Sunday, August 16, 2009

Who Lives Here?

No individual work exists in a vacuum, despite the sometimes best efforts on the part of writers such as I to pretend it does. I often write exclusively about the work of the theme park designers, the integrity and intention and effect of the piece as if it exists in nothing but a black sound stage with a silent audience that responds exactly as they should. This is for very particular reasons. The first is that published critical thinking and writing about the Disneyland model of themed design is focused tightly on the sociological aspects of the piece. I am not a sociologist and find little interest in the subject - I am an artist and I'm writing about what I know. I find that in texts about Disneyland or, especially, Walt Disney World, the artistic value of the place is often taken for granted - either positively or negatively - with little further dialouge to address the significance or contribution to the artistry of the work of the designers. The integrity of the atmosphere of something like Disneyland makes it easy to treat as some sort of unified work with an explicable meaning, but rising as it does from the collective efforts of hundreds of individuals, a unified meaning and purpose behind such a work is at best unintentional.

We should not totally exclude the experience of the spectator from the diagesis of the piece. The theme parks are meant for people; anybody who has experienced the cold and unique desolation of a Magic Kingdom with no patrons in the wee hours of the morning understands fully how the entire operation's illusion of warmth and vitality depends on the prescence of music, spectators, employees. The Magic Kingdom is a ghost town with lights burning in every window to welcome home that long dead Walt Disney. But there's not even a firehouse apartment behind the window, just a black cloth and a lamp shade on a box. The effectiveness and the shallowness of the illusion is quite chilling the more one thinks of it.

There is a German word which describes what the Magic Kingdom does so well which we have no satisfactory equivalent to in English: Gemutlichtkeit. It means something like "comfortable" or "cozy" but it means more, indicating a sense of peace, belonging, relaxation, and acceptance. The Magic Kingdoms create an atmosphere of Gemutlichkeit, yet - and this is the essential dynamic - it is a place that we cannot truly ever belong to, because there is nothing there. As such we are never residents, always visitors to a place we'd like to stay if it weren't for the fact that all the play money is nailed down in the till and the real residents circulate motor oil instead of blood.

The actual role of the spectators in tradional WED design is rather vauge; since we are distanced from the show both by its' "better than reality" nature and our unconcious contract with Disney in which we suspend disbelief just enough to pretend to believe, walking into Fronteirland does not make us pioneers. We are walking cobntradictions right there in the middle of the most thematically homogenous enviroment imaginable. But if the theme show can't and doesn't try to resolve the role of the tourist as visitor to an enviroment which precludes them, we may look deeper to find certain indicators of who may be the true intended audiences for Disneyland-style parks.

It may be recognized that there is a class structure inherent in the fabric of the park itself, perhaps nowhere more obviously than in Adventureland, the realm of the "arm chair adventurer". Embodied in the bold architectural mishmash of imagery in this area are elements from Asia, Africa, Polynesia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere - frankly, anything not middle American or central European in nature is portrayed as "other". This certainly implies a white middle class viewpoint, the class in America in the middle of the 20th century who resurrected the phallic Tiki Gods as the new Baccus of middle America. Since Adventureland itself in both East and West coast versions derives heavily from this cultural phenomenon which began in 1949 with the success of South Pacific - itself a reflection of the tales that many fathers were bringing home to middle America about the south seas following World War II - this is not unnatural.

I think that the Harper Goff Adventureland of 1955 brought even more overtly a specific maleness to the table, with its' exotic but still hard edged buildings, a cantina, and the Jungle River Ride. It's commonly repeated factoid that this creation was heavily influenced by John Huston's The African Queen, which itself is a tale of hard men in a hard place. Humphery Bogart in that film is not the suave Rick of Casablanca, but a poor man with a cheap boat. The hardness of Huston's vision of man vs. nature found its' way into Goff's Adventureland, with the sunbleached buildings and dark bars that come with it.

