Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Fantasia and Me
I grew up watching Fantasia episodes on Disney’s TV program and I saw it in theatrical release in 1969. It fascinated me as a child but as a young adult, eh, it’s not all that. Then I picked up a DVD in August 2003 in connection with a now-abandoned book project: WHAM! I was stunned.
I saw the film itself, yes, but though it I also saw the cumulated techniques of 3000 years of art history, Western and Eastern, and a large swath of the cosmos and of life on Earth. So I wrote a longish email about it, and more generally about cartoons and animation, to my colleague, Tim Perper. Tim had become interested in manga and anime so I figured he’d have some observations even if Disney and Fantasia didn’t particularly interest him.
I was right, Tim had things to say. He also got me interested in manga and anime, which have been a major part of my intellectual life since then. It’s been mostly the Japanese stuff, but I’ve also looked into some classic America cartoons, Winsor McCay, Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz, and classic Disney, Fantasia above all.
In August of 2006 a made a post at The Valve in which I argued that Fantasia was one of the great works of the 20th century. Back then the claim struck me as rather outrageous. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, it still seems true, sorta’, but also beside the point—to which I’ll return in a moment.
When I made that post I didn’t intend to devote posts to each episodes. As a result of an email exchange with Michael Barrier I wrote a piece on Dance of the Hours in 2007 and that, I figured, was that. It wasn’t until the Spring of 2010 that I decided I might work my way through the entire film, starting with The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I’ve now written about every episode, including the intermission. I’ve also written a concluding piece in which I examine episode order, arguing that the episodes on an increasing range of mental faculties until, say, Dance of the Hours, at which point the episodes begin asking: Just what does it mean to be human?
As for Fantasia being one of the great works of the the 20th century, you can read my argument on that, and the rest of my commentaries as well. But I do wonder what the greatness game is about. In January of 2010 Frederick Turner argued that Hayao Miyazaki is the world’s best living filmmaker, a judgment I’m not prepared to contradict. Miyazaki, of course, is working in the same medium that Disney did, animation, though his work is quite different.
But the greatness game is not simply or even primarily a game played by individual critics offering up judgments. It’s an institutional game. While Disney had his successes and his fame, including honorary degrees, and certainly his fortune, we have no institution that endorses the greatness of his animation, nor, as far as I can tell, is Miyazaki’s greatness endorsed by any institution—John Lassiter’s enthusiasm not withstanding. The institutions that underwrite greatness are not interested in animation and I’m afraid that neither my enthusiasm, nor Fred Turner’s, is going to change that.
The question, it seems to me, is this: Is Disney’s finest work, and Miyazaki’s, along with much other work—is this work destined to sing into the past without leaving a trace or, on the contrary, will it turn out to be the foundations of new institutions in new worlds that are, at best, only now hinted at? Only time will tell.
* * * * *
This document contains thirteen blog posts beyond this introduction. The first is that first essay in which I argue that Fantasia is a masterwork. Then there’s an short piece in which I discuss Disney’s framing device, the Deems Taylor introductions, which I wrote rather late in the series. After that comes the essays devoted to individual episodes, including the intermission. That is not, however, the order in which I wrote them. They vary considerably in length and approach.
The piece on Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is the last one of those that I wrote, and one of the longest. In fact, I ended up writing a half dozen posts about that one episode. While it would have been easy enough to include all of them in this document, it seemed to me that that would place too much emphasis on that one episode. Yes, it can support that much commentary, but then so can the other episodes. I just don’t have the time to write it. Instead, I’ve gathered all the posts on that one episodes into a separate PDF. I’ve only included the first of those pieces in this document.
After the episode-specific pieces I have one in which I analyze the order of episodes. I conclude the document with two appendices. The first is an informal appreciation of The Nutcracker Suite episode, which is my favorite. The second is a review essay of two recent Disney biographies, one by Neal Gabbler and the other by Michael Barrier.