Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Visible Hands are the Devil’s Workshop: The Problematic of Control in Fantasia

This is a companion piece to Elephant Regression: On the Couch with Dumbo. Until the final two sections this is one of those pieces where psychoanalytic ideas pervade my thinking in ways “too diffuse for meaningful citation.” At the end I cite both Freud and John Bowlby. Caveat: this is another long one. You’ll probably have to schedule an intermission or two.
x13partiing of the waves.jpg

As we all know, Fantasia is staged as a concert. Each segment of the film presents a visual realization of a specific piece of classical music. The music is performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, which was conducted by Leopold Stokowski at that time. He was perhaps more of a public figure in America than any other conductor, before or since, with the possible exception of Leonard Bernstein. Even moviegoers with little knowledge of classical music would have been aware of him. As we’ll see shortly, he was even played by Bugs Bunny in a cartoon.

While most classical conductors use a baton, Stokowski did not. He used only his hands. That was part of his shtick, his public persona.

Each segment of Fantasia, save the last, is preceded with a shot of Stowkoski on the podium, hands raised, gloved hands at the ready:

5 Stowkowski.jpg

Two segments, however, feature hands as an aspect of their imagery and do so in a way, I suggest, that betrays deep ambivalence. These episodes are The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Night on Bald Mountain, each of which occupies the third slot of four in each of the two halves of the program. Before examining those episodes, however, we have to set things up, first with a look at the general issue of control in Fantasia, then with a look at the motor system and the way it differentiates between whole-body control and hand-control.

Conducting and Control

As I argued in Elephant Regression: On the Couch with Dumbo, Dumbo is a story about maturation. Fantasia is not. To be sure, we do see maturation in the Pastoral. The young Pegasus who is awkward in flight at the beginning of the episode is fluent at the end. That is to say, the young creature now has more effective control over his body than at the beginning of the segment.

Control is what Fantasia is about. That and boundaries: what are the limits of control?

It is my impression that classical music was more visible to and more problematic for the general public during in the first half of the 20th Century. The conflict between classical (aka “long hair”) music and popular music was played out in live-action films and cartoons. By the time Chuck Berry was urging Beethoven to roll over, he had already done so, pretty much.

It’s in that cultural context that Disney made Fantasia. While it advocated for classical music, it did so in a popular medium, animation. And, as I’ve already observed, Disney called on the most popular conductor of the day to serve as a mediating figure between the auditorium where the audience sat and the magical on-screen world depicted in each cartoon.

But the use of Stokowski also establishes control as a thematic concern within the film. The conductor controls the orchestra. That is to say, by convention, the conductor’s control over his arms and hands extends to control over the musicians in the orchestra. The boundary between conductor and musicians dissolves in a very specific way. Fantasia raises the issue of control more generally: Who, or what, controls the objects and events depicted within each segment of the film.

We can see this thematics of control enacted in a classic Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1948, Long-Haired Hare. As the cartoon opens Bugs is happily strumming away on his banjo somewhere up in the hills. Not far away a classical tenor, Giovanni Jones, is practicing for a recital. Bugs’ music disturbs him, so he tries to shut Bugs down, resulting in a standard cartoon shuffle between the Little Guy (Bugs) and the Big Guy (Jones). When Jones goes to the Hollywood Bowl for his recital, Bugs follows and makes a pest of himself, disrupting the performance in various ways. And then Bugs gets serious.

Michael Barrier describes what happens next (Hollywood Cartoons, Oxford, 1999, p. 490):
Bugs has only disrupted the performance, though, he hasn’t taken control of it. He does that when he strides imperiously toward the podium, wearing a flowing white wig. “Leopold!” the musicians cry – for who else could this be but Leopold Stokowski? The conductor yields his podium abjectly, handling Bugs his baton, but Bugs, true to Stokowski’s habit of conducting only with his hands, breaks it and tosses it away. Bugs then conducts not only the orchestra but also the singer: Giovanni’s voices rises and falls wordlessly as Bugs moves his hands and waggles his fingers. When the concertgoers respond with applause, Bugs conducts them, too, instantly silence their applause with a gesture. Bugs is not done until he makes Giovanni hold a high note for a long, long time, so that, finally, the shell of the Hollywood Bowl cracks and comes crashing down around his ears.
Thus was the power of the conductor to control events merely by waving his baton, or in this case, his hands. Note, however, the much of the humor of this cartoon is grounded in Bugs’ ability to extend conductorial control far beyond its normal boundaries. This is the issue that Disney weaves through the episodes of Fantasia: What are the proper limits of control?

