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June 17th, 2008

_Vinyl Leaves_ by Stephen M. Fjellman

Subtitle: Walt Disney World and America

Pause for a brief moment to contemplate that last name. I hesitate to speculate on how that's pronounced. Kjell I get. Fjell? *shrug*

Back when T. was younger (before February of 2007), and we were planning our trip to DisneyLAND, I immersed myself in All Things Disney for a while, mostly via used books from Amazon, altho there were some new ones as well. Along the way, I picked up several that were specifically about DisneyWORLD (aka WDW or The World) that otherwise matched the search criteria (another one in that group was _Married to the Mouse_). I figured I'd be headed to The World in the next year or three, and I'd get around to reading them. File under Disney Studies (a la Women's Studies, or Queer Studies, or whatever). These are academic works for the most part (altho I also bought some guidebooks and will be buying WDW guidebooks when the rev months come up in July/August/September).

In answer to the question you might be toying with asking, I borrowed Gabler's bio from the local library but never made any headway in it. I had just read Steven Watts book and the overlap was sufficient to bore me to tears, especially since Gabler is less engaging a writer than Watts and considerably more detailed. I may yet read Gabler; it looks like he's got a lot of interesting material surrounding Walt's death.

_Vinyl Leaves_ is widely described as a fascinating slice-in-time of WDW. Fjellman is an anthropologist by trade and _loooooovvves_ WDW. While at the same time being way creeped out by a lot of the embedded messages. Since this is basically my perspective on Disney, it is hardly surprising that I found this a sympathetic read. Nevertheless, it did take a little while to get through it, in part because Fjellman spends large chunks of text (entire chapters, at times) surveying semiotics and postmodernism in a way that does not obviously connect well with the rest of the text. I think his basic points are well-taken (and the last chapter is a lovely little outline/summary of the points made in the text as a whole), altho I would argue that he really missed one interpretive approach (WDW as a dream environment, and I don't mean day dreams, I mean all the chaos and seeming normality of dreams that suddenly segue into weirdness and are often pointlessly violent or sexual or otherwise hair-raisingly intense, and then suddenly return to normalcy).

It's a slice-in-time because Fjellman gives blow-by-blow ride (film, theming) descriptions of things that existed when he was doing the research for this 1992 volume, but obviously aren't there any more (taking it from the brutally obvious: no more River country or Discovery Island, for example, or Captain E-O; The Land is now sponsored by Nestle rather than Kraft and the contents are drastically different, etc.).

Fjellman takes on a lot in this book (I mean, look at that subtitle -- he means it), and the results are quite consistent from one perspective (a sort of academically mediated gosh wow isn't this shit cool tone, used for Baudrillard and the Carousel of Progress alike) and extremely uneven from another (in the initial discussion of does-attention-destroying-media-produce-zen-like-alpha-states, it seems Fjellman is going with, not so much, but later on he refers to the effect as commodity zen as if I guess kinda the same). Surely no one who tolerates my informal voice and tendency to skip arbitrarily from one topic to the next would have much trouble with Fjellman.

His spatial/thematic analysis of MK and Epcot is really interesting. I've never been to WDW so it's hard to know if it's more-valid-than-any-other; even after I go, I won't know, because I wasn't there at the time he was (and never will have been, unless there's an incident with the TARDIS, which I keep thinking of in the context of WDW and laughing hysterically over). He takes threads from the MK (like, fantasy, or tomorrow and the future, etc.) and follows them through Epcot, the then-MGM park, etc. on a show/ride/attraction level of detail. This works _extremely_ well for things like Carousel of Progress (MK) and Horizons (then-Epcot), since they were explicitly related to each other, but it works as a general organizing principle as well.

Fjellman does not neglect the infrastructure (management of waste, water, food, queues, etc.), either, and incorporates that into his theory-of-Disney as well.

If Disney Studies are interesting to you, I cannot imagine leaving this off your list. It's less clear whether this is of interest to Disney fans in general, much less someone who isn't fascinated by all things Disney. But it is a fun read, and should you decide to pick it up, I think I can guarantee you'll learn quite a lot on a variety of topics, mostly painlessly. (The typology of real fakes, fake fakes, fake reals, etc. is a bit tiresome, and not all that compelling, IMO, but YMMV.)