Remember to watch Balto!
-one of my all time favorites
Nature in American Popular Film and Literature
September 30, 2009
Mr. Jaguar and Ms. Whale
In a dense Amazonian jungle, a powerful jaguar stalks a plump capybara. In one swift lunge, the powerful cat overtakes the large rodent, and ends its life in one skull-crunching bite. This intense image evokes many emotions in a human, including fear, awe, and respect. In a totally different situation, people looking at a picture of a man snuggling a jaguar feel sentiments of safety and friendliness. Can these two contrasting portrayals really be of the same animal? People often try to impress human emotions upon animals, but ultimately, this can be a very dangerous thing.
Thayer Walker is living proof that wild animals do not live by the same code that we do. In his article “Hello, Kitty,” Walker describes his experiences at a jaguar preserve in Bolivia. One peaceful rainforest afternoon, Walker was on a walk with his 360-pound jaguar-friend, Rupi. Suddenly, the scene falls apart as the jaguar does an about-face and leaps upon Walker, tearing his clothes and almost eating his face as a snack. What could have provoked the animal to do this? Prior to this fateful march, many people at the preserve insisted that the cats “were nice and would never hurt a fly.” This advice came from people who thought of the cats as friends, companions that would never hurt them. What these volunteers failed to understand was that every wild animal is pulsing with natural instincts, and that it can be very risky to pin human emotions onto them. Walker was aware of the jaguar’s potential, and responded appropriately when the jaguar pounced. If Thayer Walker hadn’t been on guard and wary of the jaguar’s unpredictable nature, he could have been the bearer a lot more scars than he has right now.
Stories of friendly animals turning on their “friends” are not uncommon. I found a video on youtube of an orca whale getting aggressive with its trainer at Sea World. These scary incidents raise the question: are these predators just scary beasts that we should not interact with and cannot control? In “Hello, Kitty,” Walker states that Rupi’s terrifying attack was actually just how the jaguar showed his dominance in a playful manner. In the orca whale video, it looks as if the whale is just violently playing with the trainer. The whale bumps the trainer with its nose again and again, but never bares its teeth or tries to kill the man. If this is the case, that these animals’ aggressions are just a sort of misunderstood play, then the supposedly naïve volunteers from the jaguar preserve would be right. Wild animals can be our friends, and do feel emotions similar to ours.
Despite the examples of animal aggression, the examples of animal camaraderie are often more widespread. The classic example of animals caring for humans is the fact that shipwrecked sailors are sometimes rescued by dolphins. In California, there is a pod of gray whales that insist on human interaction with whale watching boats. These odd whales bump the boats until people reach out and touch their briny skin. Do these examples make it possible for us to assume that animals feel emotions like we do? The question is up to debate, as different people can interpret the same situation in opposite ways. Is Rupi a primal killer, or a playful cat with good intentions? Are orca whales really cruel juggernauts, or are they just looking for some fun with their trainer buddies? There is significant evidence on both sides of each argument, but there are some things that we can assume to be true about all wild animals.
Whether wild animals feel emotions similar to ours or not, they should never be underestimated. All animals have primal instincts that we cannot understand. I like to believe that my dog loves me, but there are moments when I am careful around him, such as approaching him when he is sleeping or trying to play with him when he is scared. Even dogs, “man’s best friend”, can be dangerous. The debate over whether animals experience human emotion will probably never end. But, an animal could make your life end, if you are not aware of its potential for harmful behavior.
