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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.

Hollywood Flatlands jacketKlein's 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' direction.

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 fellows—and obviously admires—is 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 mysterious—it promised the uplifting of the downtrodden, after all, whereas fascism exalted cruel strength—but 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 does.

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]