Most of my posts about Disney’s Fantasia have involved analyzing specific episodes to reveal themes and structural features that are not at all obvious. This post is quite different. I’m going to talk about something that’s so obvious that it hardly seems worth comment: the overall organization of the film.
That organization is simple. The film is based on eight different compositions which are presented one after the other in a concert format. The first half of the concert opens with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and ends with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; the second half opens with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and ends with Schubert’s Ave Maria. What’s to say?
First, it’s almost that simple, but not quite. Disney doesn’t simply move from one episode to the next. Rather, he precedes each episode with a little introductory chat by Deems Taylor, a well-known music critic at the time. Let’s think of those chats as Home Base. Thus the film becomes a series of excursions to and from Home Base. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the film.
As originally screened, Fantasia had neither title credits nor concluding credits. The information ordinarily conveyed through those means was instead placed in a printed program a copy of which was given to each member of the theater audience. When the curtains parted to reveal the screen, the initial image was that of an empty stage set with risers, chairs, music stands, and a podium. It’s really quite dramatic and ‘stagy.’
As musicians take the stage the we see them in silhouette and see their shadows projected against the stage’s rear wall. The effect is recognizably similar to what one would see in a concert hall, but not quite the same. That is to say, Disney does not project an image of what one would see in a real performance, such as one might see on a televised concert or in a concert movie (e.g. the film Ingmar Bergman did of Mozart’s Magic Flute).
Once the musicians have all taken their places Deems Taylor enters and takes his place at stage center in front of a music stand (image at left below). Taylor was a composer and well-known music critic who served as a master of ceremonies. Before each selection he gives a brief introduction, saying something about the music and about the animation. Same visual, same voice.
Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is the first piece on the program. Once Taylor has established in place, he introduces the entire program, and then, specifically, the Bach. We then cut to an image of conductor Leopold Stokowski on the podium, arms raised, ready to deliver the downbeat (image at right above). As his arms come down and the music starts, the image dissolves into the animation. Stokowski is thus part of the Home Base tableau. Deems Taylor connects with us; Stokowski connects with the music, and thus, with those fantasy worlds evoked through the music.
This routine is repeated before each segment of the program. Taylor says a few words, then we cut to Stokowski’s silhouette, and the animation begins on the downbeat. And always with Taylor in the middle against that blue background. We see the same thing and hear the same voice in between the musical segments. Taylor addresses the movie audience as though they were in a concert hall and establishes a baseline “reality.” The music and animations are then excursions away from that reality into various imaginary worlds. We can depict it like this:
We enter into the film world from the left and arrive at Home Base. Then Stokowski takes us on excursions into the different worlds of the different musical selections. Notice what happens with the final two segments, A Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria. The music segues directly from one to the other without returning to Taylor, who explains that as he introduces the two pieces. When Ave Maria concludes the screen dissolves to black on the final chord. That is the end of the film, no Deems Taylor, no end credits. The house lights come up and it is over. We exit the music space to the left, where we entered.
The point of this piece is to suggest that that’s how phenomenological time, experiential time, works in this film. Physical time, clock time, is linear, by definition: one moment after the other. But experiential time isn’t necessarily like that. Experiential time can loop back on itself. And that’s how Fantasia works. Think of that Home Base as a location in psychological time-space. When one’s mental state is “in” that location it is therefore at the same location in subjective time.
The overall effect then is that one is absorbed in the film, one is outside of ordinary time and space (over there to the left). It’s not simply that we are physically separated from the ordinary world (sitting in the theatre), but that we are mentally separated from ordinary time. We are, if you will, in scared time.
All films work like that. But Fantasia shows us the mechanisms through the device of the narrator. His presence and voice, they’re Home Base.
Note: I develop and elaborate on this conception of psychological time in Beethoven’s Anvil. See chapters 2, 3 and 4 and pp. 192-194, 219-221.