Friday, June 27, 2014

How Walt Disney Introduced America to Classical Music

Disney films have had a fundamental influence on American culture for nearly a century, and have thus been a key means of exposure to other art forms, particularly music. Walt Disney wasn't interested in making "sophisticated" films; rather, he wanted to make films that everyone, from the least discerning to the most erudite, would find entertaining. This was something he made no bones about. He also never claimed to have any real knowledge of either art or music, though both were fundamentally important to his revolution of the young animation medium. And yet, despite Disney's resolute populism, his studio has produced the films, from Fantasia and Make Mine Music to the Silly Symphonies series, that introduce(d) most Americans to classical music and that keep that music in the American public consciousness.

Disney's very first sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie" (1928), has very little non-musical sound, and indeed, most of the cartoons, both shorts and features, heavily emphasize musical expression over spoken. While it's true that the Disney studio was hardly the only one producing cartoons with musical jokes, the Disney productions tended to have a more sophisticated story-telling vocabulary, both visual and aural, and a deeper engagement with the music used. This was partly the result of the studios' superior resources, both from a technical and artistic standpoint, but it was also due to Disney's attitude toward experimentation and constant attempts to push the medium further. Huge numbers of the short cartoons are structured around musical references and adapted scores, many of them with plots that riff on opera plots, backstage drama, or attempts to put on a successful concert (oh, vain hope).

"Farmyard Symphony" (1938) is essentially a series of gags, linking the dramas of the barnyard with references to classical music, created through the clever use of animal sounds in conjunction with instrumentals. The romance between a (rather disturbingly sexualized) chicken and a debonair rooster is set to "La donna รจ mobile" from Rigoletto, as well as music by Beethoven, Rossini, and Wagner. Throughout the cartoon, musical quotations fly thick and fast, as the various animals in the barnyard assert their personalities.

In "The Band Concert" (1935), one of the most iconic of the Disney short subjects, Mickey is a frustrated conductor, desperately attempting to haul his orchestra through a performance of the William Tell Overture, despite the rather malicious interruptions of a "Turkey in the Straw"-playing Donald Duck, an overzealous bee, and a tornado. Widely considered one of the greatest cartoons ever produced, "The Band Concert" is a tour de force both visually and aurally. (Arturo Toscanini allegedly went to see it six times.) The overture is adapted for the purposes of the short, segueing into other musical pieces, or aural gags; though the music is treated with respect, it is an instrument for the animators, a means of furthering the story and integrating visual humor with the sound elements. The end result is one of the wittiest musical commentaries of film.

One of the most entertaining of the musical shorts is "Symphony Hour" (1942), in which Mickey (or in this case, Maestro Michel) Mouse must conduct a live radio broadcast after Goofy has accidentally dropped all of the instruments down an elevator shaft. The sponsor of the program, Mr. Sylvester Macaroni, played by Pegleg Pete, nearly loses his mind with rage when he hears the disastrous performance, but the audience loves it. Although very similar to "The Band Concert" in plot, "Symphony Hour" instead pokes fun at the American tin ear, while showing great empathy for the frustrated musicians, including Donald Duck as the incensed percussionist, Goofy as a wind and brass instrument jack-of-all trades, and Clarabelle Cow as a deeply distressed violinist. The busted-instrument version of von Suppe's Light Cavalry Overture also functions rather brilliantly as a parody of contemporary classical music.

"Music Land" (1935) encapsulates the Disney attitude towards music in animation. In this delightful cartoon, the Land of Symphony, ruled by a curmudgeonly cello, and the Isle of Jazz, ruled by a redoubtable saxophone, each regard the opposite nation with hostility, but a romance between an errant violin princess and a bashful alto saxophone prince sparks a war. The cartoon succinctly dramatizes the conflict between high and low culture (one that is as ferociously fought today as it was then), but, in the Bridge of Harmony built between the two countries at the end, finds a solution. Rather than reject high culture as elitist or low culture as vulgar, the two are melded together, the classical and jazz instruments play together, and a spirit of inclusiveness - something the Disney studio always strove to achieve and still does - is evoked. "Music Land" brilliantly references music in a way that both enriches the story and characters and yet it isn't necessary for the viewer to catch those references in order to follow the events. The cartoon is funny and charming, whether or not one recognizes that the musical notation the alto sax sends from prison is a transcription of "The Prisoner's Song" or the bombardment from the Land of Symphony is "The Ride of the Valkyries."

