Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Disney’s Fantasia as Masterwork
In 1938 Walt Disney decided to bet the farm on an extravaganza originally entitled The Concert Feature. Disney’s intention was twofold. On the one hand he would use the power of animation to present Classical Music to the Masses. Get it out of the concert hall, into the movie palace, and dress it up to make it more approachable. But also, showcase the powers of this new medium - one in which Disney had a considerable investment, both in time and imaginative effort and in money - in a way that had never been done before.
Disney secured the collaboration of Leopold Stokowski, the best-known conductor of the day (who had already been parodied in a cartoon or two) and devoted the full resources of his studio to the effort. The film premiered in late 1940 under a new name, Fantasia, and received mixed critical notices. Music critics were offended, film critics didn’t quite know what to think, though some liked it. The public, for the most part, did not, though the film initially played to packed houses in New York and Los Angeles. The film was a financial failure, though it finally managed to break-even in the late 1960s, after Disney had died.
Fantasia is highly regarded among students of animation and has sold well in videotape and DVD. I have little sense of where it stands among more general arbiters of culture. I’m convinced it is a masterpiece. But a masterpiece of what?
In 1976 Edward Mendelson published an article on “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon” (MLN 91, 1267-1275). It was an attempt to define a genre whose members include Dante’s Divine Comedy, Rablais’, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust, Melville’s Moby Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Somewhat later Franco Moretti was thinking about “monuments,” “sacred texts,” “world texts,”—texts he wrote about in Modern Epic (Verso 1996). He came upon Mendelson’s article, saw a kinship with his project, and so added Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung’s (note, a musical as well as a narrative work), Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a few others to the list. It is in this company that I propose to place Fantasia.
On the face of it, the idea is absurd. For one thing, the works Mendelson and Moretti discuss are securely ensconced in the Western Canon of High Art; Fantasia is generally thought of as being “merely” a cartoon. Perhaps it occupies a significant place in popular art of the 20th century, but how could it possibly be anything more?
I’m not sure what kind of consideration this is. But I’m going to ignore it.
The fact that Fantasia is not even a narrative - it tells no connected story from beginning to end - is a more serious matter. If genres are to be defined by intrinsic characteristics, then Fantasia fails. In a footnote Mendelson indicates that Frye discusses various encyclopedic forms in his Anatomy of Criticism, namely Menippean satire and anatomy. But Fantasia doesn’t fit there either. Perhaps it is sui generis.
What is important to me is simply the encyclopedic scope of these various works. Each of them seeks to encompass the entire world as it was known at the time.
So does Fantasia. In the brief compass of two hours Fantasia traverses an astonishing range of . . . of what? “Human experience” would be a good phrase here, but one major segment, The Rite of Spring, concerns things which no human being could possibly have experienced. Human experience, yes. But more generally, the world.
Here is a brief sketch of how Fantasia maps the world. Note that each segment, except for the last, is preceded by a brief onscreen introduction by Deems Taylor, a well-known music critic.
Johann Sebastian Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D Minor: The opening toccata displays the performing musicians as shadows and silhouettes in variously colored light. The following fugue features imagery that is either fully abstract or that represents various things totally out of context, e.g. violin bows moving among clouds, gothic arches. Taylor asks us to think of these images as “oh, just masses of color, or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space.” This is a subjective and undifferentiated world of “thing-free qualities,” to borrow a phrase from Reuven Tsur.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Nutcracker Suite: Six pieces, each fully representational, each presenting some aspect of the natural world, but in small compass. The virtual field of view is, say, a foot or two wide at the focal plane. Individual leaves, flowers, sprigs, spider webs, goldfish, snowflakes, and so forth loom large on the screen. The first and last pieces show faeries causing change in Nature (the transition from night to day, the procession of the seasons), while the second, third, and fifth show dancing plants; goldfish in the fourth piece seduce us with their sinuous movements and large eyes that look at us. This is an animist microcosm.
