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Fantasia: Uncle Walt and the Sacred

Another Exchange With Bill Benzon

[To go to another exchange with Bill Benzon, on acting in Fantasia, click here.]

On 2/23/07 4:33 PM, Michael Barrier at michaelbarrier@comcast.net wrote:

I tend to think of Fantasia as a spectacular mistake rather than a masterpiece, but I've wondered increasingly if it's not the way the film is presented, rather than its substance, that makes me think of it that way. The order of the segments really does seem crucial to the impression it makes. What if Fantasia ended, rather than began, with the Bach? It might seem like a completely different film.

That specific suggestion is an interesting one. The Bach shares two specific images with the Ave Maria, which is the number they chose to end the concert. As far as I can tell, these images are not shared with any other segment of the film.

One of these images is the gothic arch. It occurs toward the end of the fugue section of the Bach, which also has some very stylized mountains, and takes the form of white arches against a blue background—clouds in the sky? Gothic arches occur in the bridge that appears early in Ave Maria—three of them support the bridge and they're mirrored in the bridge's reflection—and in the way the forest is drawn. We don't see any actual arches, but the branches of neighboring trees cross one another in a way that gives the appearance of gothic arches. Gothic arches, of course, are specifically—though hardly exclusively—associated with cathedral architecture.

Fantasia 1

The other image is that of "light from above." Again, it occurs near the end of the Bach. First there is a descending passage in the music where we see the image that Roy Disney called a tombstone in his audio commentary (to the 60th Anniversary Edition DVD). That tombstone rambles down a narrow tunnel of some sort and disappears at the bottom. The low strings (possibly doubled by low brass) hold a low note and then, first the violins and then the high brass (horns and possibly trumpets) come in with a stately figure as light streams down from above—middle, right, then left. Then we're off and running with a rapid string passage where we see lights flickering on against and orange-red background.

The "light from above" appears in the Schubert as the solo voice enters. Up to this point the camera had been executing a long slow pan to the right as it followed the procession of religious through the forest. As this transition point nears we're in the thick of the forest and the procession disappears off the bottom of the screen. The screen is black for a few frames and, as the solo voice enters, we see a stream of light angling down from right of the top center. The light grows, differentiates into several beams, and we're now entering a long slow zoom through the forest that will eventually end with a vision of the sky.

Fantasia 2

Ave Maria is, of course, an overtly religious piece of music. And Bach has very churchy associations; after all, much of his oeuvre consists of liturgical music. As far as I know, pipe organs existed mainly in churches and, as you know, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor was written for pipe organ. I don't know all that much about Bach's music, but I'd guess that this piece is more or less secular in character. However, Bach did not draw a very strict line between sacred and secular music. He wrote it all for the glory of God.

So, in suggesting that the Concert Feature end with the Bach, you are, in effect, suggesting that we swap a piece of music with strong churchy associations into the slot currently occupied by a piece of music that is overtly religious. That's a very shrewd suggestion. I'm skeptical that it would work, programmatically, but that's a different matter.

What really interests me is that, as presented, the concert opens and closes with sacred music. The two pieces of music are very different in character, and the visualizations are different as well. But, as I've pointed out, those visualizations share two images that exist nowhere else in the film, and those images have very strong connotations of the sacred. The radiant voice from above is, of course, the voice of God. Furthermore, these two segments are, in a sense, the most radical visualizations in the movie. The Bach is radical because it is quasi-abstract; not only is there no narrative, there isn't even a conventionally intelligible world. The Schubert is radical because, in a medium that is otherwise full of hyper kinesis, it is almost static. In the first half we have very slow foreground motion—the religious procession—coupled with very slow camera motion—a left-to-right pan. In the last half there is no foreground motion at all; all of the motion is in a slow camera zoom.

Fantasia 3

What was Disney up to in beginning and ending this film with these radical animations having religious connotations? Judging from the biographical material I've read—Schickel's biography and chunks of Gabler's—Disney was conventionally religious, but not devout. So, I don't think we can read the film as anything remotely approaching a religious tract. But if we think of it as an attempt to sacralise the world, well, that's more interesting. The film quite obviously is not a narrative. And, while it's framed as a concert—a concert feature—it's doing something else. Here we meet up with my argument about the encyclopedic scope of Disney's imagery. That argument is not so much that Disney tried to embrace everything, but that he tried to imply everything. That ambition, it seems to me, borders on the sacred.

In thinking about this I have been strongly influenced by the recent work of Mary Douglas, whom you may recognize as one of the great ethnographers and cultural theorists. For the past decade or so she has been interested in ring structures (see her recent book, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, Yale University Press, 2007). She was kind enough to blurb my book on music (Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, Basic Books 2001) and, in consequence, I've been emailing her over the last few years.

