Monday, December 31, 2012

Fantasia and Transnational Film Culture

I have argued that Disney’s Fantasia is a signal work in a film culture that is fundamentally transnational. By transnational I don’t mean universal, or anything like it. I mean only that film culture at that time, the mid-20th Century, operated across national borders and, indeed, had been doing so since its inception.

This argument goes back to a piece I’d originally published in The Valve in 2006 and republished here in 2010: Disney’s Fantasia as Masterpiece. First I want to reprise aspects of that argument and then I’ll flesh out some things I didn’t get to back then.

Fantasia as a Singular Work

In order to argue that Fantasia is a masterpiece I had to argue that it is not, as it is so often considered, an unordered collection of autonomous episodes. That the film is not a narrative is obvious. What is not so obvious is that it is, I argue, an encyclopedia. The episodes have been carefully, if unconsciously, chosen to indicate the whole of the cosmos. In making that argument I called on two literary critics, Edward Mendelson and Franco Moretti:

In 1976 Edward Mendelson published an article on “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon” (MLN 91, 1267-1275). It was an attempt to define a genre whose members include Dante's Divine Comedy, Rablais', Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Goethe's Faust, Melville's Moby Dick, Joyce's Ulysses, and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Somewhat later Franco Moretti was thinking about “monuments,” “sacred texts,” “world texts,” texts he wrote about in Modern Epic (Verso 1996). He came upon Mendelson's article, saw a kinship with his project, and so added Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung's (note, a musical as well as a narrative work), Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a few others to the list. It is in this company that I propose to place Fantasia.

And so I did.

You’ll have to consult that old post if you want the full argument where I consider the contribution of each of the film’s eight episodes. In this post I’m concerned with only one aspect of the argument, that these encyclopedic works are special kinds of cultural markers:

One other characteristic looms large in Mendelson's formulation. These works are identified with particular national cultures and arise were these nations become aware of themselves as distinct entities. This creates a problem for his nomination of Gravity's Rainbow as an encyclopedic work because Moby Dick already has the encyclopedic slot in American letters. He deals with the problem by suggesting that Pynchon is “the encyclopedist of the newly-forming international culture whose character his book explicitly labors to identify” (pp. 1271-1272).

Fantasia presents the same problem, for, like Moby Dick before and Gravity's Rainbow after, it is nominally an American work. But there is no specifically American reference in the film. None of the music is American, none of the segments are set in America nor refer to American history or culture. It is not, in any ordinary sense, a nationalist work, an expression of national identity. Rather, it is an expression of a naïve middle-brow universalism, unaware of the cultural specificities on which it depends.

That seems right to me, a naïve middle-brow universalism, one that circulated transnationally. That’s what Disney was after and the company still pursues it, I suppose, long after the founding genius, Walter Elias Disney, has died.

Nationalism Gets in the Way

First of  all, we need to recognize that national boundaries are not good markers of cultural kinds, though nationalist ideologies insist otherwise. I’ve argued this point at some length in a working paper, Culture, Plurality, and Identity in the 21st Century. The physics conducted behind Japanese borders is not Japanese physics in any culturally significant sense. It is just physics that is done on Japanese soil in Japanese-built structures and is readily intelligible to anyone who knows contemporary physics.

Nor is the golf played on American golf courses an essentially American game merely because American citizens play it on American soil. That the game originated in Scotland is one thing; that it is now played the world over is another. What that implies about cultural identity, I don’t quite know. But we’ve got to step back from the automatic practice of hanging national labels on cultural formations.

Culture doesn’t work that way, and never has. Cultural practices have circulated freely among human groups long before the nation state was invented. Upon its invention, though, which happened relatively recently according to Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge 1990), it set out to create a myth of cultural homogeneity within its borders. Of national languages Hobsbawm writes (p. 54):

National languages are therefore almost always semi-artificial constructs and occasionally, like modern Hebrew, virtually invented. They are the opposite of what nationalist mythology supposes them to be, namely the primordial foundations of national culture and the matrices of the national mind. They are usually attempts to devise a standardized idiom out of  a multiplicity of actually spoken idioms, which are thereafter downgraded to dialects, the main problem in their construction being usually, which dialect to choose as the base of the standardized and homogenized language.

