‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday 6 December 2018

Third Disney: Fantasia (1940)

Here’s today’s interesting fact: at one point in 1938 Disney contemplated animating the recently-published The Hobbit, using music from Wagner’s Ring as soundtrack. [Gabler, Walt Disney: the Biography (Random House 2006), 307]. This idea emerged from the initial groundwork for Fantasia, a movie for which Disney had the highest hopes, but which—partly because it was so expensive to make ($2.28 million! in 1940 dollars!) and to screen (it had to be shown with special expensive ‘Fantasound’ systems in cinemas) and partly because audiences just didn’t fall in love with it the way they did with Snow White—lost the studio a ton of money.

Its original cut contains lengthy live-action preludes to each sequence in which Master of Ceremonies and narrator Deems Taylor, dressed in a Conductor’s Tux, condescends so breathtakingly to the viewers that it’s a wonder the original audience didn’t throw chairs at the screen. There’s a set of assumptions at work, familiar from Bourdieu’s Distinction book (of the ‘upper-class people like classical music, middle-class people like easy listening and working-class people like pop’ kind) that are wrong now and were surely just as wrong then; and the idea that we, as audience, have to be eased gently and uncomplainingly into listening to such discordant avant-garde musical assaults-upon-our-ears as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s fucking ‘Nutcracker Suite’ is—well, insulting, I suppose. But I daresay I overreact.

Stravinsky was asked what he thought. ‘I do not wish to criticize an unresisiting imbecility,’ he said. Harsh! Especially since Disney had paid him tens of thousands of dollars for the use of ‘The Rite of Spring’ and to act in the role of a general consultant for the film. In many way a more interesting response was the review by Dorothy Thompson (a nationally syndicated columnist) who ‘seethed that she had left the theatre “in a condition bordering on a nervous breakdown” and felt as if she had been subjected to an “assault”—a brutalization of sensibility in this remarkable nightmare.” Thompson’s complaint was that Disney and Stowoski seemed to extol the savagery of nature at the expense of man.’ [Gabler, 343]. The movie certainly is a designedly full-on experience, visually; and the ‘Night at Bear Mountain’ ending—or perhaps even more an assault on the senses, the quieter but infinitely more kitsch Ave Maria finale—are pitched to overwhelm.

Worse, the live-action lecturette interludes emphasize the fix-up nature of the whole, to its larger detriment. This is not a coherent movie and doesn't pretend to be one; it’s a string of small movies threaded together on one socially condescending premise: ‘you, yes you, I’m talking to you, will obviously never knowingly step inside a Classical concert hall, so we’re going to use your affection for Mickey Mouse to trick you into getting cultured, you horrible little prole.’ Unfair of me, putting like that, I know. Nowadays, when Classical Music accompanies every second TV advert, when Puccini’s Turandot is an integral part of the enjoyment of World Cup football and ‘The Four Seasons’ is every company’s call-waiting music, the danger is probably the other way about: not that Classical Music needs winching down from its high pedestal but on the contrary that it could do with being elevated slightly, or at least hosed down to wash off some of the odour of commodification. But I don’t want to get all ranty.
1. Bach, ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’: a long live-action sequence of the orchestra playing, artfully lit to cast multi-coloured shadows on a backdrop; then a fairly pretty sequende of more-or-less abstract shapes, lines and colours.
2. Tchaikovsky, ‘Nutcracker Suite’: fairies in nature—dewdrops, (racist Chinese caricature) dancing mushrooms, goldfish, more fairies in nature—autumn leaves and frost.
3. Dukas, ‘The Sorcerer's Apprentice’: Mickey Mouse, of course.
4. Stravinsky, ‘The Rite of Spring’: dawn of time; dinosaurs fighting; dinosaurs extincting.
5. Intermission: Meet the Soundtrack: excruciating.
6. Beethoven, ‘Pastoral Symphony’: kitsch rural idyll, flying horses, cute fauns (+ extraordinary racist black faun comic character)
7. Ponchielli, ‘Dance of the Hours’: Hippo and Alligator, dancing. Surprisingly charming
8. Mussorgsky, ‘Night on Bald Mountain’/Schubert ‘Ave Maria’: and we’re done.

Actually, I think the best way of grasping the film as a whole is to separate out its three most successful elements. The abstract sparkles and bow-string lines of the opening Bach sequence is very pretty, in an undemanding sort of way. ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ has a more complex kind of charm, dependent on Mickey himself, on the (to use a horrible word) ‘relatable’ situation in which he finds himself, and on the splendidly machinic Terminator-like implacability of the Golem-brooms.

