Thursday, October 24, 2013

Indifference: Randy Moore's Escape From Tomorrow

After Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow played at the Sundance Film Festival, it received a ton of adulatory press, most of it focused on the audacity of Moore’s stunt: he shot his film, about a man coming unglued during a family vacation to Disney World, at Disney World and Disneyland, using small cameras and digital recorders to surreptitiously shoot inside the parks without permission. Given how touchy Disney is about threats to its image, most of the people who raved about the movie in Colorado last January seem to have assumed that it would never get any kind of general release. (The idea that their readers would be unlikely to ever check out the movie for themselves must have made them feel free to really let fly in their praise of its outrageousness and richness.) One online writer, Erik Davis, reported that “many are calling [it] the ultimate guerrilla film.’” Maybe so, but it’s also one of the ultimate examples of a movie that’s more fun to fantasize about than it is to sit through.

Escape begins with its disintegrating-everyman hero, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), on the phone to his boss on the morning of his last day at Disney World. The boss is telling Jim that he’s fired. Jim is incredulous: he’s called him, bright and early, when he’s with his family at the happiest place on Earth, to tell him that he’s been fired for no good reason? “Well,” says the boss, “there’s a bit more to it than that.” That’s as much context as we ever get. After setting out with his wife and two kids, intent on having “one fairly decent last day here,” he begins to see things in a different light; the forced smiles and cheerfulness and the robotic entertainers and people in animal costumes seem eerie, sinister, threatening. The first half hour or so definitely has a modest buzziness to it that it wouldn’t have if Moore had phonied up his own Disney-esque sets and costumes. But without an actual story or real characters—things that, it turns out, are harder to create than it is to sneak recording equipment into Mickey Mouse’s home base—the movie is just a feature-length version of all the thousands of stand-up routines we’ve all heard, from both professional and amateur comedians, about how hearing “It’s a Small World After All” too many times makes you want to kill yourself.

Jim (Roy Abramsohn) and family at Disney World

The most noteworthy thing about Escape from Tomorrow may be the corporation’s apparent indifference to its existence. Time was, you could find people who felt that the underpinnings of white Christian civilization were being threatened if Uncle Walt was demeaned, and the Disney company’s lawyers would have been the first to agree with you. There are some classic examples of Disney sacrilege dating back to the underground comics era of the ‘60s, including Wally Wood’s Disneyland Memorial Orgy cartoon commissioned by Paul Krassner for his underground magazine The Realist, and Air Pirates comic books that featured graphic images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse having sex.

Those comics didn’t have the kind of media hype behind them that Moore’s movie has; at the time, work like the Air Pirates’ comic was unlikely to be known to the bosses at Disney, unless the creators went out of their way to call their attention to it. Which is exactly what happened: Dan O’Neill, the most fervent of the Pirates, had copies of his masterpiece smuggled into a board meeting. He wanted to force a legal challenge that would settle the issue of fair use; he wanted to make it clear that he had the legal right to draw an obscene parody of Disney’s work that looked as good as the original. What he got was a massive settlement against him and a lot of lectures, from judges and even some seemingly sane people, about how what he was saying might be generally true, Disney was… special, somehow. To show Mickey going down on Minnie was to molest the dreams of children. (Disney couldn’t even argue, with a straight face, that O’Neill was trying to make money off another man’s creative property by confusing potential buyers, because he was interested in replicating and commenting on the old-school, “Steamboat Willie” image of Mickey Mouse that had long since been streamlined and updated. A kid picking up a copy of an Air Pirates comic in the early ‘70s would have known there was something wrong long before he got to the sex scene, because Mickey didn’t look like the then-current version of Mickey.

Wally Wood's Disneyland Memorial Orgy

Comics like Wood’s and O’Neill’s still carry some heat, because they were made by people who had deep feelings about Disney and what he had come to represent, one way or another. Although Moore talks in interviews about his own deep personal connection to the parks, that feeling doesn’t come across in his movie. What does come across in his immersion in other people’s shockadelic movies; by the time the movie goes completely around the bend, with the hero regaining consciousness in a secret underground Disney detention facility and freeing himself by shooting streams of sticky, clear fluid at pin-up pictures on the walls and computer consoles labeled “SIEMEN,” every idea and image can be traced back to the greatest hits of David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Poison-era Todd Haynes, Terry Gilliam, and other midnight favorites. Yet Disney’s position, sensibly enough, seems to be that popular culture has become segmented enough that there’s room in the world for this sort of thing; its audience is small and scarcely overlaps with Disney’s audience, and anyway, the best way to help it out would be to draw attention to it. Neither Disney nor pop culture transgression are what they used to be.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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