Paul Dukas - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: We are in the human world, but in it’s uncanny aspect of magic and dreams. The episode takes place in the residence of a sorcerer and his apprentice (played by Mickey Mouse). Both work magic, but Mickey’s gets out of control. The sorcerer restores order using gestures that bespeak of Moses-parting-the-seas. In the middle of the segment Mickey falls asleep and in his dream has the forces of nature fully at his command. In his gestures of command, the dream-Mickey parodies Stokowski; the dreams themselves foreshadow the next segment.
Igor Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring: Here we experience 100s of millions of years of life on earth. Disney begins with an initial zoom from outside the galaxy to the earth’s surface, traversing 100s of millions of miles of space. But we also see single-celled life in the early seas. And pterodactyls, all manner of terrestrial dinosaurs, a fight between a T. Rex and a Stegosaurus, violent cataclysms and storms. This may well be the first time anyone has attempted such a visualization, the origin of and evolutionary development of life. It is a naturalist macrocosm.
Intermission: Two things happen in the intermission. There is an onstage jam session that takes off on a line from the up-coming Beethoven symphony. This is followed by a segment where Deems Taylor introduces the sound track. On screen we see a vertical line wiggling and jumping. When various instruments play, the line transforms into a visual “signature” of each instrument’s timbre.
Ludwig van Beethoven - 6th symphony in F, the Pastorale: The least successful visualization, this segment is a polychrome day in the life of fauns, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, winged horses, and gods (Bachus, Zeus, Neptune) acting out domestic scenes. We see parents with children, courting couples, and lots of festive dancing. It is a world of domestic affairs.
Amilcare Ponchielli - Dance of the Hours: Disney presents a ballet performed by elephants, ostriches, hippos and alligators. At least one scene, featuring Hyacinth Hippo, parodies a Balanchine-choreographed sequence that had appeared in a recent movie: a ballerina rising up through a fountain. The entire piece is a parody of artistic aspirations in which the animals are not fully contained within their artistic roles.
Modest Mussorgsky - Night on Bald Mountain: The devil Chernobog summons his followers - ghosts, spirits, and demons of all kinds - on Walpurgis Night. Twisted dancing amid hell fires; hallucinogenic transformations; quick glimpses of naked breasts - this is the most fevered segment in the movie. Evil and perversion.
Franz Schubert - Ave Maria: By contrast, the final segment is almost static. The only foreground animation depicts a column of robed religious walking through the forest in early morning carrying lighted candles. Otherwise the segment is a long pan-and-zoom through the forest ending on a sunrise (reminiscent of images from the Bach and the Beethoven). The overall mood is one of reverence.
No matter how you count it up, that is an astonishing range of phenomena. Is it everything? No, of course not. Everything is not possible. But it is an indicative sample: the very large, the very small, subjective, objective, fractions of seconds, eons, seasons, birth death play mating, awe, anguish, desire. The encyclopedic uses synecdoche, as Mendelson noted. Everything that Disney shows us implies much that he doesn’t. The range of implication compressed into these two hours is vast.
Not only that, but the film employs several different animation styles, perhaps not enough to constitute an anatomy of animation as it existed then, but enough to demonstrate an open-ended range of possibilities. Beyond animation style, we have, more generally, the film’s wide range of graphic influences. Robin Allen (Walt Disney in Europe) has documented a wide range of European influences while Kendall O’Conner, an art director on the Dance of the Hours segment, asserted African and Japanese influences (quoted in John Culhane, Walt Disney’s Fantasia, pp. 168, 170).
So far I have discussed intrinsic matters, themes and styles. But Mendelson and Moretti mention extrinsic matters as well, and these speak to the larger issue of social and cultural forces at play through the work. These works tend to be singular, originating without precedent and inspiring few or no progeny. Fantasia has not inspired successful imitators. The Disney studio’s own Fantasia 2000, championed by Walt’s nephew, Roy, lacks the encyclopedic scope of the original as does Allegro non troppo, a 1977 film by Bruno Bozetto.
