Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Story of Maui - Part 1

Virtually every society has what anthropologists call a "culture hero." These are great heroes, often with fantastic powers, who shape the landscape and culture of the people to whom he (usually its a male) is a hero. In some cases these may be "just-so stories," but more frequently they have embedded within them lessons on proper behavior. In the case of a pure culture hero, these are lessons on how to behave. In cases where the culture hero also acts as a trickster, these can just as easily be lessons in how not to behave.

A prime example of a culture hero is Paul Bunyan. In the Disney cartoon telling his exploits, he becomes responsible for carving out the Dakotas, raising Pike's Peak so he can look out over the landscape, building Yellowstone Falls for a shower, and knocking the Aurora Borealis into the sky. His story also chronicles the transition of the far Western frontier into a civilized, mechanized society. Likewise, Pecos Bill painted the Painted Desert, dug the Rio Grande river, and filled the Gulf of Mexico with rains he lassoed in from California.

The great culture hero of the Polynesian peoples is Maui, who roped the sun and gave his people time.

Illustration of Maui snaring the sun by Arman Manookian, 1927.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Disneyana: Classic Collectibles 1928-1958

Though over a decade old, Disneyana: Classic Collectibles 1928-1958 by Robert Heide and John Gilman is nonetheless an important book for those interested in Disney's early years. The title tells you what you get, and it has been a perfect companion for me in my continued examination of Mickey Mouse's life outside of film (begun with the compilations of the Mickey newspaper strip written and illustrated by Floyd Gottfredson).

Disneyana is not merely a catalogue or price guide to vintage Disney collectibles. Heide and Gilman begin with recounting how interest in vintage Disney collectibles surged around Mickey's 50th birthday, thanks in no small part to the collection of Mel Birnkrant being enshrined as "Mickey Mouse-eum" in a department store in Newark, New Jersey. This exhibition opened people's eyes to the aesthetic, nostalgic, and financial value of clocks, dolls, watches, bisques, and other trinkets from the Thirties and Forties, adorned with the grinning rodent. After this, the book reverts to a look at how Disney merchandising developed, in its social context.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Air-Conditioned Eden

The Air-Conditioned Eden is a 1996 documentary produced by the BBC that touches on all the high points of Tiki culture up to, logically, the time it was made. Unfortunately it cuts off just before the resurgence in Tiki nostalgia in the late-Nineties and early 2000's, helped along by artists like SHAG and events like Disney's restorations and anniversaries of the Enchanted Tiki Room. The Tiki Room is covered in this documentary, as are the American experience in WWII, James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific based on it, Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki Expedition, Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber, the admission of Hawaii into the Union, and Martin Denny's exotic music.

It also attempts to get inside the Tiki mindset and understand what was so appealing about it. This is where I think the documentary is at its weakest. For one, it associates the appeal of Tiki with the repressed sexuality of the Fifties and early Sixties, and then builds an argument that Tiki fell out of favour in the late Sixties once people became less sexually oppressed. To me, this sounds like historical revisionism through the lens of the Sexual Revolution: every revolution attempts to legitimize itself by demonizing the previous generations as being repressed in some way (i.e.: the Enlightenment inventing the myth of the "Dark Ages"). I certainly think there was an aspect of sexuality implicit to hula dancers and anthropological nudity, but I also think the case is overblown if that's seen as the reason for an interest in the "exotic" and not a byproduct. But for all I know, maybe it was. I wasn't there in the Fifties after all, and I'm looking at it through my own lens where the world doesn't revolve around sex.

Another example of its weakness is the undercurrent of contempt that the documentary seems to express for its subject. Perhaps its just the British talking about a phenomenon that is primarily American, but often The Air-Conditioned Eden slips into an attitude of "let's look down our noses at what these silly, tacky, repressed people from a long time ago did." Just beware of that when you watch the documentary.

If we accept the documentary's thesis that Tiki fell out of favour because of sexual liberation in the late Sixties (which I don't, but for the sake of argument), then one might argue that the revival of Tiki culture - as niche as it may be - is a response to the fact that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Now everything is so "liberated" that bar culture (especially) has become too pedestrian: a dull sameness of boring bars full of kids getting drunk on domestic beer and looking for cheap, easily accessible sexual partners. Tiki nostalgia may articulate a desire to inject some fantasy back into the scene, for drinks that take skill to make and satisfy a connoisseur's palate, for something fun and artistic and exotic, as well as something steeped in an historic, mid-century, nostalgic milieu. When Disneyland was opened in 1955, Main Street USA was intended to invoke the nostalgia of grandma and grandpa's stories of childhood at the turn of the century. For a comparable effect, a Disneyland that opened today would want to set Main Street USA in the Fifties. I don't think it's an accident that the recent renovations to the Disneyland Hotel echoed that mid-century time period, and the construction of Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar was an essential part of creating that atmosphere.

Without further ado, I present The Air-Conditioned Eden...

Sunday, 1 February 2015

TRON: Legacy or TRON 2.0?

I don't consider myself any kind of big TRON fan. Sure I have DVDs of the original and TRON: Legacy, and I've seen all of TRON: Uprising, and I recently played the Legacy prequel game TRON: Evolution, which in turn led me around to finally playing TRON 2.0, which I had heard so much about for so long, and I've found where you can play the original TRON and Discs of TRON arcade games online, and I've considered a TRON Halloween costume several times, but I wouldn't consider myself, y'know, a real die hard devotee of the franchise. I appreciate them for what they are, and a disingenuous 30-year-after-the-fact sequel certainly helped me to appreciate what the original film was doing even more. It sluggishly plods along its story, but as an early attempt to develop a Sci-Fi concept about these magical new boxes called "computers" and those crazy "video games" that kids these days are playing, TRON does a pretty good job. Add in religious overtones and about 12 minutes of genuine 1982 vintage CGI, and you have the ingredients of a pretty important film if not an overwhelmingly good one.

Developing a sequel several decades after the original film is a daunting prospect. It only ever achieved cult status to begin with, and the heat had long since gone off of it. Not to mention that someone already made about the best conceptual sequel to TRON that anyone could hope for: The Matrix. Between the two attempts, TRON 2.0 comes off as more legitimate. One gets the sense of the team at Monolith Productions looking for a new concept and turning with high fidelity to a favourite childhood film. TRON: Legacy, on the other hand, comes off like executives at Team Disney sitting around a boardroom and deciding what IP they can dust off for the young male 9 to 34 demographic groups. This really comes out when considering Legacy's weaknesses.