Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Why Song of the South is Offensive, or, a (Hopefully Useful) Resource for the Curious

Let me begin by saying that, of course, Song of the South is hardly the worst movie ever made. There are even a lot of things to admire about—especially, its technical achievements, and James Baskett’s admirable performance. And, in classic Hollywood style, some moments of the narrative are genuinely affecting—despite its (even for Hollywood) excessively over-the-top melodrama.

(You know what the most consistent reaction to Song of the South is when I screen it for my Disney students? Giggling.)

And, moreover, I know that there are any number of reasons why people love and/or defend the film as much as they do which does not necessarily have anything to do with its racial stereotyping.

But, apparently, qualities such as nuance, thoughtfulness, and subtlety were big problems for some. In the age of twitter, we need to reduce it to the most obvious and superficial question (i.e., is it racist--"yes or no"? And really that is by far the least interesting question to me about that film's complicated history). So, here, I’ll just get to the point.

It’s been difficult to know how to respond to some of the misguided,largely uniformed, and even vitriolic, criticism that’s been addressed to me personally, as though “shooting the messenger” and other ad hominem attacks were a substitute for meaningful critique.

(Of course, some have had my back--which I'm very grateful for).

Why “shooting the messenger”? Well, let’s just say that anyone who felt I sought out to “prove” how offensive Song of the South was seemed to miss the book entirely. I had no interest in doing so, for the simple reason that I didn’t feel it needed to be restated for the 100th time (in academic books, we look for new areas of inquiry, not opportunities to rehash old ones for an easy, quick buck). 

In this sense, people who say my book isn’t even about Song of the South are quite correct—it was a history of the complicated relation between racial politics, audience reception, and media transitions across the last 100 years of American culture, with Song of the South as simply a uniquely interesting case study—especially given its singular relationship with Disney, and all the fascinating possibilities therein.

But, whatever. See above point about nuance, blah-blah, etc . . . The larger point here is that I’ve had little interest until now in re-engaging that debate, which is little more than a virtual quagmire that reaffirms once again the internet’s ability to occasionally draw out the worst in human nature.

Oops, there I go again.


7 Revisionist Myths about Song of the South

Far more urgent and important, however, are some addressing of the many lies regarding Song of the South that I fear have begun to solidify in the wake of my book’s first appearance a year and a half ago—as we move further away from not just the making of Song of the South, but from any direct memory of what the American Civil Rights Movement even was (to use a metaphor from a 1957 episode of Disneyland, I feel it’s my responsibility to try to put this “genie” back in the bottle--however futile that will prove to be).

So, I feel a need to distill some of Song of The South’s many problems down to their basic essence—a primer to why Song of the South was and still is offensive, and why none of its defenses hold any water.

Myth #1: Little Johnny “doesn’t see race.” 

Well, sorry, it’s still there . . . as the last, oh, four centuries of American History should have taught us by now. And while it’s occasionally nice to live life from a child’s point-of-view, that’s ultimately pretty irresponsible in the long-run, wouldn’t you say? (plus, Johnny’s innocence would not preclude him from eventually internalizing the prejudices of his mother—see part of Myth #5 below)

Myth #2: It’s just a “product of its time.”
Here, the idea is that everything was racially insensitive when the film was made, so its no big deal. But, alas, no, America (and Hollywood) was a much more complicated place in the 1940s. During WWII, a conscious effort was made on the part of the US Office of War Information, most Hollywood Studios and various Civil Rights groups to promote “positive” images of African-Americans onscreen to boost morale—refuting exactly the kind of clichés Song of the South would later promote in the immediate aftermath of war. This is exactly why the film was controversial when it was released—many people were all too well aware of how this was a regression to older stereotypes. Plus, there is ample evidence that everyone within the studio knew all too well that they would have serious problems with the material (see conversation below about Walt’s so-called “intention”). If Song of the South was indeed a “product of its time,” wouldn’t the Disney Studios have instead been completely oblivious to what they were doing? Something doesn’t add up. Also, let me add that fans who continue to defend the film as a "product of its time" to this day, in our more "enlightened" age, should think long and hard about what they are really defending, and why they are really still invested in defending it.

