Childhood Cinematic Traumas #4: Fantasia

10 November 2009 at 21:57 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , )

This is a guest post by Alyx, aka Feminist Music Geek. Thanks Alyx!

Chernabog is about to haunt my nightmares; image courtesy of tmoaradio.com

When Caitlin started this section of her blog, Fantasia was the first movie that came to mind. But I was embarrassed to write anything about it. For one, I’m not a horror buff. While I can abide by much of the dark comedy Caitlin writes about (though Todd Solondz‘s filmography is as scary as any torture porn), I’m pretty lightweight when it comes to horror. Actually, it wasn’t until grad school that I even started watching horror movies because I had assumed they were misogynistic as well as scary and violent.

My subsequent cursory viewing habits are largely influenced by Caitlin and other horror fans from our co-hort in the media studies program at UT, many of whom identify as feminists, engage critically with the genre’s gender and sexual politics, and take defiant pleasure in looking at the screen rather than away from it. I try to look at the screen, but I usually cover my eyes.

For another, Fantasia is a cartoon. Obviously animation can tap into deep psychological fears surrounding child abuse, lost innocence, and parental death, especially evident in early Disney movies like Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. But does that measure up to the horror elicited from movies by Dario Argento, Sam Raimi, and others that Caitlin has discussed? Also, the lady who runs this blog eats Takashi Miike for breakfast. My childhood fear of a movie that features dancing flora and fauna seems like it would be the first sip of her, and her readership’s, decaf.

But the movie is scary. And its scariness begins with Chernabog, the satanic figure of Slavic mythology who perches atop a mountain to raise spirits from the dead and torture them for his amusement. He is the main character of the movie’s penultimate segment, Modest Mussorgsky’s “A Night On Bald Mountain,” and he will take your soul with a speed and force that rivals Aphex Twin and few others.

My first viewing of the movie was in 1990, when Disney released the movie in theaters and on VHS to commemorate its 60th anniversary. I was seven. My mom and stepfather took me to the local multiplex to see it. My mother was particularly enthusiastic about the screening, as it is one of her favorite movies. She first saw the movie when it was re-released in 1956. At ten, she was so enamored with the pairing of classical music with animation that she attended all three showings that day, alone and transfixed.

I had a slightly different reaction. While I loved the fairies from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” and the mythological creatures in Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” I was unable to sleep without a nightlight for fear that Chernabog would come into my room and turn me into one of his debased playthings.

It’s staggering that this segment was in a children’s movie, as it so effectively melds the terrifying might of its main character with the suspense built into the composition. The first time I saw the screen go black as Chernabog’s eyes lit up the screen and the theme reached its crescendo, I was too scared to scream. I have since run into those evil yellow eyes several times in my unconscious.

For a movie that scared me, I know a lot about Fantasia from subsequent viewings, documentaries, and books. I can tell you that it all but bankrupted the studio when it was originally released in 1940, as cinemas weren’t equipped for the movie’s pioneering use of stereophonic sound and audiences didn’t know what to make of its content. It wasn’t until 1969, after several theatrical runs and truncated versions, that the movie turned a profit, three years after studio co-founder Walt Disney’s death.

fantasia

Vintage Fantasia poster -- blacklight sold seperately; image courtesy of cgi.ebay.com

I can tell you how important it was to get conductor Leopold Stokowski and host Deems Taylor for the movie, as they were prominent figures who popularized classical music. I can also opine what a shame it is that Disney dubbed radio personality/music critic Taylor’s audio with someone else’s voice for the 2000 release, as his boarding school baritone was his trademark.

walt leopold deems

Walt Disney meeting with Leopold Stokowski and Deems Taylor; image courtesy of justdisney.com

I can also tell you what numbers got cut from the final product, including the literal interpretations of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the latter of which Walt vetoed so that the studio wouldn’t appear supportive of the Nazi Party.

Much of this encyclopedic knowledge is due to a time-old affliction perhaps familiar to horror fans and readers of this blog — I became obsessed with my own fear.

In addition to “Night on Bald Mountain,” there are two other segments to Fantasia that also creeped me out. The first was The Rite of Spring.

As a viewer, there are three things that always haunted me about this segment. One is its emptiness, tempered by jolting moments of frenzy. While this compliments the tone of the piece, it also gestures toward this slow-paced, largely dialogue-less movie’s foreignness. There are no traditional speaking protagonists that orient and engage the viewer. Despite being something of a musical, much of this movie takes place in a vacuum, far removed from any traditional notions of community. This segment, along with the abstract treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue” illustrate the movie’s airless otherworldliness, slowly unfolding while at odd intervals sputtering into violent action.

Another part that always stayed with me was the fatal battle between the clearly outmatched Stegosaurus and the Tyrannosaurus Rex. While scientifically impossible, as the two species existed some 50 million years apart, the sequence is brutal.

Finally, the last section, which posits that the dinosaurs were wiped out by drought, shook me. I ached for the doomed dinosaurs, stumbling toward certain death. As an adult, I can’t help but draw analogies between the dinosaurs’ extinction and the present-day threat of global warming. And while the movie makes explicit a known demise, the final shot of the setting sun is, to me, as austere a meditation on mortality as the last scene in Two-Lane Blacktop.

