Monthly Archives: March 2009

March 28, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales

Roll 16: 1040 = Edgar Allan Poe
1041 = Poetry and Tales
1043 is The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Well, I read that too.

This was quite an undertaking.

Prior to this self-assignment, I had read:

of the poetry: The Raven, The Bells, and Annabel Lee
of the tales: MS. Found in a Bottle, Berenice, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Gold-Bug, The Black Cat, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Sphinx, The Cask of Amontillado, and Hop-Frog
as well as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

And possibly a few others, when I was young, that left little impression.

That (minus The Sphinx and maybe also Hop-Frog, and plus Ligeia, William Wilson, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and maybe The Conqueror Worm) seems to me to a fine list of Edgar Allan Poe’s truly “canonical” contributions to literature. Of course there’s room for debate. But the scope of that selection is about right: about 15 famous stories and poems. Beyond its fuzzy borders lies the rest of his output, and the rest of his output is clearly auxiliary. It is very much “other work by Edgar Allan Poe.”

No matter how revisionist and even-handed you want to be, you must accept and embrace that “The Raven” and “Literary Life of Thingum Bob” are two entirely different classes of cultural artifact, just as you must accept that Edgar Allan Poe is a different category of personage from Alfred B. Street, the poet whose work “Winter” occupies the same position in the March 1845 issue of The American Review that “The Raven” did in the February issue.

Ah, but doesn’t The Canon make mistakes? Isn’t the cultural consensus really just a hodgepodge of received wisdom, a big game of “telephone” with nobody at the other end? Doesn’t a lot of this stuff get famous for silly reasons, and then get considered important just for being famous? Aren’t there some treasures in the attic and some lemons in the Louvre? Yes, undoubtedly, there are some. For some people that’s an exciting notion; for others distressing.

When you dig into the other work, the stuff that didn’t pass the Test Of Time, you tend either to hope either that the Test Of Time will turn out to have been rigged (that if it weren’t for the hanging chads, Alfred B. Street would be in the Library of America and Edgar Allan Poe would be languishing deep in google books) or conversely that the forgotten works will be reassuringly bad and the Test Of Time will be vindicated. Which outcome you hope for depends on your personality and your politics.

Sadly, you don’t usually get either kind of satisfaction. I already wrote once about the bitter fact that unspecial, unloved works are generally perfectly good. The larger, even more disheartening truth is that the same goes for the special, loved works. They’re perfectly good. But seen in context and out of the historical limelight, it becomes clear that in pretty much every way, they’re exactly like their siblings. Transcendence is something that happened to them, not something they were born with.

They were born with something, of course, because they lived on where their siblings didn’t. They survived because they were fit, and that fitness is very usually, if not exclusively, related to quality, as we’d like it to be. But Time isn’t a critic; it’s just an evolutionary pressure. Its selections, like evolution’s, are real, significant, and also arbitrary. Are elephants better than mammoths because they’re still around and mammoths are gone? In one sense, yes. But nobody really cares about that sense.

Reading a very well-known story in the context of the author’s complete corpus – loved and unloved alike – can be a little like following a cool friend to his family reunion and suddenly recognizing that his “cool” is just a mannerism shared by every uncle and grandmother in the room, and it isn’t actually cool at all. A third dimension comes into focus, which is humanizing, and to humanize is to diminish.

Or: It can be like seeing the other portraits of Christina Olson and realizing that the famous yearning young woman in “Christina’s World” is actually a 55-year-old cripple crawling pathetically, and that the painting has never tried to disguise that – it’s about that. Despite being famous as something else entirely. (Isn’t it? Isn’t it in waiting rooms because people think it’s a picture of a pretty girl with big dreams, like Belle? I may be wrong.)

Anyway, “The Pit and the Pendulum,” for one, is – all anthological pomp aside – clearly none other than a pulpy piece of dated hackwork, churned out to make a few bucks by feeding a public’s prurient interest in first-person narratives of torture, the more outlandish the better. It’s the 19th-century equivalent of Saw IV, both in aesthetic ambition and cultural significance. “Sensation stories,” they were called, and the phenomenon had been around for years before Poe’s career began. In fact, Poe himself wrote a satirical piece, “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” mocking the formulaic horrors and flimsy pretensions of these junky staples of magazine writing: “Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations — they will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet.” Etc. This is followed by a parody example, in which his ditzy narrator gets stuck while peering through a hole in a clock face and is very slowly decapitated by the sharpened minute hand, all the while narrating with prissy detachment. It’s an amusing piece (certainly one of the most successful of EAP’s many attempts at comedy, most of which are clumsy and bizarre) but from our standpoint, the snarky disdain rings a bit insincere, seeing as the author is after all Edgar Allan Poe. But how was he to know that in 150 years he’d the only remembered practitioner of this ubiquitous, trashy genre?

