My stories 3: Fear the faux friend

One of my more humorous experiences with authenticity came when I was at the Disney studios in Burbank to interview Michael Eisner for Denison University. I had a couple of hours before the interview to kill so naturally I joined Michael’s entourage, as they ponderously moved from setup to setup to film “Voice of Disney” spots with Michael. It was a gorgeous sunny day but of course the 20-man crew wasn’t using sunlight; several grips held 60-foot rolls of silk overhead while giant HMI fresnels were focused on the subject. After several spots were in the can they began working on an intro for the movie Bambi. To introduce the film, the script called for a real Bambi (captive fawn), a real Thumper (bunny rabbit) and a real Flower (deflowered skunk). Eisner was to ask humans dressed up in the standard Disneyland Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy costumes who their favorite Bambi characters were. Mickey was to pet and say “Bambi!”, Minnie was to hold and say “Thumper!”, and Goofy was to hold and say “Flower!” … at which time everyone was to scatter at the sight of a skunk… with Michael delivering his final welcome line as he left the frame, leaving Goofy holding the skunk.

The rehearsals went fine, but when it was time to roll, the cartoon characters put on their heads, and then the fireworks began. Authentic Bambi took one look at Goofy, and went ballistic. I never imagined a juvenile deer could make a sound like that. We’re talking a high-pitched roar, half bellow and half shriek, while it kicked and butted and jumped like a wild horse at the rodeo. The trainer huddled with the assistant director, and produced a vial that I suppose was veterinary Vallium, from which he gave Bambi a shot in the hindquarters.

After a few minutes Bambi seemed calm … almost woozy it seemed to me. So the cameras got set, the grips at attention, the slate clapped … and again Goofy put on his head. This time Bambi went freakishly insane, screaming louder than before and opening up a 4-inch gash in the handler’s arm. The medical staff rushed over to administer first aid, and now the director and script supervisor huddled with Michael Eisner to find another approach. While Bambi was hustled away in what felt for all the world like a paddy wagon, the creative minds found a way to tell the story that did not require a live deer to coexist with Goofy.

For me, it was great fun. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the mediated part of media work. Here we have humans who can control all the elements: create their own sun, manufacture their own rain and wind. They might even be able to “guide” (?) the sensibilities of human beings. But they couldn’t overcome the hard-wired perceptions of a wild animal, no matter how many narcotics they used. The deer knew what it saw, and it knew to fear a plastic “friend” with a wolf’s jaw and two-inch teeth. The authentic nature of Goofy — his frightful appearance, not his hidden human motives — was the only visual language this natural critter understood.

And you know what? It seems to me that the more we learn about nature, and the more we get in touch with wildness in our world, the more we, too, might do well to fear our faux friends: the plastic face of progress; the factory farms, the poisoned yards, the symptom-masking meds and all the other mediated “realities” of our artificial environment. Like Goofy, they’re all scarier than they want us to think.

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