Retro Review: The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

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Preface: In the Spring of 2002, I was completing doctoral studies in composition at Florida State University. I had finished my coursework and all I had left to do was compose my dissertation. Naturally, I did what anyone would do: I put it off in favor of researching and writing an in-depth article on the comic book character Howard the Duck. In retrospect this was a fairly obvious procrastination strategy, but it was also a natural outgrowth of reading and research on comics that I had been pursuing as a hobby when taking a break from my studies. FSU’s library was well-stocked with books and magazine collections covering the history of comics and related subjects, and as I became more serious I found additional resources online and used eBay to track down copies of hard-to-find comics and magazines, drawing on interviews and histories in my own work.

At the time, I thought I might eventually have enough material for a book, not only on Howard but on the full range of duck characters–from Donald and Daffy to Duckman and Mallard Fillmore–in comics and cartoons, and perhaps answer the question, “Why are ducks so over-represented among funny animal characters?” Was there something about ducks that made them funnier (the archetypal “duck character,” of which Howard is a prime example, is a sputtering, irascible hothead), or was it a matter of artists building on each others’ work, creating a self-perpetuating tradition? I had been a fan of Howard the Duck since much earlier, when I was collecting comics as a kid, but I now applied the rigor of my ongoing graduate studies in examining him.

The book never materialized, but I did complete an essay about Howard before my enthusiasm ran out and I turned to other responsibilities. After pitching the article in a few places without any luck, I put the essay and a big box of research materials away and got on with my dissertation (the composition that eventually became Carnival of Souls). I have alluded to this project occasionally before, but I recently found the disc (marked 5/13/02) on which I had saved the file and have decided to share it. Reading my work now, it is an obvious precursor to articles I have written for this blog (and its length seems now like only a medium-length blog post), and if I had maintained a website back then I probably would have just shared it that way. I seem to recall a more academic, and possibly longer, version of this article that included footnotes, but as yet it hasn’t turned up, and possibly never will.

Being now sixteen years old, there is much here that is either out of date or irrelevant: Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, died in 2008, critical of the comics industry and American society to the last; and Disney bought Marvel in 2009, making the corporate dispute detailed herein moot. The 2002 Marvel MAX series that was the timeliest element in the article is now a blip in Howard’s history; Howard himself has continued to appear in Marvel comics written by other writers, most notably Chip Zdarsky. Time and distance have softened the blow of the 1986 film fiasco, and the movie has a small but devoted cult of fans; Howard has even made cameo appearances in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, something that seemed utterly unlikely back in the early 2000s.

In presenting this essay, however, I am making no effort to update it beyond some minor editing of spelling and punctuation. It is a time capsule of one aspect of culture from 2002 and my thoughts on it, and clearly at least some of these subjects have been on my mind for a long time: regular readers of Medleyana will find arguments here that I have made in other forms in articles on Kamandi and Captain Carrot. Please enjoy this “blast from the past.”

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The Context and Continuity of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck

Creating a beloved fictional character is a double-edged sword: it is only a matter of time before readers and fellow writers want to get in on the act. “Genre” characters from mystery, fantasy and adventure stories are especially subject to embroidery: literary pastiches featuring such characters as Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and Zorro are common. Comic books and movies invite even more participation, in that both are collaborative arts with notoriously possessive fans. As a contemporary example, witness George Lucas’ love-hate relationship with Star Wars fans, alternately encouraging total identification with his created universe and legalistically quashing any unauthorized embroidering of it.

Until the last decade or so, mainstream comic book publishers (mainly Marvel and DC) kept sole ownership of their artists’ and writers’ creations as a matter of course. Since characters could stay around for (literally) decades and often “crossed over” between titles, company ownership was considered essential in maintaining continuity. A popular character was like a well-established brand, under the umbrella of the company itself, whose label also served as a brand. Even if a character were identified with a particular creator, there was an implicit understanding that heroes and villains lived or died at the company’s discretion, and artists and writers could be shuffled between titles by editorial fiat. The comic book artist or writer was an employee of the company. This has largely changed as big-name comic creators have gained enough clout to negotiate creative control, while others have developed publishing companies, such as Image, where characters automatically remain the property of the creators. An unlikely forerunner to this change in the industry was Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck (HTD).

Howard the Duck is mainly remembered (outside of comic readers) as the disastrous 1986 Hollywood movie, a film that was at first eagerly anticipated but whose name became synonymous with “bomb” in the 1980s. With Marvel publishing a new trade paperback, The Essential Howard the Duck, and a new Howard series with Gerber back in charge, it is worth examining why a movie version seemed like a good idea in the first place, and why the new series has been selling out since its first appearance in comic shops.

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As retold in the new collection, Howard came from a parallel universe, a world much like ours but inhabited by (depending on which version of the story you look at) either talking man-sized ducks or a mixture of different kinds of talking “funny” animals. Through a shift in the “Cosmic Axis” he was transported to the world of humans (“hairless apes”) and stuck there. As an unlikely visitor from another world, he played the classic “outsider” role, commenting on contemporary society’s flaws and absurdities from a perspective free of prejudices or preconceptions. During his run in the ‘70s, Howard crossed paths with cult leaders, sold-out politicians, pompous art critics, and similar pretenders, puncturing their pretensions with his common-sense observations and “don’t tread on me” attitude. In the post-Watergate, post-Woodstock years, when mistrust of the Establishment and doing your own thing weren’t just for hippies anymore, Howard captured a mood and spoke for it in a way that conventional superheroes just weren’t doing.

The “funny animal” tradition has deep roots in comics and animation. Talking animals that walk upright, wear clothes, and live in houses are so commonly linked to the stylized drawings of cartoons that they are hardly questioned as a narrative convention. The best known, of course, are the characters associated with Disney and Warner Bros., but in the early days of animation every studio featured some version of a funny animal character. For decades, animal characters were synonymous with children’s comics, even when executed with great artistry, as in the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics of Carl Barks.

During the “underground comix” boom of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, however, a number of artists began to appropriate funny animal characters to tell very different, more adult and intense stories. Their “not-so-funny” animals (to use Richard Gehr’s phrase) had sexual relationships, used four-letter words, and sometimes took drugs or became violent. The most famous of these underground funny animals is probably Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat; an early, short version of Art Spiegelman’s cats vs. mice Holocaust comic Maus was also published during this boom.