That story, “The Scythe of Time” (later dryly retitled “A Predicament”), is a joke – but the swinging blade from “The Pit and the Pendulum,” written four years later, is entirely serious. Or is it? Maybe it’s indulgently campy fun? Or was Poe perhaps sneering cynically from behind his pen, as he served the rabble the slop they deserved? The question of Poe’s personal taste and intent is crucial to a modern reader contending with the fact of his work’s canonization despite its close familial resemblance to the lowest of pulp. The question was crucial to Poe too, because his ego was at stake.

From my point of view, the best defense of Poe’s work is the enlightened dismissal of standard high/low assumptions; the idea that a comic book about aliens can potentially be a great work of art, just as a symphony about the brotherhood of man can potentially be a piece of junk. The best executed of Poe’s stories have a thrilling quality of dim lighting and claustrophobic portent; the savor they offer is full and lasting. There is no more to be asked.

But despite its elegance, that’s a very recent idea, and one that’s still hard for even the most liberal-minded to sustain consistently. It certainly wasn’t available to Poe, at least not to the part of him that worried about things like taste and reputation. And he did worry, at some level. Here he is in his preface to his own anthology, “The Raven and Other Poems”: “In defence of my own taste… it is incumbent upon me to say, that I think nothing in this volume of much value to the public, or very creditable to myself. Events not to be controlled have prevented me from making, at any time, any serious effort in what, under happier circumstances, would have been the field of my choice.” The preferred field being, of course, real poetry – e.g. whatever kind of poetry you the judgmental reader think is respectable.

The following, I believe, is the crux of it. Here is a friend, calling Poe out in a letter: “Some of your bizarreries have been mistaken for satire — and admired too in that character. They deserved it, but you did not, for you did not intend them so.” And here is Poe’s response: “You are nearly, but not altogether right in relation to the satire of some of my Tales. Most of them were intended for half banter, half satire — although I might not have fully acknowledged this to be their aim even to myself.”

“Nearly, but not altogether right,” eh? “Most of them,” eh? Not even to yourself, eh? What you see here, readers, is petty weaseling of the most childish sort, the specialty of the very lonely.

I believe that Poe was a certain pathetic type that we’ve all met: the chronic misfit who, desperate for affection from the human social system that has marginalized him and whose workings he cannot intuit, careens wildly from calculated idiosyncrasy to calculated conformity, hungry for whatever approval he can get but untrainably clueless about how he is perceived. He was, in short, a difficult nerd.

He was the orphaned child of two actors (the Poes), raised by a well-meaning couple (the Allans) who didn’t know what to make of his immoderate nature as it emerged and who left him feeling unloved. He was a trench-coat type by the time he got to high school, and then a willful “character,” drinking and gambling to flamboyant excess, by the time of his stint at UVA. Inspired by the fashion for Byron, he proudly nurtured his most “passionate” tendencies, writing barely coherent, over-the-top poems of visionary yearnings (“Al Aaraaf” is quite an ordeal), burning bridges with the Allans and everyone else, and generally flattering himself that he was a true poet let loose on the world. Then suddenly he finds himself 21 years old, living at his aunt’s house with no prospects and no friends. So he starts entering writing contests, turning out stories that follow various standard middlebrow/sensationalist models but are totally convoluted by his many and conflicting desires to impress – trying to show all at once that he is loftier than the material and disdainful of it, that he is superior to other writers of such stuff and is beating them at their own game, that he is widely read and learned, and that he is an original and independent thinker. Occasionally he forgets himself, however, and manages to write in a state of relative unselfconsciousness. In this state he is naturally driven to indulge his actual and unfashionable sense of fantasy, which, true to his nerddom, is elaborately developed and totally immune to the doctrines of taste.

