this tree is a marvelous piece of engineering.  It's a structure.  And I'm going to try to reproduce it graphically.  Strong, straight inclines will build architectural patterns for me.  I can see the tree building itself on my board like a skyscraper".

Peregoy continues in this vein, saying, "I'm even more reminded of skyscraper when I study the lower horizontal branches.  They are very much like steel girders, designed for tremendous stress and strain.  Only a strong, geometric interpretation can do justice to this terrific strength".  Peregoy then offers the following caveat.  "Now, while I look at this tree as architecture, the others see it differently.  For instance, Josh Meador".  At this point Meador takes over the narration, and we learn his vantage point on the nature of the oak.  "The Ancient Druids believed that trees were inhabited by spirits.  Now I'm no Druid, but I can see how they could have gotten the idea.  This tree is certainly a living thing, full of personality.  I feel that I've got to work mighty fast if I want to capture my first impression of all this tremendous vitality and life.  So, I'm applying these blocking in strokes with my biggest brush.  And I'm using a very thin mixture of oil paint and lighter fluid.  I use lighter fluid because it dries fast.  I see this tree as a living personality, but no doubt Eyvind Earle sees from an entirely different point of view".

"Yes, I do", Earle's voice replies, picking up where Meador leaves off.  "I see in this tree all the richness and variety that can be found in nature.  I am not going to paint the whole tree.  What I'm looking for is contained in the trunk, as much as in any part of this tree.  I intend to make a very detailed study of the tree trunk.  In fact, you might call it the portrait of a tree trunk.  I am working with Kaizen; a watercolor type of paint.  I find this medium ideal for working in fine detail.  Of course, the first step is pretty rough.  What I'm delineating here are the outside lines of the trunk.  This will establish the silhouette, or outside shape of what I am painting.  While I am primarily interested in the trunk, undoubtedly, Marc Davis is interested in other aspects of this tree".  Here the microphone is handed over to one of the legendary Nine himself.  This man is something of an icon to the diehard Disney fans.  So in a way, I think it was both fitting and deliberate that Walt saved his input for last.  This is how Davis explains his own vantage and approach to painting.  "There are several things that interest me in this oak tree.

"First, I like it's growth pattern and bony structure.  It seems to burst right out of the ground.  I'm trying to suggest this explosive force with an arraignment of lines that reach upward and outward.  I'm doing this preliminary drawing with charcoal, and I'm working on light gray paper".  The sad part is that this is almost everything that the award winning animator has to say about his own work.  It's when you combine and examine all of their efforts together, as finished products, that things get not just interesting, but also informative.  I compare it to getting a chance to examine a series of universes next door to each other.  When each of these four animators explain not just what they're doing, but also why they paint the way they do, all of them are doing nothing less than explaining what the very Tradition of Art means to each of them on an individual level.  As a result, he viewer is given not just one, but rather several worldviews on what Art is, or at least what it can mean based on individual talent.  In this case, each animator details their own artistic strengths, as well as their unique set of skills and limitations.
Peregoy, for instance, tends to approach the creative act of picture making from the standpoint of an engineer, rather than an illustrator or painter.  This essentially mechanistic approach extends to his conception of what Nature is, or at least what he thinks it means.  You get the sense that here's a man who tends to look at life through the lens of a watchmaker.  Every aspect of life is a gear or cog waiting to be given its fine tuning.  This outlook stands in sharp contrast toward those held by Meador and Earle.  The first painter takes an almost Old World approach both to what a tree is, and how it should be drawn.  Meador brings up the notion of how an ancient Druid might look at a tree, and then proceeds to try and capture that idea as best he can on canvas.  For Meador, the tree is a "living thing...full of personality".  This is a sentiment which appears to be echoed more or less by Eyvind Earle.  Who seems to be concerned with capturing the essence of the tree.  For him, all of that is contained in the trunk.

