Scott Garbacz's blog

Processing Extraordinary Tragedy in Ordinary Days

In the poster for Ordinary Days, four people are silhouetted against stylized New York skyscrapers

Image credit: Fresno Beehive

[Spoiler alert: if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity of attending Ordinary Days, know that the following describes much of the play’s ending.]

Manalive, the novel by G.K. Chesterton, opens with miraculous gust of wind, a meterological phenomenon described as “the good wind that blows nobody harm.” I always found something particularly memorable about that image of a moment of impossible happiness, and it gusted into my mind once more when I attended the recent Austin production of the chamber musical, Ordinary Days.

Ordinary Days offers more than a miraculous gust of wind. Instead, its climax brings all four of the play’s cast members into contact by a single, bizarre spectacle. The image is explicitly identified not with nature, however, but with one of the greatest recent tragedies of our nation: the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11. I’m not sure that the play’s treatment of 9/11 is necessarily its most brilliant moment—but it does offer an interesting example of one artist’s attempt to use visual and narrative imagination to recontextualize the image that has driven so much of America’s foreign and domestic policy over the last ten years.

Generic Branding and our Culture's Values

A black man with graying beard and dramatically wrinkled face looks past the viewer.

Image source:

Branding and corporate marketing can be bizarre. Sure, there are the big brands, the Disney’s or Budweisers or Coca-Colas, whose very names evoke our day-to-day experience of the products they market. For those of us who like to think about how visual rhetoric interacts with pop culture, these iconic multinationals can provide endless streams of data. Watching how such companies endlessly race to reflect or mold global and American cultures so as to increase visibility may sometimes be a depressing project, but it is always fascinating. But what about the guys who we don’t interact with on a daily basis?

The LEGO Movie, Narrative, and Children's Play

A girl holds up a chaotic lego set. Text across the image reads "Look what I built with LEGO." Smaller text reads "And look at that look on her face. That's pride smiling" and "LEGO is a toy they never tire of, a toy that stimulates creativity and imagination for years."

1978 LEGOS Ad. "a toy that stimulates creativity and imagination for years." Source:

Sometimes, it’s hard to separate a film from the circumstances in which you watch it. In my case, I saw it as a father of a 1-year-old, sitting at the Alamo Drafthouse, following a preshow that included one of the early advertisements for LEGOs, then a European import newly reaching America’s shores. On multiple levels, I kept thinking of how much The LEGO Movie might represent a low point in both how we imagine children’s entertainment, and how we imagine children themselves.

Journey and Non-Referential Iconography

In a cartoon-styled image from a video game, a red-clad figure looks forward in a blue, shadowy environment.

Image source: Thatgamecompany.

Probably all illustrations, and certainly the animated images I’ve discussed in Frozen and Lilo and Stitch, come freighted with a vast history of associations. Striking images can literally provide worldviews—complex perspectives from which to view matters ranging from gender roles to cultural identities to ideal body types. Frozen’s visual aesthetic offers a triumphantalist account of traditional images put to new uses, while Lilo and Stitch offers a harder-edged criticism of our lazy, self-indulgent ways of looking at the world, for instance. Yet both deliberately and meaningfully comment upon the mediating power of their own iconography. Both films are, in short, particularly focused on understanding how images have worked in the past, and how they can be made to work differently in the future.

Journey is a video game whose cartoon-like visual aesthetic draws strongly from the same animated tradition as the first two films, yet its aims are quite different. In both its gameplay and its visual design, I will argue, Journey is not focused on what it means, but rather on the raw experiences it can provide. The game reminds us, in short, that while images have deep and rich rhetorical histories, they are also something more than mere arguments.

Lilo & Stitch: The Danger of Beautiful Stories

The alien Stitch lies flat on his face in front of the book, "The Ugly Duckling"

Image credit: captured from

If Frozen (as my previous blog argues) gleefully revises Disney’s traditional iconography, Lilo and Stitch does something far more interesting. Both are, in their ways, re-telling of fairy tales, but Lilo and Stitch proves far weirder, as well as far more intelligent, than its visually-immaculate descendent. We have already discussed Lilo and Stitch once at the Viz blog, praising it for its ability to subvert the “prince charming” narrative. Yet Lilo and Stitch is certainly worth at least one more look. The film is, in fact, both far more critical, and far more thoughtful, than Frozen is. Indeed, the film (despite its rough spots) is sophisticated and thoughtful in a lot of ways that Frozen never dreams of being, and may have something quite important to say about the way we engage with popular children’s stories. 

Frozen: The Anatomy of a Gaze

Elsa from Frozen gazes into the distance

Image credit: The Guardian

The first song composed for (but ultimately cut from) the recent Disney blockbuster Frozen explicitly engages with Disney's presentation of female characters. In the song, entitled "We Know Better," young princesses Elsa and Anna lay out a laundry list of objections to the traditional idea of a "Disney Princess." The film's two heroes refuse to be the sort of princess who "always knows her place," insist that a real princess “laughs and snorts milk out her nose," and maintain their right to mention “underwear.” Though whimsical, the film sets out its heroines' priorities: the only things they take seriously are their sisterly friendship and the political demands of ruling the realm. In climactic two-part harmony, the girls promise to "take care of our people and they will love / Me and you." If films like Tangled and Brave taught Disney that their princesses can (quite profitably) take center stage without dressing up as boys, Frozen insists that its female leads will be more concerned with national policy than with the clothes they wear.

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