Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Two Rings in Fantasia: Nutcracker and Apprentice

A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where

— S. T. Coleridge, "The Æolian Harp"
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I want to look at two episodes from Disney's Fantasia: the Nutcracker Suite, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. I’ve chosen those two episodes because both have a ring structure, thus: A, B, C, . . . C’, B’, A’. My object is thus a formal one and its primary result descriptive: These two episodes each have a ring structure. I do, however, comment on matters other than form. I'd published this early in the year at The Valve. Now's the time to republish at my new home.

Nutcracker Suite: An Animist Fantasy

Disney chose Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite for Fantasia’s second segment. This music, unlike the piece he chose for the first segment, Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, does have a program; it tells a story that has to do with Christmas Eve, large dancing dolls, a nutcracker in the form of a soldier, and so forth. But, as Deems Taylor informs us in his on-screen introduction to the episode, Disney discards that story. Disney presents us with a six-part animist fantasy of the natural world around a small pond.

In the first segment, set to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” Disney depicts fairies touching things and thus causing beads of dew to appear on them. The camera’s field of view is only a foot wide or so. This is a world of well-defined objects; but they are relatively small. The fairies would seem to be only two or three inches high. Further, while the space is well-defined in three dimensions, we have no overall sense of where things are in relation to one another, or in relation to the ground, which we see only in the beginning of the segment. The (virtual) camera moves around in this space, following the fairies as they dapple the world with dew, and weave colorful patterns in the air, but the motion is not directed from some place to some other place. It is just movement.

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The movement is, of course, synchronized with the music. This is most apparent in those scenes where a fairy taps her wand on a flower, a leaf, a spider’s web, etc., and drops of dew appear. The taps are in time to the music. Fairies will return in the sixth episode in this segment, but they are absent in the second, third, fourth, and fifth episodes.

The second episode is set to the “Chinese Dance” and shows mushrooms dancing:

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Notice that the mushrooms are dancing against a black background. There is no sense of where they are beyond the fact that they are obviously on the ground. In particular, we do not know where they are in relation to the space inhabited by the dew fairies. The transition from one space to another did not happen by moving from one place to another. Rather, it was simply a transformation from one image to another, zhoup! and we’re there.

And that – magical transformation – is also how Disney handles the transition to the next section set to “Dance of the Reed Flutes.” In this episode we see flowers dancing on the surface of a stream.

Both of these segments depict plants as being capable of autonomous movement in space, that is, of being able to move like animals. We do not see fairies prodding them to motion; their motion is their own. This segment ends as the flowers tumble over the edge of a small waterfall.

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Before following the camera under the water and into the next segment, however, I want to note a passage from Neal Gabler's Disney biography: Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. Here's a passage quoting from transcripts of a story meeting concerning the Nutcracker (p. 311):
The finale would be a Flower Ballet following the blossoms through the seasons. As Walt described it, a "ballerina comes out – a graceful, beautiful girl – and she puts a little sex into the damn thing. . . . When she whirls up, you see the panties and her little butt – it will be swell! The audience will rave if you can make them feel Sex in a flower."
Now, that particular conception didn't make it into final film, and the flower ballet was shifted from the end of the episode to the center. But it shows quite clearly that Disney was thinking sexy, and that sets us up for the fourth sequence, which takes place under water, the “Arabian Dance.”

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The fish dance individually and in groups; there is even a moment where the fish form a hexagonal pattern in the manner of dancers in a Busby Berkeley dance routine. The most interesting behavior of these fish, however, is that they look directly and deliberately at the audience, something characters rarely do in movies. The effect is that of a seduction, yet they are only goldfish. Some of their movements, moreover, are patterned on those of a belly dancer Disney had brought into the studio. How does their relentless big-eyed cuteness play against and with the eroticism of their movements? Who are these fish seducing, and why?

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At the end of the dance one of the fish exudes a lot of bubbles and one of those bubbles becomes larger and larger and then, zhoup! gives way to a small group of thistles.

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Those thistles then become animated and dance the Trepak to Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Dance,” where they are joined by orchids. While the camera always maintained a distance from the mushrooms in that earlier sequence, here the camera moves deeply into the dance. As the music concludes, the flowers stop their motion and transform into a tableau the looks like painted decoration. That image then dissolves into an image of a the world we saw in the first segment of the suite.

