America’s Utopian Dream or “Why I love Don Draper”

artwork by Dan Panisian

artwork by Dan Panisian

I started binge watching Mad Men a few weeks ago and just finished the 6th season. As stories have a tendency to do, this show pushed some buttons with me…which pushed MORE buttons with me…until saw a pattern emerging that I wanted to think through with y’all readers. The roots of things, or what my PGI professor Laura Grillo used to always call “what we are actually up to” come out in both our stories and our actions and those roots (for me) have been everywhere in the news this week.

What is it about Mad Men that tells us what we as Americans are actually up to? Two words: Don Draper. He speaks to us in the same way that Jay Gatsby does. Yes, this show is about an entire cast of amazingly archetypal characters working together in an advertising firm, but as many of the characters often say–this is Don’s world. We all just live in it. That is the point. Don Draper is an American everyman, living the American Dream. Or is he? Yeah, we can pretty much all agree that he is a jerk. He’s a functioning alcoholic. He is a capricious womanizer. He is a pathological liar and he is certainly a narcissist, if not a complete sociopath. He is generally not a nice guy, and he is certainly an anti-hero–something we’ve seen over an over again in American television storytelling of late from The Walking Dead to Breaking Bad to Dexter to Masters of Sex. Post-millenial story tellers have a fascination with the need to show multifaceted, flawed characters in a role of hero. Yeah, this has been going on for a while now.

What is it about Don Draper (besides the glory of Jon Hamm) that gets to the audience?

–His broken search for Utopia. America is an utopian experient gone awry…as they all do. We continue to work to perfect our union, but honestly, we know we never will…because it is not possible to ever perfect it. Consider this quote from President Ronald Reagan. “America is less of a place than an idea, and if it is an idea, and I believe that to be true, it is an idea that has been deep in the souls of Man.” From the stories of Atlantis to Rome, to the modern states of Israel and the US, humanity has searched for a way to bring the concept of utopia to their own lives. America, and the construct of “The American Dream” are based on utopian ideals and the search for peace, harmony and a life free of want and desire. Don is convinced that if he can just do more and acquire more, he will reach fulfillment. Sorry Don, it doesn’t work that way.

Like Gatsby before him, Don came from nothing. Even his name is manufactured. He has no identity of his own. He hates talking about himself, because when he does he has to admit that he is the child of a father just as broken as he is…the kind of man who would leave a 15 year old prostitute that was pregnant with his child alone to die…the kind of man who would starve his family because of his pride and die stone drunk in the rain kicked by a horse. And he is in pain. The pain of being shamed into believing that his desire for wholeness is shameful. That shame becomes fear, that fear becomes numbness, and that numbness becomes a life of ego satisfaction.

This story reflects our American one. None of us came to America because we were whole where we were. We immigrated to America because the past was painful. And wouldn’t so many of us love to forget that past and start over? Isn’t the desire for reinvention the impetus of American myth?

We’ve seen this story play out in myriad ways in American myth. So the question remains: what is it about “Mad Men” that makes it fresh? I feel that what makes it so fresh is its place smack dab in the beginning of the 1960s advertising. As television became an ever more important staple and society began to unravel around us, America began to witness growing power in media and advertising to create identity. If, as Don states, “Advertising is about love” (albeit manufactured love), this show gives us a mirror into something incredibly important to consider: 1). how America fell out of love with itself and 2). what it has replaced that love with.

Finally, why do I love Don? Compassion. Because I understand him. As an American mythologist with my own love/realistic relationship with utopia, I get his brokenness. I feel his nostaglia, his desire to return to something that never existed in the first place. I understand his bitter disappointment as he continues to fail at building something that can’t be built, and I root for him to find peace.

Leave a comment

Filed under Myth

Maleficent: Disney’s Era of Feminist Apologetics **Warning: Spoilers Ahead**

Image

Disney’s recent re-mythologizing of their classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty (1959), has much to commend it. It is beautiful to look at, the story is convincingly told, and, in my opinion, Angelina Jolie was just born to play this role.

Maleficent: What did I love about it? Mythically, that is…

Visuals: As I said, it was stunning. The costumes were lovely. It film’s aesthetic is a contemporary homage to the original Disney classic with its medieval look. I found the characters in the fairy land to be quite Jim Henson-y, which I love. It felt like a reunion of the cast of Labyrinth, and I totally want Aurora’s room in King Stefan’s castle.

Witch and Mother: I agree with the bloggers who have argued that this is a positive image of the witch and the mother. Maleficent is powerful, yet tender as a godmother to Aurora. I always love when they show the power of a mother’s love. In this version, Maleficent’s magical abilities are not the source of her evil, as is often the case in stories with witchy women. Her magic, until her violation that is, is shown as a gift that makes her protective, kind, connected, and strong.

Eco-Message: My first response to the film was: I get it…I get it…Mother Earth=good. Patriarchy=bad. Living in sustainability=good. Unchecked ambition and greed that leads to violence against the earth=bad. The eco-message is presented in connection to violation (some say rape) imagery. When King Stefan steals Maleficent’s wings, he violates her innocence. He drugs her while she is vulnerable in her love and protection of him. The trauma damages her ability to trust. It fills her with sadness and rage. I get that. As a metaphor for industry and ambition’s destructive relationship to the earth–perfect.

