Embracing the contradictions of Walt Disney

Neither admirers nor detractors really get him right

December 24, 2006|By Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler,Los Angeles Times

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney's death from lung cancer, a long time by most measures and an eternity for figures in the popular culture, who usually evaporate quickly from our memories.

To a surprising degree, however, he has managed to survive in the national consciousness, not just as a corporate logo but as a kind of cultural barometer. Ask just about anyone how he or she feels about Disney, and you are likely to get either a beaming tribute from those who recall him fondly and enjoy his animations and theme parks, or a scowling denunciation from those who see him as the great Satan of modern mass culture.

In fact, Disney seems to have long had that effect.

When he burst on the national scene as the creator of Mickey Mouse in the late 1920s, he was widely regarded as an artistic naif - young (he was only 26 at Mickey's inception), uneducated (he had only a year of high school), informal, plain-spoken and unpretentious. Though Mickey made his claim on the public's heart as a winning rascal who seemed blithely unaffected by the anxieties of the Depression, intellectuals embraced him, too, much as they had embraced Charlie Chaplin a decade earlier. Thornton Wilder went so far as to call Chaplin and Disney the only true geniuses the movies had produced.

Still, for all the hosannas, there was a bit of condescension in the intellectual approbation. It was Disney's naivete the intellectuals loved, his lack of affectation. Disney, they thought, was too plebeian to have regarded himself as an artist, which is what made him one in their eyes.

The problem with this interpretation was that the intellectuals were wrong. Disney wasn't completely without affectation or pretense, and he certainly hoped that what he was making was art. By the time he released Fantasia late in 1940, combining the music of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven and others with animation - and some of it abstract animation at that - the cat was out of the bag. The reviews were generally positive, but there was now for the first time some griping about Disney among the intelligentsia, not least from Igor Stravinsky, who later insisted that Disney had butchered his Rite of Spring because, he said, Disney's sensibility was too coarse to appreciate the finer things.

Where Stravinsky led, many soon followed, and by the postwar period Disney was no longer viewed as a folk artist with an infallible instinct for touching the American heart and hitting Americans' funny bone. He was seen instead as a mass artist and kitschmeister mechanically, even cynically, manufacturing products for public consumption. In some precincts, Disney eventually became the poster boy for Western imperialism: the great exporter of mindless American claptrap.

And though it is by no means self-evident that reality is any more artistic or complex than the fantasy in which Disney is purported to have traded, he eventually would become, as the critic Richard Schickel called him in his seminal book The Disney Version, the "rallying point for the subliterates of our society" - namely those who preferred the faux to the real. To his detractors, this made Disney not just an entrepreneur of junk but the progenitor of a certain mind-set that was dull and conformist and even dangerous.

But just as the earlier depiction of Disney as unpretentious was misleading, the contemporary view also might be a false dichotomy, one that serves the warring factions but does some injustice to Disney himself by shoehorning him into categories into which he doesn't really fit, and one that does some injustice to the variety and depth of American popular culture as well.

Disney's values are not traditional conservative American. On the contrary, his films challenged authority, disdained the acquisition of money, abhorred hypocrisy (including religious hypocrisy), promoted tolerance and community and celebrated rebelliousness. (Just see how Davy Crockett challenges Andrew Jackson in the 1950s TV programs, or how Pollyanna scolds her own minister for his intolerance.)

Disney denounced what he called "billboard patriotism," and he looked askance at organized religion - all of which means that both sides got him wrong. It is in Disney's odd combination of libertarianism and liberalism, optimism and cynicism, nostalgia and futurism, faith and doubt that one may find not only the real man but the real America he represented.

After 40 years, Walt Disney is not either/or - the best or the worst. He is both the best and the worst - not the polarizing center of cultural warfare but a portent of the truce between high and low.

Neal Gabler, an author, most recently wrote "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination." He wrote a version of this article for the Los Angeles Times.

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