He writes indefensibly tasteless stories like “Berenice” with obvious relish and commitment, and then deludes himself when confronted, saying that this is the sort of thing the market demands. His career begins to move along and he starts writing snotty reviews in approximately the persona of Comic Book Store Guy, mercilessly trashing books for syntactical errors and irrationalities. He drinks constantly and sloppily, argues loudly with everyone. He has absolutely no idea whether what he’s doing is being a hack or the greatest genius who ever lived, is worried that others know, tries to pre-empt them either way. He marries the only human being he has ever felt close to, his much younger cousin. He suspects that, in the many hours spent alone in his head, he has figured out the deepest secrets of time and space, and starts hinting at them in his writing, hoping someone will notice. He writes “The Raven,” which, when it becomes incredibly popular but as a novelty rather than as a profound work, embarrasses him enough that he feels the need to concoct a “how I wrote The Raven” piece in a professorial mode, making very clear that the poem was no more than a calculated exercise in pleasing the masses.

He loses jobs, shows up drunk for important interviews, sabotages his one distinguished invitation to appear before an audience by reading his unbearable teenage “Al Aaraaf” (Because he actually thinks it’s his only “good” work? Because he doesn’t know and wants to find out? Because he is terrified of people and has no clue?) – and generally doesn’t get anywhere in life despite his steadily expanding reputation. He writes to his wife, as she is dying: “My darling little wife you are my greatest and only stimulus now to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life.” She dies. He is totally lost. Then he too dies, unexpectedly, while on a trip meant to help him put some of the pieces back together, quite possibly the random victim of thugs.

This is all less than conjectural; it’s just an impression. But reading a man’s life’s work is like reading a man’s life, and whether I’m right or wrong, I certainly feel like over the past year with his book I’ve developed some sense for Poe the man, as though I’ve been in his company and have learned to anticipate his rhythms. This social experience was what made the process difficult. The reading itself was fun; it was the man, the sad, stunted man, that wore me down. The way one feels spending time with a truly maladjusted loser – no matter how warm you try to be, the hopelessness of their social problems eventually becomes oppressive and dispiriting.

In the early poems, Poe opposes vital Fantasy to numbing Science, but at first the conflict is just adolescent self-promotion: his poet’s soul longs for the unearthly, while the fools around him content themselves with drab reality. But somewhere along the way — around the time of the 1831 collection of poetry — he recasts the issue as something less egocentric and more valuable. From the bloggy “Letter to B__” that opens that collection:

[Coleridge] goes wrong by reason of his very profundity, and of his error we have a natural type in the contemplation of a star. He who regards it directly and intensely sees, it is true, the star, but it is the star without a ray — while he who surveys it less inquisitively is conscious of all for which the star is useful to us below — its brilliancy and its beauty. . . . .

Poe intends to get at the nature of experience by intentionally investigating things neither directly nor intensely. He wants to write about the twinkling that will not submit to analysis because it is actually in the eye rather than the star; the things that to the mind seem external but to science seem internal. This standard leads him in a good direction, away from whining and epics, and toward the eerie and psychological. It is essentially the de-romanticization of the romantic aesthetic – still about the seraphs and shades of the mind but no longer so enamored of the individual whose mind it is.

By the time he ends up reusing this very metaphor of the star ten years later in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, there is no longer any implied opposition between the rational and the irrational approach. Poe puts the metaphor in the mouth of his detective hero Dupin, who is simply advocating against the narrow and restrictive approach of the police in favor of a more wide-ranging, imaginative investigation — but one that is still proudly rational. Science, Poe seems to have realized with some pleasure, is simply right. The uncanny does not oppose science but lives within it. In fact, only Dupin’s aggressively rational approach allows him to reach the entirely creepy conclusion that a raging orangutan mutilated the victims. Spoiler, sorry.

This line of thought could be extended, and we could say even broader things about Poe’s body of work — that it is about the rise of science in the popular imagination, about the intersection between industrial materialism and fashionable romanticism, etc. etc. But to say things like this is to get away from the work — these sorts of analyses describe history above and beyond Poe, leaving him as a mere individual bobbing in the greater current. And if we’re only going to use him to get away from him, why read him at all? The real thing is to talk about the work itself, from within its own world.

And, unfortunately for me, that was a depressing world.

While I was going through it, I felt like the best thing I could offer in the end would be to point out a few of the more interesting “lesser” works.

Morella is sort of a first pass at the more-famous Ligeia, but the overall effect is somewhat less feverish and the gimmick a little creepier, to my mind.

Eleonora is yet another pass at similar material, this time particularly overcooked in style, but ending on an unexpected note of weird transcendence that I found striking.

The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion is a destruction of Krypton sort of thing — sci-fi apocalyptic, 100 years before sci-fi apocalyptic became culturally resonant and thus popular. Interesting to see one century’s preoccupations anachronistically explored in the previous century’s style.