There are some things you just can’t take back: At one point during the story, Maleficent decides that she no longer wants Aurora to be cursed. When that happens she attempts to reverse the curse. But she can’t. There are some acts that cannot be redeemed…some choices that cannot be unmade. Good job Disney!

Love transforms/heals: I swear I’ve preached this so much that I’m blue in the face, but this is the central thrust of Disney’s cinematic myth. once again, they nail it.

Now about Disney and their contemporary Fairy Tales:

The archetypal nature of fairy tale is all over the screen. Really, it always has been with Disney. But this film in particular virtually screams von Franz, Campbell, and Jung, perhaps because it is, in fact, influenced by their work. In 2013, executive producer of Maleficent, Don Hahn, spoke about Jung’s concepts of the archetypes, of shadow and light at the D23 Expo. He talked about how archetypal energies move in the souls of people when they create and about how genuinely connecting with those energies and allowing them to transform your work is the path to true creativity.

I know. I was there. And I was floored. When asked, he admitted that although they are interested in Jungian theory, they are not experts in it. He also admitted that they do their best to explore it in their films.

During this meeting, it became clear that this newer crop of artists at Disney are deeply aware of the social, cultural, and psychological impact of their stories. They have read fairy tale theory. They are also concerned about their role in the production of their images. Furthermore, they are aware of the way they are criticized in the academy. They know that there are entire departments of feminist studies, fairy tale, sociology, and cultural anthropology scholars who are critical of their fairy tales. And, I can tell you with absolute certainty that they know that many find their older versions of Maleficent and Aurora mortally problematic. Personally, I don’t, because I understand that all characters are imperfect archetypal facets of their moment in time. I do, however, understand why people would, and I respect those perspectives.

Disney has been working to re-imagineer the embattled image of the Disney princess since their creation of Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989). And they have been successful in many ways. Furthermore, their villains have become more textured, more understandable, less “pure evil.” But lately, I’ve been feeling like Disney has moved from character development into the field of apologetics–a field of philosophical theory that literally means “in defense of.” Simply put, this means that as they create their stories, they do so with conscious attempt to defend their myth, as if the older versions somehow require defending.

Here’s where it gets murky for me:

In their effort to redeem Maleficent and re-vision female relationships, I feel that they made one misstep.

THEY MISUNDERSTOOD AND MISUSED CONTEMPORARY FEMINISM BY GIVING US NO REAL POSITIVE IMAGES OF GENDER INCLUSIVITY.

If, in fact as I am pretty much sure they are, Disney is telling a story about how a true connection with the light aspects of the soul’s feminine energy/the anima (the archetypal maiden, Aurora) through love can be healing, that is great. Another story about women and daughters is great. A story about the redemption of one’s innocence…one’s ability to love and trust again in the face of trauma…GREAT! In their quest for the redemption of their feminist imagery, however, they gave us negative or underdeveloped images of males, and that bugs me.

The first romantic relationship–Maleficent and Stefan–ends in violence and betrayal. The second romantic relationship–Aurora and Phillip–has no true power. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with the way Stefan was portrayed. The destructive nature of male violence (especially in light of the recent tragic events near my home here at UCSB) bears repeating.

Where I feel they fell short, however, is bringing Phillip into the picture. Because Phillip’s role in the earlier tale is SO central, his short changed presence in the film makes it feel like the take-away message of this film is “forget true love in a romantic relationship with a man. He’ll only betray you, violate you, or stand there like an ineffectual doofus while you languish in eternal slumber.”  That is wrong. Romantic relationships can be a source of deep connection between people. They can be beautiful. In my opinion, this film’s treatment of sexual love is just as damaging as the original, because it swings the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. It is not helpful to make the archetypal charming prince into a clown. He too has important archetypal energy that should be respected and explored. What we need is true connection between characters, not cardboard cut-outs used as place holders.

The one positive image of a male character is Maleficent’s crow slave Diaval. He is the conscience of the piece, but he is shown as subserviant…not at all the kind of gender equality and inclusivity that the current feminist milieu would like to cultivate.

Disney: if you want to do apologetics, that is fine. Give us your stories about women in relationship. Make those female characters powerful, tough, and smart as well as beautiful. Show us how beauty and love heal. Remind us that greed breeds violence. Those are all great things to tell us. But don’t give us shallow images of male characters like this new Prince Phillip. Because he isn’t what this story is about. And that is ok. Just leave him out completely. Cause if you DO decide to put him in, I’m going to demand that you develop him as more than a simple trope.

Lastly, in spite of all this, I still really enjoyed it. I give it a A for effort and a B+ for success.

EPILOGUE: My dear friend (and Disney scholar guru) Amy Davis made a point that is salient to the above. I wanted to share it. She read Phillip’s relationship with Aurora as too young to be considered “true love.” How could it be true love if they only just met. However, she said, his presence on stage at the end suggested that the relationship was yet to develop. I agree with that. And I’ll admit that I considered that possibility. Good point Dr. Davis! I guess I just wanted a bit more development in him to be able to truly call him a positive male image.

