115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“Mutability Is… Natural”: Disney, Eisenstein, and Transcendent Form

Dustin Condren, Stanford University

In the early 1940s, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, a long-time admirer of Walt Disney, devoted a book-length theoretical essay to Disney’s work. This paper employs the essay alongside archival documents to follow the visual traces of Disney’s style in the pre-production material for a series of never-completed Eisenstein films.


In 1930, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was photographed with his arm around Walt Disney, the two of them standing in front of Disney’s Los Angeles studio beside a model of Mickey Mouse. Even at this early stage of Disney’s career, Eisenstein was already devoted to the American’s works. He admired the fluidity and “plasmatic” quality that defined early monochrome pictures like Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance. Eisenstein saw in these films not only a universal visual language capable of transcending political ideology but also a key to understanding what he called “art’s primal origins,” something that could access the deepest levels of the human psyche.

The meeting with Disney was immensely significant for Eisenstein, who was at the beginning of one of the most creatively productive but professionally tortuous periods of his life. Despite developing material for several promising film projects in both North America and the USSR, Eisenstein did not complete a single film in the decade between 1929’s The Old and the New and 1938’s Alexander Nevsky. The volumes of pre-production materials produced during this period—texts, drawings, and camera setups for projects like The Glass HouseMMM, and ¡Que viva Mexico!—are a significant document of the filmmaker’s restless visual urge.  Moreover, they suggest the influence of early Disney, revealing a commonality of technique that goes beyond simple admiration.

Later, in the early 1940s, Eisenstein made this connection explicit in a long essay on Disney that distilled his ideas about the protean visual energy of both the early shorts and of subsequent feature-length films like Snow White and Fantasia. As recent republications of this work in Russian and new translations into French, German, and English have shown, Eisenstein’s reading of Disney’s pictorial aesthetics continues to be a valuable resource to contemporary discussions of visual culture and media history.

This paper arises from recent research in Eisenstein’s archives and examines the filmmaker’s basic creative impulse during a time when his vision remained almost entirely on paper; it makes broad use of the Disney essay to inquire how these Eisenstein production materials reflect his conception of Disney’s expressive technique. The paper will examine the artistic pedigree that Eisenstein assigns to Disney—a heritage tracing from Hogarth to Utagawa to Daumier—and apply it to the Soviet filmmaker’s method of image generation in his sketches for scenes, characters, and costumes. Having established these formal connections, the paper asks how Eisenstein imagined the boundless plasmatic surge of these sketches might translate to similarly affective film frames.  And finally, the paper asks: could there really exist a shared, arguably universal language, between the work of the popular animator, whose name would soon become a hallmark of American capitalist culture, and that of the avant-garde, revolutionary filmmaker?