Sunday, 17 June 2018

Beyond: Two Souls

With the launch of Detroit: Become Human (personally I would have titled a game about androids set in Detroit "Detroid" but whatever) and a resurgence of the regular mockery David Cage games have to endure on social media, I thought it might be time to finally check out Beyond: Two Souls on that Quantic Dream PS4 collection I once bought. With already having tried out Heavy Rain a couple of years earlier, I was preparing for the absolute worst but to my surprise I discovered a story that was at least interesting enough to allow me to slog through the terribly odd (and oddly terrible) game design decisions. As such I want to talk a bit about narrative games and how I feel Quantic Dream does them wrong. I doubt I'll be saying anything that hasn't been properly discussed yet but playing through the entirety of Beyond has left me with a fair few frustrations to shed, so this will mostly be a long rant.


Some Thoughts on
Beyond: Two Souls


Personally I'm not really interested in getting Detroit: Become Human anytime soon for several reasons. Part of it might be motivated by somewhat recent accusations of a toxic work environment at Quantic Dream, or the fact that it was revealed there's a detailed nude model of Ellen Page in Beyond: Two Souls despite her not having agreed to it (seriously, why is that even in the final product?), but actually in truth it's simply because I've done what David Cage himself suggested and judged him by his work, which as it turns out really does not appeal to me all that much.

My short time with Heavy Rain annoyed me. Years after release I was already spoiled on the identity of the Origami Killer so I didn't have as much eagerness to see that particular mystery through to the end anyway, but my hopes for an enjoyable experience were already tanked when the message 'Hold R2 to walk. Use the LEFT STICK to change direction' appeared on screen. That is something I would expect to see on the PlayStation 1, not in a game released in 2010.
Then the game expected me to go through the main character's morning routine that included him brushing his teeth by forcing me to shake the controller and shaving him which had me moving the right stick at a precise speed otherwise I would have to do it all over again. Then I was supposed to explore a house I could barely navigate, had to witness doors that hinged in places where doors aren't supposed to hinge, and was continuously bothered by button prompts for the most mundane tasks imaginable. That combined with a rather unappealing art direction, unconvincing voice acting and character models that fell hard into the uncanny valley for me made it so I soon turned the game off and I haven't looked back since. Supposedly the story is really good though but because of the unwieldy nature of the gameplay I doubt I will find out first hand.

Beyond: Two Souls managed to grab me more than Heavy Rain did however. The art design was more appealing, the setup of controlling both a girl and a ghost tethered to her was rather original, and the non-linear story-telling raised enough questions that I actually wanted to know what was going on and what would happen next. The game does look great and the stellar acting of both Ellen Page (Jodie Holmes) and Willem Dafoe (Nathan Dawkins) goes a long way in balancing out the game's lesser aspects. Surprisingly I actually liked some of it. However that just meant if Beyond: Two Souls were a B movie or TV series it would probably be a decent one, unfortunately its state as a video game is what drags it down.

In general my problem with Quantic Dream's design philosophy is that it feels like they believe they are pushing the boundaries of game design, while actually they are implementing gameplay that has already been judged as horribly dated and unwieldy. Beyond: Two Souls only takes minimal advantage of the gaming medium because at its core it is overly concerned with being a movie, and so rather than being a bold step forwards, it feels like a spiritual successor to Dragon's Lair (1983). Rather than allowing the player to interact with the game world, it feels the game plays by itself and simply punishes you for not responding to it the way it wants you to (and is so surprisingly lenient with mistakes you might be forgiven for doubting your input matters at all). David Cage explains (rather infamously by now) that he feels game overs in narrative games are a failure of the game designer, and so his games implement alternative story paths that go around what would otherwise be a game over state.
While this sounds nice in theory, in practice it means a player who is at least somewhat invested in doing well is robbed of the ability to hone their skills, as the ability to retry scenes has also been removed. If you are lucky you can exit the game before the next save point and hope the previous save point wasn't too long ago, otherwise you just have to live with it. 

Life is Strange (2015)
I feel Life is Strange (2015) solved the problem of a narrative game without game overs much more elegant than Beyond: Two Souls did. At the start our protagonist Max Caulfield discovers during a traumatic moment that she has rewind powers with which she can turn back time for a few moments and so allow the player to experiment with how conversations will go or get out of harm's way when it should be necessary (when an action occurs that should harm Max, time simply slows down and turns the screen grey to allow the player to revert back). The player can't get stuck into a corner because we can simply rewind ourselves out of any situation again. Unfortunately where Life is Strange messed up is by making the rewind power an attribute of the main character that she herself is aware of rather than simply a player option, meaning it was unavailable when we took control of Chloe Price in the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm (2017), so Chloe also had to live with her decisions but at least she didn't have to wrestle with button prompts and motion controls to brush her teeth.

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999)
However I fear the inability to redo scenes to your liking isn't so much an unfortunate limitation of the way Beyond is set up, but instead an intentional design choice on David Cage's part, since the opening of Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999, also simply known as The Nomad Soul), Quantic Dream's first title, makes clear: 'There's no saving and going back if you get into trouble. You are entering a real world. If you make mistakes, you'll just have to accept the consequences'. Again this is stuff that sounds cool on a design document and might have even been an impressive selling point in 1999 because we didn't know any better, but some of us want the option to experiment with the game world. Of course we don't have to be aware of the long-term consequences of our decisions but it seems rather counter-productive to remove failstates by simply having the game continue with an obvious failstate still active whether we want to or not. Having to put up with situations we know little about yet being forced to make decisions on them we can't reverse is what we already have to do in our day-to-day lives and it being a horrible experience is why a few of us find solace in video games in the first place. It is especially troublesome in Beyond because the non-linear storytelling means we are making decisions independently of how Jodie Holmes might feel about the situation, simply because we have no clue of how we got to that point in her life. For most of the game's runtime we are controlling a protagonist where it has been made nearly impossible for us to actually play the role of said protagonist.