The motivation for reinterpreting animal characters in this manner was probably as varied as the artists drawing them. Undoubtedly there was a great deal of snarky irony to be had in showing beloved icons brought low, illustrating that the squeaky-clean Mickey Mouse and his pals “really” had feet of clay. Maus similarly jolts us by presenting a horrifying historical narrative in a visual context usually far removed from the realities of war; the distancing device of presenting humans as animals actually brings the reader closer to the horror of the war by poetically linking the childhood associations of talking mice and cats with the lost innocence of the war generation (particularly in Spiegelman’s earlier story, which was drawn in a more “cartoony” style than the full-length version). On the other hand, many underground cartoonists appeared to have a deep knowledge of and love for the cartoons of their childhoods; notwithstanding their often charged subject matter, the comix of Crumb, Kim Deitch, and others helped introduce the classic cartoon style of the ’20s and ’30s to a younger generation, emphasizing the hallucinatory quality of the Fleischer (Ko-Ko the Clown, Betty Boop) and early Disney cartoons.

Given the resurgence of interest in classic funny animals and the popularity of their underground counterparts, it is not surprising that publishers in the 1970s would promote a mainstream funny animal aimed at an adult (or at least adolescent) audience. What is surprising is that Howard the Duck was created almost by accident and was nearly killed off after his first appearance; fan pressure encouraged his return and fueled his early success.

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Relaxation of the Comics Code (a voluntary set of content restrictions that guaranteed mass distribution, originally adopted in the 1950s to placate parents and would-be censors) in the early 1970s allowed mainstream publishers to sell not-too graphic horror-themed comics. One of Marvel’s titles, Fear (a.k.a. Adventure into Fear), featured a swamp-dwelling misfit named Man-Thing, the lesser-known counterpart to DC’s competing Swamp Thing. Fear’s writer, Steve Gerber, produced thoughtful stories on such issues as environmental destruction and cruelty among teenagers, but also gave free reign to a strong sense of whimsy and the absurd. Searching for a surprising, ridiculous image for a sword-and-sorcery tale in 1973, Gerber instructed artist Val Mayerik to come up with a talking duck to include alongside the standard muscular barbarian and robed wizard. The then-unnamed duck, with his first lines “Aw, clam up, bud! You don’t even know the meaning of the word [absurdity]!” suggested to Mayerik a cigar-smoking crank in a rumpled jacket and tie. This early version of the duck affected an Edward G. Robinson sneer (“Okay, creeps–here’s where you get yours, see?”).

Gerber got the effect he was aiming for, but a talking duck didn’t set the right tone for a horror-fantasy comic, so Howard was removed. That was when the fans began demanding more of the Duck; one Canadian went so far as to mail a duck carcass to Marvel’s editorial office. “Murderers, how dare you kill off this duck?” the included note read. Responding to a grass-roots letter campaign, and following Gerber’s instinct that there was something to the character, Howard the Duck began appearing as a backup feature in Man-Thing’s title, and eventually assumed the leading role in his own book.

Howard found himself in Cleveland, a more mundane and down-to-earth setting than in Marvel’s usual stories, and quickly gathered a group of eccentric characters around him: primarily Beverly Switzler, the beautiful hairless ape who would become his companion and (later) lover; struggling artist Paul Same; and the gentle Winda Wester, whose distinguishing feature was her Elmer Fudd-like speech impediment. Together they encountered antagonists who were frequently odder than Howard himself, such as Dr. Bong, who parodied both Marvel’s own Dr. Doom and the rock critic Lester Bangs. Sometimes their adventures parodied conventional superheroics, or the tropes of gothic horror, space opera, or kung-fu movies; often the situations they found themselves in were just nutty, but the best stories were grounded in day-to-day reality. Unlike most mainstream comics, Howard and his friends were often unemployed, underemployed, or swept up in events beyond their control. One of Howard’s most memorable foes was the Kidney Lady, a deranged bus passenger who frequently accused Howard of being a member of the “international kidney-poisoning conspiracy.” Without super-powers, the Kidney Lady was as fearsome in her own way as any of the would-be world-conquerors populating other comics.

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Also unlike many comic books, the heroes of HTD were deeper and more interesting than villains they faced. Indeed, hero vs. villain fisticuffs were beside the point: Howard’s “real” opponent was the spreading corporate influence on American culture and consumer fetishism in its insidious forms. Villains were frequently consumer products or sales pitches brought to life: for example Sudd, “the scrubbing bubble that walks like a man.” There was also a “master of mundane magic” whose spells took the form of radial tires, tennis balls and other consumer items: at one point he trapped the heroes inside a giant cereal box, reversing the “prize inside” promise of marketers. In other stories the accusation is made directly against big-money interests, often as an aside in an ostensibly comic story. Howard even ran for president in 1976 on a platform of fighting corporate monopoly. Fitting with the skeptical tone of the times, HTD was suspicious of overt moralizing, but characters learn lessons nonetheless: you can’t fight city hall, no good deed goes unpunished, everybody has an angle. The three-issue story arc that closes The Essential HTD is particularly notable for its blunt lesson. An irresponsible heiress knowingly invites a “circus of crime” to one of her society gatherings so that she can play hero after they rob her guests. As the events spiral out of her control, one of Howard’s friends is struck by a car and another is shot. Howard’s usual reluctance to get involved makes his blunt delivery of the moral all the more striking: “Actions have consequences. You’ll get yours, Iris.”

Reading the entire Essential HTD in one sitting is an uneven experience (the volume collects the first twenty-seven issues of HTD, plus a handful of other “canonical” stories, including his first appearance). At its best HTD was a witty, refreshingly different commentary on popular and political culture and avoided easy answers to tough questions. The tone of the book varied widely, however, as it was influenced by the sudden notoriety of its creator and the pressure of deadlines. In one well-known story (reprinted in the Essential HTD), Gerber submitted a rambling self-analysis in text form, describing a cross-country move as a road trip with Howard. As life became harder for Gerber (and Howard), Howard’s character drifted from cynicism and disillusionment to depression and paranoia. He even spent some time in a mental institution. Some of these dark stories elaborated Howard’s character in interesting ways, but the low point of the volume is a trip to Canada featuring such cardboard clichés as a noble Mountie and a French-speaking villain called “Le Beaver.” What distresses about the story is not the stereotype, but the shallowness with which the setting is imagined; it is a far cry from the detailed and true-to-life storytelling that marks the Cleveland stories. If another exotic story, an Arabian Nights fantasy, is more successful it is thanks to a fast-moving plot and lighter tone throughout.