Let’s turn to the very first segment, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Like every other segment of the film, except the last, it is preceded by a shot of Stokowski on the podium. But Stokowski also shows up within this segment. When it transitions from the toccata to the fugue, Stokowski reappears and then dissolves into a red mist:

2 Stowki in mist

And he reappears just before the very end of the fugue:

10 stoki glorious

Stokowski is poised before the rising sun. Notice that white wave-like thing shooting up along the right-hand of the screen. It is some kind of wave, though just what kind is something of a mystery. But then, everything in this segment is a bit mysterious. In any event, that wave is moving in response to Stokowski’s conducting gesture.

Here’s how it goes: Before Stokowski appears we see a wave on the left, then one on the right. This repeats once, and then again, with the tempo slowing down just a bit. Stokowski appears midway in the second repetition, in time to conduct that right-hand wave you see in the screen grab. Then, still more deliberately, we get waves on both sides, with both hands leading them; this is repeated once. At this point Stokowski almost spans the sun and he is clearly in control over natural forces, that is, forces natural to the peculiar word of this segment. He then brings the Bach piece to a deliberate and dignified conclusion.

This use of Stokowski thus establishes control as a thematic concern within the fictional worlds posited the film.

In the next segment, The Nutcracker Suite, Disney presents an animist view of the world in which fairies change night to day and one season to another. They are clearly externalizations of forces within the natural world. Then comes The Sorcerers Apprentice, which we’ll examine in some detail. Briefly, Mickey Mouse uses conductorial hand gestures to bring a broom to life and has a dream in which he conducts the forces of nature, as Stokowski did at the end of the Bach. The first half of the program ends with the Rite of Spring, a fully natural world, without even animist fairies to help things along. However, as I argue in Disney Does Darwin, Disney depicts evolution in such a way as to suggest that it’s accomplished by a force hidden within the natural world.

The second half opens with Beethoven’s Pastoral. In the middle movement (of five) Bacchus gets drunk, dances wildly with the young centaurettes, and in a moment of blind passion, kisses his donkey. The other gods then seek to punish him for this indiscretion by initiating a storm and hurling lightening bolts at the earth, all aimed at Bacchus (for detailed discussion see Disney’s Pastoral Symphony: An Anatomy of Domestic Life, Some Working Notes (PDF)). Then we have Dance of the Hours, in which animal dancers – ostriches, hippopotami, elephants, and alligators – fall out of character, that is, loose control over their dance roles, and bring down the house, literally. Night on Bald Mountain, which we’ll examine in some detail, is dominated by a demon who summons his minions with conductorial gestures and who manipulates them with his hands. But he is himself subject to an unseen external force that brings his actions to an end, much to his apparent relief (see my post, Disney Agonistes), and ushers in the almost meditative Ave Maria.

Hands, Body, and Behavioral Mode

All the Stokowski sequences show his hands operating as more or less unified, if somewhat flexible, instruments. The same is true of Mickey’s hands in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. We don’t see differentiated movements by the fingers. That’s not the case in Night on Bald Mountain, where we do see more differentiated use of the fingers. To better appreciate this difference, let’s take a look at how the motor system is organized.

