Friday, November 18, 2011

Pastoral 5: Ring Form Construction

At the time when I’d finished my previous post about Disney’s Pastoral, on oral imagery, I figured that my next post would be my last. I was wrong. This, my next post, is not that one. This is something that had been brewing during the orality post and that I figured I could toss off as one section in the final post. But, as I thought about that last post, everything got larger and larger, but especially this topic.

So this has become a separate post. The topic is one I’ve already addressed, but in connection with a post in which I discussed both The Nutcracker Suite and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that of ring form. I’ve now come to suspect that the Pastoral episode has a ring form as well.

Looking for a Structural Center in a Temporal Work

The idea is that this episode has a section that is structurally central and that the other sections are somehow arranged around that. Why would I think that? Well, for one thing, the episode has five sections, which means that one of them is, numerically at least, central. That’s the Bacchanal. What would it mean for that to be structurally central?

Imagine for a moment that, instead of a film, we were examining a painting on five panels, perhaps an altar piece. Let us imagine that this central panel was larger than the others and that it depicts, say, Christ on the cross, or the Madonna and Child, well-known objects of veneration in Christian art. The other four panels have figures in them as well, and those figures are all looking toward the central image. All of that indicates that the middle panel is also compositionally and iconographically central. This is not, of course, a required feature of paintings spread over five panels. I have no trouble imagining a set of Chinese or Japanese painted screens with five panels where none of the panels is compositionally more important than the others. That’s a very different kind of composition. In that case the fact the one of the five panels is numerically in the middle is structurally irrelevant. That’s not what interests me.

What’s worse, what interests me is a work of temporal art, a film. In the case of a painting one can see all five panels at a glance and one can easily run one’s eyes over the panels in whatever pattern is interesting and convenient. One can grasp and examine the entire composition. That’s not possible with a film, which unfolds in time. One can see and hear only what’s unfolding at the moment, though one can recall previous sights and sounds and anticipate future ones. This pretty much means that, if there is some section that is structurally central, one is not likely to register it as such at the time for the simple reason that one doesn’t know what’s coming up and so has no way of assessing centrality.

Ring form works unconsciously. One discovers it only through deliberate analysis.

The Center: Centaurette to Bacchus to Donkey

The episode’s five-part structure holds open the possibility of ring form, but that possibility is not what set me thinking. What tipped me off is a scene within that third section, the Bacchanal. And not so much a scene as a shot, the one where Bacchus pours wine into his donkey-unicorn’s mouth and which then becomes a close-up of the donkey-unicorn smacking his lips. The shot’s about nine seconds long and is, I believe, the longest close-up in the episode, and the strangest (I haven’t actually measured the others, such as the ‘hatting’ of the centaurettes in the second segment). It ends with the donkey looking us in the eye, albeit rather unsteadily so, the only place in the episode where that happens:

Pastoral oral13e donkey urp

There’s only one other place in the film where that happens, in the Arabian Dance sequence of The Nutcracker; and it happens in the middle of that sequence, with the sexy goldfish. Further, if oral imagery IS important in this episode, as I’ve indicated, though not really argued, in the previous post, then this is also the longest single bit of oral imagery. And it’s interesting on other counts as well.

In the first place, the wine is poured into Bacchus’s cup by a centaurette whose human half appears to be black or, if you will, African-American, though, obviously, there’s not context within the film to establish any kind of American identity. Bacchus is flanked by two such centaurettes, who also have zebra-striped bodies, marking the African connection I suppose. There’s only one other black centaurette in the film, and she’s been cut out of current versions. She appeared as a maid servant in the courtship sequence. The stereotyping apparently was so bad that she had to be cut from the film.

The point, of course, is that it isn’t just any centaurette who poured the wine. No, the wine is poured by one who is visibly marked as being Other, as being different from the standard run of centaurettes.

Similarly, Bacchus is one of only three ‘pure’ human forms in the episode. Zeus and Vulcan are the other two. Both of them are broad-shouldered and thickly muscled; that is, they are physically highly masculine types.

Pastoral zeus

Pastoral vulcan

Bacchus is not, he’s rounded, rotund, at the very least he’s not-masculine, if not quite feminine. Or perhaps he’s infantile—recall how he splashes around in the wine after the vat’s been destroyed and then again at the very end where he’s sitting in rainbow patterned water. And the donkey, the donkey isn’t a donkey, but has a unicorn horn. For all I know there may well be donkey-form unicorns in some mythology, but such creatures aren’t standard in Greek or Roman mythology. They appear to have been invented by Disney’s staff. That is to say, they are anomalous.

