Saturday, December 29, 2007

Disney's New Spectatorship: The Post-Fantasias

Walt Disney originally wanted to revive Fantasia on a continual roadshow basis, revising the film by adding and subtracting animated segments so that the film could perhaps be an evergreen film attraction, the equivalent of a touring variety show or a music hall all trussed up as High Culture because it was classical music. Amateur Disney psychologists would quickly point out that this was the first appearance of the impulse to revise which led to Disneyland, but for now let's simply consider these films seriously in a historical context.

Historically, Disney commentators have essentially had two reactions to the period from 1943 to 1949: that either these films weren't really worthy of appriasal because obviously Disney was "coasting" by failing to make a feature film story, or that the films were simply "better than expected" (which still implies that they aren't that great). But for a moment let's dismiss these from the context of the lean, wartime years of the studio and do something commentators usually only do for Disney when he makes something they actually like: take him seriously as a creative force. Fantasia was one of Disney's babies and he was crushed when the general public, the only real audience he took seriously, reacted to it with obvious apathy. And although he swore to not repeat the experiment again, everybody has seemingly ignored that he did, in fact, repeat the experiment, but not until after retreating to the environmentalist fable Bambi and the unexpected success of Dumbo. That Dumbo was the only film he didn't oversee personally and that it had been his only true success since Snow White must have been exceedingly damaging to Disney personally, and in some ways, he did retreat.

He retreated to his best idea, the Fantasia omnibus concept, but this time, instead of high culture imported from Europe and Russia, he would give them high entertainment from the home front. In concept and execution Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, Three Caballeros, Melody Time, Fun and Fancy Free and Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad are Fantasia films done in that mode. But there would be changes. Now instead of Stokowski, Bach, and Beethoven, Disney would have The Andrews Sisters, Dennis Day, Bing Crosby and Freddy Martin. Instead of the deadening duration of Fantasia - over two hours - the films would clock in at just over an hour. And the atmosphere and strength of the presentation of Fantasia would be supplanted by a frantic pace and bawdy humor.

These Post-Fantasias are divided up into three pairs of six, with two "Latin America" films which take the form of travelogues, two split-feature films of longer duration shorts, and two true "Post-Fantasias". These two - Melody Time and Make Mine Music - are nearest in concept and execution to Fantasia, with meatier narrative shorts interspersed with shorter abstract pieces, some done in limited animation. There is no effort towards a larger cohesion, and no disguising of the fact that the audience is really just supposed to enjoy the music. The narratives are brief and simple, and rarely reach for a complex set of reactions from the audience. Those that do have become minor classics, while something like Make Mine Music's "Blue Bayou" is best forgotten aside from the fact that it lent it's name to a famous eatery.

The best segments of these were often broken off from the whole and televised or released to video separately: only recently have consumers been allowed to see the whole of The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad, for example, despite the familiarity of that film's two segments to anyone who grew up with a video player or cable. The bittersweet climax of Make Mine Music, "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing At the Met", is recognizable enough to have appeared in the preshow area of the attraction 'Mickey's Philharmagic' to general recognition, and the separate Melody Time segment "Once Upon a Wintertime", with its' Griffith-esque climax on the ice floes, was a staple of the holiday season on the Disney Channel for years.

Both of the films are fairly inadequate; they never build a very good sense of pace or incident, and without the concert framework which anchors Fantasia the pieces play as an hour block of short subject programming, not a satisfactory film. They lack the true sense of setup and payoff, even rudimentary, provided by the other compilation films, and they fail to maintain a consistent and appealing meter. The most frantic segments follow the most sedate, and instead of feeling like appealing variety, all the sense of fun is deflated. This is not to imply that they do not have their moments of true grace; Make Mine Music has the famous "Peter and the Wolf" and the aforementioned Willie the Whale segments. Melody Time goes all this one better by including two real humdingers among all the fluff, two real classics considerably better than the bulk of the material being animated in Glendale at the time.

Blue Shadows on the Trail / Pecos Bill

The main structural technique of Melody Time is that each segment is introduced by the animator's paint brush entering the frame and painting the short into existence (three years before Duck Amuck). Each short, unlike Fantasia, is preceded by a title card with the piece and the performer of the music, and some even have a bookending technique around the narrative. Like Fantasia, there is a narrator who introduces each short. All of this ensures that the audience is aware they are being told a tale, cued by the text introduction of a recognizable "name", subsequentally hearing the (then recognizable) voice of the name, and this is introduced by an omniscient narrator who only exists between shorts but not within them.

"Pecos Bill" is positioned at the very end of the feature and as such its' use of the "famous narrator" gag reaches its' climax in this section, where through Ub Iwerks' effects processes a live action Roy Rogers, his band, an audience and even his horse Trigger are inserted into an animated moonlit prairie. On one hand this may be an effort to accommodate the audiences' desire to see Rogers - the only film star of the bunch - on screen and with his horse, but the placement of his appearance in an animated segment and at the end of the film is a phenomenal climax which is very effective when placed in the whole of the film. The audience is furthermore placed at a remove through the use of at least three bookending techniques; Roy Rogers, displaced famous film star, tells a tale to another audience, which we become, placed as a segment in a larger film, which is introduced to us as such.

Pecos Bill, as told by Rogers, is one of the best paced 23 minutes in Disney's animated output, but its' presentation outside of Melody Time compromises the mastery of the short. The narrator announces at the start of the short that we best "sashay on in" slowly, and what follows is a brilliantly sedate section with all the poetry missing from the bulk of the rest of the film. "Blue Shadows on the Trail", a lengthy segment of an extended pastorale of a western landscape at dusk, is structured essentially like a Silly Symphony, complete with extended use of the Multiplane, animal humor, and the gentle touch of a lullaby soundtrack. We then find Roy Rogers and company out in the west, convincingly throwing "blue shadows" across the watercolor landscape, and a dialouge scene ensues. When Pecos Bill is brought up the dialouge subtly shifts to rhyming verse, which begins an extended buildup to the start of the Pecos Bill number proper.

As the flat verse enters, so to does the element of song, as Rogers' band, the Sons of the Pioneers, increasingly frequently begin to interject with the three primary songs that comprise the Pecos Bill short: Pecos Bill's ballad, Slue Foot Sue's theme, and the love theme. When the animation begins, it is because Rogers draws a map of the United States in the sand, literally the first drawing in the sequence which creates the animation illusion. The authorial hand, established at the start of the short with the animator's brush, is now transferred to Rogers, who will tell the tale and thus grants the film's segue back to animation. As Rogers' animated film continues, so does the meter of the Sons of the Pioneers' verse increase, until, when Pecos is at full maturity, a real song begins. Pecos Bill himself begins the song by riding into his own closeup and, in an annotation of Edwin S. Porter, fires point blank at the audience.

Transferring the Authorial Hand

Pecos Bill was quite a cowboy down in Texas
And the western superman, to say the least
He was the roughest, toughest, critter
Never known to be a quitter
'Cause he never had no fear of man nor beast
So yippie yi-yay, yi-yay, yippie yi-yow
For the toughest critter West of the Alamo

What makes this segment so remarkable is it's relentless pace, aggressive color and constant visual invention. Not content to merley visualize the ballad, Disney animators present a succession of gag which go well beyond the typical Disney"case of the cutes" best exemplified by the Silly Symphonies, ie, the mode of the "Blue Shadows" segment. Now, the humor comes so quickly that Pecos actually establishes his mastery of his Western locale by doing something which never happens in a Disney short - he violates the space of the motion picture film frame, reacting to events in shots which have not yet been projected. In one instance, he reels bandits in from the next shot using a cartoon winch, which forces the screen to wipe as they enter. In another, he shoots the background around him away until he obliterates the shot he's in, signaling the change to the next. The audience is further blocked from embracing the narrative through the animator's constant shifting of the performers of the music in and out of diagetic elements of the frame: a voice heard on the soundtrack may emanate from Bill, his horse, a cow, a bystander, an object, or anything else. It's a simple and simply funny joke, but it frames the entire enterprise as the tallest of tall tales and continues the authorial power given to Rogers. And while Rogers and Company speak for everyone else, Slue Foot Sue and Pecos Bill never speak, and are granted the power Ford assigned to John Wayne in his westerns. After all, they are too legendary to actually be heard.

Pecos Bill: Breaking cinematic space

As the segment reaches its' effective end, so does the film, but not without a reprise of "Blue Shadows". While before, the camera tracked left to right and right to left to find Rogers, now it pulls out into a balanced composition. Rogers' song ends, his tale ends, and the musical progression of the piece folds backwards on itself as "Blue Shadows" carries the audience out of the segment the same way they entered: slowly, somberly. The bookending structures are repeated entering and leaving the piece, creating closure which otherwise doesn't exist in television versions which cut the Roy Rogers segment. Just like the music that inspired it, the short follows the inherent unities of the musical suite, the pleasures it provides, rather than those unities which are primarily dramatic. Pecos enters this world and leaves it as a savage among the coyotes and if we feel bad for him at all it is because of the metrical progression of music and image. Bill remains silent.