Specific Chapters


After the tutorial chapter where a young Jodie is being tested on her control with Aiden, the next chapter drops us several years later in a CIA operation in a Saudi Arabian embassy where an adult Jodie has to copy certain documents with the threat of torture should she be discovered. From a narrative perspective it might have been an interesting setup for the story to get us wondering about how Jodie's life went to bring us to this point. The problem however is that since we aren't actually watching a movie or a TV show but are instead given control of a situation we know absolutely nothing about. We aren't actually told what we are supposed to do until we stumble upon button prompts that allow us to proceed. Jodie Holmes was presumably briefed on mission parameters, but we as players don't have any context for why we are here. Mercifully this game without game overs doesn't allow us to make a fatal mistake, but that doesn't protect it from the massive narrative dissonance where we have to take control of a situation where we don't even know what the game expects us to do. So unless you accidentally stumble upon the next prompt, you could be stuck here for a while. From a control perspective here is also where we discover the awkward mapping of the right control stick controlling both the camera and triggering the environmental prompts. After finishing the game this chapter also feels like it barely fits in Jodie's story. Since nothing seems to connect back with this chapter I am at a loss over the entire point of it. I suppose it introduces Ryan but we learn so little about him and he disappears for so long it barely matters.

 "So you want me to just trade in my car for a Jetta just because
you flunked out of every private school I ever sent you to?"
The Party is a rather infamous chapter. In an attempt to let her have a bit of a normal life, a 14-year old Jodie is attending a birthday party for the daughter of one of Nathan Dawkins' colleagues. While I didn't hate the chapter that much as it did give me a bit of room to mess around, it does have two major flaws that annoyed me. The first is that the teenagers act completely unnatural just for the sake of having a bad ending, and the second is the inevitability of that inconsequential bad ending.
Jodie is presented as shy and introverted, not helped by the fact that she doesn't actually know anyone at the party, but aside from a few bitchy comments from the other teenagers, they at least somewhat try to be nice to her. That all changes when, of all things, the birthday girl doesn't like Jodie's gift (a rare book of poems by Edgar Allan Poe). Suddenly all these kids, who are at the very least aware that Jodie has supernatural powers (and possibly even demonstrated them just a few moments earlier depending on player choice), decide to torment her and lock her up ... over a birthday gift. One girl gives birthday girl a thong, but somehow a book is offensive enough for Jodie to be mercilessly bullied, burned, called a slut and locked below the stairs.
This chapter stands rather disconnected from the rest of the narrative, so the fact that the only real choice we have is whether or not to take revenge on the teens with Aiden is disappointing. Here is where the developers could have stretched their legs in terms of having multiple paths in a self-contained story but instead the chapter simply has us wasting time interacting with the environment until the inevitable bad ending. Why not make it possible for the party to go well? Weirder still is that the player can choose to ignore Aiden entirely and not take revenge with him, meaning the chapter is not even particularly relevant in Jodie's recollection of having had to live with him.

Then came the chapter detailing Jodie's CIA training. One tutorial would explain that during action sequences, time will slow down and you will have to finish Jodie's moves by following her direction on screen by moving the right stick in that direction. Fair enough, I've played enough Karateka to prepare me for stuff like this. However it soon turns out the game wants to remain being overly cinematic even when a good sense of direction is vital for completing these segments properly, so the camera circles Jodie, objects or particles obscure her from view and her movements aren't always clear or straightforward to begin with. The result is that without actual guidance these action segments more often than not devolve into a pure guessing game.
Rather mind-blowing is that this chapter also includes a tutorial on cover shooting gameplay with stealth sections. Partially it feels odd because they will only really be relevant for one other chapter in the entire game, but primarily because Quantic Dream apparently thought it was a good idea to include gameplay that has been refined over the last ten years in actual shooter genres and include it in a clunky quick time event narrative game. This is a game where walking through a simple door takes several tries, and now it expects to hold up in any way compared to a cover shooter?

"Ryan is great"
The Dinner. Oh boy, The Dinner. Jodie invites Ryan Clayton to dinner at her new apartment to the annoyance of Aiden, who is suddenly very possessive of Jodie. As the player we then have to prepare for the date while Aiden does everything he can to sabotage it. It's decently fun to explore Jodie's apartment while getting ready and you have a fair amount of freedom to decide how the date is going to play out (minus a bit of emotional scarring carried over from earlier chapters). However there's a glaring flaw with the entire setup: we as the player have been given no reason at all to like Ryan. At the start of the chapter Jodie launches into an angry monologue to Aiden about how she's allowed to have a relationship with however she wants, how great Ryan is and how she thinks she is falling for him, but from our perspective the only information on Ryan is the previous chapter at an earlier point of Jodie's life where he forces her to abandon the only people she loves to join the CIA while being absolutely heartless about it. This being literally about five minutes ago makes it feel like Jodie did not really develop genuine affection for Ryan but rather that she's developed a case of Stockholm Syndrome where she's now declaring her feelings for an abuser.
Ryan literally 5 minutes earlier
Should we still remember his sparse appearances early in the game, we might remember him from The Embassy chapter I mentioned earlier where we could find him talking about how his CIA job forces him to have limited empathy so he wouldn't really care should Jodie be captured and tortured. So essentially we are now forced into a dating scenario where we are given very little motivation for it to go well outside of Jodie's insistence that Ryan is great. That disconnect between our feelings on Ryan and Jodie's feelings for Ryan while still being expected to help Jodie is immersion-breaking to say the least. Personally I tried to sabotage the date without making it too obvious, so I just dressed casually, ordered pizza and refused to kiss Ryan. (I was rewarded with a scene of Jodie breaking down crying, so go me...)

Ryan only becomes a little bit likable in the final few chapters of the game where he has sort of a redemption arc (after a chapter where he also becomes so much worse) but that only means we might gain (emphasis on might) a little respect for Ryan when it's already way too late for the chapters where developing that relationship actually matters. What's even worse is that a relationship with him is essentially unavoidable. So even if you do everything to turn him down at every opportunity, he will still be there declaring his love for Jodie and kissing her in the final chapter. Romance is also an aspect I feel Life is Strange does better because even just a kiss between romantic options requires the player to have at least worked in the direction of said romance. Chloe Price does not appreciate being ignored in favor of other characters. Meanwhile Jodie Holmes can't seem to meet a guy (if he's handsome) without getting an option to immediately kiss him.

