Friday, September 30, 2011

Disney Agonistes: Night on Bald Mountain

This is the penultimate episode of Fantasia, coming immediately before the Ave Maria. Our host and commenter, Deems Taylor, tells us that it depicts the profane while the last episode depicts the sacred. It the most frenzied and hyperkinetic episode, which places it in radical contrast to the all but static Ave Maria.

It is also one of the most frightening, if not THE most frightening cartoons ever made. The fright centers on Chernobog, the mountain/devil/demon being at the center of the episode. He was animated by Vladimir Tytla, whose father was a Ukrainian cavalryman. Tytla’s work on Chernobog is widely regarded as the finest hand-drawn animation ever done, an opinion I will not contradict or even question. I am particularly fond of two shots near the end, when we hear the church bell that brings the demonic revels to an end. Chernobog is in pain

SC1 baldmtn pain

and protectively fearful

SC2 defense

Think on that, slowly, carefully. Only minutes before we’d seen him summoning the spirits of the dead to the revels, then toying with them and capriciously tossing them into hell fires. Now he’s cringing in pain and fear at the mere sound of a church bell. What gives?

Here, just a bit later we see Chernobog, a very weary Chernobog, folding his wings so as to then dissolve back into the mountain:

SC3 baldmtn weary

The animation here is exquisite, with an ever so delicate stagger between the arm movement and the wing movement. While Tytla had reference footage to work from – actor Bela Lugosi, and his director on this episode, Wilfred Jackson – he could not have had reference footage for this shot, because no such creature exists.

When John Culhane asked Tytla how he achieved such effects “he drew himself up, like an actor getting back into an old role. ‘I imagined that I was as big as a mountain and made of rock and yet I was feeling and moving,’ Tytla answered. Then he dropped the devil’s posture and became a man again. ‘You see?’” (Walt Disney’s Fantasia, p. 196). No, I don’t see, because I wasn’t there. But I feel Chernobog in my back every time I watch this episode, even when I sit here writing about it.

There’s a heft and grandeur in Chernobog that is worthy of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Without Tytla’s powerful acting, his powerful realization of Chernobog, Night on Bald Mountain would only be a magnificent swirling freak show. Tytla gave it the weight of Greek tragedy.

But where’s the tragedy?

Through the Freudian Funhouse

One thing Disney was not able to deal with is adult sexuality. It’s lurking there underwater in the sinuous moves of those cute big-eyed goldfish in the “Arabian Dance” in The Nutcracker Suite, and it’s vaguely hinted at in the courtship sequences in The Pastorale Symphony, but nowhere is it so obvious, and obviously celebrated, as it is in, for example, the Lantz studio’s The Greatest Man in Siam. It’s here in Night on Bald Mountain, hidden away in frenetic demonic view.

If Chernobog were a full-bodied man, his hands in this shot would be over his genitals, as his waist is wreathed in flame:

SC4 baldmtn hands&genitals

Here we see bare-breasted harpies flying about in the flames, though they go by so quickly you almost don’t notice them:

SC5 more flames

SC6 boobs flesh

In this shot the fames themselves take on female form:

SC7 ladies in the flames

SC8 face of horror

What’s that detached face of horror doing there?

Just what is Disney doing? Why the emphasis on naked female bodies? Why not show men in pain? But there is a man, here, is there not? Chernobog, he’s male, no?

Hand Job Metamorphosis

Let’s step through an earlier scene. Here’s Chernobog holding some creatures prancing about on the surface of his hands:

SC9 imps on hands

Notice that Chernobog’s eyes are blank, and that a dead yellow light seems to be emanating from them. The lack of eyes coupled with a very mobile and expressive face heightens our sense of uncanny horror. What IS this being?

The creatures get dropped into the fire:

SC10 into the flames

From which

SC11 the reach

Chernobog extracts a few flames that dance on his hand, while he conjures with the other one and forms the flames into women:

SC12 flames on hand

SC13 conjuring

SC14 three women

This is not the first time we’ve seen conjuring hands in this films. The sorcerer conjured a butterfly out of smoke in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, while Mickey brought a broom to life. Later, in a dream, Mickey stood on a high promontory and conducted the elements, and Stokowski conducted the orchestra. We see HIS very famous hands at the beginning of each episode. Hands, and the magical work they do, ALWAYS magical, are a recurring motif in this film.

