Saturday, October 18, 2014

Before Smile There Was Fantasia by Peter Reum

"Smile was going to be a monument. That's the way we talked about it, as a monument."  David Anderle as quoted in Barney Hoskyns-Waiting For the Sun, p. 130

"The songs (Brian Wilson) and Van Dyke Parks wrote through those months into early 1967 comprise some of the most intoxicatingly beautiful, dementedly ambitious pop music ever committed
to tape. This was Pet Sounds on 20 tabs of acid with the unabashedly literary lyrics about the Old West, or even stranger ones about balding women; it was Brian Wilson's Fantasia" Barney Hoskyns-Waiting For the Sun, p. 130

"I never liked the stuff (classical music). honestly, I just couldn't listen to it. But I can listen to it now. It seems to mean a little more to me. Maybe it can give other people the same thing. When I heard the music it made pictures in my head. Then the boys (animators) listened and they had ideas. I had a  lot of ideas, but they voted some of them down. Anyway, here are the pictures...." Walt Disney s quoted in the New York World Telegram in Walt Disney's Fantasia by John Culhane p. 29

There is a tendency to reach into the unknown that drives us as men and women into new ways of creating something beyond our immediate grasp and drives us to break beyond the everyday in an attempt to make something that lives beyond us.  In the fine arts, we see artists create something so out of character that it not only shocks their audience, but surprises the artist as well. In the world of music, we need look only as far as Miles Davis or Neil Young for examples of such a person. There is also the drive to be taken seriously as an artist, which in music may send the songwriter toward the world of Classical Music in an effort to somehow seek validation as a serious composer.

It took almost 35 years for Walt Disney to be recognized as an Academy Award winning film creator. While his studio received numerous technical Oscars, Mr. Disney's first Oscar for Best Full Length Motion Picture was for Mary Poppins in 1964, some 28 years after Snow White. It was not unlike the experience Brian Wilson had in receiving a Grammy. His first Grammy in 2005 for Best Rock Instrumental ironically was for Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (The Elements-Fire), a tune he had almost discarded along with the rest of Smile. In this case, the span of time was 37 years from composition to Grammy. That Brian's work on Surfs Up was featured on Inside Pop in 1966 on CBS, and was regarded as a serious work of music by David Oppenheim and Leonard Bernstein led to critical acclaim for Brian that had previously eluded him. The momentum that was Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations was lost when Smile went down in flames. In no less than 24 to 36 months afterward, Brian Wilson was regarded as a casualty of his own ambition, with Rolling Stone Magazine saying that his attempt to compete with The Beatles was doomed from the start.

1940 Theater Poster advertising Fantasia

Walt Disney as a filmmaker already had a few full length animated features under his belt when in 1938, he began to think about a marriage between animation and different classical compositions. His initial vision was to combine beautiful instrumental pieces of music with animation that forged a visual interpretation of the music with the drama that the music intrinsically possessed. The notion was ambitious, but also fairly risky. Every listener brings an inner visual picture that they personally create while listening to music that elicits a strong emotional reaction.   The composer's own inner picture may be quite clear, or subject to endless varieties of listeners' own experiences of the emotions the composition evokes. The incredible risk that Walt Disney took with Fantasia was that he hoped that his audience would accept his studio's visual interpretations of works by Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Beethoven, and other composers by Fantasia's viewers instead of their own minds' pictures produced by such composer's music.

Fantasia was initially envisioned by the Disney Studio as an ongoing series of animated features to be created periodically as new ideas for animated segments of different composers' works emerged. As an art form, animation was relatively young compared to other visual arts. The genre of animation was initially thought of as a way of entertaining motion picture audiences prior to a full length motion picture being screened. Mr. Disney's Steamboat Willie, featuring Mickey Mouse, was the first cartoon with sound, and immediately established Disney Studios as pioneers in the animation genre, with innovation becoming a Disney hallmark.

Brian Wilson was smitten with everything Disney. It is well known that Brian's favorite Disney film is Pinocchio, which was developed concomitantly with Fantasia. Brian's love of going to Disneyland is also well known, as it seems to be a place where he could experience the carefree happiness he felt so sparingly as a child. The Magic Kingdom of Disneyland was the jumping off place for Smile. Even a cursory look at Smile can reveal the same imaginary yet powerful images that a place such as Disneyland could elicit as uniquely American images. The history of the Old West was present throughout Disneyland, in places like Adventure Land, Main Street, and especially Frontier Land. That these Disney images were a key inspiration for Smile is unquestionable. Television reinforced the image of the Old West with programs such as Davy Crockett, Maverick, and The Rifleman. Movies like How the West Was Won were another influence.

