Monday, June 23, 2008

Phantoms of Influence

It's sort of an open secret in the realm of Disney parks that the European version of the Haunted Mansion is sort of a riff on the famous musical The Phantom of the Opera, annotating its' iconography, lush score, main character, and even its' name: Phantom Manor. Although logic follows that the name was chosen due to its' bilingual comprehensibility, it is also telling that the designers of Disneyland Paris and Frontierland saw their attraction as enough of a departure from the Coates-Davis stateside Haunted Mansion that a wholesale name change was in order. And between the twin poles of the Coates-Davis Disneyland attraction and the Lloyd Webber-Hart-Prince musical does the Phantom Manor hover unsteadily.

Although a full account of the successes and failures of the Phantom Manor show in relation to its' modifications of the Haunted Mansion would be instructive, this is not the purpose of this essay. The spectator is encouraged to take the Phantom Manor as its' own creation, and it's not hard to, given its' wild oscillations between sources until it finally becomes a whole different attraction entirely. But taken as blending of two forms of popular culture - a Disney attraction and a successful musical - the show offers fascinating possibilities. And so from this let us observe an attraction which is not a satisfactory adaptation of any of its' sources, but a fascinating manifestation of a litany of sources direct and indirect. And even if we dismiss the Haunted Mansion from the equation to consider only the Lloyd-Webber 1986 musical, we still find a number of sources which have "trickled down" through the musical inadvertently:

- The original Gaston Leroux novel of 1910
- Universal Studio's 1925 Phantom of the Opera with Lon Chaney
- Ken Hill's 1976 Phantom of the Opera musical

(I am not qualified to discuss the Hill piece in relation to the Lloyd-Webber version or any other, having never seen it, but I can faithfully discuss the Phantom Manor's relationship with other Phantoms with some authority.)

The first important question to consider in relation to Phantom Manor is the question of story. Just as in the Haunted Mansion, much ink has been spilled over the validity of various plots which have been concocted, confirmed and denied over the years in regard to the attraction. Phantom Manor builds on the Haunted Mansion's accidental use of recurring images and ideas which suggest a story to create an attraction which actually has recurring characters. There is a lonely bride who seems both alive and dead, a shadowy Fantomas-like figure who may or may not be a ghost, and various contributions from the atmosphere of a ruined wedding. Jeff Burke, show producer for Phantom Manor, has emphatically stated that there is no plot in Phantom Manor but a symbolic fight between good (the bride) and evil (the ghost or phantom).

Burke should know but his statements don't jive with the reality of the attraction: unlike in the Haunted Mansion, there does actually seem to be something going on in Phantom Manor. One must remember that Burke worked with Marc Davis on Country Bear Jamboree and America Sings and as such may have absorbed Davis' philosophy on the place of story in theme park attractions, but he was also a key personnel under Micheal Eisner's regime where "story" was king. Could Burke have been attempting to maintain what he saw as the guiding principles of the original masters of theme design under the restricting principles of Eisner's mandates? Whatever the status of story in the ride, Phantom Manor seems to have an organizing logic if not an actual plot.

The Phantom of the attraction's name is actually personified in the attraction, displacing the Ghost Host as the de facto "host" of the attraction, and unlike the Ghost Host - but like Leroux's Erik the Phantom - is a shadowy threat throughout the attraction. The image this Phantom is based on dates back to early 20th century French pulp novels, where figures like the Phantom and, most famously, Alain & Souvestre's Fantomas the master criminal, are a reoccurring theme. The French mystery criminal is a concept likely derived from Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' famous rival, although this is of course innately supposition. The image of the Phantom in the attraction, however, is strongly derived from the famous Lon Chaney Phantom of the opera of 1925, where for much of that film's first act Erik the Phantom is seen as a literal shadow cast on the wall.

It is traditional for the Phantom of the Opera to be confused with being a ghost for, much like the traditional Devil, his best defense is his apparent unreality. The tightrope line between life and death is articulated reasonably well in the Lloyd-Webber Phantom, although Webber, being a stage performer himself, ultimately stays close in spirit to Leroux's backstory for Erik being a sadistic magician under a Persian king (although he ultimately revealed as a sideshow freak). Webber, however, muddies the waters by pulling in influences from other Phantoms as well. In the Chaney film's final version the Phantom is explained as being an insane escapee from Devil's Island, which references back to Erik's status as being confined in a cage at the carnival, and there is some suggestion of post-birth disfigurement in the face makeup for the stage version of the Phantom of the Opera, where peeling skin reveals a skull and even a bit of brain! This would swell the list to include the 1943 Phantom re-make where Claude Rains is famously splashed with acid, although Charles Harts' lyrics seem to be at pains to argue against this:

This face which earned a mother's fear and loathing
A mask my first unfeeling scrap of clothing
Pity comes too late! Turn around and face your fate!
An eternity of this before your eyes!

