[Ed. note: First and second halves of the movie (broken at the “Intermission” announced in the movie itself) were screened more than a week apart, both late at night]
ADAM The fact that I fell asleep during both halves of this movie indicates something about my opinion of it. Which is that I think it’s not successful. Although I think it’s charming that Disney attempted it.
BROOM Don’t you think that your falling asleep reflects what time of day we watched it?
ADAM Well, yes, of course it does. It also reflects my opinion about classical music. My difficulty in listening seriously to classical music is that I am too liable to drift off and not pay attention, and that tendency does not need to be facilitated. When watching some of the segments, I found it almost impossible to have any idea what was going on in the music because at best, the music was illustrating points in the animation, and the experience of watching unicorns flying around on the screen completely obliterated the music for me.
BROOM Are you saying that you felt obligated to attend to the music more than to the movie, and felt that the movie was failing when you didn’t?
ADAM No, it was that I could not pay attention to the music because I was just paying attention to the animation.
BROOM Did you fall asleep because you also had difficulty paying attention to the animation? Was it that the visual was boring; did you feel like the movie couldn’t possibly be about the visual?
ADAM No, I probably would have fallen asleep anyway. But the animation was just decorative. It’s not compelling by itself. I mean, it’s charming, but you wouldn’t actually go to a movie theater just to watch a cartoon about unicorns flying around.
BROOM I marvel at the fact that this movie did bring people into a movie theater to look at something very abstract and stylized. Yes, to just watch unicorns flying around, or watch dew being dropped on petals by fairies.
BETH Animation was still so new. We don’t know what it was really like to be an entertainment-seeker in 1940. So I’m not sure that’s so marvelous.
BROOM Well, the movie wasn’t a commercial success, so I don’t think we can explain it on the grounds that it worked differently for the original audience.
BETH You just said you marvel at the fact that it got people to go to the theater.
BROOM I meant that I marvel that the movie is what it is; that it was made that way.
ADAM The concept of it is unique basically in all film history, and it deserves to be admired for that. That said – as someone who’s not a classical music aficionado, I found that this did not in any way stimulate my appreciation of classical music, and in some ways dulled it. I mean, I’m fond of the Pastoral Symphony from when I studied it. But here I just couldn’t hear the music; all I saw was the animation.
BROOM I agree about that particular segment. This is one of my favorite movies, and I think it is successful – and I think everyone would agree that the Pastoral Symphony segment is the weakest.
ADAM Not because it’s laughable, but because it’s programmatic. I found the most abstract sequences to be the most successful, because they interfered least with my listening.
BROOM Going back to what you said earlier about how nobody would want to see animation that didn’t have a story or something else justifying it: the appeal of the Night On Bald Mountain segment is just to see the spectacle. I mean, there’s a story behind it, but you’re really just there to watch design and light.
BETH I thought that was the best one. I thought it was the most stylish and visually rich.
ADAM It was the most creepy.
BETH But I don’t remember everything we saw in the first half.
BROOM I feel like the Nutcracker segment is a high point in animation art.
BETH Yeah, that one is good too.
ADAM I think the two ballets are the most successful for me, in that ballet music is meant to be accompanied with visual spectacle.
BROOM One of them was Dance of the Hours; which are you counting as the other? Rite of Spring?
ADAM No, The Nutcracker. Rite of Spring is a ballet, but here the ballet was heavily counter-programmed in a way that sort of obliterated its ballet-ness. Maybe this just speaks to the fact that ballet music is different from symphony music in some way that I can’t speak to because I don’t have the language for it. Ballet music just goes better with images of people or fairies or hippos dancing. It didn’t feel like the music was being viciously scrubbed out, the way it did in some of the other segments.
BROOM Can’t there be room for the music and the picture to work together in ways that are slightly different from segment to segment? I agree that the Pastoral Symphony section is not particularly successful, but not because of what it does or doesn’t do with the music; mostly because there’s something distasteful about the designs, and about the substance of what you’re seeing.
ADAM That’s also true.
BROOM Various off-putting elements detract from what it could have been. But I don’t particularly mind the idea that they would just let the Pastoral Symphony be the score to something visually appealing on its own terms. It just didn’t happen to work. I enjoy the Rite of Spring section, which has a similar approach.