Navajo had some strange implications in that the Navajo people were apparently performing magic rituals that summoned demonic Infraworld entities into our world, and in general it suffered from the same problems as the rest of the game (including one especially annoying action sequence that is also tied to a trophy), but from a narrative perspective the build-up made the mystery engaging, the developing relationship between Jodie and the family felt natural (aside from yet another opportunity to kiss a guy we've just met and who was being a dick to us the majority of the time), the characters themselves were mostly likable and the desert setting makes for a nice break from the rest of the game and was enhanced by a great soundtrack, so I would say I actually like the Navajo chapter and wish more chapters were like it. However it was also home to a handful of glaring flaws.
On the PlayStation 4 version at least, the chapter endings have these percentages that show the amount of players who took specific paths. It's here you often learn about possible "paths" that the game prior didn't give you a clue was even an option (I replayed the Navajo chapter twice because of it, although that specific spoiler choice should have been obvious in retrospect). One of the best examples of awkward design choices here is that apparently there was a bike hidden on the farm that we could repair, but which was evidently so out of the way that only 8% of people found it (I only did because the second time I knew to look out for it). That also wouldn't be that much of a problem, except at the end of the chapter you are given the bike anyway regardless of whether or not you fixed it (if not you get it because the brothers fixed it). It might seem like a small detail but this was one of the major times during my playthrough when I realized my choices really didn't matter, and that's probably also the reason why David Cage doesn't want players to replay his game more than once, because a second run brutally lifts the illusion that the game was giving you agency in the first place.
For trophy purposes I replayed the Hunted chapter where I was supposed to get captured and escape three times, so on the train section I ignored all button prompts and refused to do any of the action scenes and still Jodie was dodging objects, opening doors and fighting policemen effectively (although with a short red flash supposedly to indicate failure). Jodie ran two entire cars until finally there was the single button prompt that was apparently relevant and I got captured. Out of curiosity during a motorbike chase I purposely stopped and found out the police simply stop chasing you. These sequences made me realize that much of Beyond: Two Souls's runtime does the equivalent of handing you an unplugged controller so you can pretend you are playing a video game. It felt like Beyond resented my involvement at all.

Dating your superior officer while on a mission. That's fine.


Conclusion


In conclusion, Beyond: Two Souls is a would-be decent TV series or B movie that was forcefully pushed into the mold of a big budget video game. Everything considered, I can't say I truly hated the game because the performances of Ellen Page and William Dafoe are great (though Dafoe feels a bit misused) and go a long way to make otherwise cliche or awkward scenes enjoyable. The game is thus surprisingly a rather effective vehicle to push Ellen page. The story is interesting enough to get the player moving forward, but as a video game it ends up a mess of questionable, dated or otherwise frustrating design choices. That frustration is only exacerbated as the developer apparently insists these questionable design choices are actually deliberate and supposedly aimed at moving game design forward. So with that in mind, I am inclined to skip Detroit: Become Human.



Friday, 9 February 2018

Defending Disney - Part 5: Walt the Supposed Racist & Conclusion

[<- Index]
[<- Part 4: Walt, the Supposed Gender Bigot]

The claim that walt was a notorious racist and antisemite is even more prevalent than that of him being a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer. The evidence being some unfortunate racially insensitive caricatures in a handful of Disney cartoons, the movie Song of the South (1946) and more general claims of his rampant antisemitism, usually as an extrapolation of him having met Leni Riefenstahl or because Walt was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The MPAPAI certainly had its share of antisemitic members but was founded to combat fascist and communist influences, which was Walt's interest as he believed the 1941 cartoonist strike to be a communist plot to gain influence in Hollywood.
It could certainly be said that Walt Disney wasn't especially ahead of his generation when it came to racial sensitivity, especially in the 1920's and 30's, hence some racial caricatures did occasionally pop up in Disney cartoons since as far as he was aware society at large thought they were just funny. However actual hateful racism is practically impossible to find in Walt Disney. Even in the late 30's Disney had started to catch on that some caricatures might be hurtful, as a document dated February 12, 1937 reads:

"Because our cartoons have a world-wide release, we cannot use racial gags that might ridicule or belittle any nation."
Tips to Remember when Submitting Gags


Racist Caricatures

In regards to instances of racist caricatures in early Disney cartoons, there are only two main points I want to make, neither of which will be that the depiction of racial stereotypes in these old cartoons isn't racist. Mainly because I don't belong to the ethnic groups that are being depicted and as such I don't feel like I should make that argument, nor do I have to (although I would point out that I'm a Flemish Belgian, a group which also has a long documented history of being treated as undesirables and lower class citizens by French bourgeoisie. A status that only really improved after World War II).

Firstly, there's the point that just because someone is racist or harbors racist prejudices, that doesn't mean that person automatically aligns with the Nazis or the ideas of Adolf Hitler. This feels like one of the most obvious points I could possibly make surrounding this entire thing but nevertheless people keep conflating 'was Walt a Nazi' with 'was Walt a racist', as evidenced by baseless Nazi claims often being backed up by scenes from cartoons early in the lifetime of Walt Disney Studios, most of which conjured up long before World War II (once someone even tried to convince me of Walt's Nazism by showing me the notorious watermelon scene from Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat (1941), which isn't even a Walt Disney production).

The second point is that a racist depiction in a cartoon doesn't automatically translate in their creators having hateful opinions of those ethnic groups. It's one thing to be unaware of the racial prejudices instilled by society that might result in a racist stereotype in a cartoon, but another entirely to extrapolate from that the person is also actively hateful towards the group depicted by that stereotype. Let's not pretend some unfortunate depictions of ethnic groups in a cartoon during a time when people didn't know any better is in any way in the same ballpark as genocide or its advocacy.