In contrast, the 1971 Adventureland belongs to Marc Davis and Dorthea Redmond, and they both brought considerable feminizing influence to the concept. Redmond's beautiful yellows and reds, her gentle beauty and quiet mysticism gave Adventureland a quiet dignified beauty related more to Fantasyland than a jungle river port, and Davis brought his visual charm and interest in "native" cultures of Polynesia and South America. These are both still middle class, caucasian viewpoints, and somebody from South Africa or Asia would feel no more at home in Adventureland than anyone else. It may be a Fantasyland, but it is a white man's Fantasyland, a playground of implied cultural dominance. Even The Enchanted Tiki Room, a Polynesian showplace, is hosted not by any sort of representative of the "local culture", but by caricatures of non-Americans... all Western: Ireland, Germany, Mexico and France.

If Adventureland is Fantasyland for caucasians, then Main Street USA is the playground of capitalism. Everything is booming in Walt Disney's turn of the century America, quite the opposite from the Marceline Missouri without even a paved street of Walt Disney's youth. The actual period of American history which Main Street represents includes not only ragtime and gingerbread details, but also the Long Depression, a brutal series of economic scares which lasted from 1973 to 1901 and which created the decaying Victorian home which is the American conception of a haunted house due to the high rate of abandonment of new real estate during this period. But business is great on Disneyland's Main Street, with every suggested tenant above the Market House doing implied great business. It's the nostalgia of the turn of the century combined with the actual boom times of 1950's America to create a complex and totally fact free version of what a small town American main street would've been in 1900. Both of these "implied perspectives" color perceptions of the Magic Kingdoms, then as now, but do help guide us to an appropriate "reading" of our defined "role".

As important to the fabric of Disneyland is its' suppositions about race and class are its' suppositions are national identity. Werner Herzog lists it in his recollection of places where everything "about" America comes together, along with places like Wall Street and Graceland. I certainly think that Main Street is a particularly American conception, aimed at Americans. And while Europans may admire the charm and eloquence of the "statement" of Liberty Square, the statement is still divorced of the cultural resonances in has for American audiences.

Tomorrowland, in its' native state, was a big gleaming showcase of American industry, homelife, and progress. Although we may not find much futuristic in the 1955 lineup of Tomorrowland offerings, all of the exhibits were corporate displays and the lineup of names must have ben impressive: Ritchfeild Oil, American Motors, TWA, Kaiser Aluminum, Dutch Boy Paints, Monsanto, etc. We can easily add in a dozen more names of companies who have supplied exhibits to Tomorrowland throughout the longevity of it's original concept: McDonald-Douglas, Eastern Airlines, RCA, Goodyear Tires, AT&T, General Electric, and so on. This is quite a catalouge of American Industry, and it makes good on the promise of rampant capitalism above every shop on Main Street. There is an invisible line which moves West-East across Disneyland which inscribes a timeline of American progress; from Fronteirland to Main Street and on to Tomorrowland. If Fronteirland takes place around 1825 (dated so by me for its' relationship with Davy Crockett), Main Street around 1900 and the original Tomorrowland around 1985, that's 160 years of American history represented in a tiny little area. If we add in Liberty Square then the number gets bumped up to 210. It's harder to argue against the idea of inherent Americanness of the Disneyland model than for it.

In this way Magic Kingdoms are, especially since one has not been held in the United States since 1984, the true Universal Expos, which can be built as lasting American cultural ambassadors anywhere in the world. Japan wanted the American-ness of the Magic Kingdoms; France resented it. But it's in the bloodstream of the piece. It's a mark of the quality of the design and the universal appeal of the concept that the Magic Kingdom model appeals to audiences other than the white middle class Americans it was designed to echo the most core values of.

13 comments:

George Taylor said...

Can we take this further and address the Animal Kingdom as a true extension of Andventureland--from a more modern and altruistic view? A world-focused view?

A less homogenized World Showcase?

AK is a beautiful park but it is still a maze to navigate--and it is my least favorite of all of the WDW parks. I almost get the feeling like they tried a little too hard.

Can you block AK into the same critique that you did with Adventureland except base the experience on a middle American population that is aware of the world and the value that we all share?