Rewatching this sequence yesterday, I note that this is before the animators learned to draw Mickey’s ears side-on (they are two face-on black circles on top of his pate, and don’t shift their position in the least when he turns his head). It’s also clear that, even though Pinocchio had a whole team assigned just to animating water, the water in this sequence isn’t quite right. It’s too gluey in texture, too silver-transparent shiny, its splashes too soapy and it clings a fraction too closely to the things it dribbles over. It wasn’t until Jungle Book, I think, that Disney managed to get the ‘animating water’ thing spot-on. I say this not to sneer, by the way. Hand-drawing water so that it looks ‘real’ is a mind-boggling challenge, a sort of Fermat’s Last Theorem of animation, and the crucial thing is that Disney, eventually, did it. Otherwise ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ has two things really going for it: the way it renders its slow, inevitable build—the increasing nightmare of Mickey’s over-reaching position; and the hard-to-deny charm of the child analogue, Mickey himself. I wasn’t so sure what to make of the Wizard, with his Semitic conk and his blue traffic-cone-shaped hat adorned with stars and crescent moons.

When he comes in at the end and disperses the water he looks like Moses. Is that deliberate?

Thirdly, there's the Hippo Dance sequence. This could have been a wreck, since the central premise (clearly) is the fat-shaming one of ‘wouldn’t it be funny to see really obese women dancing with ludicrously incongruous grace?’ But the sequence is much more than this rather cruel set-up. The gracefulness is quite real here, it what it brings home is (a) the skill of the animators, able to draw so that their two dimensional forms take on appreciable 3D heft and force, and more importantly (b) the understanding that fat people can be just as graceful as thin. Some fat people are graceless, of course; but so are many thin people. The point, rather beautifully rendered here, is that it’s possible to be both very large and a very elegant mover.

But setting these three sequences aside, the main thing that characterises the rest of the film is: kitsch. It’s kitsch raised to the power of kitsch. I don’t say this to disparage it, mind you: kitsch is a sadly neglected mode of art, I think.

You may choose to disagree with my assessment that the fairies and gnomes sprinkling dewdrops on spiders’ webs in the ‘Nutcracker’ section, or the cutesy fauns and pegasuses (‘pegasi’?) in the ‘Pastoral’ section are kitsch. Doesn’t kitsch require a degree of ironic self-awareness? Isn’t it actually an ineluctably postmodern form of art? Well I’m in two minds on this question. On the one hand I agree with Tomas Kulka (in this, if in not much else) when he argues that ‘making kitsch is not the same thing as making use of kitsch’, and draws his distinction between ‘how kitsch may work in the artworld’ and ‘how kitsch works in the kitschworld’ [Tomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art (Pennsylvania State University Press 1996; 2nd ed 2002), 9]. Nobody who has spent any time at a Disneyland resort can doubt that the kitschworld is precisely the locus of Disney. At the same time, aspects of the ironic mode are a central part of what Disney does; in the humour of it, but also in the very form of it.

‘Irony’ is a much larger category than kitsch, of course; and although kitsch generates its affect through its ironic relationship with seriousness it is in itself a much more specific cultural category and must be considered as such. Celeste Olalquiaga suggestively traces the beginnings of ‘kitsch’ to the nineteenth century, linking it with (as she puts it) the way ‘industrialization transformed nature into an artificial kingdom of miniature scale’. For Olalquiaga this aesthetic is ‘at once exhilarated and melancholic’; and although she doesn’t not specifically discuss science fiction she might as well do. The desire to model the cosmos, to ‘reduce’ it to a working scale model—precisely, we might say (though she doesn’t make this particular point) what a cartoonist does to the material of actual life [Celeste Olalquiaga, Artificial Kingdom: a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience (University of Michigan Press 1988), 7]. And there is a weird flavour of melancholy, I think, in even the most ostensibly exhilarating Disney sequences. I don’t mean the out-and-out pathos moments, when (say) Dumbo intertwines his diminutive elephant trunk with the trunk of his incarcerated, weeping mother. I mean something more pervasive: a sense of brightness and colour and variety pushed to the point of monotony; of the machinic repetition of animation itself seeping through, as in Mickey’s nightmare tireless broomstick servants, into the fabric of the film's content itself.

‘Romanticism is outmoded,’ Jacques Sternberg once claimed; ‘symbolism disused, surrealism has always appealed to a small elite but kitsch is everywhere. Even more pervasive and indestructible now that it is fused to a civilisation based on excess consumption.’ [quoted in Thomas Kulka, 13] ‘Consumption pushed to excess’ is, of course, the business model of Disney; and it is in kitsch that Disney assimilates its inventively surreal visual imagination—Disney collaborated with Dalí, after all—its reified ‘symbols’ calcifying all the time into brands, and its out-of-kilter relationship with sentimentality, Romanticisms cousin.