So, what's ring structure? Well, it's a narrative that moves to a midpoint and then reverses course and arrives at the end by, in some way, traveling back over the route it traveled from the beginning to the midpoint. Think of going from your house, over the river, through the woods, and arriving at grandmother's house. You have a festive meal there and then return, going through the woods, crossing the river, and arriving back at your place. Abstractly, it looks like this (where 1 is your home and X is a festive meal at grandmother's):

1, 2, 3, ... X ... 3', 2', 1'

A lot of ancient texts are structured in that way— Douglas summarizes some of this scholarship —and some, though by no means all, of those texts are sacred texts—Douglas has been interested in the Old Testament.

What does this have to do with Fantasia? Well, in various emails to Douglas, and others, I have argued that both the Nutcracker Suite and the Sorcerer's Apprentice segments have a ring structure. The big question is whether or not the entire film is structured as a ring. I don't know.

Why would I even suspect such a thing, given that the film is not a narrative, and that the individual episodes are quite different in character? If the film is a ring, that implies, for example, that the Pastoral segment is somehow an answer to, the inverse of, the Rite of Spring segment. Why does it imply that? Because the Rite of Spring occurs before the mid-point and the Pastoral is right after the midpoint. If this is a ring structure, then the Pastoral somehow "answers to" the Rite of Spring. I cannot, at this time, come up with an argument on that point that I find convincing, so let's drop it. Still, why would I even consider the possibility that the film exhibits a ring form?

On the one hand, there is the (apparent) fact that it begins and ends in sacred territory, the Bach and the Schubert. Further, there is a sense in which the Schubert is an "answer" to the Bach. In the toccata portion of the Bach we see (shadows and silhouettes of) the musicians performing the piece and, at the end, we see Stokowski commanding splashes of color. This depicts humans in an active role, with Stokowski playing the role of conductor as Absolute Lord and Master (so wonderfully parodied by Bugs Bunny in Long-Haired Hare). In the Schubert humans are passive. We have the procession of the religious, who simply walk and carry their lights. That's it. We don't even see Stokowski at the end. Thus in the course of the film we've gone from the almost god-like power of the conductor to utter passivity and receptivity. That's one thing.

Fantasia 4

And the other clue is at the film's midpoint. What's there? Two things, a jam session and that little lesson about the sound track. The jam session is (staged as being) utterly spontaneous; pure fun. A lot of music is like that, as is a lot of life. it's a simple lesson, but an important one. And then there is the bit about the soundtrack, in which we see and are explicitly told: "this image corresponds to the sound you are hearing." Technically, that's not true. But that's irrelevant. What's important is simply that this segment is upfront about the nature of the illusion the audience is seeing and hearing.

While such self-consciousness is and has been a Big Deal in literary theorizing for the last 30 or 40 years, as far as I can tell it's not a big deal in the world of cartoons. To be sure, you have occasional virtuoso exercises such as Duck Amuck, but cartoonists and their cartoons have always been aware of their illusory nature. You see it in Winsor McCay's early animations, Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. They are quite explicit about how the illusion of motion is generated—as was Walter Lantz in the Woody Woodpecker Show that I watched in the mid 1950s. Before McCay made animated films he made advertising flip books and mutoscope animations (which appear in Gertie). Animators have never been shy about spilling the beans on camera. Nor was Disney. In his first Alice film there was a bit where an animated mouse attempted to harass a live-action cat. What more could you want by way of saying: "It's all an illusion, folks."

And so Disney rings yet another variation on that theme in the middle of Fantasia. That sort of revelation, according to Douglas, is characteristic of ring forms. Thus, I've got two things: 1) a beginning and an ending that are symmetrical and, 2) a center point that tells a simple, but profound, truth about the whole business. That's not in itself enough to get me a ring structure as Douglas has defined it. But it's more than enough to keep me thinking about this movie.

Let me end with one final burst of speculation. One of the things we need to think about is imagery that recurs in different segments of the film. My discussion of the Bach and the Schubert is one example of that. John Culhane talks about mountain imagery in his very fine book (Walt Disney's Fantasia, Abrams 1983). He's right about that. First, there's the image of Stokowski on the podium, not a mountain, but mountain-like. We've got mountains in the Pastoral, the Night on Bald Mountain (obviously), and the Ave Maria. But also in the dream sequence for the Sorcerer's Apprentice (where Mickey parodies Stokowski). And then there is that mountain parody in Dance of the Hours, where Hyacinth is held in the air atop a pedestal of bubbles. That's one recurring image, and a very important one.