The Legend of Johnny Appleseed

The best shorts of the Post-Fantasias are those not encumbered with a complex narrative or a variety of tones; they tell stories simply and quickly, reach their emotional climaxes effectively, and get out the door at the right moment, not required by the traditional three act narrative structure to hang around when they're not wanted.

"Johnny Appleseed' is probably the best thing either Melody Time or Make Mine Music has going for it, because it's disarmingly unpretentious. The best cultural artifacts in the Americana mold have to walk a careful line between becoming self consciously important and remaining innocent, but the Disney animators make it seem like second nature. Americana, in its' oldest and purest form, relies heavily on a larger context whereby the creation of the law, the nobility of the commonwealth and especially the westward expansion are sanctified by God, or a similarly pure cultural figure such as Abraham Lincoln. In general style many of these folk tales are similar to those told in Medieval Europe, where the Devil is constantly being outwitted by the clever blacksmith or tradesperson.

The shorts' innocent atmosphere is furthermore conveyed through the animation backgrounds painted in the style of Mary Blair. Blair intentionally skews the perspective in all the wrong directions and reduces the depth of the paintings to almost nothing; everything is stacked right up on top of one another like a Medieval fresco. The style of the backgrounds, simple and geometric in design but richly textured, recall American folk art. And Dennis Day's boyish, clean cut voice as the voice of all the characters in the short including the narrator lends the appropriate air of a simple American fable. The show hits all the right notes.

Disney's Johnny Appleseed has the unenviable task of juggling this overt, traditional metaphor with the structure of an animated short which must be as direct and light handed as possible, and it unsurprisingly does it with a little song. Although it's a well known trope of Disney's to use a song to introduce a character's motivations (I'm Wishing, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, Once Upon A Dream, etc). Johnny's theme is a whistled, catchy little ditty which is one of Disney's simplest and one of their least labored.

The Lord is good to me
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need

The sun and rain and the apple seed

He's been good to me;

I owe the Lord so much

For everything I see,

I'm certain if it weren't for Him

There'd be no apples on this limb

He's been good to me;

I wake up every day

As happy as can be

Because I know that with His care
My apple trees - they will still be there!

Oh the Lord is good to me!

We hear this memorable little tune only three times in the short, and each time the whistled bridges between the verses catch the ear of the listener in a way the rest of the songs in the short are not designed to do. The other songs in "Johnny Appleseed" are by and large more traditional "folk" music: the march of "Get On The Wagon", the squaredance of the pioneers at the fall festival, and the rapid meter of "There's A Lot of Work To Do" - the song Johnny's angel uses to motivate him to enter the frontier - are more forgettable. They contain the aggressive meter of marches, forward driving, manifest destiny. "The Lord Is Good to Me" is less a hymn and more a song in the mold of "Whistle While You Work" - a small personal expression by a small man with a big story.

The second time we hear "The Lord Is Good To Me", it is just after Johnny has established his harmony with nature (by extension, God). He heads off into the wilderness whistling his little ditty, but before we can fully enjoy it again he's vanished from sight and the whistling becomes haunting and distant. In auditory terms, we are losing Johnny as he passes into history, and each time we see Johnny henceforth he will have aged significantly, although it is the young man from the opening scenes we still think of. The third reprise of "The Lord Is Good To Me" is by a heavenly chorus after his death, when he leaves to plant the apple blossoms in the beyond we see as clouds from earth:

And someday there'll be apples there
For everyone in the world to share;
The Lord is good to me!

It's the last moment in the short and, backed by beautiful images where the orchard of his place of death becomes billowing clouds and sunbeams, it's very moving. But the effect has been achieved through establishing a likeable song and character, delaying the return of the song, and finally bringing it back as an ethereal echo. The Lord is good to me, indeed. Yet we never once are required to subscribe to Johnny's beliefs: the short is the only one in Melody Time to begin with a book opening and as such has, when combined with Dennis Day's bright youthful vocals, the character of a national fable. As in Benet's The Devil and Daniel Webster, the religious theme is fairly submerged in the patriotic theme, and they keep each other in check, allowing a degree of universality to enter.

What Disney has actually accomplished here is one of the hardest things a tale about a national character has to succeed in: the passing into history. We get to know Johnny directly and his faith and hope is so carefully judged and presented with such beautiful rural simplicity it's impossible to doubt. His little song does all the legwork of the short and the rest of the piece bides its' time cashing in on what the musical piece accomplishes as Johnny's good deeds pay off. Consider the other viable route open to storytellers: Johnny is immediately established as an major character who will accomplish great things. Far more engaging is the minor character who does accomplish great things. It's the myth of America.

"The Legend of Johnny Appleseed", then, is one of Disney's most potent original-source mythologies: the studio head, the most quintessentially American man of his century along with Will Rogers, who so often would earmark Europe's cultural tales for his own expressions, created remarkably few masterpieces about America. Lady and the Tramp for sure, perhaps Summer Magic. Definitely The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. And definitely The Legend of Johnny Appleseed, the light half to that dark tale of American ambition penned by Washington Irving.


Next week: Saludos Amigos

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Disney's New Spectatorship: Introduction

A good (or at least traditional) starting place when approaching the Disney animated feature films is to begin by classifying the different periods. After all, isn't it easier to compare the relative triumphs of different films if they're all nicely sorted into little bundles? The problem is that, especially when Walt was really monitoring the animation output of the studio, this isn't so easy. The pair of Snow White and Pinocchio are aesthetically matched through the watercolor designs of Gustaf Tenggren and their modernistic adaptations of European mythical antiquity. Cinderella through Lady and the Tramp could be called "reclaiming lost ground", moving into an increasingly realistic, pared down aesthetic. Then we enter the Wolfgang Reitherman / XEROX period from 101 Dalmatians through The Rescuers, etc.

These are rarely clean breaks, with the highly stylized and effective Sleeping Beauty perched right between the stylistically quite inert early 50's period and the increasingly lazy XEROX period. Then, of course, there is Fantasia, belonging more to the 1943 - 1949 "Compilation Period" but separated from that chunk of Disney history by the quite aesthetically diverse Dumbo and Bambi.

I don't claim to be an expert on those films or much of the animation output by Disney, but one period does strike my fancy: the 1943 - 1946 Compilation Period, comprising two compact miniature movements: the Latin America films and the Post-Fantasias. There are also two double feature films, Fun and Fancy Free and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, each comprising two 30-odd minute short films. These films are remarkable for doing all that Disney wouldn't allow his animation department to do following Snow White: being manic, chaotic, aesthetically innovative, sexual, vibrant and sometimes really really funny. I'll take a dozen Saludos Amigos over any one Peter Pan.

What makes these films so remarkable is that they don't shy away from being cartoons: while Disney was intentionally trying to hedge animation away from the thing it's best at (not representing reality) into an area more like moving fine art, receipts just weren't paying off and eventually, the studio was about to collapse after numerous debacles like Fantasia. Then the military took over the studio and, seemingly while Walt Disney was off somewhere worrying about strikes and such, what was left of the animation department quietly began to turn out some really unusual material.

What is amazing about these films is that they use animation is a very aggressive way to inform even the traditional cutting continuity of the Hollywood style they're based on. Animation has always been perched on a strange precipice, where things are obviously phony but always reaching towards realism; it is the current conundrum of CGI animation today. The people who best exploited the "fake realism" animation offers was the Fleisher Brothers Studios. When they rotoscoped over Cab Calloway for their brilliant short Minnie the Moocher, they first showed you a long unedited take of Cab and his band performing the song before the cartoon even started, forcing you to recognize that when Cab Calloway appears in the cartoon later as a ghost walrus, that his movements have indeed been traced over, and that he is furthermore not a character in the diagesis of the story but just Cab Calloway as a ghost walrus.

In another Fleisher short, I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You, performed by Louis Armstrong, the Armstrong band is established playing at the start of the short as in Minnie the Moocher, but are later revealed to be playing behind the movie screen in the theater when the on-screen cartoon disrupts the screen and it rolls up like a windowshade.

These kinds of very aggressive filmic choices, along with those made in the Disney package films and in a certain limited number of live action films, create a new kind of spectatorship. No longer is the illusion of a world existing on screen maintained, but repeatedly and aggressively we are exposed to stylistic and conceptual intrusions which alienate the viewer from the film in a way which forces them to accept the film as not a narrative, but a series of choices performed by a conscious craftsperson for their benefit.