What we have then is an atypical centaurette pouring wine into a cup held by a non-masculine male which then spills into the mouth of another creature that’s atypical, even for this mythological bunch, the unicorn-donkey. And it’s wine that’s being poured, a substance whose purpose is to put one into a mental state in which one’s thoughts and actions are lax, as is certainly the case with Bacchus.

All of which is to say that this shot is Very Strongly Marked, both in terms of its visual form—a sustained facial close-up leading to direct eye contact—and the characters it links together, all atypical. Anyone who’s earned their Junior Semiotician merit badge can see that this shot is VERY IMPORTANT.

That doesn’t necessarily make it structurally central. Let us note, however, that it does occur more or less in the middle of the Bacchanal, which, in turn, is in the middle of the entire episode. The Bacchanal is roughly three minutes long and this shot happens early in the second minute. More important, before this shot the action involves filling the vat and stomping the grapes; after this shot the action switches to drinking and dancing. At least within this scene, then, it marks a turning point.

Now it’s beginning to look like a structural center. It’s the middle of the middle and what goes before is different from what comes after.

Widening the Ring: First and Last

Let’s look at the first and last segments. The first opens at dawn and takes us into early morning while the last straddles the transition from dusk to night. That’s very promising because it makes one transition obviously the reverse of the other: night to day vs. day to night. Yet that’s just a bit too easy. We need more.

And we’ve got it. In the first segment we’re introduced to a young winged horse whom we first see suckling. And then we see it take its first flight and we see its awkward movements in the rest of that segment.

Pastoral 3 First flight

Its awkwardness is stressed by setting it among siblings and peers who move more gracefully and confidently. But that has changed by the last sequence, when that same youngster is shown flying and swimming about with ease and confidence. That behavioral change is the sort of thing that leads me to believe that, yes, the last segment is opposite to, explicitly in contrast with the opening segment.

Just how that change came about is something of a mystery. But that’s OK. What’s important is simply that there is change and thus contrast.

Now, in psychoanalytic thinking, there’s more to orality than just the use of the mouth. Psychoanalytic theory is developmental; that is, it is about how the mind develops from birth into adulthood and then, ultimately to the end of adulthood, though most of the emphasis and thinking has, I believe, been on infancy through adolescence. In this development, orality is the first phase of psychosocial development (see, e.g. Erik Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed, 1982). For the young infant, the mother is the center of the world, if not the entire world, and feeding at the breast is the central activity, hence orality. Orality is thus associated with dependence.

In that context, then, the confident flying in the last segment is a sign of independence from the mother. That youngster can now get about in the world on its own, independently of mother. And that’s what we see. It flies and swims with the cherubs, and with siblings and peers, with mother nowhere in sight. Of course, this youngster is by no means totally independent of mother; Disney doesn’t want us to believe that. At the very end we see him settling down for the night under mother’s wing, along with his siblings. But there’s no sense of the breast or feeding at this point. The youngster is lying on his back with his muzzle away from the breast:

Pastoral night night

As a final contrast with the first segment I note that in that various groups of creatures going about their own business. We see the unicorns and fauns at the opening, and then the action moves to the centaurs. But we don’t see the unicorns, fauns, and centaurs all together. In the last segment there’s a shot where all the creatures are gathered together on a promontory observing the blazing sun.

Pastoral all together

Widening the Ring: Second and Fourth

What, then, do we make of the second and fourth segments, courtship and the storm? I note first that we have a complete change of scene and characters from the first to the second segment. Yes, this is obvious, but it is also an important feature of how the episode is organized. There’s also a break from the second to the third (middle) segment. The scene and the nature of the activity shifts radically, though the centaurs and centaurettes remain on stage, while the cherubs are dropped in favor of a reappearance of the fauns.

But the shift from the third (middle) segment to the fourth is not so discontinuous. Yes, the mood changes, and does so quickly, but the scene and characters are the same. Then, as the segment moves along, the centaurs, centaurettes and Bacchus remain on stage while the flying horses and unicorns return. And they remain present for the fifth and last segment and, again, the transition from fourth to fifth is continuous.

