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tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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There are no primary written sources concerning Slavic mythology–no myths written in the original languages, no poems, or songs, or tales of gods and heroes.  The first people to write about the Slavic faith were Christian proselytizer, and their accounts are naturally hostile to the pagan faith. This means that we know tantalizing hints about Slavic deities from archaeology and we have some hair raising accounts from Christian sources (which are probably slander), but we actually know very little.  One of the deities who has gained the most mileage from this dearth of information is the dark accursed god Chernobog (aka Crnobog, Czernobóg, Černobog, Црнобог, Zernebog and Чернобог).

Chernobog!
A German priest traveling among unconverted Wendish and Polabian tribes wrote about Chernobog as a god of woe whose name meant “black god”.  The name also shows up in a smattering of other sources which reveal little–but other than that Chernobog is largely unknown.  While this would be a big problem for a harvest god or a love goddess, Chernobog is an underworld deity and his mysterious nature has made him popular with artists, movie makers, and video game producers looking for a big scary guy who doesn’t talk too much.

Chernabog from Walt Disney's "Fantasia"

The most famous Chernobog appearance was in the Walt Disney film Fantasia, where he starred (as “Chernabog”) in the animated “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. As Modest Mussorgsky’s wild tempestuous music plays, Chernabog, a huge winged demon of blackness, summons forth evil spirits and the restless undead to a lightning scarred mountain top (only to be banished by dawn and the ringing of a church bell).   The sequence made a huge impact on me when I saw it on VHS in music class in elementary school and apparently I am not alone,  Wikipedia had a long list of fantasy writers who have since used the character as a villain (the most intriguing-sounding of which was an alternate history of Russia where a comet impact had caused widespread famine and cannibalism and Chernobog was worshipped as a major deity!).

"Chernobog" (artwork by by Cristopher Erik Thompson)

Perspicacious readers will probably notice I have just written a post concerning deities of the underworld based on almost no real information other than modern fantasy/entertainment–but there is a useful lesson here.  If you are stuck for material Chernobog is your man–his fearsome aura of mystery and dreadful (albeit ambiguous) name will do your work for you.

Aaargh!

At the July 6th Premier of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” Nicholas Cage was asked the following question and gave the following answer (as reported by “New York” Magazine):

Q. You used to do quirky movies like Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas. Why the shift to the mainstream?

Cage. Part of the reason why I’m even here tonight is that I believe world peace begins at home. And if I can in my own little way contribute to that, if I can keep families smiling, that’s one less angry child that goes out in the world and makes a mistake like drugs or violence.

Nicholas Cage Quests for World Peace

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