Mickey Mouse - The Opry House (1929)
Heck, it seems people even forget it was not Walt Disney who personally created all these cartoons by himself, even if he had final authority (Disney hardly drew anything himself after 1926). For example, one of the prominent caricatures that gets brought up as evidence of Walt Disney's antisemitism is Mickey elongating his nose and shortening his body to perform a traditional Hasidic folk dance in The Opry House (1929). However this cartoon's preliminary work was being done by Ub Iwerks while Walt Disney himself was on the other side of the continent in New York for three months overseeing sound recording on The Gallopin' Gaucho (1928) Plane Crazy (1929), and The Barn Dance (1929). Certainly all the animation at the time was done by Iwerks as Disney had lost his other animators to Charles Mintz. I mean it's a possibility the idea for the dance was solely Disney's, and he certainly had to approve it before its production concluded, but in all these expert analyses of usually minor details I miss the nuance that the Walt Disney Studio wasn't exclusively staffed by Walt Disney.

For the point regarding racism through ignorance vs hateful racism, my perspective is also colored by me having read a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories somewhat recently. While Lovecraft was a visionary when it comes to the horror genre, it also can't be denied that he in fact was an actual racist and the horror in his writing (fear of the unknown) was inspired by that.
In Herbert West: Reanimator (1922) for example, the narrator-protagonist and the titular Herbert West are constantly on the lookout for fresh corpses on which to test their reanimation solution. In Part III they come across an African-American boxer named Buck Robinson, "The Harlem Smoke", who has been permanently knocked out. The narrator goes on to describe him as follows: "He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life - but the world holds many ugly things[Source: HP Lovecraft - Herbert West: Reanimator].
That part was genuinely disturbing to me and reads as actual hatred towards African-Americans as an ethnic group (and it is far from the only or even the worst example). On the other hand we have only a select few Disney cartoons over a period of about 15 years where occasionally an ethnic stereotype appears, usually even sympathetically and often edited out when found to be hurtful. I don't see the level of hateful racism that I found in Lovecraft in for example the Big Bad Wolf trying to gain access to the house of the three little pigs by disguising himself as a Jewish peddler (which was later edited) and I especially don't see it in Song of the South (1946). Racially insensitive through the ignorance of the times, yes, but not hatefully racist to warrant accusing Walt of racism.

"I think Dr. Lehman is correct when he says that many of the people who made the cartoons probably had no idea how hurtful racial images could be. I read thousands of pages of Disney studio documents when I was writing Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, including all the surviving story meeting notes from Walt's lifetime, and I found exactly one instance where someone on the Disney staff, a writer named Harold Helvenston, evidenced hostility and contempt toward black people, [...] The idea was that snapdragons would be presented as what Helvenston called "negro flowers"; Walt, to his credit, was uncomfortable with that idea"
Reply to Feedback to a Review of Dr. Lehman's 'The Colored Cartoon' - Michael Barrier

Floyd Norman

As for Walt Disney's treatment of minorities, I think it best to let people who actually worked with him take the proverbial microphone. Floyd Norman was employed to work on Sleeping Beauty (released in 1959), worked with Walt and became the first African-American artist to remain at the studio long-term. You can find his statement regarding the rumors of Walt Disney's racism and antisemitism on his blogpost entitled Sophie's Poor Choice [Here]. To learn more about Floyd Norman himself and his amazing contributions to the field of animation, you can also check out the biographical movie Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (2016).

"Not once did I observe a hint of the racist behavior Walt Disney was often accused of long after his death. His treatment of people - and by this I mean all people - can only be called exemplary."
-Foreword by Floyd Norman of Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? - Jim Korkis

Walt Disney with Louis Armstrong, who Walt invited
in 1966 to record an album of Disney songs:
"Disney Songs the Satchmo Way"

What's the Deal with Song of the South?

The FactFile video simply refers to Song of the South (1946), Disney's adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories, in turn based on African-American folktalkes, as a movie "so offensive that the Disney Company isn't going to let it be shown in public anymore", which struck me as a description so vague that the video's writer probably just included the reference without looking further into it, likely never having seen the movie and certainly never having read up on it. Song of the South is indeed considered a controversial movie but the reason why Disney is trying to bury it is primarily because they don't even want to deal with the debate whether it really is that offensive. 

By my estimation, Song of the South isn't offensive by being explicitly racist in a hateful way, but rather unfortunately racist through naïveté because it gives the Disney treatment to a subject that is still considered inflammatory even today, namely race relations during the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War. Its main setting is a plantation in, as the name implies, the American South, which by itself raises quite a few eyebrows. The framing device for the animated stories about Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear is that they are being told by Uncle Remus to help the kid protagonists (primarily a boy played by Bobby Driscoll, who would later become both the voice and model for Peter Pan (1953)) with their problems and teach them life lessons. Its prominent black community is portrayed very sympathetically, but they are also uniformly portrayed as happy with their lot in life and well respected by the movie's white cast. Essentially the movie is considered racist because it doesn't actually address racism at a time and place when and where it should have been impossible to get away from it, resulting in a 'racism is over' impression.

After the film's release, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP (who according to Neal Gabler (p.435) was earlier invited to work on script revisions but declined) telegraphed major newspapers with the following statement, albeit based on memos he had received from two staff members and not having seen the movie himself, also erroneously believing the film to be set in the Antebellum era (1783-1861) rather than the Reconstruction in the 1870's:

"The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in "Song of the South" remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, "Song of the South" unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts."

However if you just take the Internet's description of it, you would think Disney is trying to hide Song of the South because they are ashamed their founder made his own version of The Birth of a Nation or something equally offensive. In reality they simply want to forgo the debate of whether the movie is racist, over a movie that forgoes the debate about racism. Likely the primary reason why Song of the South did get a European release on VHS during the '90s was because without the historical context of slavery and the American Civil War, it really does look like just a regular wholesome Disney family film with at worst a prominent class difference. (1)

Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin (1975) (2)
While not without controversy itself (a lot of it also because of being judged by people who never bothered to actually see it), Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin (1975), a movie which is also based on the characters of Uncle Remus, actually went completely the other way and made the movie entirely about racism with even the character designs as a scathing satire of 1930's and 1940's racial stereotypes, with plenty of jabs at Disney's Song of the South thrown in. It was also better received for it by African-American audiences and even got an endorsement by the NAACP as being "difficult satire". Rabbit, here intentionally portrayed as a blackface stereotype with rabbit ears, goes with his trickster persona against the American Mafia. A recurring theme is that the movie's various black characters are either in an abusive relationship with, manipulated by or outright murdered by Miss America, a curvaceous woman seemingly dressed only in body paint in the colors of the American flag, an obvious metaphor for America's treatment of the black community. Of course Ralph Bakshi is decidedly not of the Disney school of animation or storytelling (as demonstrated by the film opening on the words 'Fuck You' followed by a joke on the suicide of 350 white people), which afforded him the ability to do hard social satire while Walt Disney cornered himself in family values. Disney accidentally created the impression race relations were fine during the Reconstruction Era, Bakshi however showed contemporary America its warts.

