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Sentimental and Perverse: Growing up Disney

This essay is the third piece from Spooool.ie’s current “Writer in Residence” David Turpin. It’s a series which will see us introduce a new writer every three months. The contributor is free to write about whatever they like during these months, once it’s loosely centred around cinema in some form. Read David’s other work here.

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Snow White

I was in my early teens when the Turpins finally caved in and bought a video player (right as the format was teetering on the brink of obsolescence, naturally). I have no idea what other boys my age were doing then, but it was my heart’s desire to have my very own VHS copy of 101 Dalmatians. I was practicing for a Grade V piano exam at the time, so while I drilled my contrary motion scales in the next room, my mother placed a rinsed-out golden syrup canister on the kitchen counter and labelled it “The Spotty Fund”. Coins toward a copy of 101 Dalmatians found their way into “The Spotty Fund” as a reward for hours of piano practice. You’re probably thinking that I had to practice an hour for every unit of currency. Reader, my mother had a different idea: I had to practice an hour for every Dalmatian. The film would eventually materialise on my shelf, after I gritted my teeth, thought of the puppies, and learned my Scarlatti – although about 50 Dalmatians in I did find myself wishing I’d fixated on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs instead. (I’m not sure what the film-themed booby prize might have been if I’d been caught dodging my practice, as I so often did. Perhaps I’d have been hauled out into the yard and had my finger hacked off like Holly Hunter in The Piano).

I suppose one of the reasons the prospect of actually owning a Disney film on VHS was so compelling was because mine was probably the last generation to experience the regular cinema reissues of Walt Disney features – a catchpenny practice that began with the frequent re-releases of the company’s first, phenomenally successful feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and was consolidated as a compensatory measure in the wake of the commercial failure of its two subsequent projects, Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940). In fact, Disney re-released its films with such pomp and regularity that a patina of prestige gathered around even those films that were box office disasters upon their first release – Alice in Wonderland (1951) being perhaps the most obvious example.

The Disney coffers weren’t the only beneficiaries of the re-releases, though – I for one am quite proud that my first ever cinema trip was to see a film (Snow White) produced in 1937. I felt prouder still when I read an interview with the filmmaker John Waters and learned that we shared an indelible early cinema-going memory – the eyes of Cinderella’s stepmother, burning out like mean-spirited emeralds from the shadowy canopy around her four-poster bed. On a less sentimental note, I’m also glad that the films I saw at the cinema as a child weren’t all contemporaneous, and that – though I obviously didn’t realise it at the time – I got to experience aesthetics, music, subtexts, and even approaches to pacing from the 1930s through to the 1970s, as well as the homogenised tat of the late 1980s and 1990s. But when dealing with Disney – and Disney is a part of Western childhood with which we all, at some point, will have to “deal” – perhaps it’s a mistake to dispel the sentimental. After all, the reason that I find my appreciation for early Disney films growing rather than diminishing as I age – the reason that I can’t quite shake Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and Dumbo, while people just a couple of years younger than me seem to have no problem relegating Pocahontas and Tarzan into a drawer with their pogs and Furbees – is that age is making me both more sentimental and more perverse, and I can’t be sure that my predisposition to both these qualities doesn’t substantially originate in early exposure to pre-pasteurisation Disney.

From the “Renaissance” of The Little Mermaid (1989) onward, the content and “messages” of Disney films became increasingly banal and platitudinous. In fact, the Disney company of the 1990s onward never met a story it couldn’t warp into a homily on the virtues of being true to oneself – some kind of achievement, when one considers that sources included Victor Hugo’s corruscatingly tragic Notre Dame de Paris, Shakespeare’s Hamlet (re-tooled as The Lion King), and the violent suppression of America’s Native people by European invaders. The messages of the earlier films were more complex – if indeed they were intended to have messages at all, before Disney’s development process calcified into an endless round of focus groups and marketing synergies. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine later Disney films delving, as Snow White and Bambi do, into the pleasure of evil and the allure of melancholia.

