Friday, November 25, 2011
Be It Ever so Humble, There’s no Place Like Elysium
A PDF of a complete set of posts on Disney’s Pastoral Symphony may be downloaded here.
I grew up watching episodes of Fantasia on TV, and saw a theatrical version in 1969, which didn’t impress me that much. It wasn’t THAT psychedelic. Then, for over three decades, nothing. I suppose I thought about the movie every so often, and perhaps recalled an episode or two, but I didn’t see it at all.
When, a few years ago, I picked to DVD, I was stunned by it, the variety of animation styles, the variety of subjects. It fascinated me. I liked some episodes more than others. The Nutcracker Suite and Rite of Spring were immediate favorites. The Pastoral Symphony was my least favorite; I was almost embarrassed to watch it.
How come, then, that I’ve written more about it than any of the other episodes?
For one thing, by the time I got around to it, I’d learned a lot about describing and analyzing cartoons, not only from the work I’d done on the other episodes, but from work I’ve done on other cartoons as well: Miyazaki, Walter Lantz, Warner Brothers, other Disney (Dumbo), and some others here and there. I was better at my craft; I knew what to look for, and how.
Then there is the episode itself. It’s one of the longest in the film—only Rite of Spring is longer—and one of the most complex. In particular, it portrays a wider range of human social life than any of the other episodes, dealing, as it does, with child-rearing, courtship, celebration, and security (from the storm). Simply describing what Disney’s depicted and how he’s organized it, that takes time.
Now that I’ve been through it all I have a better sense of my embarrassment, which centered on Bacchus, though not entirely so (those centaurs are rather clunky, and that cherub’s bottom, what’s up with that?). Bacchus is given a complex job, perhaps more than he could handle. In the voice-over commentary to the version packaged with Fantasia 2000, historian Brian Sibley notes that the lead animator for Bacchus, Ward Kimball, came to think that he’d laid it on rather too thickly. Perhaps it did, but he had a tough job. As I read Bacchus, not only must he be a randy old man,, but he’s also a puddle-splashing infant. And somehow he must be both of those and be believable in the context of this movie.
Well, men are randy, old, and infants, but generally not within the compass of 10 or 15 minutes. It’s one thing to be each of those in its own context, isolated from the other, but to be them all, all at once, that just rather rubs one’s nose it the absurdity, the ridiculousity, if I may, of being human. Maybe Kimball didn’t go overboard at all. Maybe he was just doing his job, and doing it well, indeed.
Perhaps embarrassment was the necessary point. Whatever. In any event, I’ve made my peace with Disney’s Pastoral Symphony. I no longer find it embarrassing. Instead, I’m filled with wonder at what Disney attempted, and what he actually managed to accomplish.
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Finally, a note on method. When I first starting writing about this episode I did not intend to make six posts, or seven including this introduction. I intended to write one post, though I knew is would be a long and complex one. Which it was.
After I’d posted it I continued to think about the episode and decided that I probably needed another post, just to tie up loose ends. I wanted to say something about the thread of oral imagery that ran through the episode; there was more to be said about color; and I began to suspect the episode had a ring form structure. I figured I could knock that out in another post, albeit a long and complex one.
As soon as I sat down to write I knew that one post wouldn’t be enough. I decided to pick one topic and write on that, color and sound. By the time I was done with that post I knew that I didn’t quite know where this was leading.
And THAT’s how I ended up doing six posts on this episode. Much of the work was descriptive, from beginning to end. I didn’t get around to ring form until the fifth post, though I saw it coming as early as the second. The assertion that Disney’s visualization of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony has a ring form, that’s a descriptive statement. But it took a great deal of prior description and analysis to get there.
My point is simply that description is neither obvious nor easy. It seems to proceed in ‘layers.’ You start at the ‘surface,’ get that laid out, and then proceed to the next layer, and the next.
The order in which I wrote those posts is, in this instance, the order in which I did the descriptive work, though my mind darted all over the place in the process. That is, I didn’t make a bunch of notes, organize them, and only then start to write. Description is discovery, exploration, and one must LEARN to do it. It doesn’t come naturally. Further, it’s inevitably intertwined with analysis, and with interpretation.
That is to say, it’s not as though one FIRST undertakes describing, THEN one analyzes, and ONLY THEN does one interpret. No, you’ve got to do them all, in cycles. The hermeneutic circle is an old and venerable trope. Well, that same circle might as well be the descriptive circle. The circle is the same, moving from parts to the whole to parts through acts of description, analysis, and interpretation. If it’s interpretation you’re after, then you call it the hermeneutic circle. If analysis is your game, it’s the analytic circle.
Description’s my game these days, and so I now call it the descriptive circle. What I’m after, as I’ve indicated here and there, is an objective account of what’s in the text, a text that, in this case, happens to be an animated film. When I end up arguing that Disney’s Pastoral has a ring form, I believe that is an objective statement about how the episode is organized. Ring form is not something I’m projecting onto the text through my wily critical ways. It’s really there. For everyone, whether they realize it or not. Of course, it isn’t necessary that you realize it has a ring form, nor is it necessary that you know anything about transformational generative grammar in order to speak English, Japanese, or any other language. It’s there.
I do understand that these methodological matters are much in dispute, so I don’t expect my assertion of objectivity to be taken at face value. Nor do I believe that it is up to me to make that determination. My job is to do the best interpretation, analysis, and description that I know how. When I say that ring form is an objectively real attribute of this episode I’m telling you what I’m up to.
I’m after truth. Whether or not I’ve got it, that’s another matter. Making that determination is the job of an intellectual community. That determination must first focus on the description. If we can’t agree on that, we’ll not agree on anything else. Description isn’t all there is, but it’s where we must start the process of arriving at mutual understanding and agreement.
What we’re after is understanding, explanation: Why does this film have the form it does? How does it work in the mind? In order to answer such questions in intellectually satisfying detail we must first understand just what the film is. Description is the tool for that job.
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This episode is available online at YouTube. Here’s one version. But Disney’s original version is a bit different from the current version. It had several scenes involving a centaurette called Sunflower. She’s based on an offensive nickaninny stereotype that Disney decided to excise. Thanks to a comment by ramapith, here’s a clip that contains those scenes.