Myth #3: It’s “not about slavery.”
Well, technically, no, it's not—its set after the Civil War, but you’d have a mighty hard time figuring that out just by watching the movie, which is so riddled with old Plantation clichés that it’s difficult to figure out when it actually is set. This was by design—it could tap into conservative nostalgia for the Old South on a visceral level, while still having the “out” of being *technically* (but not really) set after the war.
But I’d like to push this a step further and say that, in a sense, yes, Song of the South is very much “about” slavery. Why? Because the origins of Brer Rabbit are not just Joel Chandler Harris but go back to oral slave traditions. Let me repeat that—the Brer Rabbit stories are inherently slave stories. The idea of the physically weak outsmarting the more physically dominant were thinly veiled allegories for how slaves—who were otherwise powerless—could outwit their white master. Plus, Uncle Remus and the other African-American characters in the movie are no doubt former slaves, and would carry that painful memory with them. So, in short, yes, the weight of slavery’s history is very much in the very DNA of Song of the South regardless.

Myth #4: That’s “just the way things were back then.”
Ok—let’s say we accept the fact that the film is set after slavery. The problem with that is that the Civil War was hardly the end to the nation’s racial troubles, and anyone with any historical sense could tell you that in some ways things got a whole lot worse before they got better. Since African-Americans were no longer technically slaves, other forms of racial violence were necessary to maintain the “old” way—black men were subjected to regular lynchings if they forgot “their place” (and often even if they didn’t), or in some cases to being burned alive while white people threw a bonfire party around them, not to mention the more everyday instances of the kind of institutional discrimination (Jim Crow laws) and other forms of intimidation used to maintain segregation. This is the history Song of the South distorts, if you want to take the out by saying its set after the Civil War. So, no, this isn't the way things were.

Myth #5: Uncle Remus is just a “sweet, kindly old man.”
Let me start by saying my respect for Baskett’s achievement here is massive. It’s no secret that an African-American actor in the 1940s couldn’t be choosy about the roles he took, and if he rejected and/or criticized any of them, he’d never work in that town again. To his endless credit, Baskett did the best with what he had to work with.
Beyond that, this argument about Remus himself just completely overlooks what the “Uncle Tom” stereotype was to begin with, and what it meant historically. The Tom’s existence was solely to please, and seek the approval, his white "master"—he had no identity outside of that. This is made explicit in the film by the repeated ways in which Uncle Remus is "put in his place” by the two white women in the story, and by the fact that he is completely emotionally devastated at the end when the mother tells him he cannot spend time with Johnny—so much so that he feels compelled to leave the area altogether (seriously, the guy clearly has nothing to do with himself but please Johnny, and when denied that purpose he’s unable to recover—that’s at best condescending).
And what of that big happy smile? It's long been noted that the cliché image of the grinning African American which has so long been ubiquitous throughout US popular culture was historically really about alleviating white guilt over slavery—a reassuring fantasy based on the desire to believe that black people really held no grudges about all that stuff. This is a fantasy that Song of the South is especially guilty of indulging in. Plus, it also brings us back to the idea of the Uncle Tom—he’s always just happy to please, and he never forgets his place (see myth #4)

Myth #6: It’s actually a movie about “overcoming” racial problems, promoting harmony between the races.
Completely disingenuous. Granted, this one might hold some water if Song of the South was brave enough to actually address the legacy of slavery in the first place, and to deal directly with the actual pain that a real life Remus would no doubt carry with him back then. You cannot have the healing without the confrontation first. And, of course, Disney wouldn’t touch that topic directly with a ten-foot pole. No, it’s not a movie about overcoming the legacy of slavery—instead, it’s a nostalgic fantasy that pretends slavery never happened, and that African-Americans collectively have no history (see myths #3 & #5).

Myth #7: “Walt’s intentions were good.”

