There it was on the TV screen, the commercial for the Super Platinum Deluxe Extra-Special-with-Whipped-Cream 2-disc DVD version of The Little Mermaid, now “restored” to its original splendor. The marketers at Disney, always wanting to help out the benighted public with a visual aid, even showed a few seconds of the old, un-restored version, in which Ariel’s hair was no longer the attention-grabbing flame red that sets her apart from the other sea folk but a nearly brown brick red. This was, helpfully, placed side-by-side with the “restored” scene, which brought back the fire-engine red hair and brilliant blue of the sky and the deep green of the sea.
Now anyone with half a brain has learned to be suspicious of the gimmicks companies use to get people to buy a new version of something they already own in another format. On CDs, it’s bonus tracks; for DVDs, it’s “making-of” featurettes and commentaries from the director, the actors, the screenwriter, film scholars, and the janitor who swept up at the studio the day they were making that crucial scene in the attic. And there are certainly films that legitimately need restoration. The old film studios didn’t really bother with maintaining the quality of their master film negatives, because they were always busy making new films. These studios’ subsequent dissolution put many films, classic and not so, in even more jeopardy from the ravages of time. It took the corporatization and globalization of the entertainment industry, as well as the lucrative possibility of re-selling old films in new formats, to push restoration beyond the province of a few dedicated film scholars. Where there’s a (dollar) bill, there’s a way.
But this particular commercial caused a different reaction than “Look what they’ll do to make a buck.” Watching it, my boyfriend Noel turned to me and said “How could The Little Mermaid need restoring? Didn’t that only come out a couple of years ago?” I smirked in that way I have when I’m correcting someone as I informed him it had come out nearly 15 years ago, in 1992 or 1993. Then, having inadvertently freaked myself out by the sudden passage of time, I checked my Leonard Maltin film guide and found out that Ariel, Sebastian and the evil octopus witch lady actually first appeared on movie screens in 1989.
Seventeen years ago.
Seventeen years ago, when the Bush in the White House wasn’t an arrogant, messianic crackpot surrounded by murderous yet incompetent thugs. (I take back almost every bad thing I ever said about Papa Bush; we didn’t know how good we had it then.) Or to get even more depressed, a significant percentage of babies born the year this film came out are having sex with each other RIGHT NOW. (Parents, close your eyes and reach for your medication.)
Yes, it’s true that time seems to be zooming by more quickly; the cold hands of time don’t creep so much as gallop. My friend Rick’s theory is that each passing year represents a smaller percentage of the life one has lived. So the agonizing slowness of the journey from four years old to five years old can be explained by the fact that this new year represents 25% of one’s life experience. From 20 to 21, that’s down to 5% of the total, and so on. Unless things slow down later on, my retirement will go by like the Road Runner zooming past a Southwestern mesa.
I can partially excuse our confusion with the fact that Mermaid was the first film of the Disney animation renaissance that eventually brought us Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, so it’s related in my mind with these later releases. Mermaid was the first evidence that Disney under Michael Eisner could focus on compelling stories and offer the kind of comedy that adults weren’t ashamed to laugh at, while not stinting on the luscious visuals that the company had always been known for. They hired fresh, clever songwriters (Howard Ashman and Alan Menken for Mermaid) and recruited identifiable actors for voice talent rather than the mostly nameless voices behind the classic Disney animated films. So in Mermaid there was Pat Carroll as the deliciously evil Ursula (that was her name!), her character looking like a waterlogged drag queen and somehow even more terrifying because of it.
The Lion King lassoed Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella from Broadway, with their meerkat and warthog as Abbott and Costello (or maybe George and Gracie). There was Robin Williams, finally finding a role that could channel his mile-a-minute patter and rapidly firing neurons as the genie in Aladdin. As Bruce Willis proved in the first Look Who’s Talking, Williams is much less annoying when he’s only a voice on screen. Even the unrecognizable voices were a pleasant surprise: the gruff, scary Beast in Beauty and… was voiced by skinny, boyish Robby Benson, the only guy who could make Shaun Cassidy look macho by comparison.
But I digress. The “need” to restore The Little Mermaid made me wonder how kids and young adults perceive the films — and really all the arts — of the past. For the newest crop of viewers, I wonder if everything is shoveled into a pile marked “old stuff.” Do they make a distinction between Disney’s 1937 Snow White and Mermaid, or are they both just movies on a DVD? Is everything shown on Turner Classic Movies by definition “old,” whether it’s black-and-white or in color, or it was made by George Cukor or George Lucas? Do they have a mental timeline that puts cave paintings in France at one end and Andy Warhol nearer to the present, or is it all blendered together?
I wouldn’t blame kids for being confused. In terms of film and TV, the old stuff has never been more readily available. You can switch from watching Barbara Stanwyck in some forgotten melodrama on TCM to the Encore Westerns channel, where, on the 1960s TV show “The Big Valley,” she plays Victoria Barkley — mother to future “Dynasty” star Linda Evans, future $6 Million Man Lee Majors and future Professor on “Nanny and the Professor” Richard Long. To keep themselves current, Nick at Nite and TV Land have to keep adding more recent sitcoms to their stock of 1950s and 60s shows (really, how can there be room on the schedule for “Three’s Company” but not “Bewitched”?). What decade are we in again?
I know that I’m being somewhat nostalgic — and I also know that nostalgia can be a cheap, easy-to-manufacture emotion. But our cultural artifacts are one of the many intersecting points that history makes in our lives, and I think we risk something by seeming to have an agglomerated, undifferentiated cultural past. It’s dangerous in history, where those who don’t know it are being condemned to repeat it (with Henry “Rasputin” Kissinger whispering in our leaders’ ears again — talk about your scary 1970s artifacts).
In our cultural life, I believe it can lead to a type of confusion that can easily become arrogance about the superiority of our current cultural products. If you can’t see what led to what, and who was influenced by whom, it devalues the efforts of those who have gone before. If we can’t perceive our cultural artifacts as part of an overlapping series of traditions, we risk thinking that only what’s created now, in our lifetimes, is important and relevant.
The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s wonderful play that recently completed a Broadway run and has been made into a feature film scheduled for release this year, tackles some of the ways history becomes devalued when it’s turned into mere stories. The characters wrestle with ways that perception can reshape our view of events in the past, and presumably our actions in the future.
Not that there is, or should be, one received, official history, with no questions allowed. History is written by the victors, so it’s a necessary corrective for the losers and left-behinds to question the official version of events. Nor would I be foolish or arrogant enough to believe that any of us has a lock on which cultural products are truly “important” or have “lasting value.” But at the intersection of art, commerce and memory that movies often occupy, maybe a little nostalgia isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe what needs restoring is our sense that the stories we tell ourselves are more than just a commodity, that they can make a difference in who we are and how we live.