The tension in many of the stories is between character and plot: Howard is often passive-aggressive and thus reluctant to get involved in the kind of dramatic situations that make for active plots. The exciting stories subordinate Howard’s skeptical character, and the meditations on Howard’s alienation are quite static; the best stories are able to strike a balance. The troubled relationship between Howard and Beverly could make for a different kind of comic story, with the sort of novelistic depth that became more common in the 1980s, but the late HTD stories were too episodic and inconsistent to quite accomplish that. This tension between passive characters and active plots, along with the absurdity of the premise, is reminiscent of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books.

Perhaps the increasing pessimism of HTD was a sign of things to come: in the late ‘70s, as Howard’s popularity continued to grow, he inevitably came to the attention of the Disney company, who felt that Howard was too reminiscent of Donald Duck and threatened suit. Rather than argue that Howard was a parody (protected by the First Amendment) or an independent creation who sprang from the same pre-Disney cartoon roots as Donald, Marvel capitulated and agreed to change Howard’s appearance. Incredibly, the new design was created by Disney, not Marvel, and the wording of the agreement locked in this awkward new look indefinitely: Marvel couldn’t even come up with another design that didn’t look like Donald. As part of this agreement, Howard had to wear pants in all his future appearances. (It is partly because of this agreement that Gerber had Howard temporarily transformed into a seedy-looking mouse in the new series.)

Faced with this level of editorial apathy and interference, Gerber broke with Marvel and filed suit to wrest ownership of his character from the company. He was one of the first comics creators to do so, and his case, following on the heels of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s campaign to receive credit from DC for their creation of Superman, split ranks within the comics community and brought renewed attention to the issue of ownership. Gerber eventually settled out of court and worked for Marvel again for brief spells in the 1980s, but he says he remains wary of Marvel’s corporate culture, even as he has relished the opportunity to write again for the character with which he is most closely identified.

Gerber was not the first to use funny animals as a vehicle for social commentary or put non-juvenile language in their mouths. Rather his contribution was to rationalize the funny animal in pseudoscientific terms: Howard wasn’t simply a cartoon, he was a visitor from a parallel universe where ducks, instead of apes, had evolved to become the dominant lifeform. It is clear from some of Gerber’s statements in the ‘70s that he had worked out his premise with a science-fictional rigor: for example, there must be lower animals on Howard’s world, since he isn’t a vegetarian (although a running gag in the series emphasized Howard’s disgusted reaction when confronted with a meal of poultry or eggs).

The parallel-world premise could have easily lent itself to Swiftian allegory or heavy-handed moralizing, and there is more than a whiff of Planet of the Apes to it: as the cover blurb had it, Howard was “trapped in a world he never made!” Wisely, Gerber and his collaborators (Mayerik, as well as artists Frank Brunner and Gene Colan) avoided easy comparisons and always implied that Howard’s home was no more perfect than ours. After Gerber’s break with Marvel in 1980 over issues of creative control, Marvel continued to publish HTD stories by other writers, most of whom showed less restraint.

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As a rule, if a fictional setting becomes popular, anything that is referred to by the original creator, however obliquely, will eventually be fleshed out in sometimes overwhelming detail by those who follow. In Gerber’s original concept, Howard’s home was alluded to but never shown, presumably because readers would already be familiar with funny animal settings like the one in Carl Barks’ Donald Duck comics. It was writer Bill Mantlo who, after Gerber’s departure, filled stories with references to Flintstones-style parody-counterparts like “Truman Capoultry,” “Richard Millnest Duxon,” and even “Duckschwitz.” At least Mantlo attempted to keep Howard’s edge, although his stories frequently crossed the line from absurd to ridiculous. After the original comic book and Mantlo’s black-and-white magazine were canceled, other Marvel writers treated Howard as a walk-on character, trying to make him “funny” in a way that he rarely was in Gerber’s hands. Unfortunately, the later interpretation seems to have influenced the ill-fated film version.

In his Comics as History, Joseph Witek draws a useful distinction between “beast fables,” such as the tales of Aesop, and “funny animal” stories such as the ones described here. In the beast fable, animals speak, but their character is largely defined by the imagined qualities of their type: foxes are always sly, dogs are loyal, mules are stubborn. The funny animal, however, is an individual. The trappings of clothing, house, and social structures signal to the reader that the character is more man than animal. They may even keep non-speaking pets of their own: in Disney cartoons, Goofy is effectively a man, but Pluto is still a dog.

If in general the funny animal is not conscious of himself as an animal at all, then we may assume that this was how Howard felt about himself before being trapped in the world of “hairless apes.” It is only among humans, where he is the only one of his kind, that he can never escape being reminded that he is a duck. Of course being a duck is a literal marker of Howard’s “outsiderness,” but the Howard stories frequently play with its implications. One can identify “good people” in HTD because they either don’t recognize or don’t care that Howard is different. He and Beverly have a relationship like any other couple, even sleeping in the same bed (although again it was Mantlo in the non-Code-approved magazine who made their status as lovers explicit).

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There was even a short-lived daily comic strip in 1977.

Beginning in HTD #3, the blurb on the first page tells the reader that Howard was always conscious of being different, an outsider, even in his early life. Intriguingly, before Howard’s character became completely settled, he made a few attempts to blend in and make a normal life for himself among the humans. This early version of Howard had a Walter Mitty-like quality as he attempted to imagine himself into the role of good citizen, helping the police rid Cleveland of such menaces as Garko the Man-Frog and a vampire cow. Of course, when Howard was unable to prove that he had saved the city and was further rebuffed by the police with the reminder that he is, after all, a duck, he naturally reacted with the disillusionment and cynicism that became the hallmark of his character.

In this sense Howard’s experience is the dark side of any immigrant’s journey to America. In his homeland he was an individual, and as one of many of his kind, he could take his personhood for granted: the group kinship to which everyone belonged was effectively invisible. In hairless ape America, however, it is his status as a representative of his type that singles him out, and his individuality is reduced to a single image: duck. In fact, although people regularly sputter, “Y–you’re a duck!” upon meeting him, no one in these stories mistakes Howard for a real duck: they assume he is a midget in a duck suit, marking him as either a madman or a publicity-seeker. Oddly, while the updated backstory makes Howard’s prospects grimmer–if he has always been an outsider wherever he lived, what kind of acceptance can there be to hope for?–it seems to offer hope for the immigrant or minority member: maybe the individual personality does make the difference, and Howard’s experience need not be a universal commentary on America.