The "Cartoony" Smile Cover-1966 by Frank Holmes

What made Fantasia a portal for so many young people to discover the world of Classical Music was the same dynamic that brought Walt Disney around to enjoying Classical compositions. The music of Fantasia is highly pictorial and highly visual, even before animation was added. Prior to Fantasia, Disney Studios had shown the same artistic growth in their animation that Brian Wilson's music had shown in his years producing The Beach Boys. There were a number of breakthroughs that Disney Studios introduced, and they never rested on their prior accomplishments. Like Walt Disney, Brian Wilson was a creative pioneer, dependent upon a number of artistic people to help his ideas become tangible and real.

A 2011 interview by Paul Zollo in American Songwriter Magazine hints at Brian's view of various musical keys having colors attached to them. This does not necessarily mean that Brian has synesthesia, like Laura Nyro did, but Brian's ability to show moods and colors in his music, which is highly pictorial, is fairly unique among musician's in the Rock Era.  As writer Barney Hoskyns
indicates in the quote cited above, Smile brought a unique marriage of highly visual music to highly descriptive lyrics created by Van Dyke Parks.

The Fantasia project was created as a number of animated short films unified by their history of being based upon the compositions of famous Classical composers such as Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Dukas, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Ponchielli, and Schubert. The recording process by The Philadephia Symphony under the guidance of Leopold Stowkowski was a milestone in sound, as it was the first motion picture soundtrack recorded in stereophonic sound, termed "Fantasound" by the Disney Studios. The assembly of these short animated films into one whole motion picture is quite similar to the use of recorded modules by Brian Wilson in cutting the Smile album. That Disney Studios and Brian used the concept of modular pieces being assembled into an artistic whole is somewhat coincidental, but is also stunning. To conceive of Smile without its modular construction is to ignore one of the most dynamic features of Smile's creation. Fantasia, as a series of unified animated short films making a more satisfying whole motion picture, gives Disney Studios the credit such an artistic risk deserves that was unthinkable prior to its release. Fantasia and Smile, as modular works making a larger whole, introduce new innovations in film and music production that were novel to them as artistic projects.

The basis of the two works in mythology is also undeniable. Fantasia's remarkable short films base their content upon some of the themes in past cultural themes such as Greek Mythology, sorcery, ancient dieties representing good and evil, and stories in sound based upon ancient folk stories and melodies. In particular, the Nutcracker short film is based in ancient folk tales and songs. The last segment of the 1940 Fantasia, a pairing of works by Mussorgsky and Schubert, are particularly related to Smile. as a studious listen will reveal. Mussorgsky's Night On Bald Mountain is a composition that literally exudes the feeling of destruction that evil or random actions bring. Readers are referred to youtube to see the entire animated segment accompanying the piece. Walt Disney himself is quoted in John Culhane's book on Fantasia 1940 as seeing the segment representing the war between good and evil. As an evil Slavic god named Chernobog hears the sounds of church bells ring, he retreats back into the mountain from which he emerged, overcome by the beautiful sounds of Schubert's Ave Maria, represented visually by a line of worshippers carrying candles to a cathedral. Smile's ending, as finished by Brian Wilson in 2004, has the element representing Fire, Mrs. O'Leary's Cow, followed by a Water tune, In Blue Hawaii, describing the cleansing action of water, not unlike the holy water of some churches. The theme of cleansing and prayer is continued by a reprise of Our Prayer, returning the listener back to the secular at its conclusion with Good Vibrations.

Another element that Smile and Fantasia have in common is the presence of humor interspersing other themes in the music. That Disney became known for happy, upbeat full length animated features is to ignore the deep pathos of Disney villains from Snow White's stepmother through Peter Pan's Captain Hook and on into such nasties as Ursula from The Little Mermaid. The fight between what is good and what is evil is an essential element of Disney's animation. Also present is a theme of finding the most deeply human emotions, including humor. In Fantasia, the various short films that are included have humor woven into their stories, excluding Night On Bald Mountain/Ave Maria and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Mickey's appearance in The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a mixture of humor and chastening. The various characters in Dance of the Hours such as the hippos, alligators, and so forth are all based in humor. The humor in Smile is in the music itself, helped by Van Dyke Parks' lyrics, full of double and triple meanings, present in songs like Vegetables, On a Holiday, I'm In Great Shape, and Heroes and Villains....puns abound. The humor in Fantasia is visual, whereas in Smile it is aural. Clearly the power of Smile and Fantasia to evoke a powerful range of emotions is remarkable.

