Sunday, January 18, 2009

Great Moments 2002

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Jan. 18 - Originally printed in Punk Planet, June 2002.

When one attends Disneyland on the 10th anniversary of the L.A. riots, one must be careful to pay their respects to Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. Housed in the Main Street Opera House, nestled under the private quarters of the Disney family, Great Moments is the nagging conscience of the park. I list the ride's particulars here only for PP's European readers, unaccustomed to our ways; A muscular android in a funny beard lectures vacationing Americans on the responsibilities of Freedom. The concept is so intentionally hokey that it's hard to remember the spectacle this must've presented to our ancestors of the last century. A lot of time and love went into building the big guy. Each artificial face muscle cost $600 in 1966 money. Every knuckle and finger joint fires a tiny piston. The exhibit is also a space-hogging flop that occupies some of the most desired real estate on the planet. According to rumor, Disney The Company would've long since pulled a John Wilkes Booth, if not for Disney The Man's deathbed decree: no one touches the Lincoln robot. So Abe stays powered up, orating from beyond the grave, frequently to a half dozen people or less. Much has been written about the content of mechaniAbe's jumbled speech, neglecting the much creepier truth that almost no one watches the thing. Does a presidential speech make a sound if no one hears it?

So unpopular is Great Moments that it didn't merit even a passing mention, when I visited last year, on the schedule of closed rides outside the park. I had to pay up and enter before finding the small sign explaining that our 16th president was "closed for repairs". The whole thing smacked of conspiracy, of sarcastic sacrifice to the gods of a now-forgotten California power crisis. But the emptiness of the exhibit antechamber spooked me. Something sinister loomed from the murk beyond the velvet ropes. The only thing more unsettling than the thought of Honest Abe jiggling and pontificating to an empty room, I realized, is the thought of a deactivated Abe, slumped in his seat and brooding in darkness. I nervously walked next door, to the Great Moments gift shop (GMWML, like all the best Disney rides, dumps its audiences into a store). Behind a rack of Styrofoam goofy hats I could see the thin curtain that separated the real world from the exhibit exit. No one was watching. I could easily have slipped behind that barrier, into the unknown. I stood immobilized. Did my hesitation stem from fear of Disneyland police? Or was I just plain yellow to face the Great Emancipator one on one, in the unlit chamber that had been his prison for the last 35 years?

This year I again didn't see Great Moments on the closed list and took this for a bad omen. But Abe was open for business. A man in a frock coat bid me to join a family of four. We gathered in the center of the foyer. Last time I'd whiffed that familiar, old-timey Americana scent was spring 2001, and I was entering the White House. It is the smell of a room that is repainted every week and recarpeted every month. So similar are these smells that I racially profiled my fellow White House tourists with ease: the Americans were the ones sniffing helplessly and looking towards a massive bronze head of Lincoln like it was going to bust into song.

Frock Coat Man started his spiel. He looked a little too much like the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. I had somehow forgotten that half the exhibit is dedicated to the life of Walt Disney and is, in fact, now called The Walt Disney Story Featuring Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. We examined a replica of Disney's old Burbank office. Walt: I love the man for his works and I love the man for his morbidly obese ego, alive still. The family of four started to wander off. Philip Seymour Hoffman kept right on talking, discussing the pedigree of various Disney bric-a-bracs scattered about the glass-enclosed room. Some of the same philosophical weirdness was afoot: If I were to walk off as well, would this man keep talking? Did this man give his lecture when no one was present, opening the great exhibit doors to usher vast throngs of nobody into the empty, air conditioned theater?

We were given special headphones. I came to understand that the show had been revamped. Lincoln really had been closed for repairs last year. We sat in the theater chairs and the house lights dimmed. All dialogue was beamed directly into the headsets using wireless binaural stereo, a brutally realistic recording process involving head-shaped microphones. The new intro followed a young Civil War soldier through every life event that could be rendered in gimmicky aural 3-D... haircut, mosquito, war, leg amputation, several visits by Abe. Loud battle scenes ensued. A military hospital was invoked. Frederick Douglass popped by. By the time the curtains parted to reveal the Great Robot himself, I had gone through the concentrated emotional manipulation of 6 E.R. episodes. I wasn't sure if I should be crying, but I did know that I would fight to the death to protect Space Mountain.

