Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Acid Sight/Sound Symphonies: FANTASIA (1940 - rereleased in 1969), 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and YELLOW SUBMARINE (1968)

T to B: Fantasia, 2001
Walt Disney was determined to not just blow minds and thrill art lovers with his 1940 epic animated classical music film FANTASIA, but to bring what critic James Agee referred to as "middlebrow highbrow" culture to an America on the edge of war. It didn't... but yet, when re-released in 1969, it caught on with a new kind of American at the edge of war, the stoned draft dodger. As Wikipedia notes:
Fantasia did not make a profit until its 1969 re-release. By then, Fantasia had become immensely popular among teenagers and college students, some of whom would reportedly take drugs such as marijuana and LSD to "better experience" the film.[4] Disney promoted the film using a psychedelic-styled poster. The re-release was a major success, especially with the psychedelic young adult crowd, many of whom would come lie down in the front row of the theater and experience the film from there.
You know how Disney used to do with their best titles... and still does with their DVDs: letting them go in and out circulation, then re-releasing them (with "timeless" hype of the "now more than ever" variety). Acid similarly comes and goes from the American popular imagination, and in 1969 it was still "cool" the way cocaine was in the late 1970's, or ecstasy in the early 1990s, something even "normal" people want to try (they read about in Newsweek or heard about it at their Wednesday bridge game). Naturally Disney and acid came together --seeing a good Disney film with "mind expanded" was to truly appreciate its abstract beauty, so the bridge partners said (1). The idea of acid cinema had reached a nice peak with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and YELLOW SUBMARINE the year before. Whether any of these films were intended for drug use or not, all three were ideal for a cinematic trip. Seeing 2001 now on a small screen it might seem rather slow but we should remember it was filmed in "Cinerama" and meant to be seen on a huge screen, where the vastness of space and the effects could wow us and the lack of flashy editing and jump cuts would save us from nausea and whiplash. We can still see some of the shot retain the Cinerama curviness (the fisheye look from within the pod when the two astronauts discuss HAL's breakdown), and they can help us imagine the truly overwhelming experience seeing it on a Cinerama screen while tripping your face off on acid would generate.

Imagine that you're used to seeing television on a small black and white TV in a room crowded with cigarette smoke-- you've been watching TV like that for 20 years nonstop--never been to a movie theater--and now you're in a New York multiplex with 3-D surround digital sound. Everything about the experience of viewing is now a complete sensory overload--your inner blinders quickly scurry to adjust their levels but until they do you're suddenly in a wild and wondrous place. This what a big psychedelic trip can bring to your experience of a movie. The sheer miracle of a moving picture, the miracle of the people around you, is enough to delight you beyond all endurance. You gush with gratitude at being able to process all this information in a setting where you feel safe without feeling lonely, where it's dark enough to be free and don't have to talk to people or make eye contact while you endeavor to catalog your newfound wealth of sensory information.

Your natural tendency to be hypnotized by a glowing screen keeps your loosened mind from wandering (usually) into bad trip panic attack territory, which is important, since your mind is so open and unguarded, one nasty image can get right inside your head and warp your soul forever. Of course, it's good in that sense to avoid films with lots of guns and violence and negativity or a heavy emotional plot that your unprovoked laughter will disrupt. So what you needed in the acid heyday of 1967-70 were long, slow panoramas filled with soothing, positive music and flowery images, expressions of love or else total blankness. Living is easy with eyes closed! But when your eyes are suddenly open, you need a break from all the lonely people, their beady, needy eyes imploring you, their hungry ghost carny people hands darting in and out of food-stained sleeves. Flowers and sunshine, space, the Beatles, surfing, were like the balm to that illness.

Fitting the bill perfectly for supplying the positives without the negatives, right at the start of the acid spike in 1966 was a surfer movie called THE ENDLESS SUMMER (above). As Laker34 notes on the IMDB user comments "See this film because it is not violent." The waves, man, it was about the waves.

Then came YELLOW SUBMARINE and 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968. With these films, the cinema was now safe for heads (as they were known at the time). The posters for 2001 even came right out and labeled it as "the ultimate trip." While YELLOW SUBMARINE said it all, a psychedelic journey with Beatles and the safety of a little hideaway beneath the waves. It even had a total selfless love ending, when John asks the defeated Blue Meanies to join the celebration. Was this not the lesson we as people most needed and could most easily grasp when high out of our gourds, That to reject or fail to love even one person, no matter how bad they smelled or how hard they cracked our skull with their baton, was to join the Meanies' side rather than vice versa? That's the lesson we didn't learn though, only Lennon and Gandhi and King learned it, and look what it got them! That kind of selfless love is a bullet magnet, speeding you up to God like you'd speed a candle out of a gas-filled kitchen. We, the gas, learned to reign in our smell, to hide in pockets behind the stove and wait for our chance.

In short, though we still wanted to love everybody, we shut up about it.

Kubrick's formalist dehumanizing motifs reflect that "shutting up about it" and once that's taken into account it's all suddenly revealed to be just the cynical armor of an existential humanist, one unafraid to stand in the bathroom mirror and watch the stranger through the glass age into newborn baby, but afraid perhaps of genuine human warmth (preferring bland birthday pleasantries delivered through pay phone SKYPE). While 2001 sent many a conventional sci-fi narrative lover out the door in boredom, many of them had read about the way to 'experience' the film and they knew it was their fault--too straight, square or thick--if they didn't 'get it'. The truly high and hip fell into the movie like it was a black pool and the sober people would see them float up out of their chairs and vanish into the screen. Here was a movie man's killer instincts were depicted as entwined with alien genetic manipulation, and the concept of outer and inner space were colliding, and withered old age turning embryonic, and these straights were dozing in the aisles just because absolutely nothing was happening for whole minutes at a time. Both things happening at once, in the same universal mind. Truth or illusion! How could a movie that was boring the first time be riveting the second?

