Jul 23

Postcorporate Form; or, Art After Disney

With Comcast dropping its bid, The Walt Disney Company’s purchase of 21st Century Fox looks increasingly likely. Together those two companies account for about 47% of the domestic cinema market, and their merger would further flatten a media landscape dominated by a handful of companies.

I’m currently working on a book about The Walt Disney Company’s adaptations of Victorian literature, arguing that analytic categories like historical periodization and literary form remain relevant even as readers’ experiences are shaped less by teachers and scholars than by global media corporations. There are such things as “corporate histories” and “corporate forms,” and they exert a strong influence on the reception even of centuries-old works. It’s essentially a project about literary history, but it also has me thinking about a more contemporary genre that emerges from a media climate controlled by a handful of major players.

That thinking is partly inspired by postcolonial studies. Among the important questions asked by global and postcolonial scholars is the extent to which artists after colonialism accept, reject, or reinvent the colonizer’s artistic forms. Robert Stilling’s forthcoming book shows “how postcolonial artists reimagined the politics of aestheticism in the service of anticolonial critique,” and iGlobal Anglophone Poetry Omaar Hena argues that “the renovation of aesthetic forms” allows global anglophone poets to look both backwards to “irreparable historical realities” and forward to “more robust models of worldly belonging that would match the aesthetic and political complexities of the contemporary world” (3).

One has merely to mention the East India Company to demonstrate that colonialism and global capitalism have always come hand in hand, and it’s not at all uncommon to hear companies like Disney or Facebook compared to the colonial nation-states that exerted their dominance in the nineteenth century. Critical works like Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart’s How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1991) and the National Labor Committee’s Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti (1996) take the comparison seriously, but does art do the same work? Might there be an analogue in “postcorporate forms,” works that “renovate” (to use Hena’s term) corporate forms in the service of anti-corporate critique?

I have in mind three very different works. The first is Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003), a futurist dystopia set in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. In a rejection of the copyright system with which Disney is inextricably linked, Doctorow distributed his novel under a Creative Commons license (you can download it for free from his website). Part of Hena’s argument is that the colonizer’s aesthetic forms also determine which writers gain — or don’t gain — institutional recognition, and so colonial power structures still determine which works succeed. In a sense, Doctorow subverts a similar power structure.

Banksy’s Dismaland (2015)

The second is Banksy’s 2015 art installation Dismaland, which leveraged the form of the theme park in its critique of corporatism, media culture, police brutality, and predatory lending. Though Banksy disavowed any direct aim at Disney, the decrepit castle at the park’s center certainly evokes the castles around which Disney’s parks are built, and the whole concept of a “theme park” is linked to Disney: the first recorded usage in the OED is a 1960 reference to efforts to duplicate Disneyland.

The third work I have in mind is Jon Cozart’s “After Ever After” series, the best among myriad YouTube Disney parodies. Cozart imagines the next step in the characters’ stories and links them to issues of contemporary concern: Ariel is poisoned by BP’s oil spill; Aladdin and Jasmine face both American islamophobia and the threat of ISIS; Pocahontas and Elsa lead violent uprisings against (respectively) British colonials and climate-change-deniers; Mulan ponders gender realignment surgery. Cozart has three videos, one of which you can watch here:

Striking about Cozart is his clear fondness for Disney: the videos are as much homage as parody, and if they take aim at Disney’s films it is only in their formal reliance on a “happy ending.” Yet they implicate corporate actions in environmental destruction, racism, and imperialism. There is some irony in the leveraging of these critiques through homage to a company that is far from innocent of those same charges (see Dorfman and Mattelart and the National Labor Committee).

These are just initial thoughts on this topic, and a slight deviation from the argument I’m developing in Disney’s Victorians. Of course the analogue between “postcorporate” and global or postcolonial writing needs some further thinking. But this is a line of inquiry I might pursue in a future post, or perhaps a longer work.

Jun 14

Alice in Disneyland

Alice in Wonderland Ride

It has been almost a year since I last posted on this blog, and it had been almost a year before that post, too. Excuses abound (a first child, a new job, a new house in a new city), but I’m recommitting to posting here more regularly. I am partly inspired by Dan Cohen’s essay from a few months ago, about his own desires to write more on his own blog in support of movements to “re-decentralize” the web

But I am also at a point in my current research project that I want to make more public. While I was still teaching at a college outside Orlando, I developed a course called “Disney’s Victorians,” in which we read a bunch of Victorian texts that Disney has adapted, like Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandTreasure Island, and Oliver Twist. With Walt Disney World down the street, I thought it might appeal to students, giving them an entry point into Victorian literature. That summer I attended an NEH seminar in California, and since we had some time set aside for research I drove down to Burbank to visit the Walt Disney Company Archives. I thought maybe I”d find one or two things to use in the class.