If Howard fit perfectly the mood of the 1970s, can he still be relevant today? Steve Gerber thinks so. In a July 2001 interview, Gerber summarized the state of the nation: “The situation in the U. S. now–a dork in the White House, the country split down the middle politically, every form of popular culture from music to movies at a creative nadir, and so on–almost exactly parallels the state of things in 1975. In that sense, the time has never been more appropriate for Howard’s return.”

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Of course, those words were spoken before September 11, and one may wonder whether post-attack readers would be in the mood for Howard’s pointed critiques of America’s political and cultural environment. Fortunately, Gerber’s up-to-the-last-minute scripting habits have prevented a jarring lead time between the new book’s writing and publication. So far (as of this writing, four issues of a planned six-issue series have been published), Gerber hasn’t softened Howard’s edge (indeed, the “mature readers” label allows him a far greater freedom of theme and content than he had in the ‘70s), but he lands his hardest punches on America’s self-absorbed, pop-therapeutic culture and religious zealotry rather than specific political viewpoints. In this sense, the new Howard isn’t too different from the old: Gerber (and by extension Howard) has always expressed skepticism for one-size-fits-all solutions, political or otherwise. Although at one time Howard was labeled “The Nemesis of Middle America” by Marvel editors, it was really conformity rather than conservatism that Howard attacked, and Gerber’s new series doesn’t play favorites.

References to September 11 have been kept in the background, but the events have hardly been ignored. In issue #2, a tip to the police reports that “Osama el-Braka” (“Braka” meaning “duck”) has been spotted in Howard’s locale, leading to a two-page splash of SWAT teams, National Guard, and even Girl Scouts bursting into Beverly’s apartment for the kill. In the fourth issue, a committee of heavenly beings called the “Religion as Replacement for Thought Coalition” conspire to live up to their title. One member announces, “we’ve rooted out the moderate Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu elements that have tried to infiltrate and corrupt this coalition.” Another, speaking of the Islamic Madrassas, states, “their success at purging their pupils of any faculty for critical thought borders on the miraculous. We now have a small army of morons willing to fly airplanes into tall buildings, on the promise of seventy-two virgins in the afterlife.”

Much of the satire, however, remains focused closer to home. The third issue was a rather puerile parody of the TV show and comic book Witchblade (“Doucheblade”), which, while admittedly tasteless, rightly pointed out the degree to which large-breasted women with weapons have come to dominate comic book covers since the lifting of the Code and the proliferation of independent comics-specialty shops have allowed publishers to drop the pretense that comics were wholesome reading for kids. On the other hand, the fourth issue takes aim at the self-help guru “Iprah,” who has “convinced half of America she’s the voice of God–when, in fact, she’s nothing more than a franchise.” In one priceless panel, Iprah is shown on the cover of her magazine (“I”), finger-wagging and lecturing God under the headline “Iprah explains it all.”

Howard the Duck’s character seems to have changed little in the nearly thirty years since his creation. Opinionated, vulgar, and refreshingly uncharismatic, his adventures remain a sometimes frustrating but always surprising trip. Although Gerber doesn’t always hit his targets dead on, he fires so many shots that many are bound to connect, and there is plenty in our contemporary culture to take aim at. Perhaps Howard isn’t really so different from the masked heroes with whom he shares shelf-space: he emerges from obscurity to provoke laughter, anger, and thought at the times when he is most needed.

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Wichita Symphony Orchestra: Disney Magic

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Saturday’s Wichita Symphony Orchestra Pops Concert, “Disney in Concert,” was subtitled “Magical Music from the Movies.” As such, it was as much stage show and multimedia event as orchestral concert. Playing to an enthusiastic audience that included both costumed children and regular Symphony attendees, Guest Conductor Robert Bernhardt took the podium in Century II Concert Hall and shared the stage with four singers: Juliana Hansen, Stephanie Burkett Gerson, Kyle Eberlein, and Nathan Andrew Riley. All four are veterans of Disney stage productions, with experience putting their own spin on characters already familiar to the audience through the classic film versions. Throughout the performance, clips and still images from Disney movies accompanied the music on a large video screen; expressive stage lighting also contributed to the spectacle.

Unsurprisingly, the program leaned heavily on movies spanning the last twenty-five years, from the Menken-Ashman scores from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast, to the ubiquitous hit “Let It Go” from 2013’s Frozen. There was time for history as well, however: the orchestra got things rolling with an instrumental medley (arranged by Bruce Healey) that combined favorites “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and several songs from Mary Poppins and Cinderella with non-film classics “Mickey Mouse March” and “It’s A Small World.” Later selections paid tribute to The Jungle Book and (again) Mary Poppins.

The four vocalists, at first introduced one by one, took turns playing emcee, soloist, and backup singer: Hansen lit up the stage as Ariel from The Little Mermaid, before turning the lead over to Gerson for a gorgeous rendition of “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. A suite of songs from Beauty and the Beast was an opportunity to unleash some inventive staging, with the four soloists reenacting the opening ensemble “Bonjour!” with Hansen as Belle. Later in the same number, Eberlein showed off his comic chops as Lumiere for “Be Our Guest,” again joined by the other three for a rambunctious performance that climaxed with an energetic kick-line. (Eberlein in particular has a knack for bringing characters to life without simply imitating Louis Prima or Robin Williams: to say he stole the show would be unfair to the other singers, but he displayed the most individual personality.)

The orchestra played strongly under Bernhardt’s unfussy baton, especially in a few purely instrumental selections (fittingly, as Bernhardt pointed out, they performed a suite from Klaus Badelt’s score from Pirates of the Caribbean on “Talk Like A Pirate Day”): Alan Menken’s score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame had plenty of big moments that showed off the brass (always important in film scoring!) and percussion. (The arrangements often incorporated elements from the score in interesting ways: the Beauty and the Beast suite, for example, began with the celebratory music of the Beast’s final transformation, a good example of composer John Oswald’s adage that when repurposed, “endings make good beginnings.”) Principal oboist Andrea Banke’s fluent playing also provided the requisite Middle Eastern flavor between vocal selections from Aladdin.

