Aria Covamonas made this wild cut-out animation to accompany the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra’s performance of “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns. The union is fitting and plenty weird.
Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels
“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”–Frank Zappa, Baltimore Sun, October 12, 1986
DIRECTED BY: Tony Palmer, Frank Zappa
PLOT: A collection of absurd sketches about life on the road as a rock band, 200 Motels offers very little in the way of plot. Running bits include Ringo Starr playing a large dwarf enlisted to portray Zappa, Theodore Bikel as a Mephistophelean figure trying to get the band to sign documents in blood, and Keith Moon as a groupie dressed as a nun; amidst the chaos, the band members constantly try to either get laid, get high, or scheme to form spin-off bands. In between, Zappa and the band perform musical numbers like “Lonesome Cowboy Burt,” and Zappa conducts an orchestra playing his avant-garde classical compositions.
- Frank Zappa thought up the idea for the film while on tour with the Mothers of Invention. He wrote much of the music in 200 Motels from motel rooms while on tour.
- The opening credits explain the split in the directorial duties, with Tony Palmer credited for “visuals” and Zappa for directing the “characterizations.”
- Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (“Flo and Eddie”) formerly comprised the Turtles, who had a smash hit with “Happy Together.” They joined Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, as featured vocalists in 1970, and stayed in the Mothers until 1972—just long enough to have featured roles in 200 Motels.
- Ringo Starr’s chauffeur played the band’s bass player: according to one anecdote, he was cast after the two bass players quit the band and a frustrated Zappa vowed to hire the next person who walked through the door.
- 200 Motels was one of the earliest films shot on video and transferred to film. Shooting on video allowed Tony Palmer to create visual effects that would have been too expensive to shoot on film.
- In his review of the soundtrack album, Palmer called 200 Motels “one of the worst films in the entire history of cinema, a criticism which I can confidently assert because I was in part responsible for its direction.“
- In 1988 Zappa made a documentary about the film called “The True Story of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels. That rarity is long out of print on VHS and has never had an authorized DVD or Blu-ray release.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tony Palmer overlaid trippy experimental video effects—the visual correlative of Frank Zappa’s oddball music—over almost every minute of the running time, making this a particularly difficult movie to choose a single image for. These tricks accumulate to build up a hazy impression of whirling psychedelia. Since we have to pick one image, however, we’ll go with our first view of Centerville, the small town enveloped in a wavering pattern of lysergic zebra stripes, which represents the hazy, melted-together vision of every two-bit town the band soldiers through.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Hot Nun; towel smoking; penis oratorio
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If anything sets 200 Motels apart from the other psychedelic cinematic noodlings of the hippie era, it’s Frank Zappa’s extraordinarily weird music—a unique mix of jazz-inflected blues/rock, avant-garde 12-tone classical music, and junior high school sex jokes. Mix concert footage (both of the Mothers of Invention and the orchestra Zappa retained for the shoot) with experimental videos, underground cartoons, oddball rock star cameos, and no plot whatsoever and you have a movie worthy of the production company’s name: “Bizarre Productions.” Zappa is a latter-day saint of pop-surrealism, and although he’ll always be best known for his music, this is the canonical record of his twisted sensibility on film.
Original trailer for 200 Motels
COMMENTS: The original tagline did not read “Ringo Starr IS Larry Continue reading 266. 200 MOTELS (1971)
was quickly proving to be an artist of provocative potential after creating the innovative short films “Dichterlieb” (2000), “One Night, One Life” (2002), and “Le Sacre du Printemps” (released 2004). Tragically, Herrmann’s life and career were cut short when he died of a diabetic stroke at the age of 40 in 2003. A few months after his death, his partner, soprano , a specialist in 20th/21st century music, gave birth to their second child.