The Colloquy of Monos and Una is, to me, the most eerie and interesting of Poe’s several works set in the heavenly ether-world where dead souls dwell. It’s a long crypto-scientific description of the dissolution of a consciousness after death, reduced gradually from being to non-being over eons. It’s weird, and is a good way to dip a toe into a whole realm of Poe’s output — the mystico-scientific stuff that falls somewhere between crackpot philosophy and crackpot poetry.

• The Philosophy of Furniture is not properly a tale, but it has a poetic bent to it, which I guess was enough for the Library of America people. It’s ostensibly an essay on the effects of tasteful interior architecture and home decoration, but it turns into a long, almost fetishistically loving description of an imagined room.

• The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall finds Poe more or less inventing science fiction, to my mind — focusing on the excitement of the technical and pseudo-scientific details, rather than any overall romance, in his description of flying a hot-air balloon directly upward all the way to the moon. This he bookends, perversely, with some silly-name zaniness and a roly-poly moon-man who seems, in combination with the balloon, like a clear precursor to Oz. It runs overlong and isn’t much of a story, but definitely an intriguing curiosity.

The Man of the Crowd has a sort of Kafka flavor about it – a little more urban and noir-ish than usual, and more overtly philosophical than others. Though perhaps a bit confused.

Okay, that’s plenty.

So Bloom says Poetry and Tales and then in a separate entry Essays and Reviews, and those are the titles of the two Library of America volumes. They also offer a one-stop Poetry and Tales and Selected Essays paperback, which is what I bought and read. Its footnotes are pretty bare-bones and during “Al Aaraaf” I felt a little at sea, so I sprung for the Norton Edition seen above as a supplement. Unfortunately, it’s the worst sort of reflexive PC academic mushwork, offering strenuously noncommittal commentary on worthless topics like Poe and race, or Poe and politics. All the information relevant to actually reading the works seems mostly undigested — paraphrased with minimal comprehension from other scholars, or from encyclopedias. The selection isn’t bad, but neither is the selection in the Barnes & Noble Poe, I’d imagine. Don’t buy the Norton edition.

Let’s wrap this up with some pictures. The mustachioed, greasy-haired, grim-looking man you see on the cover above, and on bookstore café walls the world over, is Poe in the sad final years of his sad little life. Apparently for most of his life he didn’t look like that. In the interest of encountering the “real” Poe the way I felt I did, here he is being less of an icon, more of a person.

This is the portrait that was said, by those who knew him, to best resemble him.

And this is the earliest known photograph of him, from around 1843.

Who is that guy? Just some guy we don’t know. I spent some time getting to know him and I assure you, it was depressing. The superficial relationship I had previously, to an abstract icon of a man’s head and moustache, and to some stories detached from any particular time, place, or personality, was ultimately a more nourishing one for me. And I expect to get it back now that I’m finally done writing this long-ass entry about this long-ass book.

Everyone, I shout to you from the trenches: The Masque of the Red Death is exactly whatever you got out of it when you were eight years old. There’s nothing to see here. Move along.

March 9, 2009

Disney Canon #17: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)


ADAM Visually, that was my favorite one.

BETH I agree.

ADAM The story was a little flat, but visually it was top-notch.

BROOM Yes. The designs of the still imagery, and also the lively way that they animated it, starting with the opening credit sequence, were all gratifying.

BETH And they way they used color was very sophisticated, I thought.

ADAM They decided to be cartoony again. For real. It was like the Sleeping Beauty cartooniness taken to a jauntier and more confident level. And it was a more cheerful subject, so it was more befitting.

BROOM There’s no reason for this to necessarily be a more cheerful subject than Sleeping Beauty; it was just directed more cheerfully.

ADAM It was about dogs! Everyone loves puppies.

BROOM I felt like this movie made Lady and the Tramp feel like a warm-up. It sort of ate up Lady and the Tramp. What does Lady and the Tramp have going for it over this? This had more dogs and more events.

BETH It was surprising to me that they chose to do another dog movie so soon after Lady and the Tramp.

ADAM Lady and the Tramp must have been a hit.

BETH I guess so.

BROOM I liked seeing all the Lady and the Tramp characters in their brief cameos, but it also made the point to me that we don’t really want to see them more than that. What do they have to offer us?

ADAM I liked Peg!

BROOM Well, you’ll be happy to know she made it out of the pound and is now in a store window.

ADAM In England.

BETH Fifty years later.

ADAM I thought that the puppies were not all that well characterized. It got irritating when Rolly kept saying that he was hungry.