If it didn’t sound so philistine, I’d be tempted to peg key moments in art as bringing ‘something new’ to the table, visual-aesthetically speaking. Picasso’s Demoiselles Davignon brings a new approach to form and visual language; Jackson Pollock brings a new attitude to the brushstroke, the core compository strategy of painting. And so on. Well, by this metric Disney was a crucial figure in the visual avant garde: he brought something quite new—motion, music—to the visual image. This, the kitsch flipside to the clean sublimity of Monet’s ‘impressions’ or Rothko’s abstractions, captures something the ‘high art’ equivalent cannot. It has the same expansiveness and mind-startling wonder about it, but married to a gonzo energy and disrespectfulness that vitalizes it more brilliantly. It has the grandeur, but also a kind of innocence pathos of silliness. ‘The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,’ is how Sontag puts it. ‘Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to "the serious."’ One can, as Sontag notes, be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious. That Disney’s remains a silly mode of art (amongst his first commercial hits were his ‘Silly Symphonies’) is, as the phrase goes, a feature, not a bug.


  1. I saw this film in the cinema many years ago. A good basic idea, I think, but way too long and a real wasted opportunity. A shame Fantasia's failure precluded other similar attempts.

  2. "But I daresay I overreact." Yes, you over-react. Consider it as aspect of the sing/jazz/pop vs. the classics conflict that was a running motif in pop culture at the time & shows up in various cartoons, among other places. Deems Taylor ensures his middle-brow audience that they are indeed being elevated during this film. Also, classical music was in a different situation in the entertainment ecology of Disney's day than it is today. It seems to me you're projecting the current situation onto the very different world that existed almost 80 years ago (80!).

    "Bear Mountain", Adam? You mean Bald, no?

    On 'The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, the sorcerer was known around the studio as "Yensid" which, you'll notice, is "Disney" spelled backwards. And that cocked eye gesture in you screen grab is, apparently, characteristic of Uncle Walt hisownbadself. I've always seen the repetitiousness of those brooms as a parody of animation itself, drawing frame after frame after frame after bloody frame etc., and also as a swipe at fordism – think of the 'caught in the machine sequence" from Chaplain's modern times (1936) and the somewhat later 'Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory' sequence in "I Love Lucy." One commenter, I forget the name at the moment, sees in that sequence a parody of the scientific child management literature that was appearing at about that time.

    On dance of the hours, FWIW the hippo was modeled on an actress they brought into the studio. More generally, it took me awhile to warm up to this segment, but at some point I realized that something very interesting was going on. Starting with those ostriches who fall for the wax fruit, these animals can't stay in role. They are supposed to be dancers going through steps that have been choreographed for them. But in one way or another, in each segment, they lose it. So we come to the climactic duet between the hippo and the alligator, is that 'real' or was it choreographed? Is there a way to tell? And just which animal is always trying to act a role and always, but always, fails at some point and becomes merely an animal? Seems to me that us humans, always trying to assert ourselves above our animal nature and above animals and always failing. I mean, if we didn't fail, we'd go extinct in rather short order, no?

    "The desire to model the cosmos, to ‘reduce’ it to a working scale model" – & that's what Disney does, above all in this film, though I realize that's not quite what you had in here. Think of the "Rites of the Spring" sequence. There you have it, in half an hour, from the birth of life on earth up through the extinction of the dinosaurs. That's what? a billion or two years compressed into half an hour? What's the first time that was done? And that kitschy Nutcracker sequence, a 12 inch world run through the seasons, with all those marvelous plants and leaves. And the Pastoral sequence – which I found really difficult to get into, what with Bacchus in diapers (as one wag called him) – what is it but domestic life, opening with parents and children, then courtship, a merry festival (centered on a drunking donkey) and then we've all got to huddle together to get out of the storm and finally, sunset. Really, it's all there.

    "Well, by this metric Disney was a crucial figure in the visual avant garde: he brought something quite new—motion, music—to the visual image." Well yeah, and you need to remember – you know, then was then, not now – animation was regarded as a somewhat avant-garde medium prior to WWII. I mean, Disney was awarded honorary (master's) degrees from prestigious places (like, I believe, Yale) before the war. The opening sequence was inspired by the work of (genuinely) avante-garde animator Oskar Fischinger (google him, you'll find film-clips).

    A disagree with your dismissive tone, but don't really want to argue over it. And yet, but no.


  3. Anyhow, think about hands as a motif in the film. We have, of course, Stowkoski. We have a live action shot of him at the beginning of each segment where we see his hands. He was known for conducting without a baton. And he showed up in a number of cartoons as well, in one famous case he was played by Bugs Bunny. So, we've got hands at the beginning of each segment. Hands are a big deal in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." The Wizard conjures a butterfly out of smoke using his hands. Mickey conjures with his hands, there's a shot of shadows of his hands against the well; the brooms become hands on sticks. And smack dab im the middle of that segment what do we see? We see dream-Mickey conducting the forces of nature with what? His hands of course. And then "Night on Bald Mountain." Remember those dancing women who turn into animals and then into flames? They're dancing on one of Chernobog's hands while he uses the other to manipulate them. "Manipulate?" Can't get away from it. You know what they say, idle hands are the devil's workshop.

    And busy hands make fascinating films.