Yet Song of the South's more questionable aspects should also be put into context of Walt Disney's intentions with it. As I said, it is no Birth of a Nation and it was never supposed to be. On the contrary, Disney intended for it to be a gesture of goodwill that promoted tolerance. This was after all a mainstream movie that in 1946 featured a prominent African-American cast with James Baskett as Uncle Remus at the center of it. A role for which Baskett in 1948 received an honorary Academy Award, which Walt himself campaigned for, becoming the first male African-American performer to receive an Oscar for a movie he himself couldn't attend the premiere of due to Atlanta being racially segregated. After Baskett's passing, his widow wrote a thankful letter to Walt that he had been a "friend in deed and [we] certainly have been in need". Disney had even attempted to do away with the biases of the film's crew (and himself) by recruiting Maurice Rapf as a counterweight during the writing process.

"One of the reasons Walt had hired Rapf to work with Reymond was to temper what he feared would be Reymond's white southern slant. Rapf was a minority, a Jew, and an outspoken left-winger, and he himself feared that the film would inevitably be Uncle Tomish. "That's exactly why I want you to work on it," Walt told him, "because I know that you don't think I should make the movie. You're against Uncle Tomism, and you're a radical.""
Walt Disney: The Biography - Neal Gabler p.434

I guess this is a sword that cuts both ways. By suppressing Song of the South, The Walt Disney Company is shielding itself from possible controversy arising from even the discussion of just how racist it is, which in the current hellscape of never-ending Internet outrage would no doubt result in the worst possible interpretation. However, by suppressing the movie they are also hiding away James Baskett's undeniable acting talent and historical achievement, as well as fueling the rumors of it being a massively racist movie by the fact that they even chose to hide it. The Disney Company's handling of the movie can ironically be best summarized with a quote from Uncle Remus himself: "You can't run away from trouble. There's no place that far."

In the context of Walt Disney's personal supposed racism however, I would disagree that Song of the South is a convincing argument. From the perspective of the ethnic groups historically segregated, oppressed, and even enslaved, the portrayal of them as happy with their lot in life and living in perfect harmony with their affluent oppressor can undoubtedly be considered offensive. However from the perspective of groups largely unaware of those struggles, which Walt Disney himself belonged to and which helped inform his bias, Song of the South is instead just a heartwarming story of acceptance meant to spread the wisdom of the Uncle Remus stories to a larger audience. It is obvious that Disney intended the latter. 

"Walt Disney was no racist. He never, either publicly or privately, made disparaging remarks about blacks or asserted white superiority. Like most white Americans of his generation, however, he was racially insensitive."
- Walt Disney: The Biography - Neal Gabler p.433


Antisemitism

"Our children, who are all enthusiastic Mickey Mouse fans, join with me in assuring you of our deep appreciation and we do hope that when you next come to New York, you will drop in and pay us a visit." [Source]

The above quote is from a personal thank you letter to Walt Disney for his gift of a dozen watches (surprisingly expensive Mickey Mouse merchandise) to The Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York in December 1935. Walt frequently contributed to Jewish charities: the orphanage mentioned above, the Jewish Home for the Aged, Yeshiva College, the Jewish Home for the Aged and the American League for a Free Palestine. 

Early years of Walt Disney Studios 1927,
including Friz Freleng (Bottom row, left)
It is speculated the rumors of Walt Disney's antisemitism (outside of his association with the MPAPAI, which did have antisemitic members and his meeting with Leni Riefenstahl) arose from disgruntled former employees who themselves speculated their Jewish heritage might have contributed to their firing. However several Jewish employees (including Art Babbitt, who hated Walt) disagreed that Walt was antisemitic. The list of influential Jewish artists and executives is so lengthy in fact that it would be extremely unlikely for Walt to not have noticed that he had staffed his studio with people he supposedly hated. This included some of his primary writers and artists (Joe Grant, Marc Davis, Maurice Rapf, Otto Englander...), production managers (Harry Tytle), even the heads of merchandising (Kay Kamen, George Kamen) and many more.

"Some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish."
- Joe Grant, himself of Jewish heritage

Composer Richard M. Sherman, a man of Jewish heritage who with his brother Robert B. Sherman worked on Mary Poppins (1964) (as well as The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967) and various other Disney movies), gave an interview in 2013 in the context of Saving Mr. Banks (2013), the movie about the development of the Mary Poppins movie. In the interview, he responds to accusations of Walt's antisemitism with the following:

"Let me tell you something, a lot of people talk about Walt in negative ways. There was nothing negative about Walt Disney", he says. "He was dedicated to doing great things. He reached for the stars all the time. He was a wonderful, wonderful boss."
- Richard M. Sherman [Source]

According to the Disney History Institute, there was also an incident where Walt fired one of his lawyers, who didn't like minorities, for saying something denigrating about the Sherman brothers.
Walt Disney, prior to being presented "Man of the Year" by
the Beverly Hills B'nai B'rith auxiliary, 12-9-1955. [Source]

To end this section, I would like to draw your attention to a picture discovered by animation historian Jim Korkis. B'nai B'rith International is the oldest Jewish service organization in the world, dedicated to fighting antisemitism and bigotry. Who did the Beverly Hills chapter of the organization have as their 1955 Man of the Year? None other than Walt Disney himself.
He further received the Distinguished Service Citation from the Kansas City B'nai B'rith Chapter and the Hadassah Recognition of Achievement, both in 1958 and both can be seen in the Lobby of the Walt Disney Museum. So while Walt is regularly accused of antisemitism, it seems the people who disagreed with that accusation were contemporary organizations that were founded explicitly with the purpose of combating antisemitism. Odd how the "fact" that gets spread is an unsubstantiated rumor of Walt attending Bund meetings, but we never hear of his contributions to Jewish causes even though the awards are there and the thank you notes for his charitable actions have occasionally turned up.