A few numbers pushed at the limits of what could be recreated live, and two numbers suffered from the combination of a resonant hall and live mics: in Riley’s “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid and Eberlein’s “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book, the sound was muddy and the drum-heavy rhythms didn’t show off the orchestra at its best. In both cases, however, the soloists poured on the energy, bringing the audience to its feet. The bottom line is that when the singers are so evidently having this much fun, it’s hard not to join in. (A few numbers were sing-alongs, with lyrics displayed on the screen; my five-year-old son, at his first orchestra concert, was having just as much fun mimicking the instrumentalists, enthusiastically beating on invisible drums or sawing away at a phantom double bass.)

Two highlights capped the evening: Gerson took the lead on Frozen‘s “Let It Go” in an arrangement that followed the film version closely, but with added harmonies from the other three singers. The effect was dazzling in its precision, and gave the audience a chance to hear a very familiar piece of music in a new setting. Finally, the orchestra and singers left it all on stage with selections from The Lion King (a collaboration of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer), including “The Circle of Life,” “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” (which had much cleaner sound than the other rhythmic numbers), and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” It was a strong note to end on; with the beginning of the Classics series next month, the Wichita Symphony has the makings of a strong season ahead of it.

Who Will Love Me As I Am? Chained for Life, Side Show, and the Cult Movie/Musical Overlap

I recently watched Chained for Life, the 1951 oddity/star vehicle featuring conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1969).  In the movie, the sisters star as thinly-disguised versions of themselves, Dorothy and Vivian Hamilton, on trial for the murder of Dorothy’s husband-of-convenience Andre Pariseau (the story unfolds in flashback as the pair tell their side of the affair). In the film, Pariseau (played by Mario Laval) is a marksman performing in the same Vaudeville revue as the Hamilton sisters; when their manager gets the idea of staging a love affair to boost publicity, Pariseau goes along with it for an increased share of the profits, even going so far as to propose marriage (even as he continues to carry on with his assistant).  But Dorothy’s feelings are all too real, leading to conflicts between the sisters who are literally inseparable.

Chained for Life has been called an exploitation film, and if any performers can be described as exploited, surely the Hilton sisters are at the top of the list: born to an unwed mother in Brighton, England, the twins were more or less bought by the delivering midwife, who put them on display from infancy and continued to “manage” them for decades, until the sisters won their independence after a contentious trial.  Even after that, they were unprepared for the difficulties of life on their own and continued to be ill-served by subsequent handlers.  The low point, and the end of their career, came when they were unceremoniously abandoned in Birmingham, Alabama, where they took a job at a grocery store and lived until succumbing to the Hong Kong flu years later.

The term “exploitation film” often brings to mind gratuitous sex or violence, but Chained for Life is quite tame on both fronts, and like many films of the era it at least purports to be instructional; it’s more thought-provoking than edgy.  In reality, it is the audience’s curiosity and desire for titillation that are exploited, and whether through posters that resemble tabloid front pages or trailers that teasingly edit together the most shocking parts of the movie, “exploitation” is often a byword for films that promise more than they deliver.  Although more polished and coherent, Chained for Life reminded me of an Edward D. Wood production, particularly Wood’s attempt at a “message movie,” Glen or Glenda?  Chained even opens with a portentous, Criswell-like monologue from the judge in the murder trial, who invites the audience to ask themselves how they would mete out justice in such a case.  We hear from doctors on the limits of surgery and we witness the legal difficulties in procuring a marriage license (both problems the real-life sisters had experience with).  A kindly reverend makes a case for the dignity of all lives created by God, whatever form they take; and in his closing remarks, the defense attorney alludes to the bigotry, cruelty, and, yes, exploitation that the sisters faced throughout their lives.  Although the central puzzle of the film (how can the court punish the guilty twin without wrongly imprisoning or executing the innocent one?) is left unresolved, there is no question that the audience is meant to conclude that Pariseau (a smooth Latin lover type who is only in it for the money) got what he deserved.

The marriage under false pretenses calls to mind Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, which also turns on the callous exploitation of an outsider’s affection by a pair of “normals” (and in which, incidentally, the Hilton sisters had also appeared, albeit as secondary characters).  The difference between the two films is striking, however: Freaks is a one-of-a-kind blend of horror, pathos and melodrama, an expressionistic fable with long wordless stretches, compelling images, and a genuinely shocking ending.  Despite a few stylistic flourishes (such as a dream sequence in which Dorothy imagines herself separated from her twin, free to dance with her beloved), Chained is content to tell its story in businesslike fashion, consistent with its courtroom setting and air of social uplift (it does, however, include the newspaper headline SIAMESE TWIN TO WED VAUDEVILLIAN, which is in my opinion in the running for Best Headline Ever).  They are essentially films of different eras: the cruelties visited on the Hamilton sisters are less overt than those depicted in the side show world of Freaks, but are no less painful for being covered by a veneer of politeness.  The level of craftsmanship is quite different as well: while the Hilton sisters had a long-running musical act, singing duets in harmony, their acting is stiff and artificial, calling attention to the staginess of their banter (their scenes really do play like something by Ed Wood). In short, Freaks is a classic; Chained for Life is a curiosity.

Having said that, Chained for Life has its rewards.  I always enjoy films that feature genuine acts of performance, whether music, dance, martial arts, or the kind of talents usually filed under “variety,” and Chained for Life’s Vaudeville setting provides numerous opportunities.  In addition to the sisters’ musical act and Pariseau’s marksmanship (including playing a pipe organ activated by rifle shots, in one of the film’s most baroque sequences), we get an accordionist tearing through the William Tell Overture, a juggler, and a clown with a trick bicycle act.

One might accuse the filmmakers of trying to pad out an already brief running time, and it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong (the trick bicyclist is pretty dull, even if you’re into old stage acts), but the performances (and many like them in movies of the era) provide a glimpse of live entertainment as it was experienced in times gone by.  A great deal of surviving footage of entertainers of the past comes from film excerpts, either from features like this or from shorts meant to accompany the longer films.  (The contrivance by which the story halts and a famous artist is invited to perform their signature act is still with us, of course, whenever an appearance by a guest star needs to be justified; staging their performance as a show within the show is an obvious solution, but not the only one.)

Chained for Life is also a cult film, a label often applied to movies so singular that they fascinate a small number of viewers, even as they drive large audiences away.  There are so many types of cult film—from trashy exploitation and low-budget amateur productions to expensive, little-loved flops and insane, auteur-driven visions—that it would be impossible to cover them all, but one thing they all have in common is the perception on the part of the audience that this movie was made for them personally: for those of us on their wavelengths, cult films speak to the weirdness in our souls.