And one more last thing: Several people have written reviews about the film from a feminst perspective. As gender studies is an interest but not an obsession of mine, I will leave it to them to say these things. Check these out.

http://www.avclub.com/review/maleficent-only-half-commits-subverting-disney-fai-205174

http://theweek.com/article/index/262679/girls-on-film-maleficent-is-less-progressive-than-1959s-sleeping-beauty#axzz33zRe3w2C

5 Comments

Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Fairy Tales, Joseph Campbell

Angel: Joss Whedon Does Noir

Image

“Is there anything in this life but grief?” –Illyria 

“There’s love. There’s hope.” –Wesley   Angel Season 5 Shells

Until recently, I’d not really been a fan of the Whedonverse. Well, perhaps that’s not fair. It isn’t that I ever disliked Joss, but it is more that I just didn’t really watch Joss. I’d seen the movie Buffy The Vampire Slayer when it was released, but when Buffy TVS came around to TV, I was a sophomore in college. I like to call those the “dark years” of my pop culture fandom, as I was so busy reading and studying that I didn’t have time to watch his (or any) stuff, nor did I have consistent access to cable and that was before Netflix and Hulu.

I’ve also never been a huge fan of vampire stories. In fact, with the exception of The Lost Boys (1987), I have stayed entirely away from vampire mythology. My primal fear of vamps goes all the way back to a traumatic experience related to a neighbor in a Halloween costume when I was around four. As a young adult, I often had night terrors that featured a blond vampire without a face. This could explain my reticence to watch Buffy, and it certainly explains my long standing dislike of Spike as a character, though, I’ll admit, I’m kinda over that now.

By the time I saw Joss’ version of Much Ado About Nothing, I was convinced that all my friends were right. He is a genius. Recently, I was browsing my local DVD shop when I came across Buffy Season 1 for an incredibly cheap price. I figured “what the heck? All of my mythie friends swear by the amazingness of Joss’ vampire shows. Perhaps I should bite the bullet (pun intended) and finally watch it?” I brought it home to see if Bruce would like it. I figured that if he hated it, I could sell it back for about the same amount that I paid it, no harm no foul. It took about 2 minutes of the first episode for Bruce to fall in love with Buffy. And I can’t blame him. I love her too. She’s amazing and frankly, in spite of myself, I also love Angel. When my dear friend and Whedon guru, Nikki Fuller, invited me to the Whedon Studies Association conference commonly known as Slayage, I knew it meant one thing: time to catch up on the other shows, particularly Angel.

I already owned Season 1 of Angel, figuring the same as with Buffy TVS…if I hated it, I’d just sell it back. But I didn’t hate it. The show gripped me on an even deeper level than Buffy TVS did and not just because David is a bright and shiny object (which, of course, he is). I wasn’t sure at first what it was that hooked me. The darkness of the show, the message of how we find redemption deeply resonates with me. Halfway through the first season, it occurred to me what is was I was being drawn to there. DUH! Angel is Joss Whedon’s television foray into one of my all time favorite film genres–film noir.

Noir is a genre that peaked between 1940 and 1960. In its purest form, it is a response to the oblivion of WWII and focuses on the dark underbelly of American life, though its roots in crime fiction go back to the great depression. It isn’t a coincidence that it showed up during the war as a kind of counter-cultural expression. I find that we often romanticise the greatest generation‘s era. The people living during that time–particularly the young ones–were asked to make outrageous sacrifices. They were and are our parents/grandparents/great-grandparents, and we often honor their lives by focusing on the amazingly selfless gifts they gave.

We forget, however, how dark that time actually was. People living during the war did not have a magic 8 ball that would tell them how the war would end. It was truly apocalytpic…much as it was in the 1960s…much as it has been in the early part of the 2000s. And culturally, there was no time for apocalypse. All American resources had to go into fighting the war. Films were war propaganda. The US Army even took up residence at the Disney Studio with Mickey Mouse. Every part of American life was dedicated to winning the war. So the darkness…the doubt…the insecurity…and the guilt of the nuclear age came out in film noir. The genre produced some amazing pieces of art. Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, Anatomy of a Murder, and Vertigo are just a few of my personal favorites.

Obviously, Angel is a TV show, not a movie. Nevertheless, it is full of classic noir motifs.

cast

Anti-Hero

The central character of a noir piece is generally called an anti-hero. As the name suggests, an anti-hero is a protagonist whose intentions may not be entirely pure. Like Angel, the anti-hero is perfectly suited for their job working through the seedy underbelly of America because they too have experienced corruption. They may be a recovering alcoholic/drug addict (like Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), particularly violent, or a social deviant. The noir anti-hero commonly works as a law man–a cop, a private investigator (Scotty in Vertigo)–also like Angel. Anti-heros seek redemption for the sins of their past, though often they refuse to admit it. Most commonly, they are one temptation away from being drawn back into the darkness themselves. As a vampire with a soul, Angel is the perfect anti-hero. His memories of his old demon days are still in tact, but the remorse he feels and the development of his authentically good heart  propel him on to do good in the world. As Joss said on the Special Features of Season 5 Disk 6, “Angel is an allegory for addiction” and “Redemption is something we work at every day.”