"So let me just say this: no respected Disney historian has ever uncovered evidence that Walt Disney was racist. And goodness knows, we've digged in every corner."
Cartoon Brew: Fact-Checking Meryl Streep's Disney-Bashing Speech - Amid Amidi


Conclusion

To sum it up: Paste Magazine has it right when the author says labeling Walt a National Socialist without proof is a stretch, but following it with Walt being 'at best' a Nazi sympathizer is hardly any better when the article goes on with trying to make that accusation stick anyway, especially with a title such as 'Walt the Quasi-Nazi'. The article is nothing more than a sensationalist attempt to paint a fallible perfectionist into a fascist propagandist based on post-hoc rationalizations, with much of the article dedicated to portions of The Disney Company's history Walt wasn't even alive for. Problems with corporate overreach are certainly deeply rooted and should be addressed. You don't do that by writing sensationalist clickbait articles where your focus is on singling out an individual deceased for 51 years and painting him as a fascist Nazi somehow responsible for it. 
To put Walt Disney in the same category as people who tried to wipe out an entire ethnic group is not only wrong and offensive to a person who can't defend himself anymore, it is downright irresponsible. We live at a time when white supremacists brandishing actual Nazi symbology (and somehow Tiki torches) are holding rallies in the streets. What better way to normalize their behavior than to claim the inoffensive cartoon movies and theme parks that billions of people grew up on were actually made by someone holding their values?
Furthermore this attitude of harshly judging even relatively progressive historical figures from the comfortable position of modernity is frankly off-putting and only an exercise in mental masturbation. It reduces the genuine struggles civil rights movements had to go through to acquire a semblance of equality. Historical figures who held the prejudices of their time shouldn't be cast as evil because they just happened to be born in a time period when those prejudices were still rampant, they should be held up as examples to us of how even good people can be flawed so we in turn can examine the faults in ourselves.

The truth is that Walt Disney was not a Nazi, a Nazi sympathizer or a fan of Adolf Hitler. Those claims are blatantly ridiculous. At absolute worst it could be argued he was largely indifferent (as he was to most political questions) to politics in Europe in general prior to World War II, and staunchly against the Nazis from that point on. It's hard to even make the case that he was especially racist or sexist outside of the general racial insensitivity of his time. The US Government evidently didn't think he was a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer when they screened him and hired him. Jewish foundations with the explicit purpose of combating antisemitism screened him and honored him. The worst I have found of him is that his perfectionism was often very trying for the people he worked with, and he could be very volatile with his employees while under stress. Nothing I found indicates there's any merit to the popular image of him as a horrible racist, sexist of Nazi sympathizer.


Notes

1. Nevertheless I've seen people upset that Disney is still selling this racist movie on DVD, when to my knowledge it has never even had a DVD release even though there's demand for it.
2. The reason why I'm using an image of the seemingly-nude Miss America from Coonskin is because I fear an image of just the main protagonists, who appear to be blackface caricatures, would be more likely to be mistaken for an old Disney production by the casual visitor scrolling through this article, whereas I think an image of a woman with detailed breasts wouldn't be mistaken as such. Internet consensus is that Disney is more subliminal with its references to sex after all. Also a reference to boobs is the tits in terms of SEO. 

Friday, 2 February 2018

Defending Disney - Part 4: Walt the Supposed Gender Bigot

[<- Index]
[<-Part 3: Walt, the Anti-Nazi Propagandist]

A letter warning a potential female applicant of stiff competition for a job at Walt Disney Studios was discovered a few years ago and has been repeatedly brought up as proof that Walt Disney hated women. While certainly containing evidence of changing times and a reminder of sexist segregation in the workplace in the 1930's, once again Walt Disney has to be bizarrely blamed personally for somehow not having sensibilities 80 years ahead of his time. 
First of, the letter is clearly signed Mary Cleave, so everyone claiming that Walt was sending these letters personally just to shatter the dreams of young women is simply wrong. At the high point following the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), Walt Disney Studios had grown so large that it is inconceivable he was still screening every potential applicant personally.
Secondly, I think this letter is being misread as a rejection letter when it clearly is not that. Yes, it mentions women were not currently considered for creative work at the time, however it merely warns Miss Ford that there is some stiff competition for openings because, as you can see, she lives in Searcy, Arkansas, and as such traveling all the way to Hollywood for a job with very few openings and a lot of competition might simply not make the trip worth the risk. Nowhere in the letter does it state she is being rejected as she is even being asked to bring samples if she were to apply (A similar letter also signed by Mary Cleave comes without the advise and simply mentions to apply a Tuesday morning between 9:30 and 11:30, but that applicant already lived in California at the time).
So yes, a harsh reminder of what workplace conditions looked like before the second World War pushed women into them? Certainly. The smoking gun that Walt Disney hated women? Please. The entire American corporate landscape was male-dominated. To come to that conclusion you have to strip away all historical context (as well as misread half the letter) and hold Walt to an impossible modern standard. Once again we are down to conspiracy theories regarding a man Internet sensationalism is intent on making a bad guy.

