Disney’s Worlds, Laugh’s Anti-Riots, and Marie Antoinette’s Versailles: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From magic conference kingdoms to cinematic party palaces, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
Kent Phillips/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images
"Greetings! Greetings and salutations to all my friends from the Dubuque regional sales team! Enjoy all that Disney World has to offer: the rides, the swag, the continental breakfast and stale coffee that welcomes you everyday in Conference Room Goofy!"
🎶 When You Wish Upon a Conference 🎶
Disney World is a strange place. A paradise built in the unpromising swamplands of exurban Orlando, Disney attracts millions of visitors every year—not just for the traditional reasons (taking toddlers to the Magic Kingdom and older kids to Epcot) but for weddings, conferences, honeymoons, and all sorts of other sundry adult occasions. I’m writing at this moment from the lobby of the Coronado Springs Hotel, a newer addition to the Disney Empire, where thousands of fully-grown education reformers have gathered for a major conference at one of the biggest convention centers in the United States. Looking out from my room window, I can see the Tower of Terror in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and the giant water slides at Blizzard Beach. They stand out like alien outposts amid the otherwise level-flat pine forest of central Florida.
The sheer oddness and scale of Disney sent me down a well of reading about the history of Disney World. “Central Florida ended up being the only site that provided the amount of land Walt [Disney] really wanted, but acquiring it without significantly driving up prices would lead to the kind of operation people write spy novels about,” writes Ron D’Anna in a reflection on the park’s history. Disney, the man, used shell companies, former spies, and public obfuscation to buy a huge amount of land before anyone knew for certain what it was for. The vision of optimistic Americana that Walt built has become a cultural touchstone, but there are ongoing debates about whether Disney’s version of America is expansive enough. “Disney World must reckon with an American population more diverse than ever before, and predicted to become only more so,” writes Bethanee Bemis in Smithsonian Magazine. “What happens to a place built on stories of reassurance for a White middle class when today those stories can feel offensive and hardly reassuring at all? In the case of the Disney parks, the answer is: you change, or you risk becoming culturally and economically irrelevant as guests look elsewhere for reassurance.” So far, that change is working. As the park comes back to life after the pandemic, this year’s 50th anniversary celebrations are adding to a sense of upbeat optimism in the Happiest Place on Earth. “Those who dislike the company’s supertanker-full-of-sugar approach to family entertainment will surely recoil even more,” writes Brookes Barnes in the New York Times. “But millions of people will heed Disney’s call, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the company, airlines, and the Orlando economy—all of which are still trying to recover from the pandemic.” A theme park as big as Disney is never just a fun diversion. It’s an economic engine, a time capsule, a cultural marker—and, it turns out, a lively place to debate the future of education. —Eric Johnson
(from left) Kean Collection/Getty Images, Macmillan Publishers, Spencer Ostrander
The author of "The Red Badge of Courage" and the author of "The New York Trilogy" might seem like strange bedfellows, but when they come together they set the literary world on fire. Ahem.
The Red Blurb of Courage
My experience with writer Stephen Crane is limited to knowing he wrote The Red Badge of Courage, a book that kicks around most middle school English classrooms. But after listening to Paul Auster’s appearance on last week’s On the Media, talking about his biography Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane, I’ve scrambled to get everything I can from the author. The segment is excellent as an introduction to Crane—I had no idea, for instance, he died when he was 29, or that his closest friend was Joseph Conrad, or that Conrad kept a photo of Crane on his writing desk for the rest of his life—as well as a wonderful primer on his work as a novelist, poet, and journalist. “He's the first modernist,” Auster says. “Crane's approach to telling stories was to strip out everything that wasn't absolutely fundamental to his purpose. So all the tropes of the traditional 19th century novel and the beautiful things that we all love so much, Crane got rid of it all.” There are examples of each facet of Crane’s oeuvre represented in the show, and all of it, from the poem “In the Desert” to the sketch “The Men in the Storm,” makes you yearn for more. It helps that listening to Auster read this stuff is as close to a perfect audio experience as I’ve encountered. His voice is exquisitely matched with the subject, both aurally and writerly. I mean, this is how the segment starts, Auster reading from his biography: “Born on the day of the dead, and dead five months before his 29th birthday, Stephen Crane lived five months and five days into the 20th century, undone by tuberculosis before he had a chance to drive an automobile, to watch a film projected on a large screen, or listen to a radio. A figure from the horse and buggy world, who missed out on the future that was awaiting his peers.” Gorgeous. And when heard, peerless. This is the rare podcast that undoubtedly rewards repeat listening. Which I will do once I’m done with this Library of America collection of Crane’s writing. —Dante A. Ciampaglia
Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" number from "Singin' in the Rain" still wallops the funny bone nearly 70 years later. Which is to say, the next time you're in a tough spot with someone, put this on to get the chuckles going.
Laughing in the Face of Conflict
“Humor is the shock absorber of life,” Peggy Noonan once wrote. And life has needed a lot of shock absorption over the past couple years. My friend Amanda Ripley is one of the best writers I know, and she has become a sought-after expert in the ways we can go a little easier on one another. Convinced that most people are exhausted with intense conflict, Ripley spent years studying all the subtle ways that our mental habits and behavior can edge us toward combat or lead us to cooperation. Laughter, it turns out, is one of the surest routes to short-circuiting a confrontation. "Laughter causes the release of oxytocin—and a decrease in stress hormones," Ripley writes in her latest newsletter. "Humor literally is a drug, boosting trust, creativity and flexibility (all of which characterize 'good conflict' as opposed to 'high conflict.')"