The body’s hundreds of muscles are driven by motor neuron pools in the spinal chord and brain stem (Larry Swanson, Brain Architecture, Oxford 2003, pp. 104-109). They are in turn regulated by circuits called central pattern generators. After noting that the “major pattern generators ... seem to fall into roughly three groups” Swanson sketches them out (p. 115):
One group is obviously concerned with exploratory or foraging behavior. It includes the locomotor pattern generator in the spinal cord; pattern generators for orienting movements of the eyes, head, and neck; and of course supporting both of these, pattern generators for maintaining posture under the constant pull of gravity. Another group of pattern generators appears to be more concerned with behavior after a goal has been approached. Reaching, grasping, manipulating, licking, chewing, and swallowing would be examples here. Finally, other pattern generators have a constant rhythmic activity as long as an animal is alive.
We won’t be talking about the last group. It’s the difference between the first and second groups that interests me. As Swanson has characterized them, the first is concerned with medium and large-scale movements of the body, while the second is concerned with small-scale movements of certain parts of the body, the face and neck and the hands.

The point is simply that these ARE two different sets of circuits. By and large, the intense use of one of those two sets precludes intense use of the other set. Athletic activity does not, for the most part, require intricate movements of the hands. Runners don’t use their hands at all except as weights in maintaining balance. Gymnasts use their hands for grasping; ball players handle the ball with their hands; and many other sports require the hands for grasping and pushing. While these uses are important, they do not rival the intricate hand movements of typists, musicians, cooks, artists and so forth. And the people who enact those movements do so, for the most part, when their body is relatively stationary. You don’t type messages on your smart phone or carve wooden decoys while running a steeplechase.

The case of marching band is an interesting one. The first year I tried out for the marching band I didn’t make the cut. Why? Because I had trouble marching and playing my instrument at the same time. I was only 13 at the time and my band director said that it was common for musicians of that age to have trouble coordinating instrumental performance with marching. That playing a musical instrument requires a high level of manual skill is obvious. What might not be so obvious is that marching is more complex than simply walking. At the most basic level you have to keep in step with the other bandsmen and you have to make each stride of a certain length. Beyond that you have to make coordinated maneuvers of various kinds, including dance steps, all while continuing to perform on your instrument.

It is not deeply difficult. Lots of people learn to do it well. But it is tricky, and the trickiness stems from the fact that one must use both of these motor control systems at the same time, systems normally used more or less alone.

I suspect that this difference is modal in the sense David Hays and I have adopted from Warren McCulloch. That is, we’re talking about a global commitment of the nervous systems resources to one type of activity. That commitment involves not only the motor system, but the sensory systems as well. Athletes must use their senses of sight, hearing, and touch to guide their movements. Musicians, craftsman, and artists do the same. But, where athletes attend to the wider world around their entire body, musicians, craftsmen, and artists attend to a much smaller world within arm’s length, or less.

Thus we have two spheres of sensorimotor activity, a larger one for whole body movement through space, and a smaller one under the control of hands and fingers. But what of the fact that when the hands and fingers control musical instruments and draw pictures, they can evoke – even INvoke – the whole cosmos?

Magic Hands

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was the first Fantasia episode to be made. In fact, it was begun before there was any plan to make a Concert Feature (the film’s working title). When The Sorcerer’s Apprentice proved to be an unusually expensive short Disney cast about for ways to recoup his investment. The solution he hit upon was to go all in on a group of deluxe musical shorts that he could then bundle together as a single feature presentation. Disney knew he could get more money out of a feature than from several independent shorts – or he thought he knew that. Alas, Fantasia bombed at the box office.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was created as a vehicle for a redesigned Mickey Mouse. The film opens with a shot of the Sorcerer using his hands to conjure a butterfly out of smoke:

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He goes off to bed, leaving his apprentice behind to fill the cistern with water from the well. His apprentice, being both lazy and ambitious, decides to enlist a broom to his aid. He dons his master’s magic hat and makes magic gestures at the broom with his hands:

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It comes to life; he sets it to work, and then nods off. During a dream he imagines himself standing on a promontory with the forces of nature at his command. There he is, gesturing away just like a conductor:

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Of course, all this goes horribly wrong. Mickey awakens to find the room filled with water. In an act of desperation Mickey chops the broom to pieces, which just makes matter worse. He piece becomes an autonomous broom, each of which carries water from the well to the cistern:

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But all is made right when the Sorcerer used his hands to set things aright.

