human behavior

Universal Destination

Posted in American Culture & Politics, Reviews, Travel by humanb on December 13, 2009

My visit to the L.A. County Museum of Art was nicely balanced by a trip the following day to that universal tourist destination in L.A.: Universal Studios.

The Universal Studios park is a tacky and garish place offering superficially appealing merchandise and America’s most fattening foods. You can buy an all-you-can-eat pass to every food outlet in the park for $20.00. Walking through the complex, you feel relief that this place doesn’t represent the apex of America culture.

Still, Universal Studios is a fun day out. The rides are creative and in the winter there’s no waiting time. The best ride in the park is by far the Simpsons Ride.

From the moment you enter the gates you’re entertained by television screens airing a Simpsons cartoon related to the ride, and the entire waiting area is cleverly designed to make you feel as if you’re standing within the cartoon.

The ride itself is brilliant. You enter a tiny cartoon room containing a single rollercoaster car facing a large flat screen. When the lights go out, you begin what feels exactly like a roller coaster ride through a Simpsons cartoon world, only you never leave that tiny room. The ride even has a fairly developed plot plus an olfactory surprise. It was great fun.

The shows on offer are moderately entertaining. There’s an adorable but lackluster animal show featuring the trained animal stars of Hollywood films, and a campy mini-play based on the film Waterworld starring various television actors.

But I went to Universal Studios primarily for the studio tour, which is appealing to anyone still enchanted by the movies. We had a high-energy Japanese woman as our tour guide who narrated as we explored the various stages, sets and props on the back lot. The tour bus was so noisy it threatened to detract from the experience, but our guide’s animated enthusiasm was so infectious that you soon forgot the noise.

The sets were surreal and surprisingly small. It’s astonishing that these artificial mini-towns are used so convincingly in multiple films, and manage to appear more authentic and grander than they are in life.

The props on display are pretty cool…

And the interactive scenes on the back lot give a cheap thrill and make you chuckle. Jaws is still there, as is the Bates Motel – complete with the house on the hill, the dead mother in the window, and Norman Bates with his latest victim.

Perhaps the most interesting result of a visit to Universal Studios, however, is a newfound appreciation for the multitude of anonymous contributors to movie magic: the unsung construction workers, set designers, and technicians that craft these movie-worlds. But even the actors get more credit after a visit to the decidedly unglamorous back lot; for they succeed in convincing us that they exist in distant lands and times, when all they’re doing is pretending on a recycled set off a parking lot. We think they’re drowning at sea in a ferocious storm when all they’re doing is dog paddling in a mini-pool against a blue screen.

There’s something cheap and demoralizing about the park attached to the functional studio; but there’s real artistry, creativity, and skill being exercised on the back lot – all in the service of transporting us to new worlds and shedding new light on this one.

It’s magic what they do.


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