Mulling over the show-biz milieu of Chained for Life, I wondered: are there cult operas?  Cult stage musicals?  After a moment’s thought, the short answer was yes, of course there are, and for many of the same reasons that films develop cults.  There are musicals notorious for their epic failure (like Carrie, based on the Stephen King book, which closed after only a handful of performances) or for their troubled production history (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark will surely not soon be forgotten), and until recent years most flops would leave only a cast recording behind, if that.

Of course, many cult films are also musicals; in some cases they are adaptations of stage works, such as the ur-midnight movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was already a phenomenon as The Rocky Horror Show in London before being turned into the long-running film.  Little Shop of Horrors exhibits a complete life cycle, originating as a quickly-filmed Roger Corman horror comedy, being turned into a stage musical, and finally returning to film in a big budget adaptation (which replaced the original film’s and stage musical’s bleak ending with a happy one; if you haven’t seen the original ending that was scrapped after poor audience testing, it’s really something).  But many original movie musicals have cult appeal for their singular vision and the heightened qualities inherent in musical theater.

Just as original cast albums can keep Broadway shows in circulation, motion picture soundtracks can serve as advertisements for the films they come from, or take on lives of their own: to name one example, I was intrigued by the soundtrack to Otto Preminger’s 1968 comedy Skidoo, in which stars from the golden age of Hollywood collided with a druggy flower power satire.  As great as that sounds, when I finally saw the movie, I found it mostly unfunny and, dare I say, square.  (Interestingly, while a straight play or movie can have the air sucked right out by the kind of “Hey, why don’t you sing us your hit song?” interruption I mentioned above, the songs are often the only places where musicals come alive.  I’m sure it’s at least partly a matter of context and expectation: if you’re watching a movie starring Elvis, you just know he’s going to pick up a guitar sooner or later.)

Musicals, like film, are a collaborative medium, and the expense involved in producing one often leads to the rough edges and idiosyncrasies being sanded down, but personal visions can still come through.  For example, the same year Chained for Life was made, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, lyricist for such hits as The Wizard of Oz and Finian’s Rainbow, collaborated with composer Sammy Fain on Flahooley, a satire of consumerism and conformity inspired by Harburg’s blacklisting in Hollywood (Harburg was never a Communist party member, but for his refusal to name names he was blocked from working in Hollywood from 1950 until 1962, and also had his passport revoked during that time).  Despite numerous changes made to tone down the political references (originally, the talking doll of the title was supposed to say “Dirty Red!” instead of laughing), Flahooley is truly a strange mixture, combining boardroom satire of the kind Stan Freberg specialized in; an Oriental fantasy version of Arabia, including a genie in a lamp and exotica star Yma Sumac as an Arab princess; and marionettes devised by puppeteer Bil Baird (the puppets were the American people—get it?).  Flahooley closed after forty performances on Broadway, but after reading about it, how could I not track down the soundtrack?*

Of course, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call operas and musical theater cult interests to begin with: like cult films, musical stage works attract an intensely devoted fan base that is only a small part of the larger public.  Operagoers are apt to have strong opinions about what they like and what they don’t, taking seemingly small matters very personally.  Both art forms have much in common with the films that draw cult audiences: there are outré scenarios with lurid hooks, exotic locations, larger-than-life characters, and the often-campy artifice of the stage.  How many operas include deceptive lovers or mismatched marriages as plot devices?

Even going back to its origins, opera featured personalities that would be recognizable to modern cineastes.  The divas of seventeenth-century Venetian opera had adoring fans, carefully-managed public images, and behind-the-scenes clout, much like celebrity entertainers today.  (And much like today, opera stars would demand ego-flattering changes to productions: in addition to the common practice of aria substitution, which continued until the nineteenth century, there are examples like castrato Luigi Marchesi, who insisted on entering the stage on horseback, wearing a helmet festooned with multi-colored plumes, regardless of the role.)

In the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner’s operas took on a quasi-spiritual dimension, and the “cult” designation was almost literal: fans of his work were referred to as “Wagnerites,” and if they were at all able they would make the “pilgrimage” to Bayreuth, where Wagner’s work could be performed in a theater custom-built to his specifications.  Before the birth of motion pictures, it was the theatrical stage on which craftsmen perfected the arts of captivating, even manipulating, the moods and desires of audiences.

If there is a cult within the cult of musical fandom, it is probably to be found Off-Broadway, where productions can be a little more transgressive without scaring away the big crowds demanded on Broadway.  In fact there is a consistent pattern of Off-Broadway successes moving into the mainstream, beginning with The Fantasticks and including such shows as Little Shop of Horrors and Urinetown, and in many cases the smaller budgets and narrower appeal of such shows allow their creators the freedom to speak more frankly than was possible in traditional Broadway.  It is intriguing to note the absorption of Off-Broadway talent into both Broadway and Hollywood musicals.  Alan Menken and Howard Ashman moved from Little Shop of Horrors to Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and by all accounts were instrumental in raising the level of ambition for Disney’s animated feature films at the time, leading to the early ‘90s blossoming of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before Ashman’s untimely death.  More recently, Robert Lopez has gone from co-creating the musicals Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon to co-writing songs for Disney’s Frozen (another story of a pair of sisters who want very different things from life).

Given the intense identification with outsiders fostered by the last few decades of musical theater (and popular culture in general) and the continued fascination with both freaks and the machinery of the entertainment industry, it should not be surprising that Daisy and Violet Hilton have been the subject of a Broadway musical.  1997’s Side Show, by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger, makes a useful contrast to both Freaks and Chained for Life: moving from the carnival freak show to the Vaudeville circuit, it too includes a staged marriage, but unlike its predecessors there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys.  Despite the twins’ stage appearances portraying angels, songbirds, and Egyptian princesses, they are simply human, making compromises to get through life as best they can.  There is still glamour and beauty in Side Show, but the tone is one of regret and world-weariness rather than the gothic excess of Freaks or the noir-tinged procedural of Chained for Life.  Naturally, the theme of duality is present, and some characters can be described as two-faced, but the conflict between the outgoing Daisy and retiring Violet is placed front and center.  Side Show also more closely examines the men in the twins’ lives and their difficulty in accepting what a commitment to one of them would really mean, without letting faithless or cowardly lovers off the hook.  In the show, the one man who truly loves Violet, Jake, is African-American, but he knows the world would never accept them together, dramatizing another barrier that could only be considered as subtext in the lily-white Chained for Life.