I found so much more than that. The archives contain a fascinating record not just of Disney’s films but of the research behind them. Research reports dating back to the 1930s include surveys of competing adaptations, which I would expect, but also scholarly and biographical contexts that might inform the animators’ work — something that surprised me! Two days in the archives resulted in an article about Disney’s Charles Dickens adaptation Oliver & Company in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, and that barely scratched the surface of what I found. The rest of that research will be included in my next book, tentatively titled Disney’s Victorians: Literary History in the Age of Corporate Media. I connect a historical period to a global media company to address a range of topics in literary studies, including form, history, authorship, empire, gender and sexuality, adaptation theory, and institutional processes. 

Alice in Wonderland Dark RideOver the coming months I will share parts of my book-in-progress on this blog: starting today, June 14th, 2018, which happens to be the 60th birthday of the Alice in Wonderland dark ride at Disneyland. When the ride opened in 1958, Disneyland was still in its infancy. Considered the first amusement park to make storytelling its central focus, the Anaheim theme park opened in 1955. Disney’s cartoon musical Alice in Wonderland (1951) featured prominently in the lead-up to the theme park’s opening, especially on the television program Disneyland. The film also inspired the spinning tea cups at the Mad Tea Party, which was among the park’s first attractions.

The 1951 film is the one you know. In the last sixty years it has become probably the most recognizable version of Alice, displacing even Lewis Carroll’s books and John Tenniel’s illustrations. The movie was the culmination of decades of attempted adaptations and false starts. The 1923 short film “Alice’s Wonderland” was among Walt Disney’s first cartoons. It was inspired by Carroll’s book, though it uses only the basic idea of a girl in a fantasy world to justify the gimmick of a live-action girl interacting with cartoon characters. Disney brought the film with him when he moved to Los Angeles, and used it as his demo. He found a distributor and created a series of Alice films, which he eventually leveraged into a second series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and eventually Mickey Mouse.

Mary Pickford 1916.jpg

Mary Pickford, who at one point was slated to play Alice in a Walt Disney feature.

The Disney Company, this story reveals, starts with a Victorian text. And the connection to Alice didn’t stop there. The company had some version Alice in Wonderland in production from the 1920s through 1951. In the book, I use archival materials and press releases to reconstruct what Simone Murray has called “phantom adaptations,” versions of a film that reached some stage of production but were never completed. These phantom adaptations include a version starring Mary Pickford as a live-action Alice interacting with animated characters; dozens of pages of suggestions about how to adapt specific characters, choose voice actors, and fit the studio’s own Alice among existing adaptations; and a script written by Aldous Huxley, complete with a frame narrative in which Lewis Carroll and Alice meet the actress Ellen Terry.

Each of these adaptations struggles with a question of form. While the Alice books offer rich material for the cartoon, whose key formal feature is the “gag,” animators continually struggled to connect those episodic moments into a single, unified story with compelling characters. In the book I discuss how the various phantom adaptations approached this struggle.

For now, though, I’ll leave you with the option to watch a ride-through of the Alice ride at Disneyland (you can wish the ride a happy 60th birthday):

Jun 21

Charles and Hans, Summer 1857

This summer is the 160th anniversary of a famous vacation: from June 11th to July 13th, 1857, Hans Christian Andersen sojourned with Charles Dickens and his family, at their home in Gad’s Hill.

Dickens’s biographers tend to treat Andersen’s visit as something of a farce. Andersen was initially supposed to stay about a week, but he stayed five. Dickens’s daughter Kate thought him a “bony bore,” and reports that after Andersen left, Dickens pinned a note above a mirror that read, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks — which seemed to the family AGES!” From the Dickensian perspective, a patient but exasperated family put up with their Danish visitor’s eccentricities and poor English. 

Kate Perugini (nee Dickens), who called Andersen a “bony bore.”

I’m working on a book chapter about Andersen, and find myself returning to this anecdote from another perspective. In a short volume published a half-century ago and subtitled “a friendship and its dissolution,” Elias Bredsdorff reprints a portion of Andersen’s diary, as well as his and Dickens’s correspondence (both to each other and with others). Andersen in these documents comes across as enamored with Dickens, desirous to stay in his company, where he was initially welcomed. He gradually became aware of the family’s annoyance, but only later; the first part of his visit went smoothly. Moreover, it was Dickens who, about ten days into Andersen’s visit, encouraged him to stay longer to see him perform in The Frozen Deep, a stage production to benefit the family of his friend Douglass Jerrold.

