Monday, November 28, 2011

Episode Order in Fantasia: Revealing the Human Mind

I began my exploration of Fantasia with an essay arguing that it was a masterpiece of 20th century art. That argument was about the range of material depicted within the relatively narrow compass of two hours. Disney, in effect, said: This is human life in the universe.

I now want to return to the whole film, but with a different question in mind. I want to look at the episode order. This is an issue that doesn’t arise in a film that tells a story, or, at least, at arises in a different way. The incidents in the story have an inherent order that must be respected, though foreshadowing and flashbacks are possible.

Fantasia isn’t like that. It tells no story. There is no order linking the separate episodes. In theory Disney could have determined the order by tossing a coin. But one can’t imagine him doing that. I assume that he and his team thought about the order and chose this particular order because it was somehow ‘the best.’

What guided their choice?

I don’t know. I’ve not seen the Disney archives so I’ve not examined any relevant records. But I’m willing to hazard a guess based on an analysis of the episodes themselves.

Concert Order

This problem is hardly novel. It’s been faced hundreds of thousands of times by musicians putting on a concert or organizing a set list for club performance. One principle, for example, is that you want to open strong. If you don’t get your audience’s attention at the very beginning of the performance, you may never get it.

By that principle alone, the episode order in Fantasia is a mystery. To be sure, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor opens very dramatically. Those opening cascades DO grab your attention. But that’s about it, at least for Disney’s middlebrow audience, people for whom “the classics” were unfamiliar and perhaps even forbidding territory. The toccata grabs you, but the subsequent fugue lacks the tunefulness that was central to popular music of the time—hip hop was WAY in the future. Further, the abstract visuals were just STRANGE. No funny animals, no people, no cars, no flowers, no nothing. Just violin bows and squiggles.

The fact is that this episode was so very strange that it was dropped from a 1942 theatrical re-release, though it was restored for subsequent releases. How could Disney and his team made such a mistake?

Perhaps they’d become so absorbed in the film that they couldn’t see the problem. But perhaps they had something else in mind, perhaps not consciously and explicitly, but tacitly, intuitively.

Form and the Mind

That’s the notion that I’m going to explore. And I’m going to explore it by offering an explicit hypothesis about what that tacit order is. It’s about the mind.

One of our oldest ideas about the mind is that it consists of a collection of more or less specialized faculties, vision, hearing, reason, passion, language, and so forth. In its most recent incarnation the faculties have been called modules. While the idea of mental modules is controversial—I’ve got problems with it myself—it is good enough for my purpose, which does not require a great deal of rigor and precision. However, I will revert to the older term, faculty, by way of indicating that I am not offering a strong proposal about so-called mental modules in perceiving and understanding Fantasia.

My hypothesis is this: The basic idea is to organize the episodes in such a way that the mental faculties required in episode N are retained in use for episode N + 1, and other faculties are added to the mental mix. This implies that, as we move though the film, more and more faculties are called upon.

Thus, while the visual content of the film has been dictated by the desire to present a rich cosmology—the argument I made in my first post about Fantasia—its overall form has been dictated by a desire to reveal the resources of the human mind.

This basic proposal, however, must be modified to fit the fact that the program is presented in two halves separated by an intermission and that Disney must somehow manage the transition into and from those halves. He must further manage the transition from one episode to the next. Disney dealt with the inter-episode transition problem by having Deems Taylor present a brief spoken introduction. Those segments necessarily involve a wide range of mental faculties, including, of course, language, which is otherwise absent from the film.

First Half: The Non-human World, Almost

When the film starts the audience sees and hears Deems Taylor making introductory remarks, to the film as a whole, and to the first episode in particular, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Think of that introduction as maintaining some continuity between experience in the lobby and then sitting with friends and family in the auditorium proper. You’ve been making small talk and getting ready for something special. Now you’re seated and Deems Taylor says a few words of introduction both to set you at ease and to prepare you for what you’re about to see and hear.

You hear the opening toccata, which is quite dramatic and in a free tempo. What you see are colored shadows of the musicians, with some here and there emerging into 3D relief through occasional front lighting. The relationship between what you see and what you hear is transparent, for the motions you see are the motions producing the music you hear.

When the toccata concludes and the fugue begins the visuals change dramatically. Now you see lines and forms moving in space; some of the forms are recognizable objects, violin bows, disks, gothic arches, and others, and many are not. What you don’t see, that is to say, what you don’t have to make sense of, is a coherent 3D space. There’s no sense that you are moving through a territory with this object fixed in this place, that object fixed in that place, that other object moving from there to here, and so forth. All you’ve got are objects moving in space, objects being driven by the music.