The three women are transformed into a pig, a wolf, and a goat, and then into five bluish imps, who are then crushed back into flames, then back into a brighter blue:

SC15 three animals

SC16 five imps

SC17 five imps into flames

SC18 five imps crushed

SC19 five imps become blue flames

SC20 imps again

At this point the camera pulls back and, once again, we see Chernobog at his full height. In fact, we’re at the shot we examined above, the one where Chernobog’s hands are in front of his lower belly. Those bright blue imps most likely fell into the flames as Chernobog drew himself up and lowered his arms. As we look down into the pit we can see creatures dancing around the flames:

SC21 flame dance

Chernobog recedes into the background. This is when we see the women-shaped flames, the harpies, and skulls:

SC22 skull in hell

So Close, Yet so Far: the Real

What’s this agony about?

And it is agony, not just for the creatures who are being toyed with: conjured up, destroyed, reformed, only to be destroyed again. It’s agony for Chernobog as well. Yes, there’s a look of evil glee on his face as his does this, and, yes, he cringes in fear when the bell sounds, but when he finally folds his wings, he does so with a sense of relief: It’s over. I can rest.

If I were to argue the Freudian line, I’d read Chernobog as a man who can see women, but cannot have them. They’re always changing and slipping away from him. So he is consumed in an agony of desire. Or perhaps a man who can have women at will, but receives no lasting pleasure or satisfaction, as in Shakespeare’s great Sonnet 129:
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
Yes, the frenzy in those last two lines fits the frenzy in Chernobog’s fiery pit. THAT’s what’s going on.

So, after having invoked Milton, I’m now invoking Shakespeare, all in commentary on a Walt Disney cartoon. I do so because the quality of Tytla’s animation requires it. No more, no less.

That’s one line of interpretation. There is another. One conducts an orchestra with one’s hands, as one conjures magic. But one also draws pictures, and animates them, with one’s hands. Is Chernobog a figure for the virtuoso artist who can draw at will, draw anything, anything at all, make it LOOK like it is real. But he cannot MAKE IT REAL. Against that standard, his virtuosity is for naught.

Farfetched? Perhaps. But the story of an artist being defeated by his inability to create something real, that is a very old story. The Greeks told a tale about Pygmalion, a sculptor. George Bernard Shaw fashioned that story into a play, which Lerner and Lower turned into a musical, My Fair Lady, which in turn became a film. Disney did another version of such a story in Pinocchio, about a puppet become real.

That Disney and his artists should have such a story on their minds is thus not so far fetched. And Disney was obsessed with making his images look as real as possible, even if they depicted fantasy creatures in fantasy settings. Later in his career Disney would turn his hand to creating an artificial world, from scratch, life size. First there was Disneyland and then, at the very end, Disney World.

Moreover, just what story, pray tell, precedes this one in Fantasia? It’s the Dance of the Hours, which is, as I have argued, about animals who dance the ballet and keep dropping out of role. Only they don’t know of their failure. They just go with the flow, as if this is what’s supposed to happen—and, of course, in some sense it is. Yet, we wonder, did the alligator really fall for the hippopotamus, or was that in the script? Where does reality lie?

Make no mistake, that’s what Disney was dealing with in that carnival of animal dancers, appearance and reality. That’s one of the major themes in cartoons. It is central, for example, in that most austere of cartoon premises, the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons of Chuck Jones. To deny it of Disney in the film he planned as a showcase for this new medium, a film in which, among other things, he showed the origins of life on earth and the death of the dinosaurs, to deny a central interest in the play of appearance and reality is to be deeply and perhaps willfully mistaken about the nature of the medium in which Disney so deliberately and brilliantly worked.

No, it does not at all seem farfetched that Disney would see himself in competition with reality, and be frustrated at his inability to get there. He may have been congenial Uncle Walt on his TV program, but that was an act. It may have been true to one facet of his personality, but it was still an act. What put him in a position to stage that act was the relentless pursuit of perfection, a pursuit that would always come up against limits and be frustrated in consequence.

Thus it must come as a relief when reality forces an end to it all. The movie MUST be finished so that it can be put up on screens and money counted, at least. At some time the pursuit of perfection must stop. Corners will be cut. Numerous imperfections will make onto the screen. I can’t be helped.

And the film will be finished. It will be good. The audience will like it. In this case, alas, it took decades for an appreciable audience to catch up with good old Uncle Walt.

