Saturday, September 28, 2013

two museums

Today was Smithsonian Museum Day (and it probably still is, if you want to bestir yourself and go somewhere). So we collected our free ticket and went downtown to the San Jose Museum of Art. The current exhibits were worth the ticket price.

I liked best the video installation of a long series of shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, mostly from sea level and mostly in the fog. Very restful, and accompanied by recorded ambient music that sounded like a collaboration between Stephen Scott and Ingram Marshall, but wasn't.

The strangest exhibit was an entire hall taken up with thousands of photographs of roti, Indian round flatbread, cut into shapes representing the phases of the moon, grouped in frames by months. It looked like this. The artist, who is from India - thus, I guess, the roti - decided in this way to represent the span of his late father's life. What (I thought) a gigantic waste of time. But, it turned out, not the waste of the opportunity to give an astronomy lesson. "There's 22,000 moons," said a handy docent to me, brightly. "You mean individual days, right?" I said. "Not 'moons' as in lunar cycles," pointing to two consecutive full moons on the wall, "because there wouldn't be that many." She looked doubtful. "Well, the father lived 62 years," as if that were the number of lunar cycles. "But a year is a solar cycle, not a lunar cycle," I said, and suddenly I was off into a lesson in calendrical astronomy, with lots of hand gestures, about lunar phases and tidal lock and answering her questions whether everybody on Earth can see the Moon at the same time (no) and whether the moon shows the same face and phase at one time to everyone who can see it (yes) and she was just fascinated that I knew all this stuff and I was thinking it would be good for a docent at a display of moon phase photographs to know it too, and then she asked how old I was when I learned all this. I said maybe eight. "And you still remember it? I sure didn't go to a good school." But I said I didn't learn this at school. I learned it from reading books by Isaac Asimov.

One museum I've wanted to get to for a long time that wasn't on the Smithsonian list was the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco. So I bit the bullet and went there on Thursday before a concert. Let me tell you, this is some detailed museum, at a level I thought they didn't make any more in these dumbed-down days. Its subject is the life of Walt, and walking through it is like reading a richly-illustrated pictorial biography, with audio and video supplements. Even without taking everything in, I was there for over three hours.

Though the museum reminds you that it's a project of the Disney family and has nothing to do with the company, it has a lot of stuff that could only have come from the company or with its permission: original drawings by many staff artists, video clips, one of the original multiplane cameras, a huge - maybe 15 feet across - scale model of Disneyland, as far as I could tell as it was a few years after Walt's death. The weight of the company becomes particularly apparent when you get to the post-WW2 period, when Walt ceased being merely a successful entertainment executive and became a media mogul. Though he still inspired and oversaw everything, with a few exceptions the company products ceased being his personal projects in the way the early cartoons had been, and his life split into two parts: the company, and the private hobbies (he collected miniatures and ran a large toy-sized train, big enough to sit on, through his front yard) and vacations he took to get a break from the office.

There's some things the museum doesn't tell you, like when was the last time Walt picked up a brush and animated something himself. My guess from the evidence is, sometime not long before 1930. But it does tell a lot. You can hear the crossness in a recording of his voice as he tells of how his brother Roy, who ran the financial side, made him show the unfinished Snow White to a banker who might lend them the money to finish it - Walt hated letting outsiders see unfinished work - and how Roy contrived not even to show up for the screening. And then, way down the exhibits, the chortle as he tells of making Mary Poppins, 25 years later, with greater financial ease than any of their earlier big pictures, "and Roy didn't even make me show it to any bankers."

It also discusses the 1941 strike. This is unusual. Most material I'd previously seen on the strike takes the viewpoint of "Strikers: Good. Management: Bad." while previous Disney hagiographies have ignored its existence. But this shows both the anti-Disney view, including discussing the firing of Art Babbitt and showing some of the angry cartoons the strikers drew, and Walt's view, which he presented in a HUAC hearing a few years later. Basically Walt opposed unionization because he felt the union had been taken over by the Commies. The only really chilling item in the whole museum was at the end in someone's obituary for Walt, mentioning casually that he supported Republicans like George Murphy and Ronald Reagan because he believed the Democrats had been co-opted by the Communists.

But, though it's possible to read between the lines here and there, the tale is mostly celebratory and sympathetic. To read the museum's account, the 1920s in Disney's career consisted of Walt and Roy repeatedly dreaming up things that were good and real and true, and then evil bankers and distributors and middlemen would steal away their money, their ideas, their cartoon characters, and their animators. On the personal side, there are a lot of home movies from this period, but they're interesting because they're of this period. Disney was a pioneering moviemaker; he had film cameras at his disposal. (Many of his 1920s movies were mixed animation/live action.) Very few other people were taking home movies as early as he was; even fewer were taking color ones as early as he was.

Fascinating place; I'd recommend it.

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