Art and History as First-Rate Sugar Candy

Miller and Ferguson

Art and History as First-Rate Sugar Candy

Miller and Ferguson

Art and History as First-Rate Sugar Candy
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 12 1998 2:19 PM

Miller and Ferguson

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Dear Tim,

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I was very grateful for your e-mail, which was way more fun than Michael Eisner's book. Eager for this e-chat with you, I plowed through it in one three-day sitting, getting up only for my meals, some necessary errands, and now and then to check my pupils to make sure I hadn't slipped into a coma. Work In Progress (an optimistic title if there ever was one) reads like an epic annual report half-shaped into a treatment for another Disney movie. If some hungry soul had pitched it to the author at a story conference, I think that even he would have said no.

And yet, as boring as it generally is (although that anecdote about D. Chopra--pp. 314/15--is indeed a gem), the book does tell us something worthwhile about Disney; and, if I may say so, also helps us understand why Disney's sort of cultural influence (which I'd say you understate) is worth a little serious attention.

Take the book's dramatic structure--which is meant, in fact, to leave us cheering. True, the Great Mouse-Master's life sounds often pleasureless and fearful, as do the lives of all the other titans of the Media Trust. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," as Shakespeare's Henry IV puts it; or, as Rupert Murdoch's X-Files puts it, "Trust no one."

Yes, Frank Wells' death is a tremendous blow, and yes, Katzenberg and Ovitz disappoint him, and yes, the massive pressures of enlarging and protecting the world empire finally drive him toward a major heart attack, and so on. But do note that the darkest stuff comes up in Chapter One ("Emergency--July 1994"). From there, although we read of several other disappointments and betrayals, the story gets increasingly--and, finally, quite monotonously--upbeat, with many glowing profiles of great colleagues, happy stories of commercial victory, detailed accounts of legendary deals, etc. In other words, the dark stuff is meant only to offset the ultimate Triumph Over Adversity, which is today just as ubiquitous as, say, Virtue Rewarded was throughout the 19th century.

It's mere cliché, in short--and so the problem isn't only that it's boring, but that it has to leave out plenty. What this book doesn't tell us is itself a lot more telling than the facile story that it tells. I won't go through those items now, but will end only with this point: that a cultural machine as vast and influential as the Disney Corp. must finally have a stultifying influence on all the world, if it keeps "entertaining" us--and from very early childhood, yet--with stories that are always absolutely (and, I would argue, desperately) upbeat. Disney profits as it does by so efficiently translating myth and art and history into first-rate sugar candy. There's nothing wrong with this per se--kids need to be amused, as you suggest (although I rather wish they not be "mesmerized" by a commercial giant), and everybody needs some moments of recuperative escape--but Disney's sort of feel-good product is, let's face it, now playing everywhere. That corporation and its rivals/partners all are working full-time to distract us, make us "laugh and cry" and "feel" real good. What we aren't getting, therefore, is more troubling than the stuff that, more and more, is all we get.

So "let its tentacles unfurl" indeed! Nothing you or I may say could make the slightest difference anyway--which is a likelihood that worries me. How, really, do you feel about it?

Best,

Mark Crispin Miller

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Mark Crispin Miller is professor of media studies at New York University and author of Seeing Through Movies. Tim Ferguson is an assistant managing editor of Forbes magazine. He is based in Los Angeles. This week they discuss Work in Progress, by Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz (Random House; 464 pages; $27.95).