The stylistic mode of Hollywood which evolved more or less accidentally is no more intrinsically valid than any other cinematic mode of representation; it's just the one whose compositions, patterns, and basic structures took power and held power. Much like any other language, literal or figurative, viewers are exposed to one way of doing or saying things until only that mode is truly comprehensible. In film studies we thus call the Hollywood-Griffith-Porter school of cutting continuity the Institutionalized Mode of Representation. Filmmaker Peter Watkins, who brilliantly used the style of news reports and news reels to fictionalize the nuclear attack on Great Britain in The War Game, takes the phrase one step further and calls in the "IMR" the Monoform, to make transparent the stifling artistic sameness of much of our modern media.

Although it's pretty hard to make the converse argument that the Disney films (or any film created with mass appeal in mind) are honestly, diametrically opposed avant-garde experiences, I think a middle ground does exist, where the viewer is allowed the narrative-style pleasure experience as well as a conscious artist, "New Spectatorship" kind of experience. Micheal Powell, who directed some of the best of the authentically artistic narrative films, called this the "Composed Film", specifically referring to his aesthetically dazzling The Tales of Hoffman, which does everything you can do in films in one two hour film opera. This idea of the "Composed Film", of a film where the audience is made aware of choices made by a filmmaker through very brauvera movements and moments, might be identified as the alternative to the "Imposed Film" - the Hollywood style where all distractions are minimized.

Moreover, if we subscribe to this idea of a composed film we can drag in a surprisingly diverse number of sources - Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein, F. W. Murnau, Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter, Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and countless others have sought this "Composed Film" aesthetic to very different ends throughout film history. Many have expressed their admiration for the efforts of Walt Disney, maker of the most extreme "Composed Films" in history, where every moment must, by definition, be a choice. This legacy is apparent from Reinhardt's Midsummer being a conceptual predecessor to Fantasia and through to Powell and Pressburger's Hoffman being a clear continuation of its' ideas.

This "Composed Film" is most acceptable to a mainstream movie audience in small doses, mainly short films where such ideas can be expressed in moments of singularity. And the Disney package film are composed entirely of short films, usually focused on a singularity of purpose. Rather than being based on question of narrative resolution, they are structured on things like color, meter, music, or rhythm. The narrative is usually of little importance and is, in fact, something of a non-diagetic component in the larger film.


Next Week: Melody Time

Friday, December 14, 2007

Disneyland on DVD

A few years ago I wandered into the Virgin Megastore in Orlando (OK, OK, actually Downtown Disney) and saw something I thought I'd never see: a used, almost mint copy of the Walt Disney Treasures tin Disneyland, USA. I totally missed the boat on this in 2001 and hadn't thought much of it, but here it was for $17 and oh yes it was mine! I was so excited I immediately bought David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, then plunked down $8 and saw The Haunted Mansion on the big screen. This succession of events was sufficiently ridiculous to be lumped together that I'll probably never forget them.

A Day in My Life: November 2003

Then, in mid 2004 and late 2004, the utterly essential Wave Three and Four of the Treasures was released, and I fell in love. Over the next few months I began collecting all the Treasures I was interested in (I'm still missing Behind The Scenes at the Walt Disney Studios, but it's one of the cheapest ones available on the second market despite the fact that The Reluctant Dragon is capital A Awesome), and I find them to be quite an invaluable line of releases.

In 2005, one of my most anticipated DVDs was to be Disneyland: Secrets, Stories, and Magic. It was to be released in July 2005, and I drove to Downtown Disney at 9 in the morning to be the first in Once Upon A Toy to buy it. They didn't get it. After spending a few hours wandering around in frustration, I returned home and finally discovered that it had been delayed - until the end of the 50th celebration. OK, I can wait. Then it was never announced. And then, in 2006, the silly looking Walt Disney Legacy Series was announced, and everyone knew the writing on the wall: Disney Treasures was effectively dead. This was confirmed when Destino, Oswald the Rabbit, and the much neglected Disneyland: Secrets and Stories was announced to be in Wave 2 of the WD Legacy Series.

Then, suddenly, the effing LEGACY SERIES was cancelled, probably due to poor sales of the True Life Adventure films (the DVD cases looked silly and confusing, is my big theory), and nobody knew what to do. Wave Seven of Walt Disney Treasures was actually announced, and they weren't fooling me when Disneyland: Secrets and Stories was included. I knew they couldn't possibly actually be releasing this. I even thought for a moment about not buying it out of spite until they announced that People and Places: Disneyland USA would be included, and I went apoplectic.

If you've never seen People and Places: Disneyland USA... well, by now everyone can, but I've been watching a bad bootleg of it for years, split into two AVI files, and furthermore significantly different than the theatrical version included here. The version I've been watching was shorn of at least ten minutes of material but they did, strangely enough, revise the Jungle Cruise segment so it included a strange man with a megaphone and a more complete trip on the 1956 ride. I think this was done for a television airing. Regardless I thought it was an amazing little film until I found out it was originally filmed in Cinemascope and, well, I went bonkers.

Now in it's proper aspect ratio and nicely restored and on those little shiny discs which have been my financial ruination since 1998, watching it is like eating a million Vanilla-Pineapple Dole Whips all at once. It's that good. I still haven't watched the feature documentary, but I paid my $25 for this and this only. Imagine my shock when other really great stuff was also included!

Thanks to most of the stuff on the second disc not being mentioned in the press release, this two disc set has been bumped from pretty awesome to absolutely essential. If you HAVE to get only three Walt Disney Treasures discs, it's this one, Walt Disney on the Front Lines, and The Complete Goofy. Now I can ditch my bootleg copies of Disney Goes to the World's Fair, The Golden Horseshoe Revue, and Disneyland Around the Seasons which I never really liked but which I'm not about to turn my nose up at having.. !

But the thing that really knocked me for a loop is an (again unannounced) 30 minute feed of time-lapse photography of the construction of Disneyland, hidden away in the Bonus Features menu, with pleasant commentary by Tony Baxter (master of rocks) and friends. This footage is amazing, and even more astonishingly, was discovered in a Pennsylvania salt mine! I don't know if that beats The Passion of Joan of Arc being discovered under a rag in a Norwegian insane asylum, but it's close.

Please regularly check between the walls of your house for undetected prints of
Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons.

Back in 2003 when I finally pried open Disneyland USA I was disappointed at how lax the DVD set really was. Disneyland After Dark was edited, the pictorial quality of the discs was so-so, and there was nothing except those Disneyland episodes. Well Disneyland: Secrets and Stories is exactly what I wanted Disneyland, USA to be. Please immediately improve your weekend and go buy it now. If these sell out it means the good cause of the Treasures Tins could continue yet another year.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Visual Structure in New Orleans Square

Whenever close analysis is attempted of themed environments on any scale, the question ultimately arises as to what constitutes a “success” or “failure” on that level. Although it is often difficult to “read” the overall intentions of an area, it is undeniable that certain areas invite and excite a sensation of satisfaction and suspended disbelief more successfully than others do: nobody will contest, for example, that Disneyland’s 1983 Fantasyland is more inviting and appealing than The Magic Kingdom’s 1971 Fantasyland.

I have come to the conclusion that much of the overall appeal of these successful spaces can be loosely and poorly described as a “stratifying” effect on the viewer’s perception of the thematic space. This is not so abstract as it sounds: where one feels that, for example, an exceptional themed environment like The Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland could potentially go on forever, a less successful area feels more limited in scope. So while Disneyland’s Frontierland terminates rather anticlimactically in the Rivers of America, one feels they could walk on into the wilderness and keep walking forever in the current incarnation of the Magic Kingdom version of that same area. All those beltways of roads and railroad tracks just out of sight beyond the berm seem to melt away.

The Triumph of Romance

The most successful themed environment ever constructed for a Disney park is also one of the smallest. New Orleans Square is the last themed environment to feature the direct guiding hand of Walt Disney himself; it is also unmatched in the American parks for beauty, elegance, atmosphere, and that intangible element of stratification.

If these successful “lands” immediately establish a kind of visual grammar that the spectator will apply to his or her exploration of the area, then New Orleans Square takes ample advantage of its limited space by presenting most of itself to the attentive viewer at a single glance: a tall stack of ornate structures comprising two full city blocks jutting out of a curving backdrop of similar buildings; a shaded park with a railroad station, and a plantation Mansion. It can be photographed in its entirety from its northward boundary to its’ southward boundary from Tom Sawyer’s Island.

Although not part of the original designs, this “visual grammar” is immediately apparent from your first impression of the square no matter from which angle you approach it; it is defined by the “Pirates courtyard” dug in the late 1980’s to alleviate traffic congestion. This beautiful succession of curving lines presents an arc of bridge that allows you to travel level with the ground, passages under to the recessed courtyard beyond, and two great swooping lines up to the Disney Gallery above the attraction. This architectural flurry of lines says definitively that in this area, you will travel both above and below the surface of the earth. While these five curving lines add visual interest, they effectively intensify the verticality of the Square: situated higher than the other Disneyland areas, with more levels, it begins to resemble a very tall sandwich.