Leroux's Phantom is balanced of a razor wire between life and death in an even more profound way, as in the novel the Phantom's face is essentially a bare skull, and the traumatic maternal rejection comes from the implied image of a baby's body surmounted with a literal death's head. In response young Erik becomes a phantom - a word meaning both a ghost and an item of mystery - and goes into hiding. His concrete identity is further plagued by his apparent old age in the Leroux, for although he claims to be late in life (he was to die of a stroke in the Chaney version), he moves faster than any man of his age seems possible. As such between life and death, youth and decrepitude can Leroux's Phantom subvert any easy label, being both specific and anonymous at once.

The attraction can imply no such subtleties, being what it is, but there is an interesting confusion about the mortality status of both the bride and phantom in Phantom Manor. At the start of the attraction the Phantom speaks to us in the fashion of the Ghost Host in the Haunted Mansion, and as such is operating in the traditional mode established by the Haunted Mansion of those who are inarguably "dead". Yet he appears to us at the top of the expanding gallery as a cackling silhouette and later as an apparently flesh and blood figure.... surmounted with a death's head. Although his vanishing act in the final scene of the attraction confirms him as a ghost, it must be noted that he also appears to age as the bride does, and his final appearance is as a very decayed looking corpse rather than the clean skull we saw earlier. The significance of his three different appearances is elusive, but we must still consider the possibility of his being alive at one point in the attraction. If this is true, then, Phantom Manor has time travels similar to those found in Pirates of the Caribbean, rather than the continuous "one night in a haunted house" timeline which is accepted as the coomon reading of the Haunted Mansion.

It can be further noted that his musical signature in the attraction is an organ, the instrument the Phantom of the Opera is associated with in all productions save one (Claude Rains' Phantom plays the violin). The image of the Phantom atop the Stretching Gallery, pulling on a rope, can further be seen as a corruption of the Phantom dropping the chandelier on the Paris Opera audience, the second most famous incident in the original text.

Leroux's Phantom is also, perversely, a father figure to the parentless Christine, first a mentor and then a potential lover. In both the Leroux book and Lloyd-Webber musical the Phantom confounds Christine by making his voice appear to emanate from her father's grave, and in the original novel proceeds to roll skulls at her! The musical substitutes fireballs for flames, but contributes haunting voice to the obscene seduction:

Wandering child, so lost, so helpless,
Yearning for my guidance..
Too long you've wandered in winter
Far from my fatherly gaze
You resist
But your soul obeys!

Erik's slim figure and grotesque head also invites a not uncommon reading as being a ruined penis, a masculine symbol which has lost its' ability to entice (these readings immediately appeared in the wake of the Chaney Phantom in fact, still the scariest Erik of all). As such the frustrated erotic impulse in the Phantom is carried over and greatly expanded in the Lloyd-Webber musical, where the Phantom must use a number of stage props such as masks and wigs to appear to be a dashing young lover. This is a great embellishment of the Leroux text, although not perhaps as great as one of the best subtleties in the book, which is the Phantom's appearance at the Paris Grand Masque Ball as the Red Death. Harold Prince and Lloyd Webber, keeping with the famous scene from the Universal production, give their Phantom a large skull faced head covering. Yet these two productions utterly mistake the best symbol in the original book, which is that when the Phantom arrives at the Masque Ball, he is the only person in attendance not wearing a mask.

Does the Disney Phantom wear a mask? This is a tempting reading as it explains the phantom's two different appearances and pidgeonholes the figure into being a specter from start to finish of the attraction as only the bride ages. Yet a mask is never spelled out to us and the creators of the attraction knew enough that things which weren't explicit were likely lost in theme park rides. So perhaps the Phantom of the manor has some secrets which will never be fully resolved. But it is telling that in many versions of the backstory to Phantom Manor, the Phantom is identified as Henry Ravenswood - owner of the house and father to the doomed bride.

The bride in the attraction is the Christine Daae figure, in effect. Although the relationship of the Phantom to the bride - sometimes called Emily or Melanie in fan discourse - is never fully made clear (is he keeping her in the house or is she a mourning recluse, for example, is never actually explained), and whatever the relationship is, the Phantom doesn't seem to be vying for her affection. The identity of the character as a bride seems to be the key concept derived from the traditional Haunted Mansions, itself a concept borrowed from Gothic horror and folklore (humans being a superstitious lot, wedding days seem to produce an abnormal number of ghosts - in literature anyway).

Extrapolating the Daae character into a jilted bride is in many ways a logical proposition because of her uneasy romantic relationships throughout the various texts of various Phantoms over the years. The 1925 film's intertitle labeling an ornate bed she is deposited in by the Phantom following a fainting spell as a "wedding bed" dates back to the Leroux Phantom's careful crafting of a "suitably feminine environment" for Christine deep under the Paris Opera, just as he has himself crafted a typically middle class flat for himself as a way to belong to the world of "normal people". In both versions there is a carefully planned wedding bed - which one assumes the Phantom plans on using.

