Saturday, January 06, 2007

What the Hell Do You Kids Think You're Doing?

During the Christmas break I took the opportunity to re-read John Hench's very interesting Designing Disney, which led me back to Karal Ann Marling's The Architecture of Reassurance, and it has been lo many long years since I have opened that large volume!

Marling's book has been attacked in some circles for writing over the heads of the readership (a comment which reflects more poorly on the reader than the author to my mind), and to be sure it is not a perfect or not even necessarily fun book. Marling's central section is somehow without focus and fails to build an argument even if she makes a number of invaluable critical observations along the way about WED Enterprises, "Medallion City" and EPCOT Center. I'm not entirely sure if this chapter in question is an aesthetic overview or a chronological history, and in fulfilling both needs she actually doesn't quite fulfill the requirements of either, but let's be honest folks - The Architecture of Reassurance is an important book.

It concludes with three fantastic essays which ought to be re-read by anybody who takes the work of WED Enterprises and WDI seriously, the best of which is an excellent critique on the art of critique itself, called Forty Years of Overstatement by Greil Marcus. I won't reprint even a word of it here such is my admiration for this effort, but as he points out, the theme show has a (fifty year!) head start on anybody attempting any kind of coherent critical analysis - the form has yet to produce a scholar who has written a fully articulated account of it's forms, meaning, values and effects.

This got me thinking.

I believe much of this stagnant critical function comes from the fact that of the significant works on the art form itself - among them Vinyl Leaves and The Architecture of Reassurance - not a single critical scholar has yet to develop a useful vocabulary about what each articulated element in a themed show actually is, in the way that film scholars have been doing for 80 years now. Very little successful discussion of any item, area or psychological effect can actually succeed if there is no word for the item in question to begin with. Furthermore, nobody can build a counter-argument against a false analysis if nobody has pinned it down yet with an interpretation and applicable term.

In themed design, filmic vocabulary is useful and desirable, as in this pleasant snippet from Marling's book:

"But as the "doom buggy" winds its' way up into the attic, past the vestigial bride, the scene shifts to a cemetery, outside the Mansion. The terror arises as much from the violation of the dramatic unities, the abrupt turning inside out of the building, as from the graveyard tableau itself... By switching the point of view spasmodically from interior to exterior, however, the movie metaphor is deepened and amplified. Instead of the bookish, linear narrative of Main Street, the Mansion opts for the cinematic jump cut. Continuity and reassurance are first established and then abruptly denied, for an emotional effects that floats free of narrative..."

Marling, pgs. 114-115

But the theme show is a much more complex art than that of film, really the next step, and an overabundance of such interpretations actually close off more avenues of approach than they open up. We need a better system to measure success or failure.

The problem is that a vocabulary cannot simply be agreed on and them used by everyone all at once, for a useful mode of critical discourse to arise from such discussions one must present arguments which codify into terminologies which can be entered into the public space of common discourse. And outside of terms like weenie, show, environment, atmosphere, setting and others, currently one is adrift in a harbor of smilies: "like the Haunted Mansion", "Pirates-like", "Toad-style" and more.

This, I believe, is the biggest hurdle towards developing the theme show into a critiqueable art, with an applicable vocabulary and an established list of representative classics.

So in the way of clarity here, and in the way of acknowledging what the hell I'm doing, I'd like to here re-affirm the intent of this blog and to repeat, now that I have an audience, my first post.

I would like this blog to be an outlet for my writings on the Disney Parks, their masters, their use of space, design, their successes, their failures, their histories, how they work, how they guide attention, how they relate to film and other media, and all other aspects of this not new but not yet understood art form. And I hope to do justice to them.

As an introduction... a quote.
“The tat and kitschy quality that comes across in flat pictures dissolves when you go through those turnstiles. The lath and plaster is solid, the cardboard is so tough you never see it wobble. The paint is fresh, the flags flutter, the bands play, the people laugh and cry out for more, more security, more nostalgia, more happiness, more memories of a world better than our own. […] Is this bad? Is this, as critics say, like a drug, an escapist immature fantasy generated by an immature showman for cash? Or is it a work of art, as The Wizard of Oz or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Singin’ in the Rain are works of art, commercially manufactured products that transcend their age and have a meaning to themselves as all great works of art should have?”
pg. 321, Robin Allan, Walt Disney and Europe.
Indiana University Press, Bloomington. 1999.