All three have been released on home video with “Dichterlieb” and “One Night, One Life” available together and “Le Scare du Printemps” on a second DVD. The primary interest in the “One Night, One Life” collection is Herrman’s film of Arnold Shoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” conducted by modern music specialist Pierre Boulez and starring Schäfer. A bit of history may be needed for Schoenberg’s atonal, expressionist melodrama. Set to Albert Giraud’s text, the poems, usually spoken by a soprano, are delivered in “Sprechgesang” (spoken singing). Upon its 1912 premiere, “Pierrot Lunaire” predictably offended the traditionalists. Much publicity was made about it, mostly bad, but at least this was a period when new music and new composers actually grabbed headlines. As late as the 1970s, conservative NY Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg claimed that “Pierrot Lunaire”‘s’ failure to enter the standard repertoire was an indictment of contemporary music. Yet, the 21st century has (somewhat) rendered Schonberg’s assessment as premature. If not quite part of the daily repertoire diet, “Lunaire” is extensively recorded and performed. One might envision it someday becoming as commonplace as Beethoven. However, together, Herrmann, Boulez, and Schäfer produce a commendable effort to rectify its potentially harmful respectability. The proof is in the pudding as far as music forum reviews go, with the hopelessly puritan music fans expressing outrage towards Herrmann’s blasphemous filming of music that was labeled blasphemous in 1912. One would think, with the combination of Schoenberg, Boulez, Herrmann, and Schäfer, blasphemy would and should be expected. Schoenberg is a composer who was and remains spiritually antithetical to the tenets of fundamentalism, and yet, long dead in his grave, he holds no sway with that lot. Fortunately, the principals speak blasphemy fluently and refuse to appease those who prefer art-music to be neutered, polished, and pedestaled. Schoenberg’s sense of danger is not only intact, but expanded upon.
The haunting lyrics are besotted with imagery of sick moons, flowing blood, brandished swords, gruesome communion, blue murder, bloodied crosses, ancient gloom, one-legged storks, coffins, and giant black butterflies ready for the kill. It’s hardly “La Boheme,” Continue reading THE SHORT FILMS OF OLIVER HERRMAN
- Although atonal, “Pierrot Lunaire” does not employ the twelve tone method. [↩]
“…action controlled by a musical pattern has great charm in the realm of unreality.”–on Fantasia
DIRECTED BY: Norman Ferguson, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe, Jr. Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen
FEATURING: Leopold Stokowksi and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Deems Taylor, Walt Disney (voice of Mickey Mouse)
PLOT: An orchestra files in to a concert hall, followed by classical music critic Deems Taylor, who introduces the film and describes the different purposes of classical music. The first musical selection, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor,” illustrates “absolute” music, and consists of a series of abstract images combined with views of the orchestra in silhouette. The six animated musical sequences that follow compose the bulk of the movie, following the adventures of fairies, Mickey Mouse, dinosaurs, centaurs, hippo ballerinas, and demons set to the music of Tchaikovsky, Dukas, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ponchielli, Mussorgsky, and Schubert, all introduced by Taylor.
- The meeting of conductor Leopold Stokowski and animation god Walt Disney, in 1937 at Chasen’s restaurant, is the stuff of legend. Disney was starstruck with the conductor’s celebrity, mysterious accent, and fierce mane. The seed of an idea for a “concert film” sprang from the meeting. At this time Disney had only produced and released one previous feature: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937). The idea of an animated feature had seemed risky and radical, with the naysayers predicting bankruptcy. The profits and critical acclaim from Snow White forever silenced those doomsday prophets. Now, Disney was ready to take another risk. 1940 saw the release of Disney’s second and third feature films. Artistically, it paid off as Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia are, to date, Disney’s two greatest films, released only nine months apart. The former was a critical box office hit. The latter did not make money for nearly twenty years.
- Fantasia was an expansion of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series of musical shorts (which were set to original music commissioned by Disney studios rather than classical masterpieces). The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment, starring Mickey Mouse, was originally made as a Silly Symphony but cost over $100,000 to animate, and Disney realized the only way to recoup that budget was to make it part of a feature.