The animators also show a sophisticated understanding of how the instruments function, making use of pegs, strings, mouthpieces, and keys for visual expression, while the sound team brilliantly feigns speech with the instruments themselves. In fact, as a child, it never occurred to me to differentiate between the sounds made by the instruments and actual linguistic speech; the clarity of expression is astounding.

These are hardly the only music-centric shorts that Disney produced and, even those that emphasize music less heavily tend to be chock-full of musical references and gags. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a single sound cartoon produced by the Disney studio that doesn't have music as an indispensable component. Though the Looney Tunes have most likely played as great a part in introducing classical music into contemporary American culture, it was Walt Disney whose innovation in animation and sound technologies brought this music to the fore, creating not only the basic structure and conventions of the medium, but also America's appetite for these marvelous cartoons.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

13 of the Most Essential Feminist Texts of the 20th Century

The past century saw monumental changes in the social conditions of women across the world, particularly in the West, and many of these political and social transformations can be traced to the extraordinary writing of feminists, articulating the struggle for liberation. Many of these books have had a huge impact on my own feminist politics and thinking. I'm not including any books that I have yet to read, so I'm not including either Susan Faludi's Backlash or Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, both of which are perched on the teetering and ever-growing mountain of books that I plan on reading.

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Gilman's challenging utopian novel tells of a group of young men exploring the remote wilderness who stumble upon an isolated and peaceful civilization of only women, perpetuated through parthenogenesis. The choice to narrate the story from the point of view of the male explorers is in fact a brilliant one, for in so doing, Gilman reveals the short-sightedness of patriarchal cultural assumptions, for the men are compelled to explicate their understanding of gender, violence, and sex, and to therefore grasp the limits of a patriarchal society. Though nearly a hundred years old, the novel still poses quandaries we are far from resolving.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf (1929)
Woolf's complex blend of essay and fictional framing device, based on a series of lectures on women and fiction, is one of the most influential feminist texts ever written. Woolf's thesis that a woman writer needs a room of her own, that is, a private enclosed space in which the duties of wifehood, motherhood, and household obligations cannot intrude, in order to produce literary work on a par with that of the great male writers, is as relevant today as it was in 1929. Whether one is a writer or not, the need for privacy and space (both literal and metaphorical) is as real as that for food or shelter, and the historical denial of this need for women remains a genuine feminist issue.

Last Flight - Amelia Earhart (1937)
After Earhart disappeared over the Pacific, her husband compiled this collection of diary entries, dispatches, and a poem written by Earhart, detailing her final flight. As one of the most famous and accomplished aviators of all time and a woman who defied social convention with her disregard for standards of femininity and her love for adventure above all else, Earhart is a charismatic feminist icon. The significance of this book lies in its expression of independence, curiosity, and enterprise, the revolutionary qualities that made its author such an extraordinary historical figure.

Three Guineas - Virginia Woolf (1938)
Pacifist and feminist Virginia Woolf penned this book-length essay, tying together her feminist politics with anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi polemics, on the eve of the second World War. Structured in the form of letters responding to inquiries for monetary donations, Woolf discusses the prevention of war, the need to support education, particularly at the university level, for women, and the integration of women into the paid labor force. Woolf aligns anti-militarism with the empowerment of women and the push towards warfare with the promotion of a patriarchal value system that is fundamentally hostile towards women.

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
The definitive feminist text is undeniably de Beauvoir's treatise on the condition of being female in a world in which being female and being oppressed are synonymous states. In the first half, de Beauvoir surveys philosophy, history, religion, myth, literature, and science, rejecting many widely accepted theories and ideas grounded in misogynistic politics; in the second, she discusses the lived experience of girl- and womanhood. Reading this book was a life-changing experience for me and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A new translation by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, released in 2009, finally offers us the possibility to read the unexpurgated text in English.

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (1962)
Lessing explores nearly every major feminist issue, from motherhood and sex to politics (in particular communism and Stalinism), in her greatest masterpiece. Protagonist Anna Wulf's attempt to conquer the fragmentation of her own psyche through the integration of her various notebooks, each filled with writing based around one aspect of her life, into one golden notebook is a fundamentally feminist enterprise, a battle against the culturally sanctioned mutilation of the female identity. The Golden Notebook is among the greatest literary works of the twentieth century.

