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Review: Amy M. Davis’s Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Men in Disney’s Feature Animation

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Review: Amy M. Davis’s Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Men in Disney’s Feature Animation
Review: Amy M. Davis’s Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains: Men in Disney’s Feature Animation

Released in 2006, Amy M. Davis’s Good Girls and Wicked Witches is a theoretically light, often unconvincing examination of Disney’s depiction of femininity in animated features over the course of the 20th century, specifically as related to similar depictions in live-action films, such as 1991’s Thelma & Louise. The situating of Disney’s femininity within a larger Hollywood schema ultimately leads Davis to the conclusion that “the Disney studio has presented an image of women—and femininity—which, although not perfect, is largely positive in its overall make-up,” a conclusion (and apologia) that remains problematic, not least for its by-proxy estimation that Hollywood cinema’s depiction of femininity over the course of the 20th century is “largely positive.”

These hollow sorts of claims return again in Davis’s new book—a sequel, if you will—entitled Handsome Heroes and Vile Villains, which takes as its subject the male figures in Disney’s animated feature films. As it turns out, Davis displays no more aptitude for positioning these depictions in a suitable socio-historical context, eschewing research-based examinations for apologia redux, ultimately ending the book by stating: “Though Disney films are not perfect by any means, their track record for showing balanced representations of gender roles is improving, little by little.” Such conclusory remarks would merely be weak rather than baffling had they not been preceded by Davis’s accusatory comments that “Disney’s enormous familiarity, combined with the popularity of iconoclasm generally, makes Disney the perfect focus for those with time on their hands and an axe to grind.” Davis’s evidence of “those” people amounts to a single YouTube video from 2007, with nary a single academic (or even popular critical) work as the object of her scorn.

Review: Noah Isenberg’s Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

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Review: Noah Isenberg’s Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins
Review: Noah Isenberg’s Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins

Edgar G. Ulmer may have been a filmmaker at the margins, but Noah Isenberg’s new book is completely within the bounds of normative critical biography, constructed as a narrative that diligently marches through the outré director’s life and career with an eye toward chronological and historical enlightenment, but lacks additional engagements to elevate the work above these modest achievements.

Isenberg begins with an all-too-brief framework for establishing what’s at stake in a re-evaluation of Ulmer. Devoting not even two full pages to Ulmer’s status as a cinéaste maudit among those writing for Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s, Isenberg quickly moves toward biographical reconstruction of Ulmer’s childhood years in Vienna. Thus, Isenberg’s early mention of Manny Farber’s “termite art” in relation to Ulmer is less provided as a framework and more a passing reference that gains little traction throughout the remainder of the book.

In concerning himself more with facts than historiographic elucidation, Isenberg embraces the biographic over the critical dimensions entailed in his chosen methodological approach. With regard to facts, Isenberg’s study is overflowing, with hundreds of sources used to cull together a detailed timeline of Ulmer’s professional life, with sporadic attention paid to his private—a wise move for Isenberg, since the inclination to explain Ulmer’s films as expressive of his émigré roots is carefully articulated, especially in regard to the filmmaker’s 1933 film Damaged Lives, which, while outwardly concerned with a man who contracts syphilis while cheating on his wife, expresses the “social ostracism” Ulmer often expressed himself.