Monday, April 09, 2007

Towards a Workable Concept?

In response to my previous post, "Dialectical Montage and Disneyland", I was lucky enough to receive this reply by a Mr. Chris Stangl, who does an excellent job pointing out a lot of the problems with my assumptions about physical space and cinema space in the essay, as well as bringing up a number of excellent points about film theory and applicability. Since there's little point in me recounting such an articulate and intelligent argument, I have presented his reply below for your consideration, followed by my own thoughts.


"I think this essay is a solid start toward understanding how park and attraction design incorporates elements of the other arts. However, any thesis that rests on "the only useful, acceptable way to analyze and discuss" a subject is going to be problematic, and practically begs for complication!

1: Montage Theory
It's a pretty grand Unified Field Theory of Imagineering, for one thing, and using Eisensteinian montage as even a starting point is going to lead to trouble. It is a specific editing theory, which hasn't been borne out in pure form outside of, say, the films of Sergei Eisenstein. "Dialectical" does not just mean the editing theory explains "nothing more nor less than how movies carry meaning through their editing patterns" as in language. It means the theory is modeled after philosophical dialectics, and it is founded in the contradiction synthesis and material/brain-world interaction of Marxist dialectics The theory in practice involves shots as discreet units in conflict, generating an effect not present in isolated consideration of the shots; it is "shot-based", in a literal, diagrammatic way. so the first question must be: is there even a way in which a park may have discreet shots, which are replaced by another? Dialectical montage is an indigenous film theory, extremely and expressly medium-specific. The elements you are identifying as the attraction equivalent of "shots" could possibly be linked to notions of cinematic mise en scène, but what differentiates the set dressing and view-isolation you've identified as fundamentally different from the art of interior decoration, or theatrical stage craft?

2. Disney and Montage
Eisenstein's montage theory is, I've proposed (and in "Dialectic Approach to Film Form" he would almost certainly agree) not applicable to any medium but film; shifting definitions so that park design is film is kind of a slippery sidestep of the central problem.

The second problem is that Soviet montage is not the editing mode of Disney films. Eisenstien indeed loved Disney animation, and incorporated iconography and technique from Disney's films. But all this demonstrates is that Snow White impressed Eisenstein. From the Laugh-o-Grams to Meet the Robinsons, Disney films follow the same continuity editing patterns as all classical Hollywood cinema.

That attractions (and even more so park architecture and broader theming) cannot be broken into proper discreet shot units for juxtaposition should be self evident; but perhaps the ride-through attraction could be considered a three-dimensional version of a Bazin long take, the panoramic views his ideal of deep focus and wide shots? Could we even honestly link this idea with Disney's films, since they are not founded in this theory, either? Eisenstein's theory is anything but "seamless montage", so isn't the Omnimover a theater seat designed to eliminate this "intrusive" technique?

3. Attractions and Narrative
The narrative of The Haunted Mansion is that we enter an old house, and are immediately witness to non-corporeal manifestations of supernatural activity. We participate in/ observe an ill-advised seance with Madame Leota, who summons ghosts to a jamboree. We pass through the ballroom and see guests arriving in physical form, and the party gets bigger and bigger until we pass through the no-mortals-allowed area of the graveyard. Finally we become as close to Mansion residents as we may in the mortal coil, and a ghost follows us home.

That plot is vague and abstractly conveyed, but it is three acts, it is conflict, climax and resolution, it is the loose structure that ties the attraction together, even beyond simply passing through an architectural space. Granted, dozens of proposed plots which were far more specific were rejected for the ride. Imagineer-God Marc Davis may insist rides are not a natural storytelling medium, but there is not a single attraction that doesn't follow a general plot arc in practice. Even Big Thunder Mountain, and Winnie the Pooh tell a story; the exceptions are those modeled on thrill rides (Gadget's Go-Coaster, Dumbo, or most of California Adventure).

