Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Captain EO Matters

When I bought my first Disneyland Annual Pass in September of 2008, I had a vision: one visit to Disney a month, even if only for a few hours by myself, and a blog to accompany. A year of Disneyland writings. 

I didn't do it.

Notwithstanding, here I am again, still thinking and writing about Disneyland. I've been revising the chapter in my first novel that takes place there. I've been revisiting the sections of Baudrillard's writings on the postmodern and hyperreal in which Disneyland is dissected.

And a few days ago, I watched Captain EO in the 3D theater where I first saw it in 1986. 

I spend a little time researching the film, reading old reviews from the 80s, and trying to understand why people had such a problem with it, since it's always been such a joy to me. It became very popular on Youtube during its absence from the Disney park (1997-2010) and, of course, especially after MJ died. However, when it first premiered, it received lukewarm reception and attendance steadily decreased over the years.

Captain EO is a seventeen-minute music video with a message: art and a sense of community can change the world. I think maybe the reason so many people respond poorly to it is not that it is rife with "empty effects" (I'd argue that someone's body lighting up when they are excited is actually a very meaningful effect) but because they have the same problem they've always had with Michael Jackson: he was not ironic about his hope for the world.

He actually sings "We are here to change the world," and means it. The world itself they land on goes from being an ugly techno-trash heap (think Death Star surface) to something like a Greek temple. It is music, dance, generosity, fearlessness, and having faith in friends that does this. Blam. No mistake about what's important.

So why did American critics call the show "empty?"

I wonder if this is a problem of complicated vs. complex. In his book Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven Johnson argued that because popular media has become more complicated, i.e., rife with many more characters, subplots, twists and turns, etc., we are actually getting better, cognitively, at doing certain tasks. We are better problem solvers, predictors of outcomes, and more sophisticated at deciphering an increasingly loud and stimulating world, in part because certain of our media (he argues this for particular television shows like The Sopranos, film, and video games) layer on meanings.  Production teams do this so that we can enjoy (read: purchase, instead of rent) the movies/shows more than once, Johnson argues. He is very careful, however, not to make an argument that these more complicated media forms are actually making our moral thinking, or any other types of our analytical powers, stronger. In other words, we may be better at dealing with a lot of data flying around, but we are not necessarily grappling with philosophical or ethical problems any more carefully than the Beverly Hillbilly generation. The New York Times seems particularly preoccupied with social scientists who are studying these kinds of questions. 

Something complicated may be unnecessarily opaque. Something complex is actually built of meaningful layers, and takes some analytical energy to piece out. Most questions of ethics, especially those that involve large groups of people: families, cities, nations--are complex. But when we want to arrive at certain answers, they need not be complicated. 

For instance: in Captain EO, the Supreme Leader resorts immediately to violence when she finds herself presented with unfamiliar visitors. A complex analysis of this response may yield some good information: possibly she's been invaded before, the planet struggles constantly with raiders, etc. However, EO offers an answer: "congregate, illuminate!" and as complicated as the path towards healing may appear, it is not. It is, however, complex: the courage to surrender when offered something beautiful and the fearlessness to change from despotic rule to collaborative community are not easily achieved. They are multi-valent, fluid ideals that require constant attention.

What saddens me is when people mistake complicated things for complex, and complex for simple. Complicated effects do not make a movie automatically have a complex message. Complex problems can often appear very simple, because they are enduring problems like "why can't we all just get along?" I liked Iron Man and Iron Man 2 (a bit less) for the way they addressed questions about public vs. private in American consciousness, American involvement in foreign wars, and the assumed necessity of war itself. Complex issues, but not rife with unnecessary complications--it's clear, in the end, that killing people, just to start with, but especially for profit, is a bad idea. People watch Captain EO and think, "this is simple, and therefore uninteresting," because instead of making complicated plots, George Lucas likes to make gorgeous illustrations of centuries-old, complex but emotionally familiar narrative structures.

It seems also that American audiences have lost their faith that the body itself can offer us any wisdom--and I'll leave that for other writings, but seeing all of the transformed warriors break into dance behind Jackson made me cry. 

Shake it up and break it up, sharing light brighter than the sun!

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you included the body in the end because that's where I think Captain EO excels morally and spiritually. It reminds me of Deleuze's contention that musicals are one of the best formats for representing and inducing the explosive but focused joy and power, the freedom of movement (as even the background people join in the overarching movement), the power of time slipping as we create new time (music).
    As for the ever more complicated plots, I'd argue that not only do they not help morally, they HINDER, precisely because people associate simplicity with emptiness, and require ever more ridiciculous plot twists, hip ironic responses, etc. The real complexity can be in one shot, one image. And Coppola and Lucas do it, with MJ's help.