Thursday, November 16, 2006

'The Hopes of Progress'

While reading the novel Saturday by Ian McEwan, I ran across this passage I wanted to share. Take from it what you will, but it seemed very relevant to the ongoing discussion of why Epcot has sunk so low and what it means about the "creative" minds at Disney. The bold highlight is mine:

He remembers some lines from Medawar, a man he admires [note: the reference is to Peter Medawar, 1960 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine]: "To deride the hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind." ...

"But if the present dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods, certainly in this city, lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended life-spans, wondrous machines. This is an age of wondrous machines. Whole music libraries held in an object the size of a child's hand. Cameras that can beam their snapshots around the world. Effortlessly, he ordered up the contraption he's riding in now through a evice on his desk via the Internet. The computer-guided stereotactic array he used yesterday has transformed the way he does biopsies. Digtialised
[sic] entertainment binds [a] couple walking hand in hand, listening through a Y-socket to their personal stereo."

I read this passage and wondered ... where is our generation’s celebration of our world, our life? Isn't that, at its core, what EPCOT Center was and why it worked so well?

It reminded us of how much we had to be happy about, and how much happiness and improvement to our lives was still to come. It reminded us of who we were at that time, how fortunate we were to live in that time – and every once in a while chastised us very lightly for not doing more to be even more interested in our world.

It wasn't about princesses and caballeros and cartoon clownfish singing songs and imploring you to be happy and irritate your parents.

That's why I'm so disappointed: As a result of its changes, Epcot itself has begun (intentionally or by accident?) “to deride the hopes of progress” – to present exactly the wrong subconscious and contextual messages than it was intended to offer.

And, by extension, these changes to Epcot have shed light on what Disney itself has become – a country that values quick financial results over the long-term continued growth and expansion of its creative side; an organization that, for all the "happiness" it claims to offer, has developed a terrible and quite real “poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.”

It’s my hope that EPCOT will one day begin to celebrate again, to champion and proclaim the future and the world around us as worthy of optimism, of moving toward continuous and never-ending progress.

Some may believe that's a silly and naive goal (you have made yourself very clear in your e-mails), but I think it remains a noble cause, one that not only reaps accretive – but substantial – economic rewards for the company but also even greater intangible rewards such as motivating and inspiring new generations to believe in something much more than simple commercialism. For even in its previous, sponsor-heavy incarnation, the messages that came across most clearly were that people were thinking about, working on and creating a better world, not simply that our future would be brought to us by AT&T, Exxon and United Technologies.

EPCOT Center was magnanimous in spirit, was kind and gentle of nature, was of an inspiring, active and enviable mind. Those are not words that even the most lenient among us who care about this place would say about Epcot.

Where is the spirit of the old EPCOT? Can it be rescued? I hope so ... because , to steal a line from the old That's Entertainment, boy, do we need it now.

The future, as it existed in 1982, looks back kindly on EPCOT Center, not because it was perfect, but because it tried, and that in and of itself was admirable and wonderful.

The future of 2006, I am afraid, will not look back so kindly on Epcot nor on the Walt Disney Company that steadily and (I believe, more and more) quite intentionally oversaw the destruction of a cultural institution that existed so well, so lovingly, for nearly a century.


Postscript (Nov. 17, 2006): I did a bit more research into the speech that Peter Medawar gave in 1969 that contains the line quoted above. It is an incredibly rich, difficult speech to read, but for anyone interested in his observations on society and progress -- honestly, for anyone seriously interested in why EPCOT Center proved to be so much more than many people perceived and why its recent failings are so monumentally disappointing -- Medawar's speech is really remarkable and highly recommended. He may have given the speech 37 years ago, but it remains extraordinarily relevant.


Anonymous said...

What is the spirit of the old EPCOT? You said it: Optimism.

A few years ago, I heard a song in the background of a radio promo spot for Marketplace on NPR. I was so excited that I called the studio and got an engineer to tell me what it was.

The song is "Papillon" by David Arkenstone. It's one of the prominent themes -- perhaps the most recognizable one -- in the background music played in Innoventions Plaza at Epcot. I fell in love with that music on my honeymoon in 1994, sat on a bench in that plaza on every trip after that just to listen to that music -- and, finally, identified it, bought it (my first-ever purchase on the iTunes Store), and played it. It's the most-played song on my iPod.

