Monday, December 19, 2016

The Certainty of the Jelly Factory

WARNING! Walt Disney murders an owl in this "post." I don't even want to type it up but I have my rules. Megan and I are reading this Walt Disney biography (WALT DISNEY: THE TRIUMPH OF THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION by Neal Gabler) together and I was ahead of her because I just sit around the house now and she has to ride around on subways all day in New York City and you can't take a giant brick of a book on a subway! But anyway, one day she took it on the subway - to her eventual regret! - and got ahead of ME. And sent me an email that said, "I can't believe we haven't discussed the traumatic owl incident!" I had to confess I had no idea what she was talking about. But I read on, filled with trepidation. And finally I got to Walt's memory of killing an owl when he was a boy. He caught it and when it tried to get away he threw it on the ground and it died. I am sorry to tell you! If it makes you feel any better, he never forgot it, it haunted him, and he had terrible nightmares about it for the rest of his life. Try telling that to the owl who was just minding its own business being an owl. And then the owl floodgates! I mean, two pages later, someone describes the way Walt looked during a pitch (as we call it in the business): how he would "bend forward unconsciously and become like an old owl - hunched up, and his bill would clack a little bit." And in the NEXT PARAGRAPH we are treated to Walt's capacity for acting out a story. He would "suddenly transform himself uninhibitedly into Mickey or Donald or an owl or an old hunting dog." I thought, what, is this book going to be all owls all the time now? Have we unleashed something? But no, on the next page Walt is obsessed over a minuscule mistake in a shot where Mickey Mouse is staring at his own reflection in some Jell-O. So then I started thinking about all the time I've squandered contemplating and calculating how many books I read that have Jell-O in them. Jell-O seems to be a quintessential American literary metaphor! Kerouac! Mailer! Portis! Roth! Gidget! Mickey Mouse! But let me stop myself. Is this what has become of me? Even though I don't "blog" anymore, has "blogging" changed the way I read, keeping me on constant alert for Jell-O and owls at expense of true enlightenment? At least this gelatinous aside gives me an excuse to relate my favorite phrase in the book. Walt tells his father he wants to quit his humdrum duties at the jelly factory to become an artist. But his father "could not possibly see why Walt would sacrifice the certainty of the jelly factory for the uncertainty of art." When you put it that way! I don't know, the jelly factory sounds magical enough to me. During the occupation, just after World War I, Walt drives out to "the birthplace of Joan of Arc, where [he eats] fried chicken on the lawn in front of her shrine." I put that in just for Kent Osborne, who loves fried chicken so much, and also loves to eat at Walt Disney's favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. I think he would enjoy the image of Walt Disney eating fried chicken at the shrine of Joan of Arc.
[A long twitter discussion followed the original "posting," in which Craig Pittman directed a group of us to a 1938 interview with Disney in FAMILY CIRCLE magazine. Disney informs his interviewer, "In my terror, I stamped on the owl and killed it" - a horrific detail omitted by Gabler and one many of us strove not to believe - the description at the beginning of this "post" does its best to posit a kind of terrible accident - against the evidence of Disney's own testimony. Megan put it down, rather beautifully, to "Disney hyperbole and the hyperbole of guilt." Disney, on the other hand, calls it an "unhappy adventure." Seems like a mild way to put it. - ed.]