BROOM “One of them will be fat!”

ADAM My bias in coming to this is that I don’t remember having seen the movie as a kid more than once, if that, but I read the book about a dozen times. I loved the book.

BROOM I’ve never read it. What is it like? Is the plot like this?

ADAM The plot is the same but there’s more incident in the book. I seem to remember an incident where they stop and are fed by a kindly old man who feeds them buttered toast… but maybe that’s in “Lassie Come-Home.” I don’t know.

BROOM It seems like the idea here, at least in the movie, is that animals take care of animals.

ADAM Right. Well, that’s why I’m not sure. I have to check. Anyway, a couple more of the puppies have personalities. The puppy that gets nursed back to life is like albino, and it’s sort of weaker than the others, and I think it’s called either “Cad” or “Pig.” [ed. – Cadpig].

BROOM They didn’t follow through with that character in the movie. Just the event of its being nursed back to life after being pseudo-stillborn was strange.

ADAM It just sort of was there and they didn’t do anything with it.

BROOM Not even that it didn’t connect to the plot, but just the life-and-death stakes of it, when he’s rubbing it to see if it will live or not. There’s a lot on the line there, while the rest of the movie was very frothy.

ADAM Well, I mean, the puppies are about to be brutally murdered! They’re within seconds of being brutally murdered. It doesn’t feel quite as frightening as that, though. Also in the book, Cruella has a husband, and they get arrested at the end. Here there’s no reason to think that Cruella’s not going to come back and continue to menace them. In fact, she must hate them now that she’s the target of this popular ballad. And they buy Hell Hall at the end of the book, and paint it white, and it becomes their country home.

BETH That’s cool. I wish that had been in the movie.

BROOM You did like that book by Dodie Smith.

ADAM There’s another book by Dodie Smith?

BETH It’s called “I Capture the Castle,” and it’s just delightful. It’s about a poor family who happens to live in a rotting castle.

ADAM There’s another part at the end, where all the puppies come in, and they call up all of the hotels in London – the Savoy and the Ritz and everyone – and have them send over steaks. Much of my idea of what England was like came from this and Paddington Bear. Not very accurate. But this did have a lot more real London-iness than Peter Pan.


BROOM Absolutely. They mentioned all the locales and actually made it look like those places.

BETH They did. It looked like Regent’s Park.

BROOM Hampstead Heath you couldn’t really see. But Primrose Hill I recognized. I was struck by how television was a recurring theme here. It was sort of showing how Disney had embraced television.

BETH But it was also criticizing it.

BROOM I don’t know if it was. It had a relationship with television that was complicated. There was a whole scene of the family sitting around watching TV…

ADAM Which was pretty wholesome.

BROOM Yes, like that’s where the family comes together, that’s their hearth, and it was sincere about that.

ADAM But then Lucky almost loses his life to television addiction.

BROOM Well, television is what saves them too, because dopes watch television, and that’s how they have time to escape. Also, surely whatever show “Thunderbolt” was supposed to be, it was clearly a Disney-produced show. Essentially they were watching “Davy Crockett.” And I’ll repeat what I said, for two years from now, or whenever it is that we get to Bolt: Was that Bolt?? I mean, it was a TV show with a superhero dog called Thunderbolt. We’ll find out!

ADAM Do you think that the Colonel and the Sergeant were a gentle satire of British military pig-headedness in the First World War?

BROOM I don’t know if it was a satire; I think they were just pulling stock characters. The addled British officer…

ADAM And the clever staff sergeant? We’ll see that again in Dr. Strangelove.

BROOM Yes, exactly. That was the Peter Sellers character, right?

ADAM I’ve never seen it.

BROOM You’ve never seen Dr. Strangelove?


BROOM Well, yes, it was like that guy.

ADAM Beth, what was your favorite of the many lovely visuals?

BETH I’m not sure. What was yours? Let me think about it.

ADAM I think the way that they portrayed the city with line and patches of character that spilled over line was really lovely.

BETH I loved all of that. I guess my favorite was the city when they had the neon signs flashing. I kind of wish the “Kanine Krunchies” sign wasn’t in that.

BROOM It was part of the joke. I liked the “Kanine Krunchies” TV ad.

ADAM The dogs themselves, while perfectly adequately animated and pretty acute, were nothing magical. It was the backgrounds that I thought were really amazing. And Cruella herself.

