Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Tomorrowland, Retro-Futurism and Authenticity

When the word "Disneyland" first entered the cultural lexicon, it was not in association with a theme park. Walt Disney's Disneyland was a weekly, hour-long television program by which Disney introduced his would-be theme park to the world in the year before its debut. Through that program, which featured new content and edited feature films, he established the idea that Disneyland is more than a location in Anaheim with some rides. Disneyland is a conceptual space into which one enters mentally and spiritually as well as physically.

Fantasyland's conceptual space was that of the fairy tale and gilded Mediaevalism, reflected in the broadcast premiere of Alice in Wonderland and original documentaries like From Aesop to Hans Christian Andersen. Frontierland was the conceptual space of American history, and introduced Davy Crockett to a craze-ready public. Adventureland was inspired by the True Life Adventure films and broadcast those as well as making-of documentaries for the feature length films entering theatres. Finally came Tomorrowland, the conceptual space of the celestial beyond and scientific speculation.

Excerpt from Magic Highway USA.

Some time ago, Leonard Maltin did the favour of collecting the lion's share of these Tomorrowland episodes on the beautifully retro-futuristic Walt Disney Treasures Tomorrowland - Disney in Space and Beyond DVD (with the unfortunate notable exception of Magic Highway USA), complete with the unnecessary limited edition pressing and "certificate of authenticity" shared by the whole Walt Disney Treasures line.

Authentic what? Authentic DVD? I should hope so. Authentic Disney? I would imagine so given the famous signature covering the tin, both Walt's and his late nephew Roy's. According to the certificate, it is authentically rare material from the Disney archives, of which I had no doubt since that is what it is advertised as being on the box. What exactly is it authentic of?

The very nature of retro-futurism - the admiration of what the past thought the future would be - undermines the notion of authenticity. Disney retro-futurism obliterates it entirely. Disney's cinematic production and theme park properties are notorious amongst critics for their contradictory claim to authenticity while being composed entirely of artifice. This artifice is displayed most clearly when there is a reality to compare it to, as is the case with Disneyland's theme park versions of Frontierland and Mainstreet USA. The intent of these were discussed by longtime collaborator of Walt's, Bill Walsh, in a 1953 Disneyland guide:
Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America. And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world.

However, as noted by Alan Bryman in Disney and His Worlds, "Omission is used extensively in the presentation of the past. In fact, one of the most popular games among writers on Disney history is to spot and often list what is not there." According to Disney Imagineers themselves, "What we create is 'Disney Realism', sort of Utopian in nature, where we carefully program out all the negative, unwanted elements and program in the positive elements." Erika Doss, in her paper Making Imagination Safe in the 1950s: Disneyland's Fantasy Art and Architecture, points out that "The aesthetic intent of the Disney Imagineers was not to duplicate the real but to fabricate the ideal..." What we see in Disneyland's representations of the past - both tangible and intangible - is a purely artificial representation of history, a sanitized wild west, colonial-era jungle and Midwestern American main street devoid of conflict, issues of class and race, and problems created by industry, corporations, human sinfulness and the Western "civilized" world.

Fantasyland benefits because it has no comparable reality by which to judge its unreality (or surreality). Within the walls of Sleeping Beauty's Castle, this European alpine village is pure fairy tale, captured forever in a specific moment of being where all the heroes and heroines have yet to achieve their goals and all the villains still live, eternally on the cusp of "happily ever after" but never quite attaining it. Tomorrowland likewise benefits from the lack of reality against which to compare. The future hasn't happened yet, so any dreams and visions of the future carry at once an air of authenticity while at the same time a deeper subtext of artifice. The future dreamt of in Tomorrowland could happen, but at the same time would be utterly impossible because it is was the then-present's vision of the future.

