Bambi (1942)

Directed by (supervising): David Hand+many others

Written by: Perce Pearce, Larry Morey, etc.

Walt_Disney's_Bambi_posterDespite its being a children’s classic, I only saw Bambi for the first time the other day. I knew the basics going in: it was about a deer, and that something tragic, certainly by kids’ movie standards, befalls him. Bambi is a simple film, and therefore the above description does it some justice. Nonetheless, it should be further noted that Bambi has a tone that makes it comparable to few other children’s films. It feels primitive, but not in a bad way.

Had I not done my research, I might have supposed that Bambi was the first ever Disney animated feature-film (it’s not, Snow WhitePinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo all predate it). Through the eyes of its young protagonist, Bambi uncovers the wonders of the woods, and these moments of wondrous discovery have a meta-quality to them. It is as if the animators are not just saying “look Bambi has found water,” but “look at how beautifully we can animate water.”

It is undeniable that Bambi is a film about its aesthetic. The turning of the seasons is another of its important plot points, and a source of the film’s beauty. This is especially noticeable as fall comes around and the animation is simplified to represent the chaos of a hunt. Bambi’s being an aesthetic-focused film is also seen in the way it uses music. Unlike its predecessors, Bambi’s characters don’t sing, instead (as seen in later films like Peter Pan), songs are performed by an invisible chorus. Such a song is used, for instance, to show the pleasant side of raindrops “drip, drip, drip go the April showers.”

But Bambi’s not being a musical simultaneously points to the film’s other provocative trait. Again, many will watch Bambi knowing a major, tragic, spoiler (one out of principal, perhaps absurdly, I won’t spell out). This tragedy has to be understood in context, however. A good point of comparison here would be Finding Nemo. The latter film includes realistic looking fish, living within a realistic looking environment, but within that environment it anthropomorphizes them as much as it reasonably can: a fish can read, and there are sharks that want to be vegetarian. Most importantly, however, its protagonist, Marlin, is neurotic. Marlin is not like other fish: a trauma leads him to become uniquely overprotective of his son. Bambi, like Marlin, suffers a trauma, and yet this trauma is not shown to impact Bambi’s psychology. The eeriness of what happens to Bambi therefore, is not simply that it happens to him, but that it is stripped of emotional weight: we are supposed to understand it as part of the life of a deer, and then forget about it. So why do characters as distinct as Snow White, Claude Frollo and Thomas O’Malley sing, but Bambi doesn’t? Because, unlike those and most other Disney characters, Bambi lives without an individualized sense of purpose and struggle.

The oddness of seeing Bambi in contrast to the numerous animated films about animals that have been produced since is that it does not have room for “deer who are not like other deer.” Bambi’s dramas are not the result of his own personality traits, but the inevitable outcome of his being a deer growing up in a world of predators and prey. While I honestly have no idea how I would have reacted to the film had I seen it as a child, in some ways I found it kind of disturbing. The name Bambi has become synonymous with a degree of personality: we think of the expression “Bambi eyes,” and thus associate with the name with gentleness, innocence, flirtatiousness, etc. Maybe there is no one way to be “a Bambi,” but “Bambi” is certainly a way of being. The original Bambi, disappoints or at least defies our expectations in this regard, however. His “Bambiness” is merely a function of his young childhood, and as he grows up he leaves his “Bambiness” behind and becomes indistinguishable from his father (who is himself somewhat of a blank canvass).

There are a number of ways to think about Bambi. One could think of it as being about the woodland-aesthetic, and its decision to star a de-individualized protagonist stems from that. Alternatively, one could posit the opposite theory: the creators decided a deer couldn’t be individualized, and as such Bambi became an aesthetic rather than a plot driven film. Thirdly, perhaps Bambi’s deindividualization is not just the result of a lack of anthropomorphization, but reflective of an old fashioned understanding of masculinity: boys are boys, then they man up and become men; protective, but emotionally distant men.

In short, there is something sets apart the experience of watching Bambi from watching other Disney Classics: it is not so much a story as it is the tracing of a life cycle of a deer. That said, readers who have not seen the work should not mistake my analysis for saying Bambi is an experimental oddity. It more or less has a linear plot, and, like many classic Disney works, it is brightened up via dynamic supporting characters: Thumper, a chipper bunny, Flower, a grateful-for-any-affection skunk, and the gentle curmudgeon Friend Owl. For those whose Disney education is Frozen and Moana, Bambi may feel somewhat unrecognizable, but it can still give children and film fans alike something to appreciate

 

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A Ghost Story (2017)

Written and Directed by: David Lowery

A_Ghost_Story_poster

In my last entry I discussed the supposedly emerging genre of “highbrow horror”: a description for horror films that: a) receive critical acclaim and b) often avoid depicting visually scary monsters, opting instead to portray invisible and/or human antagonists. David Lowery’s Ghost Story takes the cinematic development a step further. Not only does he avoid depicting an outwardly scary ghost (he goes for sheet-with-hole minimalism), but he throws out the concept of horror all together.

Viewers are thus left with a movie like no other. The ghost’s minimalist-Halloween-style garb makes it instantly loveable, yet eerie, nonetheless. How come this character who appears just to be a man in a sheet can’t just take his sheet off? He is so close to being alive, yet absolutely dead. Simultaneously sympathetic and unsettling the ghost is neither Casper nor [insert name of actually scar ghost here]. Rather, it is the protagonist of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”:

 

If you could read my mind/What a tale your thoughts could tell/just like an old time movie/bout a ghost in a wishing well/in a castle dark/or a fortress strong with chains upon my feet/you know that ghost is me/for I will never be set free, so long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.

 

It would be hard to say more about Ghost Story’s plot without spoiling the narratively simple film. What I can say is the work finds its beauty in it simplicity. Death is tragic, and Ghost Story simply reintroduces us to this tragedy by showing it from the perspective of the dead in addition to the perspective of the mourner. From there, viewers are given a lot of leeway to read the story is a more or less detailed manner. Lowery’s conception of ghosthood is as a temporary state. Not all of the dead (necessarily) return as ghosts: only those who have unfinished business. The central ghost, however, does not seemingly have a profound objective to attend to such as righting a wrong he has done or fighting some force of evil. Rather his unfinished business seems to be coming to terms with never getting to see his wife again, and the sadness he felt about her desire for them to move out of their house. As someone who can feel deep nostalgia for spaces (houses, streets, shops, etc) I could particularly appreciate that this was the unfinished business the ghost had to attend to. For other viewers, the particulars of the ghost’s objective may be less important, but the underlying emotions behind the stories should prove just as captivating.

To see a grown man walking around dressed in a sheet is to see the boy-in-the-man. To see a figure permanently clad in a sheet is to see something terrifying. To watch a man die, seemingly come back from the dead, but to have this miracle be for nought since no one can see him is heartbreaking. Ghost Story gives viewers a chance to be mesmerized by profound sadness, eased down with the teaspoon of sugar that is the ghost costume. Whether you seek such emotional stimulus or whether you simply want to experience innovative art, Ghost Story is absolutely worth seeing.