BROOM I have to say that I thought that faces of the dogs and Roger and Anita – well, Anita wasn’t always dead-on, but Roger and Pongo and Perdita had expressive but convincing heads. The three dimensions of their heads were perfectly handled; you felt there was a solidity to them. Whereas Cruella de Vil, actually, I thought looked good as a still, but they didn’t really know how to manage her head in three dimensions quite as well. Her mouth would get a little crazy; she looked a little erratic, I thought.

ADAM But you kept getting distracted by the swishings of her coat.

BROOM Yes. Most of the animation on her was in her coat because her face wasn’t so expressive, I thought.

BETH When we first saw Anita, I thought, “they’ve done the perfect female face.” I thought she looked pretty, and smart, and looked like a real person. That was in that first scene. But then later, I thought, “Wait! She got less pretty somehow!”

ADAM The scene where he’s watching the animals and their matching humans go by was my favorite scene.

BETH Yeah, that’s great.

BROOM I thought the first half of the movie was a lot better than the second half.

BETH Once the people disappear…

ADAM It took a lot of effort to get them out and into Hell Hall. The chase really had no incident other than just stock chase stuff. Basically, when the other eighty-four dogs come on the scene, the animators seemed to get exhausted by that, and not a lot happened.

BROOM Yeah, I agree with that.

ADAM There wasn’t a lot of clever animation with the puppies. Either they all went in single file or they were all massed in clumps, but there wasn’t anything really clever with them.

BROOM Back to the design: I think this was a really impressive job of reinventing the Disney movie, the Disney animated look, for a new time.

ADAM Right. There’s no sense in which this is a gold-leafed book being opened.

BROOM They sort of took some steps in this direction with Sleeping Beauty, but it didn’t really mesh so well with the material.

BETH Here everything fit together.

BROOM They really hadn’t had a sense of matching their era since 1940, basically. Dumbo felt natural. The 50s had an in-between quality to them. Not that I didn’t really enjoy Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. But it felt now like obviously they had to reinvent their product, and they did, cleverly. And I think this is going to get them through…

ADAM What’s next?

BROOM The Sword in the Stone

BETH Which I love.

BROOM The Jungle Book, and then The Aristocats

ADAM I’ve never seen any of these.

BROOM … and then Robin Hood. And those are all in a pretty consistent style with each other.

ADAM The jaunty era.

BROOM Right! And I think Robin Hood is the last one that people really like in that style – well, I guess the Winnie the Pooh movie, too. And then you get into The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, and those movies are sort of the descendants of the style that we saw inaugurated here, but it doesn’t feel right anymore. It’s the late 70s and the early 80s and somehow that’s not quite right. And they didn’t find a new feel that suited its time until Little Mermaid. I think finding the tone and style for One Hundred and One Dalmatians took real inspiration, and I’ll bet when audiences went to see it they immediately identified it as right. I bet if Don Draper took his kids to see this, he would have thought it was great.

BETH You said that they needed to reinvent this style, but don’t you think that they were being influenced by other animation that wasn’t Disney animation?

BROOM Like UPA? Mr. Magoo and all that? Well, I’m sure they were. All the things here that we identified as very 60s, it’s not like they all originated in One Hundred and One Dalmatians. But I’m saying that “the Disney animated feature” was a branded product…

BETH You’re saying it took balls to go in that direction?

BROOM Not just balls – it’s not obvious how to apply these things. You can know what the elements are and still not know how to make them work for your product. Like now, I would argue.

ADAM I think Disney’s lost its way in the face of Pixar. They don’t have the confidence of just doing two-dimensional animation any more.

BETH They never seem confident. That’s true.

BROOM I think there’s a challenge in simply matching the times. There’s all this stuff out there; you could do any number of things that looked “2000s-y” and everyone would know that it was from the 2000s, but whether it felt like it made sense and worked and was satisfying, and at the same time was “a Disney animated feature” – that takes inspiration.

ADAM Right. You could go, like, Emperor’s New Groove “young adult sarcastic,” or you could go “futuristic technology / CGI,” or…

BROOM I gotta say, I thought The Emperor’s New Groove was pretty successful as what it was.

ADAM And Hercules was pretty much the same thing.

BETH I haven’t seen them.

ADAM I think you’ll like them a lot.

BROOM I don’t know. Hercules I think might in retrospect might seem a little shrill in a 1997 way.

ADAM So 1990s Disney movies all seem sort of shrilly moralizing, to me.

BROOM Whereas this had no moral content whatsoever.

ADAM Other than just, like, “don’t murder puppies to turn them into coats,” which is pretty straightforward. It was pro-puppies and pro-family.

