when mickey mouse met stravinsky – whatever happened to innovative cultural fusion?

today it is 70 years since the launch of fantasia, in which walt disney reinvented classical music for a new generation through mickey mouse and a lot of hand drawn animation.

it is an incredible film. we are fortunate to live in an age of incredible animation that has produced the first 45 minutes of wall-e, and the first five minutes of up (still the most emotionally satisfying exposition of character that i’ve seen in years.)

but despite the technical wizardry, incredible heart and storytelling craft of the pixar gems, nothing quite matches the insane bravery of making a film which was essentially a music video to bach, stravinsky and tchaikovsky, in which the boundaries of hand-drawn animation were broken several times every day during production. it is a great example of the incredible innovation that comes from combining two seemingly irreconcilable forms of culture – with spectacular, transformational effects.

i’ve just finished re-reading, for the fourth time or so  i think, ‘easy riders, raging bulls’ by Peter Biskind. if you haven’t read it, it is a phenomenal examination of the reinvention of hollywood in the early 1970s. i recommend it highly…if you haven’t got time, here is a snippet of the accompanying documentary to whet your appetite.

again, what is remarkable about this period, in which hopper, beatty, scorcese, coppola, friedkin, lucas and spielberg rewrote the rules of cinema, is not extraordinary technical progress, or even extraordinary originality, but an incredible facility in blending together generations, cultures and styles. in particular, each of these directors in their own way was obsessed with applying the cerebral style of the french new wave to new, pop culture genres – the western, the gangster story, the detective story – again changing the medium in the process.

this of course isn’t limited to movies. it underpins many other fields – like the stages of bob dylan’s progress, particularly the seminal moment when he linked the traditional folk music of the american midwest to the electric ryhthm and blues of new york – in itself an innovation so powerful that large sectors of the transatlantic folk community wanted to lynch him. which he took with his usual wacky humour.

there are a million other examples, from the distant and elevated (ancient rome meets renaissance florence) to the recent and humorous (clueless merges beverley hills 90210 and jane austen’s emma.) but i can’t think of any recently.

i have a couple of thoughts on why this might be, both of which are coloured by the marketing world that i operate in.

the first has been the inexorable rise of the mash up. bringing together different times, different cultures through music and images, is almost too easy now, too commonplace. it has become the province of the joke, or the statement of cool, rather than the statement of art. (though this, featuring snow white, feels quite magical to me…)

the second, i think, is related to the world of marketing. at its best, modern marketing is very good at focusing on the authentic, the pure, the ‘usp’. this kind of focus is what i see in some of the braver films of recent time – where the fashion has become the ‘redux’, the ‘more original than the original’, rather than the skewed retelling for another age. at its worst, modern marketing is all about having as predictable a set of demand as possible – which you get by creating sequels, or creating genre pictures – which may not necessarily break the mould of cinema, but do provide much more predictable box office (crucial to an industry with huge marketing and infrastructure costs in advance of release, and small profit margins.)

this film made perfect marketing and commercial sense...

but more generally it feels like we have reached a place culturally where we are uncomfortable with the idea of reinvention, or remixing, as a serious artistic statement. and as a result it feels like we are in a somewhat conservative place – at best lots of slavish devotion to original text, at worst lots of repetitive, formulaic product.

maybe it would be nice to see things being mixed up a bit again…?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “when mickey mouse met stravinsky – whatever happened to innovative cultural fusion?

  1. The really innovative cultural fusions often come at the birth of a new medium. Fantasia was only the twelfth feature-length animation ever made (according to Wikipedia), with all the creative freedoms that implies.

    The question is – where are the big ideas on our new medium. I enjoy a great youtube mashup as much as the next man, but I’ve yet to see any real art for the ages spring out of the web.

  2. Yes I agree. Where is the bonkers innovation that characterized Disney’s early projects? Do you know about this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Destino? Disney collaborates with Dali!? How fucking insane is that? Returned to and completed only recently, you should be able to find it on Youtube.

    By the way, come and subscribe to my sketch blog.

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