OK—now we get to the heart of the matter, one which deserves its own sub-categories, because we need to take this BS one step at a time:

1)      The fundamental problem with establishing “intention”—First off, read up on the "Great Man" Myth of history, and realize its foolish to put all of the film on Walt himself in any case when so many people worked together to build that studio and this film in particular. Beyond that: we don’t really know what an artist was thinking at the time; we don’t have a pipeline directly into someone’s head, let alone someone who existed 70 years ago. At best, we have interviews which need to be contextualized by other sources, or second-hand anecdotes from the people who knew the artist, as well as the, shall we say, “wishful” projection of diehard fans, but those are often heavily clouded by nostalgia and bias, and thus raise as many questions as answers about what the “true” intentions were.

2)      There’s really no hard evidence to support this defense anyway—where exactly are we supposed to see definitive proof that Walt’s intentions were good? The only positive stuff is just typical Hollywood studio PR spin—a shrewd business operation wisely trying to protect their (massive) investment. Of course, Walt and his inner circle are going to claim they tried the best they could, in that sort of “aw, shucks,” faux-naive, kind of way that the uber-smart Walt often deployed when confronted with potentially dicey issues surrounding some of the studio's films. But, look beneath the surface here—few changes were made once the studio recognized there were going to be problems, and by all accounts Disney largely ignored African-American concerns (he clearly wanted them to just sign off on the project more so than have any creative input). He did bring in a more liberal screenwriter for revisions, but Maurice Rapf apparently just came away from the experience more frustrated than anything else. And, if anything, evidence suggests Walt really just thought the whole controversy was more communist agitation, and not really about civil rights. Starting with the Animator strike at the studio at the beginning of the decade and perhaps culminating in his participation with the Congressional witch hunts later, it’s easy to speculate that it was labor and class—not race—that Walt was obsessed with.

3)      Walt didn’t have to make Song of the South—I cannot stress this point enough. Ok, ok: let's say Walt really “did try to do the best he could.” But, this overlooks a giant elephant in the room: nobody forced him to make the movie. If his intentions were truly good, if he really was sensitive to African-American concerns, why did he proceed to make the film even after so many people within his studio told him he’d had trouble? Just from a business standpoint, let alone a racial one, why proceed with such a risky project with too much at stake instead of just dropping it and moving on? That to me is the most damning evidence. Look, to be clear, I’m not saying Walt was a bigot at all—didn’t know the guy personally, don’t see a lot of overwhelming evidence to support it, and I’m not into knee jerk labels anyway (see point above about nuance). But what I am saying is that, at the end of the day, most actual evidence from the time suggests, at best, he really didn’t take the criticisms all that seriously, and thus didn’t “intend” to do well. As Walt often did throughout his life (and sometimes to absolutely brilliant effect), he wanted to make his movie his way, and didn’t care who got in the way, or what others had to say.

4)      “Intention” is really about Pattern Recognition—So, to modify point #1 above, I do of course support the so-called auteur theory (asI’ve written about before—in the book I’m most proud of), but as I tell my students when I teach, say, the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s not about establishing a direct link to Paul’s brain, and then downloading information. It’s about looking at the films themselves, looking at industrial and biographical sources, about looking at what others have written, and then looking for patterns to emerge. Only then can you begin to map out an “auteur” reading of a body of work featuring one historical figure as the common link. Almost every single Anderson film is about fathers and sons--clearly, there is something there. This is to me why ultimately Song of the South was (and in some ways still is) such a problem for Walt Disney—there is no pattern in his films of an really engaged or “positive” interest in  African-American representations, if we look at his entire career. Instead, we have an unrelentingly white, upper-middle class vision of the world—with blackness either relegated to the furthermost margins or absent entirely. Song of the South was the only Disney movie ever made that focuses primarily on the African American experience in his lifetime—and it's one riddled with the worst clichés about that experience. It just doesn’t look good. I firmly, honestly, believe that if Disney had made a slightly more diverse collection of movies about that experience through the decades (however modest), people wouldn’t really have focused much on Song of the South, whatever its problems. Yes, a lot of studios made movies “back then” whose stereotypes we would cringe at today, but those same studios in retrospect also made some other films that—for its day—could have been read as “positive.” But Walt never really did, and that, unfortunately, is, yes, a part of his legacy.