The Femme Fatale

The femme fatale is a noir archetype much like the anti-hero. She enters as a foil for him. She’s beautiful, alluring, and deadly. Dark sexuality is always present in the archetype of the femme fatale. She may seek out the help of the anti-hero, but in the end she may also be his undoing. A sexual female vamp is THE image of the femme fatale. We see examples of her in the characters of Darla (seasons 1 and 2), and Cordelia (season 4).

Darla is Angel’s sire (ewwwww Oedipus!!). This show shows us her past–her illness and how she was turned into a vampire. As a femme fatale, she is Angel’s weakness. Angel is unable to reject Darla even when he knows she is evil. He begs her to leave her ways behind, and she tempts him to return to evil. During season 2, he gives into his urges to be with her. When she returns pregnant, he becomes fiercely protective of her and his child even though evidence suggests that his child may be evil.

Cordelia, though generally not a femme fatale in the series, becomes one for a season of the series.  Cordy, as they call her, has a connection to Angel that goes back to his Buffy days. The two of them slowly fall in love over the course of the show. When she is herself, she is always shown as a positive relationship for Angel, but in season 4 she becomes possessed by a higher being who wants to use her body to be reborn. This being does tons of damage through Cordy, including becoming pregnant by Angel’s adolescent son and destroying any chance the two of them had to be together. This action itself almost destroys the Angelverse. She is Angel’s other weakness on the show (as Buffy makes very few appearances).

The Dark City

If there is one motif that is central to noir it is the dark city.  The city of Los Angeles is also iconic to the noir genre. Sure there are noir films that take place in New York, Chicago, San Fransisco and a few that are set in the countryside, but the City of Angels–and all the irony that implies–is the classic setting for these stories. Some have suggested that noir is LA and, at least in the golden age of film, when LA plays herself, she almost always plays noir. As psychologist James Hillman notes in his documentary Surfing LA, there is something Hades-like about the place, as though the lord of death himself may pop up at any time. The hills, the earthquakes, geothermal instability, the heat, the Santa Ana winds, the history of political/police corruption, the way it devours young women, and the wild, wild west mentality of the film industry are just a few of the things that make it such a dark image.The Percy Jackson series falls in line with this placing the entrance to Hades right off the Sunset strip. In the Angelverse, the presence of Wolfram and Hart (evil attorneys at law) opens up a channel to the evil powers that be. Wolfram and Hart are also very LA–powerful clients getting away (literally) with murder. The actual physicality of the city of Los Angeles is central to the show. Neighborhoods are discussed in such a way that those familiar with LA know exactly what those images imply, and furthermore, since Angel is a vampire, much of the work of the show must exist at night, adding a literal layer of darkness to the city.

These are just a few of the noir motifs. Many others exist in the show: moral ambiguity, the presence of evil, betrayal by friends, and perhaps most notably, despair of a world fallen to corruption. But this is the Whedonverse, and in Joss’ world the important thing is not that we are broken, full of the need for redemption. Humanist that he is, for Joss what is important is that we keep striving for redemption even if we know we won’t find it (perhaps we may find it but never reach it). Unlike traditional noir pieces that are literally black and white completely devoid of humor, Joss’ world is full of hope–colorful characters such as the green-skinned, Pylea native lounge singing empath demon Lorne. The show finds humor in our existential debacle by injecting it with a certain amount of silliness. It’s full of those fun moments that make me say “Oh, Joss…you would…” but punctuated by those tragic moments that also make me say “CURSE YOU JOSS!!”

Angel 1

Leave a comment

Filed under Essays

Disney Parks and The Myth of Family Vacations

Image

The season finale of The Middle aired last week. It took the Heck family to Walt Disney World via a contest that Sue wins, though she thinks she is competing for a car. The trip begins as a nightmare. Frankie (mom) ushers in  the trip by failing to read the tickets, which apparently are for Disneyland Resort in Anaheim rather than Walt Disney World. Before long the family is on one long Murphy’s Law of a trip. All along the way, however, the staff at Walt Disney World goes out of their way to make their trip magical. They honor their tickets and upgrade them to a room that makes their original room look like a broom closet. Even so, the Heck family is unhappy. Every plan the family makes fails. Sue carries a binder around convinced that she has the plan for the entire trip. Everyone is grouchy. Everyone is hungry. No one is having a good time. No one gets on any rides.

The first day goes by quickly. They fall asleep in their epic room. The next day they wake up at 3pm, groggy and panicked because they have slept their entire day away. At the park, they bicker and rip themselves apart trying to do too much…trying to consume everything the parks have to offer. The family stands in front of the Partners statue–Walt and Mickey–right in front of the castle arguing. Frankie shouts at them. “What is wrong with us?” she shouts. “Every other family here can figure this out!” “Everyone else can get that ONE good picture for the Christmas card.” Finally Mike (father) tells them “you know why I wanted to go to Epcot? Because never in my life will I be able to afford to tak your mother to Paris. And just once, I wanted to take her to dinner in Paris.” Clearly, he knows it isn’t actually Paris, but he also clearly knows that animating an illusion of life is what Disney does best.