The thing spoke. Lincoln's old speech was gone, lost to the sands of time. It had been replaced with a soggier Gettysburg Address. What's worse, he started his speech already standing. This detail is key - the most stirring moment in the old Lincoln shtick occurred when he rose up on his own two feet. Rarely is so much conveyed with one gesture - the glory of FDR and Christopher Reeve freed from their earthly bonds, the bittersweet salute from America's pioneering past, the unsettling threat from America's automated future. I've experienced this moment only once before, during a Patrick Henry reenactment in St. John's church in Richmond, VA. (although it was General Washington who drew the watery-eyed silence from the packed pews, rising wearily to stand for a mere cameo). It was great theater.

Now Lincoln sits down. All that's missing is the mechanical Simba the Lion King or some shit to slip him a whoopie cushion. The lights went up. I and the family of four were ushered through the TWDSFGMWML gift shop and deposited, blinking, into the sunlight of Main Street. The reality of war was replaced by the more real reality of the real world. There is a whole market in this type of Disney deconstructionism, so I won't belabor the obvious questions. Except one: what fragments of modern day turmoil will eventually get eased into mass merriment? Will the LA Riots, already a decade smoothed, become entertainment for the future? Is that any more absurd than a Civil War theme park show? Private Jim Cunningham - the young man who lost a leg - was a real person. Come to think of it, so was Abraham Lincoln. What would Abe do if confronted with his own android simulacrum? Well, he'd probably start by shrieking like a schoolgirl.


1. Bold Thought: the Al Qaeda boys should be flown directly from Guantanamo Bay to Disneyland and made to sit through Lincoln's speech. Having joined the elite club whose only other members consist of Lee Harvey Oswald and the yippies - those who have forced an emergency shutdown of the entire Disneyland facility - these guys should now pay the price. Americans of all political stripes could get behind the field trip. Liberals would applaud the attempt to teach terrorists about representative democracy. Conservatives would delight in the obvious discomfort, confusion and outright terror of the captives. Everyone wins.

2. Speaking of elite clubs, I would like to announce that another year has passed without my joining one. I turned 23 the day of the L.A. riots, which made me the proper age, on the riot's 10th anniversary, to attempt entry into Disneyland's 33 Club. This is the secret establishment located just above the Pirates ride. It's the only place in the park one can drink alcohol and admission starts in the high five figures. This day, by my logic, would be my only chance to see the place on grounds of birthday sympathy. I knocked on their secret door at around noon. A guy in sports casuals answered, said he was just a guest but that I really shouldn't bother and security, I must understand, was extra cautious these days and he was sorry but in his opinion my quest was a futile one and as I peeked over his shoulder at the rather modest digs a tiny voice in my head said move along, whitey.

3. Abe's original speech was adapted from a 1838 address. His subject, racial violence, was stripped of context and re-edited to deliver a cold war message. Lefty historian Eric Foner caught wind of this during a visit to the Florida park, complained, and got himself hired by Disney to spruce up the history. You gotta admire any company that can ruffle feathers and court allies across such a wide political spectrum. Environmentalists don't like their park policies, Baptists don't like Gay Day, historians don't like their robot speeches. Earlier this year, the local Mexica Movement called for a "complete Disney boycott". The reason? A planned Disney film about Emiliano Zapata was to star Antonio Banderas, a Spaniard... "an insult to all indigenous people", and the same as "having Brad Pitt play Malcolm X or having Tom Hanks play Martin Luther King". Later, according to the LA Weekly, Disney canceled the entire project, prompting at least one anti-Banderas demonstration to briefly morph into an expression of outrage that Disney hadn't notified the protesters that they'd won their only demand.

4. I would go to movies more often if Tom Hanks portrayed MLK.