New Orleans Square is also unique in that it situates its’ high volume pedestrian area as far away from the bulk of the area as possible: one may pass by the Square without actually passing through it, and this is a uniquely high amount of waterfront footage. So, in order to experience the charm of New Orleans you have to enter and go exploring.

Essentially composed of six large structures, once inside the Square itself nothing seems to exactly parallel any other building: the casual wanderer loses her bearings on where each building rests in relation to the other. Addtionally, the pedestrian walkways commonly narrow down to their slimmest possible space while still being able to cram 40,000 people through a day: the overall effect is of an exploration rather than a quick jaunt on the way to Splash Mountain. The effect is aided by a remarkable succession of eateries and shops; even Main Street USA pales in comparison to the staggering variety and quality of the commercialism per square foot on display here.

Smaller touches add to the overall effect that this area multiplies in layers into infinity: two beautifully dressed tiny courtyards do not give the effect of being mere transitional spaces between shops, but beautiful discoveries exclusive to the tourist that finds them. Each and every space encountered is richly dressed – although the One of a Kind Shop has been gone for many years, there still seems to be a staggering amount of real antiquity on display here. From upper windows recorded vignettes are played out to the attentive listener as the auditory backdrop to thematic arrangements of props along these upper balconies: the lady with the bird, the voodoo lady, and the artist painting the river have become characters as recognizable to Disneyland fans as signifiers of this area as the Ghost Host or the pirate auctioneer.

Notice how the steps have not been covered up on their underside; visually

clarifying the architecture as well as making the tableau look more visually complex than it really is.

This stratifying effect is useless without attractions to anchor it, but New Orleans Square has the two greatest themed attractions ever conceived as its’ anchor. It is important to consider just how well The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean fit into the area: the astonishing pedestrian space is, after all, a very complex way of hiding these two huge attraction show buildings from the public.

The Square grows in richness once you add Pirates and Mansion to your understanding of the vertical space created by the area: just below the feet of the pedestrians, boats are flowing through a windswept grotto full of decaying pirates. The effect is enhanced by the fact that these scenes are actually under the area, and once one calculates that she can not only go up three full levels, but also down another five, does the full scope of the area become clear.


New Orleans Square is fueled by a strange sort of romanticism. Although clearly influenced by the “romance of the magnolia”, Disney redefines this essential American myth into new territory by introducing into it a dreamlike sense of magical forces at work, many of them sinister. Once inside Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion, day fades away to night and visitors are drawn deeper and deeper into dark labyrinth-like spaces by omnipresent forces and often against their will. Guests essentially find a particularly dank and forgotten portion of the bayou and are sent down a waterfall by a ghoulish living Jolly Roger in Pirates of the Caribbean, only to subsequently stumble on a horde of cursed treasure that sends them back in time. The Haunted Mansion’s Ghost Host lures you into a windowless, door less room and offers you suicide as a means of escape. Both attractions are frontloaded with death imagery both grotesque and comic: the pirates are out of view until we come upon only their dilapidated remains, having met an unpleasant end in pursuit of riches. The Haunted Mansion’s door-less chamber is essentially a catalogue of potential fates for the unwary visitor… funny but unsettling, because there is actually no escape in sight.

These two attractions orbit each other in maddening circles both intentional and unintentional. The Haunted Mansion is overloaded with seafaring visuals: a sailing ship weathervane, a captain’s spyglass pointed back towards Pirates on an upper level of the façade, the ghost schooner portrait hanging in the portrait gallery. The way Marc Davis painted a portrait of a young lady hanging in the hideout of the pirates in the first half of Pirates of the Caribbean recalls a piece finished long ago for the Haunted Mansion of a woman becoming a stone medusa. Popular Disneyland legend pegs this medusa lady as being a Voodoo queen who really did live in New Orleans in the first part of the twentieth century; and the Voodoo lady’s balcony in New Orleans Square is situated halfway between Pirates and Mansion. And, of course, it takes a certain kind of creative genius to fill an attraction about pirates with so much nautical mystery and superstition.

The arch is redefined by New Orleans Square into a central motif: a signifier both of very ancient design and of transitional spaces. The experiences of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion can be basically refined to incessant movement through a succession of arches, always towards apparent increasing danger. . One moves both towards and away from danger through multiple arches at the very start and end of Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion’s rooms are mostly divided by Victorian arches.

The arch, especially in the context of the Old South, is a signifier of death: tombstones and crypt doors are defined by arches. Even outside the attractions, reminders of the staggering amount of death imagery found in the area is constant, from the ghoulish chants of the Voo-Doo Lady high above, near the train station, to a tiny and unmarked crypt along the shoreline of the Rivers of America. It is small and uncommented upon.

The keystone for Disneyland’s conception of the Old South is the Blue Bayou, and it is the true heart of the area: so important that it is essentially considered its’ own attraction that guests pass through on their way to Pirates of the Caribbean. Of Disney’s “indoor-outdoor” spaces, it is the most perfect. Constructed not as a block, as later attempts will be, but a pure wide open panorama which must be viewed through a thick cluster of (mostly fake) vegetation, the area is built not for the boats traveling through it but for the nearby inside eatery that looks into it. No matter what the noise level, the bayou always seems calm and serene. It starts Pirates of the Caribbean out not on a bang, but on a moody lament.

Out of this mire of conflicting ideas of high culture, vulgarity, hidden demons, and moonlit romance emerges the premiere themed area of Disneyland. The net effect is that it’s simply impossible to see and do everything New Orleans Square has to offer. The more details one percieves, the further back the intangible formula for success retreats. But perhaps, ultimately, it’s simply because Walt Disney had more ideas for the area than it could possibly contain. Every space has his personal signature of quality of it, needed or not: from his private apartment overlooking the Rivers of America to his personally purchased, antique, utterly inoperable espresso machine in Café Orleans. Of the four chief architects of the area – character designer Marc Davis, show scene and layout men Claude Coates and Herbert Ryman, and master dreamer Walt Disney – it is Disney’s overreaching goals that succeed above all. New Orleans Square is too much for one bend in the river, but, taken as a unit, it is a high water mark of what theme design can do.


I wrote this piece three years ago now; back when I was trying to write my book all in a go and now, looking back, I realized that had I actually finished it, it would've been a more appreciation-based effort than the analysis I'm trying to do here now. It also would've been the most florid trash; I've cut half of my overladen romantic prose out of this and it still embarrasses me. But it was the first time I started naming things that places do, which is worth sharing.

Appreciation and analysis needn't be two unrelated approaches, but I find that much of the Disney online community stops dead at appreciation and never goes over into real analysis. Which is fine, because saying "X exists" is two thirds of "X exists because", and is still significant. I say: don't tell us that something's there, tell us why it's there. Then we'll start cracking the old chestnuts and getting somewhere.

Anyway I hoped you liked it. I'm getting burned out on talking about the parks so expect some filmic analysis post here through December.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

EPCOT's Modern Aesthetic

In the past few years a lot of (choose one: blood/tears/ink/spite) has been spilled over EPCOT, and seemingly also, strangely, recently rapidly receded. As if to coincide with the 25th anniversary of only a few weeks ago now, in preparation for the event the Disney fan community collectively reared up on their hind legs, their dignity affronted, and then........ Disney suddenly demolished the much hated wand and played vintage music out in front of the park for a day. And suddenly all the tension has dissipated.

Although the removal of the wand is a huge first step towards admitting that there is a problem, EPCOT is still in the midst of a massive, crippling identity crisis. The past few administrative regimes have allowed laziness, cheapness, and - worst of all for the last gasp of real optimism about our futures in the 20th Century - post modern sarcasm to enter the EPCOT realm. Yet strangely all does seem to be good in Prototype Land as of this writing, and it is strange to reflect that the last serious bit of writing about The Place With The Big Golf Ball posted on this blog was made in March while we were still under the shadow of The Big Wand and on disaster watch for El Rio del Tiempo's successor. Well now the wand is gone but the relief of El Rio del Tiempo's awkwardly named successor not being a disaster has been heavily negated by an honest to god tragically awful new Canada circlevision film. A new head of EPCOT has been named, a museum has opened, and Disney has sold us an old-fashioned EPCOT T-shirt for twenty bucks.

I say that now, before Spaceship Earth reopens as something possibly very different in March, while we're still feeling all warm and happy about the 25th, while the godawful wand no longer casts a long shadow over Communicore Center, and while the two best things about EPCOT - Food and Wine and Holidays Around the World - are in full swing... now, now is the time to begin to probe the question as to exactly what the hell EPCOT thinks she's up to.