- Fantasia was (mostly, despite some notable howls of derision) well-received by critics and audiences on release. It failed to turn a profit because of its enormous budget, difficulties in distribution (new sound systems had to be installed in any theater that wanted to play it, so it was rolled out piecemeal as a roadshow feature), and the fact the the onset of WWII cut off the foreign markets. Disney studios continued to re-release the film every five to ten years up until 1990, however. By the late 1960s, spurred by its discovery and embrace by the psychedelic generation, Fantasia had become both a beloved classic and a cash cow.
- Bits from the original “Pastoral Symphony” sequence were later erased due to their depictions of black centaurs, who were caricatured and depicted as servants to the white centaurs.
- Disney had planned more editions of Fantasia (one of which included a collaboration with Salvador Dali), but its initial failure laid such plans to rest until sixty year later, when Walt Disney Productions released Fantasia 2000. Fantasia 2000 had fleeting moments of brilliance, but was mostly a disappointing sequel; too clean, too crisp, lacking the risk-taking intensity and provocativeness of the original.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: In an entire film of indelible images, alligators swooning over and dancing with hippos may have been the “eureka, it’s weird!” moment for the film’s 1960s acidhead crowd. We concur.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dancing mushrooms; Stravinsky dinosaurs; alligator/hippo romance
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pinocchio may have had boys turning into jackasses, and Dumbo (1941) had it’s mind boggling “pink elephants on parade,” but Walt Disney’s Fantasia is chock-full of progressive strangeness and an ardent embrace of art for the sake of art. It’s Walt’s weirdest.
1956 re-release trailer for Fantasia (including part of the scene later deleted from prints due to charges of racism)
COMMENTS: Over a thirty year period I have seen Fantasia (1940) Continue reading 205. FANTASIA (1940)
DIRECTED BY: Godfrey Reggio
PLOT: A series of black and white shots, mostly of human faces but also of abandoned buildings, hands, and landscapes, set to a new composition by Philip Glass.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though a curious experiment for sure,Visitors is too dry, slow and minimal to make the list of the best weird movies of all time. It’s got the “weird” part down; I’m less sure about the “movie” part.
COMMENTS: Visitors is composed of about 75% shots of human faces, captured by a slow motion camera, staring into a monitor with hard-to-gauge expressions for about a minute at a time. To break up the monotony there are also shots of abandoned buildings, disembodied hands, a gorilla, a lunar surface, and so on—all beautifully photographed, but seemingly inserted at random. Now, the human face is fascinating in its infinite variety and its singular expressiveness, but I confess that, like a normal person, I found this exploration boring. Five minutes of this parade of faces would have been enough, fifteen minutes would be pushing it, but ninety minutes sets the movie up as a challenge. It’s not that there isn’t a great deal for the eye to appreciate, or that there are no surprises to be found, especially in the film’s final moments; it’s just that a little bit of this goes a long way. You might compare Visitors to looking at an exhibition at an art gallery, except that at the gallery the observer decides whether he wants to invest his attention in the portrait of the young Asian girl or the gorilla or the cypresses in the swamp, going at his own pace; here, director Godfrey “Koyaanisqatsi” Reggio selects the image and dictates in what order and for how long we gaze at each installation. If there is sense to the progression of images, it’s lost on us. The idea of a film where we simply peer at people’s faces while they stare back at us has a certain experimental purity; but why break it up with the shots of the abandoned amusement park? The flock of seagulls? The piles of garbage? (The Louisiana swamp that figures heavily in the film’s last third is a spot Reggio loved from his childhood, which subverts the notion that there is some sort of objective, non-personal meaning to the flow of images). There is a disconnect between the shots of isolated faces followed by abandoned buildings that might suggest some sort of looming post-apocalyptic future, but basically the audience is left on its own to find any thematic relevance in the imagery. Unlike Reggio’s previous films, such as Koyaanisqatsi (where the imagery consistently critiques the hectic pace of modern life), the material of Visitors seems like a bunch of pretty pictures inserted because each of them looked cool in isolation, not because they resonate with each other. In this way Visitors is a legitimately Surrealist documentary. It is also much, much slower in its progression than Reggio’s already stately previous work. Overall, Visitors is a noble experiment, but it would be hard to call it a successful one, except on a shot-by-shot basis.
