The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Despot’s Progress”

I’m still looking for collaborations to write about, so poetry filmmakers and videopoets: please send me links to your work! Today’s collaboration involved two different filmmakers’ responses to the same poem. First, propaganda cartoons (thank you Walt Disney) compiled by Othniel Smith make a stirring backdrop for Robert Peake‘s poem “Despot’s Progress.”

I would like to begin with a bit of history. Walt Disney was pro-American and produced a number of propaganda animations depicting Hitler and the Nazi party as buffoons. Unfortunately his patriotism irrationally carried over into the 1960s. This resulted in not allowing people to enter Disneyland if their hair was too long. (This was sparked by protests against the Vietnam War that I believe he felt were anti-American.) If memory serves me correctly, Disney enforced a rule limiting the length a man’s hair could to be in order to enter the theme park. Call it discrimination, but it’s an interesting example of what the times were like, and I believe makes the interplay of audio and visuals here even more poignant. Since Disney was calling the shots, does that mean he was right in inflicting this regulation on his clientele? If he had prejudice against hippies with long hair, I wonder who else he didn’t like?

I happen to love cartoons, especially old Disney and Warner Brothers. This blended with Peake’s poetry makes a brilliantly chilling observation of injustice and intolerance. The poem speaks sarcastically of totalitarianism as something we must adhere to. Images of Donald Duck saluting and trying to conform “comically” support this theory, but as you can see it is not funny. The cartoons just make it palatable and easy to swallow. This piece points us in the direction of taking an otherwise unrealistic depiction (the actual animation) to reveal the nightmare that eventually came to fruition. I think the question that should be asked is, when it comes to being prejudiced, what is the real difference between Disney and Hitler? I suppose we can say it was six million Jews, but what about the haircut? The atrocities committed by Hitler were undeniably more severe than Disney’s point of view and perhaps I should not compare the two, but let’s not dismiss the last section of the cartoon, when the baby duck bursts out of the egg saluting “Sieg Heil!” To me that’s where it actually begins.

No matter what kind of discipline you practice, art is a very powerful medium. This couldn’t be more relevant to what happened at Charlie Hebdo last week. Je Suis Charlie!

Music/concept/editing by Swoon; footage: coxyde 1951 AB (IICADOM 903 at the Internet Archive).

Then we have Mark Neys A.K.A. Swoon‘s interpretation, which is equally chilling. The use of vintage footage puts me on the edge of my seat. The music gets under my skin and I can’t help but feel this is the second before a disaster is about to occur. I find in Swoon’s piece the end is very different. There is no baby Hitler being born, just anticipation. What is next? And is there a next? Perhaps a bomb will drop or a tsunami will wash away the mother and child, leaving us with basically the same outcome. The world has changed and continues to change.

See also Robert Peake’s blog post, “Two Views of ‘Despot’s Progress’ (Film-Poems).”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Cheryl Gross (website, blog) is an illustrator, painter, writer, and motion graphic artist living and working in the New York/Jersey City area. She is a professor at Pratt Institute (where she received her MFA) and Bloomfield College.

Her work has appeared in numerous festivals and publications as well as gracing the walls of many galleries, corporate and museum collections.

“I equate my work with creating and building an environment, transforming my inner thoughts into reality. Beginning with the physical process, I work in layers. I am involved in solving visual and verbal complexities such as design and narrative. My urban influence has indeed added an ‘edge’ to my work.”

Cheryl has often been compared to “Dr. Seuss on crack.”

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