Monday, February 17, 2020

Donna Kornhaber's "Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary"

Donna Kornhaber is associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Wes Anderson: A Collector’s Cinema and Charlie Chaplin, Director.

Kornhaber applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary: War and the Animated Film, and reported the following:
Remarkably, the “Page 99 Test” in many ways cuts to the heart of the book, although it takes a little context and explanation to make clear how this is the case. On the most basic level, page 99 [inset, below left; click to enlarge] discusses the transition that occurred between early works of post-World War One animation like Otto Messmer’s Felix Turns the Tide (1922) and Walt Disney’s Great Guns (1927), where Messmer and Disney drew from their wartime experiences to craft deeply unsettling accounts of modern combat, and the new approach seen in Disney’s later short Barnyard Battle (1929), which uses the imagery of the recent World War but removes the idea of reciprocal injury that made those earlier works so affecting. This transition maps to what I describe in the book as the move away from the proto-pacifist animation of those earlier postwar shorts towards the more sanitized version of war presented in Disney’s later account.

In many ways, the differences between shorts like Felix Turns the Tide or Great Guns and those like Barnyard Battle are fundamental to my overall argument across the book. As I state in the Preface, most of the attention paid to wartime animation concerns animated propaganda, which inevitably seeks to control and neuter the depiction of war. In contrast, I argue, there exists a broad array of animated films that seek to bear witness to the realities of war, channeling the wartime experiences of their creators into cartoonal or even fantastical visions of conflict that nonetheless try to capture the horror of those experiences. In the difference between the mass slaughter seen in Felix Turns the Tide and the nonlethal playfulness of Barnyard Battle lies the difference between animation’s divergent purposes in either revealing or obscuring war’s nature.
Learn more about Nightmares in the Dream Sanctuary at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue