SINCE HOLLYWOOD PRODUCT increasingly rules the world, it was inevitable that other American filmgoing foibles would be exported as well. The multiplex, for example. Some 65 have sprouted up in the U.K. alone over the past five years. All over the world it’s now possible to watch one movie while listening to two or three others at the same time.
Then there’s the other dubious innovation — the mall. When malls first started popping up across the U.S., no one could predict that they’d present a totally homogenized landscape — the same stores, same theaters, even the same store windows. Malls have squashed local businesses and discouraged local enterprise. Walk the nation’s malls and you can’t even find a homegrown cheeseburger.
Europe, by and large, has been vastly more protective of its downtown areas, but the proliferation of malls may yet change all that.
The other day I wandered through a brand-new development called CityWalk, whose initial success may portend the next phase of malldom. Located at the epicenter of the sprawling Universal lot, CityWalk represents a leap beyond the theme park or megamall. It is an entirely invented environment, a slice of simulated city designed to amuse and entertain its visitors. There are stores, restaurants, 18 screens and even a make-believe beach. More important, here’s a list of things that are missing from CityWalk: homeless people, muggers and drunks.
Depending on your point of view, CityWalk represents either a wondrous leap forward or a symbol of civic failure. It represents either bite-sized reality or a retreat from reality.
BUT MAKE NO MISTAKE: By becoming an instant hit it will also become an instant export — the “Jurassic Park” of developments. It was no accident that CityWalk’s opening corresponded with that of Universal’s lizard epic. It was as though MCA were announcing to the world, “We’ve got your future mapped out for you.”
Considered as a medium of entertainment, CityWalk poses some disquieting portents. It will now be possible to emerge from the make-believe world of a movie only to stroll down simulated streets or even catch some rays on a faux beach. A trip to the movies thus takes on whole new layers of escapism.
The experience is vaguely reminiscent of that famous scene from Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles,” when a group of American astronauts unexpectedly discover a charming Midwestern town in the middle of Mars. The setting is homey and irresistible; trouble is the astronauts get killed.
Presumably, no one will get killed at CityWalk — that is one of its most appealing features. Security men are omnipresent. And the grand design is to avoid booking violent, racially themed pictures that would attract unruly minority crowds. In the new world of vanilla megamalls, the proprietors don’t wish to mix flavors.
Universal has situated CityWalk as the link between its giant multiplex, its studio tours and its amphitheater, so that the entire complex becomes a variegated entertainment destination. And, needless to say, the symbols of corporate synergy are everywhere, incorporating every possible form of dino-worship. Lizard lovers will not go away unrequited.
WILL CITYWALK TRAVEL? James A. Nelson, MCA’s director of bite-sized reality planning, is convinced it will. Others are not so sure.
Richard S. Weinstein, dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture, points out that great cities acquire their color and energy through a sense of history. A project like CityWalk embodies not history, but “an end to history.”
All this may either be valid or may be academic conceit. Whatever the case, just as the multiplex and mall spread to Europe and Asia, so will simulated entertainment enclaves. One reason is that, in Los Angeles and around the world, the movie theater no longer seems to be able to stand alone on the urban landscape. People want more for their money. Most of all they want a non-threatening environment, even if it’s utterly simulated and they have to pay more for it. That, after all, is showbiz.