Pastoral and Sublime: the traditional dichotomy of nature. But do these two categories really encompass all that nature can be? We can definitely be sure that these two outlets definitely do work in defining nature to a certain point. Most everybody has felt the peace and tranquility of pastoral nature, whether it be walking through a dense redwood grove or standing ankle deep in cold water on a sandy beach. Sublime nature is also prevalent in our lives; we see the awful destruction wrought by hurricanes in the news, and hear other stories such as people dying in avalanches or attacked by sharks. Defining a setting as “sublime” or “pastoral” can vary from person to person, depending on if you’re talking to your granny or Les Stroud of “Survivorman.” Even so, these two categories really do seem to work when defining nature. I believe that there are subcategories within these two descriptions. Some people have life changing epiphanies and experiences within nature, and therefore we could have an “experiential nature.” This subcategory fits into both sublime and pastoral; A Buddhist monk could describe to you a meditational euphoria experienced under a peaceful waterfall, and Charles Bowden could tell you about his crazy, seizure-like rants that happen when he goes and succumbs to the elements of the harsh desert. Many people use nature as a resource, and we could have a subcategory called “exploitable nature.” Again, this subcategory can work in both sublime and pastoral. People always exploit the pastoral setting, such as the logging of old growth forests. People can also take advantage of sublime natural elements, clearly demonstrated by capturing the energy from fast winds and the baking hot sun. These are just two possible subcategories, but I’m sure many more can be thought up. So although pastoral and sublime to serve as a great system of definition, the smaller details of nature fall into different subcategories.
Nature in American Popular Film and Literature
September 22, 2009
The Wooded Window
Writers and critics often use film to draw conclusions about contemporary society. This strategy can also be used to extract information from older movies about the society at the time. Although the movie Bambi is a story about forest animals, it offers a very interesting picture of life in the 1940’s, specifically in the relationships of fathers to family, young love, and homosexuality.
Bambi’s family serves as an accurate model for the average 40’s family. Bambi spends all his time with his mother, learning from her and loving her. His father seems to be more of a phantom than a parent. This familial arrangement was common, as fathers of the time had to be the “bread-winners,” and work all day long. Wives were obligated to stay home to cook, clean, and take care of children. Because the fathers were so distant, their children often viewed them more as idols and heroes than as people. This holds true in Bambi, where Bambi’s father is portrayed standing majestically on top of a hill, muscular chest thrust out and massive antlers lifted upward. He is a virile image of masculinity and power, the perfect role model for his son. It does not seem to matter that he does not help raise Bambi whatsoever. Also, Bambi’s father always shows up to save the day, by taking care of him when his mother dies, and saving him from a forest fire. Despite the fact that Bambi’s father was never present in his childhood, the movie conveys Bambi’s father as the ideal father figure. This portrayal serves as a window into the ideals of the time; that fathers were not obligated to raise their children, just to serve as an idealistic role model and save the day.
Spring always opens the blossoms of love, and Disney captures the image of adolescent love in the 1940’s in the springtime scene. In this pink and flowery scene, Flower, Thumper, and Bambi all stroll through the forest, and in turn are seduced by females of their species. In each situation, the girl sees the boy, attracts him with her womanly characteristics, and seals the deal with a kiss. Flower’s skunk love bats her long eyelashes, Thumper’s fluffy admirer sings in a high voice, and Bambi’s childhood sweetheart Feline chases after him and licks him. In all three situations, the girls had to make themselves appealing so that the boys would choose them. This again portrays the experiences of youth in the 1940’s, where girls meticulously curled their hair and powdered their noses to look good for the boys. The important thing that Disney reveals is the fact that the boys have the power, where the girls have to primp and make an appearance to attract them. This male dominance relates back to the first point, where the fathers did not help raise children, but still served as the role model.
The last and most controversial aspect pf 1940’s society revealed in Bambi is Flower the skunk’s seeming denial of homosexuality. Flower is portrayed as wistful and girly, by occasionally batting his eyelashes and liking the fact that Bambi calls him a “purty flower.” Later in the movie, when the wise old owl talks about love to the friends, he hesitates and is skeptical when Flower asks if he too can find love. Whether this evidence means that Flower is homosexual or not is up to interpretation, but it is clear that he does not have the masculinity that his friends do. Flower does end up finding a very pretty lady skunk, but the fact that Flower was questionably gay and then ends up with a woman reveals that the subject of homosexuality was taboo at the time. Rather than portray a possibly gay character in finding a relationship with another male skunk, Disney drops it and pairs Flower off with a female. Flower’s character is odd and confusing, but the main conclusion drawn is the fact that homosexuality was never talked about, and if considered, kept quiet.