Philip Glass’ slow, deep, moody score adds additional artistic heft to the project, and serious orchestral music fans may consider Visitors as nothing more than the music video for Glass’ latest composition. It’s also worth nothing, although I doubt Reggio would agree, that Visitors may actually play better on home video than in theaters. At home, you can walk away into the next room to read your email or unload the dishwasher, let Visitors play in the background, and check back every now and then just to assure yourself that nothing about the movie has actually changed.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
DIRECTORS: James Algar, Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi, Francis Glebas, Eric Goldberg, Don Hahn, Pixote Hunt
CAST: James Levine (conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), plus hosts James Earl Jones, Quincy Jones, Angela Lansbury, Bette Midler, Steve Martin, Penn and Teller, and Itzhak Perlman
PLOT: Like the original Fantasia (1940), Fantasia 2000 has no overarching plot. Instead, the film presents a series of short subjects “illustrating” classical compositions by such masters as Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin and Ottorino Respighi.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This semi-sequel lacks the edge of the first Fantasia’s sinister “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence (the one with the giant demon). Also, this later Fantasia is unlikely to attract the kind of audience that went to the late 1960’s re-issue of the first film while under the influence. After all, the original Fantasia received the Harvard Lampoon’s 1968 “OhGodOhGodOhGodTheLightsTheSoundsTheColors” award, which it shared with Yellow Submarine and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
COMMENTS: While lacking the innovative qualities of its predecessor, which was one of the first–if not the first–films recorded in multichannel sound, Fantasia 2000 is a (much) shorter, faster and more kid-friendly variation on the original, all of which does not necessarily make it better. Nevertheless, the film is both amusing, and, during the Stravinsky and Respighi sequences, surprisingly stirring.
Fantasia 2000 begins with Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5 in C Minor” being portrayed in abstract fashion with lots of Origami-style butterflies fluttering across the screen. This sequence is obviously meant to recall the original Fantasia’s opening: an impressionistic rendering of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, which was the dullest scene in either movie. Things perk up considerably after that, as Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” is turned into a touching computer-animated tale of humpback whales. Then comes a funny take on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, animated in the style of legendary New York caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. This is followed by another digital segment: Shostakovich’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F. Major”, now rendered as a somewhat lackluster adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” Next up is a very brief bit from Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Carnival of the Animals, Finale”, which here becomes a watercolor-painted sequence featuring pink flamingos playing with a yo-yo. One gets the feeling that this is supposed to be reminiscent of the 1940 original’s version of “Dance of the Hours,” with its immortal ballet-dancing hippos and ostriches, but if that is the case, then the earlier film’s anthropomorphic gags are far more memorable. There’s more anthropomorphism to come, as “Carnival of the Animals” is followed by a reprise of Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” This is simply the classic sequence from the original Fantasia edited in here: Mickey Mouse, thinking himself a great wizard, must fend off an army of living brooms. As it was it the best scene in the original, this is the best sequence in the second one, probably because it’s the only segment that illustrates what the composer was actually writing about. Donald Duck then gets equal time, as it were, by starring in Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” This is not a story about Donald’s graduation, but a retelling of “Noah’s Ark” with Donald and Daisy standing in for Noah, and it’s amusing enough. The film’s finale is a memorable take on Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite,” as a woodland sprite brings the spirit of spring to the forest, only to be vanquished by the Firebird spirit, who lives in a volcano. But this is Disney, so the sprite rises again like the phoenix. Although this is arguably the most lavishly animated segment in Fantasia 2000, some of the imagery is suspiciously reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke, as well as the forest fire in Disney’s own 1942 Bambi (complete with woodland creatures). Nevertheless, this is a fine note for the film to go out on.
