Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Seeing/Not Seeing the Parks and Fan Typology

There's a really funny story in Patton Oswalt's new book, Silver Screen Fiend. In it, Patton and a childhood friend go to a movie theater to see the 1996 Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing. Last Man Standing, as you likely don't remember, is a remake of Fistful of Dollars, which itself is a remake of a Japanese samurai movie called Yojimbo, so that the film in question is a remake of a remake. Ah, but it doesn't stop there, because Yojimbo itself is a riff on an American novel by Daschiel Hammett called Red Harvest. So Last Man Standing is a remake of a remake of a remake.

Anyway, Patton casually explains this to his friend before the movie begins and it totally destroys the movie for this poor guy. He spends the entirety of this inconsequential Bruce Willis movie sweating out what it all has to do with Italians and Japanese. Afterwards, he's angry at Patton for spoiling the film for him by revealing this tiny piece of trivia.

Experiences and perceptions have a lot to do with expectations, don't they? For the past few weeks I've been ruminating on a post which was forwarded to me by friend and sporadic Disney blogger Ian Kay, written by Film Crit Hulk, a highly insightful film writer who none-the-less gets angry and WRITES IN ALL CAPS.

Hulk was writing about the culture of spoilers in film and TV viewing, and in doing so he delineates 4 levels of film viewing which most viewers fall into, or between. I think this criteria can spread to all media forms, but because I think it's especially pertinent to talking about Disney theme parks, so I'm going to outline them here:

Group 1 is a group who view media very naively, and are powerfully and very directly affected by what they see. This is you seeing Star Wars or The Lion King when you were 7. Group 1 does very little thinking while watching films, and their emotional engagement is very strong and hard to shake. Many, many adults spend their whole lives in Group 1. You probably know somebody who won't see "downer" or "challenging" films because they're simply unable to escape from the effect these stories have on them.

Group 2 viewers have seen enough media that they know the ins and outs of how stories are constructed. They don't really worry if Anna will be de-iced in Frozen because by now they understand that children's films have something of a safety net. But they still view media largely as emotional experiences which distract from daily life. They will try, constantly, to recapture that feeling of when they were Group 1 viewers - and, when a film really delivers that feeling, as Lord of the Rings and Guardians of the Galaxy did, these experiences are often handsomely rewarded by a hugely grateful groups of adults.

Group 3 viewers are, simply put, usually professional critics. They have viewed such a body of media in their field that they've become adept at deconstructing the qualities of the product as they watch it while still trying to leave the door open for a Group 2 or Group 1-style experience. Most viewers cannot and will not cross the threshold into 3 because there's a fear that the quality of the experiences will suffer and, often, it does - it becomes far easier to pick out bad goods. The flip side is that the great experiences stop being merely fun and become transcendent, religious - and stimulating. This is the high the critic craves, and it drives them into increasingly obscure corners to find it.

Group 4 are Industry people. Veteran TV cameramen, video game programmers, newscasters - these people are so used to troubleshooting and running the wires behind the scenes that when they view media they see nothing but the strings. They can assess exactly, specifically, technically where it succeeds or fails. These people are the auto mechanics of the entertainment world.

The whole point is that all 4 categories are equal - one is not better than the other - but Groups 1 and 2 often simply cannot comprehend the viewpoint of Groups 3 and 4. Personally I've been hearing the same line forever - "You always over analyze things! Why can't you just relax and enjoy the movie?"

It's the same way with theme parks. Get me or HBG2 talking about Haunted Mansion and you end up on a spaceship launching off to some unknown conceptual destination. He'll talk about theology. I'll talk about Sergei Eisenstein and Moby Dick. And somewhere, people's eyes are spinning around in their sockets.

And the answer is, no, I can't just relax and enjoy it, because I'm on the other side of the looking glass now. I sit somewhere between 3 and 4, perhaps nostalgic for my days as a 1, but aware that I feel inherently more fulfilled for having made the journey.

Now, about theme parks.

