Friday, January 12, 2007

Towards a Classification of Fairy Tale Film: Part 1

In “Breaking the Disney Spell”, Zipes comments that “worship of the fairy tale as holy scripture is a petrification of the fairy tale” (qtd. in Tatar 337), and decries Disney’s film versions of fairy tales, making the “assumption…that since filmmaking is a highly technical occupation, one [that] results in a fixed text, the ‘folk’ don’t have a chance to influence it” (Jackson 388). In the introduction to Spells of Enchantment Zipes states that, “the fairy-tale film silenced the personal and communal voice of the oral magic tales and obfuscated the personal voice of literary fairy-tale narratives” (6). Further pursuit of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” might have allowed for how Benjamin perceived audiences’ communal viewing experience would bring about a democratization of art (234-5). Sylvia Grider observed that media characters have been appropriated by their child audiences, who “frequently reiterate plot narratives from their favorite television shows and movies” fashioning them into “highly complex and original storytellings” which she called “media narraforms” (Koven 178).

In addition to the narratives of playtime, the advent of the deluge of amateur film critics on the Internet, adds another level of participation, one that echoes the “subversive features” of the oral tradition where “social behavior [cannot] be totally dictated, prescribed and controlled” (Zipes qtd. in Tatar 336). As Ben Affleck’s character in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back comments, “The internet is a communications tool, used the world over where people can come together to bitch about movies”. This crass description of the internet succinctly shows how fan culture internet chatrooms are also ‘playrooms’ wherein narraforms are constantly being constructed, so that film becomes closer to oral tradition than literary. Modern audience members are considered as active contributors to creation of popular culture, thereby being “much more comparable with folk ‘audiences’” (Koven 188).

The postmodern mindset rejects the concept of metanarrative, so even the fixed medium of film finds fluidity in the oral milieu where opinion holds the power to alter the meaning of each retelling, finding a place for “disparate interrogations of the metanarratives of culture” (Stephens & McCallum 201) wherein we understand that “the Disney text would be considered but one text among countless other variants” (Koven 177), effectively making the audience “the new folklorists, the new Grimms, charged with again retelling an old tale in new clothes” (Gruner 153).

Zipes readily admits this in his own fashion, saying that “the fairy tale as institution cannot be defined one-dimensionally”, that is to say, defined by Disney or any other mass media approach more concerned with happy endings than subversive potentials (Spells of Enchantment xxix). Nevertheless, if the “readers, viewers and writers of fairy tales constitute its broadest meaning” (xxix) then mass media’s democratization of art combined with the large scale forum of the internet and the postmodern disregard for metanarrative could conceivably bring about a vastly broad and yet still distinct understanding of what constitutes fairy tale film. As David Riesman observed, “people do not attend to the media as isolated atoms, but as members of groups which select among the media and interpret their messages” (in Koven 187).

It is precisely because of this highly interpretive postmodern landscape that steps should be taken to classify what constitutes a fairy tale film for the academic discourse. Jonathan Smith observed that the problem for religious studies was not that “religion cannot be defined, but that it can be defined, with greater or lesser success, more than fifty ways” (193). The same applies to literary studies, where Aarne and Thompson’s classification system or Propp’s Dramatis Personae could allow nearly any narrative to be a fairy tale. Further confounding the issue is the ambiguous overlap between fantasy and fairy tale, wherein “the concepts overlap and are used interchangeably” (Nikolejeva: 138). While it would be presumptuous to state that the following will form a definitive classification of fairy tale film, “some basic generic distinction is desirable for theoretical consideration” (138). To that end, we turn to the five elements I propose for classifying a film as fairy tale.

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