Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast

In the words of the great Edwardian proponent of fairy tales G.K. Chesterton, the noble lesson behind the fable of the Beauty and the Beast is that one must be loved in order to become lovable... Someone treated like an animal will become an animal, someone treated with worth, dignity and beauty as a human being will become a human being.

Demonstrating this in the story itself is always difficult. It always proves problematic for writers and filmmakers to make a credible leap in projecting this wonderful truism into a tale about a woman who falls in love with a literal animal who is a vicious, abusive brute. That a romance with an animal would take on morally discomforting overtones is one thing. That he spends a good portion of the story being a monster within as well as a monster without makes it that much more troublesome. It is even open to modern criticisms that it teaches girls to stay in relationships with abusive men in the vain hope that their love will somehow shine through and heal the abuser.

Such is the secular interpretation. A more sacred one sees in the timeless story an allegory of the amor Dei, the love of God for humanity. In such a reading, humanity is the prince whose cruelty turns him into little more than a walking beast. From beyond the Beast's isolated world where, in the gaze of cruelty and hate, other people have become mere objects, the Father enters. The Beast, unable to conceive of the Father's motives of love, imprisons him in a deathly web of dogma. To liberate the Father, the Daughter most fair comes, whose relentless love redeems the Beast's humanity.

Of course, such an interpretation runs against the problem of the strenuous relationship between the two protagonists. French Surrealist artist Jean Cocteau suffers no less from this dilemma. In his 1946 film adaptation of the story, he practically dispenses with the attempt to justify how it is that the ingenue Belle comes to have affection for the Beast. Their relationship is civil for the most part, with the occasional shouting match and her constant spurning of his offer for marriage. On the one hand she has a growing respect for him, and on the other a kind of angry pity. One scene has her yelling at him to clean himself up and stop acting like such an animal. Their is a complex, uneasily romantic, relationship, as might be expected. Consistent with his literary form, the Beast is not the abusive character seen in other versions. His crime is to keep her captive, which he is able to do by her own sympathy. Nonetheless we must make the leap to accepting that somehow she sees something in him that is not apparent to us. Such is love!

It is a leap, however, that Cocteau asks of us from the beginning. In one of the most touching breaks with the fourth wall in cinema, the director begs the indulgence of the audience in allowing those magic words of childhood - "once upon a time" - to forgive any lapses. It is not difficult to forgive him either, for in the end the story is very charming and full of redeeming compassion. Whereas in the beginning of the film Cocteau begs the indulgence of our childlike sympathies, by the movie's close he tells us that being childlike may yet save our soul from becoming beastly and brutish. It was not any particular cruelty of Marais' Prince Ardent that caused him to be turned into a beast: it was his parents' disbelief in spirits and fairies that caused these supernatural beings to take their revenge upon them through their son.

The film's themes are further elaborated by understanding the drama at play beneath it. The same actor to play both the Beast and Belle's semi-villainous suitor, Jean Marais, was the gay lover of Jean Cocteau. Beauty and the Beast can easily stand as an allegory of the trials of homosexual affairs in an era before their social acceptance. To be lovable one must be loved, and love must search out the inner depths and inner identity of another to find that hidden self. That cannot be done while one is shutting themselves off from the world around them, reverting to a state that is feral and distorted by self-loathing.

However the story is treated, what truly stands out is the artistic direction and set design that portrays a quintessential haunted manor. In fact, it is said that the design elements of other, more famous Haunted Mansions were inspired by such pieces in Beauty and the Beast as the wall-mounted candelabras made of moving arms. There is an eerie aura of foreboding and mystery to the moving sculptures with their leering eyes, the aforementioned candle-holders, the doors that open and sheets that pull off themselves, and the billowing drapes in darkened corridors. The scene of Belle's arrival in the castle is in peak form, as she glides eerily past otherworldly enchantments. It frequently swings from the magical to the frightening, closely aligned to the classic horror films by Universal Studios and European Expressionists. It never reaches their full terror, though, since this is still a fairy tale. A very French fairy tale at that. Exteriors of the Beast's castle were filmed at the Château de la Roche Courbon and Château Raray, highlighting its French character.

Beauty and the Beast is an unsung classic, occupying a place in artistic film of the mid-century where, once discovered, it enshrines itself in the heart as a masterpiece.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Beaumont's Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a very old story type found in cultures around the world. In Switzerland it is The Bear Prince, in Denmark it is Beauty and the Horse, in Japan it is the tale of Monkey Son-in-Law, and in China it is The Fairy Serpent. The oldest known form is the star-crossed love of Cupid and Psyche from the second century AD.