I wrote a very basic examination of EPCOT's aesthetic history back in January, and this is what I said about EPCOT's modern sensibilities:
What WDI is actually doing is slowly recasting the EPCOT aesthetic in a new mold which seeks to reduce the monolithic lines, huge open spaces and serious atmosphere of contemplation and exploration. Everywhere kinetic devices and colorful distractions whirl and turn and loom and dance and play music in an effort to stimulate the pleasure center synapses, not the intellectual response the buildings are actually designed to evoke. Even the classy exterior of Paul Pressler’s Mission: SPACE pavilion is more intended to evoke excitement and use up extra digital camera space than the more abstract horizon-line / gemstone of Horizons, which it replaced. It may integrate with EPCOT aesthetically but, like The Living Seas and Wonders of Life before it, Mission: SPACE doesn’t know what it’s doing here in this strange park full of so much serious information.
Let us, then, use this as a blueprint for attacking the Future World side of the equation.

EPCOT sure has a lot of clutter strewn across her landscape these days: although the wand is gone, everywhere tiny things like water play areas, purple hot dog carts, neon, and weird netted canopies are flying this way and that. The Living Seas, which once had the most memorable entrance sign because of the waves crashing over it, a subtle but cool enhancement, is now strewn with those obnoxious birds from Finding Nemo. Areas which were once uninterrupted rolling hills of green and flowers have now had coffee carts plopped down in front of them. Useful but ugly big LED signs have sprung up all across Future World telling you not only wait time information, but things like the time and the weather that we're used to seeing on scrolling signs outside drug stores.

It's not all bad and recently there has been in effort in the Communicore Central to reduce the amount of stuff that's there to pester you, but ill-fitting carts and diversions and whirlygigs still fill this area. In "An Aesthetic history of EPCOT" I spoke of how EPCOT totally eschews traditional modes of the theme park space, and I think the problem is that the People In Charge still haven't figured out that EPCOT, unlike Magic Kingdom, does not benefit from little pockets of activity you can stumble across. EPCOT's aesthetic is built right into her very buildings and walkways, and that is sleek, uncluttered lines and open spaces. You can't cover these up and the result of trying is to make these original design choices more, not less obvious to the casual observer. The act of having to look past the twirling whirlygig to see the bold primary shapes of Communicore just accents the disjunction.

But let's take this seriously for a moment and say that the honest intent of these is distraction. This appears to be another effort to make EPCOT more like the Disneyland model: Magic Kingdom, where you can look anywhere and see something subtle and interesting, as on Main Street, relies on the methods of Stratification, where details pile up, one on top of the other, and recede apparently endlessly backwards into space, suggesting things which are not there. EPCOT Center is all surface: the details of the buildings scaled back until there are nothing but bold simple shapes which interest the viewer the way the intersecting lines of, say, Escher do. It is modernism, and I've called it Presentationalism before: here it is, it's all out in the open, this isn't detail, this is important. This is pure input.

Stratification or Presentationalism. Oops, I think I've just named the two existent kinds of themed design...!

EPCOT's Future World requires much more work to be a Stratification kind of park, it needs a lot more detail, many more structures, less open space, but it's what is being done and undone, so now we know it by a name.

Color & Harmony

Above is a chart of EPCOT's main color patterns in three attractions of 1982 and 2007. What's important to remember about EPCOT is that Future World's main colors were silver and blue with accents of red; in 1982 Future World was a veritable concrete garden of white and blue and the dull green of florescent. Inside, blue and muted red carpets paved a path to better futures through Communicore and Universe of Energy and elsewhere; although many have argued about the merits of EPCOT Center's dual-park design, Future World is the best aesthetically integrated park ever built. Looking at the 1982 color tones above, it becomes clear just how muted everything was.

Compare those sets to the 2007 sets to their right. If colors have been retained, they've been made bright and loud and attention hogging. Other colors have been added to downplay a "sterile" impression, generically warm colors like yellow and orange in stark contrast to the dynamic, uncompromised bright red which used to adorn Universe of Energy, World of Motion, EPCOT Energy Exchange, and others.

The most prevalent color which has been introduced to Future World (and it's everywhere, from those Communicore Central awnings to stanchion poles) is purple, with bright orange a short step behind. Purple is traditionally associated with royalty, but also with uncertainty and madness, neither of which have much of anything to do with EPCOT. It could be an extension of the popularity of Figment, but I doubt it: probably intended more to harmonize with the current and most famous lighting scheme of Spaceship Earth, it misses the point totally. White and blue are the colors of the sky; purple and orange are colors of whimsy. EPCOT Center looked to the sky.


The other major color to have infected EPCOT lately is black. It's more due to the dissemination of the concept that modernism can be represented in themed design through minimalism throughout WDI than anything else: all through Future World now there's big cavernous black spaces through once moved audio-animatronics, elaborate sets, and Presentationalist tableaus which better represented modernism than any amount of darkness.

When I refer to Modernism we must remember that Modernism is not a movement which is producing much work today; confusion of "modern" and "current" is prevalent both inside of and outside of Disney. Modernism is a concept evolving as a rejection of Romantic values which rose heavily out of the work of Freud. Modernist art eventually mutated into things like Cubism and Pop-Art. Therefor, all things which are contemporary are not Modernistic (although, ironically, The Contemporary at Walt Disney World is Modernistic!). On the contrary, the prevalent cultural "ism" today is Postmodernism, buoyed by such self aware populist works as Star Wars.

Although Minimalism is indeed a concept found in Modernism, it is not a concept which is productive in a theme environment (I talked about this in The Haunted Mansion in regards to Claude Coates). Nor is Postmodernism useful; witness California Adventure. But Minimalist Postmodernism flourishes throughout EPCOT today, an unhealthy combination of the two least conducive forms in theme design. While the outsides of EPCOT structures are covered with gaudy excesses of stuff, the insides are stripped away. There is no harmony anymore - in theory, content, color, design or even between the insides and outsides of attractions.

Yet there are ideas at work here, just not the ideas the park opened with. Through color, through clutter, through (not entirely intentional) disharmony, Disney wants EPCOT to be a pleasure center, full of eye popping colors and spinning devices, places to get espresso (a contemporary sign of sophistication), and do interesting things like go into "space". It's more of a shopping mall with rides than anything. Which is ironic, because as shopping malls become more like theme parks and theme parks become more like shopping malls, a line must be drawn. Some malls around Central Florida are calling themselves "Town Centers", fully manufactured commercial downtowns plopped down in the middle of nowhere, or are billing themselves as 'culture centers" and get the local newspaper to write up little blurbs on famous citizens and put them on bronze plaques around the shopping plaza and throw lots of public art up everywhere.

I think "culture center" is a fair assessment of EPCOT, certainly more fair than any billion dollar commerce zone. It is, however, different than the original meaning of the term, and it is different than "learning center", which is what EPCOT was originally more like.

Which is ironic, because originally Future World was more like the theme park, with bad restaurants and good rides and generic stores, and World Showcase was your upscale mall with great food and great shops - EPCOT Center was the total package, your day of fun and your shopping spree and dinner out afterwards rolled into one.

But World Showcase has been changed the least of the EPCOT package, so therein must be a key, right? I posit that it's worth considering here that Future World's roughest spot was 1994 - 1998, when we saw:
- The Land refurbished to a new color scheme, Symbiosis replaced, Kitchen Kabaret gutted
- Communicore disbanded
- World of Motion closed
- Horizons put on seasonal status
- Universe of Energy, Spaceship Earth refurbished into significantly different shows
- Journey Into Imagination closed
I sometimes call this period, not fully jokingly, EPCOT Center Apocalypse (A Go-Go). Yet the best and most profitable thing EPCOT has going for it today, The Food & Wine Festival, opened smack dab in the middle of this otherwise dreary period, in 1995. This suggests that there has been a concerted effort to make EPCOT... what's that word I just pinpointed? Ah yes. Sophisticated.

After all, Post-Modernism's bubble hasn't burst yet (nay, we're right in the middle of its' hump), so things Post-Modern are seen as sophisticated. And so is having an appreciation of good food and spirits, coffee, and other things EPCOT offers you in abundance. If so, is it possible that EPCOT is attempting to carve out it's own kind of Neo Future Sophistication? It's a long shot from RCA's Home of Future Living, but it's there.

So the question remains: is it working? Certainly, eating sushi while waltzing through a big flashy shopping mall of the future is kind of what people think is sophisticated, if the retailers and clientèle of the big soulless Mall at Millenia just up I-4 is any indication. Is it lasting? I'm not sure. Will it last us longer than Modernism lasted EPCOT, opened in the last possible moment before Post-Modernism arrived and sucked all the wonder out of our life? Perhaps... but in the future, we can probably expect a lot more of wining and dining out of EPCOT and a lot less of the attractions which made her famous.

Friday, November 23, 2007

For Further Study, #1

Hello! Welcome to a new feature here at Passport since I decided I didn't have nearly enough silly categorizations for topics like Park Mysteries, Vanishing Walt Disney World, Adventures in Master Planning, etc. So here's another one and this time I'll be exploring books, media, music, or whatever it is that doesn't directly relate to Disney but is useful/essential to understanding Disney product.