Theme parks, and Disney ones especially, are a strong drug. That specific blend of total sensory assault, giddy excitement and surging nostalgia produces a high better and stronger than any chemical, and it can last for as long as you're able to pay. Who hasn't, at one point, wished they could just live at the Polynesian Village? Or above New Orleans Square? Just like Star Wars, Disney is handing you down the key to a golden kingdom where time seems to go haywire, simultaneously rushing past like a freight train and standing still, even reversing. For sentimentalists, this is the ultimate high. Anyone who's ever read Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine should recognize the causes of his grateful, almost tearful attachment to Disneyland, a personal magic door into his better place.

And here's the thing: it was that way for me too. But it isn't any longer. And that has not "ruined" these places for me. It's made them stronger.

The way Disney parks are designed and indeed marketed, they tend to produce a Group 1-style response in almost everybody. There's multiple reasons why. There's the excitement of being on vacation and, for many, the sacred feeling of a family vacation or indeed yearly ritual. This is our time to (fill in the blank). The park, meaning the physical cluster of concrete structures, is a sort of stimulus/social lubricant that can result in quality experiences and genuine bonding.

The average person who's walking around Epcot right now, today, as you're reading this cannot afford - literally cannot afford conceptually, cannot afford emotionally, and cannot afford financially - to analyze the experience. After traveling from Nebraska and trading on Jane's college tuition to bring the family to Epcot, if the product were anything less than exemplary in their view the result would be catastrophic. Very intelligent people pay lots of money to shut off their brains and walk under Spaceship Earth into a place where mortgages and crime don't exist. In any other situation these people would be in Group 3 or 4, but today, for now, they're resolutely Group 1.

If you go online and read Disney fan discourse, you're going to be reading a lot of emotional appeals. Often they're gussied up at some attempt at "objectivity" but they're anything but. Gran Fiesta Tour is great because Timmy clapped his hands on it, a memory you will always treasure. The Circle of Life at The Land is a family favorite because Grandpa fell asleep. We got engaged during Wishes. These people are arguing from an entirely gut, emotional point of view. They're trying to validate reliving moments, but what they're not doing is discussing things.

After so many years of going - first as a tourist, then as a Cast Member, then as a local Annual Passholder where I can drive in and see Main Street without spending a hot dime - the bulk of my experiences in these places are no longer the sanctified vacation experiences most have. I haven't had a Walt Disney World vacation in 15 years but I've probably spent 4000 times the amount of time there I spent on vacation. Oh yes, I've been there, but for mere hours at a time and the stresses of the real world don't leave because I know being back at work is just 12 hours away. Or I already am at work.

Where most visitors look at a building in Frontierland and see a charming old west saloon, I see and appreciate the illusion of an old west building, but my knowledge goes deeper. I know that it's fiberglass and lathe over a steel girder superstructure, and that behind that blacked out window is a green file cabinet, and that in the attic above the Trading Post is a shitty old couch I crashed on, once, because I've crawled thru the whole thing. And over there, a few feet away, is where a guest took a swing at me on New Year's Eve while I was working two-way traffic on an hour of sleep and earning barely above minimum wage. And ten feet past that is the lamppost where I found the stroller in the bush during that ten hour stroller parking shift in April 2004. And over there is where the sewer erupted on Christmas Eve and sprayed 34 people with raw sewage. And I even have X-Ray vision and can "see" the cast Corridor that runs behind the building, and the shop on the other side, and the street beyond that.

A certain breed of Disney fan would find that view disrespectful, but those aren't even the bad memories - they're just the accumulated detritus of years and years spent at these places, willing or not. When you're on vacation, you don't see the strings. You don't notice that the flute player in the Haunted Mansion has a busted actuator in his left arm because you don't know and don't care. You see and experience symbols, not things. When I look at these places, I see specific things from the inside out and back again.

This is why everyone thinks these parks were always in perfect working order when they were kids - when you're on vacation, you don't see chipped paint and blown out lights. you don't have time. Stuff was still broken and beat up at Magic Kingdom in the 1970s - its just that there wasn't any internet or annual passholders to report it.

January 1975 - and look at all the crooked, blown out lights!

I used to do this sort of willful obstruction too. I used to sit at home after a Walt Disney World vacation and become paranoid because I couldn't remember the color of the pavement at EPCOT Center. If I couldn't remember it, did it exist? Did I get the absolute most out of my limited time there? Did I dream the vacation?

But Walt Disney World and Disneyland are bigger things than your memories or the moments you spend there.