Of France, for example (p. 60):

However, given that the dialect which forms the basis of a national language is actually spoken, it does not matter that those who speak it are a minority, so long as it is a minority of sufficient political weight. In this sense French was essential to the concept of France, even though in 1789 50% of Frenchmen did not speak it at all, only 12-13% spoke it ‘correctly’—and indeed outside a central region it was not usually habitually spoken even in the area of the langue d’oui, except in towns, and then not always in their suburbs. In northern and southern France virtually nobody talked French.

Italy was even more problematic, with only 2½ % speaking Italian in 1860 when the country was unified.

One aspect of this nationalizing process that shows up in university curricula is the teaching of national literature and history to undergraduates as an aspect of training them to be good national citizens. Ironically enough, in American universities, it was, until relatively recently, English literature that was taught to undergraduates, not American. There were no courses in American literature at Johns Hopkins when I was a student there in the 1960s, nor were there any Americanists in the faculty of the English Department. That situation was not unusual for the time, though that time has since passed.

American national mythology has it that America is a melting pot, implying that many cultures went into it but we’ve all come out the same: American. But we haven’t. America wasn’t culturally homogeneous when Disney made Fantasia and it isn’t homogeneous now.

National boundaries and national institutions, political, economic and military, certainly have cultural consequences. But they do not constitute cultural essences. Cultural formations cross national borders all the time.

Film Culture as Transnational

In this perspective, the assertion that film culture is transnational would seem almost a trivial truism. By the late nineteenth century, when motion picture technology was invented and put to practical use, European conquest had linked the world with lines of trade and exploitation, which necessarily involved global circulation of cultural materials and practices of all kinds. The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893—where Elias Disney, Walt’s father, had worked as a carpenter—had exhibits from 46 nations around the world and was attended by 27 million people. Eadweard Muybridge exhibited moving pictures of animals at the fair.

The early film industry was, of course, built on silent films. So language was no barrier to circulation of films. According to Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America (1994, p. 22) American film-makers copied the comedies of Georges Méliès as soon as they landed—copyright was not established for films until 1912. Until World War I the French company Pathé Frères was the world’s largest film producer (p. 29). The Europeans were the first to make long films, a market the American producer, Adolph Zukor entered into in 1912 (pp. 42-44).

Zukor, like many of the early movie moguls, as a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. This fact prompted Neal Gabler to write An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, in which he argues that the Hollywood film industry was built by such men used it as a vehicle to make themselves into Americans, but also to make an imagined America in their image, as Christopher Lehman-Haupt notes in this review:

But above all things, these moguls ''wanted to be regarded as Americans, not Jews; they wanted to reinvent themselves here as new men.'' And in doing so, ''the Hollywood Jews created a powerful cluster of images and ideas - so powerful that, in a sense, they colonized the American imagination.''

By the time we get to Disney—the studio was founded in the early 1920s—the American film industry may have been the largest but the industry was itself a world industry in which it was  routine for films to circulate outside their countries of origin.

That was certainly true of Disney’s cartoons, which were known around the world. Mickey Mouse, and Mickey Mouse merchandise, was not exclusively American. By the time Fantasia came out, 1940, Mickey was known around the world. By then Disney had become so dependent on overseas exhibition that the advent of World War II hurt him badly, forcing him to stop making feature films and to make propaganda and training films for the Federal Government in order to keep the studio solvent.

Disney himself may have been an example of the rags-to-riches story so central to American mythology, and he may even have thought of his films as pure Americana. But pure they were not. He and his artists borrowed freely from many cultures in making their cartoons.

Disney Culture

Consider the first five feature length films, the ones completed before Disney shut down feature production at the beginning of World War II. Two of them, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, are based on European sources and take place in European settings. Bambi is set entirely in the woods and so could take place anywhere with the appropriate flora and fauna, which is a rather large part of the world. The many settings of the episodes in Fantasia defy easy geographical reference, though The Rite of Spring takes nothing less than the solar system as its setting. That leaves us with Dumbo, which is set in America, starting in Florida with the winter quarters for the circus. But the circus itself is a European cultural form that was brought to America in the 19th Century.

Yes, these films are American in the sense that they were made in America and it is probably the case that most of the men and women involved in the making were born in America. But not all of them. Danish illustrator Kay Nielson joined Disney in 1939 and did concept art for the Ave Maria and Night of Bald Mountain sequences of Fantasia. More to the point, Robin Allen (Walt Disney in Europe) has documented a wide range of European influences in Disney’s cartoon imagery in general. In the particular case of Fantasia Kendall O'Conner, an art director on the Dance of the Hours, asserted African and Japanese influences (quoted in John Culhane, Walt Disney's Fantasia, pp. 168, 170).