Once again we see fairies, and they move to “Waltz of the Flowers.” The segment depicts the transition from summer to autumn, and then from autumn to winter. First we see the fairies turning green foliage to fall colors. Then we see seed pods floating though the air, finally coming to ground. And then we see fairies skating on the surface of the pond, lines spreading across the surface as their skates cut paths — perhaps my favorite scene in the whole film. As the sequence comes to an end the screen is filled with spinning snowflakes that turn out to be, you guessed it, twirling fairies.

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The ring structure is obvious:
1   Fairies    (air)
2   Dance      (ground)
3   Water      (surface)
3’  Water      (below surface)
2’  Dance      (ground)
1’  Fairies    (air)
The first and last segments take place in the air or above ground; the fairies are nature spirits going about the business of the natural world. The second and fifth are both dance segments, both take place on the ground surface, and are set against a black background. That is to say, these dances are decontextualized, and we don’t have any fairies going about natural business. Rather, the plants seem to be dancing to please themselves. The two middle segments are set in the water, the third on the surface while the fourth is beneath it. Again, no fairies. And there is dancing, this time contextualized: the flower ballet on the water’s surface (“Dance of the Reed Flutes”), and the dance of the veils (that is, the diaphanous tails) by the fish (“Arabian Dance”).

Let’s take a more adventurous look at this ceremonial. Note that the mushrooms in the second segment are age-typed – one very small one is clearly a very young mushroom – but not gender typed (mushrooms reproduce asexually). In segment four the thistles are typed as male (they do those knee bends and steps characteristic of the Trepak) while the orchids are typed as female. Now we’ve got a four-segment inner sequence that has some sort of logic. First, no gender. Then we introduce sexual display (flower ballet) and seduction (dancing fish) and follow it by a sequence that IS gender typed. What about the first and last segments?

The last segment shows the transition from late Summer, to Fall, to Winter. In this transition we see what appear to be dandelion seeds and milkweed seeds flying through the air to land on the earth. This, of course, is reproduction. The next generation is being set in place. In contrast, there is no such thing in the first segment. It shows the transition from night to day as the dew fairies dapple things with dew. So that’s nonsexual.

Now what’ve we got? My first analysis establishes a ring structure of the segment. Now can see a sexual progression through the whole series:
1    Fairies   (air)            asexual
2    Dance     (ground)         no-gender
3    Water     (water surface)  sexual display
3’   Water     (below surface)  flirtation
2’   Dance     (ground)         gender differentiation
1’   Fairies   (air)            reproduction
Is that what Disney’s team “intended”? Is that what audience members received from it, if only unconsciously? All good questions, for which I do not have answers. I don’t even know if I believe it myself. But there it is.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Desire and Magic

With this segment, the human enters into Fantasia. The Sorcerer’s face was modeled on Disney’s and, among the studio crowd he was known as Yen Sid (“Disney” spelled backwards). His apprentice was played by Mickey Mouse. Neither the Sorcerer nor Mickey seems to find anything odd in this relationship between a human and a mouse. Which is to say that, in some sense, according to the widespread cartoon convention, Mickey functions as a human being in this segment. In contrast, the dancing animals (ostrich, hippopotamus, elephant, alligator) in the sixth segment are just animals attempting the ballet. But the human, in this case, centers on our interest in magic and dreams. This world is neither the abstract and subjective world of the opening Bach fugue nor the animist world of the Tchaikovsky suite. It is a human world, a humanized world.

It is also a world with more spatial definition and differentiation than that in the Nutcracker segment. We see two distinct spaces, the dark underground cave or basement where the Sorcerer and Mickey work magic and a bright outdoor world where there is small water basin fed from a fountain. These two worlds are connected by a passageway (with stairs) through which we travel several times. While these spaces are not so clearly indicated that one could map them out with any confidence, it is quite clear that there are two spaces and that they are connected by a passageway. That this topology is definite distinguishes this world from that of The Nutcracker Suite, where we have no sense of moving in space from one domain to another. Such transitions are accomplished by (virtual) editing, not by movement in the space.

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As this episode opens we see the Sorcerer conjuring a butterfly shape out of smoke emerging from a human skull. The Sorcerer goes to bed, leaving his hat behind. The apprentice decides to practice his skills and thereby get some help with his chores. He dons the hat, casts a spell, and brings a broom to life. He then shows the broom how to bring water from the outdoor basin to indoor storage. As they march off their steps are synchronized to the dominant beat.

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Once the broom has mastered its task, Mickey falls asleep in the Sorcerer’s chair. While asleep, he dreams, his soul ascending to the top of a high pinnacle from which he commands the forces of nature as a conductor commands an orchestra. It is worth noting that each episode of Fantasia begins with a shot of Leopold Stokowski on the podium, ready to conduct the orchestra, which he did without a baton. The image of Mickey as conductor surely resonates with that.

