Fairy-tale Capital: Landscape in The Florida Project

The Florida Project, Sean Baker (2017)

The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017) has all the hallmarks of a fairy tale, albeit one gone disturbingly awry. Its topological word is one of purple castles and plastic wizards: Narnia re-imagined as a car showroom or a gas station. In this gaudy, worn-out environment, the disturbing play of fantasy and reality that pervades the human experience of contemporary capitalism is written on the walls in crumbling technicolour.

The film centres on the precocious child Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friends as they explore, run riot, and try to exist in the environs of Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Florida as well as the broken existence of the adults who are their guardians and fellow inhabitants. The dilapidated motels that the children and other occupants call home on a semi-permanent basis are frightening caricatures of the mystical Disney kingdom: painted in bright colours with crenelated concrete walls and given names like ‘Magic Castle’ and ‘Futureland’. This corroded utopia is landscape of double phantasmagoria: being both a dark, adult double to the child-friendly wonderland of the Disney resort while simultaneously also a mythical space displaced from the surrounding ‘real’ landscape of North America. In this way the space of the film is both a distortion of the hyperreal, accelerated, capitalist ideology of Disney World and of the everyday landscape of capitalism whilst still ultimately being encompassed by both these spaces.

What kind of world is this? On first appearance, rather than the permanence and abundance that are commonly ascribed to utopic visions, here the landscape seems suffused with a sense of the temporary. Children suddenly depart without warning, forced to leave their toys behind, the threat of social services looms over the single parents, the concrete is chipped and needs repainting, appliances are broken and need to be repaired, and there is a constant struggle to find the rent for the week. Fragility and precarity appear to be entrenched within every aspect of their lives.

However, this very entrenchment is what should give cause for concern — the temporary is not so temporary. Despite (and because of) its continual reinscription, the temporary character of the motels gives way to a shadowy eternity hidden beneath the façade. This double relationship can be seen explicitly in the motel policy that the tenants have to leave for twenty-four hours every so often, staying at another nearby motel before returning, in order to maintain the illusion of liminality. The departure is both real, in the sense that the guest does leave the environs of the Magic Castle and relocate to another motel, but also illusory, as the departure is for a single night, a deal is in place with one of the other dank places of myth to give them a cheap room for the night, and the next morning they are returned to their own room, back to where they ‘live’.

How then, to interpret these contradictory currents moving through the filmic landscape and their relation to the movement of modern capital they precipitate? One potential answer, which emphasises the imbrication of every aspect of landscape with the social reproduction of capitalist relations, has been described by certain theorists in Japan and referred to as ‘landscape theory’. The filmmaker and thinker Masao Adachi describes it as follows:

All the landscapes which one faces in one’s daily life, even those such as the beautiful sites shown on a postcard, are essentially related to the figure of a ruling power.[1]

This total subsumption of the exterior physical world to the mechanisms of capital, the geographical subsumption of modern capitalism, echoes the call of the Situationists (following Lefebvre) for a critique of everyday life and questions the existence of an empty ‘other’ space from which resistance might be constituted in any pure form.

We see this deep stratification of capital within the landscape of the film through the activities engaged in by the inhabitants of the motel complex, though the space operates very differently for the adults than it does for children. Where for the former it functions largely as a kind of social housing, a low-rent apartment with a child-friendly veneer and semblance of home so long as the weekly rent can be scraped together, for the latter it offers a kind of radical openness (albeit one still excluded from the park of which it is an imitation, a simulacrum of a simulacrum).

In the course of their adventures, the children, Moonee along with Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Dicky (Aiden Malik), and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), swear, spit on cars, beg for ice cream money, watch a woman sunbathe topless, sneak into the security area of the motel and turn off the power, and even burn down one of the old fairy-tale kingdoms, the latter of which results in a violent altercation between Scooty’s mother Ashley (played by Mela Murder), and Moonee’s mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). However, none of these acts of transgression or revolutionary force that attempt to transform the conditions of degradation in which the children find themselves succeed in any meaningful way.

In this forgotten world, any connection to the brightly lit, ecstatic existence of the capitalist fantasy is purely superficial. Halley’s attempts to live on the black market, to profit from the inaccessible Disney ‘world’, by selling perfume in the car parks of the more salubrious resorts or through sex work, ultimately prove unfruitful. The only interactions between the gleaming ‘world above’ and the Magic Castle are either accidental, like the misfortunate honeymooners who booked the wrong hotel, or illicit like Halley’s John, who loses his keys to the degenerate utopia of Disney World, forced to return to the nether-land where he is alarmed to discover that the very rules he sought to transgress in going there in the first place (law, order and respect) won’t work in his favour now he is the aggrieved party.

One activity engaged in by both adults and children alike is the practice of shouting and cursing at the wealthy tourists who are setting off on their helicopter rides over the park. Aside from presenting another moment of futile transgression, albeit an amusing and temporarily unifying one, the ride is an event of distinctly topological significance. The bird’s-eye view offered by the helicopter is one which serves a double function, in that it (for a short period of time) enables the passenger to rise above both the broken environs of the park and the gaudy paradise of the Disney resort itself. This simultaneously allows them to abscond from the human social problems and destitution of the motels (of which the shrieks and curses of the children and adults are but a brief reminder) and flattens the differences between the magic of the park and the interstitial grey zone of the Magic Castle, at once diminishing or completely erasing the human element and allowing those inside to overcome the contrast between the two spaces on the ground, subsuming them into one thrilling, cartographic experience. This, naturally, is a viewpoint the inhabitants of the motel degraded motel complex (and we the viewer) are not afforded. The very language of rising above the conflictual, the glimpsing of the possibility of some kind of sublation, is refused us.

