Friday, 6 June 2014

Form and Content in Disneyland

It likely goes without saying that an overabundant love of Disney and its parks are incomprehensible to most people. The majority of us have experiences of being looked at from down someone’s nose as they mutter something about us going to a Disney park (again) or, in my case, proposing to my fiancĂ©e in one. Doubtless many of us are equally familiar with the self-appointed critics who live in a state of utter exasperation that anyone could like a Disney park when there are other amusement parks with newer, larger, and more expensive rides out there.


"Totally Lame."

"That horse isn't even a 3D projection! Way to drop the ball, Disney!"

As incomprehensible and exasperating as our love for Disney may be to them, the inverse is often a more vexing problem to the mouse-eared faithful. What is wrong with these people who don't love Disneyland? Why don't they "get it"? It doesn't help that this “it” that other people don't get is very difficult for Disney fans to explain. More often than not, it devolves into platitudes about Disney's special "magic", how it is the "happiest place on earth" and where "dreams come true"... All the advertising slogans invented by the company marketeers.

It is true that the majority of Western kids cannot make it to their teen years without acquiring at least a passing familiarity with Disney's films and images. Most love it in its various manifestations, whether growing up in the 50's to the Disneyland television show and the Mickey Mouse Club or in the 80's to Ducktales and Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers or in the 2000's to Pirates of the Caribbean and Phineas and Ferb. Growing up - at least prior to the welcome mainstreaming of geek culture - many teenagers shed their childhood interests in a desperate attempt to act as though being cynical and contrarian made them something approximate to adults. Disney becomes lame kid's stuff, Disneyland a nightmare of endless garish horrors that one is forced to endure with their families (who are also, of course, lame). If they have to go to an amusement park, at least let it be somewhere with great roller coasters and no gross princesses.

Eventually they grow out of this phase into actual adulthood, and from there divert into a number of different streams. Some get over their contempt for Disney altogether and embrace it anew. Some trade in Disneyland, which is still considered for kids, for the PG13-rated versions like Las Vegas and all-inclusive resorts in the Bahamas. Some translate their thinking Disneyland is lame into thinking that Disneyland is dangerous, symbolic of all that is evil in American transnational corporate conglomerates. It’s not difficult to find books like Lane Crothers’ Globalization and American Popular Culture, which use Mickey and Minnie as markers for a world brought under the thumb of greed and consumer monoculture... A benign Satan compared to the likes of oil companies and the military-industrial complex. Disney peddles in images, and so its images become easy symbolic targets even if it's a relatively ill fit.

Walt Disney's vision was not without its own and very real faults. With a new awareness of technology and the distance of time and sober consideration, it is easy enough to see where some of Uncle Walt's socio-technological ideas were, in fact, quite dangerous. Consider the kind of centralized authoritarianism and ecological holocaust required to create a highway in which all the cars drove themselves, utilize rockets to change the weather, or build an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow without a single thought given to concepts of due democratic process. It's easy, though, to pick on the undelivered pie-in-the-sky ambitions of a man who passed away 50 years ago, and unless their names are Meryl Streep, most prefer to leave him gently buried.

Instead, a frequently heard refrain is that Disneyland is fake... Its rides are cheap and its food is not. It's a sham, a lie, an illusion masquerading as hyperreality, a dream machine engineered to separate the gullible from their money. It suffers that most dire sin of a pre-postmodern society wrapped up in existential navel-gazing: Disneyland is inauthentic.

This is not a real dragon.

Ironically, authenticity is an inauthentic concept. Almost entirely unique to the socially-collapsing West, authenticity and the quest for it is an extremely fluid, negotiable quantity. As Erik Cohen notes in his insightful essay Authenticity and Commoditization in Tourism,
The vast majority of tourists do not demand such a "total authenticity." Even "experiential" tourists, though seriously concerned with the authenticity of their experience, and entertaining strict criteria for judgments of authenticity, will often focus in such judgments on some traits of the cultural product and ignore others.
He is reacting against one of the most popular narratives of the travel industry: that there is a fundamental qualitative difference between the authentic traveler and inauthentic “mere” tourist. Even the most respected and otherwise insightful thinkers fall into this trap. For instance, Daniel J. Boorstin says "The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes 'sight-seeing.'" Even the mighty Edwardian Catholic apologist and social commentator G.K. Chesterton does, declaring that "The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see."
The ultimate truth is that both are tourists, whether they like it or not. The only difference is in what "traits of the cultural product" they consider critical for authenticity. Cohen asks,
Which are the diacritical traits which, for a given individual, in particular a tourist, make a cultural product acceptable as "authentic"? The question is not whether the individual does or does not "really" have an authentic experience... but rather what endows his experience with authenticity in his own view.
Why the distinction? Because authenticity is necessarily individualistic, as it is rooted in the relative disenfranchisement (or lack thereof) of the individual from the society of which they are a part. It is the Holy Grail of their own search for meaning in the world and in their engagement with alternative cultures. Often, it is negotiated with utter obliviousness to "which traits of their own culture [the tourees themselves] consider to be 'authentic'", which is an issue that "is rarely, if ever raised." Some of the most stringent searchers for authenticity can be the most damaging, arrogantly expecting "traditional" cultures around the world to stay in a kind of anthropological purity as defined by them for their benefit, rather than embrace the practices and products of the "inauthentic" Western world. Consider the forthcoming addition of Avatar to Animal Kingdom and the film upon which it is based, with its narrative of protecting an “authentic,” earthy, exotic culture from the corrupting influence of Western colonial-commercial-military powers… As rendered in 3D CGI to be shown in air-conditioned, plush-upholstered cinemas. Authenticity in the matter of personal experience, then, is subjective. Any attempt to discuss it "objectively" is necessarily going to be inadequate and result in faulty conclusions, a pretension to making one's own subjective criteria of excellence into something more authoritative-sounding than it is or ever can be.

If authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, what is it that people are seeing when they look at Disneyland? I would argue that it is a confusion of form and content. When critics argue against Disneyland on the grounds of authenticity, they essentially argue that the park's content are cheap rides, expensive food, gaudy souvenirs and rampant corporate consumerism while its form are the jungles of Adventureland, the Old West of Frontierland, the fairy land of Fantasyland and the outer space of Tomorrowland. In making this argument, they might as well insist that a novel's content are words printed on bound paper and it's form are the dramas of Captain Nemo and Tom Sawyer, or the content of a human being is water and genetic matter while its form are its thoughts, feelings, spirit, ambitions, actions, relationships and everything that we classically consider to be what makes us humans.

The critic has it completely reversed. The form of Disneyland is the amusement park with its rides and trinkets and screaming children and sunstroked adults. The content, that which can inspire such a love of subject as enjoyed by true believers young and old, is the jungle, the Old West, outer space, fairyland. This is amplified in the Disney park by virtue of the fact that a Disney park does not exist in isolation. In a previous column, I observed that Disney parks are one part of a larger mental landscape created by the entire enterprise of Disney’s various divisions. The visitor grows up with attachments to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Beauty and the Beast, and is engaged by New Fantasyland because it immerses them in that imaginative world. The critic who virulently disdains Disney for creating a “kiddie coaster” is not merely missing the point, but has actively embraced being as completely wrong as they could possibly be. Form serves content. Any ride that calls attention to its form has failed as a themed attraction. The purpose of a theme park attraction is to draw us into the environment it sets about to create, not impress us with its ride mechanics. If it does, that's great, but it should always be incidental.

That said, an actual paddlewheeler is way cool.

The theme park is a wonderful type of experiential media. It's not "new" insofar as people have been manipulating the environment to evoke emotions and inspire imagination since we painted woolly mammoths on cave walls. Ancient Egyptians retold their creation stories as one walked through their temples. Gothic architects drew the eye piously to Heaven by their magnificent arches and buttresses. Exhibit designers lit on something profound when they started designing their museums to replicate the rainforest, log cabin and undersea grotto. Disneyland follows in a long tradition of manipulating our environment to satisfy our imaginations. It exists to envelop the guest in sensations and experiences that might not otherwise be possible, invoking emotions and aspirations at every stage, by using whatever means suitable to achieve that effect. Whether an E-ticket simulator (but since when did simulators deserve the title "E-ticket"?), or a classic dark ride, or a simple walkthrough, the only judge of a theme park attraction's success is its ability to imbue a sense of authenticity in the guest's own view.

New Orleans 100 years ago, or something close enough.

For example, the best non-Disney theme park I have ever visited is the former Bedrock City in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada (definitely not the version in Valle, Arizona, which is ridiculously bad). It was but one of the ubiquitous roadside attractions peppered throughout the interior of the province, and only had five attractions to speak of: a paddleboat canal, a peddlecar course, minigolf, a train (running on tires and an internal combustion engine), and a "Rock-See Theatre" showing old episodes of The Flintstones. What set it apart was its dedication to replicating the aesthetics of the cartoon upon which it was based. It was like stepping into a perfect simulacrum of Fred and Barney's hometown. Every fibreglass building, every dinosaur sculpture, every costumed character, and every concrete mountain looked like it was transmuted directly from television. I grew up with Bedrock City in the Eighties, and it took until my first visit to Disneyland in 2005 to encounter anything that surpassed it for successfully rendering such an environment of the imagination.

As Cohen notes, what projects the air of authenticity for the largest number of tourists is what the great travelers may consider its direct antithesis: verisimilitude, a recreation of "what it must be like" to visit a caveman city or ride a paddlewheel steamer down the Mississippi of a century ago or careen through space in an out-of-control spaceship. There are parts of Disneyland which, it could be argued, the "real life" version would be better. Why take in the sham artifice of Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye when you could fight equally large throngs of tourists at a mutually acknowledged "authentic" temple somewhere in Southeast Asia? Unless the point is to go along with Dr. Jones in that romantic period of the 1930's. The whole premise of my blog implicitly advocates going beyond the park to experience as closely as possible the factual inspirations, be they the words of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault or the landscapes of the American Southwest and African rainforest. The truth is that Disney shines its brightest when it takes the visitor to those places that no longer exist or never did exist in real life. At no point in time or space can one walk into a Hawaiian hut overflowing with singing orchids and chanting tiki statues, tour a decrepit New Orleans plantation teeming with frolicking ghosts, fly a pirate ship over midnight London and celestial Neverland, or sail beneath the waves in a cast-iron Victorian submarine.

All these things can be done at Disneyland, at least through the springboard that the theme park provides for the imagination. Like a novel or a film, Disneyland is the medium which inspires the participant to invest themselves in an imaginative flight of fancy. A fibreglass pirate ship suspended by wire from a rail, hovering over a blacklit miniature model of London is a convincing enough means for the guest to take the next leap in imagining that "this is what it must be like" to fly with the boy who never grew up. This is ever more thrilling for those who grew up with that story and retain those fond attachments to this day. Reading it is one thing, seeing it on film is another, doing it yourself, as closely as is possible in this world, is the best of all.

Perhaps this is what the cynical, contrarian and critical don't quite "get" about the whole thing (and some, of course, don't want to "get" it... the opportunity to harass and offend Disney fans is its own reward). They fundamentally misunderstand the medium of the theme park. Form and content are confused so that one sees contrived artifice and C-ticket carnival rides where one is meant to see an endless ocean of stars, and wish upon them.

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