Nothing in Fantasia 2000 is the slightest bit weird, but it is all gorgeously animated and quite entertaining. Compared to its legendary, if sometimes ponderous, 1940 predecessor, however, Fantasia 2000 does seem a bit lightweight.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“If it’s a head trip you’re looking for in the millennial version of Walt Disney’s ‘Fantasia,’ you’ll have to wait for the grand finale, in which the world appears to come to an end, then suddenly bursts to life again… [it] often has the feel of a giant corporate promotion…”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
Films about composers are rare, and probably for good reason. Few can forget Hollywood’s sickeningly sanitized version of Chopin’s life, A Song To Remember (1945) with Cornel Wilde’s Hallmark-style portrayal of the composer literally (and hammily) dying at the keyboard (of tuberculosis) after a grueling tour for “the song to remember.” It was Liberace’s favorite movie for good reason. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the 1970 composer biopics by Ken Russell. Russell being Russell, these were, naturally, highly irreverent and decidedly idiosyncratic takes on Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Mahler (Mahler), and Liszt (Lisztomania). Then came Milos Forman’s Academy Award winning film on Mozart, Amadeus (1984), which, though largely fictional, does capture the spirit, personality, and drive of the composer. If Forman’s triumph seemed to signal a new, respectable artistic trend in musical dramas, then along came Klaus Kinski with Paganini (1989) to prove that notion wrong. Script in hand, Kinski attempted to solicit Werner Herzog to direct the life story of the demonic 19th century virtuoso violinist, Niccolo Paganini. Kinski had long felt a strong identification with the famed musician and repeatedly implored Herzog to direct. Upon reading Kinski’s treatment, Herzog deemed it an “unfilmable mess.” Not one to be dissuaded, Kinski, for the first and last time, took over the director’s reigns himself . The result is absolutely the weirdest musical biopic ever made, and that is no exaggeration. It has aptly been referred to as Kinski Paganini since it as much a self-portrait as it is the composer’s portrait. Picasso once said “every work of art, regardless of subject matter, is a self-portrait.” Kinski Paganini is the second of two highly personal self-portraits Kinski left behind before dying at the age of 56 in 1991. The first is an actual autobiography, titled “All I Need Is Love.” Both works sparked an outrage amongst the status quo. Kinski’s written manifesto has since come to be regarded as one of the great maniacal bios.
To call Paganini a biopic is a bit of a stretch. As Herzog predicted the film is a mess, and a repellent one at that; but it is such an individualistic mess that it demands attention. Kinski’s film is an unquestionably disturbing example of what happens when the lunatics take over the asylum.
The film is available on DVD via Mya Communications in both the 84 minute theatrical cut, mandated by aghast producers, and Kinksi’s own, fourteen minute longer “versione originale.” With Kinski’s cut, there is no reason to watch the theatrical version, which was an impossible attempt to downsize the director’s monstrously egotistical vanity project.