After Fantasia (1940) failed to live up to expectations, partially because the onset of World War II prevented a release in Europe, Disney decided to solve a financial crisis by making a cheaper film primarily for profit rather than artistry, by which he could finance the pictures he refused to cut back on. The result was The Reluctant Dragon (1941), a live-action film with animated segments in which American humorist Robert Benchley is forced by his wife (played by Nana Bryant) to present Walt Disney with an idea for a new cartoon (the titular Reluctant Dragon). The hesitant Benchley however keeps dodging his escort by wandering through the new Walt Disney Studios Burbank location to get a look at how Disney cartoons are created (while actors were employed, most people shown were the actual staff). One of the departments Benchley finds himself in is the Ink & Paint Department that's mentioned in the letter above.
The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
The immediate sense you get is that the Ink & Paint Department wasn't some condescending position reserved for a few token women at the company (unlike what those who diminish their contribution just for another stab at Walt Disney would have you believe), but an involved organization staffed by highly-technical pioneer women who added life to the animators' sketches. Remember, color cartoons were still less than a decade old and at Disney it was a frontier overwhelmingly staffed by women. They didn't just painstakingly paint the drawings, they were also involved in the chemical lab making the actual paint. The process of transforming black and white sketches into the colorful images you end up seeing was thus the work of women, and Walt Disney himself wanted to show that by including them and their work in his behind-the-scenes tour.
Furthermore, Mindy Johnson in her book Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney's Animation (2017) notes that the segregation of men and women served a practical purpose, which unfortunately rings familiar for anyone having kept up with certain horrific revelations about Hollywood in the last few months: "This restriction served a dual purpose, as Walt Disney consciously sought to provide a comfortable place for women to work without unwanted harassments, which was sadly not the case at many other studios of the day" (restriction meaning men and visitors were discouraged from the department).

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
However earlier in the movie (before the movie converts itself to Technicolor, which Robert Benchley notices and points out), Benchley stops by the art class where artists are learning to caricature an elephant (Mabel, I believe) for the upcoming movie Dumbo (1941). There several women are seen sketching, including one Chinese women played by actress Bo Ling. While by itself not very impressive considering this particular women appears to have been an actress and not an active sketch artist at the Disney Company, the significance is that putting her in there was an obvious attempt at promoting the idea of a non-white female artist working on mainstream animation and that such people would be welcome at the Disney studio. A minute later a different female artist sketches Robert Benchley's caricatured as an elephant to set up a joke of him making a fool out of himself while he blissfully ignorant uses the sketch to describe how dumb elephants look. Evidently Walt Disney didn't scoff at the idea of female artists.

It also wasn't that much of a stretch to depict an Asian woman doing creative work at Disney anyway. The elaborate Fantasia (1940) theater program during its original run was designed by the female Japanese American artist Gyo Fujikawa, known primarily as an illustrator and author for children's books. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times also names Walt Disney as her inspiration for how she handled bigots during World War II. Since she lived in New York she escaped the internment of Japanese Americans, however since she was at this time understandably anxious about her heritage, she would claim she was really the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

"But when she told Disney that she often lied about her heritage, he exploded. "Damn it! Why should you say that? You're an American citizen," he said."

"From that moment on," Fujikawa recounted recently, "that's exactly what I did tell them."

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The thing with company policy as it came to gender segregation is that Walt himself regularly ignored it when he found the women's skillsets merited it. Even in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) we can see that Dorothy Ann Blank is given on-screen credit for her part in adapting the story. Later under Art Directors we find another woman: Hazel Sewell, who was the sister of Walt Disney's wife Lilian and was appointed the head of the Ink & Paint Department through recognition of her technical skill, diligence and keen eye. Snow White's production notes also cite Hazel Sewell's opinion a number of times which was noted to be clearly valued by her colleagues. So while women obviously still had a long way to go in animation, they were already a huge, unfortunately unsung, part of it when Walt Disney amazed the world with his first feature-length animated film.

From the horse's mouth we even have two speeches Walt Disney held five'o clock on February 10 and 11, 1941, in which he affirmed that there should be no differences in opportunities between men and women.

"If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man," and "The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could."
- Walt Disney

It's common knowledge that Walt Disney owed his success largely thanks to Mickey Mouse. Lesser common knowledge is that Mickey Mouse started out primarily as a replacement for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, of which the rights belonged to Universal rather than Disney himself. Even before that though he got his studio off the ground with a series known as the Alice Comedies, a series of 57 cartoons (many of whom lost) featuring a live-action girl interacting with a cartoon environment.
The first cartoon was made while Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks were still at Laugh-O-Gram, Walt's original and ultimately failed studio. Without even a studio yet to produce more cartoons, Walt managed to arrange a distributing deal with Margaret J. Winkler, the first woman to produce and distributed animated films (she also edited the Alice Comedies). The partnership only turned sour once Winkler got married and turned her company over to her husband Charles B. Mintz, who would eventually hire away all of Walt's animators except of Ub Iwerks. From the very start Walt had been working with women.

But let's return (... forward in time) to Walt Disney's eventual masterpiece. The impossible project the Hollywood movie industry derided as "Disney's Folly", on which Disney had gambled everything and which would show that not only are animated movies possible, but also viable. This movie was to be the story of a girl.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

A big negative I found regarding Snow White was how Walt Disney didn't want Adriana Caselotti, Snow White's voice actress, to use her voice for other movies as he wanted to preserve the illusion that Snow White was a real person, which would obviously have been a real problem if Caselotti ever wanted a career in Hollywood. However that's indeed an issue with Walt's overzealousness over protecting his movie's illusion of life rather than a problem with women, and even with that Caselotti continued to speak fondly of Walt and her role (which she embodied all her life) well into the 1990's, actively participating in publicity events and specials celebrating the movie.

Even today we have complaints about the lack of female representation in Hollywood movies (or video games), yet here was Disney kickstarting animated movies with Snow White. Does this really sound like a guy who hated women?

Defending Disney - Part 3: Walt the Anti-Nazi Propagandist

[<- Index]
[<- Part 2: Walt, the Supposed Nazi]

Looking at the actual evidence makes it nothing short of madness to claim Walt Disney was a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer. As we have seen, the pro-argument consists of assuming a meeting with a German filmmaker (who herself was actually taken in by Hitler) was maliciously motivated rather than just being a meeting between filmmakers (and which Walt later disavowed), and a dubious claim from Disney's enemy of him attending open German American Bund meetings that is corroborated by nothing else. Such underwhelming evidence hardly even requires counter-evidence since it is all based on rumor and fallacious extrapolation anyway. However it truly becomes ridiculous once you start looking into Walt Disney's actual contributions to the war effort. The most famous anti-Nazi propaganda cartoon Disney made is no doubt Der Fuehrer's Face (1943), which I covered in the previous section. There are several more cartoons that mock Hitler and the Nazi's. I'll go over some of the more well interesting ones, for a list of many others (but not nearly complete) there's a list over on Wikipedia.