These gestures are not particularly intricate. Except for some of Mickey’s conjuring gestures, the fingers do not move quasi-independently. Rather, the hand is used as a whole. There is no reason to think that, in watching these gestures, viewers are empathetically aware of their own motor circuits for the control of intricate small-scale hand movements. What’s important, and problematic, about these gestures is that they extend control beyond one’s own body.

The Sorcerer controls the candle smoke and controls the waves; Mickey brings the broom to life with his hands and thereby sets it in motion. Mickey’s motivation is transparent; he’s lazy and wants to get out of doing his chores. So he figures he can get the broom to do his work. That is, obviously, illegitimate, and chaos ensues. The Sorcerers motives are inscrutable, but we are, in effect, asked to take them as benign on the face of it. He may also be interested in ‘the secrets of the universe’, as sorcerers often are, but the film leave such matters pretty much alone, except, of course, for Mickey’s dream.

With this in mind, let’s consider a passage from Nicholas Sammon, Babes in Tomorrowland (pp 176-77):
It is not hard to read in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” a tale about the anxiety attendant on regimes of scientific management, and the resolution of that anxiety through their mastery...Taking up the master’s tools, Mickey animates the broom and sets to work doing a simple, repetitive task. He dreams that he has control over the machinery of the universe but awakes to discover that he has set in motion a juggernaut of automation. Unable to locate the stop button, he commits violence against the machine/worker he as set in motion. But his rash and unthoughtful action only exacerbates the problem: automation becomes the force of mass production, a complex but utterly orderly system that replicates the actions of the individual worker on a grand scale, multiplying its results exponentially...Only the return of the master can restore order–which includes reminding the apprentice of his place. The upstart returns to the master his tools, and the punishment is firm, but forgiving. Order is restored, but it is a humanized order.
Sammon goes on to suggest that the film is an allegory, not just about scientific management gone amuck, but about such management principles as applied to child-rearing – ‘scientific’ childrearing was in vogue at the time. As far as I’m concerned, it makes little difference whether or not one sees it as an allegory about child-rearing or more generally. For that matter, I’ve played around with the idea that the segment is an allegory about animation itself.

As we know, animated films are made with hand-drawn images: hand-drawn, hand-inked, and hand-painted. But then many things are made by hand, so perhaps we can discount that just a bit. We also know, however, that the figure of the Sorcerer was based on Walt Disney. He was known as Yen Sid around the studio, which is “Disney” spelled backwards. Audience members would not, of course, have known that. So we can discount that as well.

What does that leave us with? Well, there’s the fact that the Sorcerer is undoubtedly the boss and Mickey the mischievous subordinate. The boss uses his hands to make a pretty visual image (the butterfly) as animators do, and the apprentice uses his hands to bring life to an inanimate object, as animators do. When things get out of control, we see broom after broom after broom almost in endless profusion, a pattern of repetition like all those individual frames that constitute a film.

However much I like that reading, I see no reason to privilege it above Sammon’s specific argument, that it’s about “scientific” child rearing, or his more general argument, that it’s about scientific management in general. These allegorical readings all have the same form. It’s the form they have in common that’s important. For it is that form that is in the film.

In all versions one actor, represented by Mickey Mouse, attempts to extend control illegitimately beyond is boundaries. Another creature, represented by the Sorcerer, restores order. In these various allegorical readings, Mickey is either a factory worker, a child, or an animator (sort of a factory worker as child); and the Sorcerer is the boss, a parent, or the head of a film studio (the boss of adult children). In each case, though, control is contested and problematic.

Now, let’s turn it around and look at this segment from the viewer’s point of view. What, in the viewer’s experience makes these events salient?

Well, all viewers either were once children or currently are children. All of them have gone against parental strictures, gotten into trouble, and have had to be bailed out. For an adult factory worker, or someone who knows one, those images of repetition and the sense of being at the mercy of that repetition, the images in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice gain salience from that experience. And so it goes with the parent grappling with the precepts of scientific child rearing and, of course, the animator, in-betweener, inker, painter, or cameraman in an animation studio. The film imagery is a vehicle that can carry and resonate different life experiences.