The form in which we have it today was transcribed by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Originally published in French in 1756, the story is one of several told through the framing device of a governess imparting important lessons to her young female wards. This device might even be the truth, as La Belle et la Bête was written while Leprince de Beaumont was working as a governess in London, where she was able to establish a successful writing career, remarried (her first marriage to a wanton and a drunk was annulled), and was thereafter able to retire comfortably in Savoy. Leprince de Baumont's version may itself be a slimmed down revision of a version published by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot, Dame de Villeneuve in 1740, which numbers at over 200 pages. In that version, Belle is the daughter of a king and a good fairy, while the Beast is a victim of a wicked fairy whose advances he spurned. In both versions, the Beast is not a bad character who must learn his lesson. He is a victim, and the lesson to be learned is Belle's.

Like all fairy tales, Beauty and the Beast sustains many possible interpretations. If we take our lead from G.K. Chesterton, then "There is the great lesson of 'Beauty and the Beast'; that a thing must be loved before it is loveable." If we examine the social context presented in the work - Belle's family are the rising merchant class, the Nouveau riche - then we might see a cautionary tale about interactions with inherited aristocracies. If we take Leprince de Baumont's moral at face value, then it is that virtue makes a person truly lovable, not brains or looks.

The following translation derives from The Young Misses Magazine, Containing Dialogues between a Governess and Several Young Ladies of Quality Her Scholars, published in 1783. Illustrations are by Walter Crane from an 1874 edition.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Disney Dream Treats

Disney Dream Treats is a new pay-to-play mobile game from Disney Interactive in which players take a culinary tour of Disney's theme parks. Similar to many puzzle games available for Apple and Android products, this game has players connecting lines of identical snacks. Unlike other puzzle games, this one has the Disney brand and Disney assets behind it. For Disney fans, it makes it a lot more fun when you're in the Plaza Inn, scooping up Dole Whips for Mickey Mouse, and the Fantasmic fanfare plays when you beat the level.

The download itself is free, but they find ways they hope to extort real money. When the game is first downloaded, you are given five hearts that are required to play the levels. You can keep playing for as long as you have hearts. But every time you lose a level by not finishing it in the allotted number of moves, you lose a heart. Once all the hearts are gone, a window pops up offering to let you buy more with in-game tokens that can be purchased with real cash. Since hearts regenerate over time, all running out of them really accomplishes is giving you an excuse to stop playing for a while.

Where they really try to separate the coin from your wallet are the power-ups that become increasingly necessary as levels become increasingly difficult. Different power-ups scramble the board, clear away lines, and so forth. After an initial gift of a few, they become a monetary commodity. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any set algorithm for each successive level becoming more difficult. They throw an increasing number of obstacles in your way (snacks that have to be "unwrapped" before they can be cleared, snacks that have to be "unwrapped" twice, snacks that have to be "unboxed" before they can be "unwrapped" twice, snacks that have to be "unboxed" twice before they can be "unwrapped" twice), with a random assortment of snacks, with a limited number of moves per level. If you are of the disposition to not throw away money on pay-to-play games, this has the potential of getting frustrating.

Another way to spend money is by buying outfits for your avatar. The game allows you to snap a photo of yourself and your friends to use as faces on the avatars you're feeding with all these snacks. Different hats, t-shirts, and so on can be purchased with in-game tokens.

The use of Disney's assets is the both the greatest benefit and greatest weakness of Disney Dream Treats. On the one hand, it is really fun to be visiting the Plaza Inn in Disneyland USA, the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Walt Disney World, and Buzz Lightyear's Pizza Planet in Disneyland Paris to clear away Dole Whips and churros. On the other hand, those are the only places you go, and only identifiable Disney treats you clear.

Levels only alternate between those three aforementioned restaurants, which serve as visual backdrops for the puzzle. It would have been better to rotate between different restaurants in those three resorts, maybe even increasing in stature as the player rises in levels (e.g.: from, say, Jolly Holiday Bakery to Pinocchio's Village Haus to Plaza Inn to Rancho del Zocalo to Cafe Orleans to Blue Bayou in Disneyland, or at least have Toad Hall, Cafe Hyperion, Casey's Corner, Silver Spur Steakhouse, Auberge de Cendrillon, and Walt's - An American Restaurant in Disneyland Paris). The lack of variety is compensated for having different characters host each level: Mickey and Friends for the Plaza Inn, Princesses for Askershus, and Toy Story characters for Pizza Planet.

