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.