History in the faking

Recently Disney announced plans for a new resort hotel to include 20 four-story buildings grouped in pairs, with each pair themed to a different decade of the 20th century. The prospect should make any observer gleefully expectant in a rather mean way, like when it's announced that Keanu Reeves has been cast in a movie that requires him to use a British accent. You do a little sharp gasp, then a grin spreads as you wonder what kind of dreadful absurdity will make its way into the world for your amusement.

Whenever Disney switches off the nowhere-fantasy mode and aims for a modicum of cultural relevance, the results either fall flat or actively offend someone. Is there a reason this must be the case for this new hotel resort? Is there some law that decrees Disney can't pull off history?

Yes. It's the law of bland consensus, which, as far as the company is concerned, might as well be an unbending law of physics. Disney can't be Disney -- a company with assets the size of a European country's defense budget, a company that builds theme parks that make a 5-year-old squeal in never-before-heard octaves, a company that soothes the 5-year-old's parents into benign, floating complacency -- and at the same time be able to negotiate something as sloppy, multifaceted and contentious as history. Disney builds things in what art historian Karal Ann Marling calls "the architecture of reassurance," and therefore Disney can't do history because, when it comes right down to it, history is not reassuring.

Still, think of the possibilities for this resort hotel if Disney were willing to sidestep the desire for safety and reassurance -- in other words, to be accurate. Would everyone be clamoring to make reservations in the '60s, that brief idyll after the Pill but before AIDS, when sex really was a playground? The Beatles would be together, and, sigh, the Stones would be young.

But of course, if Disney actually were committed to history the '60s also would include things like civil-rights clashes. Will visitors be greeted by a row of snarling German shepherds straining against leashes held by white Alabama policemen?

The mind reels with the possibilities of this building-per-decade scheme. The reservations clerk would have to tell people staying in the '20s that, Prohibition still being law, there's no alcohol allowed. Not only would the 1930s be staffed with Works Progress Administration workers, but stockbrokers who just lost everything in the market crash would regularly plunge out of windows. Rationing coupons would get distributed when you checked into the 1940s, whose buildings, because of the brown-out, would be forever half-lit.

Even more startling would be the idea that these re-creations could start people thinking. How was Prohibition like today's war on drugs? Can't we thank the New Deal's WPA for everything from the interstate system to a body of stunning documentary photographs taken by artists paid by Franklin Roosevelt's administration? Is it therefore the federal government's role to create jobs and support the arts? But Disney being Disney (see definition above), such heated discussions don't take place on its property.

Disney has every right to avoid anything thoughtful or disconcerting if it wants, but at the same time the company is drawn to history like a drunk to gin, and maybe for some of the same reasons: to take control of this dingy world and turn it a hazy rose color. The fuzzy-minded, cheery, forgetful alcoholic can't venture very far beyond his bottle, however, without ruining the bliss; similarly, Disney can't travel very far into real events and maintain the controlled fantasy. No matter how thinly the company tries to slice history, they end up with something hidden and nasty that makes someone gag when taking a bite. Disney tries to depict world happiness at the end of millennium and finds itself mired in the grim politics of the Middle East. Disney builds Celebration to resemble an idyllic '50s small town where children can walk to school and meets with the ire of parents who don't like the education their kids are getting there.

Disney can't help but follow the law of bland consensus. Unfortunately, this law has a partner -- the rule of the overlooked blunder -- and the two go hand-in-hand. After all, consensus and reassurance might be possible in a fantasy land, but no one living in the real world can agree on much of anything. The real world completely lacks form and never ceases to thwart our desires. But while blunders are unfortunate for Disney, in this world they can still provide comic relief for the rest of us. For we can be sure that something somewhere in this new resort will be very, very silly.


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