Other subtexts aren’t hard to find in either the musical or the cult film.  For the most vital, but not only, example, the identification of musical theater and being gay is so ingrained as to be a cliché, but there is truth to it.  A primary convention of the theater is its camaraderie and acceptance of everyone as they are—one of the standard tropes of show business, second only to “The show must go on,” is that the troupe is a family, no matter what—and the distancing, unreal effect of the theater has historically allowed its practitioners to express themselves in coded language, even when their love “dare not speak its name.”  This frequently came through in gay theatergoers’ identification with the divas and the idealized (heterosexual, until very recently) lovers onstage.  Outsiders frequently recognized themselves in cult films as well: whether gay or straight, it seems plausible that while the glamour of the theater may seem preferable to ordinary life for many audiences, there’s a similar identification with the monsters and misfits of the horror and science fiction films that also attract cult audiences.  Outwardly opposite, they appeal to the same impulse, intertwined in such figures as the Bride of Frankenstein and Vampira.

The goal for audiences, just as it was for the real-life Hilton sisters and their fictionalized counterparts, is acceptance: self-acceptance first, and then the acceptance of a partner, if one can be found.  Traditional happy endings often end on the latter, but sometimes the former is enough.  Consider Frozen, radical (at least for a Disney movie) for its embrace of sisterhood as the real true love, and ending without a romantic match for Elsa, the Snow Queen.  Some interpret her anthem “Let It Go” as a metaphorical coming out of the closet; it needn’t be, of course–taken at face value it’s a powerful statement of independence, comparable to singer Idina Menzel’s other big song, “Defying Gravity” from Wicked–but such an interpretation is more than tenable.  Musical theater and film continue to be powerful for the ways in which they give voice to yearnings that cannot (yet) be put into words: as Daisy and Violet sing in Side Show’s most intimate and powerful number, “Who will love me as I am?”

 

* Those soundtracks can keep the flame alive for underperforming shows: Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins baffled audiences in its initial Broadway run, but it has gone on to be a favorite of college and regional theaters.  Away from the financial pressures of Broadway, Carrie has been revised and revived a few times, and even Flahooley has had at least one revival.

Points of Connection, Part Five: Shadow Kingdoms

“If the Pirates of the Caribbean [ride] breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.” –Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), Jurassic Park

WallyWorld

Many of the narratives discussed so far serve as commentary on the relationship between appearance and actuality: the actors on Galaxy Quest learn to live up to the roles they portray; Squadron Supreme, Watchmen and The Venture Bros. contrast the glamorous and well-intentioned ideal of the superhero with its flawed, sometimes squalid reality; The Adventures of Baron Munchausen plays with the very notion of storytelling’s ability to shape events.  This is directly tied to the revisionary, “postmodern” stance, of which pastiche, parody, and intertextuality are such an important part, as well as making it easier to critique thinly-veiled properties that might otherwise be off-limits due to copyright or marketing needs.

In film and television, the need for doppelganger brands and trademarks goes beyond storytelling requirements and is frequently undertaken as a matter of course: there is a cottage industry of production designers that supplies television and movie studios with fake products (like Heisler Beer) for set dressing.  Although they are sometimes the vehicle for critiques of branding or consumerism, they are usually just part of the background, used in order to avoid litigation or fees that might be demanded if a trademark holder were unhappy with either the portrayal or association of their product with a film or television show.  Similarly, filmmakers may wish to avoid the stigma of paid product placement.  Fictional branding is often just another aspect of crafting a believable setting or extending an aesthetic (such as Community‘s Greendale, where Let’s Potato Chips and Hot & Brown Coffee are popular brands), and some filmmakers have brands that permeate their creations, like J. J. Abrams’ Slusho!  No matter what the motivation, or whether real or fictional brands are used, the implication is clear that brands and logos are now so ubiquitous that realism demands their presence.*

"Pearbook" on iCarly

“Pearbook” on iCarly

"Heisler Gold Ale" produced by Independent Studio Services

“Heisler Gold Ale” prop packaging by Independent Studio Services

Leaving aside cases of paid product placement, critiques are more likely to be effective when brands are named directly instead of implied by doppelgangers (even with paid placement, filmmakers are sometimes able to get the last laugh: witness the future society of Demolition Man, in which “all restaurants are Taco Bell”).  Plenty of fictional products have skewered commercialism in films and television, but they are often deliberately unreal, placing the emphasis on the stupidity or crassness of marketing, making the satire clear but less believable in a fictional context (as an example, see “Mooby,” literally a golden calf, in Kevin Smith’s Dogma).  Films like Fight Club or Idiocracy have more bite in this regard for using real-life brands and making their target perfectly clear (although Idiocracy also included fictional brands: who could forget Brawndo?).  The use of brand names in such critical ways is generally protected by the First Amendment, but film producers aren’t always willing to invest in a court fight against big corporations and choose to play it safe; hence the common blurring of even innocuous background logos in documentaries and the proliferation of fake brands on television.  In general, the bigger the company brand, the bigger the target it makes for satirists and the more aggressive its lawyers are in policing its trademarks.

It doesn’t get much bigger than the Walt Disney Company, which is famously protective of its image and is known to be very litigious when it comes to unauthorized use of its intellectual property.  That made it all the more incredible when Escape from Tomorrow was released in 2013: Escape was largely filmed surreptitiously at Disneyland and Walt Disney World with handheld cameras, the cast and crew posing as tourists.  It caused a sensation at film festivals, not least from the audacity of its production, but whether it would ever be distributed was debatable, based on the presumption that Disney would never allow a film secretly made on their property (and in which EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth is shown blowing up and rolling off its foundation, among other dark images) to be widely seen if they had anything to say about it.  Ultimately, it was released with a prominent disclaimer disavowing any connection with Disney (or the Siemens Corporation, which also figures prominently in one of the film’s most bizarre scenes).