One other characteristic looms large in Mendelson’s formulation. These works are identified with particular national cultures and arise were these nations become aware of themselves as distinct entities. This creates a problem for his nomination of Gravity’s Rainbow as an encyclopedic work because Moby Dick already has the encyclopedic slot in American letters. Mendelson deals with the problem by suggesting that Pynchon is “the encyclopedist of the newly-forming international culture whose character his book explicitly labors to identify” (pp. 1271-1272).
Fantasia presents the same problem, for, like Moby Dick before and Gravity’s Rainbow after, it is nominally an American work. But there is no specifically American reference in the film. None of the music is American, none of the segments are set in America nor refer to American history or culture. It is not, in any ordinary sense, a nationalist work, an expression of national identity. Rather, it is an expression of a naïve middle-brow universalism, unaware of the cultural specificities on which it depends.
It is by no means obvious to me, however, that that prevents Fantasia from participating in that “newly-forming international culture” for which Mendelson makes Pynchon the spokesman. Or, if not exactly that international culture, then perhaps a different international culture. Or, perhaps, Disney’s mode of participation was different as well. While Fantasia is very aware of itself as artifact, e.g. the soundtrack segment, it betrays no hint of self-consciousness about its cultural provenance. It is thus not like Gravity’s Rainbow.
But, Disney’s reach was international by the time Fantasia was made. The cartoons and comic books and branded goods circulated internationally long before the theme parks. He counted on international distribution to cover his enormous production costs. Despite World War II, Fantasia was released in both Latin America and Europe before the war’s end, though it did not reach Japan until 1955.
I wish to suggest then, that with all its flaws and limitations, Fantasia takes a place in a fundamentally international flow of cultural expression. To move beyond mere suggestion, however, is more than I can do at this time. On the one hand it would require an examination of the international circulation of film technology and titles throughout the 20th century. This leads us, in turn, to the international circulation of animation that has been emanating from Japan during the last three or four decades. Influenced by Disney in that the studio’s influence has been pervasive, this wave of film production is grounded in local circumstances that do not confine animation to children and families, as has been the case in America since WWII.
At the same time we need to examine Disney, Inc., which certainly is an international phenomenon. The interested reader should consult the fascinating essays in Dazzled by Disney? The Global Disney Audiences Project. It would be a mistake, however, to think of Disney’s global reach as a simple matter of middle-brow American cultural hegemony.
A Magnificent Mongrel
Then there is the music itself. None of it originated from within Disney’s studio. All of the pieces are from The Classics, though some, the Beethoven and the Stravinsky, are more important than others, e.g. the Dukas and the Ponchielli. The Beethoven and the Stravinsky were significantly altered, a source of considerable consternation to some music critics. To the extent that the purpose of the film is to present The Classics to the Masses, such alteration is a problem.
I take a different view. Whatever this film is, it is not a good vehicle for music appreciation. Thus I am not bothered by the violence Disney committed on the Beethoven and the Stravinsky to bend them to the requirements of his film. As for his intention to educate the people in the Classics, Disney simply did not know what he was doing. It was perhaps a reasonable thing to do, but the supplementation provided by the animation is not an adequate substitute for learning the musical language.
Yet the film’s dependence on the music does raise thorny questions about just what sort of beast it is. First, let me reiterate that the film does depend on the music. However magnificent the animation is, whatever the encyclopedic implications of Disney’s choice of subjects, the film would not be convincing without the music, which supplies Dionysian life to the Apollonian visual forms. Second, the music does not itself contribute to the film’s encyclopedic range. Most of the music is from one relatively narrow range, Romanticism, of one musical tradition.
This music is from a high cultural tradition while animation has, for the most part, functioned in popular culture. That is to say, the music is Art, while the images are Entertainment. How then, are we to construe this film? Art or entertainment, both or neither?
I am not, on the whole, inclined to dismiss that distinction as nothing more than an expression of class conflict and social dominance, though it is that. I believe that there is intrinsic substance to the distinction, though it needs to be recast in very different terms. In any event, the distinction was very real to Disney and his audience, and he made Fantasia, in part, to cope with that difference.