Disney movies are not always the subject of choice to analyze as a social commentary. But, like Bambi, they can reveal a lot about the time period concurrent with the movie’s creation. In all art, no matter the form, the artist(s) puts certain elements of his or her self(s) into the work. This is why we can tell that Van Gogh was extremely emotional and troubled by the intense colors and flowing swirls of his paintings, and that Quentin Tarantino is a little bit insane by the unconventional structure and gore of his films. By analyzing specifics in story and relationships, we can really discover the 1940’s mindsets of the writers and animators that worked on Bambi, and draw conclusions about the world at the time.
Tom Sawyer is choc’ full of beautiful poetic descriptions of pastoral nature. But, the presence of the sublime in nature seems to stay pretty absent in the book so far. The one clear instance of sublime nature is the storm on Pirate Island. The tempest wrecks havoc upon the island, splitting trees and blowing away the boy’s shelter. I believe that Twain incorporates this storm to demonstrate to Tom, Joe, and Huck the reality of nature, that it isn’t just a magic land of escape and freedom. Up until this point, the world has been sunny and verdant, a perfect refuge for Tom and his cohorts from the “extreme pressures” of society. The storm represents the other side of nature, the “dark side of the moon.” The storm is unknown and unpredictable, a dangerous force that is not a refuge whatsoever.
In Tom’s perception as nature as a world of play, the sublime comes and goes. But this isn’t always the case. In the perception of Aunt Polly and other townsfolk, it can be argued that ALL nature is sublime. The people of the town see nature as a threat, a menace that must be kept out with fences, buildings, and roads. One situation that proves this is Aunt Polly’s instinct to always wash Tom when he is dirty. She does not want any of the alien outside world getting into her pristine house, a spot of mud on the rug could just lead to the apocalypse. Even though Tom was just running around in the perfectly pastoral setting of the woods, Polly sees the remains of this expedition as disgusting and unacceptable, a blemish that must be scrubbed away. This constant fear of nature is a perception that nature is sublime. Although this topic really relates back to my last post, I think this difference of perception is extremely important. Nature that is pastoral to Tom is sublime to Aunt Polly. So in Aunt Polly’s view, nature is always sublime, and one must be constantly wary of its dangers. This is very different with Tom, where nature switches between pastoral and sublime. Nature is pastoral to Tom when it is of some use to him, mostly that of an escape or a place to play and have fun. It is sublime when he is not in control and actually a victim to nature, like he was in the case of the storm.
“When Tom awoke in the morning, he wondered where he was. He sat up and rubbed his eyes and looked around. Then he comprehended. It was the cool gray dawn, and there was a delicious sense of repose and peace in the deep pervading calm and silence of the woods. Not a leaf stirred; not a sound obtruded upon great Nature’s meditation. Beaded dewdrops stood upon the leaves and grasses. A white layer of ashes covered the fire, and a thin blue breath of smoke rose straight into the air.” – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, pg 87.
This passage first stood out to me because of its content’s beauty. Twain paints a perfect image of Pastoral Nature in its most pristine state, that of tranquility and spirituality. As I thought more about this passage, I started to think about how this description of Nature was through Tom’s perception. Tom, the wild-boy, sees and appreciates Nature as a majestic and wondrous entity, something to be a part of and enjoy. But this description, although beautiful, is only through one person’s perception. I started to think about how the passage would be written if maybe instead of Tom, Aunt Polly woke up in the woods on this mystical morning. To explore these differences in perception, I am going to rewrite this passage from Aunt Polly’s view…
“When Aunt Polly awoke in the morning, she wondered where she was. She sat up, rubbed her achey joints, and looked around. With a moan, she comprehended. It was a dark, dismal dawn, and there was an eerie silence surrounding everything in the wretched woods. Not a leaf stirred; not a sound protruded upon Nature’s obscure, evil mysteries. A sodden blanket of dew engulfed everything, making her shiver and whine. A white layer of ashes covered the dead fire, and a sad trickle of smoke escaped from the pile and helplessly curled into the air.”