ADAM For me, the Rite of Spring doesn’t work either. Again, all I could see was dinosaurs. I couldn’t hear The Rite of Spring. And The Rite of Spring is also a work of music that I’m fond of. I’ve been taught it; I like it.
BROOM Who says you needed to really hear it? It sounds like you’re assuming there was some music-appreciation educational intention behind the film.
ADAM Wasn’t there? I mean, how could there not be? The whole thing is organized around a pseudo-conductor figure giving program notes about pieces of classical music.
BROOM It obviously has the trappings of middlebrow music-appreciation. But I feel like the real impetus behind it is that somehow music can be the formally appropriate complement to animation. Whatever animation is good for, they thought maybe that could go hand in hand with music, and be a new art form. I think the music-appreciation racket was just a way of getting that on the screen, and what they really wanted to do was see where they could go with their craft.
ADAM I’m very comfortable with the idea of classical music accompanying animation just as background. I mean, that’s how we know all the classical music that we know – “we” being those of us who are not BROOM – because it accompanied an episode of The Smurfs.
BROOM Fantasia followed on and developed from the “Silly Symphonies,” which we tend to take for granted, as a phrase and thus as a concept. But it was a definite idea at the time, that animation could be accompanied continuously by music and made to sync with it. I don’t remember if Steamboat Willie is a “Silly Symphony” or not, but Skeleton Dance and those other cartoons are; it had been a very successful short feature concept, done in that lighthearted way, and now they were just taking the formal concept further. I feel like the intention here was not to use cartoons to spoonful-of-sugar down some classical music, but to actually try and raise the cartoons to the level of ballet.
ADAM But if that’s true, why are the cartoons so preposterous? I mean, almost all the segments are pointedly juvenile – with the exception of Night On Bald Mountain, and maybe the opening.
BETH And Rite of Spring.
BROOM What do you mean by “pointedly juvenile”? Which ones are you thinking of, apart from the Pastoral Symphony?
ADAM The Nutcracker is childish – though I think it works. The hippos in La Gioconda, though they are a charming image.
BROOM Hold on – what’s childish about the Nutcracker?
BETH It’s childlike more than childish.
BROOM I feel like what the Nutcracker segment aims to be, and is successful at – and I really like this about it – is like Arthur Rackham, like illustrations from turn-of-the-century children’s books. The fairies seem like the fairies from a British “fairies in the bottom of my garden” J.M. Barrie culture, where children’s stuff is seen as having a kind of ethereal beauty that needs to be taken seriously. We can scoff at that sort of thing now, but I don’t think it was juvenile. I don’t think it was being pitched to kids as something easy to take; I think they were approaching fairies in a highfalutin way that might seem absurd to us now but certainly existed.
ADAM I don’t think that’s true. When I was taken to see this as a child, my parents explained that this was something very special, that it was different from other animated movies and there was no story. I was awfully dubious about that. The only reason I tolerated it was that it had dinosaurs, fairies, cute horses, and Mickey Mouse. I don’t think it’s an accident that all those things are for kids. I feel like the movie is saying, “Hey kids, classical music is awesome.”
BROOM Well, I don’t buy that argument. Those Bugs Bunny cartoons were not “for kids” particularly, but they’re for kids now.
ADAM What Bugs Bunny cartoons?
BROOM All Bugs Bunny cartoons.
ADAM You don’t think they’re for kids?
BROOM They were short subjects before movies, or shown to the troops. Think of all those jokes about Clark Gable and whatever else. They weren’t for kids. They’re “for kids” now because that’s an association we make, and it’s become a stigma for cartoons.
ADAM I suppose Bugs Bunny cartoons at least have sophisticated jokes in them; all that vaudeville-style humor that I didn’t fully appreciate until… what was the show with Babs Bunny?
BROOM Tiny Toons?
ADAM Yeah, thank you.
BROOM I have a hard time seeing any of Fantasia as being essentially “for kids.” Except maybe for the cute unicorns.
BETH It seems like a family movie. It’s for the whole family.
BROOM I don’t know. I mean, Night On Bald Mountain is as creepy as they could make it.
BETH That’s true.