What is differentiates Pirates or Snow White from their true antecedents, carnival horror-house dark rides? Or are those spook houses to be understood as 3D montage as well? How do we account for the fact that this lineage stretches back far beyond the birth of motion pictures?

All film theory is founded in tensions of the complicated relationship between the real and its representation in motion picture photography. Any park theory that is going to apply film theory is going to have to account for the fact it is not dealing with film."


Arguing For a Shot
The real problem with applying film form to park form is not only that film form is expressly filmic and rarely relatable to even similar forms, but in a theme park there simply isn't even a
film frame in which to construct a mise en scene, much less allow for editing patterns. Since the frame is the ultimate boundary of cinematic space (regardless how interesting and effective films like "Line Describing A Cone" are in expanding this), how can a theme park even be considered a cinematic conceptual extension when it doesn't even utilize the material of film?

I argue from two standpoints: intent and effect. Sadly in theory of any kind "intent" and "effect" can't always coexist happily with "theory" - this is why concepts like "camp" become the inevitable apparatus for assigning value to objects even their creator may not have intended - but as a mostly logical extrapolation, I think it's fair to apply film concepts to park concepts. In design and effect Disneyland most resembles a film set rather than, say, a sculpture, a theatrical production, or any of the other three dimensional art units we are expected to interact with. Just like a film set, all of the possible angles are covered, because the "camera" is you, "unchained" to an extent even Fruend couldn't have dreamed of.

This is clear intent, backed up by the intersection of popular media and park space over and over again in Walt's Disneyland of 1955: Main Street USA as the unofficial home of Lady & the Tramp, Tomorrowland as a kind of three dimensional extension of Ward Kimball's television shows. Although only Adventureland actually came close to being called "True Life Adventureland", it's kind of amazing that Frontierland never just up and came out as "Davy Crockett Land". All around us, even in those early days, Disney was both backing up its investment and making us comfortable by exploiting better known properties to forge a link between Disney Media and Disneyland. So I think at least in crude conceptual terms, the link has always been there and is a logical first step (not only step) towards getting to the meat of the issue.

Now, effect. Although I won't argue that there is no film material or even film frame in the essential makeup of Disneyland, I think it's possible to argue that, in effect, there is something analogous to a film frame in mature park design. In order to expand on this, I need to go back to Chris' comments.

"That attractions (and even more so park architecture and broader theming) cannot be broken into proper discreet shot units for juxtaposition should be self evident; but perhaps the ride-through attraction could be considered a three-dimensional version of a Bazin long take, the panoramic views his ideal of deep focus and wide shots?"

(The "outside" world of the theme parks is really its own art, more comparable to landscaping and urban design than the "inside" world. So, for the purposes of this post, let's concentrate on the infinatley more controllable "inside" world)

I'm glad that Bazin has been brought up here, as I also considered his concepts as to what ought to constitute filmic reality in relationship to parks carefully. Although it is true that the human eye can see in a panorama essentially similar to the 2.35:1 anamorphic film frame and in any depth it desires, regardless of where the omnimover is rotated, much park design seeks to "guide" the gaze of the viewer in ways subtle and not so much. Through placement, lighting, and finish, the viewer can be persuaded to look at one item and not another, although all of the objects in the room are lit.

In the Orlando Haunted Mansion's music room, the desolate landscape outside the Mansion is represented by three moss draped trees in front of a flat black wall. Although the landscape is there for you should you desire to look at it, most guests do not because they're busy looking at the centrally placed and more highly accented piano. Things Disney doesn't want you to see it simply paints grey, green, or black, and generally you don't see these things. This 'forced selective vision' is, in effect, somewhat similar to the camera's manipulation of depth of focus or the film frame's ability to include or exclude.