While perhaps the most popular segment in the movie, and the catalyst for turning what was originally to be a short into a feature, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice always left an impression. The main image that stays with me is Mickey destroying the broom. While the broom later appears ominous when it becomes an army of faceless automatons that threaten to drown Mickey, the mouse and his violent actions scared me more.

According to animation historians, this segment marked a transformative moment for the mouse. For one, there was the evolution of his form. In a documentary made for the movie’s 2000 release, animation historian John Canemaker notes that in earlier shorts like “Steamboat Willie,” Mickey was composed as a set of rigid circles, limiting his movement vocabulary. He also had black ovals for eyes, which made him less capable of conveying complex emotions. Animators like Fred Ward were responsible for humanizing Mickey, making his actions and expressions more dynamic. These modifications made him a more alive, relatable character.

It also made him scarier because nice guys don’t commit violence. As the studio’s mascot, Mickey was originally characterized as fun-loving and carefree (note: some girlfriends say he was a jerk to Minnie, but I don’t remember any particular instances). Here, he’s careless, rash, and capable of murder. He trains a broom to fetch water using a spell stolen from his master, only to doze off while the broom mindlessly floods the room. When Mickey wakes up, he decides to solve the problem by wielding an ax and chopping the broom to bits.

Were that not scary enough, his actions are shown off-screen, his shadow projected against a wall. In earlier drafts, Mickey was shown smashing the broom but Walt found this image too frightening and requested that the act be implied rather than shown. As a result, the scene is even more unsettling, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho, leaving the actions ambiguous and open to fevered interpretations.

Regrettably, one piece of the movie’s history I was unaware of until recently was the edits made to Beethoven’s “Pastoral” segment (which you can watch in full here, here, here, and here).

In the original version, there was a black servant character named Sunflower who appears in the middle of the segment, tending to the white centaurettes. Sunflower was black, prepubescent, half-donkey and characterized in a profoundly racist manner. She was removed from the movie in 1969 and has been taken out of all subsequent prints, VHS, and DVD editions.

sunflower

Sunflower tends to a centaurette while I shudder; image courtesy of cynical-c.com

It’s shocking that such an image, along with stereotypical images of Amazonian zebras in “The Pastoral” and Chinese mushrooms in “The Nutcracker Suite” were ever acceptable, even as late as 1940 (though more contemporary examples, like AMC’s Mad Men, suggest that blatantly regressive attitudes toward race were still alive and well later in the 20th century and continue to manifest in the present). While I’m heartened that an effort was made to remove such a horrible stereotype from the movie, and can now make sense of why certain images appeared too large for the frame or were given an awkward pan-and-scan treatment on video and DVD, the telling, overgrown absence create a different sense of unease.

For one, my memories of the “Pastoral” have now changed significantly. When I was a girl, my fantasy life was informed by this segment, along with the Nutcracker segment and other movies like The Little Mermaid and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. I would often run in my backyard or swim in my dad’s pool during summer vacation, pretending to be a centaurette or a mermaid or a fairy.

I also devoted entire murals to these magical creatures who only socialized with their female counterparts and were always topless. Thankfully, my mother never commented on their nudity and encouraged me to keep drawing. My father and stepfather were supportive too, if a little nervous in their suggestions that maybe one of them could use a seashell bra or a dress made of flowers.

I now wonder how my fantasy life was informed by this omission and how it could have changed things if it remained. I asked my mom if it impacted her. She remembered Sunflower from her initial viewing and was uneasy about her rendering, but unsure as to why. It wasn’t until a bit later, when her uncle made an absent-minded racist comment about a black girl they saw in passing that my mom began to process such thinking and what relationship it may have had to the movie’s racist imagery. I’m proud to say that the prepubescent girl who later became my mother reprimanded her uncle.

I also believe there’s cowardice in this omission. I certainly don’t think that Sunflower should be included in the final segment. However, I would appreciate a supplemental documentary that features a historian or archivist mentioning her presence in the movie’s original cut, filmic evidence of that presence, and an explanation of the executive decisions and editing process that ultimately led to the removal. Though Sunflower was configured in a stereotypical manner, she was also a part of the movie and its history and her presence needs to be acknowledged.

Upon review, I am now able to watch Fantasia with new eyes. Much of it is changed for me as an adult, whether for good or ill. But I still have to turn on a nightlight to keep Chernabog at bay.

3 Comments

  1. Fantasia on Dark Room « Feminist Music Geek said,

    [...] recently put together a post on Fantasia for Dark Room, a blog my friend Caitlin runs. As Caitlin, is quite the feminist [...]

  2. Childhood Cinematic Traumas #5: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial « Dark Room said,

    [...] films I have previously covered in “Cinematic Childhood Traumas.” But in the same way that Fantasia frightened my friend and fellow blogger, Alyx, in spite of its kid-friendly content, so did E.T. scare me when I first saw it at a young [...]

  3. Covered: The Tom Tom Club « Feminist Music Geek said,

    [...] of discarded Barbies and Disney princesses from my closet and put them in various sexual positions, nor could I explain why I reproduced mermaids and Fantasia‘s naked fairies and topless centaurettes in countless [...]

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