BROOM That wasn’t just supposed to give kids the willies, it was as creepy as they could. And I feel like a lot of the movie is “as beautiful as they could.” I think they were aiming as high as they could possibly aim. It only happens to look like a tacky Greatest Masterpieces of Classical Music-appreciation record.
ADAM But I appreciate the goal of classical music appreciation.
BETH What about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? That’s as high as they could aim?
BROOM That’s the only piece where they did it absolutely as it was intended. It told exactly the story the composer had in mind. Pretty much moment for moment they tried to figure out what the piece actually was. And making their mascot Mickey Mouse be the lead was like a house in-joke.
ADAM It’s the only image from Fantasia that is truly universally well-known.
BROOM That’s just a reflection of what kind of marketing they used it for later. I think Fantasia‘s a property they couldn’t exploit very much because it did aim too high for what the company later ended up being.
ADAM Well, I’m not unsympathetic to this movie. I appreciate that it’s trying for something astonishing. And it’s hard not to giggle at the interstitial materials, but I’m sure they were meant totally straight.
BROOM They were. Deems Taylor was apparently the most prominent classical music radio announcer in New York, so his voice was familiar to people in that role. He was also a famous composer for a time, but nobody plays his music anymore. I have a recording of his Through the Looking-Glass Suite. The version of Fantasia that I grew up watching didn’t have the long versions of the interstitials. Even when I got this restored DVD, I think I just watched the parts I like; I’m not sure I ever sat down to watch it all the way through like this before. Some of that stuff is just…
BROOM …remarkably pointless. Someone must have had the idea that it would dignify the whole presentation if he gave a real program note for each segment. And the program note ended up being on the cartoon rather than on the piece.
ADAM It brings everything into the realm of camp.
BROOM I find it kind of endearing, because I do see it as this movie of huge ambitions. With their heart on their sleeve, they’re saying “we are trying to establish a new art.”
BETH But that seems so misguided.
BROOM There’s something touching and pathetic about how weird the juxtaposition is; that in Walt Disney’s imagination – or in the studio’s collective imagination – that their conception of greatness was to have that guy from the radio describing their cartoon with as much seriousness as he would describe, you know, a Beethoven Symphony.
ADAM That makes them sound like rubes.
BROOM It’s not that they were rubes, but it’s, you know, an American sort of imagination. That’s what I see in it, it’s like… well, I can’t think of another example, but isn’t that a familiar bit of cultural commentary about Americans: setting out to be great in a European way but ending up with their own E-Z-Bake versions?
BROOM They couldn’t help themselves but put vaudeville crap into it. And I love that. That’s what I said when I posted something about Dumbo a few years ago: that it feels rough, like the work of people who were just trying to put on whatever show they knew how to put on. So Fantasia is like those same people trying very hard to put on the show of “great beauty.” And I find it moving. And then I think there are things in it that are beautiful. I appreciated this time that the backdrops in the Pastoral Symphony section, which is so annoying, are in fact pretty.
BETH That actually bothered me.
BROOM And the color choices there are bold to the point of being interesting.
BETH Yes, I did like the colors in that.
BROOM I’m not saying that I liked them, but they were interesting.
BETH That was the only reason I had to keep watching it, that I liked those colors.
ADAM The horses were pretty cute, Beth!
BETH They really looked like My Little Pony.
BROOM I can’t imagine that there wasn’t an influence on the makers of My Little Pony. Like, “let’s make dolls of those little horses from Fantasia.”
BETH There must have been, because they looked exactly like My Little Pony. They were the same colors and everything.
ADAM Isn’t it true that Stravinsky objected to The Rite of Spring being in this movie, and Walt Disney paid him one dollar, or something?
BROOM Well, there’s an anecdote that Stravinsky wrote, but it’s contested now. Stravinsky wrote all kinds of bullshit about his past when it was convenient. In his memoirs he said that Disney offered him something like a thousand dollars, and pointed out that the piece was not in copyright in the US so they could use it for free if they wanted, and that he went to a screening and was disgusted. But there’s reason to believe that actually at the time he was really into it. There are promotional photographs of him at the studio looking at designs, and it’s recorded that he definitely enjoyed the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment. I believe that he probably didn’t decide he hated it until later when someone scoffed at it.
