Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Story of Maui - Part 2

Besides taming the sun and raising the Pacific Islands, Maui's other great feat is bringing fire to the people. In the Maori version he tricks the fire goddess Mahuika into giving it, to which she responds with enraged fire across land, sea, and sky. Thankfully his ancestors send rain to douse the flames and save his life. The fire-god is male in Samoa, and dwells in the underworld, where Ti'iti'i journeyed to obtain fire. He did so, but Mafui'e the fire-god blew on it and broke up the oven in which he placed the fire for safekeeping. The two wrestled and Ti'iti'i emerged victorious. The price of defeat for Mafui'e was to surrender the secret of making fire.

Hawaiian fire dancer. Photo: Mynameisben123.

Thankfully, the Hawaiian version of Maui did not have to confront Pele to obtain fire. His adventure was far more comic. Once more we turn to the Hawaiian legends transcribed by Rev. A.O. Forbes:

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Mickey's First Feature Film Appearance

According to official Disney files, the first feature film appearance of Mickey Mouse was Fantasia. That may be his first feature film appearance in an official Disney film. However, Walt Disney rented is creation out in 1934 for a cameo in the MGM film Hollywood Party.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Perrault's Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper

Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper is another of Charles Perrault's most famous fairy tales. The oldest written version of the story is found in the posthumous works of Italian statesman Giambattista Basile, published 1634. In his version, dictated from oral folk traditions, tells of Zezolla, the daughter of a widowed prince, who is being oppressed by her governess-turned-stepmother and six stepsisters. After being given an enchanted set of gardening tools and a date tree seeding, she grows a magnificent tree whose resident fairy grants a new identity by which to attend the king's ball.

Perrault's version was published 60 years later, and subsequently translated into English whereupon it became a noted classic that was adapted by Disney into the celebrated animated film in 1950 and a live-action film in 2015. Many interpretations of the fairy tale have been suggested, the least interesting (as always) having to do with sexual awakening. Could the prince going around the countryside trying out whether all the maidens "fit" be an innuendo? My preference always defers to the great Edwardian Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton. In this excerpt from his 1908 book Orthodoxy, he discusses the wholesome lessons to be learned from fairy tales:
But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of "Jack the Giant Killer"; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of "Cinderella," which is the same as that of the Magnificat -- exaltavit humiles. There is the great lesson of "Beauty and the Beast"; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the "Sleeping Beauty," which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.    
For those unfamiliar with the Magnificat, it is Mary's hymn of praise when she receives news that she, a maiden girl, will give birth to the Saviour:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46b-55)
It also echoes that Saviour's teachings called "The Beatitudes":
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-11)
That, I think, is the most robust of interpretations. Cinderella's is a story about the exultation of the humble, the liberation of the oppressed, and the vindication of the kind-hearted. Though forced into wretched circumstances, Cinderella's beauty - an external projection of her inner spirit - outshone that of her stepmother and stepsisters, for whom no amount of ostentatious finery could mask their cruelty and meanness. No doubt this most important of messages has contributed to the story's enduring power and popularity.

The following translation was by Charles Welsh, for his 1901 anthology The Tales of Mother Goose. Illustrations for this tale come from the incomparable pen of Gustave DorĂ©, for an 1862 compilation of Perrault's fairy tales.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Story of Maui - Part 1

Virtually every society has what anthropologists call a "culture hero." These are great heroes, often with fantastic powers, who shape the landscape and culture of the people to whom he (usually its a male) is a hero. In some cases these may be "just-so stories," but more frequently they have embedded within them lessons on proper behavior. In the case of a pure culture hero, these are lessons on how to behave. In cases where the culture hero also acts as a trickster, these can just as easily be lessons in how not to behave.

A prime example of a culture hero is Paul Bunyan. In the Disney cartoon telling his exploits, he becomes responsible for carving out the Dakotas, raising Pike's Peak so he can look out over the landscape, building Yellowstone Falls for a shower, and knocking the Aurora Borealis into the sky. His story also chronicles the transition of the far Western frontier into a civilized, mechanized society. Likewise, Pecos Bill painted the Painted Desert, dug the Rio Grande river, and filled the Gulf of Mexico with rains he lassoed in from California.