The Feminine Mystique - Betty Friedan (1963)
Friedan's groundbreaking study of "the problem that has no name" was a major factor in setting into motion second-wave feminism. Originally meant to be a magazine article, but expanded into a full-length book after blanket refusals from magazine publishers, The Feminine Mystique cogently traces the unhappiness and boredom of the average housewife to her fettered condition in the home, reduced to her roles as wife, mother, and maid, and argues for her liberation, particularly professionally and artistically. Though often criticized for its focus on white middle-class women, it is impossible to overstate the impact of this book on feminist consciousness in the United States.

Women as Lovers - Elfriede Jelinek (1975)
Jelinek, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2004, writes viscerally brutal feminist novels that fearlessly examine sexuality, violence, and subjugation; Women as Lovers is a prime example. Brigitte and Paula work in an underwear factory and dream of happiness in a middle-class home with a loved and loving husband, but while Brigitte is willing to sacrifice her own desires to the practical demands of survival in a patriarchal society, Paula is too easily swayed by sexual passion and a yearning to be loved, failing to take into account the limitations imposed by her femaleness. Among Jelinek's other brilliant works are Lust and The Piano Teacher.

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity - Judith Butler (1989)
Butler's pioneering work of feminist and queer theory, in which she sets forth the hugely influential concept of gender performativity, deconstructs the monolithic concepts of sex and gender and analyzes how these concepts intersect with political power, psychoanalytic theories, and the way in which we use language to establish and reinforce our beliefs about gender and sexual identity. Butler's brilliant analysis forces readers to scrutinize gender politics in ways that even the most radical feminists had not done before.

Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community - Faye Ginsburg (1989)
Few subjects elicit such passionate responses as abortion, particularly in the United States where it is a constantly contested and controversial right. Despite the inflammatory subject matter, Ginsburg is extraordinarily fair-minded and empathetic as she writes about the battle over an abortion clinic in Fargo, South Dakota, interrogating the complexities that complicate the politics of women's activism and political stances on the right to choose. There are a very finite number of books that deal with abortion in such an even-handed and unprejudiced way, making this particular volume all the more valuable.

Fraternity Gang Rape: Sex, Brotherhood, and Privilege on Campus - Peggy Reeves Sanday (1990) 
Few books are so upsetting and infuriating as Sanday's expose on the sick culture of sexual violence, hazing, and institutionalized excuses ("boys will be boys") of American fraternities, a work that was inspired when Sanday discovered cases of gang rape being swept under the table at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches. I rarely feel that any book should be universally recommended, but I do feel that every college freshman, male and female, would benefit from reading this conscientious and fearless book.

The Beauty Myth - Naomi Wolf (1991)
Reading Wolf's analysis of female power and our culture's increasingly stringent standards of physical beauty completely changed my own thinking about how cultural ideals exert power on women. Wolf theorizes that as women have slowly accrued greater political and social power, the expectations laid upon them to maintain a particular standard of physical "beauty" have intensified and become more severe and inflexible. The Beauty Myth is essential reading for feminists, a text that has the capacity to forever change how we think about our bodies.

Lucky - Alice Sebold (1999)
Sebold's brutal memoir describes in excruciating detail her experience of being raped and her struggle to get her rapist apprehended and convicted. Both courageous and unsparing, this memoir is one of a surprisingly small number of books that confront sexual violence and its horrifying and wide-ranging effects. Lucky is both a powerful testimony and damning critique of our culture-wide tolerance for violence, particularly of a sexual nature, against women.

Monday, June 9, 2014

"Only the Beautiful, Simple Things": Women Writers in Period Cinema

In period drama, the theme of the young woman writer learning her craft is a popular one, largely because it's one of the most common themes of popular girls' fiction, a genre that has invited film adaptations since the beginning of cinema. Little Women (1933, 1949, 1994) is the most obvious example and has influenced nearly every other such cinematic narrative featuring a young woman with literary aspirations. In all adaptations, Professor Bhaer exhorts Jo to write "from the depths of your soul;" though his actual words are less professorial in the 1994 version, he essentially tells her to write what she knows, "the beautiful, simple things that I understand now." This idea of a male figure instructing the young woman to write of beautiful, simple things is certainly rooted in Louisa May Alcott's novel, but it is even more pronounced in the films. Jo's development as a writer takes her from writing sensational gothic stories (a genre that Alcott relished and to which she contributed fabulous work, including A Long Fatal Love Chase) to essentially writing a memoir of her childhood in tribute to her sister Beth. This same literary arc is repeated in Kevin Sullivan's Anne of Avonlea a.k.a. Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (1987), although it is not present in L. M. Montgomery's novels.