In fact, the one artist who we sadly never get as much information out of as we could have is none other than Marc Davis himself.  He makes a few token gestures toward structure, and then just seems to approach everything else from an almost workman like perspective.  It's a particular shame because out of all the artists on the Disney roster, Davis is the one name among the others in the video that has gone on to achieve this status as a genuine artistic icon.  It's what makes his relative silence on his efforts here come off as strange and underwhelming.  In fact, if I'm being honest, this is also the verdict I'm kind of forced to go with when it comes to judging how his efforts stack up against all of the other three.  By rights it probably shouldn't have to be this way.  And so, here it is.  Out of all the four painters, it is the combined work of Meador and Earle that come off the best if we're looking at this like some sort of competition.  Don't forget, if Walt has given us a living illustration of four universes existing next door to one another, then there's also a fifth one, in the form of the critic writing this.

The vantage point I bring to all of this is sort of the capping irony.  As I've said elsewhere, I am not the best judge of the visual qualities of an artwork.  What I find more interesting is the philosophies, or worldviews that each of the four Disney artists bring to the table when it comes to composing their work.  The reason it's easy for me to split the hypothetical award between Earle and Meador is because each of their techniques can be traced back to an essentially classic Romantic strand of thinking about the Art of Painting.  Unlike Peregoy, who seems content to view even a natural (even vital) entity like an oak tree as a mere object to be used.  Contrast this point of view with that of someone who values any tree as an important natural resource that humans have always been and still remain dependent on for our own survival.  This is an outlook that is a lot closer to the truth of the fundamental relationship between humans and organic nature.  It also appears to be a way of thinking that is of little value to Peregoy.  I get the sense that someone like J.R.R. Tolkien wouldn't have been that much of a fan if he knew the full contenting of Peregoy's thought.  I can't say I disagree with him on this matter.

Marc Davis winds up as the real headscratcher for me, in all of this.  As the most touted member of the select group in this segment, he should dazzling the viewer with displays of his artistic genius.  Instead, it's almost like he kind of disconnects himself from the entire point of the proceedings.  The funny thing is, the more I consider it, the greater it's possible there may be a kind of explainable reason for why this is.  Albeit a very ironic one.  It might all just come down to one important factor.  Out of all the pictures the viewer is given to look at, only one of them looks like it belongs in a movie.  I don't know how confusing that sounds, yet I'll swear it's the key the whole situation.  Let's put it another way.  While I will never be a good judge of visuals, if you were to show me Davis's painting of the oak to me, with no context, or information on who made it.  I'm pretty sure my first reaction would still be something like, "That's a Disney picture.  Kinda looks like the rough draft for a background sketch.  Is this one of the early storyboards for The Jungle Book, or something?  Because I'll swear that's what it looks like to me".  This is the best explanation I have for why Davis's efforts seem so underwhelming here.

What's happened is either the artists hasn't made a full-fledged painting, or else his own personal technique has become the sort of de-facto Mouse House style which went into vogue after the end of the Studio's Golden Age.  Something else to keep in mind about this episode is that Walt dedicates this very same part of it to giving a brief bit of promotion to what was his then newest, upcoming, animated feature: Sleeping Beauty.  It was the film that Disney and his staff (including Earle, Davis, Meador, and Peregoy) were putting all the hardest effort into.  And while it might have succeeded as a display of artistic finesse, it was always missing that one crucial ingredient with which no self-respecting film can do without.  The script just never got as much attention as it should have.  In other words, the story wound up taking a miscalculated backseat to the animation.  The results may be pretty to look at, however, it remains an empty display.  "A rose red city half as old as time" is a pretty picture and phrase.  It also remains no more than that so long as it's never surrounded by a narrative or idea that allows it to have something more substantial going for it, rather than just going "Please look at me".

