Universal Studios: Nostalgia Trip

Universal Studios May 26

When you’re in the presence of America functioning as all-out as at Universal Studios theme park, you are in the belly of the beast. This place is the machine of fantasy at its most unrelieved. The thousands of guests are funnelled from pillar to post as efficiently as one can imagine without outright violence, and the makers of the park have tried to achieve a perfect balance between controlled reality and the illusion of choice. In that way, it’s like American politics.

There was a security check at the main gates, with metal detectors, a bag inspection, and a man walking about with a bloodhound (whether it sniffed for drugs or explosives, or both, I don’t know) . When my jack-knife was discovered, I was sent back to my car (“you can’t bring THAT in here, sir”). Universal knows that it’s a perfect target for a terror attack. What could more disturb the mullahs than people enjoying themselves on the empty calories of American entertainment? Not that the parks don’t have lots of Muslims enjoying themselves as they ride the Harry Potter train or scream with pleasure as they splash down in a raft at Jurassic Park. I’m glad to note, not without a cultural sneer, that the women in burkas are no less engrossed in the antics at the Terminator 2 show than those in flesh-revealing cutoffs.

What IS the Universal theme park? It took me a while to get it. Apart from the opportunity to line up and ride around on some kind of vehicle that goes fast, gets you wet, or tries to provide some other visual thrill, the experience being vended is nostalgia.

I’m surrounded by people on a nostalgia trip, and the nostalgia is largely about the imagery of innocent, purely fantasy films. The world of Harry Potter has been painstakingly recreated in Diagon Alley (one of my favourite puns in modern literature). Kids whose parents have parted with enough freight to purchase a plastic authentic wizard wand can stand on certain spots and wave at birds or skeletons or books that actually move or dance, or open. I was struggling with my phone-camera in front of a “wizarding” bookstore in Hogsmeade when a mature lady, polite like all Southerners, offered, “would you like me to open that for you?” and stood proudly on the appointed spot, waved her wand, and the book in the shop opened. She was as delighted as a six-year-old with her feat.

It is a testament to the power of nostalgia that even such a cynic as I can stand self-consciously grinning in front of the old BSA (although the brand is not ascribed) and sidecar that Robbie Coltrane might have ridden as Hagrid. This is partly because I love those old bikes with their clunky engineering, but it’s partly that I’m recalling the pleasure I felt when I watched as delighted as my kids when the bike descended from the sky in the first Harry Potter film. After all, the Harry Potter films are themselves powered by a kind of nostalgia, specifically a nostalgia for a Britain that was still Great.  Hagrid’s BSA (standing for Birmingham Small Arms) that was one of the relics of a bygone era when Britons still gave themselves licence to shoot foreigners in their own homelands.

For the record, I did resist buying Butter Beer just to find out what Hollywood thought it should taste like (very sweet, my daughter had reported to me).

Every Attraction is an opportunity to sell some nostalgia-infused gack, be it an authentic Neuralizer from Men In Black, a hat from Jurassic Park, or a T-shirt that says, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good” from Hogsmeade. More subtly, you can also buy stuff that celebrates your affinity for the darker side of the Potter mythology (“I survived Azkaban”).

Food is for sale everywhere; outlets for pizza, burgers, ice cream are appropriately associated with their place on the site (the donut shop in the Simpson’s area, Lard’s Donuts, cashes in the very irony that The Simpson’s satire depends on, and markets it back to us: “go ahead, indulge yourself just like Homer would!” And we do.

Why is this nostalgia bath so attractive?  Are we so devoid of real memory, real experience, that one of the busiest places I’ve ever been, one of the most cherished destinations on Earth, is a place where your average Joe or Jane merely wanders around, half-baked by the Florida sun, going from one adrenaline-pumping “experience” to another, with long waits for each, eating expensive junk food?

In a galaxy far away, psychologically speaking, we kids would walk over to our public parks with a ball of some kind, and in twenty minutes, enough children would gather to start a game. On a summer’s evening, we would produce a tin can and play what the Boy Scouts used to call a “wide game” called Kick the Can. In the winter, we actually had a Wonderland of snow falling through 150-watt bulbs illuminating hundreds of skaters swirling around on the ice, forming trains, whiplash-lines, games of kiss-tag. I remember hearing my first stories from Canadians who had come back from Disneyland, self-titled “the Happiest Place on Earth.” They spoke with wonder of the “real castle” or the “real Mickey Mouse.” Those of us whose parents either could not afford the Disney experience, or who utterly distained it, had to be content with real dirt, real scraped knees, real meals cooked by real grannies, real snowflakes, real competition, real hurt feelings, and real kisses from real-life princesses.

Fast-forward to the pressed-cement bricks of Gringott’s Bank, or the artfully-designed cartoon imagery of the Popeye Cruise ride, and it is little wonder my children feel less grounded, less secure, and less sure of their place in the world. We have traded reality for nostalgia, what’s more nostalgia for worlds that only existed in the imagination.   At Universal Studios Park, we celebrate the imagination of James Cameron, or Barry Sonnenfeld and Lowell Cunningham, or of Ms. Rowling, a woman who invented a fascinating world sitting in a coffee shop. Truly, their imaginations deserve to be celebrated, but we did that already by buying the books and going to the movies.  The theme park experience is at a further remove, and judging by the empty, longing faces that I watched walk past me  yesterday, the promise of Nostalgia Realized is less than delivered.

As the afternoon wore on, I found myself in line for the live show starring animals trained for the movies. The innocent pleasure of watching dogs, cats, birds, and even a pig go through the routines that they had been taught was comfortingly old-fashioned: a quaint kind of real-world skill had been required to train these beasts, and it seemed to me they were the happiest performers in the Park. Our affection for them is as unfeigned as their pleasure at receiving a treat for doing well. It gave me a satisfying nostalgia for simpler things.

Post script:

It goes without saying that a terrorist attack did in fact take place in Orlando since I wrote this article, which prevented me from posting it for some time.  That the target was a nightclub where gay people are known to hang out is bitter indeed; targeting the LGBT community is a more specific kind of hate crime.  In retrospect, I want to make clear my view that, although the kind of cultural alienation that the theme park represents is worth questioning, the utterly bizarre fantasy world that fundamentalists inhabit, where your god rewards you for barbaric acts of hatred, is psychotic delusion on another level of alienation altogether.

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