Another theme present in both Smile and Fantasia is the theme of life and hope being able to overcome death and despair. The presence of the worshipers at the end of Fantasia parallels the solemnity of Our Prayer followed by the hope of Good Vibrations. This characteristic in Walt Disney's films and Brian Wilson's music is what has helped so many people worldwide find hope and good in the face of powerful despair and death throughout life's experience.   Both mens' desires to bring hope and goodness to their followers in the face of obvious forces of death and destruction has made their work treasured by several generations of humanity. The ability to laugh when facing adversity in life is a trait most of us admire whenever we see it.

When we examine the dynamics behind Smile and Fantasia, we find that both men created these works in a time of difficult tumult in the world. Smile was to come out as the USA was in the throes of a deeply unpopular war, protest on campuses throughout the country, racial discrimination being confronted with laws and riots, and violence claiming some of the most revered figures of the period. That its message was needed was not in question. Fantasia lost money upon its first release, and was so outside the norm of Disney movies as to be misunderstood by many of the critics of the time. World War 2 sealed its initial retreat from presentation. Many of Walt Disney's friends of the time say he was deeply saddened by the reception it received. That Mr. Disney was a creative force in film akin to Brian Wilson in recording is important to grasp. Mr. Disney was a person who his staff hated to disappoint. Mr. Disney kept Fantasia out of circulation for 16 years until 1956, when the world finally seemed ready for understanding its depth and beauty. Brian Wilson's shelving of Smile was first countered by the Zen like intricacy of Smiley Smile, which had all of the humor of Smile without the dramatic production characteristics that the initial Smile tracks had. Mr. Disney's love of experimentation was somewhat curtailed after the initial reception that Fantasia had. Never again in his lifetime did Mr. Disney release an animated feature like Fantasia, although it was his intention to keep adding and subtracting pieces when Fantasia was being developed. Two segments  were finished, Saludos Amigos and Peter and the Wolf.  It was not until the early 1990s that Mr. Disney's brother Roy proposed a new Fantasia, which ultimately became Fantasia 2000.

Poster Artwork for Fantasia 2000

Perhaps as Disney Studios were able to recover the spirit of Fantasia and put together Fantasia 2000, Brian Wilson was able to look at his work on Smile and see it having potential in a new context, a piece written for live performance. Thus was born Brian Wilson Presents Smile, a much anticipated world premiere in London which this author was able to attend. The band Brian had were entirely capable of performing all of the complex Smile tunes, both new and old. As Fantasia had vindicated itself the world over, becoming one of Disney Studio's most high grossing pictures historically, Smile became a best selling album and concert piece at a time when the record industry was dying. Critically, both Mr. Disney and Brian Wilson's creative visions had become vindicated full circle, artistically, critically, and financially. Experimentation and visionary work of both men triumphed in the end.

Mark London's 2004 Artwork for Brian Wilson Presents Smile

As Roy Disney once said about Fantasia can also be true of Smile..."It's a giant human collage, a musical mosaic." Music and animation have the power to heal the wounds humans experience. The world will always need men with the creative vision of Walt Disney and Brian Wilson.

Text copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved

This author is indebted to John Culhane's two excellent works covering Fantasia 1940 and Fantasia 2000. The reader is referred to both works for exceptionally clear presentations of the conceptual, musical, and animation development of both Disney Studio Motion Pictures. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

A New Mexico War Story: I Remember Charles Montoya

On my 14th birthday, I had two best friends stay over at our New Mexico farm...small, but intensively demanding workwise. That weekend, though, I had the weekend off from farm-type duties. My two guests attending were best friends: Charles Montoya from the Latin world of Espanola, and  Fred Warren from the Scientific town of Los Alamos. I had left the Espanola Schools after 7th grade, and was in the last few months of my eighth grade year in Los Alamos, although our family still lived outside of Espanola.