So we now have a formal distinction between the first half and the second half of the episode. Transitions from segment to segment are discontinuous in the first half—one → two, two → three—and continuous in the second half—three → four, four → five.

Now, when the cherubs show up in the second segment, they aren’t just a new set of characters, along with the centaurs and centaurettes. They’re also a new kind of actor. They’re creatures of the air who facilitate interaction among the ground creatures, the centaurs and centaurettes. This segment is about courtship, and that’s what the centaurs and centaurettes do, but they’re helped by the cherubs. We don’t have any such helping characters in the first segment nor in the third.

But we do in the fourth, though the ‘helping’ is of a different kind. Again, creatures of the air, Zeus and Vulcan. The cherubs are infants of unspecified gender while Zeus and Vulcan are adult males. But, on the surface they wouldn’t seem to be helpers. They aren’t facilitating interactions among the other creatures, including the cherubs. Rather, they’d seem to be wreaking havoc.

But, consider what actually happens on the ground. While Zeus tosses the thunderbolts at Bacchus, centaurs and centaurettes seek shelter together:

Pastoral 11 let's hide

A centaurette rescues a unicorn:

Pastoral 17 rescue

And a mother horse rescues one of her children:

Pastoral rescue

Characters are goaded into action and in such a way that they are brought closer together, if only in twos, threes, and fours.

So, two and four are alike in that they involve intervention by creatures of the air. The two sets of creatures are unlike one another (infant vs. adult, gender neutral vs. male) and act in different ways. And yet, ultimately their actions have similar effects, creatures are brought together.

The final action in this segment, of course, is the destruction of the vat of grape juice / wine. I’ve already offered a sexual interpretation of this event. Now I’ll offer another interpretation: The destruction of the vat puts an end to oral dependency. Drinking is obviously an oral activity, and Bacchus’s drinking (and dancing) dominated the second half of the middle segment, but there are explicit ‘grape events’ in the first and second segments. In the first segment one of the youngsters was eating a bunch of grapes and in the second segment we have the grape kiss and the centaurette feeding grapes to a centaur. The destruction of the vat all but puts an end to the grape / oral imagery.

Yes, after the vat was destroyed Bacchus sits in a puddle tasting spilled juice/wine, but mostly he and his companion, the donkey-unicorn, play around in the wine. Then, in the last segment, we see Bacchus drinking, but it’s not wine that’s flowing from the cup, it’s rainbow water, whatever THAT is:

Pastoral rainbow3

That is, we see drinking again, but Bacchus is drinking something else, something infused with color, the very substance of these images. And he’s not acting like he’s drunk at all. All of a sudden he’s transformed, as is everyone else. The storm’s over, there’s a rainbow in the sky, and it’s a new world.

So, is the destruction of the vat sexual or is it the end of (a certain kind of) orality? Why not both? But that’s a discussion for the next, and I hope the last, post about Disney’s Pastoral.

Formal Counterpoint

It’s time to bring this to a close.

What we have in this segment is a kind of formal counterpoint. On the one hand we have the ring form that I’ve been discussing. But that is superimposed on a cumulative and forward-driving structure that’s perhaps most obvious in the music. The fourth segment is the dramatic climax of the music, with it’s dramatic thunder-claps, including the most dramatic one of all, the one that destroys the vat. From that point the mood changes and evolves to celebration in the last segment.

Then, as we’ve already seen, there’s an overall pattern of accumulating characters:
  1. flying horses, unicorns, and fauns
  2. centaurs, centaurettes, and cherubs
  3. centaurs, centaurettes, fauns, Bacchus and donkey
  4. centaurs, centaurettes, fauns, Bacchus and donkey, flying horses, unicorns, fauns, and cherubs
  5. centaurs, centaurettes, fauns, Bacchus and donkey, flying horses, unicorns, fauns, and cherubs
But in the fourth segment, while all hands are on deck, as it were, they’re under threat from the storm, and we see two rescues. In the fifth and final segment not only are all hands on deck, but peace has been restored to the world. The cherubs and young flying horses are at play, in which they are joined by the nominally adult Bacchus, who’s traded drunken lechery for drinking rainbow water—a figure for making art, perhaps?

Finally, I note that this segment has more kinds sky creatures than any of the others: Iris brings the rainbow; Apollo, the sun; Morpheus, the night; and Diana, the moon.

Now, perhaps, we’re reading for a final post that puts everything together.

I’ll believe it when I’ve written it.

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