The parents take off to Epcot for dinner and the kids split…and then decide not to split. Before you know it, the kids throw their plans/fears/false annoyances with each other out of the park. Silly faces are made and pictures are willingly taken. In the end, the whole family reconnects for the fireworks. All of the annoyances are gone, and they the fireworks show in awe. Of course, as they drive home, the kids fight just as they always do, but they do so with wry smiles and as the parents give knowing looks from the front seat of the car.

As I watched this episode, I kept thinking about Disney Parks as an American pilgrimage. I questioned, as I always do, what Disney/ABC is on about in this episode. Yes, ABC is NOT Disney, but The Walt Disney Company owns it. This episode was the second episode by an ABC show that took place at one of the Resorts. In 2012, Modern Family did an episode in Disneyland, and one of the central themes of the episode was familial connection and the concept being present in the moment. This episode seemed to convey a similar theme.

The Heck family drives all the way from Indiana to go to WDW. They go to have that moment of connection. Even so, it is difficult for them.  I am with Frankie all the way, because when I visit Disneyland, I always notice families who seem disconnected, frantically trying to consume everything…annoyed that they are spending so much money and not getting everything out of the experience.

Some might suggest that is the shadow of Disney–consumption. And they would not be wrong. I would suggest, however, that consumption is actually the shadow of our culture, not just here in America, but as a global American legacy. Whether we are at Disney or at a ball game, at a park or at a museum, our need to consume often trumps our ability to experience the moment in which we are living. We live in constant fear that we will be unable to consume enough to balance what we believe is being taken from us. We cannot balance the amount of money we spend against the experience of the moment.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the monetary cost of a trip to Disney. I appreciate that some families never get to go and some save for years just for one day at the park. But it isn’t just the trip to Disney. It is the commodification of family life in general. It seems as though we feel that “quality family time” must itself meet some sort of acquisition level in order to maintain its value. But the value of these experiences can only be truly measured by how much they make us feel…how they make us connect. That is the point of this episode. The Hecks win the trip, but they must become conscious of the gift of the trip. They must recognize it as a blessing, let go of plans and expectations, and allow the experience to move them. Once they do, they are able to appreciate its true value. They are able to have, as Joseph Campbell once said, “an experience of life rather than the meaning of life.”  It’s a message that goes to the heart of Disney, because it speaks to a tension in Disney’s myth: consumption vs. connection.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Disney/Pixar, Disneyland, Just Life

Disney and Mythology: Recycled Fairy Tale Motifs? Derivative Stories?

Image

Recently, I read a blog review of Frozen that claimed the film was cute, but lacking a bit in originality. This was not the first time that I’ve seen a reviewer talk about Disney fairy tales in this way. I’m not gonna lie. It kind of irritates me each time I see the argument. For some reason, people completely misunderstand creativity. Being creative does not mean being wholly original. As TS Eliot suggests in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the creative person enters into a conversation that has been ongoing since the advent of artistic expression. The entire reason to create art is for the soul to speak into that conversation. But Disney has done something besides create art for almost 100 years now. It has created a mythology, and mythology, though a vehicle for art, is not itself art.

Disney is Mythology?: Wait, Say What Now?!

First let’s define mythology. This word that the “parlance of our times” refers to as “fiction” or a “lie” comes from the Greek language. It is constructed of two terms: mythos (muthos) which simply means story and logos which means words, but can be further understood as language…the structural make up through which mythos is conveyed.

Whew…that was heavy and theoretical. Putting it more simply, a mythology is group of stories that belong to a tradition. There! That was simple and to the point. So, has Disney created a mythology? Yes they have. Each one of their stories have the hallmarks of the Disney tradition…they belong to Disney and to all of us who resonate with their message. Dude, I’m not going to bore you with all of the details of Joseph Campbell’s four functions of mythology, but Disney’s stories do in fact: 1). create awe; 2). order the cosmos or explain why things are the way the are; 3). create and promote social/behavioral norms; and 4). provide vehicles for rituals through which we travel from birth to death.

So, what is Disney’s myth? Many of you would argue that Disney’s central myth is capitalism…and you wouldn’t be wrong. Walt himself was very proud of his own capitalist leanings. But, this is hardly the end of their myth. Director, animator, and producer Don Hahn (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast fame to name a few) told me himself at the 2011 D23 Expo in Anaheim that you can’t really take The Walt Disney Company as anything other than a capitalist entity that is out to make profit. However, and these are his words, “those of us who are artists working for the company intuit something deeper…something archetypal and meaningful.” Exactly, Disney is creating a mythology…a RECOGNIZABLE tradition through which their stories come to us.

And, if that is the case, then the argument that Disney’s fairy tales are full of derivative motifs and images becomes a shallow reading of them. I will give people the argument (if they really need it) that Disney fairy tale characters do have a similar look and that these films have similar and recognizable motifs in imagery and song . Yes they do. But if you focus on that, you miss a broader point. The reason that they share those things is that they are all part of an actual mythic tradition…and I believe that we have been living without consciousness of mythology for so long that we don’t understand what that means. Sadly, we often don’t recognize it when we see it. It means that motifs continue to return, kaleidoscopically, to further convey a tradition’s myths (Disney fairy tales) through a tradition’s ritual (going to the movies/parks).