As a result, the Classic style that Walt had used up till then was scrapped in favor of Davis's more stripped down, Xerox approach.  Perhaps this whole bit of backstory also explains why Davis's efforts with the oak seem so lackluster compared with the others.  His mindset was less that of a painter making a portrait, or trying to invoke the spirit of a landscape.  Instead, he made the mistake of just taking this whole affair as just another animation assignment.  To be fair, there were plenty of times when this was the right frame of mind to have going into a job.  This wasn't one of those times, however.  Proof of this can be seen in the more elaborate and somewhat proper efforts turned out by his three other compatriots.  They knew they were being asked to be themselves, and were smart enough to realize this meant thinking from a more classical artistic perspective.  They were leaving the Studio behind (for the moment, anyway) and entering back into the world of canvas creators like Lautrec and Cezanne.  Even Peregoy could switch into a version this frame of mind, while Davis either wouldn't or couldn't.  It places him in an unenviable position in relation to the others, yet we're stuck with it.

This is not the same as labeling the episode's second segment a complete and total bust, or any kind of failure for that matter.  Rather, I think it just helps to do two things at once.  On the one hand, the viewer is given a chance to see all the different ways that people can perceive, and hence create a full-fledged work of art.  What the show seems to be getting at here is that all Art is, at least in part, the product of some kind of outlook or worldview.  This doesn't always amount to a conscious system of thought.  And to be fair, I kind of think the more unconscious the well spring of any given art work is, the better.  It means the viewer or reader is being given something with a greater deal of honesty than if the artist knew full well what he or she was doing.  It allows the finished work to be more open and candid in whatever it may have to tell the audience.  Perhaps this also ties into the second lesson viewers are given in this segment.  You have to be tapped into that deep well of the Imagination if a work of true Art is what you're going for.  This is demonstrated by the almost unconscious way in which Earle and Meador approach painting, as opposed to the mechanical methods of the other two.

Conclusion: A Valuable Gem of Forgotten Lessons.  

For me, it all keeps coming back to Fantasia.  Perhaps that's no real surprise considering that Walt chose to end this episode with a snippet from the start of that Concert Feature.  It's the Toccata in Fugue set piece, where the animators collaborated in bringing to life a series of abstract shapes, concepts, and illustrations based off the haunting music of Johann Sebastian Bach.  There's a stated reason for why this particular bit of film is chosen to end the episode on (something to do with the time honored question of where does an artist get their ideas).  However, I think the unstated reason for ending this show on such an esoteric note is because Walt meant it is a restatement and reassertion of the guiding the principles that underpinned his work not just on Fantasia, but also the Studio's output as a whole.  In other words, Disney saw an opportunity to reaffirm the kind of artistic values that originally led him to first try and see if he could make a feature-length cartoon.  And then let that same spirit of creativity carry things forward in trying to get away with the more experimental Fantasia.

This opportunity to reassert who he was, and what he stood for as an artist seems to have emerged organically, through the correspondence that Walt starts the episode out with.  These same letters appear to have acted as the encouragement he needed to take the extra step of proving to his critics that what was doing was, in fact, a legitimate art from, in and of itself.  The fact his fans and viewers (many of whom weren't just pre-teen adolescents) were influenced by his work enough to write back to him for advice seems to have been the main inspiration for this episode as a whole.  Therefore is it any real surprise Walt quotes verbatim from his fan letters throughout the show.  Or that he uses them as springboards for introducing his animator's own efforts, and how they in turn tie into the issues being raised by his audience.  I have said that Walt's willingness to engage directly with the fans marks out the uniqueness of the Company during his tenure of it.  What I also see now, when taking in this episode as a whole, is how Disney was able to use this engagement as a chance to let his fans know both who he was as an artist, and how his principles led him to take risks on films like Snow White, or more daring choices like the Concert film.  The same spirit that animated Fantasia acts as the guiding thread here.

It marks out this episode as an act of both nostalgia and daring.  On the one hand, the underrated accomplishments that the Studio made with Leopold Stokowski still appear to have been very much on Walt's mind when he made this entry.  The more you read up about the high hopes Disney had for Fantasia, and just how genuinely artistic they were, the easier it is to understand his frustration when crowds and critics spurned his efforts, and demand that he stick to his own lane by going back to making animals talk.  This seems to be the major sting that Walt never quite got over.  And now I wonder if maybe efforts like An Adventure in Art was his attempt at trying to go back to those ideas and get his audience to give them all a second chance.  In fact, it may be possible to go a bit further with this speculation.  What if one of the less understood reasons for the strange nature and consequent fallout of a film like Sleeping Beauty is because there was always a part of Walt that really wanted to give that fairy tale the full Concert Feature treatment.  In other words, what if one of the ultimately scrapped plans for the tale of Aurora and Maleficent was to make it a full, animated tone poem, based on Tchaikovsky's ballet, like he did once before with the help of Stokowski and Deems Taylor?