Kinski’s version opens with two priests, racing towards the dying musician. They bicker back and forth over whether they should offer last rites to that vile seducer of young girls. To make his point of hypocrisy about as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles, Kinski intercuts the carriage ride with shots of priests’ hands distributing the Eucharist to the awaiting, open mouths of nubile catechumens. The composer’s young son (played by Kinski’s own son, Nanhoi) greets the priests and, upon learning their intent of attempting to solicit repentance from the dying composer, Jr. sends them packing. Like Kinski, Paganini obsessively dotes on his son (Nanhoi repaid the affection in 1991, being the only person who attended Klaus’ funeral). Kinski’s Niccolò Paganini has almost no dialogue in the film but he does supply a judicious bit of voice-over: “I am neither young nor handsome. I’m sick and ugly. But when women hear the voice of my violin, they do not hesitate to betray their husbands with me.” To drive that point home, the rest of the film is, essentially, a series of montages: Paganini plays his violin with searing intensity, women masturbate to him, Paganini plays, horses have sex, Paganini plays, crowds throng to him, Paganini plays, upper class society types deem him the devil, Paganini plays, women succumb to orgasmic heights, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex in carriages, Paganini plays, underage girls dance, Paganini walks through the streets-alone, silent, internally determined, Paganini dotes on his son, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex in a field of flowers, Paganini plays, Paganini has uninhibited sex on an actual bed, Paganini dotes on his son, Paganini has more uninhibited sex, Paganini composes, Paganini plays, Paganini has even more sex, Paganini helps aspiring young musicians, clerics deem Paganini a rapist of underage girls, Paganini gives to the poor, the ill Paganini comes to increasingly depend on his son, Paganini gets sick and dies. The End.
Kinski’s cut of the film is excessively graphic (bordering on pornographic), contemplative, and rapturous. The film itself, like both Paganini and Kinski, is deranged, coarse, impassioned, libidinous, and artfully arresting. Unfortunately, Mya Communications’ very good transfer work is solely reserved for the theatrical cut. Kinski’s versione originale is merely an extra, and that print remains unretouched, leaving the darkly lit interior scenes almost unwatchable. Pier Luigi Santi’s lush cinematography compliments the film’s excellent score of Paganini caprices. In addition to cutting the graphic sex scenes, the theatrical version omits the entire opening sequence with the priests, making an already disjointed film feel even more fragmentary. The dubbing is poor in both versions.The extras are a mixed bag. There is an indispensable, hour-long making of the film documentary, deleted scenes (from both cuts), the original trailer, and a bizarre Cannes press conference. Unfortunately, the cost of the set may require a second mortgage.
It was the theatrical version I saw in a dingy theater upon its release. I was one of ten patrons present. By the time the credits rolled, there were only two of us remaining. I was not sure whether the film was an adventurous masterpiece and/or an “unfilmable mess,” but I do think that any film that inspires eight out of ten people to walk out has to have something going for it.
Morrison’s credentials as a experimental filmmaker are considerable, having received widespread critical recognition for the feature Decasia (2002). Morrison’s collages are composed and juxtaposed to music, often by his frequent collaborator composer, Michael Gordon. This technique, combined with Morrison’s obsessive use of decaying silent film and newsreel footage, makes him one of the most startling, original homegrown artists since New Englander Charles “take your dissonance like a man” Ives. Comparing this twenty first century filmmaker to an early twentieth century composer is not as fanciful as might be first imagined, since inherent musicality abides in both, as does a shared aesthetic of deconstructionist Americana.
Light Is Calling will be shown Thursday night at 830 pm. It is part of an evening of film and music, which will include Just Ancient Loops (2012) and the world premiere of Morrison’s All Vows (2013). Israeli American cellist and Bang On A Can founding member Maya Beiser will supply live musical accompaniment. (Beiser’s reputation for collaborating with composers such as Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno may prove to be refreshing in a city whose symphony rarely defines progressive art-music beyond the nineteenth century).
Light is Calling, like many of Morrison’s films, follows an existential arc witnessed through layer after layer of resplendently cruel textures produced by severely decomposing nitrate film stock. Here, Morrison uses footage from The Bells (1926), focusing on stars Lola Todd and Edward Phillips. Slithering through the visceral sepia gangrene is the haunting fragility of love, life and, ultimately, meaning. Once fully fleshed, figures become as fragmented and as meaningful as the simple images of riders we find in a late Gauguin canvas. Through the cinematic milieu, accompanied by Gordon’s shimmering, haunted music, Morrison demands more than the lack of attention one might succumb to while whisking through an art gallery; he takes us deeper than the surface paint, to the very texture of the burlap canvas.