Walt Disney and his company, characters, and theme parks have been fictionalized, parodied, and referenced in ways too numerous to count, but a few examples will suffice.  Mooby, referenced above, is a clear Mickey Mouse analogue.  The Magic Kingdom is recognizable in Walley World, the frustratingly out-of-reach destination in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and in Brisbyland, the home of “Busy Bee” in “The Incredible Mr. Brisby,” an episode of The Venture Bros.  (In both cases, the park founder is still alive and present at his park, and has the first name “Roy,” surely a reference to Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and co-founder of the Walt Disney Company, or Roy E. Disney, Roy O.’s son and a longtime Disney executive.) Disney’s futuristic outlook, epitomized by EPCOT (originally intended to be a self-contained model community) but apparent through his entire career, has been a rich source of inspiration for both fiction and urban legend (for example, although Escape from Tomorrow doesn’t address Walt Disney’s supposed cryogenic preservation, it does include memory manipulation, robots, and other technologies behind the scenes—but how much of this is real is open to interpretation; more on this momentarily).  Finally, Disney is a natural focus for stories targeting whitewashing, controlled environments, prefab narratives, and illusory realities: whether one believes Walt Disney to have been a visionary artist, a commercial hack, something more sinister, or some combination of the three, the impact his company’s work has had on (for example) our understanding of familiar fairy tales, American history, and branding (not to mention our expectations for immersive entertainment: the “theme park” as we know it would be much different without Disney, if it existed at all) are incalculable.  If P. T. Barnum epitomizes nineteenth century show business in all its hucksterism and canny exploitation of the audience’s secret desires, Walt Disney is his technologically-empowered twentieth century heir.  Disney is thus a useful mirror for any artist interested in the contrast between calculated cover stories and messy realities.

Beyond association with Disney specifically, the haunted/abandoned/out-of-control amusement park has a long history, going back to the shady and dangerous “otherness” of the traveling circus (see the dark carnivals and mysterious midways of Ray Bradbury, who made extensive use of this setting)**, and kept alive in the malfunctioning high-tech entertainments of Westworld and Jurassic Park (both from the pen of Michael Crichton). The scary old carnival was something Disney actively tried to move away from: “carnies” with tattoos and facial hair would not be employed at his parks; every detail would be looked after to make sure guests felt safe, welcome, and at home; recreations of “old time” entertainments, such as Paradise Pier, the idealized Boardwalk at Disney California Adventures, are scrubbed clean of anything potentially offensive or threatening.  As for Crichton’s cybernetic system failures, those too drew inspiration from Disney, sensing a fatal hubris in the technophilia and micromanagement of Disney’s parks. The Simpsons knowingly brought things full circle, parodying Disneyland, Westworld, and Jurassic Park in “Itchy & Scratchy Land.”

Escape from Tomorrow thus makes a potent counterexample to the pastiches discussed in this series: it’s unlikely that the same film set in a fictionalized version of the park would make such a splash.  To point out that theme parks conceal things from their guests, or that “it’s all fake,” would be trite; everyone knows this, but like the audience for stage magic, we want to be seduced, to be tricked, at least for the duration of the show.  Escape’s trailer makes this case explicitly, and sells the film, with one line of dialogue: as Alison Lees-Taylor’s jaded ex-princess says, “People come here because they want to feel safe.  Bad things happen everywhere—especially here.”  The specificity of its references play with our familiarity with the urban legends and jokes about Disney—some are referenced directly, and others are left to our imagination.

(Spoilers follow.)  In the film, written and directed by Randy Moore, husband and father Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) is fired from his job (via phone call) on the last morning of his Disneyworld vacation; while attempting to put a good face on it, he is continually distracted in the park by a pair of beguiling French teenagers, whom he clumsily follows around.  Other subplots abound, and the story is largely episodic, broken up by periodic flights of fantasy (reference is made to Jim’s “blackouts”) which provide the more overt horror elements: the characters in the rides suddenly turn into demonic tormentors; Jim finds himself entangled in a high-tech conspiracy; other park visitors, such as a scooter-riding Southerner, take on sinister significance.  In other words, the “Happiest Place on Earth” has its mask ripped away.  As Lees-Taylor’s character says, “You can’t be happy all the time.”

Pastiche is still present in at least one element of Escape from Tomorrow: the music.  Licensing requirements would have made it prohibitive to use the actual songs from Disney’s catalog, so composer Abel Korzeniowski provides convincing and frequently gorgeous backgrounds in the lush, cinematic style associated with Disney’s “golden age,” and sound-alike ditties for the rides.  The film is better for it.  This is especially clear in an early scene set on the “It’s a Small World” ride, in which the song of the same name is suggested–and its cloying, repetitive qualities exaggerated–but not actually used.  The end title song (“Imaginate!”) similarly toys with the optimistic “marching into the future” genre, giving it a vaguely threatening edge: compare it to “Miracles from Molecules,” a song (by Robert and Richard Sherman) heard in Disney’s Tomorrowland, but note that the transformations in “Imaginate!” aren’t in the inanimate materials of chemistry, but in the listener: “Everyone is here, no time to fear / And we will never let you go. . . . Imaginate! What can we do / When tomorrow there’s another you?”

Ultimately, Escape from Tomorrow pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience not unlike Disney’s hard-to-keep promise of happiness: the most surreal and dramatic scenes (like the explosion of Spaceship Earth) are fantasies, whereas the real horrors are those of the mundane world, playing on fears anyone can relate to: unemployment, alcoholism, infidelity, being separated from a child in a crowd, getting sick far from home.***  Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was the third in a loose trilogy (with Time Bandits and Brazil) focused on the importance of escapist dreams.  While Randy Moore’s cinematic language is closer to David Lynch than Gilliam (one of the spookiest scenes involves a slightly out-of-focus balloon, hovering just inside the frame), Jim’s breaks from reality clearly serve the same purpose as Sam Lowry’s in Brazil.  Even the French teenagers, in whom Jim’s interest is primarily sexual, can be seen as emblematic of a tempting other life, the specifics not so important.  It’s surely a commentary on our times that even as frightening, disorienting, and paranoid as Jim’s fantasies are, they’re still preferable to his everyday life.  That’s not to say that “reality” isn’t still a malleable concept: as in Gilliam, the boundaries of dream and waking are permeable.  At Escape‘s denouement, a “fixer” implants a happy memory in Jim’s son’s mind: who’s to say that Moore’s film doesn’t perform a similar alchemy in reverse, supplanting the company’s narrative with its own?

* David Foster Wallace notes the change in attitude toward brand names and other mass media references in literary fiction, and the role television has played in shaping that transition, in “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction,” especially pp. 41-44, included in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

** “Something Wicked This Way Went: Whatever Happened to the Creepy Circus?” by EsoterX has a nice take on the subject.

*** A comparison can be made to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Max Brooks’ World War Z: the political and social ills in both scenarios are plausible enough to be scary by themselves, but presumably wouldn’t draw as much of an audience without the sci-fi “hooks.”