"Papillon" always sounded, to me, like hope for the future. It's the music of optimism. I walked under Spaceship Earth that first time (riding it on the way through), emerged into the open space surrounding the fountain, and was greeted by that music and the atmosphere of Innoventions Plaza '94 -- and Epcot has been the home of my heart ever since.

Future World: The future of science, technology, and commerce is bright and welcoming. World Showcase: The future of the international community is bright and welcoming. And, when it arrived, Reflections of Earth: The very future of humanity is bright and welcoming.

Hope for the future. Optimism.

The spirit is diminished or overshadowed in many places now, but it's nothing that can't be restored.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post St. Chris!! It's exactly what we should all be thinking. EPCOT Center always told us to be optimistic of what the future holds and I still carry that bold message with me today, even in a tainted world. When it comes to Epcot, I think more of us need to hope for the best rather than whine about the worst.

Epcot82 said...

I never mean to come across as "whining." As I explained some time ago, I offer up criticisms that I think are valid and that I hope shine light on where EPCOT/Epcot could be improved.

While it may come across simply as "whining" or being a "fuddy-duddy" (still my favorite!), I clearly am in no position myself to affect change, as I would be in a democratic or civic process. Thus, my best hope is to continue expressing my opinions, urging improvement and hoping that someone who does have the ability to make changes is reading ... and caring.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a point between the two. The thing about the current Epcot is that it is living a double life. While some of the original attractions were wonderful, I can justify and, in fact, latch onto the change to M:S, TT, and Soarin'. I would even say I:ROE is much more in line with EPCOT Center than any "new" attraction ever has been. It is the simultaneous change to the "childfriendly" that is the issue. EPCOT Center was challenging and lofty. Epcot has the potential to be challenging but fun (in the more conventional sense). I think celebrating what we have done as a species can be equal to (albeit different) than the optimism of the original EPCOT Center.

The point is that Epcot celebrates accomplishment, culture, and, vicariously, invention. In a way, it has become more cohesive in this than it was (sort of like WDW's TL before it's (first) renovation). I imagine what Epcot would be with a largely redone non-Nemo Seas, a Pirates-style renovated IMAG, and a large replacement for WOL. Add in a country or two, along with replaced films for Canada, ERDT, IDF, and AA, and we'd have one heck of an evolved, but not changed park.

Captain Schnemo said...

I think "poverty of spirit and meanness of mind" hits the nail on the head. To be cynical to children is to be unforgivably cruel.

Many of the new animated films, which rely on pop culture references and knowing winks to the audience, also fall into this trap of robbing children of wonder. Children are rarely allowed a simple rollicking good time, adventure in the name of adventure. There's almost always some element of irony, which is the coward's way out of daring someone to take to your work seriously.

I believe Miyazaki's movies are so hugely successful in Japan, because they refuse to take the easy way out. They are reminiscent of classic (and not necessarily PC) Disney that is so out of fashion these days.

As was mentioned before, Test Track and Mission: Space are both "simulations". In a sense, all Disney attractions are simulations, but in those two, there is the added, unnecessary layer of falseness. They are simulations of simulations.

"Don't look at real fish, enjoy our artificial substitutes!" "Don't use your imagination, we'll toss one at you with no work necessary on your part!"

When you look at the best of the new breed of attractions (such as Spider-Man), they, like Miyazaki, have learned the lesson classic Disney has taught us and give us a full-on good time, with no reservations.

Epcot82 said...

Nicely put, Captain. It can be no coincidence that Tokyo DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland are creatively much richer and more successful -- and, at the same time, that Japanese audiences (and, indeed, audiences outside of the U.S. in general) have made Miyazaki's films so phenomenally successful.

We, meanwhile, turn the hard-edged "Shrek" movies into big hits and get our kids to watch "High School Musical," which appeals to virtually no one over the age of 14.

We live in cynical times, and our entertainment reflects that ... and very little serious thought seems to have been put into the question of what kind of adults will come out of this environment!

Captain Schnemo said...