Cyberpunk fiction author William Gibson once stated that anyone who thinks that Science Fiction is about the future is wrong: Science Fiction is about the present, and colonizes the future with it. This is especially true of Tomorrowland, which unavoidably captured the future as an eternal 1950's. Only a precious few have the true vision to step beyond their own time and culture and venture what Jesus of Nazareth challenged:
When you see a could rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be a scorching heat'; and it happens... You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" (Luke ch. 12)

How one understands Disney depends on one's perspective and values. One could say that Disney's imagination was entrepreneurial rather than truly visionary, synthesizing the spirit of the age rather than inventing anything philosophically new, as evidenced by the wide popularity of his work. Or one could view Disney as a man so far ahead of his time that the rest of humanity never caught up.
Janet Wasko, in Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy, discusses the relationship of artifice of the past to the artifice of the future:
[T]he future seems mainly to reflect the past, or Disney's version of the past, and thus celebrates a reification of existing social relations and the status quo, or, in other words, the present... Although visitors do not actually confront the present at the parks, the representation of the past and the future serves as confirmation - more specifically, a class confirmation - of the ways things are.

The "way things are" in the 1950's was the boundless optimism of progress, science and industry. The Ray Bradbury interview conducted on the Tomorrowland DVD gives Walt the commendation of being "the optimistic futurist". Bryman sums up this optimistic futurism by saying,
Visitors have been prepared for this optimism because of the way in which the past has been presented to them... The future that the corporations have in mind for us is an exciting one in which there will be no problems because they will have learned from the past.

This is can be seen quite clearly in the programs on the Tomorrowland DVD: Man in Space, Man and the Moon, Mars and Beyond, Eyes in Outer Space and Our Friend the Atom. The general pattern of the programs is first an animated discussion on the history of the subject (humanity's perception of space, love affair with the moon, or development of atomic theory), a live-action scientific discussion on the subject ("talking heads"), and an animated or live-action sequence adapting the theoretical concepts into a narrative (an animated space launch, a live-action trip to the moon). These historical segments have a double-sided theme, the first side being the fantasy of yesterday becoming the fact of tomorrow, the second being the genius and progress of our present from the humorous or frightening errors of the past.

Jules Verne is the name most cited for this first side. Disney's love affair with Verne's work is widely known, and discussed with some depth in the feature documentaries of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea DVD. Approximately a minute of Georges Melies' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon is embedded in Man in Space and Our Friend the Atom is introduced by images from 20,000 Leagues, as Walt moves from a model of Harper Goff's famous Nautilus design to a model of the namesake atomic submarine, declaring that Verne's dream of a magic power source has become scientific reality (though in the novel, the Nautilus ran on sodium batteries).

The second side is demonstrated most powerfully (and questionably) by these films' representation of the Middle Ages. Covering a thousand year period of incredible theological and social progress in a few words and images telling us of an age of "stupidity, superstition and sorcery", the Middle Ages are brushed off as an interruption in the inexorable progress from classical Greece to the Renaissance. This progress lasts only until the Victorian era, Verne's own, which is rendered comical with its "quaint" ideas. Progress is resumed in the 1950s, and there is nowhere to go but space stations, tail fins and martian explorers.

The history of scientific progress according to Man in Space.

This isn't terribly surprising, however. Walt Disney is a product of his time, and in the context of the Modern era and its manifestation in 1950's America, the Middle Ages would seem dreadfully counter-progressive. That isn't necessarily because of any superficial difference between the Mediaeval and Modern eras: the Middle Ages were every bit as intellectually, socially and scientifically progressive as the Modern era. Classical Greek philosophy, for instance, was not "lost" until the Renaissance: it had been already discovered by Europeans through their interactions with the Turks, and was synthesized with the paradigms of the Middle Ages through the Scholastics. The Church preserved the philosophical texts of antiquity and founded universities in which to share them.

So too were advances in physiology, medicine, biology and astronomy made without which the Scientific Revolution of Gallileo would have been impossible. Given how science operates through constant reexamination of theories based on new evidence, it would be ridiculous to suggest that the errors of the Middle Ages were any more grievous than those of, say, the 1950's. The first stirrings of European democracy are found in the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215. Recent scholarship has been, upon deeper and contextual examination, learning that the dreaded Inquisition was an attempt to stabilize and standardize a legal system with due process away from local lords and magistrates that were far worse. And it simply cannot be said that the Crusades were any more barbaric or irrational than the warfare of the 20th century. It is impossible to regard an era that produced Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen and Dante Alligheri as a "dark age" without revealing one's own ignorance.