Then again, maybe not!

Zach said...

If Adventureland is the Caucasion Fantasyland, then Fantasyland is...??

Disneyland is a product of its time and culture, the pre-Elvis 50's. The interesting part is not simply understanding that, but in looking at why that vision continues to be almost universally loved, and what modifications were made to keep it that way (or detract from it)?

Cory Gross said...

Oh man is Disneyland American! I could write reams and reams about that (in fact, I kind of will, next year, in a big piece on my blog about Davy Crockett).

The queues go from overt to subtle. For instance, it's pretty obvious that Frontierland is supposed to be the American West and that's fair enough. The opening day "mission statement" explicitly says that Disneyland exists for the promotion of American culture and values.

On the other hand, I actually had to stop and take a photo of the plaque in the Opera House: "Free Enterprise - America's Fifth Freedom". It's a relatively innocuous thing that most people coming out of The First 50 Magical Years probably didn't notice, but it just screamed America to me as surely as the speech and the flag ceremony.

I think for me, it bursts out into full view because I have Canadian models to compare it against. I would imagine that, to a European or a Japanese person, its taken for granted because the frontier and main street didn't exist in their history. Above the 49th, we have our own.

Above and beyond the artificiality of Main Street, I can walk through it and pick out Americanism after Americanism because I've walked down plenty of Canadian historic main streets. Even the architecture of our railway stations vs. yours communicates volumes (here's a piece I wrote on National Parks that's along the same lines). Even excusing the now total absense of any living Native American presence in Frontierland, the white settlement of the American and Canadian West couldn't be more different.

I would imagine that someone from the Global South could probably pick out a lot of what you said about Adventureland as well. I am vaguely curious to visit EPCOT's Canada just to see firsthand how we're represented (I already know that the mountain is the wrong colour and shape, looking more like the American Rockies than the Canadian).

Part of appreciating Disneyland (as opposed to ignoring or becoming politically outraged) for a non-American, I think, involves engaging the romantic myth of this foreign land called America. Googie, riverboats, the French Quarter, Tiki, the surrey with a fringe, Coke Corner, Fort Wilderness, Lincoln, (and later, Hollywood, national parks, boardwalk amusement parks) become a capsule of exotic Americanness.

-------------------------

George,

The expansion of WDW as elaboration on each of the Magic Kingdom lands is kind of how I already envisioned it... EPCOT as an elaborated Tomorrowland, Animal Kingdom as an elaborated Adventureland... It kind of falls apart at Hollywood Studios, but who knows, there may be an elaborated Frontierland and Fantasyland in the future ^_~

Actually, I guess with the heyday of Fort Wilderness Campground and the Wilderness Lodge, there already was a Frontierland. If only they kept the railroad and added in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show or something...

FoxxFur said...

Yay Cory arrived. =)

I often am rather torn on my reaction to the nationalism of the castle parks. Even as I'm vaugley intellectually disgusted by it I'm often very sentimentally moved by it as well, in a way that I know only really works for Americans. I've seen that plaque you mention and remember walking away muttering "Walt you crusty old Republican..."

I think looking at the piece as a kitschy little capsule of Americana is a fairly good approach. I know that the Japanese treat going to Tokyo Disneyland as a surrogate for going to America, and I think they're onto something. I remember that WED was pretty shocked that the Oriental Land Company didn't want the place modified at all to suit Japanese taste and customs.... they wanted it just as it was, just built in the East, not the West. Maybe the efforts to adapt the model to European culture and taste in Paris is part of what sunk the enterprise?

I don't expect there to suddenly be an explosion of those "hard facts" Walt Disney spoke about on opening day, but there are a few still left in the ether. I remembering working at the Hall of Presidents trying to explain the relevance of the Liberty Tree to a curious British family. I tried to be as discreet as possible in informing them that one of the unstated purposes of a liberty tree in Colonial America was to hang Loyalists from it!

philphoggs said...