BROOM It was pro-domestic cuteness. A particular kind of being cute with each other at home.

ADAM And it was anti- a sort of exaggerated, like… you sort of imagine that they went to Vassar together, in America.

BROOM Yeah, exactly. We’re always talking about “what does this movie say about how to be” – when Roger is singing the Cruella de Vil song to tease Anita about Cruella coming over, and then when she’s there he’s upstairs playing the trumpet at her – that was a kind of teasing based on a particular sense of the family unit. “There’s just us at home, and when that lady comes over that I hate, I’m going to tell you in code that I wish it was just us and our little unit.” It definitely had a different sense of interpersonal relations, based on the insular world of their home. When they had to go out into the world, it’s inherently an adventure. Though there are people who are nice to them.

ADAM Cruella is like a crazy rich women’s-libber woman gone mad.

BROOM I don’t think women’s lib has anything to do with it.

ADAM She’s not political, but…

BROOM I think she’s like Grey Gardens. I think she’s like a socialite who lost it and has no idea what to do with herself other than get crazier.

ADAM She’s a woman addled by too much money and too little anchoring responsibility, and, indeed, lack of children, and that allows her to become untethered from moral notions, which… is gendered, to some extent.

BROOM Oh, it’s gendered, but I don’t think it has to do with feminism at all.

ADAM Well, I don’t know. She’s like a 20s-style feminist; she smokes and she is sexually confident, you know.

BROOM Yeah, but I don’t think “feminist” is the right word for that.

BETH And she’s the boss of two men.

ADAM Right: two stupid men. And in the book she has a weak husband. Roger later explains that Cruella was strong and evil, and her husband was weak and evil. This is his explanation of why it’s just that they should both go to prison.

BROOM You see her bed and it’s clear that she’s one of these people who wants to think of herself as leading a luxurious, glamorous life.

BETH She looks like Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number.

ADAM Yeah, with the pink curlers and her wonderful phone.

BETH That phone is great.

BROOM I don’t think it has to do with her being an empowered person at all.

ADAM But there’s certainly an obsession in these last few Disney movies with “unbridled womanness.” That’s what Maleficent is, and that’s what Cruella is too.

BROOM I think she’s very similar to Maleficent.

ADAM Right; it’s when women go wild, you know. It’s not about politics.

BROOM I don’t think it’s about domestication versus wildness; I think these women are people who became delusional when they lost the milieu to which they want to belong. She wants to be at some party where everyone is swooning “Oh, Cruella!” – she wants to be among sassy sophisticates, but for some reason she has absolutely no community and is just clutching at things like furs that represent that world to her.

ADAM But the movie made fun of all kinds of women untethered from domestic life. Basically that whole parade of women at the beginning with their dogs. I understand why they all have to be women, because they have to be potential mates…

BROOM That’s also why they’re all single.

ADAM They’re all single and they’re all pathetic in their own way!

BROOM The painter lady was a caricature, but I don’t think she was supposed to be pathetic.

BETH I think she was.

ADAM She’s painting a landscape in a park! That’s ridiculous!

BROOM What’s ridiculous about that?

ADAM There’s this concept of Sunday painter ladies, which dates back to, like, the 1910s, as being a ridiculous image.

BETH And they made her very unattractive.

BROOM Well, that’s why he didn’t want to go with her! She was the wrong breed of dog.

ADAM Admittedly, he’s ridiculous too, but in a much more sympathetic way.

BROOM His wife is more sympathetic than he is.

ADAM That’s because she’s so submissive. She’s not submissive, but…

BETH She’s agreeable.

ADAM The scene of them bantering, where Cruella’s coming over and he’s teasing her – I thought that was a really nice image of what it’s like to be part of a couple. Moreso than most Disney movies, where the parents are just non-entities.

BROOM But that’s exactly what I was saying; it’s something modern. I don’t think the idea of being annoyed at your bantering couplehood being interrupted by company is one that had been celebrated this way for too long – but maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s in Trollope or something and I just haven’t read it. It seemed like a very contemporary ideal of what you get out of a relationship. Also, there’s just the blatant and obvious point being made by the movie, where it asks “what kind of person, i.e. what kind of dog, do we want to be?” You don’t want to be a little Scottie, and you don’t want to be big sheepdog, and you don’t want to be a poodle! Instead of saying that you want to be, say, Thunderbolt, this movie was endorsing a different attitude – not exactly “hipster,” but…

ADAM Definitely not hipster.