The better question is not are Disney’s fairy tales derivative, but why do they continue to traverse the same mythic atmosphere? Well, frankly, that is a topic for another blog, so I’ll give it to you in a nice, neat package. They do it because their mythic role in our world is to tell a particular story in a particular way. What’s the story? The story is that magic does in fact exist, but that perhaps we do not call magic by its real name–LOVE. In short, the myth of Disney fairy tales is that love exists and that love transforms.

So focused is this message that Disney has created an entire “logos” for their “mythos.” And, though again this is a topic for another blog, I believe with all my heart that this myth is indispensable to humanity.

Leave a comment

Filed under Disney/Pixar, Disneyland, Fairy Tales, Joseph Campbell, Myth, Walt Disney

“Sisters…Sisters…there were never more devoted sisters…”

Image

Frozen is now called the greatest Disney musical since The Lion King…hailing Disney’s return to broadway quality the likes of which we have not seen since the team that gave us The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (Howard Ashman and Alan Menken). I’ll admit it; I bawled like a baby. Pretty much everything about it is spectacular, but I was left thinking about what it is about Disney films that so affect me? When they work for me, WHY do they work? Answer: it’s the heart. For me, when art works it isn’t because of any intellectual exercise; it is because it makes me feel something. Disney has been known for intentionally going for the “feels”, and that’s what this film does. Furthermore, for me, when art works it “speaks” in some way. That is also what this film does. It provides perspective. In its purely archetypal, kaleidoscopic sense, it presents faceted images of the archetypal realm.

Please be advised that there will be **SPOILERS** ahead, so if you aren’t interested in finding out what happens in this film, please pass over this post. Also, in contrast to my other posts that tend to be theoretical, the following review is **PERSONAL**. I’m speaking my truth here.

Frozen is an incredibly loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. And when I say loose, I mean that pretty much the only thing this film and the original fairy tale have in common is some snow. Indeed, as per usual, Disney tends to pick up motifs from the older versions of fairy tales (trolls, royalty, snow, mirror) and re-mythologizes them completely. Andersen’s work is self-consciously moralizing in tone–lovely, but incredibly Victorian. That is not how Disney rolls…particularly since The Little Mermaid. Disney does comedy…caricature. It has always presented fairy tales in the vein of Hollywood standards, but since the late 1980s, (in my opinion the genius brought to the studio by Ashman) they have presented these tales through heart-stirring and powerful broadway style musicals. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that the films since Ariel all feature young women with strong, broadway caliber characters and voices. I’ve previously suggested that Disney princesses reflect the anima (or the soul’s feminine aspects) complex of the Disney Studios. They represent facets of feminine consciousness coming to light (hence the “feels”) through the belting ballads of Disney anima-tion.

Frozen features two of these power houses–sisters Elsa and Anna. As usual, Disney focuses on the ways love transforms us all and the importance of sharing bonds of love with family. This film is no exception. Though it is not the first story to focus of the power of relationships between women, it is the first to focus so intensely on the relationship between sisters as a catalyst for magical transformation.

THE PLOT:

Frozen begins with a powerful intro song similar to the opening piece of Beauty and The Beast or The Lion King. It’s a group of “ice harvesters,” singing about the beauty and power of ice and exhorting the audience to “beware the frozen heart.” The story soon turns to joy–two little sisters giggling and playing together in a wintery paradise created by magical powers. Elsa, the older sister, is the one with the magical powers to create ice and snow. Her younger sister, Anna, wakes her sister and begs her to play. “Do you want to build a snowmaaaaan?” An accident occurs as they play, and Anna is wounded by a stray bit of ice that enters her head. Elsa calls for her parents, and the family approaches a local family of trolls for magical advice. The elder troll heals Anna (he tells the family that she is lucky to have been wounded in the head–that the heart is more difficult to change), but also warns Elsa that her power is dangerous. He tells her that fear will be her Achilles heel–that she must master her fear to come into balance of her power. A central condition of Anna’s healing is that she have all her memories of magic erased.

The king and queen set about the business of trying to “control” Elsa’s powers. Between Elsa’s fear that she will hurt the ones she loves and Anna’s memory loss, the relationship between the sisters becomes distant, cold and strained. Elsa becomes more and more anxious about her powers, so anxious in fact that she locks herself away in her room. Anna is confused. She can’t understand why her sister doesn’t want to be with her. She can’t understand the breakdown of their relationship. Then tragedy strikes. While away on a voyage of presumed royal duty, the ship carrying the royal couple sinks. The princesses are left alone.

Fast forward to coronation day. The curtains and gates at the kingdom of Arendelle are about to open. Anna continues to seek Elsa, and Elsa continues to fear the possibilities of her power. They sing about their hopes and fears for the evening in “For the First Time in Forever” (Anna: “at least I have a chance”…Elsa: “But it’s only for today, It’s agony to wait”). Begin party…the sisters see each other and begin small talk. It’s awkward, but it’s clear that they both want to rekindle their relationship. Anna meets “the one” Prince Hans–a perfect IMAGE of a Disney prince. The two become engaged, much to Elsa’s dismay. They argue, and Elsa’s passionate response to her sister’s question of why she shuts her out ends in a display of her power. She flees, amid accusations of black sorcery, to the north mountain, and in an incredible moment that only Disney can create Elsa comes into her power as she sings the powerful ballad “Let it Go.” Dude, I gotta share it. It’s that good.

In doing this, Elsa unleashes perpetual winter, which sets Anna off on a journey to find her sister and “fix everything.” Along the way, she comes across a man named Kristoff, his fantastic reindeer Sven, and a snowman come to life by Elsa named Olaf. The relationship between Anna and these characters is adorable…but peripheral (though there is love, growth and education there) to a reunion between Anna and Elsa. Anna and crew eventually make their way to the north mountain where she and Elsa quarrel again. Anna believes that if they can just come together and be honest with each other, they can fix everything. Once again, Anna is accidentally injured…this time in her heart. The trolls tell her that only an act of true love will save her.

Kristoff and crew return her to her “true love” Prince Hans who, in a twist that apparently everyone but romantic little me saw coming, reveals himself as the villain (WHAT?!!). Hans locks Anna away and imprisons Elsa, attempting to drive an even deeper wedge between them. Elsa runs heart-broken into the snow, whipping up an even worse blizzard as she goes. Anna runs out into the snow searching for her “true love” moment, when suddenly the snow begins to die down and Anna sees Prince Hans attempting to kill Elsa. Anna, about to turn into a block of ice, gives herself for Elsa as she freezes. Elsa holds her sister and in a typical “true love’s kiss” moment, Anna comes back to life. Turns out that the act of true love she needed was one of her own, for her sister. All’s well that ends well…lesson learned…release the fear, embrace your power and love each other. Open the gates and never shut them again.

Now, Personal:

Confession: I have two sisters, both of whom I adore. I share a father with one sister and a mother with the other. And there is pain and trauma on both sides, which I am not at liberty to write about in this blog. Let’s just say that in relationship to both of them, I am the Anna. It is well known in our family that I am the silly, klutzy naive one of the group.I’ve got the freckles, the unshakable belief, the braids, the goofiness…they’ve got the beauty, the composure, grace, the maturity. I am also the one who has often been thought to need protection. I was so much younger that at different times, both of my sisters have, of their own belief and by our parents, felt that they could be the cause of hurt for me. Furthermore, they has caused them to doubt themselves and their gifts.

Both of my sisters are powerful women who have experienced differing levels of pressure to hold themselves back for fear of what release of their own intensity could mean. So they held back, and frankly, for a long time I didn’t really know my sisters. Now, as an adult, this story resonates with me. I can see how my sisters loved me and sought to protect me all through our lives. And, I know that an act of true love requires selfless acceptance, something I know that both my sisters and me were always willing to give. Just as Elsa needs to release the fear of her power…her ability to hurt the people she loves in order to embrace the beauty of who she is, so Anna needs to appreciate what her sister feels and support her in that power. But in order for that to happen, Elsa and Anna need to trust each other…a balance between the compassionate power of Queen Elsa and the boundless optimism of Princess Anna. These are powerful archetypal images that I find present in my relationship with my sisters. Older sisters, younger sisters. An act of true love can melt a frozen heart. And I’ve seen these archetypes in play in other families as well. My nieces, my cousins, my friends…

What could it mean for us all if we embraced our loved ones without fear? What if we bring what we believe to be shadow into light–accepting truth and loving each other, not in spite of it, but because of it? Disney’s Frozen tells us what happens. Love will thaw. And it is no coincidence that love comes to us through Disney’s healing touch of the feminine–on this point, sisterly love rather than romantic love. Sisters: The image of little girls at play and young women empowering each other. It is beautiful…and it heals, because we are more powerful together than apart. Together, we are whole.

Given, with love, for my darling sisters: Shari Merrill and Lisa Filippini

Frozen1

Leave a comment

Filed under Disney/Pixar, Fairy Tales, Just Life, Movie Reviews

Oz: The Great And Powerful and Re-Myth-ing the Origin Story

ImageApproximately ten months ago or so, my dear friend Bonnie and I spoke with some intuitives at our local mythie bookstore. One of the individuals with whom I spoke told me that he felt that I was in the middle of re-crafting my own origin stories. Of all the things we talked about that day that was the one thing that really stuck with me.

Origin stories? Genesis myths? Immediately, I asked a bunch of questions like: What does that mean? To exactly what kind of stories in my personal life might that speak? And, most importantly for this blog, how does this obsession with origin stories make its way into my personal myths? How are the myth-makers that I gravitate toward retelling their own origin stories?

Ever since this discussion, I am becoming more aware of the ways that I am drawn to people retelling their own genesis. I have become especially aware of the way that Disney has been in the process of doing so of late.

And why not? Speaking of our myths, noted philosopher, author and professor Sam Keen reminds us that “We need to reinvent them from time to time…The stories we tell of ourselves determine who we become, who we are, what we believe” (Your Mythic Journey qtd in Once and Future Myths: The Power of Ancient Stories in Our Lives, Phil Cousineau, 7). There is a reason that origin myths are meant to be reenacted cyclically.