The great culture hero of the Polynesian peoples is Maui, who roped the sun and gave his people time.

Illustration of Maui snaring the sun by Arman Manookian, 1927.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Disneyana: Classic Collectibles 1928-1958

Though over a decade old, Disneyana: Classic Collectibles 1928-1958 by Robert Heide and John Gilman is nonetheless an important book for those interested in Disney's early years. The title tells you what you get, and it has been a perfect companion for me in my continued examination of Mickey Mouse's life outside of film (begun with the compilations of the Mickey newspaper strip written and illustrated by Floyd Gottfredson).

Disneyana is not merely a catalogue or price guide to vintage Disney collectibles. Heide and Gilman begin with recounting how interest in vintage Disney collectibles surged around Mickey's 50th birthday, thanks in no small part to the collection of Mel Birnkrant being enshrined as "Mickey Mouse-eum" in a department store in Newark, New Jersey. This exhibition opened people's eyes to the aesthetic, nostalgic, and financial value of clocks, dolls, watches, bisques, and other trinkets from the Thirties and Forties, adorned with the grinning rodent. After this, the book reverts to a look at how Disney merchandising developed, in its social context.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Air-Conditioned Eden

The Air-Conditioned Eden is a 1996 documentary produced by the BBC that touches on all the high points of Tiki culture up to, logically, the time it was made. Unfortunately it cuts off just before the resurgence in Tiki nostalgia in the late-Nineties and early 2000's, helped along by artists like SHAG and events like Disney's restorations and anniversaries of the Enchanted Tiki Room. The Tiki Room is covered in this documentary, as are the American experience in WWII, James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific based on it, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Expedition, Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber, the admission of Hawaii into the Union, and Martin Denny's exotic music.

It also attempts to get inside the Tiki mindset and understand what was so appealing about it. This is where I think the documentary is at its weakest. For one, it associates the appeal of Tiki with the repressed sexuality of the Fifties and early Sixties, and then builds an argument that Tiki fell out of favour in the late Sixties once people became less sexually oppressed. To me, this sounds like historical revisionism through the lens of the Sexual Revolution: every revolution attempts to legitimize itself by demonizing the previous generations as being repressed in some way (i.e.: the Enlightenment inventing the myth of the "Dark Ages"). I certainly think there was an aspect of sexuality implicit to hula dancers and anthropological nudity, but I also think the case is overblown if that's seen as the reason for an interest in the "exotic" and not a byproduct. But for all I know, maybe it was. I wasn't there in the Fifties after all, and I'm looking at it through my own lens where the world doesn't revolve around sex.

Another example of its weakness is the undercurrent of contempt that the documentary seems to express for its subject. Perhaps its just the British talking about a phenomenon that is primarily American, but often The Air-Conditioned Eden slips into an attitude of "let's look down our noses at what these silly, tacky, repressed people from a long time ago did." Just beware of that when you watch the documentary.

If we accept the documentary's thesis that Tiki fell out of favour because of sexual liberation in the late Sixties (which I don't, but for the sake of argument), then one might argue that the revival of Tiki culture - as niche as it may be - is a response to the fact that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Now everything is so "liberated" that bar culture (especially) has become too pedestrian: a dull sameness of boring bars full of kids getting drunk on domestic beer and looking for cheap, easily accessible sexual partners. Tiki nostalgia may articulate a desire to inject some fantasy back into the scene, for drinks that take skill to make and satisfy a connoisseur's palate, for something fun and artistic and exotic, as well as something steeped in an historic, mid-century, nostalgic milieu. When Disneyland was opened in 1955, Main Street USA was intended to invoke the nostalgia of grandma and grandpa's stories of childhood at the turn of the century. For a comparable effect, a Disneyland that opened today would want to set Main Street USA in the Fifties. I don't think it's an accident that the recent renovations to the Disneyland Hotel echoed that mid-century time period, and the construction of Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar was an essential part of creating that atmosphere.

Without further ado, I present The Air-Conditioned Eden...