It is my genuine, firm belief that if all you ever do to expose yourself to culture is that culture approved of by Disney, then your world view will be far narrower than any shared by any of the artists who created the Disney product we all know and love.
Disney isn't high culture, but it isn't low culture either (something I've been trying to establish here for over a year now) and as such I genuinely hope to point the receptive spectator in the direction of related but challenging, exciting art which will significantly broaden the richness of the experience Disney offers.


Sven Kirsten received much attention for his now semi-classic 2000 book The Book of Tiki, a huge celebration of all things Tiki Style in just 288 pages with a big, puffy cover. In it, he intelligently makes an argument for the 50's tiki revival being an inevitable and interesting part of American popular culture, despite being manhandled out of existence by a variety of factors. As such, what could come off as a chintzy exercise in cultural colonialism becomes an honest alternative to all the sour postmodernism, the sea of irony in which we float today. Tiki may have been silly, but he was all about fun and wouldn't slap your wrist for letting yourself believe in it for a while.

Well Kirsten's next book has come out, Tiki Modern And The Wild World of Witco, and it's even better. Although many of the same concepts have translated over, they're articulated a good deal better and with a great deal less irony than his previous work, pushing the tome in the direction in more a direction of serious study (albeit this is this author's bias which will be self evident). The tome is also much more narrowed in its' focus, not only delving specifically into aspects of popular culture which Tiki used in its' march through hearts and minds, but specifically addressing midcentury modern art manufacturer Witco, which used the revival of primitivism to transform these simple shapes of declasse Gods into beautiful, complex, yet always slightly gaudy flowing expressions of Modern art.

When you look at prime examples of the Witco style, the best probably being the numerous bars which sometimes came complete with faux tiger hide furs, a sense that you're looking at something undeniably great but still cheap immediately comes to mind. And my God, the faces! If you thought the Haunted Mansion went overboard of the faces, wait 'till you see a Witco installation in glorious 60's Chintzy Color with an ocher shag rug floor - everywhere there's an unoccupied square inch of wood grain they carved a face right on it.

Ultimately the book traces the entire evolution of the style, from the original South Seas gods to the Tiki revival of the past few years. He spends much time dwelling on the modernist transformations of Tikis from ugly, sneering wooden phalluses to flowing, comic, irreverent images of fun and whimsy that fans of Rolly Crump's Tiki Gardens Tikis will find much in common with.

Ultimately this book is like a field guide to Disney's Adventureland style, a bizzare riot of authentic touches placed upon an architectural style gone totally amuck. Anybody who's spent a balmy summer evening in the Polynesian knows that the romance of the Tiki Torch is still very much alive there, and this book would be a perfect companion if it weren't so large and so beautiful you'd be afraid to leave the house with it!

One of Kirsten's more revelatory asides is that the Tiki Temples (his name for a tiki bar) were often entered by crossing a footbridge as a symbolic way of crossing water and entering a fantasyland. Well guess what folks, in Orlando you not only cross a bridge to enter the Polynesian, but also a far smaller one to enter the Enchanted Tiki Room, a detail which the Disney designers probably repeated instinctually because it was so culturally ingrained.

Reading the book and then visiting one of Disney's oasises not only makes you appreciate how rapidly Tiki subsided, how Disney built these Orlando installations in literary the last gasp of Tiki's hold on popular culture, how and why the Adventureland Style does what it does, and how rapidly later generations would corrupt it with more politically correct but less pure and innocent cultural styles such as Middle Eastern, a la Aladdin in Orlando's Magic Carpets and the bulwark of Paris' Adventureland.

It's a beautiful book and if you're a long time admirer of mid century American primitivism like me, then it's a veritable pleasure cruise.

The book, by the way, is published by the kings of graphical coffeetable style Taschen, and if you have interests in anything they probably have something they'd love to sell you. Taschen is like a big feast of wonderful, so be warned to imbide in moderation when you start looking through their site and adding books to your cart at $40 a pop.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Vanishing Walt Disney World, #5

Since I have a lot of smaller pieces I want to do left in the ether I'm going to be posting them in rapid succession this week rather than stretching minor material out over a long period of time. So I'll be posting Friday also; be sure to check back late this week for more... stuff!

Today we take a side trip out of Walt Disney World to visit the most important loss to the Disney community in a long time, and it's something nobody seems knows about.

Yes, it's a movie theater. It's gone out of business, who cares? It's a movie theatre at the intersection of Lee and Orange and Winter Park, FL. Winter Park is one of the oldest communities in Central Florida, and the first to actually be a planned city. It features colleges, Northeastern style brick structures, and more. In short, it is the art and culture center in its' part of the state.

Essentially, it'd be the place to let everybody in Central Florida know what you were up to in, say, 1966. Here's a shot I took of the lobby through the closed doors.

Look to the right there on the bottom... Yes, that's right. This is where Walt Disney's EPCOT film played in 1967. The theater and the area around it is today nigh-unrecognizable, having transformed into a multiplex by the 90's, and since fallen into vauge seediness. By the last few months it was one of the few second-run houses left in Central Florida, and tickets were dirt cheap. Then, suddenly, it was gone.

It's going to become a Lifestyle Fitness Center soon; be sure to stop by sometime and pay your respects.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Vanishing Walt Disney World, #4

Since I have a lot of smaller pieces I want to do left in the ether I'm going to be posting them in rapid succession this week rather than stretching minor material out over a long period of time. So I'll be posting Wednesday and Friday also; be sure to check back late this week for more obsessive minutia!

I've also posted an index section in the navigation bar to the right; is this remotely useful?

Usually I use Vanishing Walt Disney World here to bemoan small-to-medium losses, but this one is starting to verge on trivial if it weren't something I was actually rather fond of. It (was) the little oval sign to the right of the Adventureland bridge to the hub. There it sat for many years in a little circular planter embellishment to the pathway, with a few angry Tikis, utterly redundant in that you'd be more likely to notice the big bamboo Adventureland arch than her little wooden oval cousin nearby, but it made sense in a perverse way because it seemed to announce, dammit, that Adventureland was the only land cool enough to have two signs!

Recently, as I've been told, it was discovered by maintainence and/or WDI that the sign was actually installed during a refurbishment to the gate during which the actual Adventureland sign went missing for some time. The little wooden sign was installed to help any potentially confused guests in finding their way towards such exotic delights as Tropic Toppers or The Magic Carpet (the store, not the spinning ride with the camel). After the refurbishment was done the other sign was never removed and, as such, Adventureland had a dual-sign system which was deemed silly this year, the extra sign was removed and screwed to some wall somewhere backstage (this is what happens to old park signs incidentally).

This temporary nature explains something with actually bothered me for years, which is why the sign was only half finished: the embellishments around "Adventureland" were carved, whereas the text was merely painted. Really, that bothered me to no end.

It's pretty hard to argue that it's a major loss, but just another minor loss in a land which has suffered a crippling epidemic of minor losses: Elephant Tales, Traders of Timbuktu, the barker birds for both Pirates of the Caribbean and the Enchanted Tiki Room, The House of Treasure, Lafitte's Portrait Deck, the Caribbean Plaza fountains, the Castillo del Morro roofline cannons, the Jungle Lookout atop the Swiss Family Treehouse, the torches throughout the whole land.. are there any others? Oh yeah... the Adventureland Veranda. It's a wonder there's any character left in the land at all, to be honest.

Anyway it's gone now, and it was cute, but hardly important. What's interesting is that the tikis flanking it remain behind, which gives the entrance an interesting dynamic in that they are no longer literal embellishments of the sign but moodsetting pieces pushed out beyond the land itself, the first sign of wilderness as you leave the civilization of Main Street.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Meet Me at the Columbia Harbour House

Because you wanted it, and because Mike Lee of Widen Your World graciously provided it, here's an interior layout of the beloved Columbia Harbour House complete with the original room names! I've been told that there were once small signs naming each room, which is possible, but I sure don't remember it.

What is included on this map which is of note, however, is the second floor kitchen which still exists, but has been walled in. Also, note that the divider between the Foyer and the Chesapeake Bay room was removed earlier this year to expand waiting space. Although it was a bottleneck, it was a charming bottleneck, and now it feels less like you're entering a real inn and more like you're inside a food court. Oh well.

Click to expand. Image is (c) me 2007. Please do not redistribute.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Park Mysteries, #4

One question that was posed to me by a friend of mine (who has been visiting Walt Disney World for as long as it has been around) recently was whether or not Walt Disney World ever had a dead settler outside its' burning cabin, just as Disneyland had for many years. I admit I don't have much on this, but it frankly does make sense - Magic Kingdom was put together by the same good folks who had put together Disneyland and of course the Californian dead settler was a part of the scene which was replicated in Florida, so there'd be no reason why Florida didn't have her own scene of Frontier carnage at some point in time.

The problem is, there seems to be practically no evidence supporting this besides the memories of those who were there. Below are two souvenir slides from 1971 showing the Florida burning cabin; followed by another shot from 1969 showing the Disneyland version for comparison.