In Anne of Avonlea, it is Gilbert Blythe (and to a lesser extent Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde) who advises Anne to write about life in Avonlea, that is, the beautiful, simple things that she knows. In the novels, Montgomery does have Anne writing her Tennysonian romantic fantasies, but Anne never really rejects this form of writing and eventually relegates it to a mere hobby. In the film however, Anne learns Jo March's lesson and chooses to write a fictionalized account of Avonlea, which is duly published and dedicated to Gilbert. This plot is handled convincingly within the framework of the Sullivan adaptation, but it is a decidedly cinematic construct, one that panders to modern standards, giving Anne a profession and thereby allowing her to conform to our current standards of a good role model (I critiqued this change on feminist grounds a month ago). In all of these films, women's writing is defined as ideally personal, emotional, and simple, as well as autobiographical.

This is true even in the brilliant feminist film, My Brilliant Career (1979), in which Sybylla's novel is once again a veiled adaptation of her own life and her development as a writer, though happily in this case she is not "inspired" by a hovering male figure. Interestingly, in one of the oldest iterations of this story, Daddy Long Legs (1919), adapted from the novel by Jean Webster, the heroine Judy, though she does indeed write a fictionalization of her brutal experiences growing up in an orphanage, does not have a male figure spurring her on to write. Rather, her writing is a sign of her independence - financial, professional, and psychological - from the men in her life, though she naturally succumbs to a matrimonial fate.

In the novels from which all of the above films are adapted, the young heroines all have literary ambitions and attempt to publish their work, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But the trope of the young woman writer in period pieces has become a means of mitigating the currently less acceptable qualities of the heroines of classic literature. In the abysmal adaptation Mansfield Park (1999), the character of Fanny Price is a writer, deeply influenced by her (male) cousin's encouragement, in opposition to Austen's characterization of her as a retiring, modest, frail woman of upstanding moral character. The choice to give Fanny a vocation as a writer panders to our modern ideals of womanhood. Though she cannot be given a profession without collapsing the (admittedly already ramshackle) adaptation of Austen's plot, Fanny the writer is automatically made into a more modern woman because she is attempting to voice her opinions, feelings, and thoughts - something Austen's Fanny would never dare do.

When the writer is a historical figure, the role that writing takes in her life tends to be somewhat less confined to the autobiographical and personal - after all there is actual published work to draw upon - but the emphasis is almost always placed upon the work that most intimately reflects her personal life, particularly her romantic life. In The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Elizabeth Barrett is a newly established poetess when she meets her future husband and fellow poet Robert Browning, but of her substantial oeuvre, the emphasis is placed on her "Sonnets from the Portuguese," her brilliant and gorgeous - and also highly autobiographical - cycle of love sonnets, rather than on, say, her equally brilliant "Aurora Leigh," which in blank verse narrates the life of a young woman who also aspires to be a great writer in the tradition of Shakespeare. In Out of Africa (1985), Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen writes only peripherally about her romance with Denys Finch Hatton, focusing instead on the agricultural developments on her farm, her experience of the Kikuyu and Masai cultures and her relationships with native Africans, and the beauty of the extraordinary African landscapes. Although the film includes many of the experiences described in the book, Blixen's romantic life is undoubtedly emphasized over her identity as a storyteller and eventual author.

In the end, the salient feature of all of these heroines' stories is a central romance. I would argue that this is a result of the conventions of the period drama, which tend above all to stress the romantic over every other aspect of life, despite the fact that much of the literature that these films are based on emphasizes decidedly different themes, from moral development to parental and sibling relationships, cross-cultural exchange, and politics of every stripe. Even in the case of a period film in which the writer and protagonist is male, as in Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009), the romantic tends to be stressed over the literary. But, when one contrasts Keats in Bright Star with the female heroines listed above, one notices some striking differences.

First of all, Keats is presented as a fully fledged, published, (and deeply misunderstood) artist (as is Robert Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street), while the women, even including Karen Blixen, are developing writers, learning their craft rather than practicing it, in need of advice and counsel, which is usually provided by men. Secondly, Keats is not at all restricted to the autobiographical and personal. Though much of his work featured in the film, particularly "Bright Star," is directly linked to his romance with Fanny Brawn, his poetry is not confined to the autobiographical, anymore than it is confined to the beautiful and simple. Thus, women writers in period dramas are rewarded with success when they plumb the depths of their souls, making personal revelations and describing the beauty and simplicity of their domestic lives, whether they are emancipated and living in the Australian outback or African plains, or confined to the homes of their parents awaiting the proper suitor. Male writers, on the other hand, are artists - they may love, but they do not depend on the revelation of the personal for their success. We are still lacking portrayals of women as creative artists who need not confine themselves to work that reflects "the beautiful, simple things."

