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Posts Tagged ‘disney’

It’s a very simple equation, one I’m sure others have come across elsewhere, but it struck me with an arrow of truth last week. If there is a problem with the publishing industry as it stands it comes down to the disconnect between the motivations of the writer and the publisher.

I came about this a roundabout way. I happened onto a marketer’s blog post discussing what made Steve Jobs, and by extension Apple, so successful. The crux came from a quote from Jobs at the end of his recent biography:

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.”

Many companies have this upside down, or if they start as innovators they quickly switch over to a profit-first mentality to maintain their position. The idea is that if you innovate, people will come, and profits will grow, allowing you to innovate further. This lead me reconsider what I felt about Steve Jobs last year when he died, how I had come to think of him as the Edison of this century. But that’s not exactly a good analogy, because where Edison may have refined existing patents he is credited with creating the technology that is still with us. Jobs did not invent nor is he credited with inventing the computer, the phone, the television, or the music playback device. He didn’t even invent the MP3 file technology that the iPod uses to store and playback music. What he did was take what was familiar and ask the question: How can I make this consumer product more friendly, inviting, fun, and turn it into a brand people can trust?

Essentially, Jobs is the Disney of our age, not the Edison.

Walt Disney did not invent movies, animation, or the amusement park. Hell, he didn’t even create new characters or stories to tell in his animation once he started making feature films. What he did was insist on instilling passion into great products that people would enjoy. He may have been a tyrant to his employees, as has been reported, but he was no petty dictator. He pushed his people to innovate and his legacy of creation continues nearly fifty years after his death. People don’t often remember (or know these days) that he mortgaged his personal property and his entire company to create Disneyland. Had that gamble failed it’s difficult to imagine what would have happened, but Disney was passionate and he was certain that if his people were motivated to make something great, then success was assured.

In reading about the history of publishing in America over the years I have come to believe there may have been a time when publishers were more in line with Jobs and Disney than the corporate entities they have become. There was a time when author and editor were both striving for something great, that profit was not the determining factor. Editors built stables of authors and nurtured talent because they believed in them, and in return that quality generated profits. Today, the profit-first model prevails, and a movie-tie-in complete with residual merchandising trumps the notion that quality is a motivating factor.

Are writers similarly motivated by profit in creating a work, or are they more interested in the quality of storytelling first? This gets tricky, as writers are now expected to market their works and to nail that sales pitch before anyone will bother to look at it. In many craft books there are instructions for plotting a narrative arc only after the summary has been honed as a guide stone. Lord help the writer who can’t rattle off their elevator speech at a convention even before they’ve finished their first draft!

It’s reductionist to insist that all writers, publishers, and editors behave as a unified front, but its hard not to wonder if all parties have lost their way.

“Traditional” publishing (or “Legacy” publishers, if you buy into Amazon’s propaganda machine) will most likely need to revert back to their old ways in order to survive. Editors will need to operate free from the chains of corporate acquisitions and, more importantly, spend more time personally guiding talented people toward great ideas. The motivation to publish books will then fall back in line with the writer’s motivation.

Great books will be written and published when both parties can’t imagine doing anything less; the profits will sort themselves by-the-by.

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Hmm.  I began this series a long time ago and never got around to the third part.  In Part One I talked about the magic of maps, and Part Two was about reincarnation and past life resonance.  Part three is a little slipperier and probably why I had put it off saved it for now.  It concerns nostalgia and why we crave it the same ways we do fiction.

Nostalgia is an ugly concept for some people as it tends to represent a fair amount of wistfulness, a sentimentality, a yearning, often of a time and place that in all reality was never as golden as memory portrays it. This the fallacy of back-to-basics thinking, that somehow if we could go back to simpler times that everything would be better. It may be a much deeper psychological desire to break from our current reality in an effort to feel more in control of our lives. And for those who see themselves more pragmatically, more as realists, the nostalgic is nothing short of turning out backs on past in an attempt to ignore the hard truths learned from it. Nostalgia is, to some, nothing less that mindless escapism.

Memory is fiction, a professor once told me in the context of a class on the memoir. Or to quote pop songwriter Harry Nilsson “You see what you wanna see, and you hear what you wanna hear. Dig?” But we tend to view memory and nostalgia as a personal viewpoint. Where one’s memory of events might differ from another’s we see discord, each view colored through the lens of individual perspective. But what if – and ‘what if’ being the key component in storytelling – what if we could visit the past in a way that was physically approximate yet general enough to include all? What could be learned from a backward-looking utopia that can be applied to our current lives, that could tell us something about ourselves?

This is the Disneyland Theory writ large.