As you can see, the structures are practically identical; as a result, there probably are photos of the Florida burning cabin circulating through the Disneyana circuit being misidentified as the California version. The Florida version has a different split-rail fence closer to the cabin and has a different grassy slope in front of it. And, as is easily seen in those 1971 photos, there is no dead settler.

So, mystery solved; right?

Hold on; there's an extra twist.

Left is a portion of a 1971 Walt Disney World slide showing the Alligator Bayou shed show scene still in place alongside the river today being passed by a keelboat. The important thing is that there isn't the "Beacon Joe" animated figure that's currently in place to the left of the shed, and probably not the Marc Davis dog/jumping fish gag (although we can't tell since the keelboat is in the way). So if Beacon Joe's shed but not Beacon Joe was there in 1971, why wouldn't this follow suit with other Rivers of America elements, like the plastic animals or.. the dead settler?

It's easy to forget that Tom Sawyer Island was not an original attraction at Walt Disney World; it opened in late 1973 in the shadow of Pirates of the Caribbean just a little south. Therefore, we can theorize (and I've since gotten some verification of this but regardless) that in 1973, while WED was building the rest of the wonderful Orlando TSI complex, that existing show scenes along the river were plussed and propped and improved. So Beacon Joe and some more indians and plastic animals and perhaps a dead settler were added in 1973. Even earlier than that, in fact: look at these two photos, one from early 1972, the other from late 1972:

So that explains why those 1971 photos don't show the dead settler; he was a 1973 invention and history bets that Disney wouldn't bother to re-take a perfectly good promotional image just because they added a few more things to the location. Here's a portion of a 1973 blueprint for Tom Sawyer Island:

That evidence is a bit more persuasive, but as we know from just a little east at the Magic Kingdom in the Haunted Mansion and it's mythic "spiderwebbed body" (more myth than fact), just because it's in a maintainence manual or a blueprint, doesn't mean it was ever there. Remember, 1973 was not only the year of Pirates of the Caribbean and Tom Sawyer Island, but Wounded Knee, and it's possible that WED decided better of the tableau and modified it before or after installation. Here's Werner Weiss on the California version:

The Settler’s Cabin burned for more than four decades on the north end of Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island. However, the story changed several times.

In the 1970s, the entertainment industry became increasingly aware that their often simplistic portrayal of American Indians could be offensive. At Disneyland, the settler lost the arrow and became the victim of evil river pirates.

In the mid-1980s, the settler became a moonshiner whose still had exploded, igniting the cabin. The moonshiner was sprawled out in front of the cabin, but we were assured he wasn’t dead; he had just consumed too much of his product.

I've spoken to some long time Orlando visitors who have never been to and know nothing about Disneyland and who remember the drunken moonshiner; also, let's not forget that the River Pirate plot was already existent in Florida what with its' Pirate's Cave scene around the other side of the island; so at some point either or both of these stories were in place in Florida. Until the burning cabin's flames were extinguished in Orlando in 2005 with an extended refurbishment to the Riverboat (the lines are still there; it could burn tomorrow if park management didn't think that propane was too extensive), the Riverboat recorded narration still spoke of river pirates having set the cabin aflame. I've posted a transcription of the Keel Boat narration from 1994 which mentions the moonshiner story in a way, so it's possible that depending on the attraction you rode, you got a different story!

If anybody has a picture of our MIA settler from Orlando (check the split rail fence for confirmation!), I'd appreciate confirmation of this long-standing Park Mystery. I know of a lot of other people who would appreciate it, too!

Thanks to the always lovely Daveland for allowing me to post some of his collected photos!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In Doorless Chambers, Part Three

What It Does: Back to Basics

“For about two or three years, [The Haunted Mansion] was kind of a ‘dead duck’ really. These guys worked on it, but they couldn’t sell the idea the way they had it… all that work on a story bogged the Mansion down to the point where it just wasn’t done.”

“What I remember was Walt’s attitude about these rides at the time. He felt they were a medium where you gave experiences… a flash of this and a flash of that… everything within a subject matter. I know that the Enchanted Tiki Room, for instance, was a place of great discovery for people. Here were people seeing something that they really did not expect. There was this element of surprise as first one object came to life, and then something else, and then the whole room was moving and singing. That experience told me an awful lot about what these later attractions, like The Haunted Mansion, should be. Rides should be what people don’t expect them to be, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with continuity of story. […] When we did Nature’s Wonderland, we didn’t have a story from beginning to end. What held the ride together were the animals and the interesting situations, and that made it work. That was what Walt believed and I never disagreed with him. He didn’t like the earlier direction [The Haunted Mansion] was taking when they were trying to tell a story.”

~ Marc Davis, to The E Ticket, Issue 16, 1993 (my emphasis)

The most significant piece of writing on the Disney parks in the last fifteen years is “The Myth of Story”, posted by Tangaroa at online journal Re-Imagineering, some of WDI’s most literate and astute critics. In it, the history of Eisner’s creative takeover of the possibilities of the medium is traced to the story-heavy attractions of today, where plotlines are complex and never necessary. Compared to WED’s output of the Golden Era proper, from 1966 to 1982, a very different aesthetic is at play, and the difference is similar to the lyricism of the late silent film vs. the awkwardness of the early talking film. WED was designing a totally different art altogether.

The easiest way to analyze the effect of the WED-era designs is to concentrate on the indivisible elements: to evaluate once something has been removed, whether or not the attraction still has artistic unity. Once you’ve removed everything you can, those essential items left over are the indivisible elements; they cannot be broken down any further and still yield an essentially similar result. The value of Coates’ supernatural void is that he was attempting to refine the attraction down to an essential, indivisible element: darkness, movement, sound, and very selective visual cues.

I’ve spent an awful long time describing the essential elements of design in the attraction because once you start to evaluate all of these in concert; to consider Crump’s swirley abstract patterns, Coates’ spatiality, Davis’ recognizable faces and figures; does it actually begin to become apparent that that is really all there is to it. Once one accepts the Mansion as a series of events which fulfill a mathematical formula of which we are given a thesis introduction to in the first room and which the last room fulfills by force of pure volume, does what the Haunted Mansion is all about come into focus. It’s not about ghosts or séances with head mediums or sounds or effects, and it’s not about dead brides or hitch-hiking ghosts or even Paul Frees’ narration. What the attraction is honestly about on the most basic level, the point where it cannot break down any farther, is the manipulation of gaze.

So let’s return to the thesis the show supplies us once again.

When hinges creak in doorless chambers

And strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls

Whenever candlelight flickers where the air is deathly still

That is the time when ghosts are present

Practicing their terror with ghoulish delight…

All of these things the attraction has supplied, in pure form, by the time spectators disembark, and by announcing its’ intention, fulfilling a mathematical gratification which is set up early on (one ghost, two ghosts… …nine hundred and ninety-nine ghosts) does Atencio’s script become essentially a kind of footnote version of the attraction: often an annotation, never an explanation. Those angles and shadows and the ideas they create is the substitution of a storyline.

Or, to put it another way, the only plot of the attraction is event, not precedent.

A Model for Study

So what, then, is the basis on which we can analyze the work? After all, since an early age many of us have been continually exposed to mainstream ideas like the importance of story, the significance of story, the structure of story, and how stories are created and shared. According to these scholars of varying credibility, the Haunted Mansion oughtn’t be one of our key cultural experiences in the United States; it has no Joseph Campbell-esque plot arc which is supposed to be how ALL stories work. Yet here it is, totally self contained, plotless, and fully satisfying.

Therefore the Haunted Mansion may prove that things needn’t have stories, and the ultimate extrapolation of this, in a themed design perspective, could be that any object viewed from a stationary location and lit from a variety of shifting light sources - if presented in the proper order - would be as thrilling as any story: that stories, essentially nothing but a pattern of gratification, can be further reduced to being merely a pattern of raw information. Although this sounds extreme, think of something as innocuous as EPCOT’s Fountain of Nations, which holds spectators spellbound. Is it not a related, if not on some primary – indeed mathematical - level, an identical reaction?

This idea is, of course, an outlier in terms of actual attraction design, which is why I say that the two attractions which most embodied something close to an avant-garde aesthetic in their use of those indivisible elements were If You Had Wings and Adventure Thru Inner Space. But there has never been and never will be a wholly avant-garde attraction, a succession of nothing but indivisible elements and intentional contrariness; the public would revolt. Besides, the comparison between Disney rides and authentically avant-garde art isn’t really appropriate or desirable, since there are other artistic, cinematic modes which we may use as a model for understanding the pattern of comprehension which the Haunted Mansion conveys.