As mentioned earlier, Education for Death (1943) is an animated short based on Gregory Ziemer's book of the same name, based on his experiences as an educator in Germany. It shows a young boy named Hans who from birth is being indoctrinated into worshiping Adolf Hitler with all his compassion and sentimentality stomped out so he can grow up as a good soldier and die trampling on the rights of others. It starts with children being indoctrinated with a fairy tale in which Adolf Hitler is shown as a knight scaring away the witch (democracy) so he can save the princess (Germany). However in the version we see on the screen Hitler is portrayed as a raving lunatic who reflexively keeps saluting himself and briefly grows devil horns while doing so. German officials in the short are invariably portrayed as an extension of the oppressive government who don't care about the well-being of Hans or his family outside of the boy's utility as a soldier for the war machine.

The New Spirit (1942) shows a radio program instructing Donald Duck on how and why to do his taxes to help America win the war against the Axis forces. Yes, it's a cartoon about Donald Duck doing his taxes, then it explains why they are necessary to fight against the aggressor. "Taxes to beat the Axis" and variations being a recurring phrase. The film was requested by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. to cast the tax increase for the war effort in a positive light and ensure they were paid timely, which it succeeded in doing as income taxes were more prompt in 1942.
This film received a sequel in The Spirit of '43 (1943), which is, yes, another cartoon about the necessity of Donald Duck doing his taxes for the fight against Hitler and Hirohito (much of the animation was reused from the previous short however). This particular film is also noteworthy for containing what looks like a prototype for Scrooge McDuck.

Six other Donald Duck cartoons were created where he served in the army during World War II. However some of these (Donald Gets Drafted (1942)) show a more anti-military sentiment because one of the writers, Carl Barks (best known for his extensive comic run of Donald Duck), was a pacifist against America being involved in the war (It also reveals Donald's full name is Donald Fauntleroy Duck). The last one, Commando Duck (1944), actually features Donald Duck engaging in military action against the Japanese.

Walt Disney was heavily involved with creating confidential military training films for the United States government, which as Disney historian Jim Korkis notes required the highest security clearance and previous or current sympathy with the Nazis or Adolf Hitler would have likely disqualified him to do so instantly. The importance of Disney's contribution to the war effort is probably best demonstrated by his studio being the only one in Hollywood to have the U.S. Army deploy troops to protect it. Clearly the United States government, while they were actively at war with Nazis, didn't think Walt Disney was a Nazi.

The opening cartoon of Stop That Tank! (1942), a training film on the use of anti-tank rifles, a ridiculous laughing stock caricature of Adolf Hitler is shot literally to hell after pathetically whining how oppressed he is by a peaceful village he is in the process of attacking. He then continues his whining until it annoys the devil. The rest of the film demonstrates the use of an Anti-Tank Rifle.



After Walt Disney had read Alexander P. de Seversky's 1942 book Victory Through Air Power, he felt that its message was important enough that he personally financed its production into a documentary feature film to catch the attention of both government officials and the public in general. Among those convinced by Seversky's theories after seeing the film were Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.



Personally I find it rather difficult to entertain the belief that Walt Disney was a Nazi or a fan of Hitler when he wasn't just continuously producing cartoons mocking him, but also producing training films and promoting strategies to defeat him. According to Neal Gabler, the Treasury Department credited Walt Disney with helping to sell more than $50 million worth of saving bonds (however I found no alternate sources to back this up).

"Even before the U.S. entry into the war, Disney was doing war bond work for the National Film Board of Canada."
- War and American Popular Culture - Kalman Goldstein (edited by M. Paul Holsinger) p.327

The most baffling part of the previous Paste Magazine article follows when the author attempts to use Walt Disney's anti-Nazi propaganda films as somehow not anti-Nazi enough since they didn't explicitly address antisemitism enough for the author's sensibilities. Somehow the fact that the wolf in Three Little Pigs (1933) disguised himself as a Jewish stereotype is enough to reduce Walt's many contributions to the war effort, explicitly to stop the Nazis from trampling on other people's rights, to nothing. Evidently producing 68 hours of educational war films, as well as many films to promote war bonds, propaganda films to vilify the Nazis and their allies (Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)Education for Death - The Making of a Nazi (1943)Reason and Emotion (1943) and Commando Duck (1944)) and a feature film Walt himself sponsored (Victory Through Air Power (1943)) all to promote winning a war against the Nazis doesn't matter because an old cartoon had an offensive stereotype.

However even that was not the extend of it. In early 1941, before the United States had even entered World War II, Walt Disney became an ambassador of a goodwill tour under Nelson Rockefeller through South America as part of the Good Neighbor policy in an effort to counter Latin American ties with Nazi Germany. The end results were the package films Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944) (with one segment Blame It On the Samba being conceived but only later used in Melody Time (1948)). Film historian Alfred Charles Richard Jr. notes in Censorship and Hollywood's Hispanic (1993) that Saludos "did more to cement a community of interest between peoples of the Americas in a few months than the State Department had in fifty years".

Youtube.com: Saludos Amigos (1943) Trailer


So again, the belief that Walt Disney was a Nazi or a Nazi supporter hinges on him meeting German film maker Leni Riefenstahl (who was in fact a Nazi sympathizer, but not classified as an actual Nazi or convicted of war crimes) once but the fact that he went on to denounce her later on (and was hesitant while he was meeting her in the first place), only to then go on to become the propaganda arm for the American anti-Nazi sentiment, a proponent of new methods to defeat the Nazis and an international ambassador to pry away foreign support from the Nazis is soundly ignored.

Notes

Apologies if this section is rather disjointed and less in-depth than I'd like it to be. I might expand on it later but I was not interested enough in outdated military training films (Behold, Four Methods of Flush Riveting (1942), an almost 10-minute cartoon on riveting techniques) to sit through the majority of the films Walt Disney produced during World War II.