Walt Disney unabashedly embraced nostalgia for entertainment purposes, for business purposes, but also as a way of creating a utopic vision of the past that could be experienced the way it might have been. He was clear that he wasn’t attempting to whitewash the past so much as he was trying to capture the essence of it. In this way his amusement park is the visual equivalent of igniting the imagination the same way a smell can rekindle specific memories of time and place. There are some smells that can instantly remove me from the moment and take me back forty years and instantly unlock moments I haven’t thought of since they first happened.

One of Disney’s early visions for the park included a big top circus that would have smelled like sawdust and cotton candy and been void of the rank carnies and drunken clowns. This circus tent never happened for practical reasons but it can’t be ignored that Disney was attempting to actually distort the experience of a big top circus rather than create an inviting fantasy. His personal memory as a child was not of a circus as it might have been but how it really was – full of scary, ugly adults that intruded upon his experience. There was no blind nostalgia, and his attempt to recreate an ideal circus based only on selective details would not have worked. And he had to know this on some level because he didn’t attempt to let his personal nostalgia enter into the design for the rest of the park.

What we do find in Disneyland is a general nostalgia, a composite of ideas from the past presented into a seamless pastiche that allows the South Pacific to merge with Old West which fades into New Orleans. There are details that suggest these different parts of the world, at different times in history, but rather than being sanitized they are simply an armature upon which park guests use their own experiences to complete the imagery. Rather than remain a passive observer of this nostalgia, as with the circus, guests move around and place themselves within the settings. Sitting in a small boat between a galleon and a walled city one doesn’t observe pirates at siege so much as one is caught in the middle of the experience: cannons roar, cannon balls splash the water (and park guests in the boats), the smell of water mingles with the mineral oil smoke in the air. There is no way any park guest could be reliving the personal nostalgia of events from 150 years previous. This is all part of the collective nostalgia.

We call on this collective nostalgia all the time in fiction. We rely on details of time and place to paint a picture in the minds of a reader as a way of gaining entrance to the story. Books that fail to provide enough details are viewed as inferior, books that are inaccurate to our knowledge and sense of setting are dismissed. But fiction is more than a collection of details and facts, it includes emotion evoked through words and actions. We take out own experiences and emotions and insert them freely as surrogates into the fictional characters we read about and, in turn, come to see through the character’s eyes.

It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest by using details to tease out our own personal memories and experiences that Disneyland employs the elements fiction to allow us to view the past through a lens of our creation.

Every time I go to the park I have a strange dissociative moment at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. As the boat leaves the dock and drifts through the faux bayou, with the LED fireflies on wires just above the surface of the water, drifting past the concrete banyan trees, I can’t help but feel like I’m floating though someplace I used to visit as a boy. But I never grew up in the south, never spent any days in my childhood floating in a boat on calm waters at night, never saw a banyan tree or fireflies until I was nearly 30 years old… but I had seen and done all these things before in fiction. The nostalgia of place that the ride provided was built on a base buried deep in stories, and together the fiction of literature and the fiction of place fused to become something that was at once very real and totally imaginary. But I had experienced it, felt it, and it churned up an emotion that was not at all unpleasant.

The memory is fiction, the fiction, memory. The nostalgia becomes the real, and vice versa. And what we learn is the value that can be gleaned from nostalgia is no less “true” as the resonant details of fiction. Nostalgia doesn’t ignore or rewrite history, people do by trying to manipulate nostalgia for their own purposes.

Yes, I know there are plenty of people who hate Disney, Disneyland, and everything the corporate Disney empire touches. Admittedly, I am at times conflicted because I think Disney and Co. get five things wrong for every one thing they get right. Maybe the ratio is higher than that. But where Walt Disney himself was involved the decisions were a little more personal, more intuitive, less calculated, which I think is why the park works on a number of levels for visitors. Granted, cultural mistakes have been made, history seemingly subverted, but not to the point of revisionism. Not initially at least. I’m not a Disney apologist, both the man and the organization have committed grave mistakes in the past. My point is only that, as an idea, using nostalgia as a lens through which people can revisit and experience the emotional truth within the fiction is not a misguided or evil approach. It is simply another way of looking at story.

Disney, the man, was a storyteller, and he knew how to churn up the emotional elements better than most. He understood this in animation and film, and he understood this to the core in designing the park that bears his name. The lasting success of Disneyland comes from a recognition that providing people with a physical location on which guests can overlay their own narratives – or even invent new ones – is a thing that feeds the soul. Stories, connection, memories, sensations, experiences… they are the things we actively seek out, and in doing so we build upon a certain level of nostalgia that is both personal and universal.

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A while back I was talking about my affinity for The Magic Kingdom when I outlined that I had three distinct theories about what it is that draws me in to this hyper-real park. I had it brought to my attention recently that I am two parts behind on my discourse, thus we have part two.

In the first part of my personal theory I talked about the idea of place, the magic of treasure maps.  This time around, it’s all about this idea of strangely familiar.