Most of the snacks are generic things: purple cupcakes, green Key Lime pies, red Mickey donuts, etc. Only Dole Whips and churros stand out as real Disney snacks (unless I missed something because the last thing I would go out of my way to eat at Disneyland is pie or cupcakes). It might have been nice, in a visually rich game that doesn't have to rely on colours, to include turkey legs, Mickey ice cream bars, candy apples, beignets, Mickey waffles, mint juleps, and other distinctly Disney treats.

Despite those missed opportunities, Disney Dream Treats is still a fun little time waster to tide one over between trips to the theme parks. There are enough visual and auditory cues to stir fond feelings. If it is compatible with your device, download it before its shelf-life wears off.


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Hollywood ROOSEVELT Hotel

Looming over the corner of Hollywood Boulevard opposite the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel is an unmistakable influence on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror found in the Disney resorts of Anaheim, Orlando and Paris. Completed in 1927, this Spanish Colonial Revival hotel was financed by some of the luminaries of Hollywood's golden age, including Hollywood's first couple - Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford - and producer Louis B. Mayer. By 1929, it's fame was such that it hosted the first Academy Awards banquet in the Blossom Ballroom on May 16 of that year. Far and away from the modern spectacle, the first ceremony was a more intimate gathering of 270 industry professionals and lasted a whopping 15 minutes. Charlie Chaplin was granted a special award that evening, but the top honours went to Wings for "Outstanding Picture" (now the "Best Picture" category) and Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans for the now-defunct "Unique and Artistic Production."

At a time when hotels would take extended stays of months, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel (named for Theodore Roosevelt) was home and home-away-from-home for such cinematic legends as Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, David Niven, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Al Jolson, Harold Lloyd, Mary Martin, Will Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Marilyn Monroe's first photoshoot was on the diving board of the hotel's pool while she was a resident. It is also said to be home to her ghost and other assorted hauntings.

In the hotel lobby.
The lobby from above. 
Detail of the lobby ceiling. 
A corner of the Public Kitchen and Bar restaurant. 
The Blossom Ballroom, venue of the first Academy Awards.
Entrance to the Blossom Ballroom, just off the lobby. 


Saturday, 10 October 2015

Disneyland Needs Quiet Spaces

Back on September 24th, Disney announced that the construction of the new Star Wars themed section of Disneyland would necessitate the temporary closure of the Disneyland Railroad, Rivers of America, Mark Twain Riverboat, Tom Sawyer Island, and Fantasmic for over a year, and the permanent closure of Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo and Barbeque. The Disneysphere lit up with questions about what, if anything would happen to the established attractions while the towering peaks of some planet from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away rise up. Disney's social media accounts confirmed that the Rivers of America and Disneyland Railroad would have a new route, and websites have fermented rumours that this rerouting will involve a reduction of the Rivers of America by 25% and a shaving down of the publicly-inaccessible north part of Tom Sawyer Island.

The reduction of the Rivers of America doesn't actually bother me as much as one might think, though in a perfect world where Disneyland should be a museum, it would be left inviolate. It may mean the loss of both the Native village and Mike Fink's Cabin, yet one hopes that those can be replaced on another spot along the truncated river. Perhaps I'm finally hitting "peak indifference" when I hear of Disneyland botching up something else, like they did with the renovations of Club 33 and New Orleans Square, or perhaps it really doesn't matter that much. At least the Rivers of America are staying, even if the Mark Twain Riverboat becomes a mere 10-minute ride.

There are two things, though, that legitimately concern me with these plans. The first are the sightlines across Frontierland into Star Wars Land. Little projects like allowing Rapunzel's tower in the Magic Kingdom to be visible from Liberty Square, or dotting the faux-Mississippi with pirate shipwrecks, don't fill me with a whole lot of hope that Imagineers care much about sightlines anymore. However, if they successfully disguise the backside of Star Wars Land and block out views of it by resurrecting Cascade Peak, I would consider that a net benefit. We'll have to see what happens there, and only time will tell.

The second and more pressing concern is the loss of the Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo. What I mean is what the loss of Big Thunder Ranch does and represents about Imagineering's ambivalence to having quiet, secluded spaces.

As I observed in our review of our honeymoon in Walt Disney World, what makes a Disney park appealing and superior to the "competition" is the variegated list of attractions and spaces that provide a layered, well-paced experience. E-tickets are great, but you also need to have A, B, C, and D-ticket attractions, good restaurants, well-themed and visually interesting spaces, and places to sit down that aren't charging you for it. These together make for a nicely rounded and pleasant day.

Couple this with the #1 thing that causes a good day to be ruined: crowds. There is a very deliberate reason why Ashley and I always endeavour to travel anywhere (let alone a Disney park) during the off-season. It is because lines are interminable, and no matter how beautiful and interesting and fun and inspiring a place may be, that experience will always be diminished by a crowd. There was no place on Earth I wanted out of more than the Palace of Versailles.