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While Mickey is happy in his dreams of world mastery, the broom has been busily filling the storage tank. The water overflows, Mickey awakens and, in a panic, attempts to destroy the broom by chopping it up with an ax. But each splinter regenerates into a complete broom, resulting only in making the problem worse, much worse.

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Finally, the master wakes up and, seeing what has happened, parts and disperses the water. When the episode is complete, Mickey breaks frame and walks up the podium to congratulate Stokowski. His spoken congratulations (voiced by Disney himself) is the only speech in any of the episodes in the film.

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Again, the ring structure is obvious:
1   Sorcerer acts
2   Apprentice acts
3   Apprentice Dreams
2’  Apprentice acts
1’  Sorcerer acts
The first and last segments are dominated by the Sorcerer’s acts while the second and fifth are given over the his Apprentice. The middle segment is also given over to the Apprentice, but the Apprentice is dreaming.

Even without knowing that the Sorcerer is modeled on Walt Disney, or knowing that Disney supplied Mickey’s voice up through the mid-1940s, it is not hard to read this story as some kind of allegory about animation itself. After all, the Sorcerer begins by conjuring a colorful image out of smoke, there’s the resonance between Mickey-the-conductor and Stokowski, and there’s the relentless repetition of all those brooms which reminds me of the many frames in the film itself.

We do, however, know where the Sorcerer gets his face, and much more besides. Perhaps this episode betrays a bit of anxiety from Disney himself concerning his role in the process. To be sure, he was the undisputed head of the company that bares his name and puts it on every film. But, when he’d started in the business he did his own drawing and also worked the camera. As the business grew he moved away from hands-on work and became an all-around creative sparkplug and micromanaging busybody. While his ideas and work were essential to the creative process, the exact nature of his contribution was, and remains, hard to pin down. This little story about a Sorcerer and his Apprentice, however, provides an emphatic and unambiguous statement of just how necessary The Boss is to the operation.

Even if the film served Disney himself (and perhaps his cohorts) as an expressive vehicle for internal studio tensions, however, the general public is not going to know about that. The resonance between Mickey and Stokowski, yes, it’s there on the screen. The connection between the Wizard and colorful images, yes, that too is there on the screen. And perhaps even some resonance between repeated brooms and repeated frames of film. The rest of it, not there.

Let me suggest another way of reading those industrious brooms. What about the Fordist assembly line, which Chaplin satirized in Modern Times just a few years before (1936)? Surely many in the audience worked on such a line. Would those images on the screen have resonated with their work experience? If so, just who is that Sorcerer who banishes the brooms thereby shutting down production?

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to work out an interpretation along those lines. For extra credit, consider an interpretation that combines both readings by noting that Disney (and other animation studios) had introduced Fordist-like processes into the making of animated films. They had to; it was the only way to crank enough footage to make a profit.

Ring Form: What Is It?

As I indicated at the outside, my primary object has been to demonstrate that these two episodes each have a ring form. As far as I can tell, this form is not immediately apparent to the viewer. I’ve never seen it mentioned in anything I’ve read about Fantasia, nor in any discussions I’ve had with others. I’d watched these episodes many times without noticing that very obvious form. And that was not a matter of happening finally to notice the rings. Rather, I’d developed an interest in ring form and went looking for it, which required deliberate observation and analysis. I found it in Osamu Tezuka’s Metropolis, but not in Lost World or Nextworld, which are closely associated with Metropolis and written at roughly the same time. And I found it in these two episodes of Fantasia, but not in the others.

So, we could say that the form is unconscious. But we must be careful with that, this notion of being unconscious. For I don’t mean the Freudian unconscious, where some mental agent would “know” of the ring form but some other mental agent “blocks” it from consciousness. And I may not even mean what cognitivists mean when they talk of the cognitive unconscious, for example, the inner “mechanisms” of language.

As a crude analogy, consider a man walking in a maze. He might well walk a path in the form of a figure-8 but be completely unaware of doing so. The form of the path results from his response to the structure of the maze, which is invisible to him, not from any deliberate intent to walk a figure-8. (See the tale I embroidered on Herbert Simon’s parable of the ant at the end of this post.)

The problem with this analogy, of course, is that the maze is external to the man, while whatever it is that’s “causing” these ring forms, that is “inside” us. I will say it’s the brain, with its trillions of neurons in complex dynamic interaction, but that doesn’t tell us much. Rather, it only gives us a place to look.

