Cinematic Identities...         SNOW WHITE

Film and mythourgy:
Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The term I am proposing to read Ancient mythology is mythourgy. I will try to argument the introduction and the use of such a term.

"Babbo, sei un mito"
Laura

I found the above text on the information board of a small church outside the city of San Severino in Marche, Italy, in September 2009: a daughter posted her own announcement of the death of her father. It is not only the information about the event including the admiration for a deceased parent: the text also contains some basic notions about mythology and its functioning. Personal memories which could prove that the deceased has reached a mythological status are omitted, and only the fact that this mythified person is dead guarantees his mythification. The death emerges as a basic and minimal condition for entering a myth. Nothing surprising, just a good reminder of the anthropological content of any mythology. In a superficially secured consumerist society, it is necessary to add the meaning of self-inventing "mythologies" defined by Roland Barthes1. This addition links mythology as an important contemporary anthropological procedure to the meaning of mythology as an ill-defined procedure of the past, belonging solely to high culture protocols. The mid-term, uniting both meanings of myth-making, would be simply to find/invent a decent Greek term which would replace the awkward myth-making, and that is mythourgy. Making a term by grecising may be nearing banal: but it does open a new semantic field, in which myth in the scientific lingo and the everyday uses can intersect. Mythourgy denotes certain abritrary handling of things mythified, collage as the main method of making myths, fragmentary ideological and cultural patterns included into a myth: most of this was detected long ago, in the study of techniques of the Balkan singers of tales2. However, the prosodic patterns are not there to help memorizing and the use of formulae: mythourgy relates to a large choice of utterances, speech styles, discourses. The use of the term is justified also by the absence of norm: ex tempore, improvised, bricolagecan describe the processes by which myths are made. This also means a rather loose temporality, or historicity, in which archic elements and randomly chosen naratives can be – or may seem – appropriate to intervene in the modern scientific discourse of popularization as well as in the bureaucratic "dialects".

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Thinking film history inevitably raises the problem of women's history3 in a completely different ways than in the case of any other art history: the same mapping of problems appears – for instance, women as authors and women as motives, but the narrative structuring is quite different. Film is a part of women's history for over a century, and it has been producing ideas on women's history in a way other arts could not approach at all. The present article tries to search in this direction – not only to detect patterns of thinking about women and to deduce the remnants of narratives (mythical, ritual, Ancient), but also to establish some immanent epistemological frameworks which were "responsible" for such thinking. The model is taken from historical anthropology, especially the French school of anthropology of Ancient worlds, in which interpretation of images is always argumented within the context of words (texts, names, terms) and most often through semiotic analyseis. Interpreting gender in films with the help of an operational and well established type of methodology originating from Ancient Studies should be a good starting position for the topic of this collection, which unites Antiquity, gender and film. In this sense, a cartoon (Snow White) is not a part of comparison between the two chosen films, but an example that serves as a primary model of interpretation. Most of interpretations that I rely on as epistemological models4 are based on the Greek painted vases, which belong both to contexts of the official use (rituals, sacred spaces and occasions) and to contexts of everyday life (symposion, home ware). These interpretations clearly show a specific semiotic world in which meanings of words and images are quite different from the stereotypical vision of Antiquity: they incite the reflection about diversities of everyday life in any other given historical context, and open possibilities to pass over the limits of convened academic knowledge and to challenge some academics' deep conviction that they can understand the other cultures within a universalizing framework - which is always Euro-centric. Most of all, interpretations of behavior at symposia (images and texts), give an insight into what could be a model of the popular culture in different historical and cultural contexts. The worldwide reception of Disney's Snow White, with all its specificities5, is a good example, which on one side excitingly refreshes the old ethnographic debates on polygenesis and paligenesis, and on the other confirms the power of global media and their role in mixing narratives and images. More importantly, Snow White is bi-dimensional but not illusionist as the film, detached from reality by a clearly posited codification:

"The frame, the shot, the scene, and the sequence that articulate cinematic images by virtue of their composition–characters and actions are highlighted and thus valued by their on screen prominence and positioning.

 Snow White 1

Animation has considerably more representational latitude than non-animated film: image, size, movement, color, lighting, and continuity are easily altered with the stroke of a pen or key.6"