Evil Hands

Night on Bald Mountain belongs, of course, to Chernobog, who emerges from a mountaintop:


He is thus presented as immobile. He has no legs and is fixed in place. He can move only by waving his arms and using his fingers. That is to say, Disney has set this episode up so that the central figure only has the small-scale sensorimotor system available to him. And what does he use that small-scale system for?

First, he uses conductor’s hand gestures – or are they a magician’s? – to summon his minions. These aren’t full-bodied humans though, but only their restless spirits, their souls:


He is controlling these creatures at a distance. He is not manipulating them directly with his hands.

Once his minions have arrived and they’re all assembled and flitting about beneath him, that changes. Chernobog reaches down into the flames and holds a few flickers on his right hand:

SC12 flames on hand

Using his left hand, with writhing and differentiated finger motions

SC13 conjuring

he conjures the flames into the forms of naked women

SC14 three women

who become animals

SC15 three animals

who in turn become imps

SC17 five imps into flames

The imps are crushed

SC18 five imps crushed

and tossed back into the flames

SC21 flame dance

A bit later we see women-form flames writhing about utterly free of Chernobog:

SC7 ladies in the flames

Then a bare-breasted woman:

SC6 boobs flesh

Notice the harpy (right of center) which some creature clasped in its claws:

SC5 more flames

This, of course, comes to an end. A bell tolls, Chernobog cringes, and folds himself back into the mountain as dawn breaks.

What’s going on here?

First, the hands; of course the hands. It is a striking scene, and must have been astounding for people to see on the large screen (it’s been years since I’ve seen Fantasia in a theater). The whole screen is filled with this creature’s hand playing with, well, playing with what? Flames of course. Are those women, animals, and imps alive in some sense? It’s a question that’s only available to us in the luxury of thinking about the film after the fact. While watching it, certainly for the first time, all you can do is register what you’re seeing: flames! women! animals! whatevertheyares! flames! The film moves too fast to permit time for thought. Above all, you must keep up with the imagery.

That those are naked women is, however, unmistakable. And that’s one thing the Disney-version has trouble with, the sexuality implicit in female nudity. And by the “Disney-version” I do not mean just Uncle Walt; I mean the whole mid-century middle-America for whom he worked. By this time Disney had been putting his imaginative wares before the public for over a decade and a half. This wasn’t his personal vision, as auteur of animation, he was putting up on the screen. It was how a large segment of American wanted to see itself.

Disney had dabbled with sexuality earlier in the film. In the “Arabian Dance” sequence of the Nutcracker he had the sensuous moves of the fish, those fish that looked directly out of the film to the audience. He had the bare-breasted Centaurettes of the Pastoral. But these flame women are different. They are women, not fish, not horse-human hybrids. And they are – I can’t avoid it, can I? – hot hot hot. But they also move by quickly, so quickly you might not believe your eyes.

The same is true of the bare-breasted women and harpies later in the segment. Whatever these creatures are, they seem to be running free of Chernobog himself. In the earlier segment he’d conjured the women out of films with his bare hands, but now these creatures are flying free. They’re out of control.

I suppose we could read this juxtaposition, differentiated hand motions with sexual imagery, as a disguised masturbation fantasy. But that strikes me as being too, well, too literal, actually, and too narrow. The differentiated control of the fingers that Chernobog displays is phylogenetically recent, monkeys and apes have it, but not so much as humans. Think of them as a figure for Reason and Chernobog as Reason desperately drawn to and trying to control sexuality. To the extent that masturbation is an attempt to bring sexuality under willful control then, yes, this is a masturbation fantasy. But masturbation is but one tactical device for bringing sexual desire and satisfaction under the compass of will. Rather, read this segment as allegory of all the cultural devices we’ve invented to master sexuality.

What! you say, you’re seriously proposing that Chernobog is a figure for Reason? Are you out of your friggin’ mind! There’s nothing reasonable about Chernobog’s actions.

True. But the faculty of Reason can be reasonable only when it is in control. When confronted with something it cannot control, like sexuality, Reason becomes most unreasonable.