Just Ancient Loops breaks down into three sequences: Genesis, Chorale, and Ascension. It is a collaborative work between composer Michael Harrison, soloist Beiser, and Morrison. Nineteenth century symphonist Anton Bruckner described Harrison’s work as “boundlessly expansive.” The Harrison/Beiser opus, “Time Loops,” constructs a homogenous, Brucknerian cathedral. The artists’ refreshing consistency of purpose embraces the transient station of a paradisaical hour. From a solar eclipse to consummating cells, and the expulsion from paradise, the three artists dance with their putrefied avatars: hand tinted witnesses to the resurrection and ascension.
Bill Morrison composed Decasia (2002) as a decomposing homage to Fantasia (1940). Far from being a pedestrian imitation (i.e. Fantasia 2000), Morrison’s film is an astonishingly unique cinematic experience: a diaphanous visual collage juxtaposed to the music of composer Michael Gordon.
There is a breed of minimalistic new age composers espousing a play-it-safe spirituality. Gordon is not among them. He is a one of a handful of authentic, spiritually challenging voices in 21st century artmusic. Gordon’s rich use of dissonance and atonal language puts him shoulder to shoulder with the likes of such 20th century artists as Luigi Nono and John Coltrane. Gordon’s “Decasia,” composed for the Basel Sinfonietta, is called a “symphony,” and is a response of sorts for those who (often correctly) believe that the symphony, as an art form, was extended to its death in the works of Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler. Some would argue that Gordon’s opus, a continuous movement utilizing synthesizer and electric guitar together with full orchestra, does not fit the symphonic criteria. But then, neither did Roy Harris’ iconic work. Like Coltrane’s “Ascension,” Decasia is a demanding journey. Gordon previously came to prominence with his intimately provocative psychological opera “Alarm Will Sound.” Based on Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo regarding the ear lobe cutting incident, it is desolate and suffocatingly beautiful. “Decasia” is a further development of that aesthetic, moving beyond words to the tragedy of silence, making Morrison a quintessential collaborator.
As new opera directors rethink old chestnuts, so too does Morrison rethink Walt’s innovative concert program of film imagery wedded to music. How Morrison dances with the preexisting music is as original as that ambitious premiere in 1940. Dancing is an apt description, as Decasia begins and ends with a whirling dervish. Morrison’s approach to conveying that decay is as startling as Claus Guth‘s humanizing “Messiah” and as relentless as Guth’s collaboration with Chaya Czernowin in Mozart’s “Zaide.” Morrison’s aesthetic point of entry manages to be paradoxically unsettling and accessible at the same time: no mean feat. Typically, in many postmodern endeavors it is mystery and spirituality that is forefront, usually (and lamentably) at the expense of expressive directness and all traces of humanity. Morrison does not make that mistake, and the unfolding of his vision is hypnotically entertaining.
Using silent film footage and stock reels, Morrison’s imagery is akin to cadavers struggling with the effectiveness (or not) of embalming fluid. Nuns with schoolchildren, missionaries baptizing in a river, a boxer, crashing waves, a man reading a newspaper, a caravan of camels, landscapes, a geisha, miners, and volcanoes rise from the blemishes of a Dorian Gray portrait, once as handsome and muscular as the square jawed William S. Hart or as prettified as the coquettish Mary Pickford. It is a circular, phantasmagoric dance-to-your-death potpourri. The assemblage of primordial imagery, conjoined with Gordon’s aural language, craft an evocative, textured experience that is probably most effective on the big screen. The sole advantage to home viewing would be lack of interruption due to grumbling patrons walking out.
By taking this unpreserved archival footage, keeping it intact, and wedding it to the atonal composition, Morrison’s contemplative, non-linear narrative serves the nitrate deterioration like a protective skin. Decasia simultaneously celebrates decay and survival with an unbridled enthusiasm found in the most memorable cinematic experiments of the 1960s.