They're also magic tricks and fiberglass bricks, wooden beams holding up the set, those beautiful murals outside the sets in Horizons, and nasty stanchion poles and trash compactors and computer systems that crunch numbers and a broken down car in the Cast parking lot. And the more I became aware of the secret Walt Disney World, the vibrant life behind the "life", the more I loved it. For a while there I was a hardcore Group 4'er. Now I'm more like a 3.5. But once you pull back that curtain, it's impossible to go back to being a Group 2 or Group 1. Your eyes never see it the same way. It gets inside you and changes you from the inside.

And this is, I think, the main source of discord in the Disney online community: occasional, high spending 1 and 2 consumers getting very upset with more regular, casual, or professional Group 3 and 4 thinkers. Annual Passholders can show up for reasons of boredom, or for social obligations - as an Orlandian you spend a lot of time meeting out-of-town friends inside theme parks. It makes sense, because who would want to catch a movie at a crappy strip mall when they could be spending their precious vacation hours inside Epcot?

I've "had" to go into theme parks to meet friends where I'd rather go literally anywhere else, and it was even worse while I worked in these same places. That sounds like the most disingenuous complaint, but these are crowded, exhausting places to be for a social obligation. Would you want to go back to your workplace to spend your day off?

I admit that I'm coming around to the notion that jealousy plays into it, too, for some commentators. A Disney park, for them, is a ritual place, sacred ground, which they only see, God willing, every few years if the chips come down right. And yet here's another group who could be there every day and all they see are the paint chips and blown out lights. How rude! How ungrateful! Jealousy sours into resentment. All of these Walt Disney World locals are a bunch of haters! And worse of all, because of social media, you know every single time they're there.

And some people do so want that Disney high to last forever that they take the step of moving to Orlando to be near to Disney. But eventually, they start to become Group 3's, too. One day they walk into the Confectionery on Main Street and realize that that $35 they spent on fudge would have been better spent on rent. And that fudge they were sure to come and buy on every single Walt Disney World vacation, it vanishes forever. The real fudge can still be bought but their fudge, their vacation fudge, can never be reclaimed. They start, day in and day out, to imperceptibly see the place differently.

Exquisite fairytale castle? SEEN IT!

It all comes down to that, I feel. Fans fight each other in these endless loops of aggression because they see the place fundamentally differently. Vacationers only see the places through the tourist filter. Then somebody like me, where I've been crammed through so many filters and sieves that I'm surprised any bit of that childlike awe at the accomplishment of the place is left. It's not about opinions but experiences and perceptions.

I think the rancor is unfortunate, and not just because there is something wonderfully human and optimistic about those who construct a place entirely out of memories. Why wouldn't they be mad? To them, Dumbo wasn't a fiberglass elephant circling a concrete pit, it was the smile on their three-year-old's face in the early morning Florida heat. I find that perspective to be very moving, but it's also inherently limited, because they weren't really seeing the place, but some alternate reality warped by time, perception, and that Disney high. They're no more seeing the physical space of Walt Disney World than Raoul Duke saw The Flamingo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So, if I opine that Dumbo isn't a very good ride, then to them I'm not talking about a fiberglass elephant but their personal memory of their personal happy place, the weave of memory is too tight to peek through.

And goodness knows I don't wish I could get that too, sometimes. I don't think my viewpoint is noble so much as inevitable. I haven't experienced a truly new-to-me theme park in 14 years. This summer, I'll finally be going to Disneyland Paris, and I'll have to be deprogramming myself out of my old habits - I'll have to remember to go into shops, for one, or pace myself to spend 16 hours in a theme park instead of 2. I'm curious if my critical apparatus will turn off.

I secretly don't think it will. I'm too fond of analyzing.

Now, I'm no fool. I'm not expecting this article to stop people on the internet from arguing, and besides, some people are only out to make others miserable anyway. But I do think it's time for the Groups 1 and 2 and Groups 3 and 4 to recognize that, for others, it literally is not the same place. Annual Passholders and those with a critical eye don't have your same memories, and to vacationers, even the most prolific and profligate spenders have only a fraction of the experience of others. One viewpoint is not a corrective to the other. The point is that both sides are needed - and need to recognize each other - to create an honest, healthy whole.