It was all stuff only the heads could totally grasp and the idea of classical music piping through space kept the whole thing at enough of a measured pace that no dosed human watching it was likely to get a panic attack, until the whole heavy breathing out in space rescuing Dr. Poole part at least, and even there it seemed Kubrick had slowed down the action deliberately so the heads could sneak out for a smoke. Heads may have been distracted, but they knew that it all meant something, had something to do with birthdays. And circles. It wasn't a story of dudes in space but the story of human evolution carried from start to finish - not a circle but a straight line up from the caves and into the eighth dimension, and the way he who finds the obelisk first, and works up the nerve to lick it, shall gain power over his enemies, be they a rival tribe of ape-men, or Russian satellite calibrators. And the obsidian obelisk is like a great big tab, man!

Kubrick's use of classical music connects the abstract imagery to the equally sleep-inducing FANTASIA, re-released the following year. Here too, those straight folk trapped by expectations of conventional narrative were flummoxed into submission while the enlightened presumably blossomed out their crown chakras.

As we've seen in our film thus far, the idea of the theater as a place of reflection and spectacle (rather than narrative absorption) was big in the late 1960s as a result of the newfound "midnight movie" crowd --those going in with altered consciousness or just looking to see if they could catch a contact high. It was in the papers, so even if you'd never done a single drug, for example, you knew that 2001's big ending was "trippy" and you consoled yourself that maybe if you were high you'd get it. If you weren't high, and didn't get it, both FANTASIA and 2001 could be as intense and moving as a trip through a crowded art museum with relatives who have to spend several minutes before every picture, and your feet hurt. "Yeah yeah, pretty, but can we go?" Andrew Sarris famously issued two reviews of 2001: The first review--sober and full of high expectations--is grouchy and disbelieving. Sarris' second viewing came after he'd "ingested a substance" resulting in a complete conversion. At least he was critic enough to admit it and write the second one. And both together really illuminate the power of set and setting.

Now, later, on DVD, it's easy to forward through the draggy stretches of Kubrick's film, or pluck the good segments of FANTASIA (Night on Bald Mountain, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Rite of Spring) out and fold them in with pre-code Betty Boop and wartime Bugs for a night of weird but blissfully centaur-free animation.

So why is FANTASIA so dull to the sober? We must inevitably look at the Disney juggernaut itself. Was Walt a humanist or propaganda merchant? Nazi collaborator or Hero of California? Either way that Wonderful World of Walt Disney TV show--that ran all through the 70s on Sunday nights on ABC--was excruciating. It was boring and brown with faded outdoor photography color, but it was all that was on and we kids slogged through it just to make the night before going back to school last longer. Sometimes Walt would show some nature documentaries (ala Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom), but mostly it was apple-cheeked youngsters learning drab conformist lessons from folksy trackers. Occasionally the youngster would run up against a bear, snake or wolf, and sometimes I'd stay up just to see if he got eaten--the attack played up in the commercials and kept to the last minute just to keep us antsy JAWS fans in front of the endless commercials. That ultra-square sense of what constitutes family entertainment suffuses FANTASIA. However, in the right mood it can be as brilliant and riveting as watching a snail... crawl along the edge... of a straight... razor... and surviving... to the stern Teutonic strings of a little fellow named Richard Wagner... So just make sure you're in the 'right' headspace, glad to be in the dark with nowhere to go, no chance to embarass yourself or let 'them' see you're 'gone'. Narrative and plot would be indecipherable anyway at this moment - music and color, ever changing and evolving in an endless dance. And I do mean endless.  We start with a soft timpani roll; Mr. Stokowski, if you please...

1. And I concur, for I've seen LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN during the initial runs in the theater while riding on magical mushrooms. And one, at least, was pretty intense - all that sensual Ariel breathing, and when she says "why, Erich" to the statue, I felt her talking to me, reading my thoughts!


  1. Love FANTASIA and even stuff from the uneven sequel (esp. the Al Hirschfeld-styled "Rhapsody in Blue" segment, but I would argue that it works for the sober too on a purely visual level as an atmospheric mood piece. Even have it on in the background.

    Now, 2001 is a film that demands your attention and I can't even imagine what HAL's death, his voice winding down must be like when you're zonked out of your mind. Truly frightening, I would imagine.

  2. Erich,

    I'm soliciting entries for my year-end round-up on The Dancing Image: partly because I didn't have as much time as I'd thought to gather posts, and partly because my blogging has been so sporadic this year, I'm asking my fellow bloggers what they think is their own best piece of the year and I will link up on my blog accordingly. The explanation (with a bit of a "mea culpa") is here:

    Personally, I can say that I really appreciated that Betty Boop Snow White post, both for your analysis and extrapolation, and also for introducing me to what is now one of my favorite all-time films!

  3. Thanks, Erich - that actually was the wrong "mea culpa" link I gave you there! That was actually another blogger's home site, which featured a couple of my entries in his series a while back. Like you, I wasn't crazy about Moulin Rouge! though it's certainly some sort of achievement.

    The right link is here:

    But I got the message anyway. Stay tuned - hopefully the post can go up before the new year as I'm been dropping other before-Dec.31 commitments left and right (and good riddance to them).

  4. Terrific review, I really like your writing. Well done!

    I am now following your blog. Stop by mine sometime if you can :)

  5. 'However in the right mood it can be a brilliant & riveting as watching a snail....crawl along the edge...of a straight...razor ....& the stern Teutonic strings of a little fellow named Richard Wagner'


    I find the pacing in both movies to be absolutely soothing, everything else goes too fast now with its MTV cutting. I can't believe Di$ney released something like Fantasia....

    Favorite new blog


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