Finally, all of Fantasia’s music is European; none of it is America. This was generally true of  soundtrack music for feature films. It may have been composed by American composes, some of them European immigrants, but the idiom was 19th Century European romanticism. Cartoon music was different. While much of it was from the 19th Century European classics—which were, of course, not in copyright—swing and jazz did show up in soundtracks, but not on the soundtracks of any of these old Disney features.

So, where does that leave the cultural identify of Disney’s cartoons, but most particularly, of Fantasia? If we insist on assigning them an identity, then the obvious identity is Disney. They’re an expression of Disney culture, but not in the contemporary sense of corporate culture, where, for example, the culture of Apple is said to be different from that of Monsanto or Goldman Sachs. The cultural identity of those films is Disney in the more interesting sense that it is an amalgam of diverse cultural influences that Disney himself—for he was very much a hands-on micro-manager for at least the first two decades of his studio—authorized and, to some extent, sought out.

In this process Disney and his artists did not confine themselves to American sources. That this Disney amalgam has something of a middle-brow universalism about it, that is interesting. And it is not too difficult to see how that would have a broad transnational appeal. Not universal, though. Just transnational. A lot of people in a lot of nations like Disney films, some more than others. And many, especially intellectuals, feel that they are trite and kitschy as well, not at all authentic. That’s OK as well, though not compatible with my belief that Fantasia is one of the great works. But THAT’s a different argument.

THIS argument is simply that, in the large, film culture is inherently transnational in that, from the beginning, films have circulated across national borders and film-makers in one nation have been influenced by film-makers in other nations. Yes, there ARE national cinemas, and there is more to that than the mere location where the film is made. Any number of  Hollywood Westerns, for example, can plausibly be said to be somehow culturally American in a way that Fantasia is not. And that is my argument in the small, that Fantasia in particular is not culturally American, despite having been made in America by people who were, for the most part, American citizens.

American Culture?

Is there such a thing as American culture? I believe so, though I’m not sure just what it is. I’ve already mentioned the Hollywood Western. I think a case can be made that it is authentically American. But it hasn’t stayed in America—think of the spaghetti Westerns from Italy. There is a national political mythology that encompasses the Revolutionary War, George Washington and the cherry tree, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, not to mention the Constitution and any number of such documents. And there’s Thanksgiving, a specifically American holiday. And so forth.

Such things constitute the cultural formation of American identity and, as such, of course they are American. And no doubt much else besides. All nation states have cultural apparatus specifically devoted to validating national identity and thus obscuring what actually takes place, on the ground, in modern nations with international trade, travel, and communications.

It precisely on account of that nationalist mystification that I think that we must be wary of the reflexive identification of cultural formations with nation states. And these large identities such as Western, Eastern, and African culture are even more doubtful. Such reflexive and pervasive identifications beg too many questions and get in the way of understanding cultural dynamics.

* * * * *

Note: The Wikipedia has a short entry on transnational cinema:
A key argument of Transnational cinema is the necessity for a redefinition, or even refutation, of the concept of a national cinema. National identity has been posited as an 'imaginary community' that in reality is formed of many separate and fragmented communities defined more by social class,economic class, sexuality, gender, generation, religion, ethnicity, political belief and fashion, than nationality.
The references are quite recent.


  1. Bom dia, muito interessante seu blog e bem escrito, aprendi um pouco mais aqui, por isso estou já seguindo. Parabéns


  2. You can make the same point with regard to ethnicity and culture. Material culture generally does not recoginze national or ethnic boundaries and was and is widly dispersed and shared.

    Makes spotting diffrences in archeology impposible at times.

    Some research carried out in Africa some years ago noted that material culture was disperesed across ethnic and national zones what you got was a spike in ethnic symbols enscribed on objects at times of conflict that diminished when things became more settled.

    It may in part explain the Disney studios issues during W.W.2. Naïve middle-brow universalism would be more suited to a more stable peacefull enviroment.

    Scotland invented the modern rules for golf the origins of the game are not known and almost certainly not so culturaly specific, although the head of the tourisim board may put it slightly differently.

    Was a wonderfull heated argument some years ago over the origin of Snow White between a German tourisim chief and an Italian academic who were both claiming Snow white as of German or italian origin.

  3. The thing about Snow White is that there were any number of versions of it floating around before Disney did the film. Not just printed versions, but plays and earlier films.