G.K. Chesterton argued that the Church was the great ship that carried civilization through the dark ages to resurface during a Renaissance that it underwrote. The difference in the Renaissance was that this philosophy was interpreted without the dominant Mediaeval paradigms. The Modern era is externally motivated, which manifests itself in a desire for freedom actualized by exerting of control. In what other context could one interpret labelling Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrations as a "virus", except that it threatens the domination and therefore freedom of American society? The Mediaeval, on the other hand was internally motivated, which manifests itself in a desire for intimacy actualized by acceptance of vulnerability. The ultimate ambition of Middle Ages spirituality was to overcome sin and experience intimacy with God, with one another and with Creation. To do this required a vulnerability which didn't pursue God-like power over others and Creation, and even God Himself. It is unsurprising that the next wave of counter-progress to be vilified in these shows was the Victorian era, as the Victorian era, anxious over the loss of tradition and humanity to industrialization, underwent a strong resurgence in romantic Mediaevalism.

The Middle Ages came to a close with the Black Death that swept through Europe in the 13, 14 and 1500's. As a reaction against such widespread death and social collapse, a new ethic of external control formed. Rather than be victims at the whim of nature and Divinity, left merely to deal with the hand dealt to them, the Western world embarked upon a voyage of discovery intent to subordinate the universe and its governing principles to human will, and to conform human will to certain values deemed essential to streamline this process. The Scientific Revolution promised an understanding and control of nature, the Renaissance an understanding and control of oneself, the Reformation an understanding and effective control of God, and the Enlightenment an understanding and control of society, politics, and economics. The Early Modern period, from roughly 1400 to 1700, laid out the groundwork, while the Late Modern period, from 1700 to the present, put these in action through industrialization, political revolution, corporate consumer capitalism, the pillage of the natural world, and secular materialism.

Nowhere is the ethic of control more evident than in the two programs on Tomorrowland, Eyes in Outer Space and EPCOT. Eyes in Outer Space promises very grand things for the future: with the help of satellite weather watching, expert prediction, and various means of environmental manipulation, it would be possible for humanity to control the weather. A dramatized sequence in a very atomic age Sci-Fi weather centre shows how a deadly hurricane off the coast of Florida can be diverted out to the ocean and dissipated. Very good. However, the voice of narrator Paul Frees goes on to promise that with this new, God-like power, we could turn destructive floods into productive energy facilities and barren snowy wastelands into productive farmland. Of course, the destructive effects of dams and melting the snowcap of Antarctica are never mentioned. What matters is that these phenomena that maintain life systems on the whole of earth which are dangerous or deemed wasteful are brought to human use. Nevermind that weather-watching satellites that could control climate would also be effective people-watching satellites for controlling society, an unspoken subtext.

Controlling the weather in Eyes in Outer Space.

Even humans themselves are to be brought to corporate use, as explained in the subtext to Walt Disney's pitch for his Florida EPCOT project. Presently, EPCOT stands a sort of theme park of scientific innovation. In its initial form, however, Disney intended it to be an "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" which would showcase the dynamism of industry in civic design and home architecture. The intent of this project is stated outright by Disney as showcase of the American free-market system and the products of industry. Never mentioned, in the whole of his vision of a perfectly ordered, efficiently run, domed city with theme park shopping boulevards, are concepts like "natural", "wild space", "public land" or even "democracy".

Disney's original description of EPCOT
(the most relevant part starts at 7:00).