The Lloyd-Webber musical has no explicit rape scenario in it, although the bride imagery is strongest in this version, for at one point the Phantom pulls a cloth off a mirror and Christine Daae sees her reflection as a wedding day bride. Of course it's a stage illusion performed by this theatrical Phantom and when the string supporting the mannequin-Christine snaps, the figure surges towards the real Daae and she faints (in the silent film scene which models this event she passes out when she realizes that the masked, mysterious figure which has kidnapped her is - surprise! - the Phantom of the Opera). It's one of the show's most potent moments and it returns in at least two incarnations in the Phantom Manor - in the entrance room where we look in a mirror and see the bride within, and much later on, where the bride looks in a mirror and sees death. The Phantom of the Opera has always used mirrors for trickery, like his mirrored torture chamber, and the Disney Phantom may take a cue in the final scene, where he appears looming behind the carriages in reflection. Or perhaps not, since that scene is primarily a reinvention of the Davis Hitch-hikers gag.

Some, none, or all of these connections may be intentional, since not only does Phantom Manor have to contend not only with influences coming through 83 years of Phantom of the Opera versions and corruptions, but coming from an attraction which is at once embraced and reinvented, and from WED enterprises itself (the Phantom Canyon finale is a ghostly regurgitation of a portion of Marc Davis' unbuilt Western River Expedition). But The Phantom of the Opera, French pulp fiction from 1910, has proven itself to be unexpectedly evergreen, successful yielding to reinvention without sacrificing many essential elements of the appeal of the legend. Long since, horrors from a similar vintage... Frankenstein, Dracula and others.. have had to forcibly disassemble, re-assemble, infantilize, trivialize, and finally lurch off into the mire of postmodernism that much of our current culture has become, Leroux's pulpy amalgamation has survived remarkably intact. Phantom Manor may not be the best example of "trickle down culture", but in this isolated instance it can yield many fascinating examples of how our enduring myths can echo through the most unexpected of places.

--

Serious kudos go to Jerrod E. Hogle, whose long-winded in title but illuminating in content "The Undergrounds of The Phantom of the Opera: Sublimation and the Gothic in Leroux's Novel and its Progeny" greatly influenced the formation of this essay. And, spookily enough, the publication of this essay means I have now exactly thirteen posts filed under the "Haunted Mansion" label!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Vanishing Walt Disney World, #7

The focus of World Showcase and one of EPCOT Center's most key attractions, in 1982 as well as now, was to be its' diverse group of eateries gathered around that big lagoon and presented under the auspices of being representative of some kind of cultural gathering. The names were big: three famous chefs of France, Japan's largest department store, and that famous (to Americans) Italian eatery, L’ Originale Alfredo di Roma.

Alfredo di Roma had always been a contested eatery along the lagoon, some patrons finding it excellent and others thinking they'd rather go to an Olive Garden. The food was Italian rather than Italian-American, and perhaps presented to please a palette more Mediterranean than most people patronizing the eatery. For example, the famous dish of the place, the Fettucine Alfredo, is usually presented in America as pasta tossed in a heavy creamy cheese sauce. Most Americans' experience with authentic Fettucine Alfredo was probably at this establishment, which is simply butter and cheese tossed with hot pasta. The palette may have been more subtle, but tourists are not known for their love of subtlety. Alfredo di Roma closed September 1 of last year, and one more element of the original EPCOT was gone. Here's some photos taken on August 30, 2007:


A busy waiting room // One of the smaller dining rooms

The overfilled main hall

The legend of the golden fork and spoon, wall hanging in waiting room

Badly placed tables ruin the illusion.

Waiting for the last day....

I dined at Alfredo's once, in 20o5, and found the experience a mixed bag. Although the food was memorably positive and prepared with excellent presentation, the dining hall was loud and cramped to excessive capacity with tables. Tables were placed against walls in ways which did not flatter the beautiful wall murals, and the presence of a roaming band did not help the congestion. In much the same way Disney has crammed the sedate San Angel Inn full of tables, Alfredo di Roma was a nice eatery which left a less favorable impression of being stuck in a crowded subway car.

A more recent departure has been the Nine Dragons restaurant at the China pavilion, which closed on May 30 to renovate the eatery to present a more modern view of China and Chinese food. Unlike Alfredo di Roma, which was at least contested, nobody seems to have liked Nine Dragons much, most describing the food as mediocre and overpriced (a quick glance at the menu shows an abundance of food like General Tso Chicken at triple price you'd expect for what is, realistically, fast food type dishes. Of course this isn't uncommon, let's not forget Chefs de France's $22 lunchtime hamburger). But the interior of the eatery was cozy if a bit plain, with lots of dark carved wood divider screens and big windows which were one of the prime viewing locations for Iluminations for 26 years. One of the memories I have of my first EPCOT visit is of those big dark carved wood panels, and although in the interest of full disclosure I have not eaten there in the past few years, I have made several of their dishes and found them to be reasonably good. One of the tricky balances to maintain is the identity of World Showcase pavilions' simultaneous nod towards the traditional and the modern, which is why we now have a big modern Tokyo-style sushi bar inside a 16th century palace. If the tip towards a more brightly lit, "streamlined" 2008 appearance in EPCOT restaurants is deemed grating, we should also remember to look for the earmarks of 1982 elegance on all these original establishments, from the dark woods, lush interior plantings and gestures towards a quiet atmosphere. In short, these places were more opulent than authentic even when new. Here's what Nine Dragons looked like in February 2008.

Detailed ceiling in the entrance area.

The cozy interior one late afternoon day.


Time marches on....