Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Concert Feature

So it is rainy, gray, and blah today in my town and its almost in stark contrast to my mood and the Christmasy decor that has now come to complete fruition outside in the stores.  I mean really, usually on days like this I feel blah right along with the weather...but today I refused to be.  I mean I was downright chipper...well chipper for me...on a Tuesday...in late November.  Stop looking at me like I'm always grumpy!

Anyway, today was our last normally scheduled day until next Wednesday due to our block scheduling this week and then four days of junior diversity (Thursday and Friday and then Monday and Tuesday) so I'm feeling a little strange for that.  I'm also doubting I'll finish Act II of Caesar until next week, which isn't really that surprising given the time I have to actually teach.  However, I shall take it in stride and just go with the flow.  Oh I was proud of me when I arrived home today, I actually did some crunches and pushups since I wasn't able to make it to the gym again.  Its not much, but every little bit helps.  I've gotten so bad about getting to the gym since it got colder...and its sad too because it used to be my favorite part of the day. But I'll get back there again.  Its a matter of time, especially considering the progress I made.

So, on with the scheduled movie talk...I will be discussing a Disney classic newly released on Blu-ray today and arguably one of the most beautiful American animated films of all time.  Today it holds prestige as being recognized by the American Film Institute twice and is hailed as Walt Disney's magnum opus, but upon its release it was not as warmly received.  Originally called "The Concert Feature", Walt's original concept of a film where animators would animate segments to be paired with classical music simply could not find an audience.  It was envisioned as a high-brow theater event with reserved seats and a fancy program, but due to the expense of installing its immersive sound system and the resistance of the public to shell out concert-ticket amounts of money for movie theater tickets, the film largely bombed on release.  It was not until years later that the film, in a cut down form, would achieve the acclaim and popularity it now enjoys today.  The public would not see its proper roadshow version until 2000 when the DVD was released, and by then Walt's 'concert feature' was the avant garde animated film to own.  So lets tune-up and see one of Walt Disney's most ambitious and risky ventures...embrace the sound of Fantasia.

Fantasia is not a film with a story, but rather it is a film more akin to going to a concert hall to see a presentation of fantastic music.  However, in this instance, the music is accompanied by images that one might imagine in his or her head while watching.  As narrator Deems Taylor puts it, there are three times of music in the program.  First there is music that tells a definite story, then music that paints certain pictures but not really a story, and lastly music that exists simply for its own sake and which inspires abstract images.  The first selection, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, is of this third kind and inspires completely abstract animation.  Next is The Nutcracker Suite, which depicts the changing of the seasons from Spring to summer, and then from Summer to autumn and winter through the work of fairies and other magical creatures.  Third is The Sorcerer's Apprentice, the famous Mickey Mouse short that inspired the making of Fantasia and which tells the story of a cocky apprentice who tries to create magic far too advanced for himself.  The last segment before intermission is The Rite of Spring, which depicts the dawn of time on Earth through the extinction of the dinosaurs.  After intermission we are invited to Meet the Soundtrack and then given the fifth segment, The Pastoral Symphony, which shows life in the era of Greek mythology.  Segment six is a comedic look at ballet set to The Dance of the Hours and features ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators all dancing like pros.  Lastly we have A Night on Bald Mountain, where an evil mountain top demon conjurers up the undead on Walpurgisnacht only to be driven away by the light of dawn and the Ave Maria, where several faithful souls venture into the forest toward the call of the spiritual.

I don't think I've ever seen anything on film quite like Fantasia.  Sure, there have been anthology movies and movies that were about music, but there is something unmatched about it.  It is like the third kind of music that Taylor mentions, which exists purely for its own sake.  Fantasia exists to be beautiful and epic and acts as a true testament to the creativity and ingeniousness of Walt Disney.  He knew that Fantasia was a good idea and a good film and its too bad that he did not live to see how acclaimed it is today.  Its quite possible that Walt simply debuted Fantasia too soon, before people were willing to recognize Disney as an artist and not as just a one-hit wonder (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs having been Walt's only feature-length success to this point).  The animation talent on display in this film is absolutely top notch and showcases many of the techniques and trademarks that would become tools of the trade for animators...before they were widely used. The sound and music, conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, is amazing as well...since Fantasia is all about music.  It is at all times equally bombastic and tender...subtle and robust.  Many people cite these orchestrations of these pieces as their favorites and its easy to see why.  In fact, I don't think I've ever heard some of these pieces in any other version.  If you can see and hear Fantasia in high-def video and sound you really owe it to yourself to make the effort to do so.  It might truly be the most beautiful thing on Blu-ray at the moment.

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