"Hell is other people." - Jean-Paul Sartre.
Of course there is nothing that a tourist hates more than other tourists. Typically I am critical of the snobbery that says that I am the only person who should want to visit somewhere and everybody else should stay home. Anybody who can pay has the right to visit Disneyland whenever they want. It is not my private playground. But as Disneyland's attendance continues to skyrocket, there is an increased need to manage those crowds effectively so that the experience does not become a victim of its popularity.

Constantly raising prices, while sound from a supply and demand model, is the laziest answer and apparently no solution. The crowds keep coming with every increase in ticket prices. The unending cry of "more rides" isn't the answer either. The "competition" needs more rides to drum up attendance; Disneyland needs to manage record crowds that are already attending. E-tickets that can keep hundreds of guests locked in lines for hours is fine and I am not one to turn down new rides, but that is not the only thing that a crowded park like Disneyland needs. It also needs places to get away from the crowds. This is where Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo comes in.

Ashley is a Highly Sensitive Person, which is not some cheesy, self-diagnosed Internet mental illness, but simply an acknowledgement that she gets easily overstimulated by noise, dynamic visuals, and crowds. I'm not exactly a big fan of crowds either, as I already explained. During our last trip to Disneyland in May of 2012, crowds were already at such a high during what was traditionally part of the off-season that there were several instances where we had to "time out." In Disneyland there were already a limited number of places to do that, the main two being the Court of Angels and Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo. We got to know the animals in Ranch quite well. It really is a hidden gem in a park that has been combed from top to bottom.

Even the goats find Big Thunder Ranch relaxing.
The Court of Angels has already been taken away from use by the average guest. Apparently having quiet spots is a luxury to be reserved for the super-rich and well-connected, not for the plebeian rabble. Carnation Plaza became the Fantasy Faire. The Disney Gallery with its lovely courtyard was punted to the Bank of Main Street to make away for an exclusive apartment, and then punted again to make way for a shop. Now Big Thunder Ranch Petting Zoo is being taken away as well, with the entire Big Thunder Trail area soon to become a major thoroughfare for access to Star Wars Land.

Disneyland is a small park with an understandable need to economize space as much as possible, but those quiet spaces to get away from crowds and to relax are every bit as important to the theme park experience as are those big ticket rides and money-guzzling stores and restaurants. They help to thin out the crowds and provide a break from them, with all the physical and psychological benefits that come with it. They offer the opportunity to recharge in a way that being bombarded with merchandise or animatronics don't. One of the most common words of advice for guests to a Disney park is to leave in the middle of the day and have a nap back at the motel... Quiet spaces in the park let guests have that sense of rest without having to leave, which is more efficient for guests and profitable for the company. These spaces allow for moments of personal reflection and more intimacy with friends, family, and loved ones. It is amazing what even a few minutes on a bench in the shade with proportionally few people around can do to pick your mood back up and energize you for another few hours.

The "courtyard" model of each land makes crafting these spaces difficult - if Adventureland is already a courtyard flanked by the Enchanted Tiki Room to the east, Adventureland Bazaar to the north, Jungle Cruise to the south, and Tarzan's Treehouse to the west, where could you even put a smaller courtyard? Aladdin's Oasis maybe? It would befit the name - but a few still remain. Snow White Grotto is one. Some of the back spaces along the boulevard to It's a Small World and the lagoon can help a bit, though it has Monorails gliding overhead. Even the Rivers of America qualify as a quiet spot, if you can find a nice place on Tom Sawyer Island or the Mark Twain Riverboat to sit still and enjoy it. The island still exists for the time being, as laborious a process as that is to get to and from, but those spaces are dropping and dwindling fast. This is also why I hold out hope for a new Cascade Peak: to maintain the peace and solitude of the River.

In some ways, the dollhouse-like quality of Disneyland in which everything is small and close and crammed together lends a certain charm. That charm is diminished as increasing numbers of people are also crammed in there without relief from one another. I suppose the simplest solution would be the old refrain "if you don't like it don't go," which can be arranged but isn't the ideal situation when we still love Disneyland. We just need places to relax for a little bit throughout the day that aren't a line or a restaurant or in the middle of a thoroughfare. I can't imagine that we're the only ones. The loss of Big Thunder Ranch is a done deal, but for future reference, providing those small, secluded spaces should be as high on Imagineering's list of priorities as the next shop or ride.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Wilderness Lodges of Yellowstone - Part 3

Yellowstone National Park's stunning vistas of mountains, valleys, lakes, and wildlife cover a terrible secret. The park's variety of thermal features and igneous rock layers in turn betray it. Roiling beneath Yellowstone is a magma hotspot; an up-swelling of material from deep within the earth that fuels the park's system of geysers and mineral springs, as well as the 1000-3000 earthquakes that happen there per year. Periodically, this hotspot has become so unruly that it vents itself in a pyroclastic fury of unimaginable scale. In its last major explosion 640,000 years ago, 240 cubic miles of ash and debris were thrown into the atmosphere, falling back to earth as far south as the Mexico border. Its caldera measures 34 miles by 44 miles across.