It is hard to imagine creativity and individuality flourishing in such a ready-made environment. That is for a very specific purpose. Nothing so nefarious as corporations wanting to run the world, mind you. Rather, it simply the pragmatic concern for making a profit. To maximize profit, according to Adam Smith, it is essential to maximize efficiency. Courtesy of Henry Ford, we learned that the best way to do that is to standardize the product. Since it is impossible to mass produce spontaneity and individual taste, it would be necessary to standardize customer want and expectation (times have changed, and in the present day, customization, individual taste and niche markets are big business, as evidenced by the number of "big box" stores catering to DIY clientele). Likewise, natural space would be too difficult to control, and the "green space" discussed in EPCOT is framed as sprawling lawns and planted trees dotted with schools, churches and sportsfields.

The irony is that the environment of EPCOT would stifle in its citizen-customers the very imagination which Walt Disney was so lauded for possessing. By all accounts, Disney was himself a very rigorous and controlling personality, and this is unsurprising since, as I already noted, Disney was less of a visionary and more of an entrepreneur. The chaotic world that didn't fit so easily with the ambitious heads of American industry and free-market capitalism would have to be subdued, made "productive". Creativity and innovation would not be carelessly wasted on the individual's personal development, but put to productive use in the "creative centres of American industry" which would adjoin EPCOT.

Probably inconceivable at the time, this 1950's colonization of the future is now considered quaint and kitschy by some. With the 20-20 hindsight of a post-atomic and post-industrial world, some would even consider it a dangerous age of ignorance in itself. "...[K]itsch is nothing if not a suspended memory whose elusiveness is made ever more keen by its extreme iconicity..." According to aesthetic philosopher Celeste Olaquiaga, in The Artificial Kingdom: A treasury of the kitsch experience,
Despite appearances, kitsch is not an active commodity naively infused with the desire of a wish image, but rather a failed commodity that continually speaks of all it has ceased to be - a virtual image, existing in the impossibility of fully being. Kitsch is a time capsule with a two-way ticket to the realm of myth - the collective or individual land of dreams. Here, for a second or perhaps even a few minutes, there reigns an illusion of completeness, a universe devoid of past and future, a moment whose sheer intensity is to a large degree predicated on its very inexistence.

Retro-futurism is kitsch, and the search for "authentic" retro-futurism is an attempt to make artifice into its own object. This idealistic, 1950's version of the future never happened, indeed never could have and in nearly every way ought never happen. But it still carries evocative power of what might have been, and despite what misgivings we have nowadays about how foolishly it would play with nature, we can still regard it as a romantic vision. Kitsch, however, requires the development of the commodity based upon the romantic vision for which it nostalgically and melancholically languishes. It is not good enough to merely be in our hearts and minds... It must be tangible, made authentic.

Part of this effort can be seen in Disneyland's Tomorrowland itself, which has been undergoing a renovation in recent years to become "The Future That Should Have Been" which has finally "arrived". Somewhere along the line, the future went wrong... Space turned out to be too dangerous, space exploration too expensive, atomic power too toxic, nature too wily, corporations too... well... themselves. The solution is to sanitize the past's future, just as the past itself has been sanitized. This future is a dream, a fantasy, intensified by its inexistence, represented by artifice. The Greek philosopher Plato coined the term "simulacrum", which is an identical copy of something that never existed to begin with. To know that we had the dream at all, we need to have the tangible copy of it, the "authentic artifice".

I suspect the certificates of authenticity enclosed with the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs are of the same sort. They serve no real purpose: these DVDs are mass-produced copies of films in the Disney catalogue, containing exactly the content they say they contain. What these certificates authenticate is the dream behind the content, a tangible record that Man in Space (or the cinematic Davy Crockett or Mickey Mouse or Victory Through Air Power) actually "existed" in their own manner. It somehow legitimizes this vision, though it has been relegated from optimistic futurism to nostalgic retro-futurism.


George Taylor said...


You hit a lot of nails on the head with this one.

Chad said...

This is fascinating! Very well put together, and speaks to a lot of what I've been slowly realizing about retro-futurism lately.

Cory Gross said...

Thank you guys!

Though I admit I missed a less philosophical reason for the certificates: to differentiate the official Disney product from homebrewed DVDs of old shows taped off the Disney Channel ^_^