What about hands? Stokowski very pointedly did not use a baton when conducting, and we see those hands at the beginning of each segment. Within the Sorcerer's Apprentice episode we see Mickey conducting the forces of nature in his dreams, but we also see him using his hands to bring the broom to life, and that is strongly emphasized by the large shadows his hands cast on the wall. The most striking use of hands, however, is in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence. Chernobog summons his minions through large gestures of arms and hands; here we have another version of the conductor motif. Even more striking is the sequence where he has demons and spirits dancing and transforming on one hand (his right) as the other (his left) directs them. Most perversely, that supporting hand crushes those creatures and dumps them into the flames. These hands span the width of the screen; they're so large and visible that one forgets about them, thrusting them into the background while one concentrates on the shifting figures they command and then crush.

Is Disney preaching a sermon on the text, "idle hands are the Devil's workshop"? What about the role of hands in human life? As you know, one theory about human origins emphasizes the opposable thumb and fingers, our dexterity. Hands are critical to the (godlike) role of conductor, which is played quite overtly on the screen in this film. But they are also critical to the animator's craft. You draw with your hands. This entire film is a supreme piece of handicraft. Is it mere amusement or deep revelation?

When I look at and think about this film, those are the issues that come to mind. I can't help but wonder that old Uncle Walt intuited more than he knew and that, in this film, he was ahead of his time. Way ahead.

MB: I'm sure most of the patterns and connections Bill Benzon has noted had no conscious origin in what Disney and his people, or even Stokowski, were thinking as they planned Fantasia's program and how it would be illustrated, but that doesn't mean the patterns and connection don't exist, of course.

The religious element is particularly intriguing. Walt seems to have given only lip service to established religion—he never attended church as an adult—but he was raised in a rigidly religious household, and some of that religiosity certainly could have rubbed off on him. Or not? His depictions of clergymen and other openly religious people in his live-action films are interesting. Fundamentalists are invariably shown as harsh and unattractive characters; more liberal clergymen, like the reformed Karl Malden character in Pollyanna and the bibulous priest played by Leo G. Carroll in The Parent Trap, are depicted much more sympathetically.

But the recurring gothic arches in Fantasia? They may reflect nothing more than the fact that Walt (and Roy and their wives) visited Europe, and some of its cathedrals, in 1935. Or the connection may be even more tenuous than that.

Bill Benzon replies: Gabler has some quotes about the Ave Maria from Disney that are relevant. They're on page 339: "There's still a lot of Christians in the world, in spite of Russia and some of the others and it would be a hell of an appealing thing from that angle." Walt was looking for "the feeling that you are inside a cathedral without showing anything that is actually recognizable as a cathedral."

Though I've not been to any of the great cathedrals of Europe, I have been in some pretty impressive buildings. Moreover, I spent a lot of time playing in the woods as a child and there were certain places—I still remember them—that had that cathedral feeling. It seems to me Disney knew the feeling and wanted it in the Ave Maria.

Disney was deeply immersed in this project and that he was an enormously talented and energetic man. I can't help but thinking that, when he urged this team to do X and that team to do Y that he wasn't making suggestions that were entirely local to the particular segment. He would have been concerned with balancing things out through the entire film, with the result that we have patterns of recurring and complimentary motifs in the film. Each segment is free-standing and independent, but they were all "massaged" so that they were mutually compatible.

MB again: I have a copy of those December 8, 1938, meeting notes in which Walt refers to Christians, and it's interesting that he's clearly speaking from the outside—not as a believer, but as someone who's thinking in terms of an audience segment (as, for example, he spoke of women en masse as the target for an eventually abandoned sequence in Snow White). In that 1938 meeting, he added: "And if we go to a non-Christian country it's only four minutes long and it can be snipped out and you wouldn't miss it." When Stuart Buchanan said, "I don't think they'd object to it it anyway," Walt replied: "Well—yes—sure—they'd snip it out in Russia."

Which means, I suppose, that Walt saw no great problem in ending Fantasia with Night on Bald Mountain, which would have been an interesting bookend for the Bach.

To judge from the notes I made at the Disney Archives, Walt's own religious beliefs, or lack of same, figured not at all in his meetings on Ave Maria. He did draw a link between Ave Maria and the Bach, however, saying at one point in a January 1940 meeting: "When we get into the church, I would like to see abstract stuff, rays of light that suggest a church, and the Gothic effect, without showing the detail. I would like to combine in this some of the abstract things we were trying to do in Toccata and Fugue." Apparently "abstraction," in Walt's mind, had a much more limited meaning than an artist would give it—a blurring of representation, rather than a departure from it.

Something else I discovered in going through my notes: At one point the idea was to open with "Sorcerer's Apprentice"—not because it was more audience-friendly, but because it was the first of all the Fantasia segments to be produced. The Disney cartoons were improving so rapidly, at least technically, that Walt was concerned that "Sorcerer" might look a little shabby if it followed a segment made a year or two after it.

[Posted February 28, 2007]