When the bell sounded, Chernobog did not want to stop perfecting his play with his minions. But, he did stop, and did so with a sense of relief, world weary, but glad to rest.

It is in that mood that Disney left us, prepared for the stately calm of the Ave Maria.


In doing this analysis I’ve had to think a lot about just what one is up to. The problem with the interpretation business, and especially with schemes like the Freudian, is that it presumes that whatever it is that’s HIDDEN, that’s the real stuff. All the rest’s a dodge. That presents a real problem for film criticism as it makes the sensuous surface, which after all, is what took most of the work, into some kind of distraction. It’s not real, the only thing that’s real is whatever it is that’s hidden.

It seems to me that if you’re going to dabble in hidden things, or, if not hidden, than perhaps things that simply aren’t explicitly telegraphing their their purpose and meaning, the question to ask is: What’s it being used to build? In the case of the writhing and flying female forms in Night on Bald Mountain, they’re not at all hidden. Some of them go by rather quickly, but there out there for all to see. But what are they being used to build? Why does Disney need them to achieve his effect? And just what IS that effect supposed to be?

On that last question, if the effect, in some sense, is where the episode ends up, it ends up in rest and repose. That throws a lot of weight on Chernobog’s final gestures, which I’ve read as gestures of acceptance, perhaps flavored with resignation. In the end, he WANTS to rest.

We don’t see anyone or anything force him to do anything. We hear the bell, as he does, and we see him cringe in pain and fear. We don’t know why he does that, nor do we say any thing touch him or move him.

We have to take his actions at face value. We can read the program, Walpurgis Night—but what’s that? I don’t know. Most who see this film don’t know. It’s some exotic name. We can read the tolling of the bell as some kind of divine intervention. So what? What we see and what we respond to, immediately, intuitively, is what’s on the screen, and in the music. That says Chernog, in the end, is relieved to be able to rest.

To rest, from what?


I missed something! Surprise, surprise! No doubt I’ve missed a lot. But I have something very specific in mind, something that happened between the second screen shot in this post and the thirds. The first two screen shots depict Chernobog’s initial reaction to the bell. His is not the only reaction. All the spirits that came out of the ground, out of their graves, early in the episode return to the ground. To be sure, the film doesn’t devote as much time to the return as to the original emergence, but the implication is surely there. They ALL return.

Chernobog may have summoned them, but there’s no sense here that he’s sending them back. They’re going back of their own accord. That’s surely important. Just why, I don’t know. But then I don’t really know how to read these actions, not this closely.

But that return convinces me that I’m right in reading the final wing-folding as depicting blessed relief. He’s no longer responsible for keeping his minions in motion. Now he too can rest.

Meta: Describing works of art, in any medium, is difficult. I find that you have to do it in ‘layers.’ It’s only when you’ve committed yourself to a given layer, a given level of description, that you can see other things. Once that description is in place, you treat it’s specific points as reference points for organizing further observations.

That’s what happened to me here. I’d committed myself to a certain body of assertions about this episode. Those commitments implied questions, one of them being just what was happening with Chernobog at the very end. I knew from the beginning of this post that the initial three screen shots spanned two different shots in the film. But I didn’t know what to do with that. Now I have some idea of a way to begin thinking about it. What’s important is not simply that it was two shots, but what happened between them. What happened is that the other spirits went to rest.


Michael Sporn has posted images of some of Bill Tytla's drawings for Chernobog.


  1. It’s intriguing to me that this film done in the 40’s is still under discussion. I personally found what I think is an unacknowledged inspiration for the Nutcracker sequence in a 1934 animation “La Joie de Vivre” (The Joy of Living), by Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin.

    But what was Disney thinking when he mixed this brew of science, (abet Darwinian), mythology, comedy, horror, beauty and faith? Is it a commentary on our beliefs through time, or a celebration of imagination and what it means to be human?

    Taken as a whole, it’s tedious and an endurance test full of scattered wondrous moments. Broken apart into movements it becomes more focused and the integrity of each piece stands out for what it is.

    Perhaps that’s its biggest problem, the convergence of so many conflicting messages?

  2. On the precedent for The Nutracker, I wouldn't be surprised. I assume Disney stole/copied whatever he could.

    As for what this mish-mash of a film is, it's a cosmology, a two-hour tour of the world, ALL OF IT, as Disney & company could conceive it. It's an astonishing conception. Deeply flawed, but astonishing.