Over a thirty year period I have seen Fantasia (1940) in theaters on a few occasions. During each showing I witnessed several members of the audience walk out. That is usually a good sign. There is little doubt that this experimental film (yes, Disney once was innovative) has unmitigated moments of lurid kitsch, with equal parts cinematic magic. It’s a flawed masterpiece, which begs the questions: does an infallible masterpiece actually exist? Fantasia represents it’s creator, Walt Disney, as utterly possessed by obsessive, artistic, and innovative ambition. It may be one of the most stand apart films ever crafted, which is why, seventy plus years later, it still has the power to provoke dumbed-down audiences who still look at artmusic with suspicion. Simultaneously, it also annoys insufferable academic elitists who cannot find it in themselves to embrace the film’s tawdrier moments.
Another supposed “strike” the film has against it is its choice of conductor: Leopold Stokowski. Stoki was the P.T. Barnum of transplanted Euro conductors residing in America. Mention him to any “serious” classical music lover and he’ll make a face like he’s heard fingernails scraping down a chalkboard. Stokowski was known for his Bach transcriptions, one of which—“Toccata and Fugue in D minor”—opens the film. Essentially,he romanticized Bach, making him sound more like Tchaikovsky. One wit described such tampering as “High Cholesterol Bach.” It’s a dishonest reaction, molded by unimaginative attachments to “historical correctness” and hyper-realism. Avoid such persons like the plague (they probably started life by pulling the wings off butterflies). For those of us who have no qualms admitting that we like plenty of syrup on our musical flapjacks, embracing this wizard’s transcriptions presents no problems. Seeing only Stokowski’s brazen self-promotion amounts to blindness. This former organist had one of the most prodigious gifts in drawing color out of every orchestra he worked with, which made him the quintessential choice for Fantasia. Compare his achievement in this film, awash in personality, to the comparatively monochromatic conducting of James Levine in Fantasia 2000.
The meeting of Stokowski and Walt Disney, in 1937 at Chasen’s restaurant, is the stuff of legend. Disney was starstruck with the conductor’s celebrity, mysterious accent, and fierce mane. The seed of an idea for a “concert film” sprang from the meeting. At this time Disney had only produced and released one previous feature: Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937). The idea of an animated feature had seemed risky and radical, with the naysayers predicting bankruptcy. The profits and critical acclaim from Snow White forever silenced those constipated doomsday prophets. Now, Disney was ready to take another risk. 1940 saw the release of Disney’s second and third feature films. Artistically, it paid off as Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia are, to date, Disney’s two greatest films (yes, I said that), released only nine months apart. The former was a critical, box office hit. The latter did not make money for nearly twenty years. Disney had proven one can go indeed broke overestimating the American public.
The Fantasia deal signed, Stokowski was excited and predictably offered numerous ideas about the use of color. A later biographer wrote that the conductor’s fascination with color was sincere, describing his various experiments with mixing alcoholic drinks for color effects. Stoki did a similar thing with “sound color” by incessantly changing the orchestra seating layout. Even visually, “Toccata and Fugue” is pure Stokowski. The opening piece is introduced via the superb narration of American composer Deems Taylor (to the public he was primarily known as a commentator for the NY Philharmonic Radio Broadcasts). This “absolute music” is total abstraction. Entirely hand painted, at times the watercolors almost appear to still be wet. Vibrant with texture, this is far removed from contemporary slick and soulless computer animation. Stokowski used no baton, so his beautifully powerful long hands are highlighted, jabbing through the splashing backdrop. The french horns are hauntingly lit in diaphanous color before the violin bows transform into silvery beams of light reaching for infinity. Sound and vision collide, producing crashing tides, ending in a literal fireworks display.
For those, like myself, who have overdosed on Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” Fantasia serves up a refreshing alternate vision, the most Continue reading WALT DISNEY’S FANTASIA (1940)