What is it about a place, a face, a smell, a laugh, what is it that triggers the neuro pathways in the brain to react the way they do?  Could there be something more than a mere connection, something less visible than the flipping of switches in the brain?  And if so, how does Disney’s land-of-lands trigger those responses?

I was a senior in high school when I went on the Pirates of Caribbean ride for the umpteenth time.  I had been on the ride so many times I could practically narrate the ride blindfolded, down to the turns in the path and the details in the treasure rooms.  But this one time it was nearly dusk outside and the transition through the ride and brought the overall light down to the same level as inside the queue area.  When we boarded the boats it was as if the transition between outside and inside had been a long, seemless fade not only in light but in time.  As the boats left the docks and we floated aimlessly through the faux bayous of New Orleans before the first drop into the underworld I had a strange thought:  I’ve been here before.

I’m not talking about the ride, but that sense of deja vu where you find yourself in a place you know you’ve never been to before but is perfectly familiar.  Had Disney’s magic pixie dust finally convinced me from previous visits that this was an authentic recreation of the real deal, was my deja vu an unearthed memory of having been on the ride as a child come back to haunt like the ghost of my childhood?

Okay, I’m talking about reincarnation and past life resonance.

Most of the time I find the word reincarnation tends to make people think of coming back in another life as a bug, or people who think Shirley MacLaine and people who claim to have once been African priestesses, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.  It’s also a little more mundane and perhaps a little more commonplace than most people might think.

For a moment, imagine that we do come around on this earth more than once. Whether its in your belief system or not, just do the old ‘what if?’ game for a moment.  What is the point of reincarnation, of returning to this world, if not to have gained some sort of wisdom or perspective from the past?  And what better way to kindle the embers of that perspective than through this sense of deja vu, the familiarity of feeling and place?

Disneyland contains jungles and savannas, trees and animals out of place in Southern California but placed within their carefully planned and landscaped contexts.  If you could see through the walls of the rides you’d find dinosaurs mere feet away from pirates, turn-of-the-century America facing frontier America, Abe Lincoln speaking (or at least he used to) yards away from the Grand Canyon and a rocket on its way ito space.  Look around.  Gothic cottages are within eyesight of alpine chateaux.  The cobblestones of a castle lead to the Gold Rush and, just ab it further, a Polynesian shack.  There are plants from all over the world, details taken from cultures and centuries, carefully orchestrated so as not to stand out so jarringly when juxtaposed.  In Disnesyland, the world slips in and out of time, in and out of location, turning the modern visitor into a time traveler.

Every once in a while the traveler stumbles.  It’s the color of the stone painted just-so, or maybe the fake fireflies darting above the water on wires.  Suddenly a door is opened and the fake becomes the real, the memory of the old flushes forward into the new, and body pumps adrenaline in response.  We recognize the moment but we don’t know how or why.

And how do we respond?  A nervous laugh.  We shake it off.  Weird, we say, I just had a moment of deja vu.  We don’t investigate further, but we are suddenly more aware of our surroundings.

What Disneyland does is provide for an optimum of opportunity to revisit pasts, both real and imagined, in a coccoon of safety.  Some would call it sanitized, as much of what Disney tackles in its films is a sanitized version of something else in the guise of being family-friendly.

In a familiar parlor game, if you could visit any time in the history of the planet — and come back home unharmed and without having altered history in the visit — what would it feel like?  Would it feel as engaging as if those times were our very own, or would there be a calculated distance in our approach? Could we imagine ourselves fitting seamlessly among the people, settling in among the villages and towns as comfortably as if they were old favorite clothes in the closet?

Would it feel, maybe a little, like you were at Disneyland?

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I see teens and hipster kids wearing the various Hargreaves characters all the time.  You know, the Mr. Men and Little Miss booklets that showcased a variety of moods and behaviors?  No?  Go here for a refresher, then continue.

Okay, so it’s no secret that I wanted to be an animator when I grew up.  Grow up.  When I was eleven I announced that’s what I would be.  I wasn’t going to let a little thing like a lack of drawing talent get in the way.  I share the same birthday as some famous animator dude, so why couldn’t that just sort of, you know, rub off?

That I didn’t become an animator, and how I didn’t, is a much longer story for another time.  But I love keeping tabs on animators and visit about as many animator’s blogs as I do kidlit writer’s blogs.  I can’t help it.  It’s just never going to go away.  One of those bloggers is Nate Wragg.  I love this thing he has for yeti.  His style speaks to my love of mid-century modern, the 1950s visual style of Disney’s Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom.  One day (when I win the lottery or a MacArthur Foundation grant) I will buy some of his work.

Right now, though, he’s done a brilliant thing and created, for fun, Roger Hargreaves-type characters to match the current American political race.  If someone were to make a t-shirt with these two side by side I think I could afford that.  Do, go check it out.