We had a great time.  My two worlds had somehow united fruitfully for one weekend. Charles and Fred got along like two old pals, and all was delightful. As months passed and I spent more and more time in extracurricular activities in Los Alamos, my parents saw that the commute to Los Alamos, 20 miles over mountain roads, was too hard to maintain. As my next birthday approached, 1967 turned into 1968, and I began my second year in Los Alamos Schools. I saw Charles at our football game that fall, and after the holidays, I began to think about who to invite for my 15th birthday party. Charles in his 9th grade year had become student body vice-president at Espanola Junior High School.

In the midst of one of our neighborhood backyard football games one Sunday in that January of 1968, my mother rapped on the window and asked me to come back inside the house. She told me that Charles Montoya had shot himself the previous morning, and had died instantly. For a minute, I didn't believe her, then it felt like someone had kicked me in the nuts. I asked for details, and she said that he and his father, F., had planned to go hunting that Saturday morning, and when he had tried to wake up Charles, he had found a huge hole in his head, having covered himself in several blankets so his parents would not hear the hunting rifle he had snuck to bed with him go off.

Charles Montoya's "self-inflicted gunshot wound" report
courtesy of Sandra Adams Dodd (a cool former classmate of mine)

I could tell you more of the grisly details, but the point was that one of my best friends had destroyed himself without leaving a note as to why, and nothing f**king made sense. I had seen him three weeks prior when I went to a basketball game in Espanola, and he seemed jittery and distracted, but, hey...we all have those days. I tried to go to his funeral mass, but the grief inside me was so high that I couldn't maintain my emotional equanimity, and I had to leave.

My dad would occasionally go over to Jerry's Tavern in Espanola for a drink, and he said that he had run into Charles' father there. It was a small bar and package liquor store, the kind that had hard boiled eggs on the counter in a jar of water that patrons could buy. I had known Charles' mother and father since first grade. She was a substitute teacher in the Espanola and Santa Cruz Schools, and his father, F., was an art teacher at Espanola Elementary and Junior High Schools. I had taken Art in my last year in the Espanola Schools with Mr. Montoya, and he had been my art teacher in first through sixth grades, visiting our class once a week for an hour. F. Montoya was the epitome of laid back. He was soft spoken, fair, and supportive of clumsy art students like myself. The Montoya family was well respected by Latino and Anglo families throughout the Espanola Valley.

The unanswered question hurt like a cracked tooth. Why did Charles Montoya shoot himself?
Years would pass before the answer would come, with clues revealing their answers reluctantly, sometimes years at a time.

My friend's gravesite-Santa Fe National Veteran's Cemetary

In the Spring of 1968, Charles' father F. drove up our little lane driveway in his red Ford pickup. He asked to see me. I instinctively recoiled from the situation, jumping like a shocked monkey. My parents insisted that I see him, so I walked out to his truck. Mr. Montoya, my ever cool, ever mellow former Art teacher was standing in front of me, crying his eyes out. He asked me "do you have any idea why Charles would hurt himself?" I replied that I had seen him earlier in December of 1967, and that he had seemed nervous and preoccupied.  He then said "Charles wouldn't commit suicide, would he?" I looked at F. Montoya and said nothing, tears rolling down my face. My mother said "Peter! Tell Mr. Montoya that Charles' death was an accident!" I remained silent. I was conflicted beyond speech. I turned and walked in my house, unable to say what the adults were wanting to hear. Something told me there was much more to this death than just an accidental shooting, or a kid who blew his head off impulsively. I just was not sure what that was.

Later in college, I began a long career in Behavioral Psychology, and I learned about operant conditioning, reinforcement schedules-negative and positive, and so much more. The school where I went to college was in Colorado Springs,  Colorado. This was in the prime insanity of the Vietnam War. Fort Carson, the huge military base in town, was where the drug addicted and mentally traumatized soldiers were being directly sent post Vietnam deployment. The soldiers had what was then called "shellshock." Their were tales of Vietnam Vets diving under tables while out for pizza, screaming loudly and threatening violence for things normal people would laugh off. They were often mood altered on either alcohol, downers, or acid, and would occasionally turn up on our little college's campus, trying to pick up female students or sneak into places they were not allowed. Occasionally, something very strange would happen, like a Vet screaming at one of our students, or threatening another. I didn't know it then, but the behavior I saw there was reminiscent of other wars, especially recent ones, like Korea or World War II. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a diagnostic construct with research dollars was years away.