Finally, I note that these two rings differ in one crucial respect. The ring that embodies The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is imposed on a conventional linear narrative while the ring that is The Nutcracker Suite imposes linear order on materials that do not have a linear narrative relationship among themselves. That suggests that the ring-form itself is somewhat indifferent to and independent of the materials it displays. I take that as further evidence that the form is inside us.

Better: the form IS us.

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Appendix: Method Matters

While the analysis is relatively straightforward, it was an analytic process and took time, thought, and attention to appropriate to detail. The ring structure didn’t declare itself to me immediately upon viewing, and I’d viewed both The Nutcracker Suite (NS) and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (SA) many times before undertaking this investigation.

One difficulty is the fact that films unfold in time, making it difficult to notice and compare the last moments with the opening moments, the before-the-last moments with the after-the-opening moments, and so forth, keeping all that in order. You have to make notes so as to see in all at once. That’s just one aspect of a broader issue: the fundamental complexity of these objects, these moving images with sound. Of the many properties they have, which properties do you abstract from the whole? Which ones are relevant to the ultimate descriptive purpose? Thus, though my basic goal in this exercise was a descriptive one, I had to undertake both abstraction (properties from the whole) and analysis (examine the film and my notes on it) in order to arrive at the final descriptive result.

I had to look for the structure, and I had to figure how to do that. That’s not rocket science. It’s rather simple: View the film, make notes, review your notes. Repeat as needed.

In one respect, working on NS was easier than working on SA. Given the way ring structure is defined, it follows that I had to analyze NS and SA into (discrete and non-overlapping) segments and then compare the analyze and compare the segments. The fact that NS is a suite implies that it is already divided into segments, six of them; and the divisions are strongly marked in the music and the imagery. Taking that segmentation at face value, I simply had to compare and contrast the segments to see if, on some “strong” set of properties, they exhibited the appropriate relationships.

SA, in contrast, is not a suite. It didn’t have such strongly marked segments. That meant that I had to consider content from the very beginning. I did that analysis so long ago that I do not remember how that went. A good guess is that I started by noticing that more or less in the middle of the segment Mickey goes to dreamland. I then would have worked outward from there and inward from the ends.

As I’ve indicated, it’s not rocket science. But it’s not trivial, not something one can do merely by pondering what one has seen once or three times. You have to take deliberate steps and think about what you’re doing.

Further Reading

For an introduction to ring structure, see Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles, Yale University Press, 2007.

On Walt Disney and the studio, I recommend Michael Barrier’s biography, The Animated Man, University of California Press, 2007 (cf. my review essay).

On Fantasia itself, John Culhane, Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Harry Abrams, 1999.

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ADDENDUM: From rings to cycles

Josh Landry’s been hosting a conversation on narrativity (What’s Wrong With Narrative?) at ARCADE. I brought up ring structures as a device that works against the linearity of narrative and Josh responded by, among other things, asking:

Is the circle actually available to us?

I replied by extending my Fantasia discussion beyond these two episodes to the film at large. And then I went beyond that. After reprising the bit of my methodological appendix where I pointed out that it had to actively look for the rings, here’s what I said:

Fantasia in the large presents the issue of cyclicity in a simple way. It consists of eight segments, each of which is introduced with a little chat by Deems Taylor. Think of the "space" of that chat as home base. Then the overall film takes the form of journeys from, and returns to that home base, except at the end, where there is no return.

Now, in the manner of mathematicians. Let's substitute night-time sleep for those little chats by Deems Taylor and the days activities for each episode in the film. Is that how we live our lives, as journeys from, and returns to sleep (and the dream world within it)? Or, think of a tight-knit community and substitute weekly religious observance for the Taylor chats and the rest of the week for the individual Fantasia episodes. Now we have the life of the community as a series of excursions from and returns to the collective sacred space of religious observance. During the excursions individual community members go about their business in whatever fashion. But on the days of observance, everyone is there in the same place and doing the same thing.

I spent a lot of time thinking in these terms while working on my book on music (Beethoven's Anvil). There I was thinking about music at the neural level -- not in terms of music areas in the brain, a real question, but not to the current point. I was thinking about music as an activity that orders brain states. If you think of the brain as going through a certain succession of states during, say, "So What?" (the Miles Davis tune), then each time you play, or listen to, "So What?", your brain returns to that same trajectory of states. And the return is real. At that level the life of the mind would seem to be, if not circular, at least cyclic. Sure, you can map the cyclicity onto a line, but the succession of neural states is one of real return.

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