Finally, on the subject of "intention" let me add that, frankly, it really just does not matter in the end what Walt intended, even if we could deduce it. Why? Because cause does not negate effect. In the end, we are left with an offensive film either way, and hiding beyond intention is simply a cowardly way of avoiding responsibility for the work itself.


I’m sure there are some things I’ve forgotten and/or overlooked, but I trust the larger point has been made.

I will say, finally, that I’ve changed my mind from what I wrote in the book: Disney is right to continue to keep the film out of circulation. I was naïve and idealistic. There is simply no way to re-release the film now in a way that wouldn’t be read as a vindication for those who say it was never offensive to begin with—and beyond that, there are too many chances for its “natural” ideologies to continue to spread.

Time to let it go.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Haunted Nerves update

I officially finished a complete first draft of the manuscript today--endnotes and bibliography and all. Its a huge relief for a project that I struggled with for so long.

Right now, its at 70.6K words, which makes it longer than the Kubrick book, but about 15K less than the Anderson and Disney books. That said, I expect to add about 5-7K words through additional research this summer, so it should end up as a nice, robust work. I think the repetition has been cut down in this one, and so the shorter length might actually be a good thing.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Haunted Nerves chapter summaries

The following is a first sketch of Haunted Nerves' six chapters (that description still badly needs an update). One will immediately note that the first chapter has been cut--that's because I consolidated most of what I wanted to say in the introduction, which is 99% done.

Next up? Combing through industrial discourses this summer (bios, trade papers, making of docs) for additional research to beef up the industry side of my discussion.

All in all: still on track to finish the manuscript revisions by the end of the summer, with book proposals out shortly thereafter.

I'm back.