Perhaps this insight is particularly poignant right now—at the beginning of this year’s Passover and Holy Week remembrances. We respect (at least ideologically) the ritualizing of the origin stories of the religious traditions of all Americans. Origin myths are meant to be a living part of the calendar, and so they are in their own ways in our secular culture as well. We celebrate Independence Day each year, Election Day every four years, President’s Day every year and so on.

Many of these have a basis in history, but what of our imaginal origin stories? What about the origin stories that come about as a natural outpouring of fantasy? I am convinced that these origin stories are also reinvented on a cyclical basis as well.

From the work of the D23 to the heightened presence of the archives to the re-mything of the “golden age” of Los Angeles at Disney California Adventure in Disneyland Resort to Diane Disney’s Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco to a renewed interest in Oswald and Mickey Mouse cartoons spurned on by the success of the first Epic Mickey game, a renewed interest in origin stories seems to be everywhere in Disney’s storytelling at present.

Disney’s relationship with the Oz books dates back to the early days of Disney feature film animation. As early as the 1930’s, Walt Disney sought to acquire the rights to re-mythologize Baum’s books in film. Perhaps, as a Midwesterner (a Missourian/Kansas City-man) himself, Walt Disney felt particularly drawn (pun intended) to the Kansas landscape of Dorothy Gale and her family.

By 1954, he had acquired the rights to eleven of the books. By 1958, he had acquired the rights to all twelve of the books, but he was never quite ready to work them into film. Time, tide and technology never quite crossed for Walt and Oz.

In 1985, Disney released Return to Oz, which, although it became a bit of a cult classic among Gen X and Y’ers, has little else to recommend it. Now, all these years later, in 2013, The Walt Disney Company has finally decided to release a feature film version of an Oz story—Oz: The Great and Powerful.

Image

Why? This film is itself an effort to re-mythologize the genesis and importance of the film industry itself and Disney’s role in it (as well, perhaps, as Disney’s favorite medium within film, animation/computers and technology ala Pixar).

Let’s look at it:

This film is what is known as a prequel. It tells the story of how the “wizard” makes his way to Oz. Loosely inspired by Frank L. Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as well as the iconic 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz (originally released by Samuel Goldwyn, then bought by MGM, and now owned by Warner Bros.) this film draws on an iconic well of imagery—the black and white opening sequence, the tornado, an eye-popping candy-colored technologically wondrous Oz, the soft muted pastel pink of Glinda (The Good Witch of the South), Theodora (The Wicked Witch of the West)—her green skin and her black witchy garb complete with hat, flying primates, the look of the Emerald City and the Yellow Brick Road.

It tells the story of how the “wizard” (James Franco) makes his way to Oz and is unwittingly used by one bad witch (Evanora of the East, Rachel Weisz) to turn another witch wicked (Theodora of the West–Mila Kunis) before becoming using his abilities to become the savior of Oz. The “wizard,” aided by Glinda (the Good of the South–Michelle Williams) , is convinced to mobilize the people of Oz, and fights back against the wicked witches.

Image

There is, however, one problem—the wizard is not actually a wizard, in the conventional definition of the word. He is a charlatan and a con man. More importantly, he is an illusionist. He is a carnival performer, a kind of inspiration for the late great Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent.” Oz is what is known as the archetypal trickster. As such, he is a master at sleight of hand, shapeshfting, lies, and illusions.

This trickster, however, really isn’t that clever. His illusions are easy to see through. It is clear that he yearns for greatness, but it is just as clear that that greatness eludes him. While on his journey through the land that bears his name, he begins to realize that, as Glinda says, he may not be the wizard they were expecting, but he is the wizard that has appeared. His affection for the people of Oz leads him to use his skill as an illusionist to convince the witches of the power he does not actually have. And, it works. In the end, the wizard defeats the witches through sheer illusion and sleight of hand. He fuses his hermetic abilities with the Tinkers’ (Imagineers perhaps?) ability to use technology. He creates a living, breathing illusion.

So, what does this have to do with Disney, the film industry, and origin myths? Simply put, this film suggests that like “the wizard,” filmmakers are both con artists and wizards. As myth-ie tricksters, filmmakers shepherd their audiences through to experiences that turn tin cans into walking, talking allies, convince them that they are in imminent danger from mechanical sharks, to create magical portals to mythic worlds using digital pixels, and simply entrance them will spectacle, color and delight.

Oz: The Great And Powerful is an origin myth crafted specifically to remind the audience of the importance of imagination, illusion, and storytelling. It makes sense that Disney chose to tell it through one of the most iconic and replete mythic systems ever to be touched by the film industry. It is intended to remind the audience why the kinds of things Disney is always up to (putting on a show, telling a story, ritualizing magical locales, and entertaining through illusionist sleight of hand) are powerful and central to psychic health. In that way, this film (for all its shortcomings…of which there are many…) works.

1 Comment

Filed under Disney/Pixar, Movie Reviews, Myth, Walt Disney