What exactly causes the Yellowstone Hotspot is unknown, but it has lain beneath North America for approximately 16 million years. As the continent moved through plate tectonic action, a succeeding number of volcanic blasts carved out the Snake River Plain that cuts a swath through southern Idaho, terminating at Yellowstone. Moist air from the Pacific channelled up this valley condenses and collapses on Yellowstone, dumping 150 to 300 inches of snow each winter. Some 2.1 million years ago, the hotspot arrived beneath Yellowstone. That was when the first of four eruptions happened that shaped the park as it stands today. A second and smaller explosion happened just outside the park's modern boundaries about 1.3 million years ago. The third happened 640,000 years ago, with the last minor eruption happening about 174,000 years ago. The caldera of this much smaller eruption was filled in by water from Lake Yellowstone, forming the West Thumb. The shore at West Thumb is dotted with thermal springs and minor geysers that have entertained and entranced generations. In the early days, when such activities were permitted, guests could fish in Yellowstone Lake and then swing their line over to a geyser, drop the fish in, and cook it on the spot.

The "Black Pool."
The shoreline at West Thumb Geyser Basin,
dominated by the "Big Cone" geyser.

"Fishing Cone," where visitors would boil fish on the line.
Springs drain into Yellowstone Lake.

Nowhere is the energy of the Yellowstone Hotspot more apparent than in the famous geyser basins. As that 150-300 inches of snow melts and sinks into the earth, it becomes superheated by the magma beneath. Returning to the surface, it explodes in magnificent geysers, bubbles out hot mineral springs and mudpots, or evaporates out in billowing fumaroles. There are an estimated 10,000 thermal features in Yellowstone, with the world's highest concentration of geysers. More than that, these geysers are nearly half of all the known geysers in the world. The most famous of Yellowstone's geysers is, of course, Old Faithful.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Wilderness Lodges of Yellowstone - Part 2

When stories of a surreal wonderland of geysers and mudpots began to surface, the American public could not believe what they heard. John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, was ostensibly the first white man to see Yellowstone. In mocking tones it was called "Colter's Hell." As more and more mountain men ventured into the area and returned to verify Colter's story, public condescension turned into pubic curiousity. Three expeditions were launched between 1869 and 1871. The first was financed and led by David Folsom. Charles Cook, and William Peterson of Monatana. There was still fear that explorers into Yellowstone wouldn't be taken seriously, so Folsom was reluctant when invited to speak to a group of prominent citizens in Helena, Montana. He eventually did, and that speech along with journals from the expedition inspired Montana's Surveyor-General, Henry Washburn, to mount an expedition of his own in 1871. With funding from Northern Pacific Railroad, expedition member Nathaniel Langford went on a speaking tour that led to the formation of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden was a geologist, and his expedition was a veritable army of botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, photographers, entomologists, statisticians, artists, hunters, and guides, along with an actual military escort. In 1872, the indisputable tract of land called Yellowstone was declared a National Park. For his part, Langford was made the park's first superintendent.

Just south of Roosevelt Lodge is one of the great scenic spots of the park. On Tower Creek just before its confluence with the Yellowstone River, Tower Fall is one of the most popular waterfalls in the park. At 132 feet, it was a picturesque stopover for the Washburn Expedition as they explored the region for several days en route to Lake Yellowstone.

Calcite Spring, near Roosevelt Lodge.
Tower Fall from the upper viewpoint.
The feature is named for the rocky spires
that rise above the water. 
Mount Washburn.
The high-country plains and forests of Yellowstone's north.
Following the path of the Washburn Expedition and past the mountain named in Washburn's honour, visitors arrive at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. At 24 miles long and up to 1200 feet deep, hewn by the Yellowstone River and its two rumbling waterfalls, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has inspired reverence and awe from the moment of its discovery. Charles Cook described the moment he accidentally happened upon it in 1869: "I sat there in amazement, while my companions came up, and after that, it seemed to me that it was five minutes before anyone spoke." The Hayden Geological Survey included the artist Thomas Moran, whose painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone helped promote the creation of the park to the public and the Congress.

Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.