And then some unseen external force shuts it down, as the Sorcerer came to the rescue of his hapless and drowning apprentice. A bell tolls, the demon cringes, and folds upon himself and returns to the mountain.

Hands Off, Let’s Jump into the Ocean

As I’ve mentioned previously, Stokowski does not appear before this final segment, Ave Maria. When Deems Taylor appears after Dance of the Hours to introduce the next segment, he tells us that he’s introducing two contrasting segments, the profane (Night on Bald Mountain) and the sacred (Ave Maria). The film moves directly from one to the other. Hence we have seen the last of Stokowski.

At the same time, it’s almost as though Disney were saying, of the Ave Maria, “hands off.” It’s not simply that Stokowski and his conductor’s hands do not appear before the segment, but it’s the nature of the segment itself. We see a procession of religious, but they are too small for us to see their hands. And there is little or no small and medium scale motion on the screen. The individuals in the procession move slowing and in a block; there are no individual movements.

Except for the procession of the religious, and it’s only there in the first half, the scene stays still and the camera moves slowly across and then into the scene. The main source of motion in the sequence comes from the (virtual) camera.

Let’s think about that a bit. There are three sources of change on a motion picture screen: 1) movement of objects within the scene, 2) movement of the camera (zooming, panning), and 3) switching from one shot to another, or one scene to another. In order to track of what is going on, one must attend to these different sources of motion.

But then, that’s pretty much like getting around in the world, no? The visual system has to track several different sources of motion in the scene before it: 1) movement of objects within the scene, 2) head movement, 3) eye movement, and 4) whole body movement. Head movement often tracks individual objects. Eye movement may do that as well, but it’s also scanning rapidly and unconsciously across the scene.

With this in mind, let’s compare these two final segments with respect to those sources of motion:
Ave Maria 
1) Within scene motion: we have the procession of the procession of the religious in the first half; the appearance of light from above at the mid-point; and the appearance of the sun and its rays at the very end. That is, only three sources of within-scene motion in the entire segment.
2) Camera moves: low left-to-right pan in the first half; a slow zoom-in in the second half.
3) Shots: a quick count, I see only five or six shots in the whole segment, depending on how you count them. The screen goes black in the middle and it’s one continuous zoom from there to the end.

Night on Bald Mountain 
1) Within scene motion: lots of it. There are many moving figures, and flames. Some of the movement is paced and composed so that one can easily track it, but some is too fast and complex for that.
2) Camera moves: there are lots of individual shots and I haven’t counted them up. But, we have zooms and pans in many shots, while other shots are static.
3) I gave up counting shots when I got to twenty and I hadn’t even gotten to Chernobog playing with fire on the palm of his hand.
Thus, not only are the two segments about different (and contrasting) subject matter, they are also formally very different. Ave Maria has relatively little motion, and what there is, is slow. Night on Bald Mountain is filled with frenetic motion from each of the sources of on-screen change. Thus the irrational devil-segment places extreme demands on our systems for background record keeping, unconscious reason if you will while in contrast, the Ave Maria segment places very few demands on those same systems. No reason necessary.

So, the music, Ave Maria, is about the blessed mother (Disney had considered using an image of Mary at the end of film, but decided not to do so), and the imagery makes minimal cognitive demands. Could this relative lack of differentiated mental activity be a way of evoking a state of undifferentiated communion with one’s (blessed) mother?

With that question, of course, I have landed firmly in classic psychoanalytic territory. Which is where I was headed all along. Let me quote from the beginning of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, where Freud is talking about the origins of religious belief in an “oceanic feeling.”
Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego. This ego appears to us as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else ... There is only one state – admittedly an unusual state...–in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. (pp. 12-13)
Having set things up, Freud goes on (pp. 13-14):
Further reflection tells us that the adult’s ego-feeling cannot have been the same from the beginning., It must have gone through a process of development ... An infant at the breast does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him.
And then we have the reality principle (p. 14):
One comes to learn a procedure by which, through a deliberate direction of one’s sensory activities and through suitable muscular action, one can differentiate between what is internal – what belongs to the ego – and what is external, what emanates from the outer world. In this way one make the first step toward the introduction of the reality principle which is to dominate future development.
Of course, in this last segment Disney presents us with no infant, no mother, and no breast. But he gives us a song about a mother and he presents us with a scene having little motion and thus requiring little differentiating record keeping. One doesn’t have to keep track of multiple sorts of visual motion.