All that being said, I highly recommend the films I have discussed, with the exception of the silly and self-indulgent Mansfield Park.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Review: Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Medea"

In general, I am not terribly enamored of Pier Paolo Pasolini's work, despite his undeniable brilliance, but I sought out Medea because it stars Maria Callas, whose passionate fan I have been all my life. Maria Callas was one of the finest actresses of her age; the fact that she was also one of the greatest opera singers of all time should not diminish her equally superlative dramatic skills. It was Callas who introduced a realism in operatic acting that was both revolutionary and revelatory. Once a critic complained that Callas sounded tired in the final, tragic act of La traviata; when Callas was told of this, she felt it was a great compliment because it meant that she had conveyed the exhaustion of the dying tubercular courtesan. Callas did not merely want to produce beautiful sound - rather she had a gift for bringing even the most absurd characters of opera to vivid life. While Medea can really be considered a lesser work of Pasolini, it is the only opportunity to see Callas in a non-singing role and as such, it is essential viewing for anyone who appreciates her extraordinary artistry.

The first scenes of the film have nearly continuous dialogue as the centaur Chirone (Laurent Terzieff) explicates an unraveling series of philosophical views, but after these scenes, the dialogue is minimal. His protegee, the young Giasone (Giuseppe Gentile) goes on a quest to retrieve the golden fleece, which is held by the people of Medea (Callas), queen of Colchide. Medea is a woman whose values are fully integrated into the brutal sorcery of a culture the superstitious practice of which demands blood sacrifice. Giasone is seduced by Medea's savagery and sensuality and the two marry, but in a short time, Giasone's ambitions for a princess's hand send Medea into a fury of jealousy that can be sated only with black magic and revenge. The legend is too well known to need to alert a potential audience of her wrenching final act.

It is far too easy to demonize Medea for the infanticide of her sons, merely to revenge herself on Giasone, who abandons her for Glauce, but Pasolini does the utter opposite. While it cannot be denied that Medea murders her sons, it is not simply the logic of jealousy that motivates her brutal vengeance. After Giasone and Medea make love, Giasone once again meets Chirone, who tells him that he both loves and pities Medea, for she is a woman whose values are no longer in accord with the world, coming as she does from a culture more ancient and barbaric. Her destruction of Giasone's children and potential wife is driven by the same ancient and barbaric laws that condemn her to be forever a feared outsider. From the first frames of the film, Pasolini insists on the sacred as mundane and when every action takes on a magical significance, one that implicates every aspect of the world from the sun to the merest speck of dirt, Medea's actions take on the weight of fatalism. The final ten minutes of the film are heart-wringing precisely because she is not cruel or hysterical. She follows the dictates of destiny. To call Callas's performance in these final scenes masterful is a vast understatement.

Pasolini's enmeshing of the sacred with the mundane endows even the most seemingly meaningless actions of every-day life with a sense of dark magic, while at the same time it infuses that magic with a sense of the quotidian ordinariness we in the modern world associate with empiricism. The banality of sorcery is one of the key means of access into the ancient world, so deeply different from our own, and Pasolini is a master at granting that access. At times, Medea almost seems like an ethnographic film with its hand-held cinematography, shaky and sweeping landscape shots, and above all in the camera's unobtrusively objective eye that seems to simply capture the rituals and practices of an alien people. While in most films set in the ancient world, explanations and motivations for ritual action are carefully defined, Pasolini eschews any sort of expository device that might elucidate the bizarre ceremonies presided over by Medea. We do not and cannot clearly understand the passions that drive these characters to dismember a young man and spread his blood over the land and trees, but we feel them and are frankly repulsed.

Pasolini assumes that his audience has a firm grasp of both ancient Greek mythology and Euripides's play, just as with his Decameron, he assumes that his audience will be familiar with Boccaccio's masterwork, or as with his Il vangelo secondo Matteo, he assumes that the audience will know the Biblical text well enough to see his Marxist diversions from the gospel. It is not in and of itself negative that Medea is inaccessible, (particularly given the devaluation of the classics in modern school curricula), but it does render it hopelessly obscure. But despite the film's inaccessibility and often obtuse story-telling, Maria Callas's performance is enough to warrant a viewing, while those who appreciate Pasolini's cinema will find much to praise.