We cannot but admire the terminological bias here: cartoon is "animated", film is "non-animated", while semantically it should be the other way around. "Cinematic images", if they were written more exactly – kinematic images , would help to "semanticize" the movement, not the historical context of the term "cinema". The "easy alteration" underlined by the author, however, points to a very crucial specificity of the cartoon: even if the drawing is repeated so many times, it is still under the total control of the human, and the movement can be represented even without any modern technical assistance (camera, props, projection). Laterna magica and shadow theatre, among other devices, witness of a long tradition of presenting moving/visual/acoustic narratives. All this leads to the most important element of kinematic images7, and that is the participation/intervention of the onlooker. Here I conscientiously go around the theorizing of the gaze, as I am interested in the question which historical anthropological records are there of the participating/intervening gaze (regard intervenant). The difference between a painted vase manipulated by the guests at an Ancient symposion, each of them re-telling a story or contextualizing it in his own way, and a cartoon shown in theaters before a group of people which barely socialize during the show and are unable to intervene or change the narrative, is so great that it does not allow for easy parallels.The frustration before images that demand only emotional reaction and impend the onlooker's intervention and participation in the story-making are sometimes registered in popular culture. Maybe the best example of such desire of intervention is the cult TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, often abbreviated as MST3K8. It is a story about a man and his two robot sidekicks, all trapped on a space station by an evil scientist and forced to watch a selection of bad movies, mostly SF and action movies. The heroes endure the torture by ridiculing movies as they are watching them ("riffing" as a behavior in movie-theaters). They are represented as silhouettes sitting in the rows "before" a TV onlooker during the whole projection: B-rated movies are shown in full length. A discrete visual and a more elaborated and powerful acoustic presence of the regard intervenant (which can be generally located on the screen but never met) "rules" the projection and the TV onlooker, who is deprived of his/her implemented (and in fact false) power: only if he/she takes the position of a double of the critical wit, the superior judge of the worst of the popular culture (as represented by the heroes), including its production modes and distribution of power, can the onlooker identify with the heroes and share the pleasure/salvation. Most of the public are seriously deprived of critical reading of the popular culture, so this complicated and rather fuzzy way of pointing to the problem is understandable. Furthermore, a sharp distinction between the cartoon and the film is now almost historical: 3D and other technologies are working hard to erase the distinction, and looking at the backs of some critical elite, learning from them or aspiring to become them is much harder to imagine than a decade ago. But if Snow White and Mystery Science Theater 3000 are archaeology, belonging to the past of the popular culture, then many of the parallels between the popular cultures in different historical contexts might appear more plausible. Disney's Snow White DVD is a piece of popular culture present in a huge number of comparatively richer homes with children all over the world, with endless possibilities of interpretations. On the other hand, it has been a topic of research, both as an international fairy tale (popular text) and as a cartoon9. The status of the cartoon and the status of a painted vase which are manipulated for fun, entertainment, communication, social and cultural confirmation or cultural intimacy10 do show some similarity, which can be identified as a desire to intervene/participate in the narrative, indicated by images and sounds, but not strictly determined and loosely codified.  »

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1 Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, Seuil, Paris, 1957.
2 V. Lord, Albert, The Singer of Tales, Cambridge MA, 1960.
3 Since gender history is primarily occupied with history of women at the time/space in which men were holding key positions in the making of history and its narratives, the relation of terms "gender" and "women" shifts in this context toward more logical and less politically correct use. V. Green, A., Troup, K. eds., The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, 1999, Manchester University Press
4 Lissarrague, François, Un flot d'images. Une esthétique du banquet grec, Adam Bire, 1987, Paris;Lissarrague, François, Vases grecs, Les Athéniens et leurs images, 1999, Hazan, Paris; Veyne, Paul, Lissarrague, François, Frontisi-Ducroux, Françoise, Les mystères du gynecée, Gallimard, 1998, Paris
5 See Smoodin, Eric, ed., Disney Discourse. Producing The Magic Kingdom, Routledge, 1994
6 Arzt, Lee, "Animating Hierarchy: Disney and the Globalization of Capitalism", Global Media Journal, Purdue University, Calumet, Volume 1, Issue 1, Fall 2002
7 For instance, kinesitherapy, kinesthetic; just like cinematography (cinema), all originate from the Greek kinoumai/kinesis/kinema, but graphems and consequently pronunciations are different.
8 US TV comedy series created by Joel Hodgson, 1988-1999.
9 Fetscher, Iring, Wer hat Dornröschen wachgeküßt? Das Märchen-Verwirrbuch. Düsseldorf, Claassen, 1972: this very popular work exemplifies, in a most entertaining way, philosophical schools interpreting fairytales, among them Snow White. See also Steinke, Jocelyn, "Cultural Representations of Gender and Science: Portrayals of Female Scientists and Engineers in Popular Films", Science Communication 27, 27-63, Sepember 2005; Henke, J. B., "Climbing the "Great Wall" of feminism", Paper presented at the Rethinking Disney: Private Control and Public Dimensions Conference. Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Henke, November 2000; Henke, J. B., Zimmerman Umble, D., & Smith, N.J., "Construction of the female self: Feminist readings of the Disney heroine. Women's Studies in Communication", 19, 229-49, 1996; Hoerner, K. L.,"Gender roles in Disney films: Analyzing behaviors from Snow White to Simba", Women's Studies in Communication, 19, 213-28, 1996.
10 Term invented by Mark Herzfeld, in his Cultural intimacy.Social Poetics in the Nation-State, Routledge, 1996.

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