And I say “cope” in deliberate preference to alternatives such as “transcend” or “dissolve.” Fantasia neither transcends nor dissolves the distinctions between art and entertainment, imagination and commerce, class and mass. A magnificent mongrel, Fantasia is an act of inspired and radical bricolage.
Secular and Sacred
And no more inspired than in Disney’s desire to yoke the sacred and the secular together into a single expressive work.
When, three years ago, I first began to study this film, I found the final segment, set to Schubert’s Ave Maria, to be sentimental and embarrassing. The vocal performance, with lyrics commissioned by Disney and with a lush arrangement, seemed the stuff of easy-listening music. And the animation, the animation went on and on and on. It was very pretty, and pretty boring.
But I studied it, and have learned to see it, perhaps more as Disney himself wanted it to be seen. Consider this statement from a recent appreciation by Michael Koresky:
If it’s the enormousness of Fantasia that still reverberates to this day, then it’s the film’s beatific final statement that still manages to surprise. In the end, the flurry of images, of clumsy hippo ballerinas, of soaring, multicolored pegasuses, of swirls of glittering fairies and dancing demons drifting and gliding to Tchaikovsky, Bach, and Beethoven, suddenly stops, the tone hushes and becomes contemplative. Fantasia closes on a note of spiritual elation that, both by the sheer audacity of its form and the unadulterated religious surety of its concept, would be nearly unthinkable today.
Perhaps Koresky’s statement is overwrought, but not by much. The slow, rock-steady movement of the (virtual) camera stands in radical contrast to the hyperkinetic motion of the preceding segment and, indeed, in contrast to most animation. For much early animation featured often frenetic movement, delilvered through gags (a term of art) and routines. What Disney had his staff do in this segment, then, was against the grain of what he had devoted most of his professional life to. It was an act of austerity.
In his introductory remarks, Deems Taylor had contrasted this episode with its predecessor - The Night on Bald Mountain - as the sacred to the profane. That is a measure of the Disney’s naiveté, for that previous segment is more properly the demonic, and we know the demonic and the sacred to be two aspects of the same realm. The film itself is a more devious instrument, with the Ave Maria getting its energy through working against the Walpurgis Night.
Beyond this, as Koresky has noted, the concluding invocation of the sacred stands in contrast to the unremitting secular Darwinism of The Right of Spring, which concludes the first half of the film. Here we should note that, while Disney had originally intended to extend the evolutionary sequence up to the origins of humankind, fear of a creationist boycott led him to stop with the demise of the dinosaurs (Culhane, p. 126). Thus we have both Disney as the progressive man of science and Disney as a “Congregationalist who believed strongly that his financial and visionary successes in life were greatly tied to prayer and belief in God” (Koresky). This Disney led a group of artists and craftsmen through the creation of a film, this Fantasia, that gave form and substance to a cosmology that is modern in its devotion to science, ancient in its fear of demons, and fragile in its faith in the imagination.
It’s a good appreciaton of the film. I’d like to note, though, that much of the imagery for the Bald Mountain segment is directly lifted from Murnau’s Faust (which makes your mention of Goethe’s masterwork interesting), and that Fantasia in turn helped influence the climactic segment of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Might add I also find the Pastorale kitschy, the Rites of Spring and Bald Mountain segment well-made, if not quite as inspiring as the Dance of the Hours (my favorite, above all). Ave Maria--I do think the music sentimental. But that final shot, a long dive into the depths of several layers of glass, quite beautiful.
I do think more of Allegro Non Troppo; what it has is what Fantasia lacks: irreverent humor and adult sexuality.
Ah, adult sexuality, you’re not going to find that in Disney, though there are quick glimpses of (what he seemed to think of) it in the hellfires beneath Bald Moutain. I think that blindspot is responsible for at least some of the appalling cutsieness of the Pastorale segment.
