Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where the flowers croon

Went with my sister and her sons to Disneyland yesterday, the boys' first time and the first time I've been back in decades. (We used to go a lot, living just an hour south of it and having lots of family visitors.) In nigh on twelve hours of uninterrupted activity we took in two dozen rides and things and... had a grand time. Why am I reluctant to admit this? I really want to say that it's good clean fun, without any irony at all.

Growing up in the neighborhood of the original theme park, it's probably not that surprising that I admired Walt Disney as a child, and even briefly convinced myself once that I might be his reincarnation - he died a year before I was born, though not, it turned out, nine months before. And perhaps my being an internationally oriented kid without the usual aversion to dolls makes it understandable that I liked "It's a Small World"? It was in any case a simpler time, when the "anima- tronic" Abraham Lincoln and the robot swans in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle (no longer there, incidentally) and the inspired lunacy of the Enchanted Tiki Room were unlike anything you'd see anywhere. (The Tiki Room remains unlike anything you'll see anywhere.) Where else can you climb a huge tree (originally the Swiss Family Robinson's, now Tarzan's and Jane's) so lovingly rendered you don't mind at all that it's concrete and plastic? (Inspect below.) Even now, the mix of Saturday Evening Post America, national park and cold war internationalism (swinging to a Luau rhythm) has a powerful charm. The fact that the tour guides on the Jungle Cruise, etc., are punning non-stop just adds to one's pleasure at the friendly fantasy of it all. Would you have preferred real piranhas? Canoes reliant on your paddling efforts? Besides, this New Orleans is untouched by hurricanes or uncomfortable histories. The monorail is the real thing - the Western Hemisphere's first! And the Indian Chief on his horse, who waves sagely at passing paddle steamers, canoes and railroads is perfect in his eternal animatronic form. I'm not really joking here. Sure, it's appalling in all sorts of ways, but I didn't notice at the time. I was enchanted by how well done it all was, the coherence of the illusion, the innocence of it. It made me - dare I admit this? - proud of America.

I know, I know. The innocence Disneyland offers is a fantasy too, and the desire to lose oneself in it is something generations of semioticians and Ideologiekritiker have called in question. Opiate of the masses! We should "give up a condition that requires illusions" (as Marx says about religion)! Banksy's placement of a black-hooded mannequin in orange Guantanamo attire within the grounds of Disneyland seemed gratuitous - a cheap anti-American gag - when I heard about it in the excellent "Exit Through the Gift Shop"; now, the Magic Kingdom fresh in my memory, it seems transgressive in the extreme. How do I know? It's painful to think of. And to recall that when my younger nephew said, half-way through "It's a small world," "why can't they sing another song?" I found myself thinking of Guantanamo - that it was unnecessary: "just put people on an endless loop of this and they'll talk." Was I really joking? With whom? Or was that reality peeking through: a recognition that the power of illusion is satisfying in there to the degree that we want to believe that power is an illusion out here. It was an intoxicating fantasy in any case, and good to experience its power.

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