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Disneyland Dream and utopian home movies

“Put another way, tradition and community are not mere inheritances passively received form the past and certainly not merely fetters on human freedom. Tradition, to early nineteenth-century workers, included both their craft skills and the rights they claimed for this “human capital” against the incursions of inhuman capital. Tradition is in part the process by which successful claims to rights are reproduced in each generation. Some of these rights may be encoded in formal law; all are underpinned by transmissions of culture and understanding. Not only does the reproduction of tradition require action (and therefore always involves the production of new culture at the same time). It may also require struggle, when the claims posed within tradition—to justice, for example, or fairness or food when hungry—are attacked by other ideas—say of efficiency or one-sided revisions of property rights. Likewise, community is both an achievement and a capacity. It constitutes a field of action within which people can pursue the objects of their lives. It may be more or less egalitarian but usually empowers some more than others. It constrains more than enables. But is also incorporates investments made—sometimes over generations—in building it. It is not only a ground for individual and family projects but also the basis for much collective action. And communities were basic to the struggles of nineteenth-century workers against the incursions of capitalism, perhaps more basic than class, though the two are not contradictory.”

—Craig Calhoun, The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

Robbins Barstow was a pioneering maker of home movies—Disneyland Dream (1956), which you see above, is one of literally hundreds of films he completed from 1929 (when he first received a camera) until his death in 2010, many of which star his immediate family. Disneyland Dream was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2008, with the following citation:

The Barstow family films a memorable home movie of their trip to Disneyland. Robbins and Meg Barstow, along with their children Mary, David and Daniel were among 25 families who won a free trip to the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., as part of a “Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape” contest sponsored by 3M. Through vivid color and droll narration (“The landscape was very different from back home in Connecticut”), we see a fantastic historical snapshot of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Catalina Island, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and Disneyland in mid-1956. Home movies have assumed a rapidly increasing importance in American cultural studies as they provide a priceless and authentic record of time and place.

I watched the 35-minute film (which features a cameo by a very young Steve Martin at the 20:20 mark, wearing a top hat and hawking guidebooks) for the first time yesterday and was struck by its seeming perversion of techniques later perfected by the experimental video artists of the 1970s—or highbrow art in general—in this most quotidian form of hamming-it-up for the camera. Part of that is probably triggered by the instant nostalgia now, more or less obviously, shopped around by our contemporary culture—indeed, there’s a lot to say about Barstow’s 16mm-amateur outtakes that lines up with issues of public vs. private intimacy, the ubiquity of the non-place (Marc Augé’s ever determinate/indeterminate anthropological positioning), and the secular pilgrimage. But there are also moments in the film that directly echo the verité techniques of filmmakers like Shirley Clarke and the Maysles brothers, including carefully choreographed segments of glee-struck family members fainting (which would not be out of place alongside the Merce Cunningham-sanctioned movements in Nam June Paik’s TV Garden), along with a 60-second series of Barstow’s children diving in reverse back out of the pool that channels the later well-known photograph of artist James Turrell’s Heavy Water installation.

How to make sense of the mix of tradition, future-past idealization, the cultural mode of home-movies in the twentieth century, and the place of Disneyland in the middle of all of this—that capitalist holy land? I’ve been toting a copy of Craig Calhoun’s The Roots of Radicalism in my bag for weeks, and by pure coincidence, reached a point very near its conclusion today that did the job for me. I think about what Calhoun says about traditions as repeated claims to certain rights reproduced by generations—and what it might mean to put establish the pressure of reproduction in these films as a double-bind (the domestic family structures so often a material subject for the camera’s lens in 1950s amateur-film documentation—literally, the reproductive ties that bind—conjoin with the technologically mediated reproduction of time and place). All of that is a kind of academic double-talk, though, and what’s really happening is something closer to the tindersticks of human and inhuman capital rubbing against each other, igniting memories that then become not quite real.

Disneyland Dream is certainly scripted, but via a sort of “real time” script that (again) precurses reality television—Barstow is so assured of his family’s success in 3M’s Disneyland giveaway that he films events as they unfold with the finesse of a carefully paced sitcom. Though the voice-over narration wasn’t added until many years later—Barstow used to live-narrate the film in a yearly backyard screening—there is something happening, moment-to-moment, where the filmmaker seems to possess an uncanny instinct about how his film will later be received as a cultural artifact from a defunct time, place, and sensibility. Part of this is specific to the genre of home-movies—or their cinematic counterparts, as in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—mortality, in these intimate testaments to limited duration, is intensified.

But back to Disneyland: I don’t think we need to resurrect Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard to consider that part of what lends an aspect of preternatural knowing to Barstow’s film is the after-image of capitalism, haunting us with its soon-to-be decay at just the moment of its fervor (I’m thinking in particular of Barstow’s slow-take at his ivy-drenched, brand-new Pasadena hotel, or the carefully traced elation on his children’s faces as they enter the gates of the freshly minted Magic Kingdom). And in a moment of necessary voyeurism into one family’s carefully preserved adventure, my how that after-image can glow.