Although this is the same setting, these two accounts are drastically different. Tom, the physical embodiment of youth and wildness, loves the natural setting and revels in its beauty. Aunt Polly on the other hand, the symbol of modern civilization, is frightened of nature and sees it as a dangerous threat to herself. The question becomes this: as Tom gets older, and more wise in the ways of humanity, will his perception of Nature turn into that of Aunt Polly’s? Or will his boyhood view stay with him all of his life? In other words, does living in civilization allow a love of Nature?
In the subject of nature writing, I believe the personality of the writer influences the writer more than the physical subject. The environment is what a writer portrays and mystifies, but the nature of the writer shapes how this environment is displayed. For example, William Bradford and Henry Beston both write accounts of Cape Cod, but their portrayals are very different. Bradford describes the land as a safe haven from the treachery of the sea. Beston blurs the line between land, sea, and sky, describing an ethereal experience where he truly felt one with all three entities. Bradford lived in a time where man was fearful of Nature’s power, before the industrial age and the belief that man was Nature’s superior. Therefore, it is logical that his account would be very different than Beston’s (A product of the “modern” world of 1928), as he was a man of a very different mindset. Another example of two different personalities describing a similar subject in contrasting ways are excerpts from Anne Bradstreet and Ronald Reagan. In the poem “More Heaven Than Earth,” Bradstreet depicts a tree in autumn attire as “a deity,” a true miracle of God. On the other end of the spectrum, in 1965, Ronald Reagan said “A tree’s a tree. How many more do you need to look at?” Reagan, a man who’s life was dominated by politics, technology, and development, could not see nature as a spiritual entity. This blindness to the natural world truly shows the plight of the modern world: the disregard for the wild world which we are truly a part of. I believe that as people rapidly become more obsessed with technological and cultural advancement, they become immune to the wonder of the natural world. Although many people may visit such wonderful places as the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls, and the Everglade swamps, it is only some types of personalities that can really appreciate and marvel at the beauty of these organic places. As hard as it is for us in Nature Writing to believe, some people see the earth solely as a resource to be exploited and depleted. It is the people who see these incredible environments and are inspired to speak, write, and act that are the least corrupted by modernity, and continue on the tradition of the great nature writers of the world.
Watching Fantasia from a viewpoint other than that of a five year old boys’ (the age I last watched it) was a very interesting experience. I got to notice and appreciate a lot more things such as the music, the animation quality, and the subtle cultural references put in by the 1940’s. I found that the most interesting things to observe though were the transitions between pastoral and sublime nature. We talked for a bit in class about which setting people like more, and the majority of people chose pastoral nature. We then went on to say one could not exist without the other. This is true, sublime nature wouldn’t exist if it didn’t have the peaceful calm of pastoral nature to contrast, otherwise chaos would just seem normal. High mortality rates would probably be the norm. I think the way disney captures this important contrast is very well done, especially in Beethoven’s 6th symphony. The use of color and weather in correlation to the music is extremely effective, with tranquil and sexual centaurs frolicking around in harmony in the peaceful first movement, and a mighty Zeus showering bolts of lightning through a storm in the tumultuous minor section. The frightening middle section makes you appreciate the return to the original pastoral setting all the much more, as the piece closes with the creatures re-emerging and going to bed in a peaceful evening.
This original article from Variety written in 1940 gives a reflection of how Fantasia was accepted in its own time. Although the tone throughout the article is somewhat neutral, the author makes it clear just how revolutionary this film was in the artistic world. In the 1940’s, classical music wasn’t the listening of choice for most of the American public. Therefore, the author admits that Disney took a gamble in producing a movie with a completely classical soundtrack, but definitely succeeded. The revolutionary sound system Disney required theatres to use in order to show their movie greatly enhanced the experience, making the feature incredibly emotional and moving. The author gives short synopses of each vignette, and incorporates his own powerful feelings from watching the show, as well as his concerns. He shows the connection he felt with each mini-story, such as his delight with “Dance of the Hours” and its ballet-dancing animals. But, he dismisses a lot of the animation as impressionistic, grotesque, and abstract, portraying the still conservative mind of the majority of the American audience. As a whole, the article conveys that the movie’s charming vignettes were widely accepted (with the movie making a 2,000,000 dollar box-office sum), but artistically, still very ahead of its time.