The first chapter explores the phenomenon of the “synthespian” (or the virtual actor)—a composite of motion capture performance and post-production animation to create a virtual performance. One example is the virtual Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Salvation (2009)—a remarkable achievement whereby the aging actor is brought back to his youthful iconic role via the latest advancements in CGI. It is here that I first revisit Philip Rosen’s theory of the “forecast” rhetoric, or the “not yet,” as a viable means to historicize the age of digital cinema. A decade ago, Rosen argued that discussions of technological innovations tended to emphasize what could happen over what was actually occurring. Yet, in this chapter, I seek to put past visions of the forecast in dialogue with what has happened in the past. For example, I look back to Looker (1981)—a dystopic vision of the relationship between digital performances, advertising culture, mediated politics and late capitalism which looks for more prescient today that its absurd satire at the time would have allowed. It is this “not yet” dialogue—between recent developments in both postmodern theory and digital cinema, and its historical parallels two and three decades ago—which structures much of the book.
            The next chapter, “They Saw No Future,” explores more closely the historical parallels which opened this introduction—namely, the call backs in recent 3D digital productions to early periods of cinematic innovation (early cinema, the sound transition). I look in particular at the wave of new “nostalgia films” which garnered significant attention in 2011—Midnight in Paris, The Artist and, especially, Hugo. Each movie romanticizes an early moment in cinephiliac history as a means to comment on the current sense of film nostalgia in the digital age. As nostalgia is often most intense during periods of great change, these three films predictably look back to the last period of profound aesthetic and economic transition (primarily, the sound transition of the late 1920s) to alleviate current anxieties about the digital transition. But, also, they should be read in dialogue with recent industrial transitions as well, as Hugo’s role as a prominent 3D spectacle within the theatrical conversion to DCPs and both its and The Artist’s fantasy of amble labor during a deeper economic crisis are both worth revisiting.
            Hugo’s pronounced celebration of film preservation in the digital age, meanwhile, then echoes across into the next chapter, “Digital Decasia,” where I look at both the ways in which old movies both are (and are not) preserved in our modern moment, while also offering a broader discussion of how limited our access to film history is today, recalling Jameson’s discussion of a postmodern historical consciousness where we are condemned to access the past through mediation and representation. Much of the chapter concerns Lobster Film’s remarkable digital restoration of Melies’ long thought lost color print of A Trip to the Moon (1902). The restoration was an ironic one—in a rapid state of decay, film preservationists had destroy the print in order to copy its remaining fragments to digital files, where—using digital intermediates and other copies of the film as a guide—an essentially all new, entirely digital version of the color print was created inside a computer. It becomes an interesting literalization of Boym’s notion of reflective nostalgia where the idea is less about reclaiming a vanishing past, then on using that sense of loss to imagine a better future.
            That chapter then ends on a particularly illuminating example of digital decay—not a century’s old film print, but the much more recent Pixar debut, Toy Story (1995), original copies of which were nearly lost to technical obsolescence just a few years after its first theatrical appearance. It is a reminder of how unstable the digital ultimately is as a storage device. Building on that, then, the next chapter revisits the studio history of Pixar itself—from its uninspiring beginnings as a wing of LucasFilm to its status today—for better and for worse—as a leading presence in digital animation and as one of the most popular entertainment brands in the world. This chapter resists the company’s nostalgic reimagining of its own history, while also analyzing their textual outputs’ long negotiation of nostalgia increasingly reflexive ways—a self-awareness further intensified by the company’s desire to negotiate its own critical and commercial success. A backdrop to this, meanwhile, is Pixar’s role—and digital imaging systems more generally—in in the transition within Hollywood from a Fordist to a post-industrial production model.
            Another context to Pixar’s success is of course the influence of its most famous parent company, The Walt Disney Company. Thus the next chapter, “TRON Legacies,” looks at Disney’s awkward engagement with the audience and economic changes in the age of digital cinema—using as a focal case study the long and strange history of the TRON franchise. TRON went from a beloved, but anachronistic cult relic from the earliest days of computer-generated animation to Disney’s main initial foray into the modern age of “transmedia storytelling”—the attempt to spread would-be blockbusters across multiple ancillary media markets (comics, videogames, social media, etc). While the efforts to revitalize the old franchise were generally unsuccessful, its failure tells us much about how Hollywood has attempted to negotiate a powerful nostalgia today for the 1980s that pervades a great majority of high-profile films, while also reflecting in explicitly visual ways the affective power of such anachronistic nostalgia. Finally, Disney’s shrewd manipulation of the original film’s considerable cult following also says much about how such nostalgia might intersect in not necessarily healthy ways with Hollywood’s continued exploitation of free fan work in a way that older models of “participatory culture” fail to articulate, and which echoes with other accounts in the book of the general devaluing of labor in the age of digital late capitalism.
            Finally, the last chapter, “Game (Not) Over,” continues the TRON line of flight by exploring the equally important role of videogames in nostalgia for that same era of early CGI and public gaming arcades. For decades, TRON was more readily recognized as a videogame than as a movie, while the computer graphics themselves similarly anticipate both the look of later videogames and the increasing tendency in today’s era of media convergence for movies to look like games, and vice versa. Yet, this final chapter does not celebrate the ways in which, as this might suggest, digital media have de-emphasized medium specificity. Rather, I look at instances of videogame pastiche—how outdated gaming forms are celebrated and foregrounded rather than erased—in recent movies about games. In addition to TRON: Legacy, I also look at Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), Wreck-it-Ralph (2010) and The Lego Movie (2014)—all of which in very different ways owe their look to a kind of gaming anachronism, which nostalgic impulses further intensify. Yes, as the emphasis on pastiche suggests, these movies are all very carefully apolitical looks back to earlier media forms—which replace the history of media transition itself with the attendant histories of late capitalism—not the least of which seems to manifest itself in the questions of labor and consumerism which some of these films erase in the process of its own highlighting. Still, the anachronism is a powerful one—suggesting cinema’s continuing central role in an age of media convergence rather than announcing its imminent demise.