Mickey's Pal Karl
When I saw that Norman Klein wrote the sole blurb on the jacket
of Esther Leslie's Hollywood
Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde
(Verso, $30), my heart sank. Klein, who teaches at the California
Institute of the Arts, is the author of Seven
Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon.
It is the best argument I know for the proposition that it's possible
to write a book about cartoons without having seen any.
book reads like a transcription of self-indulgent professorial rambling,
the sort of thing that comes all too easily when speaking to an
audience made acquiescent by the hope of a passing grade. Leslie's
book has much in common with Klein's. (She is, according to the
jacket, a lecturer in English and Humanities at Birkbeck College,
London.) Despite endnotes citing sources like my own Hollywood
Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, her references
to individual films, and to Hollywood animation's history generally,
are perfunctory and often incorrect. Page after page passes with
no mention of animation, or only a desperate lunge in the films'
Hollywood Flatlands is not really about cartoons at all.
The book is, instead, a haphazard collection of potted versions
of books and essays that Leslie likes, and that happen to say something
(usually not much, and sometimes nothing at all) about animation.
The telltale signs of mere summary are everywhere, in the monotonous
procession of short declarative sentences and especially in Leslie's
consistent failure to engage seriously with the ideas of the authors
she invokes, surely the first duty in a book of this kind.
The authors Leslie most favors are two German Marxists, Walter
Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, both of whom paid some attention to
cartoons in the thirties. She also curls up at the feet of those
literary lights Lenin and Trotsky, neither of whom seems to have
had anything to say about cartoons. I won't pretend to extensive
knowledge of any of these writers, although I have trudged through
Benjamin's ubiquitous "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction." The scraps of Adorno that I've read, in Leslie's
book and elsewhere, have robbed me of any desire to read more.
In Hollywood Flatlands, as Todd Gitlin wrote recently of
another left-wing volume, "we leave any recognizable world of life
and death and plunge into a world of nothing but language." The
language that Leslie quotes from Benjamin and Adorno and their fellowsand
obviously admiresis exceptionally turgid. Its difficulty could
be forgiven only if it yielded insights far more penetrating than
any detectable in her book.
As Hollywood Flatlands demonstrates, Marxism has become
an intellectual phantom limb; many academics continue to believe
that something is there, even though it isn't. Marxism's continuing
appeal is not mysteriousit promised the uplifting of the downtrodden,
after all, whereas fascism exalted cruel strengthbut its promises
have for a long time been exposed as fraudulent. A truly heroic
credulity is required to take its exponents at face value, as Leslie
My animation reading is usually of history and biography, and
such books often disappoint. For every book as valuable as Walt
Disney's Nine Old Men, there is at least one, and usually
many more, as poor as The
Hand Behind the Mouse. But I never open such books with
the feeling of dread that so often overtakes me when I begin reading
a book, like Hollywood Flatlands, whose claim on my attention
rests on its marshaling of theory. If animation is as rich a subject
as I think it is, there is certainly room for rigorous theoretical
thinking that stakes out ground not occupied by historians and less
systematic critics. But before I can take seriously any others who
present themselves as such thinkers, I will first have to be persuaded
that they have actually watched a few Looney Tunes.
[Posted June 2003]