This is odd. After the years I've spent perusing museum exhibitions--studying objects as varied as giant taxidermy bears in Minneapolis, motorcycles in New York, opera sets in London, and excavated gold jewelry in Key West (this, of course, in the Mel Fisher museum)--I'd say that the big new show at the Modern in Fort Worth defies graceful explanation. If you simply state its title, The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks, you're risking an onslaught of confused stares and apathetic whines. "Oh, yeah? What's in it?"
If you try to describe it as a conventional exhibit about the process of building the world's most recognized and heavily trodden amusement parks, the stares glaze over into critical dismissal. Smart adults have grown leery of the Disney moniker; it has, after all, evolved from its original happy-go-lucky associations of Steamboat Willie and narcoleptic dwarves and post-Space Mountain head rush to something quite creepy: the homogenization and mass marketing of culture. And smart little kids, the kids who don't yet grasp Disney's evil-empire status, would really rather go to Disney World than look at a museum wall covered with the schematics of EPCOT. (Actually, adults might too. Nothing wrong with a little vacation.)
So for the hyper-commercial Disney to have an entire (albeit non-self-sponsored) exhibit about its glossy machinery launched in a cutting-edge museum is a kind of jarring crossover many a purist would resent. It's akin to saying that Sony, another vilified monster capable of swallowing the world whole, is staging a three-act play about its inception--starring Sir Alec Guinness and Vanessa Redgrave. Current art- and amendment-defending politicos would insist that morally bankrupt corporate steamrollers shouldn't mix with high art. When Michael Eisner's refurbished and squeaky-clean Disney bought Miramax--the New York film company responsible for such modern gems as Reservoir Dogs and The Thin Blue Line--you could practically hear the screams of indie filmmakers around the world. Hell, you could practically hear the moan of Walt Disney himself, dead and frozen in that mythological laboratory where they claim he awaits reanimation. Mary Poppins and Jackie Brown don't mix. The forced relation is insidious--rape on both sides. But then, that's what these corporations do, right? At least Disney had the Southern Baptist Convention on its tail for having a homosexual day at Disneyland--not a bad stroke for artistic credibility.
But only the most perverse-minded would care to attend an event uniting "real" art and a low-art-slanted corporate bully, and only then for the irony.
Hey, whatever gets you to Fort Worth. All this aside, The Architecture of Reassurance is amazing: dense with symbolism and imagery, self-scrutinizing, technically breathtaking, and sometimes, yes, knowingly perverse. How else would you characterize old man Walt's insistence, and the show's nimble presentation of the idea, that all those castle towers and sky-piercing spectacles anchoring and defining all the Disney parks are intentionally phallic? That's right. Family-subsidized ramrods. According to the original plans, nicely laid out in glass cases and tacked to the Modern's walls, Cinderella's swirling palace towers that crown every park are self-consciously penile. Walt called these authority-laden beacons and the paths leading to them the "hub-and-wienie" plan. (And all the children sing: "M-I-C-K-E-Y...")
Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, and just outside Paris--these are the spots dubiously blessed with Disney's vision of a Magic Kingdom and then some. And all along, these parks and the rest of the Disney machine have pervaded just about every crevice of culture, no matter how tiny. (Even today while driving down Ross Avenue, I spotted a car-repair shop whose sign read "no Mickey Mouse deals.") The first park opened in California in 1955, the next in Florida in '71, then Japan in '83, and by now we all know the flattened misadventure of the 1992-opened EuroDisney. Despite allowances made for cultural and geographic nuances (e.g., Main Street at Tokyo Disneyland is covered pavilion-style because of Japan's constant rain and humidity), the icons and themes are pretty constant. Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland--Walt Disney and his successors have had a stubborn way of romanticizing society, of making a place where everything is cleaner, happier, and easier to manage.
What's so startling about the show, then, is how sophisticated, beautiful, and occasionally eerie the plans are. In hiring the top minds of the design world, Disney had a whopping head start, and the whole show packs a slow, tense chronological build. From precise and ambitious technical drawings of rides and hotels (ever stayed in the Welton Beckett-designed Polynesian Village?), to the oft-copied plans for urban shopping areas, to the NASA-tinged fantasies of rocket-ship futures, there's nothing childlike or particularly golden-hearted about it.
Still, the rich, multilayered cels and watercolors of swamplands and gargoyles and submarines--ideas for the parks--are small masterpieces evoking the great landscape-and figure-drawing of this century. This is the Disney we remember, the Disney we cling to, the Disney we're "reassured" by. The tight, curvaceous shapes of the Jules Verne-inspired (or is it Ray Bradbury?) flying machines beg the viewer to read the placards in search of the illustrators' names. Some of these wilder dreams were never realized, making these selections a profound archive of imaginative outpouring; Walt and his park planners had to sift through all this to get to the doable stuff. This is, like the strongest design shows, a reminder of design's place in the art spectrum--high rather than low. Granted, the molded plastic evil stepmother mirror ("-mirror on the wall") that decorates the parks' gift shops isn't all that impressive, but the shop's bizarre, surrealist proportions are. Walking through the show proves the overwhelming influence that Disney-esque design has had on later creative geniuses. Tim Burton comes to mind. Sometimes David Lynch. Surely behind the brisk façades of soda shops and arcades lurks a Twin Peaks alternate universe.
The section of Catherine Wagner's photographs of the parks, all uninhabited and glossy and morphed, makes for a great case of Twilight Zone jitters. Her take on the super-stylized interiors of Mickey and Minnie's "homes" is more subtly twisted than most filmic nightmares. Even more spooky: the ultra-fied versions of Italy's Piazza San Marco and Paris' Eiffel Tower. Why go see the real thing when in the world of Disney there are no gypsy children snagging your camera, no centuries-old grime, no haughty foreigners or signs written in gibberish?
And the crowning element: Walt's original vision of EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) and Project X--a real, neo-Orwellian city built for a limited population, its waste and traffic-efficient methodology borrowed from architect Victor Gruen. (The gnawing, underlying questions about this utopia: Who gets to live there? Is there population control? What industry supports its infrastructure?)
The show kicks off with the innocuous models of retro-charming Main Street and ends, without ever stating it, with Walt as Big Brother. For him, the theme park wasn't just a fun day out with the kids. It was a vision of how things could be. Not to scare you, but Hitler's all-time favorite film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Kindred spirits, anyone? After Walt's death in 1966, his inheritors toned down the extremes and turned EPCOT into a year-round world's fair, and Disney became a standard corporate giant.
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In fact, Walt has of late been put under a critical microscope for his ideals. In 1993, Marc Eliot published Walt Disney: Dark Prince of Hollywood with an angle on Disney's dictatorial ship-running, visions of an elitist future, and discriminating practices. Disney may have nurtured Goofy and Donald and the gang, but he wasn't so fond of the great unwashed. Or, for that matter, illustrators and inkers who couldn't keep up with the animation studio's back-breaking daily quotas. Reassurance to him meant tight control. Was the Wonderful World of Disney ever the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed entity we thought it once was? Perhaps Eisner's version is a bit more generous than the original.
Correct me if I'm wrong. In The Little Mermaid, the first film marking Disney's contemporary reign after a recession slump, the bulging, mohawked octopus was intentionally modeled after the late Divine--John Waters' notorious drag-queen heroine who screwed everything in sight. Sounds like an improvement to me.
See the show for its design prowess. Leave the show with far bigger issues to ponder.
The Architecture of Reassurance: Designing the Disney Theme Parks is at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through April 13. Admission is free. For info call (817) 738-9215.