ADAM It has to have been embarrassing for Stravinsky that this is the only way that anyone in America knows The Rite of Spring.
BROOM Oh, I don’t think that’s the case. I think they picked The Rite of Spring because people had heard of it. And Stravinsky did all kinds of weird commercial stuff when he was living in Hollywood.
ADAM For me Fantasia has always been synonymous with classical music appreciation, and I found to my dismay that it made me appreciate the music less than if I had just listened to the music.
BETH I feel like it had no effect on the way I thought about the music at all.
BROOM I find it very simple to watch, and I don’t think that’s because I’m better versed in classical music; I don’t think about classical music while I’m watching the movie. I got to know Rite of Spring because of this movie; that was the first time I had heard it, and thinking about the movie later I wanted to hear that music again, because I was still thinking about the lava bubbles bursting. That was exciting, and I still watch it that way. When they do a good job, it fuses together and makes perfect sense, and you can appreciate the music as subconsciously as you naturally would in a movie.
ADAM The only ones that really worked for me were La Gioconda and The Nutcracker. And La Gioconda more because…
BROOM And Night On Bald Mountain? I thought you said you liked it.
ADAM I liked it, but…
BROOM But you fell asleep.
ADAM …but I fell asleep, so I’m not in a position to say fully.
BROOM It’s hard to imagine that anyone under less middle-of-the-night circumstances would fall asleep during that segment. It’s really scary.
BETH It is. I thought it was beautiful.
BROOM When those creatures in his hands change into weirder and weirder things…
ADAM There’s one we haven’t talked about.
BROOM The abstract one, the first one.
BETH I liked that one.
BROOM Beth, now you’ve actually seen the work of Oskar Fischinger.
BETH Yeah. I wish the whole movie was more like that. I wish it had been more abstract, and not cute cartoon characters running around. I think that the music is easier to appreciate when the animation is abstract. It’s also more fun. I think the movie would have held up better over time.
ADAM I like when the abstract animation fizzes or kicks in time with the music, and emphasizes the contours of the music. Whereas they tried similar things in the other pieces – like when there’s like a flute solo in the Pastoral Symphony, and it’s represented as some little Pan playing on his lyre. That made me cringe.
BROOM On his aulos. A lyre is stringed.
ADAM Thank you.
BROOM That reminds me of something that struck me this time. The Pastoral Symphony is famous for being illustrative and that seems to be why they chose it – that’s how he introduces it – and the passage most famous for being illustrative is the moment when the woodwind actually imitate birds. And yet that’s the passage they chose to portray as being played on actual instruments – they handled it in the exact opposite way. I don’t know if that meant anything. It’s interesting that you said you wanted it to be more abstract – I feel like the abstract parts are the most dependent on the viewer actually listening to the music. Those sections don’t give you the option of not caring about it.
BETH That’s true, but it seems like the music fit with the images more precisely when the animation was abstract.
ADAM I like the abstract ones for that reason, that they do make you pay more attention to the music. The animation can be a little bit hokey. But I admired what you tried to do for your final project in the animation class, which was sort of a more tasteful execution of the idea from that first one.
BROOM That first one, as I said, was made in imitation of – and actually with the participation of – this animator Oskar Fischinger. We saw a retrospective of his work.
BETH He participated?
BROOM He did designs. And the animators had all seen his work.
BETH I see. It was like him but not as good as him.
BROOM Yeah. He did designs and then other animators turned his doodles into, say, a violin bow instead of just a pure abstract form. I remember when I first saw some Fischinger films in class, and my animation teacher told me, “If you like Fantasia, you’ll like this better; it’s purer.” But my feeling then was that it was too pure to be anything in itself. I felt like I was watching an experiment, whereas Fantasia had been worked into something. By now I’ve seen enough of Fischinger that this time I was able to see it from the other point of view. But, again, I like that lowbrow-meets-highbrow quality of it. When it sort of looks like frost, or like the land rolling by, or like a sunset, I can enjoy that. I don’t think that pure abstraction should necessarily be held as a higher ideal than partial abstraction. I think the section that looks like glints on water is lovely.