As you've probably noticed, I am a cynical crank myself, but I feel that proper cynicism should be earned. If you get to cynicism by way of crushed idealism, that's fine with me, but if you just mock everything in society simply because you've been taught that everything is a joke, I don't really think you've earned the right to be taken seriously.

It's easy to be a rebellious teen who thinks everything adults say is crap, but it's a far more interesting person who can distinguish the windbags from those who are worthy of your time and respect.

It usually blows people's minds when they discover that I am such a Disney fanboy, but that's only because they don't understand who Disney was. They think they do, because the have bought into the late night talk show host capsule summary of Disney-as-punchline that makes him so easy to dismiss.

I've recently shown a few friends some of those Tomorrowland DVDs, and after seeing them, they totally get it. Here's a futurist who isn't talking out of his butt, is totally serious, but at the same time is entertaining the hell out of you in an irony-free manner.

I'm sort of rambling now, but another tangential point I'd like to make is that scientific studies have shown that young (but older than you'd expect) children don't even understand sarcasm. Never mind the questionable lessons or morals kids derive from much of modern entertainment, they aren't even being properly entertained. The one thing those shows are meant to do is not even being done correctly.

Another point is that trends are irrelevant when you're talking about children's entertainment, because kids are always a fresh audience. Children are always going to enjoy Dumbo, Bambi, Peter Pan, Snow White, etc., because those are solid stories, well-told and skillfully-crafted. They don't know that they're tragically unhip, unless someone tells them.

Shrek isn't a bad movie, but it's not really a kids film. They won't get half the jokes, and while I understand that they tried to make a film that entertains the parents as well as the children, that doesn't mean that so much of the content has to be useless to half the audience.

Contrast that with something like Finding Nemo, where children and adults are laughing and reacting to the same elements. There is still room for this kind of straightforward entertainment (check the box office receipts), but I will admit that it's more difficult to make entertainment that you're not trying to brush off as a goof.

Anonymous said...

Dead on, Schnemo. Dead on.

I'm gonna have that first paragraph of yours engraved.

Finding Nemo is one of my all-time favorite movies, belonging with one other Disney classic -- no. No, Nemo isn't a Disney film; it's a Pixar film. Criminy, Eisner gave up on Nemo. Uh, but I was saying something. Ah, yes: It belongs with one Disney classic: Mary Poppins.

For a very long time -- from late childhood or my early teens, after my memory of Mary Poppins had faded -- I regarded it as a sappy kids' movie, an example of why everyone should regard Disney with cynicism. Why? Because everyone else's cynicism got into my head, I guess. But, again: This was when I'd pretty much forgotten the movie.

When my kids were 5 and 3, we got a tape of Mary Poppins. For some reason, every time they watched it for the first few months, I only saw about the first half of it with them -- up to the scene at the bank -- but had other things to do, so I missed the rest. My opinion did not change; I saw little but a sweet, overall insubstantial kid's amusement.

Then, one day, I watched the whole thing. If you've forgotten it too, listen to me: As soon as the bank scene ends, Mary Poppins is a different movie. The first half is important as setup, but the second half contains the depth of the story. I was transfixed. Instantly, and permanently, Mary Poppins became my favorite movie of all time.

There is not a shred of cynicism in it. There is also no villain! No "evil"! None! There are only people acting according to their motivations, none of them out to hurt anyone -- all conflict is against inconvenient nature (which is, of course, really an observation on our own naive concepts of "convenience") and people trying to do what they feel is right. Finding Nemo is the same way. I feel that these two films are closer to the true heart of Disney than any others, especially the "modern classic" run from The Little Mermaid through Mulan.

Whoa! How far off course am I? What was I saying...oh, yes. I meant to get to this point: Shrek's Academy Award was a travesty, in the face of Monsters, Inc., which was a better film in all ways.

Okay, how do I tie this back to Epcot.

Well, again, it's about the spirit. Cynicism sneers at optimism. Optimism -- true optimism -- looks upon cynicism with bemusement or exasperation or both, but has no need to sling insults in return. Cynics don't understand this reaction, so they conclude that they're unrebuttable. (Wow! What a word! Say that! "Unrebuttable"!) Optimism, I suspect, must sometimes take sword in hand, if only to cut the Gordian knot.