The mental states the film evokes are every bit as important as the scene it presents. This last segment places the viewer in a state of undifferentiated access to a source of love.

Let me offer a scene of a mother and child that I reported in an older post:
A few years ago I was sitting in a departure lounge at Newark International Airport and happened to observe a mother and her infant playing together. She was seated in one of the chairs and had her infant on her lap. The infant was, say, nine months old and was playing with some cup-like object, perhaps a plastic container for storing food in a refrigerator. She was turning it around in her hands, looking inside, grabbing it and waving it, and so forth.

Then she dropped it and it fell to the floor. She had been following it with her eyes, of course, and so followed it to the floor. At the same time she leaned over and reached down for it. As she did so her mother smoothly lowered her to the point where she could grab the container and thus retrieve the dropped object—dropped deliberately, in exploration? Once she’d grabbed on and started pulling it toward her, her mother pulled her up and back to her lap. This happened quickly and smoothly, as though mother and infant were not two, but one: motherandchild.

Biomechanically, I suggest, they WERE one. They’d spent many hours thus playing together. They knew one another’s moves. Mother knew what baby wanted and how it would move; baby was secure in mother’s grasp.

* * * * *

So, how did this infant experience she mother’s action of lowering and then raising? Did she experience as her own, as answering to HER will? After all, when she reached for the dropped object, she was intending to reach it and the move was correlative with that intention.

And when mother carries her infant from one place to another, how does the infant experience that movement? Say, for example, that the infant spots something across the room and looks right at it, with interest. Mother carries the infant toward the object and then places the infant on the floor a few feet from the object. How does the infant experience that? How much of that movement is within the compass of the infant’s will? All of it? What distinction does the infant make between the carry portion and the crawl portion? And, if the infant is attending to one thing, and mother moves her away from that thing, against her will, how does the infant experience THAT movement? Note that, in neither case, does the infant herself propel the movement from one place to the other.

* * * * *

With that in mind, think of camera movement in motion pictures. The camera moves here and there, but you don’t move at all, you just see the scene shift. When the film cuts from one shot to another, the scene shift is abrupt.
It will take a bit of work to get the details right, but you can see where I’m going. What I’m after is a way of thinking one screen motion in relation to how we move through the world and the relationship between that movement and what we sense through touch, sight, and sound.

While we’re watching a film we are sitting still. The motor control system devoted to whole body movement has little to do (beyond a fidget or two), nor does the system for manual control (though it has to deliver the occasional snack to the mouth). Are those systems shut down or, on the contrary, are they now repurposed to help track what’s happening on the screen?

The eyes, of course, are doing what they’re doing in the outside world as well, scanning the scene. Perhaps the head is as well, especially if one is sitting so close to the screen that you have to track around to follow things as they move. But, as the manual and large motor systems don’t have to control muscles, why not put them to work keeping track of shots and camera motion? Night on Bald Mountain gives those systems lots of work while Ave Maria gives them little.

Getting Attached to Reality

Now we face something of a puzzle. If, as Ernst Kris has suggested, art involves regression in service of the ego, and if, as Norm Holland as argued “Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief is a regression to an oral merger of infant and nurturing other” then we’ve gotten there in the Ave Maria segment – and if you’re really worried about the oral part, think of where songs come from; this is the only segment of the film with a vocal part. Now that, after two hours, we’ve totally regressed to an undifferentiated puddle of libidinal bliss, how do we get out? That is, how do we return to reality?

Obviously, the film ends, and we have little choice but to come up out of the cave and face reality. But why, for example, aren’t we groggy, as though awakened from a deep sleep? Well, we may not be groggy, but we might be in a state of mind where we don’t much want to talk to anyone. Or perhaps we DO want to talk. About the movie.