That’s what this episode is about, the relationship between sound and images. Of course, that’s true of the whole film, but in this episode the imagery is so minimal that the mind has little choice but to focus on the relationship between music and images, for the images do not present a world that has its own internal dynamics.

That changes in the second episode, The Nutcracker Suite. We’re now in a coherent 3D world, a small-scale world of plant life near a small pond. Our faculty of object recognition now has plenty to work on, recognizing the various plant forms, and our navigation faculty can track our (that is, the virtual camera’s) movement in this space. At the same time the relationship between the music and the imagery is no longer so immediate as it was in the opening episode. The mushrooms and flowers dance—not realistic, of course, but then neither are the fairies—and the goldfish swim about.

The Nutcracker world is less dream-like, more solid than the Fugue world. It is more ‘distant’ from us, more self-sufficient. This difference increases in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a world with two people in it, the Sorcerer and his Apprentice, a role played by Mickey Mouse, whom I will treat as a person in accordance with the conventions of ‘funny animal’ cartoons.

Now we’ve got a world with solid recognizable objects situated in a coherent 3D space, though the layout of the space is a bit mysterious. The faculties that were activated by the Nutcracker world must remain active, but we now need to understand the actions of these two people, which calls on the so-called theory of mind faculty. Further we must distinguish between fantasy—Mickey’s dream in the middle—and reality, the rest of the episode. Note, however, that the world-commanding imagery in Mickey’s dream, the comets, winds, waves, and clouds, prefigures some of the imagery that opens the next sequence, Rite of Spring.

There are no people, however, in Rite of Spring, though one might argue that some of the animal-animal interactions are complex enough that we call on theory of mind to read them. Perhaps, but I’m not prepared to lean on that too heavily. What’s important about this episode is that it presents us with a world that’s vast and strange. The Fugue world was abstract, while the Nutcracker and Apprentice worlds were concrete and composed of familiar objects. In Rite of Spring we see things that no one’s ever seen; it’s a world constructed through (more or less) scientific conjecture.

We’ve got to recognize the macro-scale views that open the sequence, where we start outside the solar system and zoom in on the earth, and the micro-scale views we get a bit later when we go under water and see single-cell organisms. Between those two, of course, we saw volcanic cataclysms and storms. After it we’ll see the emergence of animal life on land, dinosaurs, a grand battle between two dinosaurs, and then their extinction. Whatever faculty or faculties are required to order and keep track of all THAT, they’re active in this episode in a way they weren’t in any of the previous episodes.

Further, the evolution sequence about a quarter to a third of the way through the episode locates a generative power within the non-human world, in contrast to human magic in the previous episode. This episode depicts a vital evolving world that’s independent of human being and will. And that, it seems to me, is the dominant sense of the film’s first half. Except for the third episode, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, this is a non-human world. The second half, by contrast, is about human beings, almost.

That’s the first half. And it makes sense to place an intermission after this episode, for the music is so dramatic that it’s difficult to follow it with any of the other pieces on the program. So, don’t follow it with anything. Let people rest a bit.

Second Half: The Human World, Almost

Before we can start the second half, however, we’ve got an intermission interlude. When the audience has returned to their seats and the film begins, they see a short jam session, a bit of swing music that is perhaps more congenial to their tastes than the ‘heavier’ classical fare on the bill. This is followed by the short bit about the soundtrack, which serves to explicitly restate the relationship between sound and images that was established in the opening episode, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

The second half of the program starts with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which Disney uses as a vehicle for presenting domestic life. We have a coherent world of objects arranged in a 3D space, and we see various objects under different aspects at different times in the episode. I’m thinking particularly of the small temple that appears in all five segments; but there is also Mount Olympus, that dominates the opening and the end and other bits and pieces of scenery. This is the setting in which the various creatures, animal-animal hybrids (cherubs, winged horses, and unicorns), animal-human hybrids (fauns and centaurs), and gods (represented as humans), play out their lives.

For our purposes we can think of all those creatures as playing the role of humans. We see parents and children, courtship, communal celebration, mutual aid and protection, and bedtime and sleep. Whereas we had only one human relationship in the first half (Mickey and his boss), now we have snippets of 10s of relationships. Beyond the individual relationships, there’s sense of community conveyed in the dancing during the baccanal and the gathering at the end.

By this point in the movie Disney’s summoned a full range of mental faculties into action: those for recognizing objects of various kinds, situating them in spatial relationships, navigating from one place to another, understanding human motives, attitudes, and actions, and keeping track of a community. These remain active during Dance of the Hours, where they are put to a specialized use. Successive groups of animals—ostriches, hippopotami, elephants, and alligators—dance ballet. That is, they take the roles of human dancers.