It's just a theory, I grant you.  However, I do think it helps explain why Walt had such a difficult time with the crucial, missing narrative element of that film.  If we take Walt's desire to want to go back to that more experimental, abstract arthouse presentation that defined Fantasia and apply it to the folktale of the princess and the spinning wheel, then we at least have an intriguing answer for why the finished product seems so uncertain of itself.  It could very well be because Disney was torn between wanting to go back to pushing the envelope like he used to on the one hand.  While on the other was the desire to more or less take the safe route, and try and play into what the critics wanted from him.  If this should ever turn out to be the undiscovered truth behind the making of Sleeping Beauty, then it's kind of a shame.  I'm not so sure I would have minded seeing Walt and the Nine Old Men give us an almost silent film version of the folktale, where all the major plot beats are signaled and suggested more by music and movement, rather than dialogue and conventional plotting.  It's easy to imagine a version where the gestures and actions of the characters go the extra mile by suggesting all kinds of intriguing ideas about who the main cast is in terms of motivation and outcome.  That might have been something to see.

As things stand, however, it looks like Walt might have made the fatal error of letting someone (his brother Roy, most likely) talk him out of such an idea.  And so all we're left with is the spoken yet unrealized desire to go back to the well spring of Fantasia in the hope if being able to put it all to good use once more.  Again, however, this seems to have remained a hope unfulfilled.  It's not that Walt ever gave up on such an ideal.  It's just the age old case of the artist with a vision being constrained by the demands of both the market, combined with the curse of audience expectation.  For what it's worth, C.S. Lewis tried his hand at Science Fiction, and once even managed to retell an ancient Greek myth in the modern novel format.  However, so few people have heard of these efforts, because as far as we're concerned, guys like Lewis really don't exist outside of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Walt's career seems to have suffered from a riff on this exact same problem.  It's what happens when you prove to the world you can be that good at one particular thing.  You run the risk of getting yourself pigeonholed.

It's what happened first to Walt on a cinematic level, and then later on to Lewis in the literary sphere.  It makes sense then of An Adventure in Art as an attempt by Walt to once more break out of the mold people had been trying to assign him to for so many years.  Once more, in the space of just a simple episode of a kid's TV show, we see Disney giving his animators free reign to let their Imaginations surprise them.  The final result is that in addition to revisiting Fantasia, we see the Nine Old Men taking that same leap into living rooms across the country, and using it to illustrate the contents of Joyce Kilmer's famous poem, Trees.  This is Walt wanting to go back to making the kind of Art that resulted not just in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, but also Night on Bald Mountain, or Beethoven's Pastoral.  There just seems to have been this long running, literary-artistic streak in Walt's make up.  It was a lifelong character feature, rather than any bug.  It's what drove him first to see if he could make inanimate picture come to life.  Then it drove him to try and bring tales of folklore to the screen.  At last, it urged him on to try and see if he could use the medium of animation to bring works of art to living color.

Perhaps this also highlights the single biggest frustration Disney ever had to face as an artist.  He had all these interesting creative ideas that he maybe wanted to try out, and so he never could.  How could this be?  Because even if none of these concepts ever once strayed from the core nature of what the Disney Company stood for, it's doubtful that he would ever be rewarded for focusing in on the actual Art of enchantment.  Let's say Walt had decided to take The Rite of Spring and turn it into a full-length feature.  No matter how good it was, it would still be framed as a case of either the artist getting too far "above his station" according to the critics.  Or audiences might feel that he'd gone too dark or else it was considered too far outside the brand.  That it wasn't in keeping with the actual spirit of the Studio's best output.  It's that last charge which carries the most weight out of all the others.  So anyone who makes that claim has a higher right to be heard out.  The funny thing is how I'm pretty sure that rather than straying from the core source that made the Company what it was, I'd argue that with films like Fantasia, or even a simple TV episode like An Adventure in Art, the charge doesn't hold any weight.