ADAM There were also notes of abstraction in the Nutcracker section. Yes, they’re fairies, but they aren’t doing anything except for scattering leaves or…
BROOM Dust. Sparkles. Frost.
ADAM …on things, and it approaches the abstract. Though I disliked the parts of the Nutcracker that were like the Chinese mushrooms dancing.
BETH I like that part.
ADAM I thought the choices were clever, but…
BROOM The movie is a constant back-and-forth between things that are cute and based on showmanship, and things that are justified only by pure art. My favorite thing in the movie may be when the leaves blow by in the Waltz of the Flowers, which is somewhere in between. It’s just leaves, but handled as though they’re pure beauty.
ADAM In terms of formal execution, did you guys really think this was an advance on Pinocchio?
BETH I think parts of it were, yes.
BROOM I feel like shot for shot there are artistic choices being made in this movie that are the boldest things Disney ever did. For example, in Night On Bald Mountain, a remarkable number of different techniques are used in a short span – the pastel effect, and the reverse image, and that incredibly creepy effect at the beginning, when reality seems to bend as the hands of darkness come down.
BETH Night On Bald Mountain seemed really ahead of its time.
BROOM But even in The Pastoral Symphony there were weird little choices. At the end when everyone’s going to sleep, there’s one shot where the centaurs have become part of the background art, which is a weird and interesting choice. And at the end of the Russian Dance in the Nutcracker, when the dancing flowers all jump back into an arrangement, they’re suddenly drawn in a different style.
BETH And you like that? I don’t always like that.
BROOM I’m not saying all of them work, but I like that the movie is chock-full of bold choices. I guess a lot of Disney movies have similar things to savor in them. That’s something I’m hoping to rediscover here in the movies I haven’t seen in years – “Oh, look at how much design thought there is behind Bambi.”
ADAM Well, I can’t wait for Dumbo.
BROOM There are just constantly things to look at in Fantasia. During Ave Maria, I was thinking about the intense Magritte weirdness of where it ends up. At the end of the movie you just tend to shrug at it because you’ve seen so much other stuff. But if we just came across it flipping channels and had never seen it before, we’d wonder “What is this crazy, intense thing?” The movie maintains a remarkable level of lush intensity the whole time.
BETH Can we go to sleep now?
BROOM Yeah, you can both go to sleep now. This is all me talking because I’m the only one who likes this movie and I’m the only one who’s awake.
BETH What are you talking about??
ADAM We talked plenty!
BETH I was obsessed with this movie when I was a kid.
BROOM You were?
BETH Yeah. Most of the drawings I did from around fourth through sixth grade looked like things in this movie.
BROOM Really? Which things in the movie?
BETH The dinosaur world. I made a diorama of dinosaurs in fourth grade that was supposed to look just like that, and I thought I succeeded. And I would draw skies that were purple with lines shooting up from the sun, trying to make it look like the very end of the last one.
BROOM Those last few moments were always lost on me as a kid. Because what exactly are we watching? People with lanterns?
BETH I think they’re people with candles or lanterns, maybe monks. I don’t know.
BROOM Is it supposed to look Chinese? It has a sort of Asian art quality to me.
BETH Because of the tall thin trees.
BROOM The reason that section sucks so much is because the musical arrangement is terrible.
BETH Yeah, it’s a weird arrangement. Oddly overwrought.
BROOM It’s been Disneyfied, with goopy chorus. That’s not how Schubert’s Ave Maria really goes. I hadn’t even really recognized it before today.
ADAM How does it go?
BROOM “Ave Maria…”
ADAM Well, yeah, right.
BROOM Everyone knows that melody.
BROOM I didn’t know that was what we were listening to!
ADAM What do you mean you didn’t know?
BROOM When I was a kid, maybe I’d heard that melody a few times, but I don’t think I connected it with the name, and in the movie the tune is very hard to pick out because what you mostly hear is the chorus murmuring in this weird swoopy way. Tacky.
ADAM Well, I think we all gave that a fair shot.
BROOM I don’t think you didn’t give it a fair shot. You’re just falling asleep.
BETH I like it!
ADAM What are you talking about, we’re falling asleep? I feel very lively!
BETH It’s 12:42! I want to go to bed now! Can we go to sleep?