Going back to the first few years after my friend's suicide, my dad would shake his head and talk with me about Charles' dad, saying that people who knew him were reporting him sinking into alcohol dependence, alternately crying and threatening other drinkers, talking about his service in World War II and how he was a veteran. As the years went on, there were reports of more temper flashes, less patience, and anger displays that were truly frightening. Eventually, my father said that he could not engage with Mr. Montoya because he was scary and unpredictable.

The years advanced and I returned to graduate school after years of hawking records and bongs in the music biz.  I began to work with Vets and others with disabilities, and I began to see the dynamics of how war related trauma hurt families, especially the children of these Vets with PTSD.  Kids were hyper-vigilant, just like their parents who were Vets, which made no sense to me at that time. Wives reported their husbands' labile emotions: rages, tears, isolating behavior, manic episodes, violent acting-out, and most scarily, chemical dependence. The kids with psychiatric disabilities I was working with showed anger issues, violent outbursts, and screaming fits. The adult Vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan were dependent on alcohol, anxiety medications, and prescription pain medications. I heard one Vet after another describe horrific scenes....buddies at their shoulder being dropped by a bullet to the forehead, recurring dreams of having shot children by mistake, sending their men to a task that they would not come back from...shooting fire down the hiding places of suspected terrorists.

As I spent years doing either private therapy or chemical dependence therapy, I learned more about the impact of such terrible trauma upon not only the immediate recipient of the trauma, but his or her offspring up to three generations downline.  One of the most interesting studies documenting inherited proclivity for hypervigilance is referenced here: childrens' inheritance of parents' trauma  Another famous study of the offspring of Holocaust survivors and their children has an abstract found here: Holocaust survivors' children and PTSD  Similar outcomes were found of children of women who experienced serious physical abuse. The study may be accessed here: Children of highly physically abused women show inherited hypervigilance

What does all of this mean for Charles Montoya you ask? Well, his father was a Sergeant deployed in the Pacific Theater, fighting the Japanese island by bloody island in World War II. F. Montoya, my mellow art teacher, apparently had a a tendency toward anger outbursts that included hitting Charles. How do I know this? After recalling some of the things he had told me during the years, I remember that he came to school with a black eye twice and a chipped front tooth another time. When I asked what happened each time, he gave the classic wife/child response to physical abuse...."I fell" or "I got hit by a neighborhood kid" or "I don't know." F. Montoya, God rest his soul, was a man tortured by his memories of the grisly island battles against dug-in Japanese soldiers who were ready to die for their Emperor. He drank on weekends to deal with too much free time. When Charles did not follow instructions, there was potential verbal or physical violence, exacerbated by Charles own hypervigilance. After Charles died, F.'s anger at himself and guilt about his eldest son's death slowly consumed him, one drink at a time.  My father's own observations, Charles's own hypervigilance/jumpiness, and his efforts to hide his family's violent moments, made obvious by his chipped tooth, his blackeyes that he would not explain, betrayed him in his silence and secrecy in the end, at least to me.

But let me tell you about the real Charles Montoya. He was a funny, goofy kid with a great sense of humor that anyone could relate to. He treated everyone kindly, and never exploited a situation to tease a peer. He was a little overweight, but no one cared, because everyone liked him and his wonderful Art teacher dad, Mr. Montoya. He played a mean clarinet in the Espanola Junior High School Band, directed by the great Ray Felix. He welcomed new kids, showed kindness to others, and was able to laugh at himself. He loved football and played well. Artistically, he showed precocious skills in art, and this may be the biggest loss of all. He could see a drawing and duplicate it freehand with little thought but high competence. I would say that had he lived, he could have been a top tier Southwest Artist of national renown. But those of us whose lives touched his will remember his grace and gentleness. He never would have hit his children. He would have been a loving and kind father, the kind any man would look at and think..."I want to be like him." As for me, well, I wish he would have called me, or another friend, or a trusted relative. The pain is as acute now as 46 years ago.

This nation is at war again. No one seems to think about the long-term consequences of war upon the men and women who fight or try to save those broken by the latest reason for international violence. Hence both F. J. Montoya and Charles Edward Montoya are casualties of World War II...not during the War itself, but casualties nonetheless. Charles Edward Montoya needed to have his story told. He is more than that cross headstone in Santa Fe's National Cemetery. He is more than a punching bag for his dad, He is more than a yellow clipping in the back of someone's file. Both Charles and his father F. J. are a real New Mexico War Story.

Text copyright by Peter Reum 2014-All Rights Reserved