But, as I’ve argued in my analysis of this episode, the animals have trouble keeping in role. The ostriches are distracted by fruit, which they eat, the elephants get tripped up by bubbles, and an alligator becomes smitten by Hyacinth Hippo. It’s not at all whether he’s merely dancing a role or, rather, as seems more likely, if absurd, he really is smitten, making his courtship, and her response, real. Then we have the grand finale, in which alligators carry elephants around, hippos toss alligators and all sorts of other shenanigans ensue, to the almost total destruction of the stage set. That, presumably, was not choreographed.

It is impossible, of course, to draw the line between what might have been choreographed by the imaginary choreographer of these dances and what happened because the dancers fell out of role. Nor does it much matter. What matters is that that’s what’s at issue, and to see it we have to attend to the nuances of facial and bodily gesture, more so than we’ve done in the Pastoral Symphony or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. What’s at stake is human nature: Are we humans or are we animals? Are we in control of ourselves or are we at the mercy of the animals within?

That question is brought acutely into focus in the next, and penultimate episode: Night on Bald Mountain. The episode is dominated by the demon Chernobog, animated by Bill Tytla. We see only Chernobog’s upper body and head; his lower body seems to be the mountain from which he emerges. That Chernobog’s eye sockets are empty defeats our attempts to read his mind—has he one?—yet Tytla’s close-up animation of his face, and his hands, and his animation of Chernobog’s upper body, especially in the last shots, is regarded as the aesthetic pinnacle of hand-drawn animation. Chernobog is not human, but he calls on our full capacities for reading human minds and gestures.

The middle of the episode has two sequences that may be the busiest in the entire film. In the first sequence Chernobog holds his hands before his face and manipulates creatures in them, conjuring them out of fire and returning them to fire. Here we are challenged to track the identity of some of these creatures as they change form from human female, to animal, to imp. In the following sequence the camera looks into the flames and we’re challenged to make sense of whatever whizzes past, blue and red flames in female form, harpies, head, and skulls, all zoom by so quickly you’re not sure you saw what you saw.

At this point we’re in a position to see a rough overall dramatic design in Fantasia. From the opening Bach episode through the Pastoral Symphony Disney is building the capacity to represent human interaction and community. The central sequence of the symphony shows humanity at the edge of slipping away in drunken revelry, revelry which is, paradoxically, an aspect of the machinery used to forge communal bonds. Having established humanity, Disney then Dance of the Hours shows how fragile that achievement is, as the animal dancers slip out of their roles and chaos ensues. What saves them is, in effect, the fact that they ARE on stage. They may have demolished their assigned roles, but they’re still putting on a show, albeit an improvised one.

In Night on Bald Mountain, humanity is shattered. The mental faculties are there, but the order is gone. Chernobog, in effect, stages a show on his hands, but it gives him no satisfaction, nor is there any for the morphing creatures in the show. The rules are gone. All we’ve got is a demonic Dionysian revel with no hope of satisfaction. The bell tolls, and it comes to an end. Chernobog retreats back into mountain form.

Now Disney has one last problem to solve: How can he help his audience compose themselves so they can exit the theater feeling satisfied and refreshed?

He says, in effect, forget about it; it’s not about us. That, I argue, is the burden of the final episode, Ave Maria. There are humans in this episode, but only in the first half, and even their they are utterly impersonal. We have a line of pilgrims walking slowly into the forest. They’re so small that we can’t see their faces and their other movements are imperceptible. There’s nothing to read except the fact that they are human.

Otherwise all we see is a forest stylized as a gothic cathedral. The camera takes us through it slowly, very slowly. For a few seconds in the middle we see nothing, and then the forest re-emerges, and the sun rises. There is order in the world, but it’s not about us.

That fact is, one has to work to follow the all-but-nonaction in this episode. The mind is spinning from the chaos of Bald Mountain. Unspinning it takes some effort. The stately images, and slow music, of Ave Maria provide a point of attachment for that unspinning.

What Hath Disney Wrought?

Disney set out to present classical music to the masses, and, incidentally, to himself as well. At the same time, he wanted to showcase this new medium that he’d help create. There’s no reason to believe that he was interested in setting out a all-encompassing view of the world, from basic objects and motions through plants and animals on both macro and micro scales, to human community and the difficulties of being human. That simply emerged from the need to use different and contrasting material for each episode.

Given those different episodes, Disney then had to come up with some order for his concert program. The fact that the episodes were so various in kind allowed Disney to order them in a way that elicited a cumulative arousal of mental faculties. The result is a film that is at one and the same time ‘about’ the world in the large and ‘about’ the mind, and yet was not conceived as being about either of them.

It just happened. It took over three years of work, 10s if not 100s of artists, musicians, technicians, and craftsmen, and, in the end, Fantasia just happened. Something beyond the imaginations and intentions of any of them. With all its flaws it was, and is, magical. Supreme magic.

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