BROOM No, but it’s an idea that still appeals to people now, that you are going to be sleek and intelligent and attractive but you’re going to have spots, and that’s the ideal. I feel like the movie was saying, “let’s not want to be Golden Retriever people.” It was saying, “don’t we all really want to be Dalmatians?” An obscure, yet attractive breed. Let’s be interesting. You hear Pongo’s voice right at the top, urbanely saying, you know, “I used to live in this flat in London,” or when he says that thing about “we lived in a little place that was small but just right for couples starting out.” It felt like a cosmopolitan sort of fantasy – something close to what I think is still alive in Brooklyn as an ideal for how to live. And I don’t think that would have been saleable in a cartoon movie prior to 1961.

ADAM But in the end we will give that up, and move to East Hampton with our ninety-nine children.

BROOM I know, but it was a kind of comfortable pseudo-Bohemianism.

BETH It was. Because he was an artist trying to be commercial.

ADAM It’s like the happy version of Revolutionary Road.

BROOM But he was an artist only in his actual business; he was Bohemian in a way where you could still have all of the comforts of a really nice flat, and look good and not be weird in any way. He was an artist, a composer who nonetheless smoked a pipe and looked basically like a 50s dad.

ADAM Interestingly, in the book he’s not a songwriter; he did some kind of service for the government during the war and is living on a permanent pension, and they give him this flat as a reward for his wartime service.

BROOM That is interesting. When was the book written?

ADAM Don’t know.

BROOM The fact that the social stuff I’m talking about was added in the Disney rewrite just bears me out, because I’m saying it couldn’t have dated from much earlier.

BETH It also gives a reason for the Cruella de Vil song to exist. Which is very catchy.

BROOM I’m not sure it’s really a good enough reason, or a necessary one; they could just start singing it for no reason if they wanted. But it does add a lot of charm to the way the song fits into the movie.

BETH It makes it diegetic.

ADAM Good word.

BETH I wanted to say – maybe I’m harping on this too much, but going back to what I said about Anita looking so much different when we first were introduced to her. She’s wearing this – while not fancy like the poodle lady – very fancy, expensive outfit, and seems to have a career and a life. And then she just became the domesticated, kind of frumpy version of herself.

BROOM I don’t think she was frumpy.

BETH Not frumpy, but she suddenly wore an apron all the time.

BROOM Housewife-y.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM I thought she still looked good. But she looked more glamorous in the park, certainly.

ADAM [reading from Wikipedia]: “Mr. Dearly is a financial wizard who has been granted exemption from income tax for life, and has been granted a house in the outer circle of Regent’s Park as a favor for wiping out the government’s national debt.” Sorry, I got that wrong. The book is 1956.

BROOM Of no interest to American audiences at the time. Oh, so it was quite a recent book.

ADAM Also, I had forgotten about this, but Pongo’s wife is named Missis, and Perdita is another lost dalmatian whom they recruit as a wet-nurse for the puppies.

BROOM Yeah. It makes no sense for her to be called Perdita here. I remember thinking that “Perdita” must just be a regular name, and not until I read “The Winter’s Tale” did I put it together that it means “lost” and nobody would want that name.

ADAM [reads more from the book’s Wikipedia article…] So that would explain why “one hundred and one” is more than just a jaunty number. They’re a flat one hundred, and then there’s a surprise Dalmatian at the end.

BROOM It is a jaunty number, though. So how about those opening credits, showing all the different departments with a related visual. Is that a first? That’s something that happens all the time nowadays. I guess we’re just watching Disney cartoons, and all this stuff is also going on in every other movie, but at least in our little survey, it felt like a delightful first.

BETH Yeah, it was satisfying.

ADAM I liked her “C. D.” hubcaps.

BETH That car was pretty funny.

BROOM That reminds me; there were some unusual special effects. When the car ran into the snow, it was pretty clearly drawn over film of real snow, but so was the car itself, I think. The way it was manipulated in three dimensions, I think they must have had a model car that they filmed.

BETH Maybe.

BROOM There were several three-dimensional things that they moved so perfectly, and that’s the kind of thing that in the past has always been clunky. It’s very hard to do. I think they filmed more things, and a couple times with the people, Roger especially, it seemed very clearly to be based on film footage.

[At this point the program recording us froze, unbeknownst to us, and we didn’t realize it until after reading the New York Times review and returning. But I think we were pretty much done at this point. If the participants have anything they’d like to add or reconstruct, please do so in the comments. Thank you.]