Andersen in 1846, just before his first visit to England.

Dickens and Andersen got along well the first time they met, in June 1847. Dickens had rented out his London house and was staying the summer in Kent, but traveled to London to attend a party at Lady Blessington’s, with the express purpose of meeting Andersen (20-21). A few weeks later Dickens invited Andersen to dine with the family, and when Andersen left England the next day, Dickens met him at the docks; he was the last person Andersen saw before he departed (26-7). By all accounts this first visit was a friendly one, and the two continued to correspond over the next few years. It was Dickens who, in 1856, first encouraged Andersen to return to England and to stay at his house (40). Andersen was moved by Dickens’s kindness, writing to his benefactor Jonas Collin, “as a boy I was always called Hans-Christian, but never Hans alone, and he writes, ‘Dear and worthy Hans!’ How such a beginning struck me!” (41). Based on their first meeting, their letters, and the warmth of Dickens’s introduction, Andersen surely expected to be welcomed into Dickens’s home.

Andersen mentions his struggle with English in both his letters and his diary. After his first day at Dickens’s house he wrote to Mrs. Ingeborg Drewsen, “it goes quite well with the language; I have of course to make some jumps, but we meet each other” (92). Two days later he recorded in his diary, “I talked a great deal this evening, and they understood me well” (52). After he had been in England a week, he wrote to his friend Henriette Wulff, “Him [Dickens] I understand the best as far as speaking goes, and now — exactly eight days since I came — he says that I am making surprising progress in speaking English” (94). Dickens praised Andersen’s English to his face, but his letters show something different. In early July, about two weeks after Andersen recorded Dickens’s praise, Dickens wrote that Andersen “speaks no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that” (112).

Engraving of Dickens at Gad’s Hill, where Andersen visited him in 1857.

In the final weeks of his stay Andersen must have picked up on Dickens’s frustration, and his family’s growing irritation. After leaving England, he wrote to Dickens from Germany: “I realize that it cannot have been at all easy for the whole circle to have in its midst for weeks such a one as spoke English as badly as I,” he told him, “Yet how little I was allowed to feel it” (118). His diary and letters, however, make clear that he had felt it. From Paris, where he traveled directly after leaving Dickens, he wrote to Wulff, “In Dickens’s house Dickens was unquestionably the pearl; Mrs. Dickens tender-hearted, Mary, I think, was the one who came closest to her in kindness to me, and thus downwards” (106). Only days after leaving England he was sharing his awareness of the Dickens family’s annoyance, and his private diary shows that awareness had been developing for weeks. After the first performance of The Frozen Deep he attended a party at the Household Words office, and closed his diary entry for the day with a parenthetical, “Not at all in good humour really the whole evening” (80). Earlier that week he had dined with Dickens’s daughter and wife, along with her sister and mother: “little Kate sarcastic, and the aunt is certainly weary of me” (78), he wrote.

Cover of Wilkie Collins’s _The Frozen Deep_: Dickens encouraged Andersen to stay longer and see him perform the led role.

Andersen stayed well beyond the two weeks he had initially intended and by July it seems he had worn out his welcome. But it was Dickens who had encouraged him to extend the visit. On June 21st, when he had been staying with the Dickens family for about ten days, Andersen wrote in his diary, “Dickens begged me most charmingly not to go before I had seen the performance they were giving for Jerrold’s widow, said that he, his wife and daughters were so glad to have me with them; I was much moved” (60). This was just the sort of kindness that appealed to Andersen, always seeking the approval of those around him. And he must have recognized the burden on the family, for a week later, June 28th, he wrote in his diary that when he was asked how long he would stay, he replied, “Long for Mr. Dickens, short for me!” (70).

One can’t help but feel for Andersen, staying with a man he clearly admired, and who had encouraged him to extend his visit. Surely he can’t be blamed for the timing of his visit: not only was Dickens mourning his friend and busy with rehearsals for The Frozen Deep, but Little Dorritt was being panned by reviewers and he was about to bid adieu to his son Walter, who shortly thereafter left for India (where he would die a few years later). Also his marriage was unraveling — he would meet Ellen Ternan a few months later, and separate from his wife within a year. Despite all this Dickens himself maintained a friendly facade, but one might forgive his family for becoming irritated with their guest.

Perhaps had Andersen declined Dickens’s invitation to stay longer, and skipped The Frozen Deep, he wouldn’t be remembered as such a “bony bore.”

Work Cited

Bredsdorff, Elias. Hans Andersen and Charles Dickens: A Friendship and Its Dissolution. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1956.