The only consistent embodiment of authority the film presents is the figure of the Magic Castle’s manager Bobby (wonderfully played by Willem Dafoe). Far from being a malevolent force, Bobby caretaker in the most literal sense: watching over the inhabitants of which he is just another example of, amusingly residing, as he does, in room 101. Bobby is emblematic of a non-hierarchical apparatus of authority, a man whose position does not segregate him from those he manages but instead binds him closer to them. He is a humanising force, one with their own assortment of familial difficulties and history of misfortune, albeit one who ultimately must collect the rent each week for the bosses he is mistreated by, lacking the required distance from those he managers to mount any real challenge. He meets each new crisis with the same attitude, displaced anger and weary concern.

What kind of world is this? The question returns with renewed force, a sense of creeping horror. Something sinister lurks in the landscape of The Florida Project: the existence of a space not only in the service of capitalist reproduction, but a space where any potential resistance to its machinations is neutralised through the partial autonomy of that space from the reproduction of capital in which it is inscribed. The displacement and dislocation of the Magic Castle and the rest of the motel complex mean that, far from being sites of potential change, render the landscape as a place of inescapable repetition. In Baker’s film the motel represents a place where the ruling power has grown lazy and unconcerned with its inhabitants. In this regard the landscape recalls in its forgetting (though without quite the same distillation of hopelessness) of Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997).[2] The face of capital (and its stand-in Disney World) has turned away and left The Florida Project to rot, performing the occasional paint job or replacing a burnt out appliance and little else. This is not a blank space, and empty site where a resurgent resistance might manifest itself, it is a landscape where the lack of authority functions as the most effective mode of repression.

In his essay on California’s Disneyland, Utopic Degeneration, Luis Marin reads the theme park as an example of a ‘degenerate utopia’, a concept he defines as ‘ideology changed into the form of a myth’. In this space the visitors are not merely subjected to a utopian ideological projection but are unknowing participants in the alienating performance, ‘put in the place of the ceremonial storyteller’, and as a result:

They recite the mythic narrative of the antagonistic origins of society. They go through the contradictions while they visit the complex; they are led from the pirates’ cave to an atomic submarine, from Sleeping Beauty’s castle to a rocketship. These sets reverse daily life’s determinism only to reaffirm it, but legitimated and justified. Their path through the park is the narrative, recounted umpteen times, of the deceptive harmonization of contrary elements, of the fictional solution to conflicting tensions. By acting out Disney’s utopia, the visitor realizes the ideology of America’s dominant groups as the mythic founding narrative for their own society.[3]

The ‘world’ of Florida’s Disney resort is just that, an expanded, all-encompassing expansion of the California theme park. The landscape is a mass of hotels, theme parks, film studios, and all kinds of other entertainment.[4] Marin emphasises the question of the limit that is central to the formation of utopia, that is an insuperable gap between the ‘real world’ and the space of utopia, a gap whose narrative correlates are the deep sleep one enters to transport oneself from this world to the utopia, or the lost coordinates forgotten by the weary traveller upon their return to civilisation and so on. In the case of The Florida Project, the landscape of the Magic Castle can be seen then as the product of the attempt to render utopic the insuperable gap itself: to contaminate the empty space with the discarded remnants of both discrete worlds. The result is not a limit which must be crossed in order to be transported from one world to the other, but a dissolute space of non-limit which can never be crossed as its very existence is the instantiation of the failure to cross.

What the landscape of The Florida Project presents then is a picture (if that were possible) more pessimistic than that of Disney. Here, the capitalist ideological myth has reached such a level of ruination that any modes of agency that might seek to explode the conditions of this nightmare are neutralised by the force of this realised nihilism.

Denied the opportunity for a mythic re-enactment of conflictual overcoming, a re-affirmation of the dominant narrative of foundation, the inhabitants participate in a disjointed and destructive conflictive mode of existence where the that which is being resisted is so detached from the surrounding force of capitalism that it cannot even reach across, and only effects those who carry out the acts themselves. That is, either the force which is supposedly being resisted is absent, and cannot be ‘got at’ or else that which is being attacked is, in the end, merely a distorted vision of the attackers themselves. No chance of harmonisation, of learning or re-affirmation, is possible because what is continually reaffirmed is the absence of any change inside the knowledge that the only thing to be done is to engage in another doomed activity.

The ruination of the ‘American dream’, or rather the ruination of the myth of capitalist utopia concretely realised by Walt Disney World, has not collapsed into ‘socialism or barbarism’ to quote the popular phrase, but instead an extended, liminal disintegration from which no escape is possible. This then, is not the liminality of purgatory, as a surface reading of the landscape might suggest. It is instead a hell that does not recognise itself as such, and whose infernal power lies in that very lack of recognition, in that possibility of escape. It is a hell where eternity is in fact the continual reinscription of the temporary. A place where any possibility of transformative redemption has been removed, removed as a result of the realisation that heaven, its close neighbour, is just a more competently run inferno, where the wealth of the damned is sufficient for the administrative forces to continue practicing their reassuring and arcane myth-making.

[1] Masao Adachi, interview by Jasper Sharp, Midnight Eye, August 21, 2007,

http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/masao-adachi.

[2] More generally, The Florida Project bears many stylistic markers of Korine’s work, a fact that often leaves Baker’s film looking ‘lesser’ in comparison, both in relation to Korine and to Baker’s previous film Tangerine (2015).

[3] Marin, Luis, Utopic Degeneration: Disneyland, (1984), Available: http://homes.lmc.gatech.edu/~broglio/1101/marin.html, (Last Accessed March 2018)

[4] An interactive map of the resort can be viewed here: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/en_GB/maps/, (Last Accessed June 2018)