Furthermore, regardless of how smooth the vehicle is engineered to run, it is possible to argue for an effect similar to cutting not even based on the structure of the rooms and manipulation of the gaze, but on the essential makeup of humans. I believe it was Stan Brakhage (jeez, I'm really hanging my formal biases out to dry here) who argued that a camera pan in film, contrary to Bazin, was unnatural because the human eye simply didn't operate that way. He argued, and I agree with him, that if an individual attempts to replicate a pan with either their eyes or turning their head, they will find that the human eye simply does not smoothly move to the left or right, but jumps from object to object highly irregularly. An omnimover, boat, or whatever else, while in intent may replicate a forced pan, in effect, to this author, most resembles a succession of impressions - "shots" - which, through the manipulation of gaze, roughly attains an effect similar to an edited sequence.

This doesn't mean that parks are films or that any other medium is an invalid way of engaging this fledgling art, yet this is my conceptual groundwork towards making the statements I have.

Disney and Film Form
First of all, I must compliment Chris Stangl on his excellent capsule overview of Eisenstein's theories of montage, which is more concise and articulate than I could have done, as well as more accessible, which is one reason I shied away from really delving into the theory, settling instead for a summation of it as it is applicable to the broader world of film, not just Eisenstein.

It's true that dialectical montage via Eisenstein hasn't really ever been practiced in pure form outside of his films, although I would argue for similarities between Eisensteinian montage; Kurosawa's manipulation of space, depth and time; Antonioni's tone poems; and Lang's sound-image matches. They're just fragmentary, but they exist. There simply isn't too much of a market for stone lions rising in anger during battles in say, Beyond Borders. I would, however, argue that Eisenstein's theories are applicable to Hollywood films not called The Untouchables. His theories opened the door towards utilizing cutting in an expressive way in traditional narrative films as well: the most obvious but still salient example is Hitchcock. I've seen something very close to dialectical montage United Artists' Hallelujah I'm a Bum!, with Al Jolson, from 1933. It needn't be hyperactive, abstract cutting between static shots, as in Eisenstein, but any kind of expressive cutting which juxtaposes ideas through context, not content. Eisenstein is the poster child for a whole separate idea of dramatic presentation which arguably has existed since Griffith.

And that, then, is why I think we can reasonably argue for the inclusion of Eisenstein, Bazin, and whoever else comes down the pike into the list of influences evident in cinema, Disney included. Disney and all narrative films are part of a tradition which I think can be referred to as an Institutionalized Mode of Discourse, a very particular identifiable pattern through which humans tend to express themselves, from lunatic asylum productions through Shakespeare and Japan's Noh theater. It's arguable that although cinema is the inevitable final result of the invention of the motion picture camera, it could just as well have developed along the lines which the Lumerie brothers originally used it, rather than turning towards the Melies mode of narrative discourse, and ended up being a medical device or something.

It didn't, and in fact the narrative cinema developed which transcends languages, because it simply is able to plug directly into this institutionalized narrative mode. Had motion pictures been invented in the Civil War, we probably still would have ended up making moves the same way. This is why those old carnival spookhouses are almost certainly 3D montage, and how they could have existed before there was even a material strip of film to cut into a montage!

Disney product could, after all, be rather outrageous, especially when Uncle Walt's back was turned, while still remaining true to the narrative form. The classical narrative form is also the mode of Eisenstein's films - certainly propaganda, possibly avant-garde, but ultimatley narrative. That his films were less organized around a three act structure and more around movements, as in music, is beside the point, although even the very essence of the Silly Symphonies is based on this same idea. Eisenstein and Bazin worked from inside an already mature art, not outside. Theories rarely shape films; they merely explicate the inevitable. It's unfortunate, but certainly true.

Disney Parks and Film Theory
It's also unfortunately true that not all theories used in filmmaking by filmmakers are translatable to a park environment. I spent about a week contemplating the possibilities of using Brechtian distanciation in a theme park. What possibilities! In what attraction were you repeatedly and intentionally made conscious of the fact that you're on a theme park attraction, thus made not to care about the events taking place? Could Stitch's Great Escape be the first example of distanciation in a Disney park? What about those transitional curtains in Horizons? Symbiosis? Or even the Haunted Mansion? Is that why everyone remembers the Hitch-hiking ghosts - because they've broken your distanciated bubble?

