“I actually want to write a treatise in defense of pretension. I think the word ‘pretension’ has become like the word ‘ironic’ – just this catch–all term to distance people from interesting experiences and cultural engagement and possible embarrassment. Pretension can lead to other things…you can’t be afraid to embarrass yourself sometimes.” — James Murphy, Guardian Interview 4/23/10
To call Escape From Tomorrow “pretentious” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Randy Moore’s portrait of the infantilization of modern adulthood and the corporatization of imagination is dense, heady and strange; massive ideas tackled on a shoestring budget. There are layers upon layers here – to be dissected and analyzed and picked apart, both for good and for ill (the film is far from perfect). But there’s chutzpah as well; a burning need to bisect the way we both consume and are consumed by big conglomerates selling our minds back to us that’s hard to not completely fall in love with. If the film ever stumbles a bit or becomes heavy handed, it does so in the service of greater intentions.
A lot has been made of Escape From Tomorrow’s production. Shot in secret at Disney theme parks utilizing guerilla filmmaking techniques, the sheer formal technical know-how to produce such an impressive looking work is intimidating (the black and white cinematography by Lucas Lee Graham is nothing short of stunning). The fact that they did it all covertly — even more so. But to focus solely on the “how” almost completely distracts from the “why”. Moore’s portrait of Jim (Roy Abramsohn), a freshly unemployed father trying to escape his woes during one final, acidic trip to Disneyland, gets to the heart of the New American Dream and tears it apart, all while wearing a pair of white Mickey Mouse gloves. This is a guy who hates his life, despite having what many Americans covet: a pretty wife, two children and the means to take his family to the “Greatest Place on Earth”. But because of his sacrifices of self in the service of chasing these white picket fences, there is a festering, ugly sexuality he keeps hidden away. And once he encounters two underage French girls wandering through the park, something inside of his brain is unlocked and is seemingly impossible to be put back into its secure chest of mental repression.
In reality, the schism occurs during the film’s opening frames, when Jim’s British boss calls to let him go for “reasons he can’t go into right now”. In that one instant, you see a man’s world get upended. How is he going to pay for this trip he’s currently enduring? While his children squeal and lock him out on the balcony, it becomes clear that Jim’s lost at sea without a paddle, and all he can do is sink deeper into his own subconscious as a means to escape the problems of the mundane world. The two French girls only serve as a reminder that his “Emily Dickinson”-looking wife is homely and obnoxious, harping on him to “not forget the sunblock” before putting the kids in the pool. If he had a gun, he’d end it all. But instead, he falls into the arms of a sexualized Maleficent, getting tied to the bed and fucked while his daughter watches videos in the other room.
Jim’s journey into the heart of the parks enables the divide in his brain to widen with each seemingly innocuous ride he, his son and daughter board. The tiny children that populate the log flumes sprout vampire teeth as they hide behind bushes, ready to strike. Robotic scientists at Epcot download images of the bikini clad Brazilian beauties who frequent the park, their bronzed buttocks glistening in his brain. The princesses who pose for pictures are groped by Japanese businessmen, all wanting to pay top dollar just to slide it in while the girls are still in costume. Men are decapitated on roller-coasters without warning. Bombs are detonated. If Henry Spencer ever went to Disneyland, I suspect this is what his trip would look like, complete with an eyeball-warping bout of Cat Flu that leaves the happy park-goer exploding from both ends as they pray for death.
Escape From Tomorrow is the best kind of independent filmmaking; a picture that feels deeply personal yet works in subversive commentary about our culture as a whole. It’s also a movie that isn’t going to be for everyone. While the Lynchian surrealism is almost omnipresent and adds an air of horror to the proceedings, this is a bonafide “art film”, through and through. Accessibility doesn’t even seem to be on Moore’s mind as his subject matter becomes increasingly lurid; a complete disregard for commercial viability in the service of an over-arching statement. Right down to the black and white look that negates the Technicolor world most have come to associate with ol’ WD’s empire, Escape From Tomorrow is confronting the audience’s very notion of what “fun” is supposed to look like; the negation of “family values” while embracing the way the darkest desires crop up in the strangest places. See it with the Disney fan in your family and watch their brain melt before you very eyes.