Thanks for the tip on the Murnau.
Could you explain about Raiders? I don’t recall the segment very well.
Just a comment about “securely ensconced”: One of those books you name is perhaps the best example of the contingent nature of canon-formation. I think that it’s rhetorically ineffective to call attention to Fantasia only being a “cartoon,” etc., as the quality of encyclopedicity that Mendelson describes is independent of trends in tastemaking.
The Rites of Spring section entertains--well, at least the music does: I’ve read Stravinsky hisself did not appreciate his mah-sterpiece being set to dying dinosaurs. The abstractions to Bach ok; tho there are some of us who can’t listen to Vati Bach wihtout like being reminded of the Lutheran church (if not other protestant and German nightmares). The animation to Bald Mountain about the most successful (the mountain-demon pretty dread), tho Mussorgski’s classick sort of epitomizes bombast; I would agree the animation to B’s 6th rather kitchy, but not horrible.
Allegro non Troppo is pretty cool from what I recall. Some of the first Heavy Metal has some decent sections (i.e. Moebius/Gir) tho muzak maybe a bit tres sauvvage for the Valve snob. Really the Steamboat willie type of early Disney anime with jazz in a sense more ahh-tistic (a bit R Crumb like) than the grand productions..........
And one should not overlook the masterful Disney animation (found in youtube VIP section) set to Mutzart’s Clarinet Concerto in G flat, Opus 69, conducted by Ernesto Putoninni:
Um, err, just ignore WLC’s lead-in. The link takes you to an interesting clip of Zappa’s “Hot Rats.”—WLB
Thanks to Milo Miles for bringing these clips to my attention.
If you recall, Indy and his girl were strapped to a pillar while the French archeologist started intoning words wearing Jewish high priest clothing; spirits start coming out of the ark, and the way they swoop around and head straight for the camera recalls the way the spirits behave in the Bald Mountain sequence (sweep, then dive at the camera). The climax, with a tornado of energy rushing at the sky, then coming down hard, mimics exactly the climactic moment in Bald Mountain.
Check it out; the similarity is clear.
Murnau’s Faust’s flying sequences, incidentally, inspired the flying sequences in Exorcist 2: The Heretic (my favorite of the movies).
Thanks, Noel, I recall now.
First, I note that the encyclopedic nature of Fantasia, and of the texts studied by Mendelson and Moretti is only one aspect of them. If they were not compelling in other ways, we could not care about their encyclopedic nature. In the case of Fantasia, those other ways involve the quality of the animation and the music.
Abstract Dimensionality and the Encyclopedic
Beyond that - and here I’m going to ramble on - I’ve been thinking about this encyclopedia notion. I like it, I think it works, but I also think it’s a bit vague. What’s it mean to “cover/imply the world”? How many and what distribution of topics does a real encyclopedia have to have in order to qualify, good and proper, as an encyclopedia? How is it that Mendelson and Moretti know that those texts are encyclopedic? Sure, they give reasons and examples - as I did for Fantasia. But that’s all after-the-fact rationalization. What’s the original “aha!” recognition about?
I’ve asserted that Fantasia is encyclopedic in the way that Allegro Non Troppo and Fantasia 2000 are not. I’m sure I can argue the point - though I’d want to watch them again, while taking notes, rather than work from, e.g. the Wikepedia summaries (which seem adequate to me BTW). And that argument will be a comparison and contrast talking about the sorts of things I mention in the summaries of the Fantasia episodes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m looking for something more precise, more quantitative. Or, perhaps a better formulation, something that’s tractable in a different way, even objective.
What I’m thinking is that encyclopedic works have to “sample the space” in a certain way. What space? It’s a metaphor, obviously, and a common one. Color space is well known and has been extensively explored by artists, physicists, and perceptual psychologists. So, imagine a space that displays all the colors in the world - somewhere on your computer you’ve got color-pickers that allow you to navigate through various color spaces. Pick three colors. Three shades of red will be relatively close together in the space while a red, an orange, and a yellow will be further apart. But a red, a blue, and a yellow will be still further apart. That red, blue, and yellow “cover” more of color space than your three reds.