Snow White QueenDisney have always been pretty good at evil. Back when it manifested more on screen, they produced some of the most memorable villains in all cinema, beginning, of course, with Snow White’s Queen. There’s very little to say about the Queen that hasn’t already been said. In his “BFI Film Classics” book on Snow White, Eric Smoodin makes an interesting argument for reappraisal when he suggests that the ferocity of the Queen’s ultimate pursuit by the dwarfs motivates a shift in viewer sympathy from the heroes of the piece to the ostensible villain, but I’m not convinced that it does. In any event, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the conflation of “interest” and “sympathy” in film appraisal (“I didn’t like this film because nobody in it was sympathetic”, etc.) and I wonder if that’s because my first film exposure was to a piece in which a character authoritatively commands the attention of the audience without ever once eliciting their identification. The queen is fascinating because she is 100 percent rock solid evil, and evil is like dark matter – in its simplest form it contains tremendous gravity. Any attempt to bring depth to the character – as in 1997’s dull Sigourney Weaver vehicle Snow White: A Tale of Terror, or last summer’s turgid Snow White and the Huntsman, in which a game Charlize Theron is hamstrung by a leaden script – only diminishes her, because evil on screen is like a black hole: it sucks us in, and liking it or not is immaterial. It’s not every children’s film that offers an object lesson in Schadenfreude either, but Snow White contains one of the best, and blackest, jokes in all cinema, when the queen, now disguised as a beggar woman, kicks a water jug to the skeleton of a prisoner who expired desperately grasping for it and delightedly invites him to “Have a drink”. I defy anyone, of any age, not to feel a shivery satisfaction at that moment. If there’s any point in the film at which the Queen seems less than imperious, it’s actually earlier, during her transformation, when her hair is momentarily loosed from under her severe black cowl and turns white before our eyes. It’s a canny move on the part of Disney that the studio’s two most terrifying/alluring villainesses – Snow White’s Queen and Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent – are effectively bald, one that cuts against the fetishisation of female hair that runs from Rapunzel through E. E. Cummings and T. S. Eliot, and one that is admirably honoured by one of the Queen’s more convincing successors, Angelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches (1990) – although Kristin Scott Thomas arguably gave her a run for her money, with long peroxide tresses, in this year’s Only God Forgives.

DumboThe attraction of evil in Disney films is well-trodden ground, but less attention has been paid to the way early Disney features play on the peculiar pleasure of sadness. It’s there in the ravishingly beautiful tableau of Snow White laid out in her glass coffin while dwarfs and animals alike bow their heads in prayer around her, and again in the heart-rending expressions of the boys-turned-donkeys in Pinocchio, who gaze pitifully out of crates marked “To the Salt Mines”. The crystalline, perfectly formed tears that frequently gather at the corner of Dumbo’s eyes and slide gracefully down his trunk are among the many miniature wonders of that terrifically modest and concise film. Of course, the loveliest and saddest of all Disney films is Bambi, and I’m not thinking only of the infamous death of Bambi’s mother at the midway point. In fact, sadness is right there from the start of Bambi, in Frank Churchill and Larry Morey’s sublime choral theme, “Love is a Song”. I put a lot of listening hours in with Morey and Churchill’s work for Snow White and Bambi over the last two years, when I was preparing vocal parts for my record, and while I came to them with the best intention of listening analytically to the chord structures, I always found myself snared by the words.

Their songs for Snow White celebrate oblivion in music (“hum a merry tune [and] whistle while you work”, “your cares fade away with a smile and a song”) in a deeply moving way (coming as they do in the throes of the Great Depression and on the cusp of a World War), while their songs for Bambi – most particularly “Love is a Song” – take the idea further, to music not as a panacea for sadness but as a repository for it, that in containing it transforms it into something cathartic and beautiful. The idea is there in the song’s central line: “hope may fade but love’s beautiful music comes each day like the dawn”. It’s not quite “Hakuna Matata” – thankfully – but “Love is a Song” gives us a more valuable (and yes, more practical) life lesson than anything the studio has offered us since. Bambi’s theme tells us that love will endure beyond all hope. It’s good to have that idea spelled out at an early age, because you’re going to need to remember it later. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of hard lessons doled out by early Disney, too – desire trumps friendship in Snow White, as the princess blithely departs her seven faithful protectors literally seconds after being roused by a prince she hardly knows; money talks in Dumbo as the persecuted outsider is vindicated only when his special abilities turn out to be a major box office draw for the circus that previously imprisoned his mother. Yet there’s more at work here than mere sentiment, or mere cynicism for that matter, and that’s why I’m glad to have grown up with these films colouring my subconscious, leading me into an adulthood, and a practice of my own, where the melancholic attracts me as much as the magical. It’s difficult to unpack the appeal of these films and it’s all but impossible to replicate it. Somewhere between folk art, chocolate box and the summit of technological achievement they float, a law unto themselves – beautiful, cruel and tender.

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David Turpin is a recording artist (as The Late David Turpin) and occasional academic.  His new album We Belong Dead, will be released on September 13, 2013.  Read more at: www.thelatedavidturpin.com.

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