Ultimatley, I had to conclude that if any attraction did use distanciation, it was either a stupid miscalculation, it just wasn't a very good ride, or I was grasping at straws. I had to totally reconsider. This is how my concept of "Presentationalism" came to be.

It also must be said that we'll also never be able to fully comprehend the extent of the art of the theme show, because of its' nature of time, money, and audience expectation. There will never be an experimental theme park attraction which uses distanciation, disjunction, or an equivalent of the "Open Frame", because they are made for an audience in a restricted time frame with a certain cash outlay. Country Bear Jamboree would undoubtedly have been improved had Marc Davis been given endless time to sit in a room and play with the timing of the curtains opening and closing, but this is not realistic, never mind desirable! "Franchise" attractions may be rethought, retooled, and sometimes improved as time passes, but these are mere rungs on a ladder which stretches endlessly into the void. Despite my claim that the art was "mature" by the opening of Pirates of the Caribbean, arguably it is still in a state similar to the very early days of film - before Lang, before Griffith, possibly before even Porter. Could it be that we oughtn't to be thinking of Disneyland as an extension of films like Casablanca and more like a lineage that flowers outward from This is Cinerama, or William Castle's gimmick schlock-fests?

The problem with distanciation is that if the audience is made to not care about the theme park attraction they're on, then the attraction has utterly abandoned its' purpose for existence - to provide entertainment more immersive than film can. Applying film theories to Disney rides is most dangerous here - intent and effect must, as always, be in as harmonious a balance as possible. Although the intent of the Haunted Mansion is a clear rising plot arc, its effect is accidental, incidental, fragmented, but it has gained immortality because of that effect. Theories must be kept in check,
because they explicate the art, but do not replace it.

All of these are but shots in the dark towards a target we can't even see yet: stepping-stones towards the seed of a workable concept in evaluating the value of the theme show. Once an artistic stance can be taken, others can follow, for or against. Right now there's nothing. As a film maker who values form very highly, it's not surprising for this author to fall back on Eisenstein's theories, but the opinions of stage directors, of the Bazin faithful, of naturalists, of minimalists, of graphic designers must be heard as well.

Film cameras and film stock, while not easily available, were and are still accessible to almost everybody, enough so that anything than can be done in film probably has. Very little of what can be done in a theme park has been done as the creation rests not in the private artist but the public corporation, so essays like this must always chase after a receding vanishing point, begging credibility. Yet it is crucial that essays like this still ask the question and ask the reader to answer: where do you find value in the theme show?

How does it do what it does?

And, finally, some semiotics: how do we know this?


Chris Stangl operates The Exploding Kinetoscope, an enviable blog which has more insightful film commentary than you're likely to find here and is, unlike this blog, actually funny. There's also Permanent Monday, which analyzes "Garfield" from various angles and is also, unlike this blog, actually funny.


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dean said...

Don't beat yourself up over applying the appropriate film-based definitions to explain Disney themed attractions. It's as viable an approach as using theatrical, or even architectural terms. Despite my lack of background in film, your writing goes a long way to explain the ideas involved.

What's important to realize, though, is that the designers of these productions went beyond the frame of the film, and beyond the limits of the stage to create new and interesting first-hand experiences. To do that they had to relax a bit on applying strict definitions to what they did. Instead they went with what seemed intuitive, applying the lessons they learned from designing in these other media. That is how true breakthroughs are made in any artistic endeavor, and all the analyzing in the world isn't going to fully explain how it happened.

FoxxFur said...

Explaining how it happened isn't the question - the intent is rather obvious. It's the effect that theory is all about, which is much more open to codifying and comprehension. As outlined in the article, while theory doesn't always impact practice, one can feed and strengthen the other.