That’s the sort of thing I’m looking for. Color is well understood and the little story I told in the previous paragraph can be told in fairly precise mathematical terms. Can we do the same thing for all of human knowledge?
We’re working on it. Psychologists and cognitive scientists map all sorts of things onto abstract spaces. The classic semantic differential maps the connotative meaning of words onto three dimensions, goodness, strength, and activity. The five-factors personality model maps personality onto five dimensions. Computational semanticists map texts onto spaces of relatively high dimensionality - 100s or 1000s of dimensions. That’s what’s doing on in the text-mining software that Matt Kirschenbaum talked about during the Moretti-fest.
What could this possibly mean for literary texts? Well, we’re used to analyzing texts in terms of binary oppositions: male-female, nature-culture, rural-urban, good-evil, Caucasian-Other, ancient-modern, mechanical-organic, and so on. Think of each opposition as indicating the positive and negative poles of a continuum. We can now think of each of these oppositions as a dimension in semantic space. How many such dimensions do we need to characterize the semantic space of a given text? I’m thinking that the dimensionality of an encyclopedic text will be higher than that of an ordinary narrative.
Let’s consider 19th century American novels. Moby Dick is Mendelson’s designated encyclopedic text. So we take the that text and those of other 19th century American novels, analyze them with text mining software, and arrive at something we might call the “space of minimum covering dimensionality.” The space for Moby Dick should be higher than that for any other novel. And I’d guess it would be higher by a considerably margin rather than just a bit higher.
So, the value for MD would be, say, 2364, while the values for the other texts would range between, say, 937 and 1272. The numbers aren’t important, what’s important is that there’s a big gap between value for MD and the highest value for any non-encyclopedic narrative.
* * * * *
How do I know this? I’m just guessing, making it up as I go along. Why do I care about this sort of thing? Because I do. I’m just playing. Won’t this line of investigation will, er, harm literature? No, not in the least. The texts won’t feel a thing.
* * * * *
In contrast, we might say that, e.g. Oliver Twist, covers more area in some abstract space than, e.g. Hard Times, in the way that a quarter covers more area than a dime. But that’s not about dimensionality; that’s just spatial extent. Dimensionality is about the nature of the space, its structure. The difference between an encyclopedic and an ordinary narrative is like that between a sheet of paper (2D) and a cube (3D).
* * * * *
One of the things Moretti noted (p. 5) is that these works “do not really work all that well,” are perhaps “semi-failures”. Some measure of failure, it seems to me, follows from the singular nature of these works. If you are inventing a form as you go along, you are in no position to learn from previous examples, either your own or those of others.
But these (peculiar) failures might also be the result of the dimensionality requirements of encyclopedic coverage. There’s only so much “stuff” that can be packed into a coherent narrative. High narrative coherence puts limits on the dimensionality of the space. If you want to exceed those limits, then you have to use intrusive devices or various sorts - like long passages on whale taxonomy. If you are going to break the narrative once in such a way, well, that’s a flaw, straight-up. The flow is broken, but you don’t get much in return. So, do it once, do it 37 times, a different time each way, and be clever so that the whole becomes more than the sum of these multiple narrative interruptions.
* * * * *
Why write such narratives at all? Because we need to bring the entirety of the world within the scope of a single imaginative vision. Why do we need to do that? Because that’s the way the brain is?
* * * * *
Conducting this kind of investigation for written texts is one thing. We’ve got very sophisticated tools for handling them. How would we do it for movies?
For certain movies, screen plays might be adequate proxies for the films themselves. For Fantasia, I don’t know. We might be able to work from the cue sheets used to indicate the relationships between the animation and the music. More likely, we’d have to devise a coding scheme and devise methods to analyze the codings, not only of Fantasia, Fantasia 2000, and Allegro Non Troppo, but also of ordinary narrative feature-length animated films.