Looking over the New York Times this weekend I was alterted to a very interesting video by Frank Rich in his editorial “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” One learns interesting things from Rich’s articles now and again, but unfortunately like most of the other New York Times columnists, his articles are lack are rarely insightful or profound. So it was not surprising that he gave a rather impoverished reading of the film he used as his jumping-off point, the small amateur film Disneyland Dream. It’s a somewhat longish film, but the first ten minutes or so give all the background to the trip, and then the actual visit to Disneyland begins around minute 20.
This film was made in 1995 with footage shot in 1956, a year after Disneyland opened. The story is that in 1956, the Barstow family entered a competition offered by 3M on who could basically create the best advertisement for their brand of Scoth tape. One of the children won with a poster that read “I like Scotch brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it” ( a ringing endorsement!). The family won a trip from their home in suburban Conneticut out to California, where they visited Los Angeles, Catalina, and, of course, Disneyland itself. This film made it into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2008, and it is definitely worth a watch.
I like this film for a number of reasons. While it is, on the one hand, just some film from a family most of us never met, it is a rather interesting one. First off is the way that the nostalgia functions both in the film and in the film’s subject, Disneyland. The narrator explains events, many of them clearly stages, almost forty years after the fact carefully explaining how it was back then. On the surface there is what, to some audiences, may appear to be a sort of pleasant innocence, when neighbors were friends, when the willingness to work hard seemed to guarantee a person a certain standard of living, and when corporations such as 3M and Disneyland appeared benevolent. Of course this picture leaves a lot of things out (immigrants, minorities, non-nuclear families, political undesirables, etc). The scenes in the neighborhood make this painfully clear.
Secondly there is Disneyland itself. One of the most interesting things for friends and family of mine who have seen this film is Disneyland as it was shortly after it opened. Of course much has changed and been redeveloped in the following decades, so the film captures a park that has been lost to its devoted fanbase, and which most of us never knew anyway (the website Yesterland is dedicated to these fans, and this nostalgia for Disneyland as it used to be). This then leads us to the rings of nostalgia that Disneyland builds around itself. If we view them in chronological order, I suppose the first ring of nostalgia would be Main Street, USA, which offers a verklärte representation of an American small town at the end of the 19th century (I used to joke that it was the “saubere Königreich.” Say it out loud and think about it, German speakers. It really is punny). Then there is the way that the Disney Corporation mythologizes its own origins, and the way that Walt Disney himself is elevated to the status of some sort of kid friendly Prometheus. Just think of the statue of Disney and Mickey Mouse at the center of the Disneyland park in Anaheim. Then there is the marketing, most evident, perhaps, in the periodic celebrations of the park’s founding. I think Yesterland.com and Disneyland Dream also represent another ring of nostalgia. It is interesting to hear the opposition that comes when Disneyland decides to make alterations, especially to its “classic” rides. I remember this very clearly when Disneyland tried to remove the sexual innuendo from “Pirates of the Carribbean,” and I confess that on my last visit, in 2006, even I was unhappy when a Johnny Depp automaton was added to that same ride. Really, isn’t that strange? Why should anybody really care?
This nostalgia in general is all very strange. How is it that we came to think of a corporate run theme park as a historical artifact that we would think of in the same way as a medieval cathedral? Maybe Disneyland Dream offers us a clue. Isn’t it right there in the title? It’s a dream of what the nation, of what our system in general should bring: order, cleanliness, pleasure. As the narrator tells us, it offers us a vision of what was. Now the period in which it was built, the 1950’s, has been subjected to similar romantic idealization. Just listen to politicians talk about the 1950’s. This is not a new phenomenon, as others have noticed. There is a long tradition of selecting some past period as the temporal locus of goodness, virtue, etc. What we get from the different levels of temporality in Disneyland Dream (1956 and 1995) is Disneyland as a representation of a better time (late 19th century America) and as in its essence an artifact from a better time (the 1950’s).
It’s this dream of what capitalism could be that Frank Rich seizes upon in his article, but this alone is an impoverished understanding of the film, in my view, because it misses yet another level of meaning one can find in the film. There is something unsettling in the way that the entire community so completely embraces the fantasy. The family buys a bunch of tape and creates free ads for the corporation. The arrival of a “representative” of the corporation is hailed as a major event, as if a visit from a 3M employee were akin to a visit from the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! The entire neighborhood is somehow emotionally vested in this family’s fortune. And, of course, for having created the free advertisement, they are able to go visit a corproate fantasy land all expenses paid! This is a big thrill, and yet, the exaggerated way in which the narrator, the family, and the community reacts (see, for instance, the way that the whole family falls over in an artificial way) casts all of this in an extremely ironic light. There is something overly performative in the behavior of everybody on screen. Sure, Mr. Barstow was amusing himself by making a film of the event, and having his family act in this way, but within the logic of the film their extreme performativity alienates the viewer from the story unfolding and forces us to consider the film far more critically.
On a final note, it strikes me as interesting and, actually, wonderful that that they travelled all the way across the country to gaze mostly upon simulacra (movie sets, Disneyland itself, and Southern California’s phantasmagorical (ex/sub)urban developments). Of course, if that’s the kind of thing you’re in to, Southern California is the ideal place to be.
ON EDIT: Speaking of the way the park in Anaheim is marketed, I wonder if the layer of history and nostalgia wrapped around Disneyland was a shift that could be linked to the park’s reproducing itself in Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, etc.?
SECOND EDIT: It is also worth noting that, in addition to the simulacra of Southern California, the Barstow family saw a lot of fortifications of different kinds, or places that, by nature or by design, serve to keep people out. There were the homes of the wealthy and movie stars, the castle set and the castle at Disneyland (both hollow representations of fortifications, a combination of both), Catalina Island, and, of course, the Los Angeles highway system. Roads and highways are a classic technology of separation, and it is interesting that being on them inspires both wonder and fear in the narrator. Here we might bear in mind the etymological connections of “boulevard” to French bouleverser, boulevard, German Bollwerk, English bulwark.