That's certainly true to my life experience. Humor plays a key role in taking the vitriol out of conflicts, reminding everyone of their shared humanity and keeping the stakes of any policy discussion in context. "What makes someone seem to have a sense of humor?" Ripley asks. "They see the levity in life. They laugh at other people’s jokes—and at themselves. They notice absurdities in the world. Or on Zoom." I'm spending the week at Disney World for a conference on education reform, and absurdities abound. People in suits and ties eating Rice Krispy treats shaped like Mickey Mouse. Serious, conference-badged lawmakers walking the hallways alongside pink-clad toddlers on their way to the Magic Kingdom. The silliness of it actually makes some of the hard conversations about policy easier to digest. "Stay in touch with their humanity," Cornel West said at a lunchtime session with his conservative teaching colleague Robert George on how to have civil dialogue across political differences. "That's never reducible to politics." It was a great point, and it went down a lot easier because their session was filled with joyful jokes, audience laughter, hooting applause and a lot of respect—all the things Ripley recommends to keep people talking. —Stefanie Sanford
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Chinese President and Chairman of the Communist Party Xi Jinping appears on a large screen as performers dance during a mass gala marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party on June 28, 2021. (Totally normal.)
There’s been a lot of consternation lately about American history: how it gets taught, who gets to define what’s important, whether our interpretation of historical figures and events should evolve or stay fixed. It can seem a little maddening to have so many different voices all arguing, often intensely, over what many people see as basic facts of the past. But the news out of China over the last few weeks is a good reminder that messy history—the kind you get to fight over—is probably a better alternative than official, top-down narratives. The big news out of the latest gathering of the Chinese Communist Party was a rewrite of the party’s official history, a massive document laying out how China’s rulers would like to see the nation’s past portrayed in schools, media, books, and documentaries. That historical document has a clear political purpose, which is to enshrine current Chinese premier Xi Jinping as a crucial figure in China’s modern development. “Only two previous leaders of China have similarly adjudicated on party history: Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, and Deng Xiaoping, the strongman leader who unleashed market reforms in 1978,” reports the Washington Post. “Both used the process to solidify power, settle thorny internal debates about the past, and forge ahead with a new agenda.”
Like the United States—like everywhere—China has a complex history, with moments of glory and progress balanced against instances of trauma and shame. The ruling party is working to solidify Xi’s power by emphasizing his role in overcoming past setbacks, while at the same time revising the nation’s understanding of its own past. “In recent years, Xi has railed against attempts to challenge the party’s official history—efforts he calls ‘historical nihilism’—and has passed laws that make slandering heroes of the past a criminal offense,” the Post reports. Fights over history are almost always fights about the present, and following China’s saga made me grateful that the United States’ debate over the past features a whole lot of competing voices, not a single, controlling narrative. —Eric Johnson
Who am I kidding—I'd never be cool enough to party with this crew. I'd still have my head, though. You win some, you lose some.
Let Them Eat Content!
I’m a sucker for oral histories—the longer the better!—especially when they involve one of my favorite filmmakers and one of my favorite films. So of course I devoured like a plate of macorouns Vogue’s deep, deep dive into the making of Sofia Coppola’s sensational and elegiac fantasia Marie Antoinette. When the film was released 15 years ago—which seems inconceivable; I feel like the opening-weekend screening I caught at Syracuse’s Carousel multiplex was a few months ago—it was met with a mix of shrugs and derision. Besides being an adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s sympathetic biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, it’s also a costume drama that essentially rejects every convention of the genre. Americans Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzmann play French aristocracy. No one affects a French accent. (“So the Austrians are British and the French are American—who cares?” Asia Argento, who plays Madame du Barry, says in the oral history. “I’m Italian and everyone is speaking English! This is a film by an auteur with a point of view, not a documentary.”) Coppola loads the soundtrack with New Romantic/New Wave pop songs from the 1980s. (New Order, Gang of Four, Siouxsie and the Banshees—the soundtrack is killer.) Converse sneakers even show up at one point. The costumes, though, are incredible. (A testament to the work of Oscar winner Milena Canonero, who also created looks for Stanley Kubrick’s similarly singular historical drama Barry Lyndon.) It was all a bit too out there and maximal for mainstream audiences, especially following Coppola’s previous film, the relatively subdued and interior Lost in Translation. But that’s what I love about Marie Antoinette. It wasn’t Still Lost in Translation, but an example of a storyteller pushes the bounds of her art and our expectations. She once described it as a mix of Milos Foreman’s classic Amadeus and Ken Russell’s truly crazy Lisztomania, and if those titles mean anything to you then you don’t need to hear anything else. It’s also so much fun! And that spirit is captured in Vogue’s #longread oral history. What I wouldn’t give to have been able to be on that set, traipsing around and partying inside Versailles and just being among the party Coppola created. I love Sofia Coppola’s movies, especially Marie Antoinette (so much so I dedicated an episode of my podcast Cineopolis to a conversation about her and the film). And reading this piece not only expanded my understanding of Marie Antoinette and what it took to make the film, it sent me rushing for my Marie Antoinette DVD and blasting the soundtrack as I carouse around NYC. “A market of the senses,” indeed. —Dante A. Ciampaglia