Ushering in Halloween week, our old friend Chernobog, the Slavic god of destruction. The name is literally Black God, I think. Hes very bad. To get this image I had to fire up the Fantasia DVD, and I watched some other segments as well. The Rite of Spring is a remarkable piece of animation, but you can just feel the audience shifting in their seats: when does all this evolution produce Donald Duck, or is it just lava and dino-frickin-saurs for the rest of the pitcher? Huh? I came away from it with a newfound appreciation for the animation in this segment, and a newfound distaste for the music itself. Im not crazy about The Rite of Spring. I find it fascinating, like a strange insect, but I dont like it. Im not sure Im supposed to. Its so alien, so primitive, yet so instinctively understandable: hello, heres your pagan past! Heres your club for killing the sacrificial victim, heres your body paint, heres your spear. Now youre going to be in the crowd that stomps the ground to bring the rain, okay? Fine. Next!
I can see why people rioted. But theres something else in "Rite of Spring" that unnerves me - the implication that we are just a hairs breadth away from this sort of tribal madness, that all our civilization counts for nothing. Here is our true horrid heart! Speak for yourself, mac. Just because you can find modern events analogous to ancient rites doesnt mean we havent progressed along the way. Evidence: Orchestras, recording studios, animation companies, continental distribution networks, electricity, high-power light emitting movie projectors, climate-controlled theaters, ushers in mass-produced uniforms, and critics for newspapers who type in skyscraper offices their bemused dismissals of a film that takes Stravinskys masterpiece and gives it to overgrown lizards.
It works better for lizards. Lizards have no soul. The music of Rite is the music of animals.
Night on Bare Mountain - now, thats different. Its less adventurous than Rite, less experimental, more literal and kitschily dramatic. And hence more popular. I dont say that with rolled eyes: of course, the masses love it. They would. No, its more popular for a reason. If you played Rite for someone in a culture with a completely different musical tradition, it would probably baffle them: what the hell? But play them Night and theyd get it right away: this is scary music. Is it about dragons? If so they are very powerful dragons. Many people die, I think. But its not just disorder and evil - its disorder presented in the orderly terms of tonal music. It makes sense. It even has a plot. Plus - and this just occurred to me - it clearly exists in a world in which there is an opposite force to the events were hearing described. We know what is going on in "Night" is wrong without being told; you just sense it. Rite has no such moral framework. It's not amoral as much as pre-moral, and in a way that's worse. You don't even have the terms to describe why things are wrong.
When the church bell rings at the end of "Night," it signals the arrival of the other side of the argument. Obviously Western ears get this, because Western ears make certain associations with certain sounds. Wildly careening strings over bombastic brass with frenzied percussion = the madness of misrule; church bell = put on your itchy church clothes and head off to hear the gospel. But you don't need to be part of that tradition to get the message. The bell is a simple statement without elaboration. The bell is the opposite of frenzy, of chaos, of license, of madness. There's no other way to take it. The bell rings, and rings again, and that is all it takes to collapse Chernobogs orgy.
Modeste really pours it on at the end, when the demons return to their graves; its a mournful theme that makes you feel sorry for the damned. (Depending how far you want to take it, the heavy Slavic nature of the tune makes you think of the piece as an allegory for Russia herself.) In any case, the sun comes up, and thats the end -
- except in the Fantasia version, it rolls into Ave Maria, and now the animation changes again. Now were following pilgrims through a vast forest, the trees forming a thousand arches; the natural world is a Gothic cathedral that ends in a Moderne sunrise. When I first saw it at the age of 14, I was stunned. When I saw it again ten years later, I thought: kitsch. When I saw it ten years after that, I thought: how interesting that they could just assume the Christianity of the audience. And now I think all those things. Plus this:
1. I understand even more why the film wasnt too successful; its exhausting. And I say that as someone who spends too much time processing all sorts of visual information not found in nature. Its one thing to watch an 85-minute Snow White feature, which may be animated but has a consistent style from start to finish. Its something else to watch something that not only throws up one abstraction after the other but constantly varies the style of the abstraction. People had come to expect light jokey whimsy from Disney; they expected animation miracles the same way we expect brilliance from Pixar. But this must have just made some peoples brains start fumbling for the SHUT DOWN switch.
And of course half the audience was just plain bored, because it all seemed rather plotless and longhaired.
2. It is the quintessential middlebrow movie, and I highly doubt Im even the 934th person to point this out. It takes a low form of entertainment and marries it to the crown jewels of Western Civ in order to bring high culture down a few notches to the masses. It never condescends. Its quite earnest, except for the Dance of the Hours sequence. Its meant to open the eyes, ears and minds of Ordinary Folk: hey, friends! Look, the songs on the radio are great, and we all love Boogie Woogie and other songs the kids are mad for, but you know . . . just because the longhair stuff seems to be the property of people with college smarts doesnt mean you cant have it too. They dont know anything you cant know.
3. When I look at the great animation of the past, I have the same reaction I have when I see a skyscraper from the end of the Jazz Age boom. Magnificent, utterly American - and for all the machinery involved, it all comes down to the movement of the human hand.
The hand behind the mouse creates something different than the hand behind the pen. Better and worse and worse and better. Classical animation is dead, I think. Frescos, meet oil.
But back to Chernobog. He was drawn by Vladimir Tytla - American born of Ukrainian parents. Googling around for the artists name, I discovered that Tytla also created the Sugar Crisp Bear.
Im having trouble with that right now. Especially when you consider this. But it helps if I think of that figure hunched over Bear Mountain, bemusedly summoning hyperactive sugarfiends from hell. Caint get enough, he always said. I'm sure Chernobog understood exactly how he felt.