Hang em high!
No, but really if your mantra is to explore and participate, not consume or dominate, then I think you can have a fair view of the Disney Parks. From any background, class or culture, this view works well. I think Disney today tries very hard, better than most, but like any mainstream production can fall short of ideal, even in AK.

Cory Gross said...

Even as I'm vaugley intellectually disgusted by it I'm often very sentimentally moved by it as well, in a way that I know only really works for Americans.

Which is perfectly understandable. I consider myself a cultural rather than a patriotic Canadian, but that still leaves enough wiggle-room for empty-headed sentimentalism to get in there. At least until I clear the cobwebs with some critical thinking.

My most recent example was last year's Calgary Stampede, which helped celebrate the "Dream of Canada" for the 400th anniversary of Quebec's founding. *sniff sniff* Wait, dream of what?!

I can only imagine how those sorts of things would go on to affect an American. I just find the National Parks Rustic motif and romance interesting (enough to head to Glacier and Grand Canyon rather than Wilderness Lodge ^_~)... I'm sure if I had a sense of ownership where it composed a part of my national identity, it would double the impact. Up here, Banff does that a little bit to me.

And, of course, some stuff is just too specific. Were I to go down to WDW, there's a pretty good chance I wouldn't bother with the Hall of Presidents. If they get Lincoln reinstalled by my next trip to Disneyland (maybe this spring, fingers-crossed), I might go see that for audio-animatronic/Disnerd historical purposes.

Maybe the efforts to adapt the model to European culture and taste in Paris is part of what sunk the enterprise?

Honestly, my impression was that it wasn't very de-Americanized. The only part that was fundamentally changed was Tomorrowland. Otherwise, Frontierland was Frontierland and Main St. was Main St., even with the Liberty Arcade. It all looks much prettier and better organized (DLP is a sight to behold on that front), but it still is what it is.

My guess is that DLP is caught in a catch-22. On the one hand, European audiences may be somewhat ambivalent to Disneyland and its representations of America. On the other, if they were to try and sell European culture back to Europeans (like the Vernian Discoveryland), they might say "thanks but no thanks". I wouldn't trust a Disneyland Canada to be a reasonably honest representation of Canada unless it actually employed Canadian Imagineers who understood the deep differences between us and didn't just give the American stuff a maple syrup glaze. That's one hypothesis at least.

Cory Gross said...

P.S.: Thanks for the cheer too... I don't think my arrival on a blog has ever been so warmly met ^_^

J Gall. said...

I would never call the people of Mexico "western." Most of the peoples of Mexico have a large number of indigenous blood within, as most modern histories of the Mexican people will attest. That said, I have been thinking about the same subjects that you bring up in your piece in relationship to both Adventureland and the Adventurer's Club. These have always been two of my favorite things about the Vacation Kingdom, yet I've been trying to rectify my love of these locations with my interests in post-colonial ideals. Though when viewed from a post-colonial stand-point the Enchanted Tiki Room is the second most post-colonial attraction at the Vacation Kingdom after Everest. The Irish and Mexicans were a least colonized!

FoxxFur said...

Thanks everyone for contributing great comments to this! I often put off posting something to Hyperion that's of some substance because I'm inevitably disappointed by the hastily thought out, badly written, reactionary responses my writing gets there. Everyone's ideas were fully elaborated so thanks very much - it's discussions like this that keep my will to write for Passport alive. ^^

Cory Gross said...

I can sympathize... I had to give up on a few Disney boards and things because of the wretched state of the discussion. Not only it being primarily shallow commentary (only so many times I can say what my favorite rides are) but also the hostility to trying to raise the bar of discussion. Having a discussion like this, I would be accused of being a bad person for sneakily trying to impose politics on everyone and Disney isn't about politics, so there.

However, we are having a disucssion about Walt's anti-democratic tendencies over at Hyperion, so not all is lost ^_~

YVESlong ago said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
YVESlong ago said...

Hi. Can i post your composition at somewhere else after i translate it into Chinese?

FoxxFur said...

Sure, as long as it's just this one and you link back to my site. Let me know where it's been posted too please. :)