There is a transition to be made, from the film world to ordinary reality. This transition is the reverse of the one that took us from the waking world, into the theater, through the lobby and then into the darkened auditorium, where we wait for the film to begin. Every film requires this of us, of course. But Disney has made special provisions for managing this process in Fantasia.

When the film starts we don’t see title credits or even a scene before the credits (like in the James Bond films). We see a shot of an empty concert stage:

1 empty stage

This plays to the fiction that we’ve come into the theater to hear a concert of classical music. Musicians enter gradually and, in a few moments, Deems Taylor appears:

3 full taylor

He will introduce every segment of the film, save the last.

These scenes with Taylor are, shall we say, ontologically continuous with the theater itself, with its auditorium and audience. Yes, we’re seeing a fiction. Taylor and the orchestra aren’t really there. But their world is continuous with ours. It’s not a different world with different laws. It’s our world.

It is psychosocial home base. The film is thus a series of excursions from and returns to this home base. And that bit of terminology, “home base”, bring us back to psychoanalytic thinking. I have in mind, of course, the revisionist work of John Bowlby (Attachment and Loss, 1969, 1973, 1980; A Secure Base, 1988), who has revised traditional psychoanalytic understanding of the psychology of attachment, loss and separation. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Bowlby came to doubt the classical psychoanalytic belief that the child's attachment to her mother was rooted in the mother's provision of nutrition. He came to believe, instead, that it was the mother's caring presence itself that was significant to the infant and undertook an extensive cross-disciplinary conceptual program to argue his case. One of Bowlby's signal moves was to ground his study of human attachment in the ethological literature about attachment among animals, including imprinting in birds. To this I would add more recent neurobiological work that has identified many of the neural circuits mediating infant-parent bonding. This behavior has a long phylogenetic history and is mediated by specific neural circuits.

In Bowlby’s thinking, and in that of my teacher, Mary Ainsworth, one of his most gifted colleagues, the life of a young child is a series of excursions to and from attachment figures, of with mother is generally the most important. This shows up most clearly during play sessions. If for example mother and child were out in the park, the mother might sit on a bench while the infant will toddle around. The child will start from her mother and move out into the park, looking back at mother every once in awhile. At some point the child will return to mother to “check in”. And then she’ll take another excursion away from mother, exploring another region of the park.

I do not mean to suggest that Deems Taylor is really a mother figure. Nothing of the kind. Deems Taylor is an authoritative and avuncular middle-aged man. But he functions as a point of reference for the film. Actually, it’s not so much Taylor himself that functions this way, but the segments that he’s in. Those segments are, in effect, located here and now in the real world. They occupy a certain region in psychological space, if you will. The movie then takes the viewer/listener on a number of excursions away from that region of ontological space and into different regions.

This pattern changes at the end, where the film segues directly from the penultimate sequence, Night on Bald Mountain, to the final sequence, Ave Maria, a change Taylor tells us about when he introduces the two segments. Nor does he return after the last segment. When Ave Maria is over, so is the film.


So the over all movement of the film is to and from a psychological space very much like, contiguous with, the theater itself. And there was an intermission after the first four segments. One’s psychological experience then is not one of and opening break from the real world and then an ever-deepening immersion in a fictional world. Rather it is one of moving to and from the world of the theater itself to fictional worlds staged on a screen at the front of the theater.

That ebb and low thus leads us to expect a return to theater-world. The Deems Taylor interstitial segments anchor us to the shared social world of the theater, giving us the freedom to regress in each of the films individual segments. We can regress because we know that, at the end, we will return.

The last segment, Ave Maria, is no different from the others in that respect. But, in staging that last regression in the way he did, with the music and lyrics of Ave Maria, and the formal elements we’ve been discussion, Disney has made that oceanic regression a shared collective experience. That is an artistic achievement of a very high order.

Not bad for an under educated carpenter’s son from Kansas. Of course, he didn’t do it alone. He had help, from his friends and from, yes, his employees.

1 comment:

  1. Ahh, hands. Thought provoking and finger tapping insights.