Rather than straying too far from the core strengths or ideas that animated the Studio (in both metaphorical and literal sense of that word), I'd argue that when you get to stuff like the Concert Feature or this simple TV episode, all that's happened is that Walt has perhaps taken his fans as close to the actual wellspring source of his Art and talent as he possibly ever could.  I don't think it's ever going to be possible for any artist, no matter how talented, to dig all the way down into the source of their creativity.  At best, all any good work of art can do is try to capture that source in fleeting glimpses and snatches.  In the case of the Stokowski picture, Walt is taking us as close to his share of the Imagination as he either can manage or dare.  He seems to know that he's never going to be smart enough to understand how the Imagination works in his own mind, on the one hand.  On the other, he seems to have too much of a fundamental respect for that illusive mental faculty, along with its products and precincts to ever try and tamper with it.  This goes double for whenever it gives him an idea that isn't broke to begin with.  It's just one of the hallmarks that helps you tell a true artist from a false one.

If there's any merit to the idea that Fantasia is the closest snapshot we ever got to the inside of Walt's Imagination, then it doesn't surprise me that it's contours are of a high, expansive scope.  It's the kind of film where the animators are so good at creating these fantastical, otherworld style vistas, that it almost has to be the first thing I'd point to if anyone ever asked me what the term Epic means.  Films like this are more or less a Dictionary definition brought to life.  It's enchantment with a capital A for Art.  I know that even to this day, many people don't regard Fantasia as an example of Walt's tenure at it's best.  To that I'd say it all comes down to a simple question of how far you're willing to get on the wavelength of the guy who conceived it.  It's the kind of film that always hints at greater creative possibilities that ultimately went unfulfilled.  The fact that Walt was always bringing back clips from that feature to air on his show goes to prove (to me anyway) just how close the Concert film was to his heart.  Perhaps that's because all it amounts is nothing less than the artist bearing his heart for all to see.

I think that with an episode such as An Adventure in Art, Disney is pretty much doing the same thing yet again.  This time, the method or mode of expression is on a much smaller scale.  Yet that sense of Epic scope still remains, wanting to burst out of its limitations and reach once more for the stars.  The major difference is now Walt feels the need to hold his audience's hand as he guides them through the Myth Pool that gave us his best work.  He's always going out of his way to explain the logic of this or that sequence that he presents throughout the program.  Now it is possible to argue in hindsight that maybe this is the method that should have been used for the original Fantasia.  Maybe it ought to have featured more explanations, with Walt talking to the audience about why he wanted to make these little vignettes, with Deems Taylor going a bit further into how the animation and music were tied-in together.  At the same time, I'm not so sure how much this would have done to get past the original roadblocks that sank the film in the first place.  You might still have audiences demanding less or more.

I guess all that is therefore a matter of taste, and the sometimes unnoticed limitations that can place on your outlook.  I'm not about to confuse good art with bad, here.  I think the the glaring levels of contrasting quality between a film like Fantasia and Ant Man and the Wasp should be sufficient to give a good picture of the vast differences in the type of outlooks that created each, as well as the gulf of creativity that separates them.  All Walt was trying to do was suggest all the creative frontiers waiting to be explored.  He's up to pretty much the same thing here, with An Adventure in Art.  Disney is once more taking a stand, and trying to plant a flag for the boundless depths of true imaginative creativity.  It makes the episode something of a rallying cry, as much as it is a fond look back at past glories.  For what it's worth, I think it succeeds in getting its point across.  It's not just a fond look back at what the Disney Company used to be.  These days, it also kind of comes off as a posthumous form of challenge.  The founder of the Magic Kingdom is asking us to try and learn to shoot for the moon once more.  And in a day and age when his own life's work is on the line, that's a message I can recommend any time.

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