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What is it that it is – this theory of mine. Well, this is what it is – my theory that I have, that is to say, which is mine, is mine…
Miss Anne Elk

I get this way any time someone mentions going to Disneyland as an adult, this need to defend both the park and my conflicted love of The Magic Kingdom. I start to think of all the ways I’ve been able to explain and express what is, ultimately, a personal affinity for a place that, as Monica has pointed out over at educating alice quite succinctly, is both fake and good.

In my mind I tend to break down my theories about Disneyland into three rough categories. The first is the Treasure Map Theory which has a lot to do with experiencing the park when I was still young enough to believe whole-heartedly in the worlds contained in books. The second I alternately think of ad the Deja Vu Theory or the Reincarnation Theory, depending on who I’m talking to, and it is the oddest of the bunch. The last of these is the Theory of Telescoping Nostalgia that isn’t only a theory about the park but about the perception of time and place according to the age and knowledge of the visitor.

Today I am going to talk as best I can about the Treasure Map Theory. Depending on how this goes I will try and set out the other two theories within the course of the next month.

I’m not sure if I was five or six, but it was around my birthday that I went to Disneyland. I have fleeting memories of specific places and scenes within the park, like mental snapshots; strand of hair getting caught in the mouth of a tiki in the Enchanted Tiki Room; the humidity in the tunnel along the Disneyland Railroad that made the dinosaur dioramas uncomfortably realistic; a tease of what it would mean to be a worldly traveler (in the mind of a small boy) while riding the Small World attraction. But none of these (and other) images is as strong as me, at home after my day at the park, sprawled out on my belly on the living room floor studying The Map.

Compared to the map of the park as it is now, Disneyland circa 1967 looked like a quaint roadside tourist attraction. In it’s first dozen years the park we still back-filling into areas that had been designed for expansion (as opposed to today where Disney Imagineers seemed to have succeeded in building worm holes into space to accommodate added attractions). On that map, the Jungle Boat cruise appears to take up a full one-quarter of the park. This is mere creative license as the scope and scale of rides is played up or down in order to make the park not look so empty.

But these aren’t the concerns of my young eyes. To me The Map was as real as any map to pirate treasure. With it I could trace my steps to various attractions, find those attractions I missed or longed to visit when I was old enough (and brave enough in the case of the Matterhorn) ride. The Map didn’t have roads or highways like boring adult maps, it had paths and passages, and areas of adventure grouped by theme instead of dull cities named after people no one remembered. The Map held out the promise of things to come and the visual proof of things seen. With no knowledge of what Disneyland was or what specific attractions offered, one could invent entire narratives around those rivers and vegetation.

The whole idea of a theme park was still new — innocence plays a large roll in how Disneyland works with young minds — and the idea that one could gambol from a Western village complete with pack mules to a Rocket to the Moon within minutes was hard to fathom.

The “treasure” within the map differs from person to person, and is as personal as any path a life will follow. With so much to see it is impossible for the overloaded brain to take it all in, but somewhere along the way specific moments catch and become cemented as core memories for the experience. The Map becomes the key that unlocks the memory and builds a bridge between the fantasy, the real, and the remembered. Disneyland takes the fantasy of Injun Joe’s caves from the books and gives them a real home on Tom Sawyer Island. The Map recalls the memory of both, by name and by experience. It validates the fantasy locale, and lends a certain weight of verisimilitude to those that have yet to be encountered.

The Map promises: “This is a record of these places that exist. And they do not exist only here.”

Many years later, when I first went to Europe, I had a strange dissociative moment. In the architecture of the the old buildings, the crooked paths of narrow streets and the distressed paint on old plaster, I suddenly felt I had wandered into an adult Disneyland. I wasn’t so sheltered or naive that I couldn’t perceive that it was Disneyland that copied the rest of the world, but I hadn’t fully expected to have those childhood feelings of joy and discovery come rushing back so strongly. Even in a small college town like Heidelberg with it’s “minor schloss” (a smaller, less-important castle), it was impossible not to wander through with a huge grin plastered across my face. Disneyland has Cinderella’s castle, a charming little passage way through to Fantasyland, but in a way it not only gave me the appreciation for the real thing, it validated the promise that castles were real. What comes across as “fake” in Disneyland implies there is a something “real” in the world worth searching for.

I suspect that to the jaded world traveler, and to those with a disdain for fantasy and the physical re-creation of past eras, Disneyland can come across as crass and obnoxious. But to a boy who knew only the dusty streets of of his Southern California town, who watched a show called “The Wonderful World of Color” on a black-and-white TV every Sunday night, there was a place full of the most amazing things I could imagine and plenty more I’d never even considered.

And I had The Map to prove it.

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