In the cinematic tradition of narrative, one possible model is later films of John Ford, where the story is a succession of small events hung along a line which is essentially purely conceptual, i.e., “Wyatt Earp is a sheriff” begets My Darling Clementine, a succession of small but potent pastorals of life in the old west. Because Ford’s interest was often rarely in the service of a plot and because he is never hurried with his camera, his work has often been called poetic, an impression mainly deriving from his preferred story structure, which is to say, as little of one as possible. But Ford, America’s greatest historian, had another trick up his sleeve, which is the identification and exploitation of a myth. Ford’s basic building block is an American event, figure, or idea, and the story is essentially a succession of riffs on the idea, either working with or against the myth. One model is Young Mr. Lincoln, another is She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and so on.

So if we see the Haunted Mansion as taking for granted a cultural concept – the default idea of a haunted house – and doing a succession of riffs on the idea - exploiting, inverting, or reassuring our idea of what may constitute a haunted house - then the Haunted Mansion is essentially of an identical structure of Ford’s ideas of story. These “riffs” are basically exactly Davis’ idea that rides should be what we don’t expect them to be, and the execution of the ride constitutes the part of his statement where they “don’t have a lot to do with plot”. A lot of ink has been spilled over John Ford, but despite his story structure, the dullest of the dull story pundits have never once called him out as being less than a great story teller despite his total abandonment of traditional modes of narrative.

Why it is important to have a model for understanding this structure is that The Haunted Mansion is its’ own model; it isn’t based on attractions, attractions base themselves on it. So if we can identity the organizable pattern of information as having a conceptual precedent, then the doors to further comprehension not only of the unit, but of its later progeny are opened.

And so, a model having been established and explored, let us apply that model to the attraction and really break down what it does. And the answer is: surprisingly little, and everything all at once.

Let us consider, for example, however briefly, Coates’ much maligned supernatural void concept. The thing that individuals who oppose this concept often miss which Coates - the design and layout man he was and the environmental design artist we think of him as - understood, is that darkness – utter, stark blackness – is not the absence of material, but the presence of all possible material. A badly exposed piece of film doesn’t turn transparent, it turns pure black because it has been exposed to the visible light spectrum, ie, all colors. Why his ideas on attraction design are unique is that he understood that darkness was not only the natural state for attractions to exist in, but that darkness held not nothing, but the potential for all things.

His supernatural void is the ultimate indivisible element because it was not a lack of information, but all possible information entering at once, unorganized. It may be not the ultimate, but perhaps the most astute, moment in an attraction which is nothing but an scrambled mass of information entering the consciousness of the spectator; the Haunted Mansion proposes a succession of visual questions to which there are no possible answers, no possible forms of gratification.

The problem (or the beauty) of this is that this just isn’t how people work, and spectators are likely unprepared to run into such a contrarian aesthetic in such a supposed vapid playground as Disneyland. The human desire to organize raw data and the data’s utter refusal to be organized in such a way means that the attraction suggests an infinite number of repercussions and relationships which simply aren’t intentional: we enter the Haunted Mansion and hear organ music, later we see a ghost playing a big pipe organ in the ballroom. Are they the same ghost? Of course not: the organ music in the entrance was non-diagetic tone, intended to be felt more than heard. This doesn’t stop any sane person from connecting the (illusory) dots.

Because these things are by and large unintentional, because the attraction is a raw stream of data which, due to its’ evolution, has a maddening fleet of cyclical ideas and images, means that these unanswered questions become a succession of open ends which aggravate the spectators in such a way that obsessive observation is the result; we ride again and again and look again and again for heretofor unobserved details because the whole structure of the attraction tells us “there can be more, there must be more” when all those dark corners can offer is black painted plywood and dust. It is a puzzle which cannot be solved because the makers never bothered to write the solution.

Further Confusions

The problem is that this artistic precept is anathema to WDI’s current cultural climate where Story is King, and it’s frankly opaque to much of the public who rides the Haunted Mansion looking for that illusory Something More. And so WDI seems to have made up WED’s mind for her and decided that the Haunted Mansion certainly does have a very complex story, that all those echoes and coincidences certainly are intentional, and they have allowed the fans to lead them.

Because the show does what it’s intended to - which is create a continuity of events with a mythic subject presented in an very precise order in order to create a certain conceptual and emotional climate – the result of all this is that fans, not understanding that their attraction may be no more complex than the sum of its’ parts, and their imaginations fired by the infinite possibilities of this visual pattern, have begun to formulate ideas about it - some natural, others rather bizarre.

One of these is that X. Atenio’s gravestone tribute to Yale Gracey outside, referring to him as “Master Gracey”, means that Gracey was the name of the ‘master’ of the house, and that since our Ghost Host naration in the attraction is omnipresent and welcomes us to the house, that he must be the master of the house, meaning that Master Gracey is the name of the Ghost Host who is the owner of the house (get it?). This idea has been validated by WDI in the last few years, helped notably by the mounding of earth in front of Gracey’s tomb, and the 2003 film’s use of the name “Master Gracey” for it’s Ghost Host role. All of this ignores that Atencio almost certainly penned the epitaph with an eye towards 19th century parlance, where “Master” meant:

“A youth or boy too young to be called ‘mister’” – Merriam-Webster

So although the Ghost Host may refer to himself as “the lord and master of this Haunted Mansion” in an improvised, rejected take, he is not necessarily named Gracey. Referring to the Dorian Grey portrait effect in Orlando’s foyer as Master Gracey is a little more acceptable, but Master Gracey is probably not the man hanging atop the stretching gallery – that’s the Ghost Host, and if you want to see what he looks like, both shows in America offer repainted versions of the piece of character art Marc Davis labeled “Ghost Host”, where he is identifiable by his long white hair, noose ‘round his neck, and axe.

This single misunderstanding is taken for granted by nearly everyone, including the most well intentioned of people, but is indicative of the kind of problem solving people tend to do for the attraction, rather than let it work on its’ own considerable merits.

WDI hasn’t helped matters by installing a new attic show scene where a bride, identifiable as being named Constance through a prominently-displayed wedding banner, has chopped off all of her husband’s heads and stands around with her axe amid all her stuff and gloats. The scene practically hijacks the entire attraction in favor of a tone not necessarily out of place, but certainly different than, the rest of the show. Davis supplied endless gags of wives murdering their husbands. One changing portrait concept of his had a woman embracing her lover suddenly knife him in the chest; in another concept (repainted for Walt Disney World’s moving eye portraits), a woman is standing behind her husband and starts strangling him. The portrait in the stretching gallery of the widow who has axed her husband is the strongest remnant of these ideas in the final show, so the new effect is not out of place in that capacity.

The problem with the scene is that it gives a single ghost a name, an identity, a voice, and a back story, something that never happens in the rest of the show (the unfortunate inclusion of the Ghost Host outtakes in the Anaheim show in 1995 where he identifies Madame Leota by name doesn’t count since they aren’t meant to be there). Worse, WDI has confused matters by replicating staging of the Marc Davis stretching portrait in one of the wedding photos, but the bride appears as a young woman, not the matronly widow seen earlier in the Davis piece, so she logically can not be the same character. And by the way, did she live in the house? Did she own the house? If it’s a retirement home for ghosts, how did all her stuff get up there? In name of increasing continuity, a simple gag has been mangled into a confusing contradiction requiring more thought, not less.

Constance replaced the enigmatic bride figure designed by WED, who at least was immediately visually identifiable as a lost bride in the gothic tradition through her lit candle. The original incarnation(s) of the bride figure retained her mystery and followed the rules of the rest of the attraction, but the new version destroys all the mystery which is really the heart of the show, the mystery that ironically begot the new version, leaving nothing to the imagination.


Story is antithetical to the Haunted Mansion, and all these ideas floating in the ether, promoted by WDI, created by fans, confused by later generations of designers, aren’t increasing our ability to appreciate the attraction; they’re destroying why people became interested in the first place. These ideas actually undermine the attraction they’re meant to support, but at the same time they are created because the attraction is successful at what it does. By feeding us raw information, by following Walt Disney’s artistic concepts about what a themed show should be, and by building a visual pattern which suggests much but reveals little, the Haunted Mansion has survived scrutiny by generations of spectators.

That thread of a concept which I spoke of, that Fordian through line of myth and mystery, cannot bear much weight before it will eventually snap; the mysteries of the show, the reason it works, cannot be elaborated. The show is a visual pattern and there is very much to be learned still from her very essential, indivisible elements: shape, direction, space, vantage and darkness. It is the show that does everything that themed design has been able to do in her 52 years, and the artistic unity of idea and expression in her should be maintained at all costs. Those things which were not intended by the design team cannot be taken seriously and must be rejected in our view of the attraction. In short, we should defend the Haunted Mansion against herself.

Disney journalist Jim Hill has recently said about one of the Haunted Mansion’s details:

“By the way, much has been made about WDI's decision to remove that wedding band used to be embedded in the cement near the Mansion's Mausoleum / exit area (Okay. I know. It wasn't really a ring. It was just a piece of a stantion that got snapped off at ground level that -- over the years -- people then began saying was a wedding band. Now let's not let the truth stand in the way of a good story, okay?)”

I say: let’s not let a story stand in the way of a good design.